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Top 7 Arab Cinematic Classics

posted on: Apr 1, 2021

By: Pamela Dimitrova/ Arab America Contributing Writer

Movie making in the Arab countries is an old and established art form that is continuing to grow. From romantic comedies to historical dramas, many of these movies have been colelcting number of awards from itnernational movies festivals. And while today this form of art becomes widely recognized in the West and are becoming more and more popualr, by winning the people’s admiratio and also getting number of prestigious nominations for awards (such as the Oscars’), there are some classics that are a must-watch for any film enthusiast. Here are the top 7 Arab Cinematic Classics, you should watch:

The Mummy (Al-Mummia) – The Night of Counting the Years

Shadi Abdel Salam, 1969

This was the most successful full-length feature film by Shadi Abdel Salam, who started his career as an assistant to Rossellini and Mankiewicz (on Cleopatra) and died quite young. Set in Egypt at the end of the 19th century, it tells of a peasant family living off the illegal trade in pharaonic treasures. The theme here is the continuity between ancient and modern Egypt and the importance of preserving pharaonic culture. Abdel Salam, also a great costume and set designer, based everything on meticulous research. Its aesthetic rigour was never again rivalled in Egyptian cinema.


The Call of the Nightingale (Doa al-Karawan), aka The Nightingale’s Prayer

Henry Barakat, 1959

Barakat was the master of classical cinema in Egypt, and this film is based on a novel by the great Taha Hussein. It is humane and beautifully made. The heroine, a peasant girl, decides to take revenge on a handsome engineer who has seduced her sister and caused her “honour” killing by her uncle. In order to do so, she becomes his live-in maid but soon finds herself falling in love with him. It stars a very young Faten Hamama, who went on to become a huge star and who plays every role with grace and elegance, without ever seeming contrived or dull. The Nightingale’s Prayer is an important story of betrayal and love, and the interesting camera work and excellent direction mean it’s no surprise how successful it’s been.


Chitchat on the Nile (Thartharah fawq al-Nil) aka A drift on the Nile

Hussein Kamal, 1971

Based on a novel by Naguib Mahfouz, this film’s theme is decadence. It is set on an illicit barge on the Nile where disenchanted government employees meet to get drunk and smoke hashish. Made soon after President Nasser’s death, the film is critical of the old “socialist” bureaucracy, which had become extremely corrupt. It has the foresight and courage to mark the end of an era, with eyes keenly locked on a not-very-promising new one. One could consider the film overmoralising in that it conflates sexual freedom with corruption, but it has a great subversive power and is still banned in many Arab countries.

The Cruel Sea (Bas-Ya-Bahar)

Khalid Al Siddiq, 1972

The first feature film ever made in Kuwait by a Kuwaiti director, was shot in black and white, it evokes the pre-oil days when Kuwait relied almost entirely on the sea, either for trade or for pearl-fishing. Men would go to sea for months, leaving the women, children and elderly to fend for themselves. The sea is the main character here – initially the source of all things beautiful but equally a monster that destroys lives. The film is a Greek tragedy of sorts, and despite its formal simplicity, it is technically ambitious and very beautiful. One of the best Arab Cinematic Classics.

The Dupes (Al-makhdu’un)

Tewfik Saleh, 1972

Set in Iraq, shot in Syria, based on a famous Palestinian novel by Ghassan Kanafani (assassinated by the Israelis in 1972) and directed by an Egyptian, this harrowing film is about a group of Palestinian workmen in the early 50s trying to cross the border illegally from Iraq into Kuwait, to join the oil boom. They get a lift inside a water tank and are stuck there when the driver is held up by customs officials. The action takes place inside the tank in the searing desert heat as the men dream of the homes and loved ones they left behind. A classic of the Palestinian experience.

Mother of the Bride (Umm el-Arusah)

Atef Salem, 1963

The story revolves around the struggle of hardworking parents to meet the demands of their seven children while trying to keep up with their daughter’s pending nuptials. The parents struggle to meet the groom’s family’s extravagant requests, although their daughter feels undying love for her soon-to-be husband. The movie is wonderfully comedic as it looks into courtship and marriage customs in 1960s Egypt. It’s a subtle reflection of the social issues of the time, including elitism, star-crossed love, and female empowerment.

The River of Love (Nahr El Hub)

Ezzel Dine Zulficar, 1960

The Egyptian film is based on Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina. Reminiscent of The Great Gatsby in its excess and timeless in its fashion, this film is definitely one of the must-watch films from the Arab world. The curious mix between Russian novel and Egyptian high society makes for a unique adaptation of a highly interpreted classic. The story follows Nawal, the wife of a successful man (and the Anna figure). It shows the struggles of a woman oppressed by a man who feels he is her superior, and the hope she finds in her lover. The movies is a must for every lover of the Arab Cinematic Classics.


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