Looking disenchantment in the face

The history of Africa involves navigating utopian visions and brutal realities as the recent work of Egyptian filmmaker Tamer el-Said's and before that, Ayi Kwei Armah show.

Still from "In the Last Days of the City"

There is something about disenchantment that makes it particularly African. Dwelling in a longue durée as old as human life itself means that Africans have seen their hopes and dreams endlessly performed and then crushed, tested, and dismissed. Disenchantment becomes a permanent state of being in the world that Africans know well and can look straight in the face.

Every time a genuine project of social change falls apart, this state of disenchantment becomes palpable. After African independence movements and the Arab Spring, the euphoria of being once again free and dreaming of the infinite possibilities that the future holds eventually morphed slowly and steadily into a bleak reality of corruption, misery, and death. Yet, the memory of those euphoric experiences remains so intense that a powerful sense of yearning continues to reverberate across the continent like a utopian pulse.

This Janus-like trope of disenchantment and hope still defines and shapes African art. Almost 50 years apart, Tamer el-Said’s film, In the Last Days of the City (2016) and Ayi Kwei Armah’s novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968) offer almost-identical dramatizations of this African condition—actively de-linking African modernity from the debilitating discourse of Afropessimism.

In the Last Days of the City features the male protagonist, Khaled (the actor Khalid Abdalla), who is disillusioned with the desolate spectacle of a decaying Cairo on the brink of total collapse. Initially shot in 2009, el-Said’s debut feature interweaves fiction and nonfiction elements to deliver in retrospect a bleak view of the last days of Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime, ousted by the 2011 revolution. It calls attention to the worsening situation under the current brutal rule of Mubarak’s successor Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the time of the film’s release in 2016.

The Last Days follows Khaled’s daily life and his search for a new apartment in downtown Cairo; his frequent visits to his dying mother; his separation from his love interest, Laila; his inability to decide on the artistic direction of his documentary project; and his distant friendship with other Arab filmmakers from Beirut, Baghdad, and Berlin. He finds himself deeply alienated from himself, his people, and his city. Cairo is now a monstrous city that feeds on its dwellers: failure, sickness, and death become the aesthetics around which the lives of Khaled and everyone around him are framed.

Almost 50 years earlier, Ayi Kwei Armah’s disenchantment with Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana made The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born a perfect example of what Joe E. Obi Jr. called the disillusionment novel. Published in 1968, two years after the coup d’état that overthrew Nkrumah’s government and 11 years after Ghana became the first sub-Saharan country to be independent, Armah’s debut novel depicts in retrospect the disenchanting reality of Nkrumah’s authoritarianism and its terrible impact on Accra and its people.

Set during the last days of Nkrumah’s rule, The Beautyful Ones depicts the unbearable daily life of the man, the nameless protagonist, who refuses to participate in the system of rampant bribery and violence. He is alienated from his meaningless job, his filthy surroundings, and even from his family when he declines at first to be involved in a corrupt transaction of purchasing a fishing boat that would benefit his wife, Oyo, his mother-in-law, and Koomsoon, an old friend turned corrupt minister in Nkrumah’s government. The man is a pale narrator-protagonist who is consumed by a debilitating awareness of the aimlessness of searching for beauty, morality, and truth in such dystopian conditions.

Both The Last Days and The Beautyful Ones center on passive protagonists who cannot reconcile themselves with the decaying society they dwell in, and the impossibility to enact change in their personal lives and the corrupt world around them. Both Khaled and the nameless protagonist are ambivalent about their desires and expectations, incessantly overwhelmed by their incapacity, and eventually unable to form a coherent vision of what emancipation might look like. Both Khaled and the man drift through their cities in a disinterested half-sleep and aimless journey. A deep sense of estrangement and frustration challenges the possibility of even qualifying their wandering as flânerie.

Their inability to connect with the world around them is contrasted with the overload of impressions, feelings, and soundscapes that are put under narrative control through the recurring metaphor of the penetrating eye. As they wander in their cities, every sight captures the protagonists’ interest in looking at what has become unfamiliar to them in a hopeless attempt to grasp what happened to their countries and people.

Disenchantment for el-Said and Armah carries an obsession with looking at the scandalous and the abject through slow, querying gaze. The Last Days presents Cairo as a negative space of decay and loss through long shots of destitute, toothless beggars, and multiple scenes where the emphasis is on decomposing houses and dilapidated buildings. The Beautyful Ones is filled with vivid descriptions of bodily waste and scatology. The nameless protagonist moves from the depiction of overflow of excrement; to “all around decaying things push inward and mix all the body’s juices with the taste of rot;” to finally the desired death of Koomson whose “mouth had the rich stench of rotten menstrual blood.”

These obsessions with abject ways of looking at disenchantment have expectedly attracted vehement criticism. The Last Days was banned in Egypt upon its release, but went on to be featured in more than 120 film festivals worldwide and to receive more than 12 international awards. This is partly because el-Said’s film feeds into the Western gaze that sees Africa as a wasteland: the desert yellow and sepia-toned aesthetics through which Cairo is portrayed and the spectacle of urban destruction may be seen as ruin porn, which reinforces the perennial image of Egypt, and Africa in general, as a bleak space of decay and death. Similar concerns can be applied to Armah’s novel: Chinua Achebe famously called Armah “an alienated writer complete with all the symptoms” and went further to qualify The Beautyful Ones as “a sick book” that “imposes so much foreign metaphor on the sickness of Ghana that it ceases to be true.”

The imposition of foreign metaphor runs deeper in both works. The central interplay between fiction and fact in The Last Days and The Beautyful Ones becomes counterproductive and fails to convince its audience on its merits. In el-Said’s film, the meta-aesthetics of the director’s on-screen intervention in the editing and pacing of the 250 hours of footage leaves different narrative arcs and the characters’ development pointlessly incomplete. Armah’s novel also abruptly slips into essay mode to incorporate lengthy and direct ideological and political statements. Both works repeatedly break out of their fictional narrative to attempt explicit, and at times irritating, authorial control.

What Derek Wright has called “a monolithic vision” in his analysis of Armah’s novel applies to both works: the conflating position of the author, the narrator, and the protagonist as one and the same subsumes the different perspectives at play in the artworks to the unifying negative political vision of the male writers. This leads to a failure to imagine an alternative and generative vision of the African future.

But the most problematic dimension in The Last Days and The Beautyful Ones is the passive role of women. As John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing, “men act and women appear.” Laila and Oyo are there to be looked at. They barely talk and remain one dimensional. Contrary to the men, they are never acknowledged as actively taking things into their own hands, even though Laila is leaving Egypt to search for a better future, and Oyo seeks to finalize Koomsoon’s deal as the ultimate chance to improve their living conditions.

Instead, both women are confined to the role of helping the male protagonists reconcile with themselves. Laila’s visit to Khaled’s apartment and their revived love through a last kiss saves the male protagonist from himself and from falling into despair. In the last scene of The Last Days, we are left with the strong impression that Khaled thought of attempting suicide by standing close to the window but resisted this death drive because of his renewed hope. In The Beautyful Ones, after a sexless marriage and a repulsion towards Oyo’s scar from her C-section, the man falls in love again with his wife only because of her newfound respect for his moral honesty after he refuses to escape with Koomsoon, which leads the male protagonist to start envisioning a better future. These two events eventually enable a closure in both works, but frame women’s contributions as essentially that of easing men’s anxiety.

Yet, disenchantment differs from despair, and even more from apathy. In almost every frame in The Last Days, there is a reminder of the revolutionary forces that would later topple Mubarak’s dictatorship. Now in retrospect, we know that those forces were defeated, and a new brutal regime is in place, but those energies will rise again and transform into another revolution because Cairenes have lasting memories of better, revolutionary days. Armah’s novel expresses a similar persistence of hope for freedom from neocolonial oppression when, at the end of the novel the new government is announced, the man contemplates an enchanting artwork: “The green paint was brightened with an inscription carefully lettered to form an oval shape: The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. In the center of the oval was a single flower, solitary, unexplainable and very beautiful.”

In these instances, and others, disenchantment incarnates the ahistorical and non-place impulse of a utopian everyday in Africa. Disenchantment is not the end of dreams; it is the fire next time.

Further Reading

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