Shadi Abdel Salam
The Night of Counting the Years
The Douglas Hyde is delighted to present the tenth and final of the screenings of Art from the African Diaspora as part of Alice Rekab’s multi-platform project FAMILY LINES.
Aiming to platform the voices of Black artists and artists of colour and to represent intergenerational legacies of self-representation in the production of film, writing and visual art, Alice Rekab and The Douglas Hyde have invited Salma Ahmad Caller to co-curate the screening series by selecting a film that influenced and/or inspired her. Ahmad Caller has selected the film The Night of Counting the Years (1969) directed by Shadi Abdel Salam.
Based on the true story of an early discovery in the Valley of the Kings and Queens in Luxor, the burial site of successive ancient Egyptian Pharaohs, The Night of Counting the Years, is set in 1881, the eve of British colonial rule. Salam’s film chronicles the conflict that occurs when the head of a local tribe that steals ancient artifacts and sells them to smugglers on the black-market dies, and his two sons are being told the secret truth about what their father and uncles have been doing to feed the tribe.
Originally released in 1969, The Night of Counting the Years is a hidden gem of cinematic beauty that explores issues of identity, integrity, national heritage, and the hefty weight of the past on the present.
Martin Scorsese has said of The Night of Counting the Years: “[It] has an extremely unusual tone – stately, poetic, with a powerful grasp of time and the sadness it carries. The carefully measured pace, the almost ceremonial movement of the camera, the desolate settings, the classical Arabic spoken on the soundtrack, the unsettling score by the great Italian composer Mario Nascimbene – they all work in perfect harmony and contribute to the feeling of fateful inevitability.”
Considering the crossovers between her own film: Shell Fables ~ a Curious Cabinet of Beings & Becoming and The Night of the Counting Years, Salma Ahmad Caller has created the below introductory text to accompany both films.
The reasons I chose The Night of Counting the Years by Shadi Abdel Salam (originally called The Mummy / al-mummia in Arabic) are several and perhaps unexpected. It was made in 1969, the year I was born and was screened in 2017 by AiM (Africa In Motion) as part of a focus on Africa’s Lost Classics, otherwise it is hard to find. It was one of the first early Egyptian films that I watched in my twenties after having moved to the U.K. and it had a very haunting and lasting effect on my imagination. A feeling of deep time, of the very distant past being present in the now. Itself an artefact carrying the ‘radioactive’ residues of problematic histories of Egypt into our bodies. It gave me glimpses of the landscapes, both real and imagined, political and personal, being created in an Egypt from my father’s youth, and shows how the ancient past, stolen artefacts and the more recent colonial events of that time are so entwined as to become almost invisible. It raises many questions for me, and is full of contradictions. I feel confused when I watch it and also very moved and drawn to an imaginary Egypt that I can never reach, and my father whom I could never really reach.
As the Alex Cinema blog explains, films coming out of Alexandria played a vital role in establishing Egyptian cinema. Alexandrian studios and films were a mixture of Egyptians and foreign residents living there. Shadi Abdel Salam was born in Alexandria in 1930, a few years after my father was born in Cairo. So they were of a similar generation and time. A time of continued occupation of Egypt by the British. This film is unusual in that the script is in Classical Arabic, monumental, solemn, literary, Quranic, rather than in Egyptian dialect. Abdel Salam studied at Victoria College in Alexandria and travelled much in Europe. It always intrigued me that he felt he could only write the script in English. He then had to find someone to translate it back into Classical Arabic. This speaks of how colonisation affects people in such complex ways, and affected my parents and my own life – at a deeply subconscious penetrating level. So from it’s very conception in the director’s mind, it was a hybrid body, like mine, and crossing over within it Egyptian and British cultures and their painful entanglement with each other. So it is a film that raises complicated questions about identity and cultural heritage, not only from within the subject matter but in it’s very formation.
Often Egyptians have been portrayed as backward and not interested in their own Ancient Egyptian heritage, and not able to look after their own – hence it is safer taken away from them and housed in places like the British Museum. Does this film play into that narrative? Abdel Salam felt that Egyptians needed to take their history seriously. But the blame is laid firmly at the door of the tribe in question who are stealing artefacts from tombs from the 21st Dynasty as part of their survival. No questions are raised about the reason this black market for Egyptian artefacts going to European buyers/museums was so lucrative, or the dark manipulative forces of colonialism behind these movements of sacred things. Of course Abdel Salam is taking issue with the Egyptian people themselves, asking them to care about their own history and this is an essential part of the film. It was his mission to make more Egyptians know and care. To what degree did they not care in fact? And it is interesting to note that he has set the film in 1881, on the eve of British colonial rule. At the heart of the the film are torn loyalties and fractured identity. In Europe at the time and even now, there is very little interest in Egypt’s African/black, Islamic and other histories, or rural traditional culture. Egyptomania was all consuming in the 1930s onwards in Europe and America. So for me this film is very close to home in terms of all the conflicts that it reveals, through its omissions as well, across an Egyptian / British divide, and it’s very formation and creation have come out of division/fracture, as have I.
My Shell Fables short film also works with ‘artefacts’ of a different kind, from my own past, childhood, my parents pasts. I have been working with these relics, residues and deposits for a few years now but in particular since my mother passed away in 2020. My text/image work Crossing Formations was the first major work to emerge that deals with how the political and the personal collide. There are parallels – things from deep time burst out into my present causing potent ripples in space/time. That colonial past isn’t over. It has carried on rippling throughout my life, bringing my parents together but also leaving behind an unresolved sadness and fracture that is part of who I am. There is also accountability and caring about these ‘artefacts’ from our pasts, however quotidian, as they tell us where we came from. They emerge from a deep tomb of shadows, holding within them the same fractures that both separate and hold the ‘body’ together in a living accommodation of ‘conflict’ surrounding identity. I can always see and feel both sides at once.
Salma Ahmad Caller, 2022.
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