16 - 22 March 2000
Issue No. 473
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
The pen is a feather on the wing of a laughing bird: the pen is the paintbrush's song
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Special Focus Travel Living Sports Profile People Time Out Chronicles
Laugh till you cryProfile by George Bahgory
A great encyclopaedia of nationalist history, a compendium of wit and wisdom and an anthology of verse, all in a convenient pocket-sized package: here is Mahmoud El-Saadani. He is a great narrator of history, among other things. Tonight, however, is the night on which his legendary wit as one of Egypt's best known satirical writers will sparkle. A quiet corner by the Nile, in Giza, is our meeting place. The hours of the night seem to fly. Before we know it, it is dawn already. He is in no hurry, and his composure is calm, until the punch line, when laughter breaks out. He likens the chuckles to the burbling of water from an earthenware jug. But he is the teller of the joke and the instigator of the laughter, so he shares our joy with a faint smile. The caustic glint in his eyes lasts for a moment longer; an aftertaste of bitter lemon and hot chilies seems to drown the sweetness, the candy and honey.
During our nocturnal meetings, El-Saadani sits rolling his cigarette as his fingers grip the fragrance of the earth. He folds the ends of the smooth paper tightly into a cylinder around the thick roll of tobacco, and licks it closed like a secret letter. One of us puts a match to it as he purses his lips and inhales. Rings of smoke rise into the air above his head, he watches them intently, his eyes narrow and sharp. He smiles, but saves the laughter for some moments in the hollow of his closed mouth, like a balloon of joyful colours yet closed upon itself. His cheeks are blown up tight, and the jaws open up as a lock of silvery gray hair falls on his wide forehead: a question mark, challenging the meaning of the moment. We raise our eyes to follow his mischievous gaze.
Whenever I find myself surrounded by this large group of friends, I am gripped with a fear I have always felt in his company. What if I am the next victim of his quick, merciless wit? The tobacco cylinder seems to last as long as his stories. Anecdotes and insinuations roll from his lips. Our eyes became fixed on a spot inside or outside the rings of smoke which seemed strikingly white against the dark blue night, the Nile and stars. A gentle breeze hovers around and between us, like a bird singing to us from afar -- from the opposite bank of the river, perched on a tall tree before sleep. But his eyes are resting on the stars. He pursues his narration, but his eyes and ours are fixed in space, as though engaged in conversation with some distant satellite.
He is telling us about the time he asked God to allow him to live only to be 70. But that was almost ten years ago. God, he quips, seems to have given him more than he asked for, for he is nearly 80. Others are greedy, asking God to hold death back until they are a hundred. It is not so with him.
As a writer of history, El-Saadani has the humour and sardonic grace of a contemporary El-Gabarti. He writes about the rulers of Egypt: Abdallah Ibn Jubeir and Ali Bey Al-Kebir. In his book Misr Min Thani (Egypt Revisited) Saadani writes that Amr Ibn Al-Aas considered the pigeon resting on the roof of his tent a good omen, and decided to build his capital on the camp site, calling it Al-Fustat. His talent resides in his ability to lace history with acute observations about contemporary life. Over the years, Fustat expanded, and around the mosque bearing the name of the great general, new markets sprang up. Trade still booms today: the square is flooded with neon lights and mobile phones twitter like birds.
He switches to the times of Abdallah El-Nadim, the poet and contemporary of Ahmed Orabi, and Sayed Darwish, whose songs echoed the hopes of the masses in Saad Zaghlul's day. El-Saadani found a large variety of subjects for his satirical gifts at the Mudhik-Khana Café (the House of Laughter) in Bab Al-Khalq. Every evening, El-Saadani would select one of its wealthy and influential patrons as the target of his acerbic wit: a British officer, a pasha or a politician allied with the forces of occupation against Saad Zaghlul and the nationalists.
He has a small skull, pierced by two sharp brilliant eyes. His small head is borne aloft upon an elegant neck, which rises between two skinny shoulders: the bones protrude, declaring their presence under the skin. His collar bones are angular and assertive, standing to attention whenever the heat releases his neck from the grip of his two top buttons.
I have known Mahmoud El-Saadani for over 40 years. I have imprints of him in my memory from our press days. Every time I see him, I retrieve them, and they seem to breathe anew, reviving the pulse of those bygone times. The first memory is of him with Zakariya El-Heggawi, Egypt's most celebrated popular artist in the '50s. The second is of El-Saadani participating at an impromptu seminar at Rose El-Youssef, at the old offices on Said Street. He was the centre of the meeting, steering the discussion and drawing on his daily experiences to illustrate his witty remarks. Everyone was laughing: Ihsan Abdel-Quddous, Ahmed Bahaaeddin, Hassan Fouad, Gamal Kamel... I could never join in, not even as a laughing listener. I sat apart, and pretended to be drawing them, taking myself away from that long labyrinth toward pain and fame.
COMPANIONS AT DAWN: With Zakariya El-Heggawi (top) and Hassan Fouad (bottom)
His influence and dominating character were not limited to this close group. His stories filtered out, and it was common to hear someone asking a friend if he had heard the "latest El-Saadani". In two expressive lines, he would transport his listeners to the Qur'an school of Sheikh Mohamed. You could almost feel the blows from the teacher's cane raining down on your head: "Sheikh Mohamed has a stunted figure like a pupil forgotten by his parents, and his hair has turned grey. He is completely hunch-backed, like a horseshoe worn away by excessive use."
In those days, the childhood pal with whom he roamed the alleys of Giza was Tughan, the painter. El-Saadani describes him as a giant, in whose company he felt safe. He followed him everywhere like his shadow.
El-Saadani and I both became staunch supporters of the provincial teams that usually lost. We were Ismaili fans. Once, we lost each other in the crowd. When night came, he borrowed a truck from a friend of his and drove around, calling out through the loud speaker: "Where's that painter boy?"
The next vivid memory is of the day he asked me to go with him to meet Tewfik El-Hakim at the Casino des Pigeons. The famous writer used to go there to enjoy a Friday lunch of stuffed pigeons in the warm sun. El-Saadani was planning to pick his brains while the genius was feeling serene. "You sketch him," he said. "Try to make it funny, but profound."
It was the beginning of a golden age for the press, an age of publications tailored to "young hearts and open minds." Saadani wrote about the humorists, especially Sheikh Abdel-Aziz El-Bishri, who outwitted them all. He himself is a disciple of El-Bishri, although he would not be so bold as to admit it. His mentor was no doubt the late poet and journalist Kamel El-Shennawi, in whose presence El-Saadani would never venture to display his sense of humour.
El-Saadani never had his photograph on the articles he wrote. Instead, he would have a caricature of himself drawn by Bahgat, Ihab, or Mustafa Hussein. Having thus turned his satire against himself, and become the object of his own sharp wit, he could easily persuade any reader to accept his caustic description of others.
Once in London, he angered a traffic policeman by jaywalking unconcernedly, as I trotted along beside him. El-Saadani's reaction was swift and decisive: he plunged his hand into his pocket and extracted a large cigar, which he presented to the now chuckling policeman.
A beautiful English friend invited us to a party. El-Saadani had asked me to draw a portrait of her, one for him and another to send to the newspaper we were both working for. On our way to the party, he asked the cab driver to stop at several shops, where he bought heaps of meat, vegetables, fruits and cheese, placing them all in a large basket which we bore to the English friend. There was no difference between his customs and those of any umda in a tiny Egyptian village. Incidentally, I had to carry the basket on my head.
He would always leave the TV on when he went to sleep, and often when we were staying together I would wake up to find him snoring, a smile on his face, under a pile of blankets. Letting the news of the world fill the room all night was a way of recharging his wit. The sounds filled his head with ideas, which he then put to paper rapidly.
El-Saadani's jokes were born of disparities and contradictions, exaggeration and puns. He had a gift for recasting any situation, flavouring it with his typically Egyptian humour. His friends consider him an artist, the very best, who illustrates and narrates the inexhaustible humour of life. His circle of friends includes the butcher and tailor of Giza's narrow alleys as well as poets and writers. I hear his laughter now, as I sit writing. I am filled with joy. Drawing his happy face is too tempting to resist. I savour his laughter, then release it like smoke -- it is gone, hovering for an instant at the open window, now borne away by the breeze.
(photos: Mohamed Mossad)