INTERVIEW: Writing for a cause

Gihan Elgharabawy, Saturday 5 Oct 2019

The people of Egypt are the inspiration behind the films of veteran Egyptian scriptwriter Wahid Hamed, as he explained to Gihan Elgharabawy

Wahid Hamed
Wahid Hamed

Every morning he takes his pen and paper to the banks of the Nile in Cairo, the most beautiful scene in the world in his view. He takes his usual seat at the Grand Hayat Hotel, formerly the Meridien, and orders a pot of green tea followed by a cup of Turkish coffee.

The waitress, a young woman called Nira with a tranquil smile on her face, brings the orders and sets them on the table. He asks her a few questions in a friendly, paternal voice. She is one of the many ordinary people that Egyptian film scriptwriter Wahid Hamed likes to strike up conversations with, keeping up with and learning more about their lives. His driver, the butchers and grocers and fruit and vegetable vendors he frequents and the tailor who adjusts the hems of his trousers “just so” are also among such people.

Hamed lives with and among the people. They are the source of his inspiration for his films and the characters who people them, one reason why the films of Hamed have left an indelible impact on the hearts and minds of Egyptian people for nearly 50 years.

On Saturdays, Hamed attends the “assembly of evil”, as he and his friends jokingly call their weekly gathering in which they share ideas, discuss the latest news, and trade juicy bits of gossip in ways that both amaze and trigger outbursts of laughter. Most of the members of this “assembly” are prominent writers, intellectuals and journalists. Sometimes well-known actors and filmmakers join them. All, without exception, order tea and coffee and nothing else.

Without realising this was their custom, the present writer ordered a vanilla ice cream the first time I joined them, only to discover that I was the only one who had ordered anything other than tea or coffee. Hamed quickly relieved my embarrassment by asking the waiter to add a scoop of strawberry and a scoop of chocolate to “make the ice cream more joyful”.

I would soon become more familiar with Hamed’s finer traits after becoming a member of the “assembly of evil”. In addition to being considerate, he also loves life. He is quick to accept others, no matter how different they may be to him, and he is keen to give everyone their due. He expresses himself freely and sincerely. These are the keys to the success of his works: love, honesty, and the quest for justice.
“Any screenwriter must advocate a cause if people are to like his films and believe in them,” he said. “If I asked, ‘where’s the caviar?’ and ‘why has the price of caviar gone up?’ no one would know what I was talking about or pay any attention. But being in Egypt if I ask ‘why has the price of fuul beans gone up?’ everyone will understand and will gather around and listen.”

The famous screenwriter understands, perhaps more than many others, that cinema, the arts and culture in general are not superfluous luxuries or frivolous sources of entertainment. “They are Egypt’s soft power. When in recent years we started to trivialise culture and the arts, that was when we turned ourselves into a bird without feathers that couldn’t fly,” he said.
“We’re not as strong and influential in the world as we can and should be. The budget for all the activities of the ministry of culture is less than a billion pounds. But it’s not just a large budget that we need.

Something even more important is required, namely the genuine appreciation of how important cinema, the arts and culture are in human development. If we truly realised the major role that art, culture and the media play in a modern state, many things would change and not just Egypt’s image abroad.”
“More importantly, good art is instrumental to creating a strong and united domestic front that would not be vulnerable to the types of sharp division that jeopardise stability and people’s welfare.”

Wahid Hamed

A WRITER’S STORIES: Hamed’s career is filled with stories that can match his comedies in terms of humour and the unexpected.
At the outset of his career in the 1970s, he received the highest fee then paid for a play written for a popular theatre. When he went to the director to thank him for putting on the play, the director was shocked to discover that the author, Hamed, whose name was on the billboards and in all the publicity, was the young man standing before him who seemed so naïve.

“Have you ever crossed the sea,” he asked. Seeing Hamed’s perplexed expression, he said, “I mean have you ever travelled abroad?”
“No, I’ve never been outside the country.”
“Well then, you can’t be a good writer. Anyone who hasn’t travelled can’t write well.”
“What’s travelling got to do with knowing how to write,” Hamed asked. “Naguib Mahfouz has never crossed the sea or left Egypt.”

“Who says that Naguib Mahfouz knows how to write,” the director retorted.
Realising that further discussion was futile, Hamed made his excuses and left. The next thing he knew, his fee had been lowered. They had discovered his dangerous secret: that he was young and had never crossed the sea.
I laughed when I heard this anecdote during a session of the “assembly of evil”. I asked Hamed if he had seen Al-Barr Al-Tany (The Other Shore), starring Mohamed Ali, the actor and construction contractor who has aroused so much attention recently.

“I’ve watched the videos he posted on the Internet, which have been the source of so much commentary on social media. I saw Al-Barr Al-Tany that he produced and starred in, which is about a group of poor young people who try to migrate illegally in search of work and the chance of a better life,” he said.
“But in my opinion, Mohamed Ali is a poor actor. I know nothing about his construction work, so I’m unable to say whether or not it’s just as bad. He has now cast himself as a political opposition figure, but I personally don’t believe him. From my experience with what attracts film-goers, I would say that his videos follow a cardinal rule of sensationalism: that what’s forbidden is desirable. At the same time, the media has not responded appropriately. It has made the mistake of giving him far more attention than he deserves. It wanted to do what was right, but in so doing it showered him with fame, which is what he was after anyway.”

During our conversation, a middle-aged man approached our table, greeted Hamed with great respect and apologised for interrupting. He then praised the screenwriter’s work and asked if he and his family could have their picture taken with him as a keepsake. Hamed smiled, stood up and followed the man to a nearby part of the hotel overlooking the Nile. When he returned, walking slowly with his cane, I joked that “people treat you like a film star! I bet you’re the only screenwriter that happens to.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d seen this happen. Ordinary people remember his face and clearly love and respect him.

Wahid Hamed

When I told him this, he said, “do you know why? Because I’ve never deceived them. I’ve never sold them shoddy goods. I love my work. I enjoy it, and I’m faithful to it. When I pick up pen and paper and start to write, I forget that I’m Wahid Hamed. I’m not interested in fame, the competition, material reward or success at the box-office. None of that matters. What matters to me is getting my ideas and message to the people.”

“I learned something very important early on in my life. It didn’t matter what my job was. What mattered was that I was the best one doing it. If I had been a shoe-shiner, then I’d have been the best in the business. The same thing would apply if I had been a carpenter, a tailor or a cook.”
That desire to be the best together with dedication, ambition and indefatigable effort are the keys to Hamed’s success. To him, hard work and commitment are articles of faith.

“I don’t believe in luck,” he stressed. “The footballer Mohamed Salah, for example, would never have had such incredible success because good luck made it possible for him to play abroad. It was because he loves his work and is fully dedicated to it. He never surrendered to setbacks or rejections. He worked as hard as he possibly could, from the start of his career in Egypt to when he started to play professionally abroad, and he still does today.”

He could have been spoiled by fame or wealth. Things could have gone to his head like some other players we know of who have had to abandon the field because of women or other things. Many other players had the same opportunities he did. They also left the country to play professionally abroad. But Salah persisted and he reached the top because of his dedication and his love for his work. That’s why the people love him.”

A SPECIAL CAREER: But what sets one screenwriter apart from others?
“The clever screenwriter is the one who can put his ideas across in a way that gives audiences pleasure. In every scene, he offers them something unexpected. But at the same time, he has to be honest with the public. He can’t sell them bogus goods. If he has an idea or a cause to advocate, his skill resides in how well or how convincingly he presents it to the public,” Hamed said.

“If there’s information he’s missing for this purpose, he has to find it. For example, when I created the character of a photographer in the countryside for the film ‘Laugh and the Picture will Turn out Right’ (Edhak Al-Soura Tetlaa Helwa, 1998) there were many things I needed to know in order to bring the character alive, details about his personality, his work environment and even his manner of speaking, for example. So, I sent a young journalist out to do some research, and she came back with several real-life examples of professional photographers who work in rural Egypt. This explains the success of the character that was played by actor Ahmed Zaki.”

One of the most important and moving scenes in the film flashed to mind. “But we’re so small, Sayed,” said actress Sanaa Gamil, who played opposite Zaki, remarking on the vast distance between their humble rural family and the business mogul in the film. They were standing beneath one of the mogul’s towering high-rises at that point in the film, many parts of which Egyptian cinema-goers know by heart. The brief scene encapsulated much about the class disparities in Egypt.

“You find class disparities everywhere in the world,” Hamed said. “The shortage of money isn’t the problem. If you’re poor, you might have to go to bed without dinner. But it’s another thing if someone, even someone in your own home, locks you up in your room. Then you wouldn’t even get the luxury of sleep!”
“In most of my films, I treat the ideas of justice, human freedom, and overcoming fear and oppression. Some people think that money gives you courage. This isn’t true. Courage is a part of the basic human make-up. Money might also turn a rich man into a coward. He’d be worrying about his capital, his property, and his interests all the time. On the other hand, it is the poor who have made revolutions in history. In other words, poverty didn’t strip them of courage in the face of tyranny.”

“Money never meant much to me personally either, apart from the fact that it helps me to live a dignified life. I don’t have to reach out my hand and beg. For example, when I fell ill, the government kindly offered to treat me at the expense of the state. Fortunately, I was able to cover my own medical bills, so I thanked the officials and paid for my treatment myself. This is where money gets its value: when it helps people to preserve their independence, freedom and dignity. Apart from that, as a farmer at heart all my life, as long as I have the money for a cup of coffee and for a cup of tea to offer my guests then I’m a king who lacks nothing.”

Simplicity and serenity are essential and visible traits in Hamed’s character. He is the screenwriter whose name is most associated with the fight against religious extremism and the pernicious effects of Political Islam in Egypt. Dozens of his most famous works call for enlightenment, rationalism and humanitarianism, and lash out against corruption, hypocrisy, the exploitation of religion and violence in the name of religion as practiced by the Muslim Brotherhood and its paramilitary wing.

Nevertheless, I’ve never seen him in the company of a bodyguard. I can’t picture Hamed with some burly guard in a suit, shades, and walkie-talkie sticking to him like a shadow and opening doors for him. The image is totally out of place with this modest figure who is used to fitting in with ordinary people, which is precisely what enables him to read society so well and express people’s problems and dreams, especially those of the more marginalised segments of the population.

 “After Israel put me on their list of targets to eliminate in Egypt because of my opposition to normalisation and because my works are hostile to religious extremist movements and violent terrorist groups, the government kindly posted guard details around my house. However, like any ordinary Egyptian from the countryside, I believe that God is my protector. We will be struck only when He decrees it. Former president Anwar Al-Sadat was assassinated when he was surrounded by his soldiers. We can find many similar examples elsewhere in the world that confirm that guards cannot ward off death,” he said.
To Hamed, fear is one of the artist’s worst enemies. “A good artist never fears. Fear will break him, destroy his artistic gifts, and strip him of the ability to convey his message or to sustain his success. The actor Adel Imam is a great artist and a dear friend of mine. He risked his life to go to Assiut, the stronghold of extremism and radical Islamism in Egypt, in order to present a play in the 1980s. He fought terrorism with art.”

“I think Adel Imam has given more to Egyptian society than Omar Sharif, for example. I don’t believe in such a thing as a ‘world artist’. What does that mean? What value does it have? To me the true value of an artist lies in what he does for society, in how he serves its causes, and in his faith in ordinary people. A true artist is good at serving as a voice for those who would normally go unnoticed and who rarely find anyone to express their daily problems or modest dreams.”

The actors Amr Waked, Khaled Al-Nabawi and Khaled Abul-Naga all speak English fluently. They’ve acted in well-known foreign films. But how much have they given to their society? How have they expressed their love for the people in Egypt by responding to their problems? These are the criteria that should concern us,” he said.

Wahid Hamed

To what extent does the success of an artist in Egypt depend on his hobnobbing skills, making useful connections and not alienating the authorities, I asked. From the change in his expression, it was clear that this was a subject Hamed could get worked up about.

“Hobnobbing and PR are not the keys to artistic success. Cinema and art in general is an open field and a long and difficult challenge. Those who last are those who work more, who give more, and who are armed by their culture rather than by connections.”

“Ahmed Zaki loved his work more than his own son. Adel Imam remained true to his art and gave us a huge quantity of successful works that people love. The actresses Nabila Ebeid and Yosra and most of the stars in my films made their work a priority in their lives. They gave their souls to it, and they were sincere. This is why they achieved such a strong success that lasted throughout their lives.”

“There is no such thing as an art that’s ‘as easy as pushing a knife through butter.’ There are always challenges and ordeals. I personally have endured repeated problems with the censors, especially with the films Al-Ghoul [The Plot] and Al-Barea [The Innocent]. But I’ve been writing since the 1970s, and since then so many faces have come and gone in government and in the censor’s department. If I’d depended on my relations, my career would have ended long ago. I depend on the quality of my work instead. When I encounter a problem, I turn to the law, and in the end I win. I believe that ultimately truth prevails and lies are short-lived.”

A FAMILY TRADITION: When the subject turns to his only son, the filmmaker Marwan Hamed, his eyes light up and his voice becomes filled with pride.
“My son Marwan is like me in this respect. In fact, he’s better than me. He succeeds by virtue of his own efforts, not because of his father’s name. The best gift I gave Marwan was to make him depend on himself. When people talk about his last film, which went on record as the highest-grossing film in the history of Egyptian cinema, naturally I feel happy as a father. But I don’t measure his success in box-office revenues. That’s not always a just gauge.”

“I’m proud that he has been able to work successfully with major stars and make his own way without any help from me. It’s beautiful to see a future that is better than the past and to see your own son excelling over you. Many artists who have worked with Marwan have told me that ‘your son is so well brought up.’ That’s the most beautiful thing to hear.”

I also felt that he had a special place in his heart for his wife, the journalist and newscaster Zeinab Sweidan. “Zeinab’s a loving mother and a sensible woman with her head screwed on. What I most admire in her, and what attracted me to her to begin with, is her confidence and self-esteem. I like strong and independent women who take pride in themselves. I don’t like weak women who have no views or opinions of their own.”

When you’re with Wahid Hamed, you feel like asking him as many questions as he has friends and disciples. But it’s always better to listen than to speak, because he is such a treasure-house of stories. He is a genuine part of the history of the Egyptian cinema and the past and the present of the lives and culture of people in Egypt. Maybe this is why people when they first meet him ask him his opinions on the situation in the country today and the future that lies ahead. People tend to believe him, and many think he possesses powers of discernment capable of seeing through fog.
Often when posed such questions, he relates a story that goes as follows.

“The king once asked his vizier to engrave his ring with a saying that would make him happy if he were sad and sad if he were happy. The vizier took the ring and pondered the problem the whole night long. The following day he presented the king with the ring with the following words engraved on it: ‘this time too will pass.’”
Hamed then tells the person who had asked him about the current situation in Egypt that “this time too will pass.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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