Tarik Saleh’s follow-up to The Nile Hilton Incident is another probing examination of the ruptures that drive contemporary Egyptian society, told this time through the lens of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, often described as the most prestigious centre for Islamic learning. Tawfeek Barhom plays Adam, the son of a fisherman, who receives a scholarship to study at Al-Azhar, with the goal of being an Imam, and travels to the Egyptian capital to immerse himself in the world of knowledge and learning. For a brief beat, he’s entranced by the ancient university, and by its library in particular, although that’s quickly clouded when the Grand Imam passes away, and he finds himself caught in the midst of a battle for the next appointment. While this all nominally takes place in Cairo, it’s actually shot in Istanbul, since Saleh remains in exile from his home country due to the eviscerating vision that we see here.
From the outset, it’s clear that Al-Azhar is a highly contested ideological space, drawing a rich tapestry of worldviews together under the umbrella of orthodox Islam. At times, it feels close to a Vatican drama, as each Imam follows their own different doctrines, and develosp their own particular schools of thought, as they hold forth in their own favourite spots in the university courtyard. That intellectual diversity also makes Al-Azhar vulnerable on two fronts – from the Egyptian government, which has tried to turn it into a state university, claiming that “the choice of the Grand Imam is a matter of national security,” and from the radical Muslim Brotherhood, which has a small but dedicated core of students, along with a single Imam who covertly follows their tenets. Adam is caught between these two imperatives when he’s recruited by Ibrahim, an official played by Fares Fares, who instructs him to help install an Imam who’s amenable to government policy, while weeding out the Muslim Brotherhood.
That said, there’s no clear sense of the government as a stable or discrete entity in Boy From Heaven. In fact, the more Adam tries to discern the government’s agenda, the more it dissolves into a diffuse series of military-bureaucatic gestures. In recent times, Egyptian politics has unfolded as a series of interregna, and the film takes place in that vacuum, which drives all its main players to seize on Al-Azhar as a precious bastion of continuity. We hear constant assertions that “Al-Azhar and the state should never be in conflict – that could lead to civil war” and that civil war is worse than murder, since it involves violence against the state. Al-Azhar becomes a synecdoche for the state, a still point in the midst of political turmoil, making it critical for the military dictatorship to seize it as a point of ideological consensus. The only other space that functions in the same way is the Starbucks-styled café where Adam and Ibrahim have their meetings, evoking an even more distant and diffuse American global agenda lying behind Adam’s instructions to set up a properly pliable Imam.
Caught between the military bureaucracy on the outside and the Muslim Brotherhood on the inside, Adam finds himself poised at the pressure point of Egyptian civil society, suspended over the vacuum of endless interregna in an almost unbearable manner. The result is a kind of visceral emptiness that intersects quite eerily with the layout and routines of Al-Azhar itself, at least as Saleh imagines it. Many of the key scenes play out against the daily rhythm of the university, which is very strict in some ways, and very loose in others. While conformity in dress and demeanor is expected, the students have a lot of latitude to move around – they can shift from class to class, come and go at all hours, and explore even the most distant reaches of the building, such as the minarets or the store rooms, which are where most of the key plot points tend to unfold. Space here is both highly coded and curiously vacant, continually scrutinised but also full of blind spots, which enhances the precarious vacuum of power that drives Adam as he tries to reconcile two increasingly diffuse Egyptian institutions.
Along the way, Saleh is quite scathing about the Imams themselves, who are rarely presented as extricable from the state, with the exception of a blind Imam who is next in line for the Grand Imam, but quickly disqualified by the powers that be, due to his commitment to his Islamic faith above all else. In that sense, one of the most memorable characters is the Imam affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Although he’s the most scathing about declining standards, he’s also the most libidinal in his outlook. He turns out to have a second, much younger wife, he’s quite flippant about keeping this marriage concealed, and, in one of the best scenes, he orders McDonalds without bothering to confirm whether its meat is Halal. Just as sinister, the Imam who ends up getting the job starts by reiterating that “Al-Azhar and the state work side by side – what’s good for Al-Azhar is good for the state.” Between these two characters, Saleh forces us to question what’s worse: a perverse, openly hypocritical conservative, or a conservative who normalises horror under the aegis of proper procedure.
That procedural dimension comes into focus during the closing act, which reconciles church and state, President and Grand Imam, and accordingly moves us from the evocative sightlines of Al-Azhar to a bleaker and blander bureaucratic backdrop. This also impoverishes the visual field of the film, from the final showdown with the blind Imam, set against the cold glare of a government interrogation booth, to the first-person desert shooter game that greets Ibrahim when he returns home, absorbing his son so deeply that the two don’t even make eye contact. As the autonomy of Al-Azhar dissolves, so too does Saleh’s own sense of visual style, culminating with the film’s personification of evil – a young bureaucrat, eyes bulging with ambition, clad in a puffer jacket that’s light years away from the elaborate robes of the university, whose office is devoid of any character except for a solitary framed Salah jersey.
In order to reclaim that sense of vision, both Adam and the film have to retreat back to his fishing village, where he commits to a more modest life as a local Imam. To some extent, this is framed as a moment of catharsis, following a mercurial scene in which Adam and the blind Imam share a cryptic revelation in the depths of the government building of the gulf between religious figures, even Mohammad, and the enduring spirit of Islam itself: “The worshippers of Mohammad knew he was dead, but the worshippers of God knew he was alive.” Yet this is undercut by a pair of more ambivalent moments that coalesce around Adam’s return home. First, we hear the same Imam note that “Power is a double-edged sword. It can easily cut…” However, the ellipsis is never resolved, leaving the question open as to what it would take to redeem political power, only for the film to end with another question, this time from the local Imam who got Adam his scholarship to begin with: “What have you learned?” In the end, Boy From Heaven doesn’t answer questions but keep them open as questions, suspending us, like Adam, and Saleh himself, in an interregnum and then an exile that is never fully resolved.