The Night of Counting the Years

Wanis (Ahmed Marei) wants his tribe to stop looting their heritage in the 1969 Egyptian drama THE NIGHT OF COUNTING THE YEARS aka Al-mummia (The Mummy).

It is not that common to encounter films from Egypt in the U.S. and only a handful have managed to enjoy theatrical distribution here in either film festival or art house screenings over the years. Youssef Chahine from Alexandria, Egypt is probably the best known director with more than 40 feature films to his credit including The Blazing Sun (1954) featuring Omar Sharif in his film debut and Bab el Hadid (Cairo Station, 1958), which brought him international attention. Other than Chahine, you might recognize Moshi Mizrahi although his best-known films were made in other countries; The House on Chelouche Street (1973), an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film was made in Israel, and Madame Rosa (1977) and I Sent a Letter to My Love (1980), both starring Simone Signoret, were filmed in France. A more contemporary Egyptian director is Atom Egoyan, although he was raised in Western Canada where most of his movies have been made including Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997).

The Spanish film poster for The Mummy (Al-mommia, 1969) aka THE NIGHT OF COUNTING THE YEARS from Egyptian director Chadi Abdel Salam.

Many film historians and critics, however, often list Chadi Abdel Salam as one of the greatest Egyptian directors of all time on the basis of his solo feature film from 1969, Al-mummia (The Mummy aka The Night of Counting the Years), which has slowly acquired the status of a classic in its own country and around the world, thanks to the efforts of Martin Scorsese and The Film Foundation, which restored the film in 2009 in association with the Cineteca di Bologna and the Egyptian Film Center.  

Based on a true incident that occurred in 1881 in the archaeological site of Dayr al-Bahri in Thebes, The Night of Counting the Years opens as a group of museum associates, under the director of the head curator Mr. Maspero (Gaby Karraz), read a papyrus scroll that quotes a passage from the Book of the Dead. Maspero then shows the group a photograph of the original papyrus script that was smuggled out of the country five years earlier and was sold by an unknown merchant in Thebes. The curator insists that the illegal sale of ancient antiquities and tomb raiding must be stopped in Egypt and sends one of his representatives, Ahmad Kamal (Mohamed Khairi), to Thebes to try and apprehend the black marketeers and to determine the secret location of some tombs from the Tanite dynasty. He believes that some of the artifacts being sold might be precious heirlooms from the Tanite clan and members of the Horabat tribe may hold the key to the subterfuge.

Kamal (Mohamed Khairi), a museum official, reads an ancient scroll and accepts a mission to rescue rare artifacts from being sold on the black market in THE NIGHT OF COUNTING THE YEARS (1969).

The above synopsis is only the set-up for the complex moral, cultural and religious issues which revolve around the looting of ancient Egyptian treasures. What could have been treated as a mystery thriller or an action-adventure involving some kind of Indiana Jones-like archaeologist or even a horror movie about grave robbers is instead treated as a brooding meditation on national identity and personal ethics as Wanis (Ahmed Marei), the youngest son of the recently deceased Horabat tribal leader, goes against the elders of his clan in denouncing their ongoing practice of selling the valuables of their ancestors. Using two merchants from the city, Ayyub (Shafik Nour El Din) and his obsequious assistant Murad (Mohamed Nabih), the Horabats have been surviving on the money made from selling stolen jewels and objects from looted tombs. The practice is one that has flourished for centuries and is now a family tradition. In fact, the Horabats consider the desecration of their ancestors’ graves as their only means of survival and therefore their God given right. The scene in which a tribal elder opens a sarcophagus and mangles the corpse while ripping the jeweled necklace from its throat reveals an almost shocking disrespect for the dead.

A tribal elder confronts Wanis (Ahmed Marei, right) with a rare necklace that was stolen from a mummy’s coffin in THE NIGHT OF COUNTING THE YEARS (1969).

Wanis and his older brother (Ahmad Hegazi), however, seek to honor their forefathers and, when the latter is murdered for refusing to carry on the tradition of thievery, Wanis is forced to flee and take matters into his own hands. The remainder of The Night of Counting the Years follows Wanis as he tries to dissuade Ayyub and Murad from exploiting his cultural heritage for money and, when that fails, he turns to Kamal, who has recently arrived by ship with a crew that is prepared to find, rescue and transport any remaining sarcophagi and their contents back to the museum for preservation.

Alternate film poster for the 1969 Egyptian film THE NIGHT OF COUNTING THE YEARS.

Even though Chadi Abdel Salam’s film is set in 1881, the central premise continues to be a timely concern and serves as an allegory about Egyptian identity. In some ways it was Salam’s response to the Six-Day War of 1967 (aka Al-Naksa) in which Israel attacked and defeated Egypt, Syria and Jordan over the occupation of Sinai, Gaza, the Golan Heights and the West Bank. That conflict had a demoralizing impact on Egyptians and Salam’s The Night of Counting the Years is an attempt to reconcile the country’s wounded pride with the greatest of their ancient glory. You don’t achieve this by desecrating your ancestors’ memory, graves or traditions for profit. Instead, you must respect your genealogy and guard your heritage as a sacred duty, which is the approach Wanis takes in altering the fate of the Horabats. As Salam would later state about his film, “I think that the people of my country are ignorant of our history and I feel that it is my mission to make them know some of it. I regard cinema not as a consumerist art, but as a historical document for the next generations.”

A museum guard accompanies an injured Wanis (Ahmed Marei) to see Kamal, the man who can help Wanis rescue 40 ancestral tombs from being plundered in THE NIGHT OF COUNTING THE YEARS (1969).

Hypnotic and entrancing comparable to some Greek tragedy performed on ancient Grecian sites, Salam’s film may be a slow-burn drama but there is an underlying tension that threatens to explode at any moment. In the role of Wanis, Ahmed Marei has an intensity and soulfulness that might remind you of the young Omar Sharif but he is less a romantic figure here than a symbolic protagonist with a moral conscience. Despite the somber, almost stately progression of the narrative, the film’s stunning cinematography by Abdel Aziz Fahmy transports you into another world, full of exotic mystery and ancient rituals and traditions that couldn’t be experienced even in a private, guided tour of Egypt’s lesser known but most unique attractions.

One of many exotic images featured in the 1969 Egyptian drama THE NIGHT OF COUNTING THE YEARS, which is set in 1881 in Thebes.

Adding to the ambience is the strange but evocative music score of Mario Nascimbene (The Vikings, Barabbas, Solomon and Sheba) which establishes an eerie mood that is complimented by the constantly blowing desert winds and the occasional cries of women cloaked in black mourning the dead.

The ancient tombs of the Tanite dynasty are discovered in their secret location in THE NIGHT OF COUNTING THE YEARS (1969) aka Al-mummia (The Mummy).

What I particularly love about The Night of Counting the Years are the scenes set in the dark tombs within the mountains where the camera dwells on the ornate lids and painted facades of the many sarcophagi, illuminated by torchlight. Also, the majestic ruins of Egypt’s past amid the desolate desert setting are either filmed under a blazing sun or moonlight and make an unforgettable visual impression that couldn’t be duplicated convincingly by any Hollywood set or CGI effect.

Ancient coffins are transported by museum representatives from their secret resting place to a secure location in the city in THE NIGHT OF COUNTING THE YEARS (1969).

Salam’s film was financed by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and went into production three months after the Six-Day War of June 1967. It took Salam three years to complete The Night of Counting the Years and it might not have been finished without the help of Italian director Roberto Rossellini, who served as the producer. Rossellini had been in Egypt in 1967 shooting a TV series on the history of mankind when he learned about Salam’s project and was impressed enough to lend his support. In addition, the movie was filmed in the desert of Luxor near the Qarnah village, which is where the Horabat tribe resides in the film.

The critical reception of the film was mostly favorable with many Eqyptian critics proclaiming The Night of Counting the Years as one of the greatest Egyptian films ever made. One of the few detractors was Richard Eder of The New York Times who wrote, “Most of the movie, is done with stupefying grandiloquence. Wherever the camera touches, it sticks and won’t let go. Landscape, brooding close-ups—and how they all do brood—interminable patterns of black-robed figures against the white sand: Every shot lingers and lingers. The acting is heavy and hieratic, fogged with a pretentious mysticism.” Despite this negative assessment, Salam’s film was picked up for theatrical distribution by New Yorker Films (it ceased operations in 2010) but drifted into obscurity over the years.

A meeting among the Horabat elders ends with their decision to keep looting their ancestors’ tombs for money in THE NIGHT OF COUNTING THE YEARS (1969).

Martin Scorsese later became a champion of the film and wrote, Momia [The Night of Counting the Years] has an extremely unusual tone – stately, poetic, with a powerful grasp of time and the sadness it carries. The carefully measured pace, the almost ceremonial movement of the camera, the desolate settings, the classical Arabic spoken on the soundtrack, the unsettling score by the great Italian composer Mario Nascimbene – they all work in perfect harmony and contribute to the feeling of fateful inevitability. Past and present, desecration and veneration, the urge to conquer death and the acceptance that we, and all we know, will turn to dust… a seemingly massive theme that the director, Shadi Abdel Salam, somehow manages to address, even embody with his images.”

Tribal members watch as relics from their past are transported to safe keeping and preservation in THE NIGHT OF COUNTING THE YEARS (1969).

After being restored by Scorsese’s The Film Foundation in 2009, The Night of Counting the Years has turned up at repertory screenings and numerous film festivals where it has enjoyed a major critical reappraisal. The film can be rented for theatrical presentations through The Film Foundation’s website but it has yet to be released on DVD or Blu-ray in the U.S. at this time. You can also stream it on Youtube with English subtitles but the print is soft and lacks the clarity of the beautifully restored 35mm version.

Wanis (Ahmed Marei) is a young tribal member of the Horabat clan who wants to prevent his ancestors’ antiquities from being stolen and sold in THE NIGHT OF COUNTING THE YEARS (1969).

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