كنت أذهب إليه في مرسمه بمصر الجديدة فيطردني. لم يكن يطردني بالضبط، وليس كل مرة طبعاً، لكنه لم يكن يتساهل في أي هفوة تنظيمية من جانبي وكان يتعمد معاملتي كصبي معلم بدلاً من زبون. ضخامة جثته واتزانه الوقور يصدّران إحساساً بأنني أقف منه موقف الابن العاق، وهو ما أحسسته على وجه الدقة حين بلغني الخبر بينما أنا على سفر. في المخابرة الهاتفية الأخيرة كان قد قال لي “ابقى اسأل عليَّ”. وكأي شخص مزاجي حقير لم أفعل، تماماً كما تجاهلتُ أبي في أيامه الأخيرة دون أن أعلم أنها الأخيرة أو أسأل نفسي إن كان باقياً لي هذا الأب أو إن كان يمكن أن يعوّض. الآن وقد وصلت إلى حيث كنت ذاهباً، أفكر في كل آبائنا الراحلين، كيف أنهم آجلاً أو عاجلاً يرحلون، وأننا نكون تقاعسنا في السؤال… كل هذه المخابرات المؤجلة وتجاهلي لمن أحب خجلاً أو شوقاً أو خوفاً من وزن لحظات محتملة…تذكرتُ أيضاً يوم قلت له مازحاً إنني لن أتعبه بنفس القدر في مشروعنا التالي المشترك، وكان قد شكا وشكا من ويلات التعامل مع شخص مستهتر ومدلل مثلي حيث اقترح ثم رفض ثم قبل أن يصمم كتاباً عن بيروت يحتوي على نصوصي وصوري التي أرسلتها إليه فور الانتهاء منها بلا توقعات سنة 2005.كان قد عمل في كتابي بلا مقابل، أعطاني اسمه فضلاً عن جهد يديه، ما ساهم ولابد في أنني واصلت الكتابة عن المدن وتمكنت من نشر ما كتبته وربما حتى إثارة شيء من الاهتمام. كان يتحرك من واقع إعجابه بالنص مجرداً من أي اعتبار ولأنه – كما قال لي – تعرّف في الصور على بيروت التي عاش فيها قبل عقود أو سنين. يومها قلت له “عقبال الكتاب اللي جاي يا أستاذ محيي”، وكان رد فعله عكس ما توقعت تماماً، حيث ظننته سيقول شيئاً من قبيل “بعينك”! كان رد فعله فقط أن تنهد تنهيدة قصيرة وابتسم ثم قال ما معناه أنه قد لا يبقى على قيد الحياة ما يكفي من الزمن لإنجاز كتاب. كانت لحظة محيرة. أردت أن أحتضنه أو على الأقل أبكي في حضوره، أن أعبر عن الامتنان والغضب وشيء ثالث يحسه الأبناء حيال هؤلاء الذين يجعلونهم أشخاصاً بحيوات وأسماء. لم أفعل شيئاً بالطبع.وأتذكر أنه كان ينفيني إلى البلكونة كلما أردت أن أشعل سيجارة وقد سد خرماً في صدره كما صار يقول حين أجبره الطبيب على الكف عن التدخين. هناك شيء آسر في أدائه على كل حال، وعندما يأخذه سحر الحكي يتبدى الحنان في صوته بما ينفي آثار ذلك العنف المقطّر. حكاياته شيقة ومتعددة وإن كانت مريرة، في الكثير من الأحيان يتملكه اليأس من هذه البلاد وهؤلاء الناس لكن نبرة التأمل المتفكه لا تبرح صوته. كنت أسترد في حضوره إيماناً بجدوى الثقافة والمثقفين زايلني طوال سنوات كففت أثناءها عن الكتابة بالعربية. والآن أعرف أنه لولا محيي اللباد لما أصدرت كتاباً بعد ذلك الانقطاع.بأحلى المعاني كان مثقفاً مشتبكاً مع الواقع، كان قد تعلم كيف يجنب نفسه ليس فقط الأدلجة والادعاء ولكن أيضاً كل تلك الأشياء المؤسفة والمجهدة التي قد يعاني منها فنان عنده من الشجاعة وحب الغير ما يكفي لاختيار مسار مصمم الجرافيك في زمن لم يكن يعني فيه ذلك سوى شح الموارد والتصادم مع الغباء.أفكر فيه وأقول في عقلي: طيب هأسأل عليك إزاي دلوقتي أنا يا أستاذ محيي؟
ذَكَري على الأرض بين قدميها
بعد يومين – تقول لي، راجية أن لا ألفت إليه انتباه الخادمة – ستكون الخادمة نفسها هنا من جديد. لا، لا، لن تكنس ذكرك. فقط لا يجب أن تراه
فجأة يخرج عِرق نافر من جانب ذكري. كدودة مستميتة يشب على كعبها. يحاول أن يتسلق ساقها
سيكون هناك أطفال – تُواصِل، وأنا أحاول أن لا أنظر إليه – وزوج هو أبوهم، وأب صار جداً فخوراً، لم لا؟
وكعادة البيت الذي لا أحسني غريباً عليه رغم كل شيء – فكرت – ستصخب الأركان بأشخاص أفهمتني أنهم أصدقاؤها. أنهم بريئون وضروريون. ومثل إخوتها المدعوين إلى وليمة بدأت الخادمة في تجهيزها، لن يدوسوا على ذَكَري. فقط لا يجب أن يروه
لكنني رغماً عني أرى العِرق النافر. كدودة مصممة على الحياة، يتشبث بالكعب. ببطء مميت يحاول أن يتسلق ساقها
كنت أحسب المرأة التي حملت مني هي التي أنجبت. ولأن هذا يحدث في المنام نسيت أن هناك أخرى سبقتها في الترتيب. فجأة وجدتني جالساً مع الأخرى هذه وهي لا تشبه نفسها في الواقع. خيل لي أنها هي التي ظنني أصدقائي أتكلم عنها يوم أخبرتهم بأن لي ابناً لا أراه. لكن طوال جلستنا، لم أصدق تماماً أنها أم ابني. عبثاً حاولت أن أتذكر من أي زاوية ولجتها ولم أتعرف على ملامحها بيقين. لذلك عاق فرحتي بتسامحها الخرافي انقباض. لا وعي عندي بأنني أحلم. ورغم أنني بدأت أتلمّس علاقة حميمة ببني آدم يشبهني عنده ثلاث سنين، ممتناً لأن غيابي لم يجعل عند المرأة التي أنجبته ضغينة، ظل الانقباض يشتد. عندما أفقت تذكرت فادي يعلّق على لقاء كارثي بامرأة لم يتخلص من حبها: «حصل الشيء». وحزنت من أجل آباء العالم الغائبين
It is early evening on Tuesday – the busiest time of the week – and a stranger has walked into the Weekly offices. Let us say he is in the headquarters of Al Ahram to visit a friend and has been misled to this den of newsroom inequity. The atmosphere will strike him, first, as uncannily quiet. There is no one in the corridors; while he looks for someone to talk to, no sound emanates from the empty-looking rooms on either side of him for a long time. Stranger still, there is a faint smell of seafood wafting uncertainly. Then, suddenly: a laugh; shrill but somewhat muffled, it ricochets out of and back into an as yet hidden doorway, setting off a ripple effect of hearty, all-Egyptian chuckling unbelievable in context. The stranger follows the sound. He proceeds with caution, as if caught in a time warp; as he does so, the fish smell intensifies. Finally he is open-mouthed before the least assuming of the doors. The medium-sized room is dominated by a single polygonal table, and around it sits every member of staff, inluding chief and managing editor, engrossed in a jolly feast. “Come join us,” Ahmad K says.
Saturday morning. And aside from the fuul and ta’miya buffet set out in the page layout room while we wait for the editorial meeting – all vice comes from layout – there is something unduly relaxed about the pulse of a seemingly normal workplace at the start of the working week. If they are not eating, exchanging day-to-day news or doing both things at the same time, people are reclining, smoking over mugs of green tea, skulking. They come in all shapes and sizes. Among them is a hefty specimen of remarkably pious appearance, the kind of “Sunni” whose long beard and shaved head – not to mention the prayer “raisin” of dead skin on his forehead – bespeaks sternness and lack of appetite. This is the selfsame Ahmad Kamal Mustafa, better known as Ahmad Kamal, and his appetite is actually phenomenal. Paradoxical though it is for his lifestyle choice, you happen to know that a good half of what comes out of his mouth is intentional hilarity; and you cannot help anticipating his next joke. Yet even so, knowing what he is like, the sight of the office’s resident Wahhabi with a ta’miya sandwich in one hand and a car-cleaning cloth in the other doing a folk dance, unprovoked, is still a disorienting gift.
The week begins on Saturday; Thursday and Friday make up the weekend. Work peaks on Monday. Some would contend that work starts on Monday, but let us say Monday is when it peaks. Depending on how various individual duties overlap, Weekly staffers work together in small groups. Each Sunday members of the same group will keep telling each other to arrive early on Monday (official hours start at 11, but since work often goes on till the early hours, official hours seldom apply). The next morning, whoever does turn up at 11 is not surprised to discover that, until 1 or 2 pm, he will remain alone. Later than that, mobile phones start ringing. But no matter which way the convergence happens, by 3 pm the group in question will be gathered around a single desk, with music blaring out of the computer and hot and cold drinks flitting into and out of hands. Everyone has work to do, everyone knows it. But it takes at least another hour before the great Nesmahar S, the petite guardian angel-cum-motherly nag of my group – also the office’s most active chatterbox – stands up to make her no-nonsense announcement: “Time to work now!” Fortunately, before we have even had time to sigh and boo, Ahmad K has entered the room with a little trough of water which he proceeds – reenacting a well-known scene from a classic televised comic play with the song that accompanies it rendered in tandem – to splash water around the office, wetting all surfaces, and clothes.
After the madness of Tuesday comes Wednesday. Traditionally the quietest time of the week, with no work pending except finalising the front page of the newspaper and adding what last-minute news might have come up unexpectedly, it is now a long, hectic day with frequent quarrels between staff members, notably the editor in chief and the head of the page layout department, who seem to everyone but themselves to be more interested in quibbling than finishing off. Thanks to this, and to the fact that the moon of efficiency is inexplicably and exponentially on the wane among us, Wednesday is now the closest we generally come to what people think of when they think of a day at the office. At least it would be – if not for the spontaneous drumming and tabla session that starts, sans instruments, between the room with the polygonal table and layout. Ahmad K looks disapprovingly at the drummers. He has been sitting making faces at the computer, completely absorbed in his work, and as well as being religiously suspect the noise has distracted him. He begins to deliver a lecture on the need for employees to show respect at their place of work; he sounds convincing. But before he has completed two sentences – no one stops drumming in response to his admonitions – Ahmad K has stood up and joined in the drumming himself.
If anyone actually came in on Sunday, it would be a pleasant enough day with plenty of time for gatherings, drumming and culinary indulgence in addition to work. Could it be precisely for that reason that no one really comes in? The reporters are still finishing off their stories, the editors have nothing to work on. The designers could spend time uselessly pursuing the editors but they would rather loiter. It is actually the designers who come in regularly on Sundays, both because they have additional responsibilities to do with archiving and the web edition and because, well, they can never claim to be working from home. And this is why they end up spending more time with whoever happens to be there from outside their department on Sunday than on any other day. They pitch stories (Weekly designers are all amateur writers); they gossip; they turn into film critics and political analysts and advice columnists. They eat. The office is quiet but not uncannily so. And it is in the middle of such a conversation that you can expect to encounter Ahmad K, all nearly 100 kg of him, standing on top of the desk of one editor or another – for no particular reason – balancing said editor on his shoulder and back.
Love, life and Uncle Joe
Interviewed byYoussef Rakha
In his unashamedly topical thriller, Al-Aakhar (The Other), the new world order takes on disastrously ominous dimensions as a group of rapacious Egyptian and American businessmen, in inexplicable liaison with religious extremists throughout the world, go about collecting funds to build a religious complex in the Sinai where Christians, Muslims and Jews can coexist in peace — perhaps an oblique reference to Sadat’s unfinished project of the 1980s. Meanwhile a love story has developed between Adam (Hani Salama) — the son of an Egyptian businessman and his American wife, Margret (Nabila Ebeid) — and Hanan (Hanan Tourk), a struggling young journalist intent on exposing the corruption and injustice which besets the system. The businessmen’s undertaking, of course, turns out to be a sham, and the evils of unmoderated privatisation are eventually revealed for what they are, but not until the film reveals its own possible shortcomings.
Unlike Chahine’s last two features, Al-Mohagir (The Emigrant, his biggest box-office success to date) and Al-Masir (Destiny), Al-Aakhar tackles current issues head-on, rather than dressing them in biblical or historical garb. Yet here too the plot is bafflingly elaborate, favouring dramatic intensity over credibility; the characters are nearer abstract types than human individuals; the good and evil camps are too clearly demarcated; and scenes depicting the two young protagonists’ ill-fated love are by turns melodramatic and sentimental. Chahine seems to have been employing the perfect formula for plebeian, if not altogether pedestrian, entertainment. The results are gripping, often amusing morality tales, but they offer neither the aesthetic wholeness nor the intellectual excitement to be expected from modern Arab cinema’s most celebrated agent provocateur.
Despite continuing success worldwide — after receiving Cannes’ prix du cinquantieme in 1997, Chahine chose not to participate in the official competition this year, so as not to compete with younger directors — one wonders whether his seemingly obsessive concern with current political and economic questions, the urge “to live in my time”, is ultimately justified from an artistic perspective.
His disarming charisma aside, the 73-year-old director finds the questions posed by “modernity” not only justified, however, but inevitable: “You tell me is this your business or not. Of course it’s my business. I’m talking about human beings. If you are talking about people who are living with you at the time you are creating some kind of work, then the whole context must be included… All that happens politically and economically influences me socially… psychologically, influences how I make love in bed.
|Despite the positive tone in which he talks about Arab cinema in Cannes, Youssef Chahine’s 1997 contribution to the official competition, Al-Masir, failed to glean the much coveted Palme d’Or|
“Basically I’m doing drama, but the drama cannot be detached from reality. And the dosage is very, very difficult. Sometimes there are things that I want to get rid of quickly because I’m scared they might overpower the drama. When I learn more, I will be better at proportions, but I’m still learning and that’s the truth of it. It’s very hard, when you want to make drama, and you have a position that you want to expound. Sometimes maybe I rush into things, the way we’re all rushing into globalisation right now without really understanding what it means. But it’s the drama that makes you sit and watch. You want to know what will happen next, the boy and the girl, the love story…
“Maybe I could have been a little bit more subtle but there is always the fear of not being understood. You mustn’t forget that you have 80 per cent illiteracy. I mean, I love you very much, but still I want to try and talk to more people. You’ll remember when people were saying that Joe is being cryptic and nobody understands him — this was a battle against me. And I don’t want to reach the stage where I don’t find the funds necessary to do my work.
“Cinema is a popular art, and the American school in which I grew up stresses the entertainment value of the work. But to what extent you should be subtle — it depends. I am trying my best. The point is to balance your proportions, so that people will understand where the catastrophe is coming from, and there is no catastrophe that doesn’t have political and economic colour.
“For globalisation to work here certain economic and social conditions must obtain. That we have traditions and conventions going back seven thousand years — and I don’t say this in a jingoistic way — doesn’t mean that we are chauvinistic. Culturally we are different, even physically we are different. And our specificity is what’s delicious about us. So America can’t come and tell me you have to be like me. Rather, it should say that we want to cooperate in a way that lets me retain what’s particularly attractive about me. I mean, I’m all for the businessmen, I’m all for globalisation, but I also want to know how to limit it, how to protect myself.”
Indeed the downside of an increasingly market-oriented society — which Chahine’s own production company, Misr International, has had to confront — gives his (often comic) depiction of brusque businessmen, committed journalists and sincere employees being made redundant an unforeseen autobiographical dimension. Two telling encounters had prompted Chahine to embark on his project. First, he saw a businessman furiously banging the table and roaring, “I pay, therefore I tell you what to do.” Second, one of the many economists he consulted assured him that the country was in mint condition, everything was flourishing and there was nothing to complain about.
“I’ve had a company for thirty years, I give chances to new kids to try out their talents. For 30 years I didn’t need anybody to push me, I kept on going to festivals even though sometimes it was military people, and sometimes what they call officials who were in control, and in either case they didn’t know much about cinema. My company was created for about LE14,000 and it did all this over the years — really a lot of pictures on which people worked. I have a hundred families which this company is supporting, and usually they are picked because they really love cinema, and they would suffer for cinema, give something more.
“Now people talk to me about concessions for people who have LE200 million. I don’t even know how many zeros there are in LE200 million. I said maybe they’re talking about two million. It was insane. And I thought, don’t tell me the country is flourishing. Say that a very small part of the country is being favoured…”
But where is “the other” in all this? Chahine’s methods of tackling difference include a guest appearance by Edward Said which, though dramatically unnecessary, summarises the point of the film in straightforward Arabic, with Said arguing against the them-and-us approach to human civilisation and affirming the value of open cultural exchange. “I think that really Professor Said is extremely important for any Arab. When he appears, this might tempt you to read his works. It’s enough that he agreed to it. He is always in a huge confrontation, and the lines that he says are taken from his texts. And besides he was unbelievably sweet. To give us so much of his time and grace the film with his presence…”
Margret, on the other hand, symbolises the American obsession with absolute (political and economic) control, and it is her blindly selfish possessiveness that perpetuates Adam and Hanan’s death at the end. “When you want your hegemony to be absolute, dramatically that’s as if you want to kill your children. Too much control, too much possessiveness — and you feel like saying, what’s wrong with you people, why be the policemen of the world? I don’t hate Margret. But she’s pathetic. She can’t understand that nobody can control everything in a real democracy, which is what we’re striving for…”
Margret’s involvement with a Christian extremist sect, moreover, shifts the emphasis from Islamic extremism (Al-Masir’s principal topic) to Western religious fanaticism. Even the Fayoum mummy portraits, with which she decorates her house, acquire a sinister aspect. “The sects use even Jesus Christ to propagate their lies, they use the Fayoum portraits. And maybe it’s about time that you talk about non-Islamic extremism. But the most I can do is criticise, I am not a judge.”
But where Margret’s computer becomes an agent of international political conspiracy, encoding people’s private lives in microchips and boding such tragedies as the killing of the protagonist’s Algerian friend by extremists almost as soon as he returns to his country, Adam and Hanan’s love remains “the most important thing in the world”.
“What do I want to know about the other? It’s the ways in which he is different. But rather than being fascist, racist, and hating the difference — I find it intriguing. It’s not just a blind mad love. You are different to me, I’m different to you. But maybe that’s what attracts us to each other. And we should teach people that the difference is something attractive.
“I am very sensual. I hate porn but I like eroticism, and it’s very important for me that you get excited while you watch. Love is the best thing in life, so I want to show love, but without offending people’s sensitivities. And it’s not just the physical gestures but people who care. How can you go on talking about love? How can you liberate yourself from all those dreadful repressions that beset you from the very beginning? That’s what the question is for me…
“I’m always surrounded by young people,” Chahine explains. “The kid who writes the screenplays with me, Khaled Youssef, is not yet 30. But I tell him — you’re getting too old for me now and you must be replaced by someone younger. Because that’s the way to know what’s going on, the real problems. So I’m really trying to live in modernity, in my time.”
And living in his time he certainly has been. Now that he has appropriated current issues so fully, though, the question to be asked is what next?
Al-Ahram Weekly, May 1999