Cinema Eden

By Juan Goytisolo

cinema-eden-1.jpgCinema Eden; © Barnaby Rogerson

The picture houses of North Africa: flea-pits and fantasy realms

There exists an almost extinct species of cinema whose auditorium, dense atmosphere and original setting stand out more strongly, more glowingly in the memory than the meandering plot of their films. My childhood experience was decisive in this respect and casts light on my future fondness for the flea-pits that recall those first cinemas I patronised in the neighbourhood of the district of Barcelona where I was born and to which I returned with my stricken family a few months after Franco’s victory. These were the Murillo – the Primavera from the pre-war years – a name it reclaimed in the fifties before being closed down for good and re­placed by an apartment block at the point where paseo Bonanova crosses calle Angli- and the smaller, humbler Breton, right in the heart of the still rather prim and provincial suburb of Sarrià.

Their audi­ences were mainly young and enthusiastic: they gathered or queued up in front of the box-office ages before the programme started and whetted their appetite by gazing at the posters and photos advertising the films for that day and the weeks to come, rapturously consuming lupin seeds and garishly coloured sweets through lips coated black by prolonged sucking of gluey sticks of liquorice. On the inside, the stalls and tatty upstairs had more the look of a shed or barn than a real cinema. The noisy, unruly filmgoers watched the compulsory round of newsreels, first the UFA, translated from German, and then the Nodo, in which the Wehrmacht’s unstoppable advances and the Caudillo’s appearances were greeted by the adults, up on their feet, arms raised in salute.

And finally, the horror, adventure or cowboy films that were to carry on throughout the school year with little variation: the spectators were not after novelties; on the contrary, they came to be excited by situations and subjects that were familiar. We were bored by sentimental films aimed at a female audience and avoided them: we migrated from the Murillo and its mixed clientele to take refuge in the Breton. I remember how we came out of the place in a daze, still entranced by the magic emanating from the screen, arguing with some friend over the hero of the film’s feats of daring and the moments of greatest danger or tension. In that period, alone or with my brothers, I would walk to the cinema and only very occasionally took the Sarrià metro, in order to alight at the Gracia and Catalonia stations, on my way to the Roxy, Vergara or Capitol. The elegant Montecarlo had yet to be inaugurated, and the luxurious Windsor, whose sanctuary I would set foot in much later, in the pretentious guise of a gilded youth, did not yet exist.

Over the last thirty years, in cities throughout the world, I have come across cinemas, like those I knew as a child, where the atmosphere inside is equally, if not more, inviting than the programme of films: the Luxor and Palais Rochechouart in Paris, the Vox in Tangier, the Caruso in Essaouira, the Belkis in Aden and, above all, in Marrakesh: the Rif, the Mabruka, the Mauritania, the Eden. The Luxor – to which I devoted a few pages of my novel Makbara – was a real cinema-palace, with one-price seats in the stalls, circle and gods, where the motley audience displayed only a passing interest in what was happening on the screen: for many, the real action was to be found in the basement and circle toilets, the back rows of the mezza­nine and the whole of the gods.

cinema-eden-2.jpgCinema Eden; © Barnaby Rogerson

The regulars were largely North Africans, with a faithful minority of heterogeneous gays, from a painted lady from Cadiz complete with fan and mantilla to the semiologist Roland Barthes. Some of those customers hadn’t a clue about the story-line of the occasionally fascinating films that were shown in the cinema: their minds lay elsewhere. When an intrepid compatriot extended her manual activities into the centre of the stalls and was caught in the act by the usherette’s torch, she responded in queenly style to the man marching her out, “but that’s what I come for. You don’t think I buy a ticket because of the divine quality of your films!”

Numerous legends are in circulation about the Mabruka cinema in Marrakesh, situated close to the main square of the Djemaa el Fna. The mass of youths jostling outside to get into the double bill of Wild West and Kung-Fu films enables the nimblest and sharpest wits to ‘swim’ the crawl over the heads of their companions en route to the box-office and horizontal purchase of their ticket! According to eye­witness reports, the day a deluge fell on the city and a torrent of water from the square flooded the cinema, the audience didn’t budge: they removed their shoes and crouched on the seats till the flood-level reached twenty centimetres when it was necessary, to a hale of insults and protests, to evacuate the place. The most exaggerated accounts maintain some people stayed on impassively watching the film, with water up to their necks!

The Eden cinema concentrates within its walls all the virtues and attractions of the flea-pits I have mentioned. Its privileged location by the arch or funnel of the bustling thoroughfare of Riad-Zitun al Yedid and its large yard overlooking games rooms with table football and one-armed bandits, cold-drink shops and parking space for mopeds and bicycles, create a huge, variegated territory, of which the flea-pit as such is but the key feature, the ‘holy of holies’. While the crowd proceeds through the entrance, window-gazers, hypnotised by the posters, obstruct the traffic and provoke snarl-ups in which the drivers’ angry tooting merges with motorcyclists’ insults, pedestrians’ shouts and the resigned or humorous comments of people living in the neigh­bourhood. The whirlwind appearance of street-hawkers with huge plastic sacks containing their merchandise, fleeing from a posse of municipal police, adds to the cheerful, ferocious chaos, the daily apotheosis of confusion.

Usually, it flows smoothly: the hired carriages move forward impetuously to the shout of ‘balek, balek’, alerting the unwary cyclists who zigzag their way boldly and swiftly through the mass. Heavily laden donkeys stoically tolerate the points of their masters’ goads but, in the midst of the tumult, the inquisitive, dreamy-eyed passers-by, cyclists, car-drivers and coachmen linger a few moments on the Eden cinema posters, drawn by the magnetic scenes of love and violence, at the risk of causing serious accident. But God throws his mantle of mercy over the city and cases of injury or bruising are miraculously rare.

Sellers of almonds and peanuts, hard-boiled eggs, violently coloured sweets and nougat or loose cigarettes line up against the wall by the entrance to the yard. In the interval, the doors stays closed and the spectators are jammed against the wrought-iron gate, poking their arms between the bars, to purchase, after scraping the bottoms of their pockets, savoury comets, rolls, a humble Marquise or a lordly, much coveted, Marlboro. From the outside, the scene of jostling and begging hands inevitably reminds one of prisons. But the cinema management has no truck with smart-arses or -alecs and the incarcerated audience benefits from the break to quench their thirst or appease their hunger, play a game of table football, relieve themselves. The men go indis­criminately into the gents or ladies: there is a conspicuous absence of female cinema-goers. No woman, whether alone or accompanied, would ever think of entering the rough, tightly-packed space of the Eden cinema. Only two or three girls from the square, sporting shirts, jeans and male hair-styles – who have abandoned their previous restricted status for the freedom enjoyed by the other sex – go to the flea-pit where they are never molested. Their new colleagues show unanimous respect for such a bold, unusual decision.

The programmes in the cinema usually include two films: a Hindu melodrama and a Karate film. Sometimes the latter is replaced by a Western and the former by a bland item of soft porn. The nature of what is being projected can be easily guessed from the street: the ratatatat of machine-gun fire and thud of bullets would be enough to raise the dead; the moans of pleasure of the artist in her underwear, up on the screen for public consumption, mingle with the roars of a randy audience; a mellifluous melody, reinforced by a piping voice, reveals the lonely melancholy of the protagonist of the Hindu film.

The Eden cinema regulars enjoy flitting from American or Tai­wanese violence to the magic and mystery of Indian productions. As inhabitants of the city are aware, the cinema shares the same owner as the Regent in the Europeanised district of Gueliz. A skinny little fellow, of indefinable age, bikes the reels over daily from one place to the other. His punctuality is proverbial and the films transported from the Regent are shown at the Eden right on schedule.

cinema-eden-3.jpgCinema Eden; © Barnaby Rogerson

I have to confess that these Hindu films interested me and still interest me much more than the usual realistic/psychological productions from Europe and America. Their narrative codes, open to all manner of coincidence and surprise, are quite refreshing after the insipid diet of consumer pap colonising our screens and televisions. The Eden cinema regulars prefer to revel in the wonders and prodigies tradition­ally attributed to the saints as if compensating for their cruel loss and consequent deprivation.

The Eden is old, down-at-heel. The columns supporting the gods – it would be incongruous to call it the circle – are in the middle of the auditorium and obstruct the view of those unlucky enough to be seated behind them, forcing them to lean left- or rightwards much to the annoyance of their neighbours. Peanut husks, though swept up at the end of each show, very soon cover the cement floor and crack when trodden on by people changing seat, coming in, or going out on their way to the games and toilets. The heavy atmosphere, saturated with tobacco smoke and kef, seems both to glue the audience together and stick to it. The spectators upstairs throw their empty boxes and cones into the stalls and ignore the insults that drift upwards. One afternoon, a drunk urinated on the front stalls and a punishment detail expelled him militarily into the street. In the karate and action films, the violence spreads to the public and the bigger, stronger youths unceremoniously evict others from their favourite seats. In an atmosphere like a wild animals’ den – acrid smells, sweat, jostling – the gun shots and bellowing of the karatekas trigger off howls of delight or angry whistles verging on insurrection.

But the overflowing waters return to their rightful channel. During the showing of films made in India, the audience remains silent and witnesses in fascination the lament of the heroine kidnapped by pirates or the over-layering on the screen of the lovers’ levitating dance, united though their love is so long-distance. The poisoning of a newly-born child by a witch, its miraculous resurrection and the implacable punishment meted out are welcomed with curses and cheers. The public will not tolerate sad endings or the victory of evil. The cinema’s battered fire-fighting equipment couldn’t prevent the place being burnt down. Aware of the dangers, and to stave off possible rioting, the management only selects films which end happily.

At eleven o’clock at night, the half-empty streets suddenly become animated. The youngsters leave the cinema en masse, as if on an unruly, warlike demonstration. The seller of hard-boiled eggs, the stall selling sweets and cakes, the cigarette retailer hurriedly dispatch their merchandise. A mobile kebab vendor sends up smoke signals a few metres from the cinema and is besieged by ravenous filmgoers. The noisy cassette shops have shut and the clientele of the Eden scatter in silence to face the harsh realities of their lives, rubbing their eyes as if they have just woken up.

Juan Goytisolo is Spain’s greatest living novelist and her sternest critic. An exile from his native land for over 30 years, he has mercilessly sought to overturn Spain’s Catholic homogeneity by remembering the cultural influence of he medieval Muslim and Jewish populations. His is a loud moral and political voice attempting to bridge the European and Islamic worlds. His writing equally crosses borders and blurs boundaries. Formally innovative and conceptually ambitious, it challenges conventional narrative, employing ancient story-telling techniques alongside experimental structural strategies to convey the dynamic diversity of contemporary reality.

Many of his novels are published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail, a constant champion of his work. The piece above is abridged and taken from Cinema Eden: Essays from the Muslim Mediterranean, an exemplary collection of committed travel writings brought together for the first time in English and published recently by Sickle Moon, an imprint of Eland (for more information, visit their website or email Their excellent list encompasses the classics of travel writing alongside current work.

Many thanks to Barnaby Rogerson at Eland for permission to reprint this article and for providing the images.