|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
9 - 15 May 2002
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Scripts from history
To better see the present he resurrects the past
Profile by Gihan Shahine
It takes time to reach Mahfouz Abdel-Rahman's new home in the satellite suburb of Al-Sheikh Zayed though if you are lucky, if the traffic is good, from Downtown you can cover the distance in half an hour. And once the distance is covered you might easily be in another world, a place where space and greenery are no longer a luxury and where the overwhelming impression is of quiet. A far cry from the clamour of Mohandessin, the congested suburb in which Abdel- Rahman lived until recently. And the move is clearly one he relishes.
If, initially, it was pollution that drove him away from the inner-city, the exhaust fumes and the screeching of constant traffic, it is the seclusion of his new house that has proved the icing on the cake. For it is quietness, Abdel-Rahman confides, that provides him with the necessary space to spend the whole day "writing, writing, writing."
"I need to begin my day without any sort of interruption, and that became impossible in Mohandessin where the doorbells never stop ringing. Either it's the doorman, or the makwagi, and then it's someone who has the wrong flat, apologising for his mistake, and then someone else, and so on, throughout the day."
The new house has the advantage, too, of allowing Abdel-Rahman to indulge an early passion, to realise a dream he dates to the age of 14. The objects of that passion lie in an adjacent room, thousands of them, waiting to be shelved by their owner, a task he is obviously unwilling to delegate. For now there is enough space for a library.
"I just can't live away from my books and my apartment in Mohandessin was too small to accommodate them. Now I can have a big library in my study."
Writing about someone who writes about us, ordinary people, is no easy task; presenting the life of someone whose career has been built on presenting the lives of others further complicates the process. And when that person is, by temperament, a perfectionist, attempting to profile him becomes daunting.
Not that there is anything intimidating about our reception. We are met by Abdel-Rahman's wife, actress Samira Abdel-Aziz, who tells us we are the first visitors to their new house. "We haven't even laid the silver on the tables yet," she says, before disappearing to make tea.
"You are incredible," Abdel-Rahman says, "coming all this way to meet me, and after I tried to dissuade you from the interview." Persistence, though, has its rewards. "You are our first visitors," he says, "so you can take as long as you like."
Not that Abdel-Rahman had ever given the impression of trying to avoid our meeting; over the telephone, in person, he is never less than charming. And such politeness is, perhaps, an aspect of that perfectionist temperament so apparent in his drama, in his writing for theatre, TV, cinema and radio which involve meticulous research, a diligent poring over history the better to bring historical characters to life.
He laughs a lot, and the sound provides a regular counterpoint to an interview that, it soon becomes apparent, will be dictated by the subject's narrative flair. Answers become anecdotes, anecdotes stories, though always to corroborate a point.
(photos: Ayman Ibrahim)
He first fell in love with books, he says, at primary school. His father was a police officer, and the job entailed many moves as the family migrated from one small provincial town to another, moves that made it difficult for Abdel- Rahman to maintain friendships. Nor, in the 50s, did such towns offer much in the way of entertainment: reading was the only way to fill in spare time.
An interest in art and culture ran in the family. "My father was fond of poetry and music; he taught himself to play the lute and sometimes wrote music. And there were always piles of books and magazines at home, piles that, though I did not know at the time, would mark the direction of my future career."
By the time Abdel-Rahman reached secondary school the family was living in Upper Egypt and he was enrolled in the local school. It was there he first began to give reign to his urge to write. "I produced six school magazines, each of which voiced different political trends. I also began a school wall magazine, a format I was under the impression I had invented, though it probably existed before. I was unaware of that."
As a secondary school student Abdel-Rahman had ambitions to become a poet, a short-lived dream effectively terminated by the misplaced encouragement of his Arabic teacher. "That teacher had liked my poems, and decided that I should become another Ahmed Shawqi, to which end he made so many demands that I stopped writing poetry altogether and turned to short stories."
While some of these were published in magazines writing remained, for Abdel-Rahman, first and foremost "a vehicle for self-expression." "I did not see it, definitely did not see it, as a profession," he says. "I never contemplated a career in writing and at the time I thought of it as a kind of game."
In tandem with the urge to write came a growing fascination with times past, and with history, first awakened through exposure to the epics Magnoun Layla and Abu Al-Fawaris Antara.
"Eventually, at the Faculty of Arts, I was to choose between studying history and Arabic literature or psychology and philosophy. But fate, in the form of my grades, intervened. They were not sufficient to let me into psychology and philosophy."
So history it turned out to be, which, as a student, he combined with a bit of journalism. And after his graduating he began work at Dar Al-Hilal. His early professional life, however, appeared to have been marked by the peripatetic nature of his childhood: Abdel-Rahman found it difficult to settle, found himself chopping and changing jobs though they all revolved loosely around writing and the media.
"I would suddenly quit a job and start from scratch. I was always ready to start a new life. And even in my writings," he says, "it is difficult to isolate any coherent sense of place. Perhaps I've never been in any one place long enough for that."
It was only in 1975 that Abdel-Rahman felt that he had stumbled across something to which he might commit himself. That was the year his play, Hafla Ala Al-Khazouq (Party on a Spike) was staged at the Damascus Festival, to much critical applause.
"The play attracted a great response, even on the political level," he recalls, "and went on to become one of the most frequently staged dramas of the last 25 years."
The year turned out to be something of an annus mirabilis for Abdel-Rahman, who scored a second, and this time popular, hit with the TV series Salman Al-Farisi.
"Before Salman Al-Farisi, historic drama had consisted of nothing more than lifeless speeches strung together. It was a boring format, of interest to neither the TV audience nor those in charge of programming. It was Salman Al-Farisi that rejuvenated the genre, that pumped the necessary life-blood into it."
With these two successes under his belt Abdel- Rahman began to think that he had, maybe, been taking his writing too lightly. "Perhaps I did have a real talent as a writer after all," he says. And after coming to this conclusion, he decided to take the whole enterprise "far more seriously".
"So I was the first to pave the way for historic drama," he continues, "and now many writers are following suit. Now everybody is suddenly interested in history."
Not that he thinks everyone is doing a good job. "History is a sea with no shore to land on and those sailing need not just talent, they must also be well-read in history and know how to conduct research. It's a hard job and it is all too easy to become bogged down."
But if it's that easy to become bogged down then why does he continue?
"There is no why in love," he barks, "and I just love history." He moves to another chair, as if to underline a momentary agitation... "But it is also challenging and it is challenge that keeps me moving."
In the opinion of many Abdel-Rahman's most notable achievement in the genre to date -- though perhaps period, rather than historic, drama, might be a better term -- was the Ramadan blockbuster Umm Kulthoum, first screened two years ago. Yet despite the massive popularity of the series, it did draw criticism, not least because it contrived to ignore the Sadat years completely, and -- in the opinion of some -- adopted a far too hagiographic approach, turning Egypt's most celebrated singer into nothing less than a saint.
They are, quite clearly, criticisms with which Abdel-Rahman is familiar, and he has his answers at the ready.
"I know what you are going to say," he preempts, "but there is a big difference between a historian and a writer of historic drama though people insist on confusing the two. I approach history from a fixed perspective, and that is my own. I select the events and characters that serve my purpose, and it is my right to do so. People have to understand that what I am writing is a drama. It is not a history lesson."
But can he, if what in the end is going to be received by the audience as a biographical series -- however dramatised -- justify skipping over more than a decade?
Abdel-Rahman's mobile rings, interrupting the answer. And really it should have come as no surprise that the ring is an electronic version of a bar from one of Umm Kulthoum's songs. As Abdel-Rahman attends to the call, I examine a piece of sculpture standing in the corner of the room, which turns out to be several separate figures -- Umm Kulthoum, Talaat Harb, Sayed Darwish, Abdel- Halim Hafez and, larger than the others, Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
"My children had it made for me," says Abdel-Rahman, call over. "Abdel-Nasser appears much the tallest because he is next to Umm Kulthoum, who was made rather too short ."
Yet the proportions make for a neat metaphor: "Yes, of course, I do love Nasser," Abdel- Rahman says, "I'm not a Nasserist in the sense of, say, being a member of the Nasserist Party. At heart I'm just a romantic, and it was a period that I love. They were the best days in my life, days I can never forget. It was a time of idealism, of patriotism, of Arab nationalism, a time when we could lift our heads and be proud that we were Arabs, which is not the case now."
Nostalgia for the period has informed a great deal of Abdel-Rahman's writing: he has tackled Umm Kulthoum, ultimate icon of the period and, in Nasser 56, the man who lent his name to an age. And his current project is the script for a film based on the biography of the late singer Abdel-Halim Hafez, which places him unapologetically as a product of the 1952 Revolution.
"I'm not against Sadat, as many seem to think, and would be perfectly willing to write on, say, the October War. But my focus in the series on Umm Kulthoum was Kulthoum as a singer, and naturally I focused on those who helped her throughout her career. Nasser encouraged her as a singer. And yes, I had to ignore many other personalities, focusing on those who were important in her life from my own perspective, if only because in dealing with a life one must have a focus."
When Abdel-Rahman embarked on the Umm Kulthoum script he was inspired by the success story her life embodied, as was the case in writing on Abdel-Halim. Both, significantly, hailed from the poorest sections of society, both ascended to the pinnacle of their chosen career.
"I did not present Umm Kulthoum as a saint, but yes, I wanted to present an example people might follow, I want people to have something to respect in this country," he argues.
"Umm Kulthoum devoted her life to her career": an admirable thing, Abdel-Rahman believes, which message he wants to drive home. "Unemployment and poverty have driven the young to despair but they shouldn't give up. Umm Kulthoum's story drives home that where there is a will there is a way. I want people to learn the value of hard work and perfection. All the woes inflicting society boil down to negligence. It is negligence, for example, that led to the recent railway tragedy, as well as to many other tragedies in our lives."
Such negligence he hopes to combat by presenting examples of the opposite, as in Bawabet Al-Halawani, his Ramadan series based during the reign of the Khedive Ismail. When he began work on the project he was unsympathetic to the Khedive, but as he developed his research he realised "Ismail was the true founder of modern Egypt."
"Egypt was so beautiful then," he says. "Just compare the controls over urban planning exercised then with what happens now."
And because history repeats itself "we should learn from previous mistakes and pick good examples to follow." Which is precisely what he has done.
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