Cairo is the capital of the cinema industry in the Arab World. It could not have attained this status without pioneers like Salah Abu Sayf. Starting out as an editor, he went on to directing films for over fifty years.
His movies have two distinctive characteristics: unity of space and unity of dramatic treatment. Three quarters of his movies take place in Cairo. Through them one can construct a record of much of Cairo’s social history. The space in which his characters move is Cairene: the public bath in Laka Yawm ya Zalim (Tyrant, Your Day Will Come, 1951) and Hamam alMalatili (The Bath House of Malatili, 1973); the Zamalek quarter in Osta Hassan (Foreman Hassan, 1952); the Citadel district and the neighborhood of Abbasiya in Shabab Imra’a (A Woman’s Youth, 1956); Shubra in Bidaya wa Nihaya (A Beginning and an End, 1960); and the vegetable market of Rod al-Farag in al-Fitiwwa (The Tough Guy 1957).
All his films refer in some way to Islam, the religion of most Cairenes. With the exception of two films with non-Muslim protagonists, all his characters, despite their differences, are Muslims.
In the work of Abu Sayf, Cairo’s omnipotence, and its social distortions—marked by misery and the attempt to escape it—produce a disfigurement in human relationships, which can lead to tragedy. With only a few exceptions, his films revolve around this deformity and its consequences. Migration from the countryside to the metropolis is the subject of A Woman’s Youth, The Tough Guy, and The Bath House of Malatili; movement from one neighborhood to another is the subject of Foreman Hassan, La Waqt lil-Hubb (No Time for Love, 1963), and A Beginning and an End. The path of Abu Sayf’s characters, as they try to force their way up from their low social status, rarely changes. Although it is defined by three interrelated issues—livelihood, sex, and knowledge or freedom—the basic motive is always to confront poverty. Fear of poverty and the attempt to escape it are the recurring themes of his films. Abu Sayf’s cinema about the popular quarters of Cairo expresses a profound understanding of these neighborhoods and the people who live there.