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Entries in egyptian (4)

Friday
May102013

Diary of a Country Prosecutor (1969): It's in the Script

Bassem YoussefI was watching a news-of-the-week panel discussion program on BBC Arabic a few of weeks ago and the discussion turned to news of Bassem Youssef’s arrest by Egyptian authorities for insulting the president, denigrating Islam and undermining authority on his popular satirical TV show El Bernameg (البرنامج, The Program). In a case to whose fanfare Jon Stewert had added by discussing it in his own The Daily Show (Youssef had been scheduled to appear in court to face the stated charges, before the assigned judge dismissed the case) the topicality of satire in the Arab World was certainly given a potent shot in the arm.

The discussion turned to the cultural prevalence and utility of satire as a medium of sociopolitical defiance when a panelist remarked that he had searched for a direct translation for satire in the Arabic dictionary and could not find one. Indeed, the term used most to refer to satire is sukhriyah (سخرية), which more accurately means sarcasm. And even though the Arabic literary tradition incorporates a form named Hija’ (هجاء) whose modes of function and purpose paralleled satirical literature in the English tradition, Hija’ was mostly, though not exclusively practiced in poetry1. Nevertheless, the panelist’s inference that Arabs had been collectively repressed so staunchly over the centuries, so as to have stripped them of the capacity to humorously mock while making pointed sociopolitical commentary hardly holds water for anybody who has grown up hearing endless mockery of Arab rulers and regimes. Words need not be written—or performed—to stand for culture.

Not that notable satirical Arabic works have not been written or performed. Syrian Dureid Lahham’s film Al-Hudoud (الحدود, The Border, 1987) is required viewing for any Arab cinema enthusiast and Kuwaiti Abdulhussain Abdulredha’s play Bye Bye London (1981) was watched in my home repeatedly when guests attended, so that the adults visiting could riff on the jokes and declare their keen interpretations of the meaning behind the punch lines.

Tawfiq al-HakimDecades before these two works saw the light a satirical novel of the first order castigated the daylights out of the Egyptian government system. It was Diary of a Country Prosecutor (يوميات نائب في الأرياف), written by Tawfiq al-Hakim, one of the most important figures of 20th century Arab literature2. Al-Hakim is remembered primarily for his plays—he wrote around seventy full length plays—a few of which I read in my youth. I distinctly recall  how impacted I was by al-Hakim’s Journey to Tomorrow (رحلة إلى الغد), a science fiction play ascribed to his theater of the mind ('théâtre des idées', المسرح الذهني) (which I’ve seen translated as intellectual theatre, a misleading translation, since the term refers to the destination of the works, their being written without intent to have them performed).

Diary of a Country Prosecutor (1969)Indeed, al-Hakim’s standing resides in his having ushered drama into the text of Arabic literature vividly and assertively. The prolific al-Hakim wrote more than plays, including philosophical and theological treatises, political essays, biographies, and novels the second of which Diary of a Country Prosecutor (1937) would be made into a film in a drastically different Egypt 32 years later.

Tawfiq al-Hakim, who had been sent to France to pursue graduate studies in law, and had failed to earn a degree as he focused on cultural enrichment istead3, would fatefully land a post in the Egyptian countryside as a prosecutor4. By then, al-Hakim had begun writing and would find ample fodder in his prosecutorial experience.

Diary of a Country Prosecutor is such a formatively varied novel. It involves elements of folkloric storytelling, dramatic suspense, satire, and realism whereas its adapted screenplay folds the first three into the last, from a cinematic formative standpoint, toning down the satire to accommodate the censor in ways predictable and not. The film’s plot unfolds in an unnamed village in an unnamed year and involves many characters, most of whom are unnamed, including the Prosecutor, the protagonist, whose journal entries over the course of twelve days, October 11 to 22, tell the story. Storytelling through journal entries facilely justifies the use of first person if nothing else and the paucity of names… Well, perhaps such details don’t mean that much when one is as jaded as the Prosecutor and besides, who needs names when titles will do.

The ProsecutorThe Prosecutor is awakened in the middle of the first night to attend the scene of a shooting in a distant marsh. Upon arrival with his prosecutorial team along with the Sherriff and his team, the Prosecutor is proud to demonstrate the meticulousness of his method in assessing the crime scene and in questioning the shooting victim, who shockingly was left to suffer in the scene of the attack by the constable to first arrive upon the scene, while the latter waited for the crime investigation unit to arrive! Ahem, but the prosecutor’s meticulousness has nothing to do with his commitment to fulfilling the cause of justice, rather with a compultion to shield himself from any criticism from his higher-ups. He admonishes his assistant to fulfill all bureaucratic expectations, recalling an occasion when he himself had been chastised by a superior for submitting a dossier on a murder case that was too light—too physically light.

Among the rewards of Diary is that the whodunit turns out merely a vehicle for sustained reading. The shooting investigation acts as an exposition of much rot in government: in the judicial, police, and electoral systems. The problem of the prosecutor’s jadedness is uncorrectable just as the murder case is unsolvable, not that they couldn’t be. Oh, but where does a lone country prosecutor begin to mend the rot … He doesn’t.

Diary the film preserves much of the story, not surprising since with a 150-page novel adapted for a near 2-hr film, little abridging was necessary if one considered that the typical manifestation rate of a screenplay is a minute in film per page. At least one macabre scene is omitted, since it likely could not have been filmable in Egypt at the time, one involving crime scene brain extraction and a frivolous, grotesque shared search for a deadly bullet.

The Sheriff, making a persuasive case Tawfiq Saleh, director of Diary, is one whose work I have long admired and whose best film The Dupes I elected to discuss in launching this blog. Saleh worked on Diary’s screenplay as he did on most of his films’, which leaves me mulling how concerned he was about potential trouble with the censor. As I had noted in my extended review of The Dupes, Diary of a Country Prosecutor was reportedly banned by the censor until Nasser himself permitted its release in full. I now suspect this account is apocryphal. What I did not know when I wrote that review over a year ago is the extent of Nasser’s admiration for al-Hakim, particularly Hakim’s Return of the Soul (عودة الروح, his first novel)5. Moreover, having read the book since, I have noted that the film’s very last shot depicts the prosecutor scribing his final journal note: “22 October 1935.” Not only did the novel not end in such a fashion, but the deliberate insertion of the year of the story in the pivotal final frame of the film suggests the extent to which the screenplay writers were concerned about having the film construed as an unsuccessfully veiled attack on the Nasser regime.

Diary’s principle participants are competent but not particularly enthralling. Tawfiq ad-Daqn is his vivid self as the Sherriff and Abdul’athim Abdulhaq is convincingly queer as the mystic-cum-village-crazy Sheikh ‘Asfour. The lead role is performed adroitly with coy restraint by the versatile, underappreciated actor Ahmed Abdulhalim. The staging is mannered in the studio-bound sense and the action lacking the élan evident in Saleh’s The Dupes, for example, and this despite a few elaborately staged shots, each over half a minute long.

By Diary’s end, I realized what I didn’t when I referred to the film in my blog’s very first post, over a year ago, that the film’s excellence lies in its source material. I learned what I’ve heard and read from so many film practitioners over the years: “It’s in the script."

Notes:

1. Van Gelder, Geert Jan. The Bad and the Ugly: Attitudes towards Invective Poetry (Hija) in Classical Arabic Literature. Brill: E.J., 1988. Print. PP. 2

2. Allen, Roger M. A. An Introduction to Arabic Literature. N.p.: Cambridge University Press, 2000. N. pag. Web.

3. See sourse # 2

4. Johnson-Davies, Denys, ed. The Essential Tawfiq al-Hakim: Plays, Fiction, Autobiography. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2008. Print. PP. 3

5. Mondal, Anshuman A. Nationalism and Post-Colonial Identity: Culture and Ideology in India and Egypt. London: Routledge, 2003. Print. PP 199

*Diary of a Country Prosecutor the novel has been translated into English.

Tuesday
Jun052012

The Postman (1968): An Unmitigated Tragedy, an Unqualified Triumph

“Tell me, Khalil, what did the king’s daughter do?”

“The king’s daughter fled with him and they went to another kingdom”

 

Hussein KamalI wonder what it would have been like for a cinephile to have lived in Cairo in the early 1970s, to have marveled at what director Hussein Kamal had accomplished in under a decade and to have mused over what would be in store for him. It would have seemed likely that he would bring to himself and by association to his national cinema unprecedented esteem and recognition. Egyptian cinema would indeed garner recognition in the years to come, though mostly for the work of Kamal’s senior Yousef Shaheen. Kamal’s own output since would not match the blazing success of his early films, most of which still stand among the most notable works of the Egyptian cinema.

Kamal’s first film The Impossible (1965)—nay, its first shot, a tracking shot of the troubled protagonist walking a shopping district pavement —declared his talent. The Impossible was the first in a trilogy that would come to represent his first period as filmmaker, a trilogy whose unsettling stories illustrated in resplendent black and white photography and complex sound design. To call Kamal’s fourth film a departure would be an understatement. My Father above the Tree (1969) was a lurid, extravagant revue in vivid color that set a standard for the genre that the Egyptian cinema has arguably not reached since1. Kamal would make several more notable films, including the highly regarded satire Chatter on the Nile (1970) and family melodrama Emipre of “M” (1972).

It has been argued that Hussein Kamal’s films lost much or their luster once he had been compelled to abandon black and white photography for color2. (The iconoclastic, almost entirely black and white burlesque Chatter on the Nile hints at Kamal’s disgruntlement with the imposed transition to color, in boasting a single scene in color wherein a music video director lauds the color treatment of a comically cruddy song and dance production.) Others have contended that Kamal’s career descent had to do with his opting for decidedly commercial projects3, perhaps having realized the rewards of the colossal commercial success of My Father above the Tree. Having watched films of Kamal’s from the 1980s I found myself bemoaning that though Kamal’s knack had persisted, his virtuosity had considerably depleted. The singular success of the latter part of his career would be in his direction of a hilarious theatrical rendition of Raya and Sakina.

The Postman (1968)Not that I grieve Kamal’s career. Quite the contrary: I would be delighted to review at least half a dozen of his films and think that his oeuvre rivals those of the greats of Egyptian cinema Salah Abu Seif, Youseff Chahine and Henri Barakat. It is his second film, however, that left my head hanging with humility at its end. It is The Postman (1968, البوسطجي) whose scenes for days replayed as I drove, through one eye, as the other was relegated to minding the road.

The Postman is based on a novella by the same name, written by Yahya Haqqi, one of Egypt’s most admired literary figures of the last century. Haqqi’s influence on Egyptian culture realized primarily in his having edited the state owned and by now legendary journal Al-Majallah, during most of the 1960s. (The journal, whose publication had ceased by the Sadat regime, along with other publications, in what came to be known as the campaign to “put out cultural lanterns,” has relaunched recently in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution.4) The Postman is one of four works of Haqqi’s to have been adapted for film and one of two to whose adaptations he had contributed.

The Postman (1968)The Postman tells of the experience of ‘Abbas a postal worker from Cairo who is assigned to a post in Koum Annahl (literally “heap of bees”) a village in the Central Si’eed. ‘Abbas is soon appalled with the provinciality of the village, with the vulgarity of its population and with the dilapidations of his own meager quarters that he rents exorbitantly, to his own mind, from the mayor. As ‘Abbas’s despair mounts, he resorts to mollifying the hateful quiet of rural nights with the drink, which then expectedly distorts his temperament in the days following, eventuating in his unclosing letters and peeping into the lives of others, desperate for a semblance of community.

The Postman (1968)A particular regular exchange interests ‘Abbas, that between Khalil and Jamilah, an exchange whose peculiarity and intrigue beguile him into an ongoing voyeurism of their epistolary romance.  As it were, ‘Abbas underestimates the consequence of having interpolated himself. He soon learns of Jamilah’s desperation, of her unplanned pregnancy. He might have managed to assuage a conscience guilty over his not having moved to help her, only that he mistakenly stamps an opened letter from Khalil, one that he had read with great anticipation, while in the office, instead of waiting to read it at home in the evening, as usual. ‘Abbas, unable to come up with a way to conceal or remove the stamp on the letter makes a decision that proves fateful, a decision that would ultimately implicate him in an unmitigated tragedy.

Yahya HaqqiThe novella’s elegant, meticulous prose conveys what struck me as a detached familiarity with its milieu. I would later learn what explained this. Haqqi, long aware of his non-Egyptian ethnicity (Turkish and Albanian lineage) urbane and ambitious as he was, had been compelled to take up a legal post in Manfulout in Asyout province, where he spent two years that must have proven challenging, but whose experience would figure mightily in his writing, including in The Postaman5. Haqqi by his own testament absorbed all that was Egypt throughout his life, a bent which coupled with his feelings of displacement while in his rural post must have contributed to the noted detached familiarity.

Whereas in the novella Haqqi seems at pains to subtly disinvolve, his screenplay is at pains to contain its fury. The screenplay accommodatingly expands on the novella in ways that suggest Kamal’s influence. The story is made linear in its narrative, dispensing with the flashback story telling by ‘Abbas in the novella, which aids in the steadily accelerating tempo to the drama. More significantly, the screenplay incorporates a subplot wherein Jamilah’s father rapes the maid (who doesn’t exist in the novel). Jamilah’s mother, instead of castigating her husband, arranges for the victim to be taken away by her family, under the pretext that she had behaved shamefully, knowing that her accusation against the maid would near certainly subject her to another round of severe victimization.

The Postman (1968)Kamal in the first decade of his career exhibited a marked interest in women’s struggles and not only as victims of the oppression within the systems that men have created. We Do not Plant Thorns (1970) and Empire of “M” enabled their top billed stars, Shadyah and Faten Hamama respectively, to deliver performances that became standouts of their careers. Female characters in The Impossible, in A Thing of Fear (1969) and in the mentioned Emipre of “M” strike me as some of the most complex and willful in classic Egyptian cinema. It is also notable that Kamal worked regularly with legendary editor of Egyptian cinema Rashidah Abdussalam, including on all films of his mentioned in this review. Kamal also worked with screenwriters Kawthar Haikal and once, on The Postman, with Dunya Al-Baba.

The Postman (1968)The Postman’s screenplay is not the sole well crafted component, for the film is a tour de force.  The acting is credible and precise throughout. The casting of Shukri Sarhan to play ‘Abbas comes off as particularly apt. Sarhan’s enduring strength as an actor was his manifest sense of dignity, a trait that serves The Postman in that the audience is convinced that ‘Abbas is a victim himself, a victim of economic and social need, that he had once been a well-adjusted, functional member of society. The location, not far from Cairo6, with its uneven clay laden landscape, palms and mud houses suggests the misery that an urbanite would experience living in Koum an-Nahl. And editing by Rashidah Abdussalam propels the steadily rising anxiety, especially in the crosscutting between scenes involving ‘Abbas and Jamilah.

The Postman (1968)It is the compositional scheme and audio design of the film that smite and stamp, however. The Postman’s photographic composition is mostly conventional in the first half of the film, with occasional flourishes that suggest a filmmaker making his restraint known, foreshadowing the tumult to come. As ‘Abbas’s and Jamilah’s (as well as Khalil’s, though mostly through his letters) disaffections begin to mount, the photography and sound design become more expressive and more evocative. Unusual camera angles and stylized mis-en-scene alert us to the topsy-turvy world that the principle characters have come to inhabit, while a looping, echoing, mournful mantra, in Jamilah’s voice, quoting from a fairytale that Khalil had earlier recounted punctuates the pain with the ellipses of ruin: “in another kingdom.”

Breaking the Waves (1996)And then there’s the final shot, a shot for the books (spoiler alert!) I readily recalled the final shot from Breaking the Waves, Lars Von Tier’s masterpiece. Like The Postman, Breaking the Waves told the tale of a woman who is sacrificed because she had dared to love according to her own impulses. The final shot of Breaking the Waves depicts bells sounding in the heavens, in acknowledgement of such sacrifice. (Curiously, the finale in the novella, which I read after watching the film, has the bell of Koum Annahl’s small church announce Jamilah’s death. The film does not indicate the religious background of her family—Coptic—for then concerns about potential offense7)

The Postman (1968)As evocative as the last shot in Breaking the Waves is, The Postman’s last betters it. Arriving on the scene to find Jamilah having been stabbed to death by her father, ‘Abbas loses his bearings. Reaching into his satchel, he extracts letters that he flings into the air in anguish, as if to protest the futility of human agency against seemingly fateful injustice. He continues to hurl the letters as he passes by the camera and out of the frame, so that the letters momentarily thereafter appear as if to drop from the sky, as if God, rejecting ‘Abbas’s fatalism, has sent letters of protest to the people of Koum Annahl, indicting all of complicity in the unconscionable murder—thesis then antithesis manifest in a single, lingering, heart piercing shot. The Postman is among the finest works to ever come out of the Egyptian cinema.

The Postman (1968)

* My Father above the Tree and Chatter on the Nile are available in the US through Arab Film Distribution.

Works Cited:

1.  Kamal, Hussein. "Episode 22: Special Discussion with Hussein Kamal" (in Arabic) Interview by Ammar Ashsherei'i. An Evening with Sherei'i. Dream TV. 22 Sept. 2011. YouTube. Web. 4 June 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XA4D62VxXKY>.

 2.  Assabban, Rafiq. Hussein Kamal: Lover of the Impossible (in Arabic). Cairo: The Cultural Development Fund, 1997. Digital Assets Repository. Web. 4 June 2012. <http://dar.bibalex.org/webpages/mainpage.jsf?BibID=28951>.

3.  Hassan, Mahir. The Passing of Director Hussein Kamal(in Arabic). Al-Masry Al-Youm, n.d. Web. 4 June 2012. <http://today.almasryalyoum.com/article2.aspx?ArticleID=291428&IssueID=2084>.

4.  Ali, Sa'd. "Return of Egyptian Cultural Magazine Al-Majallah after an Absence of 40 Years (in Arabic)." Reuters. Thomson Reuters Corporate, n.d. Web. 4 June 2012. <http://today.almasryalyoum.com/article2.aspx?ArticleID=291428&IssueID=2084>.

5.  "Egyptian Figures: Yahya Haqqi (in Arabic)." Egyptian State Information Service. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 June 2012. <http://www.sis.gov.eg/VR/figures/arabic/html/3p.htm>.

6.  See reference # 2.

7.   See reference # 2.

Monday
Apr162012

Reflections on Reflections: Qasaqees ath-Thikrayat

There are memoirs that reach well beyond the experience of their authors to realize insight and wisdom in a multitude of domains that contain the human experience. Qasaqees ath-Thikrayat (قصاقيص الذكريات, Cutouts of Memories) is not such a memoir.

Kamal AtiyahQasaqees at-Thikrayat recollects notable experiences and events relating to most of the twenty-three feature films and one of the several documentary films directed by Kamal Atiyah. The book’s chapters are assigned a film each, recounting their plots before turning to anecdotes of their production and personalities. Yet, though these anecdotes do amuse at times and do signify practices and intrigues of the Egyptian cinema industry, their implausibility is exasperating. Moreover, Atiyah, as accomplished as his career has proven—one that has involved songwriting, writing, directing and voice acting—is defensive and at times self-aggrandizing, so as to thwart any levity or insight otherwise garnered. A chuckle to every handful of yawns amalgamated.

Yawns would have been sufferable, but not the several cringes drawing mainly from the three deferential references to Hitler and from Atiyah’s boasting about having rightly, to his thinking, got away with hitting a Jewish East German production manager who had provoked Atiyah by presenting him with a bouquet of flowers, lifted from a hotel table, in recognition of the death of Abdel Hakim Amer, during the tumult that had rocked Egypt following its stunning defeat in the 67 War.

So why did I read it? Because my brother had gifted me the book and might have fairly wondered if I were going to discuss it on my film blog. More so, I wanted to compare the best regarded film of Atiyah’s titled Um-Hashim’s Lantern (قنديل أم هاشم, 1968) to one I soon intend to write about, a favorite of mine titled The Postman (البوسطجي, 1968), because both films’ screenplays are adapted from novels by the same author, venerated Egyptian literary figure Yahya Haqqi, and because both feature actor Shukri Sarhan in the lead role.

No contest—The Postman is vastly superior to Um-Hashim’s Lantern, reminding me that diligence and ambition will get you a long way, but greatness requires knack.

Monday
Apr022012

Al-Kitkat (1991): Soaring above the Doldrums

Have you ever watched a film that seemed to encourage you to speak with the characters on the screen or with a neighbor, during its watching? There are films that convey to the audience not to concern themselves with plot so much, though plots come attached, but with the companionship and kinship between the characters portrayed. Such films have often been disparagingly dubbed “buddy flicks,” as if there were something embarrassing about enjoying companionship and kinship.

Films as varied as Renoir’s La Grand Illusion, Hawks’s Rio Bravo, and Spheeris’s Wayne’s World (yes, Wayne’s World) gloriously exemplify such a rhetorical approach, in that they present us with authentic, sincere characters interacting in such a way as not to be in the service of some compulsory plot, but in the service of each other. Yet, these films’ radiance stems from their masterful control of tone, so enrapturing as to irresistibly invite the audience to interact with their characters. Such films also invite repeated viewing, because they are the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. Al-Kitkat is such a film.

Al-Kitkat (El-Kitkat, الكيت كات) is also notable for being both its auteur director’s most popular film and his best. Daoud Abdel Sayed is one the most accomplished Egyptian directors working today, one whose body of work is arguably rivaled only by Yousri Nasrallah and Mohamed Khan’s. Al-Kitkat is the third of eight films that Abdel Sayed has made, beginning with The Vagabonds in 1985, all of which have I seen. His films, all of whose scripts he has worked on, repeatedly exhibit several bents of their “author”: a potent nostalgia; a love of music and an appreciation for its contribution to film, in both its diagetic and non-diagetic form; an evident adoration of his characters, including of the “villains” among them, and a regard for them that exceeds the demands of plot making; an inclination toward long takes, minutes-long at times; and perhaps most conspicuously his championing of non-conformity that manifests in the depiction of outcasts and rebels, granted, but also obtains in a thoroughgoing depiction of non-conformity as embraced by socially conscious common people who come around to recognizing that the rules have been written to benefit those who’ve written them and, more significantly, that the rules have been written too broadly to mind the unique conditions of the individual.

Daoud Abdel SayedAbdel Sayed’s films to my mind have usually been excellent and have twice approached greatness (the whimsical Land of Dreams, which appropriately became legendary actor Faten Hamama’s cinematic swan song, and the superb crime drama Land of Fear, about which I intend to post). Yet, only al-Kitkat has attained such greatness, due to the superlative contributions of two other personalities involved—Ibrahim Aslan, author of Malik al-Hazin (The Heron, not that one shows up anywhere in the novel. It is perhaps Aslan himself), the novel from which the screenplay was adapted, and Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, who plays Sheikh Husni, the protagonist. Al-Kitkat would showcase the greatest achievements of these three collaborators.

The Heron (1983) is a sprawling novel, which is belied by its unintimidating length of 170 pages or so. Thus, The Heron adapted into screenplay was necessarily condensed (even Altman would have struggled with so many characters and incidents), narratively unified and aptly anchored in the character of a single protagonist—Sheikh Husni. The novel, which took Aslan nearly a decade to write, names tens of characters, progresses by moving ahead and in between a handful or so narrative lines, and seems to distill two centuries in the history of Imbaba district, particularly of its neighborhood dubbed al-Kitkat, which had once been an enormous bar constructed by the locals for land owner Baron Henry Meyer, before it was shut down following the “blessed” revolution ( in 1952) then converted into shops by people who tore into its structure.

Ibrahim AslanAslan, who passed away at the beginning of this year, published little, over the course of his near half-century-long career. The Heron, his most celebrated work, itself reads as if selected and extracted from a much larger document, which seems confirmed by his having reported that he wrote with an eraser.1 The Heron bombards the reader with names of people and locations, relates events not obviously marked as occurring or remembered, and frequently transitions between subplots, some proving inchoate and all coming to a collective boil as the novel wraps with the assault on al-Kitkat by security forces during the 1977 Bread Riots. Read in 2012, the delicately written and richly detailed story of The Heron turns particularly eerie toward the end as a character examines a protest in Tahrir Square then later collects used teargas canisters inscribed with “Made in the USA.” That the edition of The Heron I had read (in Arabic, though it has been translated into English) had boasted a forward by Suzanne Mubarak only entrenched such eeriness. 

Mahmoud Abdel Aziz at the time of the film’s making was a star. His rugged European good looks had surely supported his talent in positioning him as a romantic/adventure lead in Egyptian cinema (the obvious favoring of European looks, especially among female leads is a worthy topic of a future entry). Although lacking the gravitas of contemporaries Nour El-Sherif (who had co-starred with Abdel Aziz in Abdel Sayed’s first film The Vagabonds) and Ahmed Zaki, Abdel Aziz over the course of the 1980s exhibited a knack for mischievous humor and for folk music performance, both of which would inform Abdel Aziz’s performance in al-Kitkat, a performance effected with such relish as to suggest that the actor had waited his entire career to play Sheikh Husni in a performance that will likely go down as Abdel Aziz’s career best.

Abdel Aziz’s portrayal of the blind deadbeat appears at first affected, until the viewer realizes that this is not a miscalibration on the part of the actor, but a manifest quality of the character’s. Sheikh Husni is a mischievous operator, who could well owe half the neighborhood money, money of which he manages to make a little on the side by guiding blind people around the district (the blind leading the blind?) He affects and exaggerates because he feels he must to get by. The way he had to sell the house that his father had built, home to his mother and his equally work-averse son, to get by, even though he admits when pressed that he sold it to his drug dealer El-Haram (a nickname meaning “the pyramid”) to support his hashish habit. Despite such failing, rather with its aid, Abdel Aziz imbues his Sheikh Husni with such charisma as to make him irresistible and unforgettable.

Abdel Sayed conjoined the talents of Aslan and Abdel Aziz, along with those of other skilled cast and crew members to craft an entertaining, heartwarming film that is visually and auditorily impressive. The three numbers, featuring Sheik Husni’s singing and oud playing, especially the one in duet with his son, not only entertain the viewer, but also illustrate the joy that music brings to people who populate a world that at times seems set against themselves.

As for the imagery, it is pleasantly surprising to learn that the film had been shot entirely in a studio2. The vividness in detail of the set design and the languorous pacing of the action convince us of the authenticity of milieu and invite us to sympathetically regard the lives of the unsuccessfully working class of al-Kitkat. Two standout sequences illustrate this. One is a still camera, minute long shot that begins with Sheikh Husni and his blind client Sheikh Ubeid in extreme long shot, barely visible behind street vendors and pedestrians, though audible, as they shoot the breeze while ambling toward the camera. Another sequence qualifies as one of the few “pure cinema” sequences I have encountered in commercial Arab cinema. In it, Sheikh Husni convinces the owner of a scooter to permit him to take it for a spin, resulting in an exulting moment that feels like a lifetime, all the more impressive considering the havoc that such a stunt wreaks in al-Kitkat.

As I considered my lack of concern for blind Sheikh Husni, joyriding a Vespa in a crowded neighborhood, I realized that it was because I believed what he believed, which was that everything would be alright, as if I were being reassured by an old friend who is much more seeing than given credit for. It is in this good natured, authentic reassurance that al-Kitkat’s distinction is located. Those among us who have seen it and championed it know that whenever in the doldrums, we can pop al-Kitkat in, imagine the sofa a Vespa, pay Sheikh Husni a visit and willingly permit him to drive it, so that, if only for a couple of hours, we may soar above our doldrums.

Works Cited

  1. Qualey, M. Lynx. "Goodbye Ibrahim Aslan." Egypt Independant. Al-Masry Al-Youm, 1, 8, 2012. Web. 2 Apr. 2012. http://www.egyptindependent.com/node/590166
  2. Shafik, Viola. Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity. Cairo, Egypt: The American University of Cairo Press, 1998. Print.