Life or Death: Anxiety About the Urban in 1950s Egyptian Cinema

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Life or Death (Haya aw mawt) is a classic of Egyptian cinema, widely interpreted retrospectively by scholars as an ode to progress, modernity, the nation, and the chief emblem of such, the burgeoning city. Indeed, the film was included in the list of ‘the most important 100 Egyptian films,’ commissioned by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and assembled by Ahmed el-Hadari, Samir Farid, and Kamal Ramzi in 2006. Released in 1954, the film is associated by critics and scholars with the 1952 Free Officers’ Revolution, which paved the way for the end of empire in Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rise to power, the rule of Egypt by Egyptians – all in all, a spirit of nationalism and civic duty.


This paper suggests that scholars have, in their enthusiasm for the pathbreaking cinema that was emerging in the revolutionary 1950s, neglected the suspicion and ambivalence about the urban that pervade a film like Life or Death. Essentially, in focusing upon the bustling urban life that the film so richly illustrates, scholars have set aside this invocation of death in the title as unimportant or inconsequential. Yet, this is a film much concerned with death. That is to say, this is a film about the potential death of a way of life, a death whose perceived imminence is lamented to no small extent in the film.

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