Adrift on the Nile is a 1971 film from Egypt, directed by Hussein Kamal, who has some 10 movies to his credit, and is based on Egypt’s Nobel Prize winning Naguib Mahfouz’s 1966 novel of the same name.
It is shot in severe black and white almost entirely on a house boat tied along the banks of the Nile in Cairo, where a cross section of Egyptian society gathers nightly — and recruits young women almost as often– to enjoy drugs, sex and bacchanal. Unfortunately, for this reviewer, never did so much fun seem so boring.
While it’s always interesting to see people in other cultures facing all that is planned and all that comes unexpectedly, sometime it is even more interesting when the events and responses are quite similar to our own. In Adrift on the Nile, instead of watching camel herders deal with love, death and daily life, we watch a journalist, an actor, a lawyer and others Turn on, Tune out, Drop Out much as was practiced by many in the United States in those same years. That’s right: Tune out. There is no suggestion of inner or spiritual questing on the houseboat. It is pure escape. Several times the partiers are asked if they know what is in the headlines, or what is going on the country. No, they reply with abandon. We fought in the revolution [1951 against the British] and then were left behind. Unfortunately so much of the film is given up to passing the water pipe and smoking hashish, raucous laughter at silly sentences that, as we aren’t sharing the chemical changes they are, it soon becomes boring. Even the addition of a hit-and-run killing by the doped up crew and a display of what must have been a lot of cleavage and thighs in Egypt at the time, doesn’t save it. We keep waiting for the moral shoe to drop and the movie turn into an Egyptian version of Reefer Madness.
The moral shoe does eventually drop when Samara [ Magda El-Khatib] a female magazine writer convinces her boss to let her do a feature on the hash-heads. She lets herself be integrated into the group but manages not to succumb to the pipe. She almost falls for silver tongues Ragab [Ahmed Ramzy] as have all the other women, despite her resistance to their scene, and insistence that there is much to do to help Egypt and its citizens. She puts Ragab to the test by inviting him to come with her to the front and, with other artists, visit the soldiers. Ragab oversleeps but Anis [Imad Hamdi ] the supplier of the hash, and most self-reflective of the group goes with her and has a breakthrough realization and a return of a sense of guilt for the hit-and-run death. He returns to the house boat and exhorts the others to turn themselves in. One of the women looks at him his scorn:
“Would you have turned yourself self in and let the papers say you were with men?”
The lawyer says that if they went to trial he would only prove it was the dead woman’s fault, and that since the family would have killed them had they stopped, they did the right thing by running off and saving them from becoming killers. In the end Anis convinces no one, either to accept responsibility for the woman’s death or to stop smoking hash. The film ends as he shouts his new found belief through the unlistening crowds in traffic choked Cairo.
The events take place in the 1960s with the near presence of a war, though it’s never made clear, in the subtitles at least, which war. With a bit of a stretch it could be the 1956 Suez canal crisis and Western invasion of Egypt. It could be the 1962 Egyptian intervention in Yemen. With long shots of destroyed city buildings, that seems unlikely. Most probably it is meant to be the 1967 6 day war, though in a certain sense it does not matter. The film is operating primarily at the level of metaphor — like a mideival morality play, with a bit more characterization for the players, though not as much as in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita to which it has some thematic resemblance, though never the comic and playful exuberance.
Most interesting to fans of Mahfouz is that the book itself doesn’t seem to end with the heavy moral sledgehammer. I haven’t read it yet, but accounts of it say that he is content to let the decadence be obvious in the telling; there is no discovery, repentance and proclaiming. Anis, the dealer, is the backbone of the novel whereas Ragab, the seducer, holds the camera’s eye. Much more is learned of Anis in the novel, how he was buffeted by fate, and fell into drug use. Many of the Mahfouzian themes are revealed in his incoherent ramblings, stream of consciousness, suggestions of moral and national failure in other times and places. For Mahfouz, no moral imprecations as in the film are likely to come to our aid. His optimism is guarded, secular and dependent on contingency and luck. The books ends with Anis raving, in another narcotic haze:
The origin of all trouble was the skill of a monkey, who learned to walk upright, thereby freeing his hands. He came down from the tree-top monkey paradise to the ground of the forest. They told him to climb back up before the beasts go him. But in one hand he grasped a tree branch and in the other a stone and he went cautiously on , looking ahead down an endless road.