What Egyptian cinema can teach us

How film can offer a complex reading of the origins and motivations of Muslim fundamentalists

When I lived in Saudi Arabia in the Seventies, I saw a lot of Egyptian films. Saudi television showed little else. I found the output of the world's third-oldest and fourth-largest film industry pretty awful, and dismissed Egyptian cinema as mind-numbing. During the Nineties my opinion began to change. Now, I am an avid fan.

Three films were crucial in changing my mind. All deal with terrorism, and all were made well before 11 September 2001. The Terrorist (1994), Birds of Darkness (1995) and The Other (1999) each reflect transitions in Egyptian society; all three were prescient warnings of things to come.

The fundamentalists in these films are products of social and economic disillusionment who exist on the margins. They live in minimalist, barren and closed spaces. For example, Ali Abd-el-Zaher, The Terrorist, lives in a room whose sole furnishing is a grenade chest that serves as a seat and a small bed, over which hangs a faint light bulb - a metaphor for the darkness of his existence. In The Other, the characters recede to the confines of cyberspace, where battles bet ween US imperialism and Egyptian fundamentalism are fought via emails and in chatrooms.

Egyptian films offer a complex reading of the origins and the motivations of Muslim fundamentalists, which makes me quibble with Lina Khatib's argument, in Filming the Modern Middle East (I B Tauris), that they are conceived as being outside the national imagination, both spatially and mentally. For me, such films focus on un varnished social reality and speak volumes about Arab society as a whole.

My all-time favourite, the first film to make me rethink Egyptian cinema, is Terrorism and the Kebab (1993), a pre-al-Qaeda farce which argues that you don't need the likes of Osama Bin Laden to turn ordinary, well-meaning citizens into terrorists. Ahmed, a conformist father-of-two who works two jobs, wants to move his children to a school closer to home. He goes to el-Mugamma, a building familiar to anyone who has visited Cairo: it's the monumental admin istrative block right in the centre of the city. Ahmed is shuffled willy-nilly from office to office, documents in hand. Frustrated, he attacks a bureaucrat who is devoting more time to his prayers than to his job. Police arrive, a gun ends up in Ah med's hands, and things rapidly heat up.

Ahmed starts taking hostages. People gather outside the Mugamma to cheer him. He acquires allies to help him take over the building: a soldier fed up of the abuse he receives from the officers; a prostitute who resents being the scapegoat for society's depravity; a suicidal husband escaping his tyrannically materialistic wife; a shoeshine who has been sentenced to death. The terrorists issue a list of demands - better shish kebab, better health facilities, better schools and, finally, the resignation of the government.

The film suggests that almost everyone in Egypt - army, government, bureaucracy, judiciary, rich, poor - is involved in an elaborate game whose function is to stop change at all costs. Or, as Ahmed puts it, "nothing is allowed to happen". At the end, a reporter asks what the terrorist looks like. "Like any one of us," is the reply.

Terrorism and the Kebab is the most popular Egyptian film of all time. It uses the Mugamma office block as a metaphor for all that is wrong with society in Arab countries. In The Yacoubian Building, released last year and based on the controversial novel by Alaa Al Aswany, another Cairo structure becomes a microcosm of the Arab world. A much darker take on society, The Yacoubian Building interweaves stories of residents in the building to expose the decaying underbelly of the Arab world.

Ostensibly, the terrorist in this film is the son of the building's doorman; he joins a group of Islam ists when his application to join the police force is turned down. But the film takes a broader view of terrorism: it is a product of what has happened in Arab societies over the past 50 years. All the stories - including that of an ageing womaniser and a gay man - lead to terrorism. Terrorism, it suggests, is the natural outcome of the corruption and brutality of some societies. This chilling conclusion has drawn howls of protest from the good and the great of Egypt.

The Yacoubian Building is not a comfortable film. What disconcerts is not just its graphic scenes of homosexuality, abuse and torture: it demonstrates the predicament of a culture that can dissect itself with sophisti ca tion - but is denied the political space to act. It provides a front-line analysis we ought to be listening to, one we ought to have consulted long before now. But then, who watches Egyptian films?

"The Yacoubian Building" will be screened during the Bafta Arab Cinema Weekend (30 March to 1 April), 195 Piccadilly, London W1. Information: http://www.zenithfoundation.com

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom