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Entries in Tawfiq Saleh (2)


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."


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.


The Dupes (1972): Forgotten Masterpiece of Arab Cinema 

The Dupes (1972)A haggard man in extreme longshot lumbers over desert sands toward the viewer. A human skeleton foregrounds the shot. “Aghh, hackneyed symbolism of danger and morbidity,” I thought to myself. Upon reflection, I realize that there was nothing hackneyed about such symbolism, because it was not facile but apt. Metaphor is integral to narrative films that wish to affirm a point of view while avoiding didacticism. Metaphor will have manifested effectively when we decide that a film “has meaning.” Yet, most films’ metaphors fall short of delivering on their ostensible promise to inculcate us in the lessons about the world to which they point.



In The Dupes (المخدوعون, also The Duped and The Deceived), the struggles of the film’s four leads are both representative and metaphoric of the modern experience of the Palestinian people. It is precisely because The Dupes delivers as representation and as metaphor that it works; it is fine allegory. The Dupes draws a dramatic landscape that is poignant and credible in the realistic personal struggles of the main characters, drawn over space and time, while the metaphor grows the film’s audience entangling tentacles of anguish, horror and morbidity, whose marks well outlast The Dupes’ uncompromising ending.

As Viola Shafiq remarks in her book Arab Cinema, The Dupes is a Pan-Arabist film par excellence1 (though the adapted story of the film is anything but Pan-Arabist): a Syrian state production directed by Egyptian Tawfiq Saleh whose screenplay is based on the novella Men in the Sun by venerated Palestinian literary figure Ghassan Kanafani. Alignment of the principles’ interests may explain the film’s cohesiveness, its integrality. Syria’s National Film Organization in 1972 was interested in stories of class oppression, because such stories were constituent to the school of social realism that a professedly socialist (a constitutionally secular socialist state) government sanctioned. It was also interested in stories about Palestinian struggle, an extension of the state’s broadcast and much trumpeted support and sponsorship of Palestinian resistance. The National Film Organization’s site indicates that of the sixteen films produced by it during the 1970s, six related topically to the Palestinian experience. Also notable is that fourteen of the sixteen credited the director as screenwriter (In most cases, such is in the case of The Dupes, the director was the sole credited screenwriter.)2

Ghassan KanafaniGhassan Kanafani was himself a Palestinian refugee. Although he spent most of his boyhood in Yafa (Java), he was born in Akka (Aker) in 1936 and it was from Akka that he and his family fled Palestine, after the first attack on the city, in April of 1948. The family eventually settled in Damascus where he became involved with the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM), upon his introduction to the group’s founder George Habash, who would exert a marked influence over the development of Kanafani’s own ideas of resistance, liberation, and self-determination for the Palestinian people. In 1955, Kanafani moved to Kuwait, a location that would figure mightily in Men in the Sun. In 1962, having moved to Beirut, Kanafani wrote the operative novella, his first. Its staunch repudiation of escapism and call for self-reliance foresaw the disappointment and dejection in Nasserism/Pan-Arabism, after the ignominious defeat of the 1967 War. Indeed, Habash would found the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) that very year and Kanafani would two years later found the organization’s publication Al-Hadaf in Beirut, for which he served as editor until his assassination in 1972 by a car bomb, near certainly planted by the Mossad3. Kanafani did watch The Dupes, released earlier that year, according to Salem who reports having freighted a copy of the film personally by car, from Damascus to Beirut.4

Tawfiq SalehIf Kanafani’s productivity had been cut short by his death then so was Tawfiq Saleh’s—by career death. In total, Saleh directed a mere seven narrative features between the years of 1955 and 1980, of which I have seen five. Saleh had made his narrative feature debut with Fools’ Alley, a film whose screenplay he had co-written with Najib Mahfouz, a film whose ironic realism was admired, though not at the box office.4 According to Saleh, it was his second film that won him the admiration of Nasser himself, who upon watching Struggle of the Heroes, had suddenly agreed to nationalize the film industry, having publicly resisted for three years. The second time Nasser would bear upon a film of Saleh’s the latter had already grown wary of Nasser’s regime, not least because the film in question, his fifth Diary of a Country Prosecutor (which I aim to write about soon), one of five on whose scripts he would work over the course of his career, was shot in 1968, in the wake of the startling and deflating defeat of Egypt in the 1967 War. According to Saleh, the film’s release had been held up by the minister of interior, who had formed a committee to look into which content ought be censored. Then, upon learning of this and having seemingly watched Diary, Nasser insisted that the film be released in full.5

Saleh’s exasperation came to a head with the censoring and criticism of his fourth film Mister Balti, shot in 1967, but released in ’68, the same year as Diary. Salem took offense and soon thereafter, having had his proposal to make a film based on Men in the Sun rejected by the Egyptian General Organization (the state operated TV, radio and film production outfit), proposed the project to Syria’s National Film Organization. Saleh must have noted the suitability of his proposed project to the production interests of the Organization, considering the organization’s putatively nationalist, social realist persuasion, officially dubbed Alternative Cinema. He would make one more film, an Iraqi state production dubbed Long Days, in 1980. Soon thereafter, Saleh returned to Egypt where he still lives in Cairo.6

The Dupes is exceedingly faithful to the novella, except in two ways that I will later dwell on. Like the novella, the film is formed in two parts, the first involves the background of three impoverished Palestinians, readily representative of three generations of refugees, who journey from their diaspora communities (refugee camps in the case of at least two) to Shatt al-Arab in southern Iraq, with the intention of getting smuggled into nearby Kuwait, where they hope to locate work and opportunity to alley the various conditions of desperation they aspire to overcome. These backstories are presented convincingly, as memories being recalled by triggers, mostly during dialogue with the head of a an Iraqi smuggling outfit that all three men visit before deciding to take the risk of their lives in being smuggled in a water truck, driven by a soliciting competitor to the Iraqi smuggler, a Palestinian expat named  Abul-khaizaran. The men do not choose Abul-khaizaran because he's Palestinian, but because his rate is ten dinars each, five less than that of his competitor.

The Dupes (1972)The Wages of Fear (1953)

The second part (about half) of the film involves the smuggling adventure. The three men (I hesitate for a moment to call sixteen year-old Marwan a man) agree to be smuggled by Abul-khaizaran in the tank of the water truck that he must drive back to its owner, his employer, in Kuwait. This second part does tell Abul-khaizaran’s story, but mainly focuses on the hellish experience of Abu Qais, As’ad and Marwan, intermittently hiding in the suffocating water tank, smoldering in the August sun. It is in this second half, mostly linear narrative driven, that Saleh’s compositional mastery shines. In their blindingly bright starkness, the images of the wretched smuggled and the equally doomed Abul-khaizaran on a decrepit capsule rolling the sands of hell have haunted me. The suspense generated by the adventure, whose participants I had come to care about, edited expertly by Saheb Haddad, engaged me thoroughly. Soon after the men embarked on their perilous journey, I recalled the frenzied and futile adventure in Clouzot’s masterpiece The Wages of Fear. If Saleh hadn’t been inspired by it then it must have been because he had not seen it. Saleh had concluded his stay in France at the end of 1953, year of the French thriller’s release.7

The Dupes (1972)The Wages of Fear (1953)If there is an advantage to watching The Dupes in its current deteriorated state of photography and sound (it begs for restoration more than any other Arab film I’ve seen), it is the relative agreement between live action and archival still footage in a montage of the two early in the film. This montage mostly depicts Palestinian displacement then settlement in refugee camps in 1948, the Nakba into which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had been plunged (or had plunged, as Kanafani might have preferred to see it), accompanied by a mournful expository narration. This review of Palestinian modern history does not exist in the novella, and considering that the footage depicts Farouq I of Egypt, Abdul-Aziz bin Saud of Saudi Arabia and multiple Hashemite monarchs, as the accompanying narration turns to decrying the treachery of Arab regimes, I wondered if this montage may have well been the only condition that the National Film Organization had attached to the production. Expectedly, the brazen accusations of betraying the Palestinian people would limit the film’s exposure, which Saleh has since lamented, expressing that The Dupes was the film that had marked his maturation as a director.8 Tawfiq Saleh may have known that his film would speak for a regime as self-serving and oppressive as the one he had escaped, but at least the Syrians didn’t tacitly require installation of a couple of song and dance numbers, which appear in all four Egyptian films of his that I have seen, including inexplicably in the one that had escaped the censor’s scissors—Diary of a Country Prosecutor. They also (spoiler alert) didn’t require the harrowing ending be altered to something more hopeful than written. The ending, in fact, involves the second marked departure from the novella.

The Dupes (1972)The Wages of Fear (1953)Allegorical themes in Men in the Sun, which I have read, are mostly preserved in The Dupes: complicity and treachery of Arabs, including Palestinians themselves, against Palestinian liberation and self-determination; the futility of escapism and the imperative to stand to aggression through conscious and active resistance; the loss of land as tantamount to the loss of manhood; and the championing of secular resistance. Yet, other than the interpolation of the facile and manipulative montage discussed earlier, Saleh altered the novella’s ending, (spoiler alert) wherein Kanafani mentions nothing of a struggle by the characters in the tank against the murderous heat that the three had to endure. Having dispensed of the men’s bodies at a rubbish collection location then redoubled to take their valuables, Kanafani ends the novella by having an overwrought Abul-khaizaran repeatedly cry, “Why didn’t you bang on the walls?”

Addressing the alteration to the ending, Saleh has remarked that Kanafani in his novella is saying that the people in the tank die without resisting.9 In the film, because of Saleh’s seeming disapproval of Kanafani’s fatalism, sounds of banging against the walls of the tank are heard, while Abul-khaizaran pleads and cajoles a Kuwaiti customs agent to stamp his papers. Moreover, Saleh makes the last shot of the film one of a stiff extended hand curled as if to knock.

I disagree with Saleh’s assumption that Kanafani denied his characters the will to resist. Just because something is not depicted in the plot, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen in the story. I qualify that Kanafani wouldn’t have cared to portray resistance from the characters in the tank, because he would have deemed their resistance at that point not merely futile, but inconsequential. As far as Kanafani was concerned, the three characters’ lives and their will to resist had been doomed as soon as they had signed up to escape their realities as landless refugees and their imperative to resist.

The much debated discrepancy in the endings of the two works notwithstanding; there is evident parallelism between the lives of Kanafani and Saleh. Yet, what is special about The Dupes is that this parallelism between the lives of author and director, notable as it is, is surpassed in the pathos of the parallelism between the lives of Saleh and the principal characters in his film. In an interview several years ago, Saleh lamented not having been able to work in Egypt since his return from Iraq in the early 80s: “Perpetually, I am a stranger, a stranger and this is my fate … I mean that I am in a society of which I approve, but which doesn’t approve of me. What do you do?”10 If Saleh’s career has been doomed because he is a stranger in his own society then the characters in The Duped are doomed because they are compelled to live as strangers in societies to which they could never belong.

*The Dupes is available in the US through Arab Film Distribution. 

The Dupes (1972)The Wages of Fear (1953)

Words Cited

1. Shafik, Viola. Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity. New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 1998. 155. Print.

2. The General Organization for Cinema. The National Film Organization, 2012. Web. 22 Feb. 2012. <>. 

3. Kanafani, Adnan. Ghassan Kanafani: Pages Were Turned (in Arabic). 3rd ed. N.p.: Ghassan Kanafani Cultural Institute, 2001. N. pag. Adnan Kanafani's Website. Web. 23 Feb. 2012.<>.

4. Ibrahim, Bashar. "Ghassan Kanafani ... Cinematically." Al-Kuwait Magazine. Al-Kuwait Magazine, 25 July 2010. Web. 23 Feb. 2012. <>.

5. "Tawfiq Saleh: The Cinema and the Failures of the Egyptian Revolution (in Arabic)." Al-Jazeera. Al-Jazeera, 26 May 2006. Web. 23 Feb. 2012. < D0E68F025C32.htm>.

6. Saleh, Tawfiq. "Tawfiq Saleh to [Al-Jazeera] Documentary: My Most Significant Films Are Without a Screenplay (in Arabic)." Interview by Samira Mazahi. Al-Jazeera Documentary. Al-Jazeera Documentary, 26 Jan. 2009. Web. 23 Feb. 2012. < 2009122104148533299.html>.

7. D Weefi, Mohsen. The Cinema of Tawfiq Saleh (in Arabic). N.p.: The Cultural Development Fund, [c. 1998]. Digital Assets Repository. Web. 23 Feb. 2012. <>.

8. See reference # 5

9. See reference # 5

10. See reference # 5