Song, Dance, and the Politics of Fanaticism: Youssef Chahine’s Destiny

Critics of Youssef Chahine’s 1997 film Destiny assume that its message is that ideas will always trump censorship. Such responses, however, neglect to ask why Chahine chose to make this film a musical of sorts and to what extent the coupling of philosophy with song and dance might work to contest oppressive state and religious power. Song and dance is not simply window-dressing in the film; it represents defiance in the face of loss and defeat. In Destiny, conviviencia becomes conviviality, but it is ephemeral, doomed to fade along with the music’s dying notes.

Youssef Chahine’s 1997 film Destiny opens with the burning of a heretic and ends with a book burning, attesting to the dangers of – and to – philosophy in the culture, politics, and religions of the Christian and Islamic worlds of the medieval Mediterranean. The film sets a mythologised version of the twelfth-century Andalusian philosopher Averroes against a backdrop of aristocratic political cowardice and religious fundamentalism. But, rather than bore his audiences with ideological battles and philosophy, Chahine associates song, dance, and poetry with Averroes’ neo-Aristotelianism, deflecting the philosopher’s investment in rationality into an irrepressible desire to enjoy life, to eat and drink, to break out into musical performances. Though the “historical Averroes is unlikely … to have been such a jolly fellow”, [1] Chahine protests, “Don’t bore people, give them adventure, but make them think. So I found Averroes, the philosopher who believed in the coexistence of reason and revelation”. [2]

Chahine, perhaps the best-known Egyptian filmmaker in the west, directed more than forty films from 1950 until his death in 2008. [3] With Destiny, Chahine looks nostalgically back at the medieval cosmopolitanism celebrated in Saladin (1963), a film that indulges mid-twentieth-century hopes of a secular, modernist pan-Arabism. [4] Destiny is a film that adores the energy of the metropolis – court intrigue, the debate in the city square, cafe culture and dance halls; it loves the explosion of intellectual exchange on offer in an urban environment that brings together people from different ethnicities, classes, and faiths – Muslims and Christians, aristocrats and traveling entertainers, gypsies and Arabs. Chahine remarks, “12th-century Cordoba looked like my Alexandria, where everybody talked to everybody, and everybody made love to everybody, no matter the religion or creed”. [5] Chahine himself straddled many oppositional identities, translating across multiple linguistic and aesthetic registers. Chahine’s “father’s side is from Lebanon, his mother’s from Greece,” “a fantastic mess of Christian, Greek, Muslim and Druze.” He was a syncretist: “‘I just don’t get it when people talk about religious frontiers and I don’t see God as frightening … I read the Torah, the Koran and the Bible …. I grew up speaking five languages and went to an English school”. [6] He was a Christian in an Islamic state; a secular nationalist in an increasingly fundamentalist Egypt. He sided with Muslim groups – even Muslim extremists – in opposition to dictatorial governments, and ran afoul of such groups for his political, religious, and cinematic choices. Destiny was a response to the banning by Muslim fundamentalists of his 1994 film The Emigrant, which told the Old Testament story of Joseph from an Egyptian perspective and was censured for its pictorial representation of the prophets. Shot in Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria, Destiny was financed with French money, and is available in Arabic and French – with English subtitles.

Destiny is centrally concerned with the survival of ideas in the face of religious fanaticism and censorship. Most critics assumed that, because it was a response to the earlier film’s banning, its message is that ideas will always trump censorship; book-burnings are doomed to failure. They read as overdetermining the quotation on the screen during the film’s final book burning: “Thoughts have wings. No one can prevent them from flying”. Such responses neglect to ask why Chahine chose to make this film a musical of sorts and how effectively the coupling of philosophy with song and dance works to contest oppressive state and religious power. The film is set during and celebrates the conviviencia – the period from the Muslim conquest of Andulusia in the eighth century to the Christian reconquest in the fifteenth, when Islam, Christianity, and Judaism were thought to coexist in the same place, a description of twelfth-century Spain that today is disputed by scholars as wishful thinking. [7] We read the film’s celebration of conviviencia and religious toleration as ultimately unsustainable. In Destiny song and dance is not simply window-dressing. [8] It represents defiance in the face of loss and defeat, an attempt to recuperate the failures of conviviencia. If, in Destiny, conviviencia becomes conviviality, it is ephemeral, doomed to fade along with the music’s dying notes.

Chahine’s urbane vision of Andalusian conviviencia, however, contains its own repressions. Even as Chahine’s film incorporates music and dance in its struggles against the political, religious, and cultural repressions that dominate life in the contemporary Middle East, it succumbs to those pressures. Nowhere in the film, for instance, are Jews in evidence, although Jews constituted more than five percent of the population, and Andalusia was a centre of Jewish life in the Middle Ages. In fact, Moses Maimonides (1135), the great Jewish philosopher of the period, was born in the same city of Cordoba at about same time as Averroes (1126). [9] For reasons that have more to do with the politics of contemporary Arab-Jewish relations than medieval religious conflicts, Chahine chose to displace the Jews with a troop of gypsy entertainers, though there is no evidence that gypsies (gitanos) were present on the Iberian peninsula before the mid-fifteenth century, some two and a half centuries after Averroes’ death. [10] Their arrival in Andalusia coincided with the Jews’ expulsion from reconquest Spain. In the film, however, their acceptance into Averroes’ domestic and intellectual circle certifies his imagined community of religious and ethnic toleration. [11]

This omission opens up a rupture that allows us to scrutinise further the belief that ideas will always survive their suppression. What does it mean to say, “Thoughts have wings”? For ideas or thoughts to exist at all, they must be embodied in vehicles; those metaphorical wings must be material. Books are one example of a vehicle for carrying ideas, films another. People can also be vehicles for ideas. All of these are extraordinarily vulnerable to destruction in innumerable ways. Ideas are, in fact, quite likely to disappear. [12] Maimonides describes the process of embodying ideas in vehicles in the opening of his Guide of the Perplexed. [13] This text, designed to elucidate obscure parables from Scriptures, was written for his student, Joseph Ibn Aknin, a crypto-Jew who journeyed “from the country farthest away in order to read texts under my guidance” (GP 3). Because the secrets of the divine sciences “ought not to be taught even to one man, except if he be wise and able to understand by himself” (GP 7), knowledge must be carried by individuals and passed orally from teacher to student. One of the most obvious shortcomings of this method is distance: “when God decreed our separation and you betook yourself elsewhere, these meetings aroused in me a resolution … Your absence moved me to compose this Treatise, which I have composed for you and for those like you, however few they are” (GP 4). Materialising knowledge as a book or text allows it to travel further and to survive the deaths of its human hosts, but runs the risk of exposing secrets to the uninitiated.

Even before the opening credits, Destiny‘s audience is introduced to the fragility of knowledge’s vehicles in the face of the violence spawned by the religious intolerance of the twelfth century, where, for the crime of translating the writings of Averroes, a French heretic is tortured and burned. The scene begins with an establishing shot of a large castle, followed by a montage of architectural close-ups, embodying in massive material forms the abstract wealth and power of Christian ecclesiastical authority. As the heretic is tied to the stake, clerics don ornate vestments and, to the sound of drumbeats, move towards the execution site. The camera searches the faces of the Churchmen, drummers, and onlookers, only to find vapid passivity. The execution is more about empty spectacle than about a clash of cultures or a conflict of ideas. This scene exploits a totalitarian aesthetic, deploying shots that freeze movement, dynamism, and flux into static posturing, individuals into geometric shapes. [14] Most important to Chahine’s aesthetic is the percussive rhythm driving the execution, our first indication of how much bodily rhythm will drive this film. The drums here signal sluggish conformity. For Chahine, medieval Christianity has a dead soul.

The heretic’s crime of translation is not insignificant. This execution lays open Chahine’s anxieties about the role of the translator, who gives ideas material form when church and state conspire to create a persecuting society. The heretic, simultaneously subversive, resistant to orthodoxy, boisterous, and a failure, screams his agony to a people coerced into silence – and dies. The heretic’s son, Joseph – referred to throughout the film as “blue eyes,” perhaps as a reminder of his status as a northern European, a foreigner and refugee from Christian lands – runs to Andalusia to find his father’s teacher, Averroes, to take on his role as translator. He encounters a place filled with intellectual and artistic enlightenment, a place that seems to offer an antidote to France’s religious persecution. Joseph, who bears the same name as the filmmaker, [15] becomes, at least for Western audiences, a point of identification. We see Andalusia from his initially idealistic – and ultimately ironic – perspective.

Averroes, though a medieval philosopher, is a fantasy of modern-day liberal expression, a guarantor of freedom and civilisation, allowing Chahine a location for the interplay of multicultural diversity and toleration. Joseph enjoys the hospitality of Averroes’ dinner-table, where philosophers, poets, singers, and dancers, Christians and Muslims, the Caliph’s brother and two sons, gypsies, and women converse on everything from politics to play, often confusing the two. Chahine imagines Averroes at the epicentre of a medieval conviviencia, before the devastation accompanying the rise of fundamentalist Islam’s anti-intellectualism. No doubt, during the Middle Ages Averroes did attract acolytes, but so far as the film is concerned it is the philosopher’s hospitality, his wife’s culinary skills, and the sheer enjoyment of his companionship that seduces. Critics accused Chahine both of pandering to Western prejudices against fundamentalist Islam and of being too playful with Averroes: “How absurd … that the great philosopher who had only taken two days off from his studies, the day his father died and the day he got married, would sit around humming a tune.” [16] During a time of unceasing holy war, of Christian crusade and Islamic conquest, Averroes’ home offers the pleasures of peace: laughter, song, love-making. Guests criticise the ruling government; insubordination is safe, even in front of its representatives (of which Averroes is one, and not an insignificant one). Averroes’ table maintains the illusion of patriarchal order, with the philosopher seated at the head, commenting on, and in some ways managing discourse – except, of course, he is ordered about by his wife like a 1950s situation comedy dad, reminding us that the conviviality that dominates these scenes creates feminised spaces presided over by women who provide food and drink, singing and dance.

The politics of Averroes’ dinner table stand in contrast to the conspiracy brewing among the film’s antagonists, Islamic fundamentalists who abhor freedom of expression, seeing it as “decadence.” The fundamentalists glorify conformity. Whereas Averroes’ friends – especially the gypsy women – splash colour across the screen, the Islamic extremists wear drab uniforms of green. The Averroes household encourages unruly behaviour: argument, delight in the freeplay of signs and meaning, and a carnivalesque celebration of the lower bodily functions, [17] which results in at least one pregnancy. The fundamentalists are regimented, organised, hierarchal, rigorously homosocial. They raise their hands and shout in unison, according to a script prepared by their Emir. They are intent on overthrowing the Caliph and installing a religious regime that will rule according to a literal reading of the Koran. They are dangerous, enemies of both ideas and conviviality, allowed to flourish because they are Muslims, have the support of Andalusia’s richest citizen, Sheik Riad, and publicly praise the Caliph, whom they detest.

This conflict plays out in two musical sequences, one in the gypsy quarter, the other in the extremist training camp, each side seeking to locate a musical register that will control the behaviour of the Caliph’s younger son, Abdellah, and make him a vehicle for their ideas. The gypsy quarter is an extension and expansion of Averroes’ dinner table. Visited by many of the same players, the quarter delights with food, conversation, sex, and, most important, song. In this space, philosophy is realized as music. This is hybridic space, in which the Arab/Islamic, Spanish/Christian cultures of Andalusia collide and explode into passionate song. Among Chahine’s gypsies, music is a vehicle for knowledge more valuable than academic authority or political power, more precious than religion. Indifferent to the wars raging between Muslims and Christians, the gypsies care neither about theology nor property ownership. The gypsy quarter is dominated by poet/singer Marwan and his dancer lover/wife Manuela. Marwan’s skin colour is darker than most of film’s other characters. He appears lazy; he is often filmed in recumbent positions. As such, he represents a common stereotype of the gypsies as “carefree, wild, and lazy sybarites, merrily drinking and dancing their way through life.” [18] Primarily concerned with the pleasures of the body, Marwan is not to be trusted with responsibility. But Chahine mitigates the stereotype. Marwan is played by the Egyptian singer Mohamed Mounir, known to his fans as “the King”, in part for his syntheses of world musics, in part for the political content of his lyrics. Marwan, too, is a musician whose commitments to his art are slyly political and whose talents provoke activism. At an evening gathering visited by the princes, Nasser and Abdellah, Marwan performs ‘Sing Your Song’, a celebration punctuated by the lyric, “We defy life with song”.

Marwan played by Mohamed Mounir

The musical, with its song and dance numbers, has always provided “a readily adaptable dramatic ‘surface'” [19] in which to play out conflicts of various sorts. In this sequence, the gypsies and the fundamentalists engage in a contest of musical one-upmanship – war by another means – that serves as a prelude to real violence. Chahine’s gypsy quarter dance number sparks a confrontation in which Manuela intervenes in the Muslim fanatics’ attempts to seduce the weak Abdellah into their ranks, not with words, but by placing her dancing body between their leader and the prince. Initially the confrontation is played out in a tense silence, punctuated only by the commanding percussion of shoes tapping on wooden floors, hands banging on a table, clapping. As Marwan sings, Manuela breaks into a flamenco. [20] Manuela’s performance is firm, authoritative, even pushy, as she directs first the musicians and then Abdellah, in an extended number in which they dance side-by-side, while Marwan sings his celebration of life, love, freedom.

Chahine films the sequence in long panning shots that track the dancers as they move. Conventionally in musicals, dances provide a mechanism for heterosexual coupling and the flamenco is a highly sexualised dance, but this number is surprisingly chaste, since, even more than Averroes, Marwan and Manuela have been Abdellah’s surrogate parents. Chahine’s camera undercuts the sexual display of the flamenco by keeping Marwan constantly in shots with the dancers, interrupting the heteronormative couple by asserting the triad of the family. The dance does not celebrate romantic entanglement; it is a confrontation, between civilisation and barbarism, cosmopolitanism and provinciality. Marwan’s song asserts that light will triumph over dark:

Hearts are ablaze in the bonfire of love.
If the moon hid itself,
A thousand other moons, would light up the night

It affirms the power of music and dance to make gypsies “masters of our destiny.”

Our hearts keep the beat
Our voices sing the tune
Our feet stomp to the rhythm

At the moment Borhan calls Manuela “Jezabel,” Marwan sings, “We defy life with song,” and Manuela elbows the fundamentalist leader in the ribs hard enough to knock him over. Borhan’s slut-shaming is not just a reaction to the free and open play between men and women in the song; Manuela’s authoritative position in the gyno-centric gypsy camp infuriates the fundamentalists. The carefree abandon of the nomadic gypsy, then, becomes a political strategy of resistance to the fundamentalists’ patriarchal austerity.

And if attacked our dreams fight back
Resist! Fight! And Vanquish!

The dance comes to an end as Marwan and Abdellah kick tables at the fanatics, showing their disdain. Their performance has won a temporary victory for the pleasures of the flesh: dance, music, poetry, humor, sex, and romance.

But the Muslim fundamentalists remain intent on convincing Abdellah to join their company – a process Chahine films as a kind of ravishment. Abdellah is an easy mark, equal parts vacuous, bored, and drunk, insecure in his masculinity. [21] Chahine suggests that fundamentalists prey on the young, the idle, the unemployed, the none-too-smart; they refashion the pleasures of conviviality, offering its perverse opposite. Borhan flatters the prince, stressing new experiences his sect provides. He whisks Abdellah off to the hammam, where the extremists – all sporting green towels – engage in light-hearted roughhousing, making the sect look like a cross between a college fraternity and a cult. One might expect this to be a serious example of the religious practices that dictate ablutions before prayer; yet it is thick with orientalising queer desire, [22] as boys grab each other, steal towels, slap each other with towels, wrestle, cover each other’s mouths with their hands. The camera’s gaze in the sequence reminds us of the camera work in John Landis’s 1977 Animal House where John Belushi spies on the antics of scantily clad sorority girls. [23] But among men, the camera’s tracking seems uncomfortably transgressive, as viewers are invited to gaze unabashedly at nearly naked male bodies. The camera regards the bath-house in a series of long shots, until the end when it brings Borhan and Abdellah together in a tight close up. The men’s faces are so proximate that the eroticism is palpable. The audience waits for a kiss that never comes. Is this homosociality tinged with homoeroticism, for Chahine, the promise of fundamentalist Islam?

The Homosocial Gaze

This scene is connected musically to the previous dance number, as Abdellah sings under his breath the lyrics from its song, “Hearts are ablaze.” But Borhan turns Abdellah’s love of song and dance to his own ends, instructing the boy: “Dancing is wonderful. You sway your head invoking the name of the Lord. Your soul follows the rhythm …” An audio dissolve follows. Abdellah and Borhan exchange an unreadable glance; we hear drums beating out a rhythm. The camera pans to a close up of Borhan’s triumphant smirk and the drums continue unmotivated until Chahine cuts to a desert encampment, where the fundamentalists are lined up, swaying and chanting. The brightly lit hammam gives way to this night scene where, under the cover of darkness, a homosocial initiation ceremony unfolds, with the Emir presiding over the ritualistic movements. Whereas the gypsy flamenco was uninhibited, this dance is tight, organised, authoritarian. In the dimly lit long shot we can barely make out masses of men lined up, moving uniformly up and down and side-to-side. A close up shows Abdellah giving himself over to the power of the dance. The participants have become drones – and they drone on as they dance. There is no pleasure here, but, in so many ways, this initiation is seductive. In the final frames of the scene, Abdellah is singled out from the crowd in close up, looking intoxicated or ecstatic. The face of Borhan emerges from below him and the two are held tightly in frame looking, again, as if they might kiss. The uncomfortable relationship between fraternity and cult is reinforced as these Islamic pledges are hazed, marched through the desert without food or drink. Those who fail are carried off to be discarded by shadowy figures. The result is, as one of the order tells Averroes, “We became slaves to the Emir’s will.” It is just a short step from the desert hazing to weapons training and instructions to kill those who disagree. Three youths from the group are sent to assassinate Marwan for the “crime” of singing.

Queer Desire

But if music and dancing in this sequence command consent, not through persuasive arguments but as a kind of brainwashing that uses repetition, rhythm, and movement, coupled with hazing and deprivation, we might return to the carnivalesque of the gypsy camps to interrogate the alternatives to the hypnotic power of the Emir’s religious fanaticism. A key question for this essay is, does Destiny offer an effective challenge to homosocial regimes of authoritarianism? Haidar Eid’s review of Destiny for the Marxist journal Cultural Logic contends that, in the film, “Averroes reorganises resistance and thus becomes a vanguard intellectual who makes use of the spontaneity of popular resistance by theorising it.” [24] Perhaps, but in fact Averroes fails to do much at all in this biopic, except react to crises. His wife cares for his bodily needs. He watches his library burn and fanatics insinuate themselves into the Caliph’s court, at which point he can only stand by as he is dismissed from his position. It is his followers who painstakingly copy and hide his books to save them from destruction in the library fire. They disseminate them across the world, taking them to Egypt, France, and elsewhere. Averroes seems oddly passive and ineffectual for a “vanguard intellectual.” Marwan, on the other hand, the gypsy representing the common man and the pleasures of the “lower bodily stratum,” does act, often impulsively. His “politics” shares much with Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, [25] which celebrates the exuberance of lower class humour. (The film uses colloquial Egyptian rather than classical Arabic, a choice many critics have noted.) [26] Marwan may, as Eid, suggests, take the “carnivalesque further than Bakhtin by emphasizing its oppositional politics and by theorizing it into a conscious organised programme that is not separate from the people/masses”. [27] He poses such a threat to the religious fanatics that they send assassins to slit his throat and it looks as if he might never sing again. He regains his voice, but his triumph is short lived.

“He and his songs are never co-opted”, writes Eid. [28] But Marwan’s musical performances, seductive as they may be, do not really constitute a political or philosophical program. Like the fanatics’ chanting they are meant to counter, their power is primarily affective, not rational. They captivate us with their energy, exuberance, wit, and grace; they are fun, flouting the dour severity of the fundamentalists. They celebrate life where the fundamentalists wallow in death, deprivation, asceticism. The film suggests that the power of affect lies in its ability to shape behaviour and even to manipulate the masses. The battle over Abdellah’s loyalties is fought on both sides not with words, not with philosophy, but with music, dance, percussion, chanting, rhythm, with the pulsions of bodily performance. But even Marwan’s charisma isn’t enough. He dies at the hands of an assassin; his victories are transient, his failures instructive.

This oscillation between failure and success unfolds in a sequence in which the gypsies, having kidnapped Abdellah, attempt to “deprogram” him through the power of dance. They have tied Abdellah to a chair inside a hut, while outside the crowd dances, led by Manuela and by Marwan’s defiant paean to the power of music:

Sing your song to your heart’s content
For we can still sing
And we’ll keep on singing day in, day out
For the rest of our lives.

It is hard not to read in these words a resistance to the fundamentalists’ austerity. The final coda of the song, “Despite myself, despite myself, I’ll dance too,” emphasises the compelling force of music.

Like the first dance, the dance that accompanies this song plays out as a battle for the heart and soul of Abdellah. And, like the chanting in the desert, it celebrates and enacts community solidarity. Marwan is the glue that holds this dance and the gypsy community in place. As the scene begins, the camera focuses on the lovers, Abdellah and the gypsy girl. Marwan enters and sits down, as in the first dance, creating a triangle that interrupts and displaces the romantic couple in favour of a larger social grouping. Chahine’s editing strives to capture both the dance and the narrative he has put into play. The sequence crosscuts between the dance and its crowd, between energy and movement filmed in long takes with a wide-angle lens, and closeups that narrate, without words, the efforts of Marwan, Manuella, and the girl to win Abdellah back from the fanatics. Cutting from the dancing to close ups of Abdellah tied up in the hut, the montage invites viewers to interpret his emotions. In one tight closeup the camera zeroes in on a tear trickling down his cheek. At the climactic moment, as Marwan sings “Despite myself, despite myself, I’ll dance too,” a high angle shot of Abdellah shows him jumping up, still tied to the chair, and swaying to the rhythm of the drums he heard in the desert, attempting to counter those of Marwan’s song. The next cutaway he is bent over in pain and suddenly with a yell, jumps up and assumes a flamenco pose. As the dancers run to the window to observe the effect of their labours, the smiles on their faces suggesting they believe they have won, Abdellah spits back “Soon enough you’ll be dancing in hell.” The countershot reveals their disappointment; they admit that Abdellah has created a “hell on earth.” Abdellah will eventually repudiate his conversion to extremist Islam, but it will require Marwan’s brutal murder to persuade him.

The triad of the family interrupts the heterosexual couple

It has become a commonplace to see Chahine as having guided Destiny toward a Hollywood ending. Even the book-burning that closes the film does not seem to have discouraged critical optimism. After all, the Caliph and his sons are reunited in a new war against the Christians; Sheik Riad’s machinations have been discovered, and he is humiliated in court; and copies of Averroes’ books have been sent to Egypt for safekeeping. Finally there is the quotation – first spoken by Averroes in an argument with the Caliph – but ultimately attributed to Chahine himself, and superimposed over the flames of the concluding book burning: “Ideas have wings. No one can stop their flight.” Donald Hoffman writes, “Because his work is threatened but will clearly survive, and his body not really threatened at all, Averroes can happily throw one copy of an immortal and copied and recopied book on the flames, a sly and ironic gesture revealing the absurdity of the fires. He survives, brave and smiling. The film has a comic ending ….” [29] Malek Khouri argues that the film’s end asserts the triumph of philosophy, reason, and progressive politics in the contemporary Arab state: “The film … symbolically accentuates the centrality of Arab modernity and modernisation as part of the transformational endeavor for progressive social, political and national unity and self-determination.” [30] However, as we have been suggesting all along, it is possible to read this film, not as a paean to the triumph of knowledge but as an elegy to the failure of the book as a vehicle for knowledge and the fragility of the arts, of literacy, of freedoms of expression. Destiny opens with the Frenchman Joseph fleeing to escape the inquisition’s flames. The last part of the film intercuts the action in Adalusia with Joseph’s attempt to save Averroes’ work by bringing his books back to France. A series of scenes document the hardships Joseph encounters on his journey home. Starting with what looks like an entire bookshop, Joseph loses one volume after another as he traverses mountains, fords rivers, and runs rapids. Eventually his boat is smashed in a fall from a cataract and he loses all but one precious book, the most important one. When he arrives with this treasure, his uncle tells him that all of the hardship and loss was worth it, to save this one book. Joseph opens it to read to his uncle and discovers that the writing has been wiped out by water; the book is illegible. “I’m going back” is Joseph’s terse response. This scene confirms Derrida’s postal principle “as [a] differential relay, that regularly prevents, delays, endispatches the depositing of the thesis, forbidding rest and ceaselessly causing to run, deposing or deporting the movement of speculation”. [31] Joseph wanders ceaselessly, Derrida’s postman who never delivers his message. Far from suggesting that the knowledge produced by Averroes is durable and cannot be wiped out by fanatics’ flames, Joseph’s trials remind us that books are the material carriers of that knowledge; without them knowledge vanishes.

Ideas do not survive the destruction of their vehicles

For Chahine, freedom of expression is always subject to erasure, not only by state and religious oppression, but by a cavalcade of other destructive forces as well. Averroes has been banished by the Caliph; no longer will he be a judge; no longer will he preside over a household of poets, dancers, musicians, and philosophers. No longer will he be able to offer criticism of either the state or the religions that drive the state. But more than anything else, it is the optimistic closing quotation that most invites our scrutiny: “Ideas have wings. No one can stop their flight”. The words echo eerily the ending of Andre Schwartz-Bart’s magnificent 1959 novel, The Last of the Just, which won the Prix de Goncourt, France’s highest literary prize. The novel’s hero, Ernie Levy, the Last of the Lamed Vov, the Just Men, is dying in Auschwitz. As he perishes, Ernie remembers the story of the second-century Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyion [recited on Yom Kippur]: “When the gentle rabbi, wrapped in scrolls of the Torah, was flung upon the pyre by the Romans for having taught the Law, and when they lit the faggots, the branches still green to make his torture last, his pupils said, ‘Master, what do you see?’ And Rabbi Chanina answered, ‘I see parchment burning and the letters are taking wing’ …. ‘ah yes, surely the letters are taking wing’ Ernie repeated as the flame blazing in his chest rose suddenly to his head …. And so it was for millions, who turned from Luftmenschen into Luft.” [32] It seems nearly impossible that Chahine is not recalling Schwatrz-Bart’s story of book and philosopher burning. It seems almost impossible that he of all people doesn’t see that when books are burned, when people are burned, their taking flight turns them and the ideas they embody into air, into nothing.


[1] Josef Gugler, Film in the Middle East and North Africa: Creative Dissidence (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2011), pp.256.
[2] Joan Dupont, “Reason and Revelation: The ‘Destiny’ of Youssef Chahine,” New York Times, October 17, 1997.
[3] Saladin, about the Arab liberator of Jerusalem during the Second Crusade, is perhaps his best-known film in the west; see our discussion in Cinematic Illuminations: The Middle Ages on Film (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), pp.206-221.
[4] In Cinematic Illuminations, we discuss Chahine’s commitment to the pan-Arabic nationalism represented by Egypt’s president Gamal Abdul Nassar, see pp.206-7.
[5] Dupont, “Reason and Revelation.”
[6] Dupont, “Reason and Revelation.”
[7] David Nirenberg was one of the first scholars to challenge this view of peaceful coexistence in Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
[8] The musical is a staple of Egyptian cinema, dominating the industry, often calling upon the talents of popular Arab musicians; see Viola Shafik, “Egyptian Cinema,” in Oliver Leaman, Companion Encyclopedia of Middle Eastern and North African Film (London: Routledge, 2001), pp.23-129.
[9] When he was 13, the city was captured by the Almohads (the ruling class in the film) and his family was forced to flee. They remained in Spain for the next ten years. Maimonides eventually settled in Egypt, his wanderings mirroring the lines of diaspora for characters in the film.
[10] Peter Manuel, “Andalusian, Gypsy, and Class Identity in the Contemporary Flamenco Complex,” in Gypsies: An Interdisciplinary Reader (New York: Garland, 1998), pp.179.
[11] We call attention to this inaccuracy not to criticise Chahine’s creative choices, but rather to argue that such choices are not ideologically pure. Chahine also eliminates Jews from medieval Jerusalem in Saladin; see Cinematic Illuminations, pp.222.
[12] The study of the Middle Ages is largely the study of fragments, of ideas that were lost because their vehicles were lost to war, intolerance, and time.
[13] Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, vol. 1, trans. Shlomo Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), subsequently GP. The uncanny similarity of Maimonides’ dedication to Destiny’s wanderings suggest that Judaism is an absence that haunts this film.
[14] We are indebted here to Susan Sontag’s discussion of the fascist aesthetic in “Fascinating Fascism,” Under the Sign of Saturn (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux 1980). We prefer the term totalitarian aesthetic as a more accurately descriptive of public celebrations of authoritarian power by autocratic states of all kinds.
[15] As well as the name of the student for whom Maimonides wrote Guide of the Perplexed, whose journeys to and away from his teacher the film’s Joseph mirrors.
[16] As reported by Ibrahim Fawal in Youssef Chahine (London: British Film Institute, 2001), pp.184.
[17] The term is from Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984), pp.21.
[18] Manuel,”Andalusian, Gypsy, and Class Identity,” pp.184.
[19] Raymond Knapp, The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), pp.9.
[20] On the flamenco as a musical form developed in the interstices of Andalusian, gypsy, and Arab culture to express the gypsy love of freedom and contempt for authority, see Manuel, pp.181-184.
[21] His caliph father, disapproving of his dancing, earlier questions his masculinity.
[22] Although Chahine treats homosexuality in his films, here he presents not homosexuality, but a homoeroticism borne of a nearly obsessive hypermasculinity that can banish women, but not sexuality.
[23] This male gaze created by the movement of the camera that Animal House so clearly illustrates was first described by Laura Mulvey in her classic essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16 (1975), pp.6-18.
[24] Haidar Eid, “Review of Destiny,” Cultural Logic vol 2:1 (1998), available at []
[25] Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, pp.21.
[26] Pawal, Youssef Chahine, pp.184.
[27] Eid, “Review of Destiny.”
[28] Eid, “Review of Destiny.”
[29] Donald Hoffman, “Chahine’s Destiny: Prophetic Nostalgia and the Other Middle Ages,” in Lynn T. Ramey and Tison Pugh, Race, Class, and Gender in Medieval Cinema (New York: Palgrave, 2007), pp.31-34.
[30] Malek Khouri, “Anxieties of Fundamentalism and the Dynamics of Modernist Resistance: Youssef Chahine’s Al Maseer (The Destiny)” Cineaction 69 (2006), pp.12-23.
[31] Jacques Derrida, The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp.54.
[32] Andre Schwartz-Bart, The Last of the Just (New York: Bantam, 1960), pp.422.

About the Author

Laurie A. Finke and Martin B. Shichtman

About the Authors

Laurie A. Finke

Laurie Finke, Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Kenyon College, is the author of Women's Writing in Middle English (1998) and Feminist Theory, Women's Writing (1992) and co-author, with Martin Shichtman, of King Arthur and the Myth of History (2004) and Cinematic Illuminations: The Middle Ages on Film (2009); she is also one of the editors of the Norton Anthology of Criticism and Theory (2001, 3rd edition 2017).

Martin B. Shichtman

Martin B. Shichtman is Professor of English and Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Eastern Michigan University. He is co-editor of Culture and the King: The Social Implications of the Arthurian Legend (1994) with James P. Carley. Together with Laurie A. Finke, he is co-editor of Medieval Texts and Contemporary Readers (1987) and co-author of King Arthur and the Myth of History (2004) and Cinematic Illuminations: The Middle Ages on Film (2009).View all posts by Laurie A. Finke and Martin B. Shichtman →