“Security? I wish it was that simple.
People need the land.
The land needs water.
Water needs a connection.
The connection needs a mansion.
The mansion needs a road.
The road needs a scapegoat.
The scapegoat is the poor.
This is our tale.
The tale of us and Mahmoud Bey, my father and his, and my grandfather and his. This has always been our tale of woe.”
Mohammed Abu Swelam
Small Town Stories, or anecdotes from villages, play a crucial role in our society’s overall history. Whether we come from the smallest rural town or the largest urban city, our origins of where we come from shape our personality. The depiction of small-town stories in cinema is challenging as every story is entirely different from another. I personally do not come from a small-town, but I did have the experience of being born and raised in the Middle East, which is an obscure side of the world that has always been viewed as “othered.” I used to believe that the grass is always greener on the other side, but I’ve come to a realization that without my roots, I would not have been able to grow; thus, I am completely connected to my homeland, heritage, and culture.
In my home country, Lebanon, I lived in the metropolitan area of Beirut, and my Lebanese roots are from an urban city named Achrafieh, located on the Eastern side of Beirut. However, I’ve longed to live in a small town and wished that I was raised in a closer community. My parents sent me to school in a village called Brummana about 45 minutes away from where I lived. Even though I have never lived in Brummana, I considered myself part of the village, as it was my second home for many years. It was there where I learned and grew. I knew the people, the personalities, the gossips, and every road like the back of my hand. Belonging to a district or land is the Arab world’s entire identity.
I was born to a Jordanian/Palestinian mother and a Lebanese father. I had a wide array of information and stories from both sides of the family about different villages and cities located around the Middle East. Each city, village, or district has its own collective experience and opinions on issues. For my entire life, I’ve been asked, “men wen ente? Men aya 3ayle?” (Translation: Where are you from? From which family do you belong to?”) The answers to these questions automatically decode and narrow down a person by binding them to a place, identity, heritage, and even religion and/or political party. To several Arabs, myself included, their city, village or district is their land, identity, and origin. Overall, it gives you a specific image of how people were raised.
Youssef Chahine is known as a renowned cultural auteur from Egypt. He has made films that resonate with Arabs from different regions, as he generated films that tackled various social and political issues. He was known to defend Arab traditions in several of his films. Specifically, al-Ard (The Land) (1969), was recognized as his highest-rated and most influential film because Chahine was able to capture the complexities of Egyptian people through his characters. al-Ard (The Land) depicts a small-town story set in 1930s rural Egypt. During this time, Egypt including the villages were under British colonial rule. In addition, Egyptian society was also practicing a feudal system where there was a hierarchy of power and a difference of class structures. Chahine consciously does not name the village in The Land, so that the audience disassociates with the village’s location and is unaware of the history of its land.
al-Ard (The Land) is a tale about corruption, colonization, and the gap between a group of fellahin (plural peasant farmers), in rural Egypt, and the urbanized metropolitan city, Cairo. Chahine depicts the crucial relationship between colonialism and nationalism, especially using fellahin. Historically, fellahin are the native people to the villages in Egypt. Their lands were passed down from generation to generation, and they know their land exceptionally well, unlike the occupied British who were foreign to Egypt.
The Land is a story about each distinctive fellah (singular peasant farmer) and their collective love and shared connection to their village. The land is their source of means for living, income, and security, regardless of generation or class division. Chahine immediately establishes the film’s theme in its opening shot. The shot is a close-up of Abu Swelam, the leader of the peasants’ hands tending to the cotton where the healthy soil is apparent. Abu Swelam taking care of the land represents the fellahin’s identity and their homeland.
The story begins with concerns about a corrupt pasha (Lord), named Mahmoud Bey, and a corrupt mayor. The mayor and the pasha demand that the irrigation period for the upcoming cotton harvest is cut in half from ten days to five. The fellahin become aggravated because reducing the irrigation period means cutting their income, water, and means of living in half. To protest against feudalism and corruption, the fellahin gathered with the only educated and literate man in the village, Mohammed Effendi, to write and send a petition straight to the prime minister of Egypt.
At first, the fellahin believed that the pasha was a decent man, and it was the mayor’s fraud that was oppressing the fellahin. However, when Mohammed Effendi visits Cairo to deliver the petition to the prime minister, he realizes that the pasha betrayed the whole village by convincing the illiterate fellahin to sign a document allowing a road to be built through their farmland. The project would eventually urbanize the area, destroying the village and their livelihood.
Realizing that the fellahin were powerless, betrayed, and unable to receive help from anyone, each fellah begins to pick the cotton in order to sell it in Cairo. Their objective was to take all the valuable resources they could before the city police arrive to seize the land.
However, the city police do eventually arrive, and several peasants are forcefully removed from their land and tragically murdered. The film’s final shot is a powerful scene reimagining the first shot, with the same hands of Abu Swelam tending to cotton, now bloody and holding on for dear life, grabbing the soil while being dragged away to his death. In the horrifying final scene, a song with brutal lyrics plays describing the binding of the fellahin to the land, which their ancestral family passed on. It also ultimately foreshadows the fellahin’s fate.
The lyrics are as follows:
“If the land is thirsty,
We shall water it with our blood,
It’s a pledge and we’re dedicated,
It shall be fruitful at the break of dawn,
O blessed land of our ancestors,
You are the reason we exist,
and we shall keep our promises,
We will give you heart and soul,
and never again will you be thirsty.”
Corruption and colonialism resulted in the fellahin paying the ultimate price. In the end, they were killed or displaced. Even though the British were absent in the film, Chahine reiterates that they were always present, as their laws and their culture heavily affected Egyptian lives.
The Land’s story is set in the 1930s, making the apparent correlation with the British occupation in Egypt; however, the film was released in 1969. From 1956 to 1970, Egypt was ruled by president Gamal Abdel Nasser. At the time, Arab nationalism was deeply rooted in economic and agricultural resources such as water, land, and oil. The Arab region had faced the “War over Water,” which was a conflict from 1964 to 1967 over water resources and territorial disputes. Subliminally, Youssef Chahine may have used the “War over Water” conflict with the struggle in The Land’s battle with irrigation to showcase the modern political climate in the Arab region. Chahine also may have linked the rise of Arab nationalism to the unity of the fellahin to protect their village and land.
Another critical factor of small town stories is the disconnect that rural villages have to metropolitan cities. As a person who has lived in urban cities my entire life, I have longed for belonging in a quiet rural village. However, I am a creature of habit and too used to the convenience that urban life has offered me, as rural life has limited options of materialistic resources. The Land has a massive detachment between the rural village and Cairo. Throughout the film, the fellahin think of Cairo as a city where they can be whomever they want to be, and finally free. Cairo is seen as the promised land where food, class, materialism, and respect are in abundance. Natural resources such as water and electricity are seen as modes of privilege that Cairo held. One of the characters, Wassifa, the daughter of Abu Swelam, dreamed of marrying and living in Cairo by saying, “Our village is full of gossip and lies. This town is bad. I bet that they eat wheat bread all the time—what a good life. I bet women use a whole bottle of perfume when showering every day. I bet they smell good, too.” The fellahin felt stuck between two worlds, on one hand, they felt a sense of entrapment in their village and long for urbanization as an escape to a free life. On the other hand, the fellahin feel a sense of security from their home in the village.
However, the fellahin do not know the reality that Cairo faces against the British occupation. The fellahin have a sense of denial and are delusional when it comes to Cairo’s actual mess. In Mohammed Effendi’s journey to deliver the petition in Cairo, there were continuous protests and often bombings in the streets. There are scenes in the city where people on the streets are screaming “Down with Colonialism!” and “Long Live Egypt!” Even though there are few scenes in Cairo, Youssef Chahine made the selective decision not to show Cairo’s reality, as he wanted to keep the story strictly under the rural village’s storyline. Mentioning Cairo, however, is an essential cultural restart to remind the people that colonization and oppression in Egypt were present at the time. It also comes to show that nationalism and protest come in many forms depending on the location and culture. In the case of The Land, protesting for nationalism in urban or rural settings meant to fight back against corruption and colonialism.
Through the events that continuously unfurl in the Middle East, Chahine’s down-to-Earth films remind us of how powerful our voices are as a collective unity, that we can remain resilient even in times of crisis and hopelessness. “Chahine himself has said that the government dare not silence his steadfast opposition” (Kiernan, 151). al-Ard (The Land) resonated with me because the film continues to educate the Arab world’s modern history, and remind us where we once were and where we are today. His film is a multi-purpose gift with historical, political, social, and national purposes that remind us of our identity and connection to our land.
Kiernan, Maureen. “Cultural Hegemony and National Film Language: Youssef Chahine.” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, vol. 15, 1995, pp. 130–152., doi: https://www.jstor.org/stable/521683?seq=1.
Massad, Joseph. “Art and Politics in the Cinema of Youssef Chahine.” Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 28, ser. 2, 1999, pp. 77–93. 2, doi: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2537936.