Cultural geography … sense of place in cinema and culture

Atef Moatamed
17 Min Read

Man moves in an interlocking field between two dimensions, “time and space,” or one merged dimension, “spacetime”.

A place is the scene of events in every artwork; the place is the land and its topographical features. By topography, we mean everything on Earth provided by nature or produced by man.

Human’s relationship with place is reciprocal with two directions: on the one hand, it is affected by the place and the elements of its environment to the point that some considered it a captive slave of the environment (the idea of ​​environmental inevitability). On the other hand, a person influences and even changes the place, and in some cases a person “creates” this place. The city, for example, and its urban varieties are a product created by man where he imposed his ideas and laws.

Art, in all forms, reflects a person’s life in places (the countryside versus the city, the narrow alleyway versus the wide land), hence, comes the importance of understanding “the science of places,” that is, geography. The simplest definition of geography is the image of the Earth; the Earth and those on it.

The methodology for realising art from a geographic perspective is actually part of a new geographic doctrine, called “cultural geography.”

Cultural geography has not yet taken root in Arab universities, and many see it as an unidentified specialty. Some even attack it as nonsense that detracts from the “prestige” of solid, rigid geography, armed with numbers and coordinates, and free from interpretation. This leads us to the question: what does cultural geography mean?

It can be defined as the doctrine that searches the cultural product affected by the place. Let’s take a famous example in American jazz. This music arose among the black of South America, as an expression of a long legacy of slavery, sadness, and imprisonment.

At the same time, Egyptian folk songs and dances emerged during cotton harvesting, while poems appeared in desert journeys. Rather, the rhythm itself is a translation of the environment which includes forests, plains, deserts, and ice. I want to say that we have a wide spectrum of influence of space (or spacetime if you will) on various types of art such as music, drawing, poetry, and prose.

In fact, the cinematic works that transformed literary and artistic texts into motion pictures played two parallel roles:

  Transferring reality in a way that is close to the original place in the written artwork (Realism School(

  Creating places that go beyond the traditional image of the place to a hybrid picture of larger philosophies and ideas in what may be called “creative” or “imagined” geographies.

In summary, we can say that the cultural place is present in every event we live in, and football is no exception. Let’s remember France’s win of FIFA World Cup in 2018. Many demanded that the trophy be awarded to the African continent because the majority of players in the French team were originally from Africa, coming from former French colonies, whether second or third generation of African immigrants or were given citizenship directly to play for France.

In Egypt, we have many cultural works where the place is a hero. I have written and delivered many lectures on numerous examples by Naguib Mahfouz, Youssef Idris, and Khairy Shalaby, as well as films like those by Youssef Chahine.

I once delivered a lecture at a university symposium on the use of film in education. I chose a famous film, Gods of Egypt, inspired by ancient Egyptian mythology and the struggle between Osiris and Seth as a struggle between peace, stagnation, and no future for humans. Seth, the God of desert who suffered pain and isolation, wanted to create movement in the Egyptian recession by controlling the fierce desert power over the soft, moist, wet valley.

“I have ruled for a thousand years, and what was the result? These people live without dreams … Now it is my turn … These gods must either obey me or die … And this parish must either submit to me or be enslaved,” Seth tells Osiris.

The result is that everyone obeys and kneels to Seth, and the voice of power takes over.

Seth says that Osiris deceived the Egyptians when he gave them life and promised them another when they stand at the gate of crossing from life to the bliss of the afterlife. Seth sees that this is a hoax and that a person only earns what he has worked for in this world. And so, we see here the geography of a life and an afterlife.

These films are not created without scientific support. We have documented information about the revolution of the desert’s inhabitants over the valley. For long periods of history, Egypt witnessed the uprising of the desert on the river, leading to its destruction sometimes.

The green landscape in the film about the green Egyptian landscape surrounding the valley is not pure fantasy. Before the emergence of Egyptian civilization in the year 3100 BC, there were long periods before that (extending for about 40,000 years) in which people lived before the establishment of the state and the rule of families in better climatic conditions with abundant rain and more greenery.

For this, Seth blames Ra saying, “When you created me in the desert, my bare feet were burning from the heat of sand while Osiris was playing in the Nile”.

The dialogue between Seth and his father Ra becomes a philosophical one, revolving around the concepts of order and chaos in Egypt. And in it, he asks his father, Ra: “Why did you not give me the strength and power I want?” Ra answers, “Because you represent chaos,” and Seth responds, “Chaos will rebuild everything in a new system.”

However, can film be relied upon as a source of geographical study? From the beginning, film was not intended to be a substitute for written scientific text. Geography, even if it was a text, relies on literary and artistic skills, however, in teaching material, there is reliance on facts and accurate information.

The call to rely on film in teaching geographical issues, including Egypt’s geography, depends on finding a visual catalyst for thinking and not necessarily for obtaining information. The goal is to encourage imagination and train the mind on an important geographical skill that compensates for the lack of field work, which is the geographical imagination that can bring in scenes that the researcher was unable to see.

The idea of ​​“environmental determinism,” which is one of the main ideas in the life of Egyptians, which stands for the doctrine that sees man as “a slave of nature and its son,” similarly to the film Ibn Al-Nile (Son of the Nile). This school is based on analysing the extent to which humans relate to their land and environment. Geographers throughout the ages have described the Egyptian person as the first stick-in of his land.

From this standpoint, in the middle of the 20th century, before the establishment of the republic, filmmaker Chahine’s Ibn Al-Nile presented a model of a young peasant who is angry at the miserable farming life and dreams to travel to Cairo where modernism exists. When he arrives to Cairo, he lives a tragic story of misguidance and manipulation in the brothels and prisons of Cairo. He is then released from prison to return to his land.

This film has several contradictory interpretations. You may see it as a condescension that does not see the farmer as someone who can live anywhere except near his farm with miles distancing him from the city that he does not understand. You may also see it as rebellious, wanting to bridge the gap between the city and the countryside and seeks to shed light on the issues of the poor Egyptian countryside.

For me, two scenes in the film have great significances:

– The Aswan Dam and the water flowing from it at the time of the flood in 1951.

The Aswan High Dam had not been built yet at the time, and neither was Lake Nasser. The Aswan Dam was then the key barrier to the flood, but when the water overflows, villages and fields are flooded, as the film depicts in a unique scene. The High Dam changed the nature of the river and turned it into a “tamed” creature.

– The sound of the train and the railway.

All the senses of the film’s lead character, Hemida, played by Shukri Sarhan, was marked by the train horn and the sound of its wheels on the railway. In a touching symbolic scene, we see the young wife of Hemida, Zubaydah, played by Faten Hamama, almost dying when she rushes behind him to discourage him from traveling to Cairo and leaving his land. In my view, the possible death on the railway to Cairo, which Hamidah is trying to take to escape the countryside, is an important symbol, reflecting the migration struggle in the second half of the 20th century. This train will take Hemida to the north and run over Zubeida’s dreams and leave his mother and brother in sadness.

In an extremely unique and creative work, Chahine presented another film, People and the Nile (1972), the epic of the construction of Aswan High Dam and depicts actual scenes of the work on the ground. The shores of the lake and the sides of the dam see blond white individuals from Northern Russia coming together with tanned faces in Nubia.

“Egypt is 1,000 years old and Nubia is 5000 years old. It cannot sink.” This is phrase said by a Nubian farmer, refusing to believe that the new lake will flood the country, preferring to stay next to the “ancestral bones.” This reflects the humanitarian problem of the native people of the region.

The film expresses the problem of the Nubian population reasonably, fairly, and moderately. Nevertheless, the film was banned on social media and may not be aired on satellite channels due to some political circumstances that Egypt has been going through in the last decade.

The area here is authentic and expressive: granite hills, simple Nubian villages, the Nile, the lake. In the background, an early dialogue revolves around the problems that the Nubians will face in Kom Ombo, where a phase of human and social change and suffering will begin in a place far from the original Nubian land.

Likewise, Alexandria got Chahin’s attention with all its station, casinos, bars, and cabarets.

There are three films revolving around Alexandria, and also include Chahin’s biography. They are: Eskendreia Leh (1979), Hadouta Masreya (1982), and Eskenderia Kaman we Kaman (1990).

In these three films, Chahin takes us through various stages of the city’s history, the city’s biography is almost a biography of his life and the lives of his family, lovers, and friends. In one of the most important scenes we see Chahin as a school student in his first acting attempt, while in the background there is a Hitler film playing. Hitler says to the German army in Alamaein city with a confident voice, “Alexandria is my city.”

Shaheen shows us a side that no longer exists in Alexandria, which is the cosmopolitan side when it was inhabited by Greeks, French, Italians, Englishmen, and Jews.

Chahine not only creates a love story between Ibrahim (Ahmed Zaki) and Sarah (Naglaa Fathy), but rather gives her father (Youssef Wahby) who immigrated to Israel to deny what the Zionists are doing in Palestine a chance. He emphasised the difference that some see between Jewish people and Zionists.

Long before this trilogy we get to know Alexandria in its simple traditional nature, without a cosmopolitan plot. In the film “Seraa fi Al Mina” (1956) we see the city from different angles. We see the city from a sailor’s cockpit, port docks, and small fishermen boats.  As usual, we see paradoxes of lavish hotels and humble wooden houses, where the hero Ragab (Omar Sharif), lives with his mother, niece, and fiancée Hamida (Faten Hamama).

The plot is ideal, and as usual, human and social: the struggle of workers for their rights in the face of capitalist transport companies.

In the film Al Ard (1970), the tragedy of the film does not depend only on the regulation of irrigation water, and the dispute between farmers on the distribution of water. This is a matter that can be negotiated, contested, and then reconciled again. The film takes us to the basic dilemma, which is that one of the pashas of feudalism wants to connect the door of his palace to the railway, so the land of the peasants will be confiscated, bulldozed, and blown up in order to extend the new road. When they object, they are abused.

In his film Mahatet Masr (1958), we remember how the railroads were a great blessing for some countries, such as Russia, as railroads in Russia penetrated the icy lands from the west of the country to the east.

Trains and railways here were a means of reconstruction, unlike Egypt where the railways came as a means of destruction of agriculture lands.

Railways occupy an important place in Chahin’s films. He even named one of his important films Bab Al-Hadid (Iron Gate). The gate here is the train station in Cairo and the key link between the north and south.

Atef Moatamed – Professor of Physical Geography at Cairo University, Egypt’s former cultural advisor to Russia

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