|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
4 - 10 January 2001
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Time and againIf a screenplay isn't controversial, chances are this man is not its author. He has made his name by shattering taboos, addressing terrorism, corruption, impotence and now national unity
Profile by Nadia Abou El-Magd
Ramadan is over, but the debate over Wahid Hamed's most recent TV series is not. Impassioned articles have swept the Egyptian press; tens of seminars and interviews have been held. Awan Al-Ward (A Time for Flowers) is the controversy of the town. But Wahid Hamed is sad.
AUTHOR, AUTHOR: from top, Adel Imam and Youssra in Al-Mansi (The Forgotten); Idhak Al-Soura Titla' Hilwa (Smile for the Camera); Terrorism and Kebab; A Time for Flowers; Pleasure Market; the forthcoming Deil Al-Samaka (Fishtail).
The headlines are at least one part of the reason: one reads "Hamed's flowers fluster Muslims and Copts;" another, "A time for preaching... and sex." Then there is the more straightforward "An open call to destroy values."
When I called him for an interview, I thought he would be tired of talking. I was wrong.
"I'm at the Méridien every day. Come anytime between 10am and 2pm." I had met him over six years ago -- same time, same place, same table. This is where Hamed has been writing for the past 22 years. "I like the Nile, I like open views. Art is about beauty. Besides, I don't know how to write at home. I write about people better when I'm surrounded by them," he told me with a big smile. There are other hotels that overlook the Nile, I said. "I don't like change," was his response.
The smile disappeared when I asked him about Awan Al-ward. "Listen, I'm always afraid. Despite my long career, I'm always afraid and worried. I'm even more worried now, after this debate between those who are for and those who are against the series. I'm upset because most of what has been written is not criticism but lies, indecency and ignorance."
But the series is over. What is there to be worried about? "The series resulted in a battle," he replies in astonishment. It is difficult to believe he had not anticipated it. "Not at all," the perplexed Hamed protests -- before adding: "Yes, I admit that I wanted the series to be shocking. We have to break this siege, so there might be some excesses."
Still, Hamed is very sensitive to criticism, and now feels betrayed. "People didn't understand me: many chose to close their eyes and minds," he says, on the verge of tears. "They don't want to understand."
He should be used to extreme reactions by now, though -- after all, he made his name by arousing, then riding, just such controversies. "I'm not going to go backward," he exclaims. "Either I write what I believe, or I won't write at all. I have my agenda and I engage in battles that suit my size." His surprise, rather, stems from the fact that many Christians were outraged by the words he put in the characters' mouths. "I didn't expect the Christian side to object to the series. Copts were shocked and upset because one character is a Christian woman who married a Muslim man -- although it is a marginal event in the script, one portrayed as having taken place 40 years earlier, and although she herself admits that she was wrong. Besides, there are real cases of this in Egyptian society. We are partners in this nation, and they shouldn't stipulate that they want to be the good guys while the others have to be the bad guys."
Since he is taking on taboos, could he have had a Muslim woman married to a non-Muslim man? "No, no, no, no -- but that doesn't happen in reality, civil marriage is not accepted in Egypt. I'm not going to write scripts on people's request. I derive my stories from society."
In Awan Al-ward, Hamed addresses a topic that has never been broached on TV -- a topic, indeed, that the official media has tended to steer clear of generally: relations between Copts and Muslims in Egypt. Amal, the daughter of a Muslim man and a Christian woman, marries Mahmoud, a policeman. The kidnapping of their infant son paves the way for a rapprochement between their families. Viewers were particularly taken aback by frank discussions of stereotypes, not to mention such startling lines as "Love is a third religion without a prophet." Then there was the episode where the topic of women's virginity before marriage was broached and dismissed with a directness some judged culturally offensive. Hamed concedes that parts of the dialogue were intentionally straightforward, "for the message to come across to all viewers, like a school lesson."
Several Christians have filed lawsuits against Hamed, but he is no stranger to the courtroom. He was once quoted as saying: "The lawsuits against me are more numerous than my works." Still, legal action does bother him, "but I'm ready to be jailed for my work's sake; I defend it, like a cat defending her kittens." According to him, the problem is not official censorship: "We have a real margin of freedom, but the people can't stomach it -- I don't know why."
In 1993, after three years of problems with the censor, Egyptian TV aired Al-A'ila (The Family), another of Hamed's works. "It was a cry from the heart against terrorism and extremism." After the series was shown, Hamed was given a bodyguard -- whom he leaves at home.
"God is the only guardian. And anyway, an artist's freedom should be unlimited."
Two years later, Hamed wrote Tuyour Al-Zalam (Birds of Darkness) for the cinema, in which he addressed corruption and terrorism. It received seven awards from a Catholic centre -- and one lawsuit, filed against him by a Muslim cleric, is still pending. "I'm not against the Islamic trend, I'm against extremism and terrorism," he explains.
He once wrote: "When I take a stand against terrorism, I am taking a stand against backwardness, poverty, ignorance and oppression, and speaking out for freedom, progress and enlightenment."
As confident as he is in his own demagogic capacities, however, he doesn't "expect Muslims and Copts to love each other more now, after they have seen Awan Al-ward. No work of art is capable of doing that. I just want it to take us two or three steps toward enlightenment." The smile has reappeared, and Hamed relaxes again.
One of Hamed's landmark movies is Al-Irhab wal-Kebab (Terrorism and Kebab), about a citizen whose frustrating encounters with the behemoth of Egyptian bureaucracy turn him into an accidental kidnapper at the Mugamma. When asked what their demands are, his hostages can only think of kebab. "People don't know what they want," Hamed says earnestly. "They are crushed, their dreams are impossible, they can't believe their demands can be fulfilled, so they ask for kebab." This is one of Hamed's favourite themes: lower middle class Egyptians burdened by everyday problems.
Hamed came to Cairo in 1963 and enrolled at Cairo University's Faculty of Arts, in the philosophy section. When he met renowned novelist Naguib Mahfouz the same year, he decided he would be a writer. "I learned modesty from Mahfouz," he remembers.
In the intervening 37 years, after an early stab at another literary form, he has written over 40 screenplays. "I started my career as a short story writer, but I was a failure," he says proudly. He gave his first collection, "The Moon Kills a Lover," to Youssef Idris, the late writer unanimously recognised as the master of the short story in Egypt. When Hamed ran into Idris some time after, "he talked to me about everything except my collection. Then he told me: 'You peasant, you should be writing drama.'" That was in the late '60s, so he started writing plays, for radio, TV, and then cinema. Ta'ir Al-Leil Al-Hazin (Sad Bird of Night, 1976) is Hamed's first movie. It was about the "centres of power," the strongmen surrounding the late President Nasser.
The same year -- 1976 -- he met and married Zeinab Suweidan, head of Channel One. Hamed was recording his first radio play. "I'm indebted to my wife: she was never the nagging sort, she put up with my poverty when I was poor, she put up with a writer's madness and short temper, she always pushed me forward." What did you give her in return? I ask. "Real love, a secure, stable life, real respect as a woman... She has a strong personality, she is extraordinarily cultured -- she doesn't need me as much as I need her. I need her more because she is a balancing point in my life. I'm not a balanced person, she is."
Hamed has another secret to reveal: "When my mind is busy with an idea for a screenplay, I become tense and little things get on my nerves... I adopt my characters: if I'm writing about violence, I become violent myself, romantic if I'm writing about romance. Some scripts require that I leave home and stay in a hotel because I become unbearable. That happened when I was writing Birds of Darkness and The Family. I had an argument with my wife and caught myself telling her: 'You have to obey my orders, as if I were a terrorist.' I left the house, and only returned when I had finished writing."
Hamed is proud that his wife has been "both mother and father" to their son, Marwan. "I wouldn't have married a woman who didn't work, because this is part of her personality. A woman's mind attracts me before her physique. Her mind is what inspires my creativity."
And creativity, ultimately, is what it's all about, as Hamed has known since he started writing in high school. Every morning, he had to walk two kilometres from his village to school. His imagination -- mainly employed in spinning daydreams about beautiful girls -- was his constant companion during this daily trek. "We were the children of poor people, and we dreamt of becoming officers or wealthy doctors... I liked reading: it was my way of passing the endless time, and breaking the silence in which we lived." Hamed's eyes glitter when he mentions the village where he was born. "I still have the innocence and the humour of Beni Quraysh, my village in Sharqiya."
Did this rural but hardly idyllic childhood contribute to his overwhelming desire to broach forbidden topics? Hamed becomes defensive. "Peasants were the first to break taboos. They are not conservatives; they have real values they abide by, but they are not repressed, unlike people in the city. Men and women work side by side in the fields."
Thus does Hamed blithely take on themes to which others would give a wider berth. Prostitution features prominently in his writing, for instance: "I don't sympathise with prostitutes, but prostitution is not only selling one's body; it can mean giving up one's dignity, compromising on principles or betraying one's country." In Al-Nawm fil-Assal (Sleeping in Honey), his topic is sexual impotence. Here again, however, he is not concerned with impotence as such; it is also a symbol, of "the impotence of the will."
Al-Nawm fil-Assal features several hapless characters; only the policeman who investigates a man's suicide the morning after his wedding is portrayed as being alert and in control. "Before the emergence of terrorism, I was sharply against the police's excessive use of force or misuse of power. Now I am against terrorism, but does writing that mean I'm a government agent?" Hamed muses.
Al-Bari' (The Innocent), directed by the late Atef Al-Tayeb and considered one of the classics of Arab cinema, foreshadowed the 1986 riots of the Central Security Forces and condemned the regime's inability to bring about democracy and freedom. The idea for the film came to Hamed when he participated in the 1977 bread riots. "A soldier hit me, and when I saw his face I realised he was from my village. He asked me: 'Why are you siding with the enemies of the nation?'"
As far as taking sides is concerned, Hamed knows there is no such thing as a "neutral writer;" he believes in justice and freedom, but doesn't subscribe to party politics. "I belong to the people of this country, whatever is good for this nation. I'm with the government when it is with the people and against it if it is against the people -- it's as simple as that." As for his political stances, "I will oppose Israel until I die, even if peace prevails, or normalisation; I'll go to my grave opposing Israel and all those who support it," he says abruptly.
His passionate political convictions have also prompted forays into the world of journalism, which offers the writer the possibility of making a point directly. Hamed's book, Wake Up or Die, is a collection of articles he published in Rose El-Youssef, takes its title from an article he wrote after the assassination of secular intellectual Farag Foda in 1992.
Still, when he returns to writing for the screen, and to the visual metaphors that are his stock in trade, he does so with the same ardour that characterises his most outspoken articles. Souq Al-Mut'a (Pleasure Market), his latest movie, details the story of an innocent man who has been in prison for 20 years. When he is released, the people who set him up attempt to compensate him with money, women and business opportunities. Yet the man is unable to enjoy them, and instead tries to build a prison where he can live. "When you enslave a person for a long time, and eventually give him his freedom, he can't handle it," Hamed says. "But many people disregard the political message, and complain that the actress is dressed improperly," he adds in anger.
Hamed is in no mood to write these days, but he is already planning Ahlam September (September's Dreams). "It is going to be a very strong political movie. I will say no more." When he's not writing or watching movies, he leads "a full life," as he says with a roguish smile. "I enjoy the beauty of life. I don't deprive myself of anything I want, as long as I don't hurt other people. I might hurt myself, but not others." He is also thinking about writing his memoirs. "I'm 54, so there's a lot to write about." After a pause, he continues: "I'll tell the whole story, the sweet and the bitter and all the bad things I did." Who will make the movie? "Nobody," he snaps.
As for the less immediate future -- "I might stop writing at some point. When I lose the ability to give, I'll stop writing." That moment seems sufficiently distant not to worry him for now.
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|WEEKLY ONLINE: www.ahram.org.eg/weekly
Updated every Saturday at 11.00 GMT, 2pm local time