Youssef Nabil’s hand-coloured homage to Egypt’s Golden Age and the art of the belly dancer
On the distant and empty Egyptian coastline, the French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim lies asleep. As he dreams, mirage-like images are conjured before him: an upright line of old Egyptian military men, each donning a tarboosh, princes and princesses adorned with silk sashes, and – above all – a chain of belly dancers. As our protagonist waves in and out of his dreamlike state, there is one woman, clad in gold and a most vibrant red, who tiptoes into his thoughts alone. She is his belly dancer.
The 10-minute short, I Saved My Belly Dancer, marks a return to film for the Egyptian artist Youssef Nabil. His first foray into the realm of the moving image was 2010’s You Never Left, again starring Rahim alongside the French actress Fanny Ardant; but Nabil originally became known for his distinctive, meticulously hand-coloured silver gelatine print photographs recalling the glamour of the Egyptian film industry of the 40s and 50s. His films possess the same aesthetic: each frame is bathed in the muted, creamy hues of aged photographs. Whether moving or still, Nabil’s images are truly born when they are injected with the palette of the past.
A return to film, five years later, was motivated by both the technical possibilities of the medium and the turbulence experienced in Egypt during the January Revolution of 2011, which the artist watched unfold from afar in Paris and New York City. ‘I inherently relate to film. My whole practice of photography has been inspired by cinema, and I really want to see my images moving’, he explains; ‘but around the time I had finished the first film, I read an article about the closure of 12 belly dancing clubs’. The artist noticed a change in society, then. ‘I saw [that] the idea of Egypt – my Egypt that I grew up in and that still lives within me – was somehow threatened by these ideas and impositions on our culture.’
As the figure of the belly dancer was vilified by the authorities, she came to assume the symbol of Nabil’s old Egypt. ‘The first thing that came to me was the title; I literally said to myself, I want to save the belly dancer’, he tells me. ‘To the authorities, she came to represent everything they hated: she is a woman, she’s dancing, and is using her body to express herself – therefore, she’s bad’. He soon came to the conclusion that ‘the whole thing, in their minds is the exact opposite of [what] I saw as an art form that I had admired since childhood’.
I Saved My Belly Dancer is ultimately about memory. The film is an archive of the mind captured by the camera – pieces of an Egypt Nabil wanted to save, redeem, and carry with him everywhere. ‘The only way to keep that Egypt alive was to make art about it’, he asserts. Themes of memory, nostalgia, and homesickness shadow what is a bewitching display of belly dancing enacted by Hollywood actress Salma Hayek, the film’s titular heroine, whose darker presence swells beneath the camp appeal afforded by the aesthetics of Nabil’s work. Both You Never Left and I Saved My Belly Dancer were originally conceived as self-portraits and visual interpretations of the artist’s deepest thoughts and emotions connected to the land of his birth. The former work dealt with the idea of leaving home and the relationship of this transition to that of living and dying. ‘When I left Egypt for Paris in 2003, I started doing self-portraits … and the idea of death was always on my mind’, he says, before making a connection to ancient Egypt: ‘[This rumination on death] might have something to do with being Egyptian; you know, the pharaohs were always so concerned with the afterlife, and I grew up having all of this in me’. Nabil’s oeuvre is an act of self-preservation, but also an act of preserving a history beyond that of his own: the history of a country and culture.
Born in Cairo in 1972, Nabil became obsessed with the ‘Golden Age’ of Egyptian cinema as a boy. For the young artist, the ultimate attractions of the age were belly dancers such as the legendary Samia Gamal and Tahia Carioca, who undulated before rapturous audiences. But, whilst Nabil sat mesmerised by the glamour of the silver screen, watching films produced two decades before his own birth, he also found himself contemplating mortality for the first time. ‘Because I was watching a lot of old movies, I was watching a lot of dead people’, he remembers; ‘but to me, they were still inspiring and so beautiful, and I was in love with them’. After such experiences, Nabil began to observe life differently, this time with a desire to record experiences and show them to the world. This yearning ultimately led him to leave Egypt in a bittersweet separation that still reverberates throughout his personal and artistic lives. ‘I knew that I wanted to tell my story beyond [Egypt]; I wanted more freedom; so, I began to observe my life in Egypt with the sense of someone who only comes to stay for a short while, only to leave again’, he remarks. ‘It made me appreciate everyone I met and everything I did whilst I was there. As much as I love Egypt, I knew it couldn’t give me anymore than it had already given me.’
During our conversation, Nabil refers to the poem Ithaka (Ithaca) by C.P. Cavafy, the renowned Greek poet born in Alexandria. Nabil sees Cavafy’s poem as the ultimate ode to the journey of life, and one that encapsulates his particular feelings towards Egypt:
Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
‘When I left Egypt,’ says the artist, ‘I felt that I had died, in a way; I had to start everything from zero and find my life again in a new place with new people’. As a result, You Never Left came to represent this rebirth, with Ardant appearing as a mother figure carrying Rahim as her son in a riff on the iconography of the Virgin Mary and the baby Christ. I Saved My Belly Dancer, on the other hand, tells Nabil’s story in a wider context. Through his lifelong relationship with belly dance, the artist articulates his anxieties towards an idea of a country he left and can no longer access, except by way of his own fantasies. As his dreams rapidly fade upon waking, Nabil’s protagonist remains asleep in order to facilitate his time-travel. As with most dreams, the setting is off-kilter and unspecific, a mnemonic mishmash supposed to be set in one place, but appearing as another. These visions, seen by audiences through Rahim’s nocturnal imaginings, are a mixture of the minimalistic landscapes of the Egyptian coastline and Nabil’s new environs in the guise of the deserts of the American Midwest.
The delicate and bittersweet score by Tunisian composer Anouar Brahem perfectly captures the notion of nostalgia as a ‘hypochondria of the heart’. Nostalgia was once thought of as an incurable condition in 17th century Europe, with the Swiss physician Johannes Hoffer identifying it as being inextricably linked to homesickness: a ‘sad mood originating from the desire for [returning] to one’s native land’, he called it. Indeed, the film features the creative efforts of artists from a spectrum of nationalities, from the Arab world and beyond, each contributing their own personal responses to Nabil’s memories of Egypt’s past.
Nabil’s oeuvre is an act of self-preservation, but also an act of preserving a history beyond that of his own: the history of a country and culture
The casting of Salma Hayek, an actress of Lebanese and Mexican ancestry, was an easy decision for Nabil. ‘For me, I always saw Salma as an Arab. Of course, she is a Latina and a Hollywood star, but she has Lebanese roots. Her name is Arabic, and she is physically very Arab’. Hayek, though, had never played an Arab role before. The two met by chance in Paris, and the admiration was mutual, with both Hayek and her father-in-law being avid collectors of Nabil’s work. Nabil told Hayek that he was thinking of making a second film, as well as that he saw her playing the role of the belly dancer; he had even gone so far as to create a storyboard with her in it. Hayek accepted immediately. She couldn’t look more natural perhaps, clad in a red and gold bedlah costume (true to the style of the 1950s), moving gracefully and intuitively across the sand. Rahim reprises his part as Nabil’s leading man, articulating what is ultimately, deeply personal autobiographical material, with great conviction. ‘He really translates my emotions perfectly’, Nabil affirms.
Unlike Samia Gamal, who broke tradition by dancing in high heel shoes (apparently to show that she could afford them), Hayek dances barefoot, taking the art back to its origins in raqs sharqi (lit. ‘Eastern dance’) and raqs baladi (‘country’/‘folk’ dance) before the mid-20th century. Her performance is at once earthy and tender, and partly improvised; she makes her presence known to Rahim by caressing his sleeping body in a choreographed embrace. It is a beautiful sweep of movement that emanates from the potent memory of Nabil’s first encounter with a real-life belly dancer at the age of six or seven. ‘We used to go to all the weddings in our family, and of course, the belly dancer is the evening entertainment everyone is waiting for’, he notes. ‘Sometimes, this would be at three a.m.; you’re tired, but no one can go home until she comes out’. Nabil remembers this particular evening vividly: ‘I was myself nearly asleep by this point when she finally emerged. I remember her perfume. She covered me with her red veil. I remember it going over my whole body, and then she moved away like a butterfly.’ The red veil is reimagined in Hayek’s own costume covering Rahim’s sleeping body as she dances above him; the belly dancer of childhood memory returns to tell him that the world of his dreams has not vanished.
Away from the rosy nostalgia of I Saved My Belly Dancer, contemporary Egyptian dancers, bound by an increasingly conservative society sometimes find it hard to reconcile their profession with their faith. Accusations of debauchery have seen women arrested for performing in too ‘racy’ a manner. Dancers have often been heard whispering, Rabbena, yitob ‘alena (‘May God relieve us’) backstage after shows. It is, all in all, a far cry from the art form that was once referred to as ‘classical’ in Egypt, the country where the suggested origins of the sensual-cum-social baladi routines received their greatest refinement: the beauty of the movements inspired by the serpent and the Nile since antiquity. The social discourse of ayb (shame) has worked its way into a performance that used to be the highlight of weddings, celebrations, and films. The series of prints accompanying the film in its eponymous exhibition at Dubai’s Third Line gallery harks back to this age of relative tolerance. Within each photograph, the belly dancer is posed in the centre, just as she would have been in the traditional portraits taken at Egyptian weddings, as the star everyone would have gone to see. ‘If you give women the right to be equal to men, to dance how they want, to expose their bodies and express themselves,’ says Nabil, ‘for me, this is the barometer of how open-minded a society and country is’.
Beyond issues surrounding the exposure of the female form currently surrounding belly dancing, Nabil had previously meditated on issues of concealment with respect to the headscarf. ‘I did a series of portraits with iconic Western women, from Catherine Deneuve to Alicia Keys, where they were clothed in the traditional Egyptian veil worn by both Christian and Muslim women in villages, even today’, he explains, going on to say that ‘For me, it was never a sign of segregation or inequality, and I wanted to articulate that. It’s actually a shared way of being, culturally’. Nabil tells me that the headscarf can be seen all around the Mediterranean, in Renaissance painting, and in images of the Virgin Mary. ‘Symbolically, covering a woman’s hair isn’t always imposing something she doesn’t want on her, or an act of separation between men and women; there can be a lot of power in it.’
Liberated from an unkind present, the belly dancer is finally saved by the Stetson-sporting Rahim on the back of a white horse. The two ride away from the sands of Nabil’s Ithaka, slowly, towards the American dream of Nabil’s adopted home. The sun sets on Rahim’s still-sleeping body, lying on the shore in a loose blue djellaba.
‘I Saved My Belly Dancer’ runs through March 5, 2016 at The Third Line in Dubai.
Cover image: I Saved My Belly Dancer #XVII (detail; courtesy the artist, Galerie Nathalie Obadia Paris/Brussels, and The Third Line).