I’ll build a stairway to paradise
With a new step every day.
I’m going to get there at any price.
Stand aside, I’m on my way!
– Georges Guétary, An American in Paris1
In the opening scenes of Alexandria…Why? (1978) a quartet of movie-mad schoolboys arrive in one of the grand Art Deco cinemas in the city centre. The year is 1942 and the whole place is bedlam. World War II is raging in the desert and drunken British and Australian troops are brawling with locals in the lobby. The screen is barely visible through a cloud of cigarette smoke. The boys head up to the balcony and take their seats. The lights dim; the film comes on. The young protagonist Yehia (Mohsen Mohiedine) gazes in rapt adoration. A suave and sophisticated Frenchman is walking up and down a glass staircase, flanked by giant candelabra and chorines clad in sequins and ostrich plumes. He sings of how he plans to build a stairway all the way up to paradise. The stairs, as he walks on them, flash on and off with lights of different colours.
To a casual student of movies, this comes across as a monumental howler. That musical number is from the Vincente Minnelli classic An American in Paris (1951) a film made nearly a decade after the events of Alexandria…Why? Its inclusion makes no sense on a literal level and seems like a blatant violation of fact. It is then we have to realise this is a film by Youssef Chahine, a director to whom facts were a great deal less important than truth. That handsome Frenchman strutting up and down the stairs is not a Frenchman at all. His real name was Lambros Worloou and he was an Alexandrian of Greek parents. He ran away to Paris in the ‘30s and broke into showbiz as one of “les Boys” – the handsome lads whose job it was to escort the diva Mistinguett down the staircase at the Casino de Paris. “La Miss adored him,” writes James Kirkup, “as did many of the ladies (and some of the gentlemen) who fell under his irresistible spell.”2
So what we are seeing at the start of Alexandria…Why? is not a factual account of what films were big at the Egyptian box-office in 1942. It is an externalisation of the young hero’s none-too-secret dream. Like his idol Worloou/Guétary or his creator Youssef Chahine, Yehia is a middle-class Alexandrian boy who yearns to run away to the West and become a star. This film is the first in an autobiographical quartet that Chahine – a Catholic Egyptian of Lebanese and Greek heritage – made about his own life and that of his native city. The others are An Egyptian Story (1982), Alexandria – Again and Forever (1990) and Alexandria – New York (2004). Like the novels of The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell – which offer a radically different take on Alexandria as myth and metropolis – the films of Chahine betray an almost mystical fascination with “the city which used us as its flora – precipitated in us conflicts which were hers and which we mistook for our own: beloved Alexandria!”3
It is important to say that any similarity to Durrell ends here. The novels of The Alexandria Quartet are masterworks of camp Orientalism, written in “prose so purple it’s practically indigo.”4 With its multitude of characters and labyrinth of intersecting stories, Alexandria…Why? has the detail and density of a great novel. Yet it remains an uneasy watch for Western viewers, perhaps because it does not filter its people and places through a veil of exoticism or ‘otherness’ in the way Hollywood and European films about the Middle East invariably do. The film depicts a world in which ‘we’ are emphatically the outsiders; our task is to locate ourselves within it. At no point does Chahine do that job for us. He might have thought it ethically wrong to try. Yehia’s warm but ever-squabbling family may invite comparisons with the families in Fellini films, notably I Vitelloni (1953) or Amarcord (1974). “He was sensitive to such comparisons,” writes Ela Bittencourt, “and replied once that Fellini was in fact the Chahine of the West.”5
Elsewhere in the film, a cabal of nationalist rebels plot to assassinate Winston Churchill. An upper-class Jewish girl falls in love and has a child out of wedlock with a working-class Muslim man. An aristocratic gay Egyptian kidnaps a young British soldier and plans to kill him, but falls in love with him instead. Then as now, a love scene between two men was taboo in a Middle Eastern film. The kidnapper (Ahmed Mehrez) spends a long time staring at his prey in varying states of undress, while provocatively stroking his gun. “The only reason it is permissible in the narrative,” writes Omar Hassan, “is because the manifestation of homosexuality allows for the Egyptian nationalist to physically ‘rape’ his coloniser, which in a sense allows him to claim back part of his nationhood.”6 Yet Chahine would explore gay themes in a number of his later films, as his own bisexuality became more of an open secret.
What connects these characters and sub-plots is a sense of transgression and defiance, of wilfully going beyond those boundaries life has mapped out. Each person in Alexandria…Why? is on a quest for that mythical “stairway to paradise” that Georges Guétary sings about in the opening scene. For some it is a collective paradise, the rebirth of Egypt as a modern independent nation. For others, it is strictly a private one – a forbidden love for a follower of another religion or a member of the same sex. Or perhaps it is just one lonely boy’s dream of stardom. “It is when dissidence gives way to difference,” writes Omar Kholeif, “that a revolution has truly succeeded.”7
Like any revolution worthy of the name, the one we see depicted in Alexandria…Why? falls far short of both its aims and its ideals. Yet the film exists to tell us the revolution is not over yet.
. . .
Alexandria…Why?/Iskindirya…lih? (1978 Egypt 133 mins)
Prod. Co: Misr Films International Prod/Dir: Youssef Chahine Scr: Youssef Chahine, Mohsen Zayed Phot: Mohsen Nasr Mus: Fouad El Zaheri Ed: Rashida Abdel Salam Prod Des: Abdel Fattah Madboul
Cast: Mohsen Mohiedine, Naglaa Fathi, Ahmed Zaki, Farid Shawqi, Ezzat El Alaili, Gerry Sundquist, Ahmed Mehrez
- “Stairway to Paradise” (lyric by Ira Gershwin) in An American in Paris (1951) directed by Vincente Minnelli, Turner Entertainment Co DVD, 2003. ↩
- James Kirkup, “Obituary: Georges Guétary”, The Independent, 20 September, 1997. ↩
- Lawrence Durrell, Justine in The Alexandria Quartet (London & Boston: Faber and Faber, 1988), p. 17. ↩
- Edmund White, The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading (London & New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018, p. 53. ↩
- Ela Bittencourt, “Youssef Chahine, the ‘Last Arab Optimist’”, Hyperallergic, 17 July, 2019. ↩
- Omar Hassan, “Real Queer Arabs”, Film International 43, vol. 8, no. 1, 2010. ↩
- Omar Kholeif, “Egypt’s Revolutions on Film”, Sight & Sound Online, 19 April, 2014. ↩