If You’re in NYC, Let’s Go to ‘Mahfouz at the Movies’

From an adaptation of Midaq Alley.

This week in NYC, visit the MoMA for a glut of Naguib Mahfouz movies. They’re showing eight different Mahfouz-inspired films from Egypt and Mexico, the earliest being Darb al Mahabil (1955) and the most recent El callejón de los milagros (1995). (Check the calendar.)

Last month, I spoke with playwright, journalist, novelist, and head of the Egyptian Writers Union Mohamed Salmawy about this topic. Salmawy was, of course, also a friend of Mahfouz’s.

The films at the MoMA are mostly adaptations of Mahfouz novels, but the list also includes Bayn al-Sama w al-Ard, an original screenplay by Mahfouz and Salah Abu Seif. Salmawy said that, after Mahfouz finished his giant Cairo Trilogy, which Salmawy said “was so complicated and so vast in its canvas, that Mahfouz had to keep a notebook beside him in order to remember the characters and the description of each character,” he couldn’t write for a number of years. 

“That is when he turned to script-writing and was under the impression at the time that he would not be able to write any more novels,” Salmawy said. “So he gave a lot of time and effort to script writing.”

These films, Salmawy said, were different from what had come before in Egyptian cinema. “They were more dramatic. There was more interest in characterization. And the plot was more indicative and symbolic… Well, it was a turning point that took the Egyptian cinema a step ahead.”

Salmawy added that, “Of course he later left film writing, when in 1959 he published Children of Gabalawi…. In writing أولاد حارتنا, he turned back to the novel. [But] he put all his literary talents into his film scripts and that time, because he wasn’t writing any literature.”