Placing Edouard in time
The following is an excerpt of Alexandria -and its "cosmopolitanism"- encore et toujours. A super interesting article by Hala Halim about Alexandria. It was published recently in Politics / Letters and includes a generous review of "17 Fouad Street". Thank you Hala!
Another one of the new Alexandrian films to receive state funding, here in collaboration with independent film production companies, is the documentary 17 Fouad Street (2014), directed by Ahmed Nabil, which went on to garner several awards. The title is the address of Chaussures Edouard, the shop now run by Nubar, the son of the original Armenian owner, where the décor and footwear have grown retro by default, through a staid indifference to the blandishments of fashion.
I first watched 17 Fouad Street on March 5, 2014, at the Hurriyya Centre for Creativity in Alexandria, a venue that has gone through several transformations, much like the boulevard in downtown Alexandria after which it was named. Rue Fouad Premier (named after the then-king)–it had been Rue Rosette, and “is the most ancient in the city,” as Forster was once to remind us –was renamed Hurriyya (Freedom) Avenue after 1952 (some Alexandrians still use the old name), while the posh Muhammad ‘Ali Club on one of its street corners became the Hurriyya Cultural Palace, later revamped as the Centre for Creativity. The occasion was the screening of three short films among some 12 that had been recipients of Cultural Development Fund (Ministry of Culture) and Hurriyya Centre for Creativity sponsorship (17 Fouad Street, additionally, received Rufy’s support)–and the auditorium was packed with young people.
Here, too, the fact of Alexandria being the second city in the world to witness cinematography was noted in the introductory remarks by Maher Guirguis, visual artist and member of the center’s board of directors, while a member of the Faculty of Fine Arts spoke of the films as “a visual archive” of the city. After the screening, the panelists singled out a common denominator between the three films: an anxiety about the attrition of Alexandrian heritage, a motif of “the fear of the transformations in today’s city.” Monsieur Edouard was read as “a symbol of the cosmopolitan Alexandria that we are losing”; but I found the suggestion that the shoe boxes that form the backdrop against which he sits “are like coffins” an upping of the nostalgia ante that did not do justice to the freshness of the film’s approach.
The 32-minute 17 Fouad Street, set mostly inside the shop, took me by surprise in that at no point is M. Edouard asked to talk about his background, when it was that his Armenian family arrived in Egypt, and so on. It is only the webpage of 17 Fouad Street that a spiel on the history of the Armenian community is provided; there, too, Nabil has written that he directed 17 Fouad Street “under the influence of the French filmmaker Nicolas Philibert and his idea… that you can make a film ‘anywhere and about anyone’ because there is a ‘story’ to be told everywhere.” The very first words spoken in the film are by M. Edouard: his observations, anxiety barely muffled, about the location of military tanks near downtown banks place him squarely in the here and now of the city: Alexandria 2013, in the months after the deposition of President Morsi.
The film places M. Edouard in time, not in a superannuated “outside time” zone. As 17 Fouad Streetobserves him in his shop–equal parts patina and practicality–it registers his quotidian in relation to the passage of time. There are at least two cycles of a day in the life of M. Edouard, demarcated by a black screen–including the morning and evening shifts in the shop, the latter part of the day bookended by the man himself sweeping the threshold of the shop on arrival and street light reflections on the vitrine. M. Edouard himself keeps two calendars on his walls, shuffles and then discards the day pages he’s torn off, as he navigates different temporalities. The one in Arabic script is the standard Egyptian version with each day in the Julian, Coptic and Islamic calendars; and–this the most explicit reference to his background–there’s a calendar in the Armenian script, keeping him tuned into the temporality of community. The only other reference to Alexandria’s Europeanized ethnic heterogeneity is a conversation, on the threshold of the shop, with an older Greek Alexandrian lady, in French, the unsubtitled slivers sifting into the shop apparently alluding to her compatriots who divide their time between Egypt and Greece. Otherwise, M. Edouard converses with clients in a faintly accented Egyptian colloquial tinged with khawagatigrammatical peculiarities.
As most of the clients we see are regulars who return for the tried and tested footwear, the transactions pair conviviality and cosmopolitanism–why not?–with M. Edouard’s canny salesmanship. “You’ve worn this pair for three weeks, right?”–three years, five years comes the answer. He tries to press white shoes on a veiled woman who’s picked a black pair saying she’ll need this too for the hajj; but she’s already been on that and the lesser pilgrimage too, she says, on which occasion she wore a pair from his shop. Another veiled lady with her daughter smilingly says, “all our colleagues at the company used to come here. He really has a name. Sometimes on public transport I hear a woman saying I’m going to Edouard’s.” It’s a sweet-natured infomercial she volunteers, turning towards the camera.
And then there’s what I think of as the Cinema Paradiso moment. The sequence is sparked when M. Edouard asks two Egyptian Alexandrian men spending time with him in the shop, “will you go Hambaring?” It’s dated Alexandrian slang for movie-going, a verb derived from the old Théâtre Alhambra, which eventually began screening films. We deduce it’s a Monday, the day films were changed at Alhambra, M. Edouard remembers, and in many Egyptian cinemas. Fond spectatorship reminiscences unfold: the ticket price that gave you a double bill; favorite genres, especially cowboy and circus movies; make-believe and the abandonment of disbelief; gestural enactments of a memorable scene studded with delectable non sequiturs (“Kirk Douglas and… what’s the name of that blue-eyed actor?”; “But they all have blue eyes”; “No, his were even bluer”). Gradually the mood darkens, registers cinematic attritions at home and abroad under the impact of globalization: such films are no longer made, though you can still watch some of the oldies on satellite; Alexandria’s old cinemas have been closing down (“But why?” “Video–and the dish, that killed it all off”), their names rattled off, Radio, the Strand, and now the Rialto demolished. The scene ends with M. Edouard telling one of the men as he heads for the door, “well, you can continue Hambaring at home,” the words giving way to voice-over of credits from Trapeze (dir. Carol Reed; 1956) that had so enthused one of the men.