Yousry Nasrallah’s tale of love, politics, and chivalry in post-Mubarak Cairo
In February 2011, just days before former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted – the result of months of protests within the larger ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings – a wave of pro-Government forces on horseback stormed through Cairo’s Tahrir Square, in a violent assault on the protesters therein, which has since come to be known as the ‘Battle of the Camel’. Such is the battle that Yousri Nasrallah’s acclaimed film refers to, live footage of which commences the film.
In the opening scene – a real piece of footage captured by Egyptian demonstrators – among the many equestrian assailants, we see one pulled from his horse to be kicked and beaten by an angry anti-Government mob. Although we’ll most likely never learn of what became of this unfortunate fellow, Nasrallah gave him a voice in his film, as well as a name – Mahmoud. Played by Bassem Samra (The Yacoubian Building), Mahmoud is disgraced and to a degree, ostracised by members of his community, including his powerful and controlling relative, Hagg Abdallah (a local politician/Mafioso), who forbids him from partaking in a horse dance ceremony, to say the least.
However, for Mahmoud, the disgrace and shame he’s suffered as a result of his ‘fall from grace’ are just a fraction of his problems. A horseman by trade, Mahmoud depends on tourists to earn his bread. However, as a result of a large and unsightly wall built by the Government in an attempt to separate the beauty of the Pyramids – which Mahmoud used to climb in his youth – from the squalour of Nazlat (Mahmoud’s neighbourhood), Mahmoud has been largely cut off from the source of his livelihood, as well as his spiritual home. Furthermore, after the battle, horse fodder has become increasingly rare, and not a soul is willing to provide any to the now-infamous Mahmoud. Additionally, Mahmoud’s boys are constantly pestered and jeered at at school – ‘his father fell – they beat him well!’ they chant – and are on the verge of forfeiting education altogether. Truly, it seems like all hope is lost for the ill-fated horseman.
Enter Reem, a pretty, bubbly, dimple-cheeked middle-class employee in a failed relationship working at an NGO, who takes a shining to Mahmoud – for reasons unexplained – and his equestrian antics, and eventually finds her lips pressed against his, after one thing leads to another at a local horse dancing ceremony. Having fallen for Mahmoud, Reem is determined to help him and his family, and as such, sets out on a mission to provide him with fodder, help his children, enlighten his wife, and help develop a union for the horsemen, among other things.
Eventually, as their differences become more and more apparent, and both are rebuked by members of their communities for the ‘inappropriateness’ of their actions, the flame of their relationship dwindles, and yet again helpless, Mahmoud begs Hagg Abdallah for a job in his service, which involves toting a ‘manly’ gun around town, much to his wife’s dismay.
Despite their differences in philosophy, socioeconomic class, and aspirations – and a rather nasty spat wherein Mahmoud ‘lets it all out’, Reem and Mahmoud are eventually reconciled, and in the final scenes of the film, take part in a demonstration of Copts outside a local television station – an actual incident, which saw demonstrators ruthlessly crushed by the Egyptian army – during which Mahmoud is shot.
As Nasrallah himself remarked – and as Egyptians themselves witnessed – after Mubarak’s ousting, little really changed, aside from the removal of a political figure
En route to the hospital in the ambulance, all sounds in the film terminate, except for Mahmoud’s heavy breathing. In the closing scene, amidst the panting, we see him climbing up the Pyramids in his current state – as he used to in his younger days – brick by brick, occasionally stopping for breath, yet never stalling. Before he reaches the faraway peak of the giant Pyramid, the film comes to an abrupt end, literally leaving the audience in the dark.
Naturally, one leaves such a complex film with myriad questions waiting to be answered. What happened to Mahmoud? What was the significance of his climbing the Pyramid? What, really, was Nasrallah trying to say about the incidents that occurred ‘after the battle’, and about the Egyptian situation in general?
Personally, I don’t believe it matters what exactly ‘happened’ to Mahmoud – that is, whether he survived the attack, or not. Rather, I believe the final scene is the most telling in the entire film, as Nasrallah expertly uses the Pyramid – and Mahmoud’s scaling of it – as a powerful metaphor for not only Mahmoud’s ongoing struggles, but also the state of modern Egypt. As Nasrallah himself remarked (during the film’s screening at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival) – and as Egyptians themselves witnessed – after Mubarak’s ousting, little really changed, aside from the removal of a political figure. As exemplified by the army’s response to the Coptic demonstration, among other incidents, the Egyptians never truly gained the democracy and liberty they hoped for, and as such, even after their ‘revolution’, the battle continued. Therefore, in a sense, one can compare Mahmoud’s struggle to climb the formidable and daunting Pyramid to the larger struggle of the Egyptian people seeking greater freedom and democracy. As well, as the film emphasised Mahmoud’s distance from the peak, and finished before he could reach it, one can interpret this as a comparison to the long road that lies ahead for the Egypt – a nation which is still trying to find it’s place in the modern world amidst war, religious fundamentalism, economic woes, and domestic tensions.
As Larbi Ben M’hidi remarked to the reckless Ali La Pointe in Gillo Pontecorvo’s iconic 1966 film, The Battle of Algiers:
It’s hard to start a revolution, even harder to continue it, and hardest of all to win it. But, it’s only afterwards, when we have won, that the true difficulties begin. In short, Ali, there’s still much to do.