"I'm just a singer in a rock'n'roll band..."
Who's afraid of Hassan El-Imam
photo: Randa Shaath
Composer, actor, affable public figure and now TV icon -- Hussein El-Imam is every bit as teddy bear-like as you would expect from his public persona. Charming, uninhibited and eminently sociable: he discusses such ticklish topics as falling under the shadow of his father (the late filmmaker Hassan El-Imam, official god of Egyptian melodrama) or being, for a long time, the product of Western influences ("We lived in Egypt but not really in Egypt") with the same straightforward ease as he recounts his multiform achievements, expounds the profound philosophy to be found in the lyrics of John Lennon or confesses to being, in his own way, "very, very, very religious".
Nearing middle age, he is increasingly assuming the kind of "superstar" status to which he has long aspired. Last year the role of Mahrous in Lil 'Aadala Wugouh Kathira (Justice has many faces), a television drama that had the "fail-proof theme of a friend who stands by his friend but in something illegal," brought him closer than ever to the public imagination. Kazalik fil-Zamalek (Thus in Zamalek), his latest film, to be released in the Eid, is expected to be a major hit. But, more importantly, his post-iftar prime-time comedy programme, Aal Eih 'Alhawa (Allegedly On Air) -- a candid-camera inspired "talk show" in which the guest, a well- known media figure, is subjected to a carefully engineered, hilarious hoax -- has raised his profile to unprecedented heights. "This," he says, "is what you spend an entire lifetime trying to achieve, something really popular that no two people disagree on."
He is, not to put too fine a point on it, comfortable with himself. And the fact that he has led a relatively sheltered existence -- progressing, it would seem, from privileged upbringing to successful career in the media -- does not take away from his self-possession.
"I don't know," he says of his father's role in his early life, "if it was due to my own leanings or to what he did." Whatever it was, El-Imam insists, he was s subtle mentor. "We were like brothers," he recalls, "because he was very easy- going; and people of his generation, I always feel, were distinctly ageless. More generally, this was a period of enlightenment. And all this must have had an effect on me. He was from Mansoura but he spoke French, and he was mentally liberated, very open-minded and well informed about the rest of the world."
El-Imam warms to his theme gradually, and it takes another half hour or so for his conversational prowess to materialise fully. Despite initial reluctance -- there is reason to believe he has just woken up when we arrive -- El-Imam turns out to be a remarkably loquacious interlocutor.
"This, I was to realise, was something my father had in common with his colleagues from that time, which is why I say it was a time of enlightenment. In spite of yourself you are influenced, on the human level, by your upbringing: when the person who brings you up has an orientation like this it's inevitable that you'll grow up sharing at least part of that orientation. And it's very common for people who grow up in a particular professional milieu, be it medicine or poetry, to continue in that vein; it just happens to a lot of people. But it was hardly ever explicit or straightforward, the way he wielded that influence. I remember that he always gave me books to read, for example; he employed a music teacher to teach my siblings and me the piano, without us asking for it. In this way he directed us without us feeling what he was doing. All I know is I grew up knowing music and reading."
What El-Imam fails to mention is that, in the framework of his own life, if not necessarily his father's, such "enlightenment" is largely a function of class. Certainly many things about this spacious flat, off the Pyramids Road, which he shares with his wife, actress Sahar Rami, and their two little boys, shouts bourgeois: the steps leading up to bedrooms; the luxurious, if not extravagant, furniture; the two maids going constantly about the business of cleaning up, answering phones and responding to orders. A large portion of the walls is devoted to framed photographs of the house's two celebrities in various guises: Rami as a teenage ballerina, to mention but one example, is juxtaposed with El-Imam in a 1970s rock band.
"First I went to the Jesuit School," he resumes. "But it was a school with a very 19th-century orientation. You know the film, Tale of Two Cities -- you felt you're in the time of the guillotine at the Jesuits. At the time -- it must've been the early 1960s -- it was the beginning of world liberation, flower power and The Beatles. The world was very colourful. So my friends and I went to another school, Amon, from which we graduated instead. It was an English school and we had to get a head start with the language over the summer. It wasn't easy switching from French to English, of course, but I was fortunate to have Dr Soad Fatim, who now supervises the American Diploma in Egypt. And she taught me English in two months.
"I wasn't particularly good at school, no. I was good at things like geometry and maths, things that have to do with logic. But I was no good at history, for example, even though I love reading history. It seems I didn't want any particular curriculum to be imposed on me. Things that had any element of logic, I was okay with. Yet I opted for the arts rather than science in Thanawiya Amma, because that's what my friends were doing. I was away and when I came back I asked which department my friends had joined and I went along with them. So I went to the Faculty of Fine Arts, but I studied décor. And happily that had a lot of architecture in it. I enjoyed it a lot.
"All the while I was engaged in music, of course. I was in bands, eventually professional bands, playing rock'n'roll -- nothing but rock'n'roll. I would learn a little from here, a little from there. I learned a bit from Sobhi Bedier, who was with us at the Jesuit. Tarek Nour had a band called The Mass, and I would go and watch them for a while. Yehya Khalil... But there was never a formal teacher. You just got books, discovered things for yourself and practised. Guitar, yes. Acoustic, and then electric. I became a professional starting in, say, 1970. But it was a different environment altogether. There were nightclubs that provided only this kind of music, and in the interim you would get a belly dancer. I played in Ram Jam, in Highway -- several bands.
"Then I went to America for a couple of years and when I came back the scene was transformed. These places died slowly. And instead of the rock bands you had what was called a 'programme', which consisted of several Oriental singers in a row. People were throwing money at belly dancers, the sound systems became deafeningly distorted. This coincided with the emergence of [the urban folk phenomenon] Ahmed Adaweya. And I was surprised. I stayed that way until I fell in love with Adaweya himself. And I discovered that people like Adaweya and [the Upper Egyptian folk singer] Metqal Qenawi were themselves doing rock. Their own kind of Arabic rock..."
Of the bands listened to at the time, El-Imam mentions Genesis and Pink Floyd: out of this combination of jazz, rock and blues, he believes, all such contemporary subgenres as heavy metal and blues rock would surface. "The interesting thing about this is that they not only revolutionised the music, but their lyrics spoke of different topics, political concerns, such things as would never have occurred to you. Moudi [El- Imam] and I, along with the rest of our band, would sit and listen for 12 hours non-stop. Our performances were held mainly in the Cairo American College in Maadi. We had long hair and absolutely no awareness of what was going on around us. And even when we tried to produce our own music, our lyrics were written in English."
It is something, he insists, that happens to people all over the world, due to wars and political conflicts that, as a child and then a teenager growing up in any one country, you are in no position to understand. El-Imam emphasises how the spirit must be extracted from its packaging. An English-speaking, jeans-clad city dweller, for example, might be at heart more religious than a provincial-looking man in a galabeya. His vision of Egypt as essentially cosmopolitan may be outdated, a function of class privileges rather than observational efforts on his part, but it is positive, applicable to his own experience and not entirely untrue. Certainly his espoused divorce from politics, including the politics of religion -- a promise he made to his father early on -- is a quality so rare as to appear admirable. "In the end I am a man who plants a tree -- let's say it's a film or a little tune I'm composing -- and I am perfectly happy to tend it and watch it grow." The significance of the Moody Blues lyric that comprises the lead of this article, one of his favourite quotations, begins to make itself felt.
"One day," El-Imam continues, summoning up a significant moment, "a producer called Hani Thabet -- he had a company called Sonar -- asked the two of us for a tape. We had a Gezira Club friend, a singer called Eva, and we thought she'd do the singing. While working on the song that I wrote for her Moudi stopped me, noticing that nothing about the music had changed, but the lyrics were Arabic. Why don't we do this ourselves, he suggested. And so, eventually, we managed to compile a cassette called El-Donya Sughayara (Small World), and though a lot of people were happy with it the production process was complicated by our lack of experience and vanity. When it was released we were told it didn't sell, even though it made us famous..."
El-Imam's acting career had just begun. In Al- Sukariya, the third part of Hassan El-Imam's film version of Mahfouz's trilogy, he had played a leftist, he says, to wide-ranging applause from the predominantly left-wing film-viewing public of the time. Subsequent roles -- in Hassan El- Imam's Entaha Al-Hobb (End of Love), Bamba Kashar and Badi'a Masabni -- proved less successful on the face of it; no offers were made. "Since I no longer played a leftist I was no longer very good. I wasn't in demand..." The claim that seems to have coloured El-Imam's acting career began to be voiced: he acted only because his father gave him the opportunity.
El-Imam soon decided to devote himself wholly to music. "It was a strange period," he explains. In the wake of the 1967 defeat class- consciousness, something the 1952 Revolution had promised to eradicate, was as rampant as ever." The vast majority of screenplays, he says, continued to revolve around the, by now, endlessly regurgitated theme of a poor man in love with a rich girl or vice versa; titles had been abolished soon after the Revolution but, in the backstreets of Zamalek, where the Imams lived, there were more pashas than before; and women in the movies were still being called "hanem". Some people had long hair, others sported long sideburns. Nobody knew quite where they belonged.
In retrospect El-Imam feels it all worked out for the best. The ghoul of packaged television dramas, filmed initially in Tunisia and then in Dubai, had reared its ugly head. With few exceptions -- he mentions Khali Balak min Zouzou and Al-Karnak -- films were not as well made as they once were. Actors like Youssef Wahbi, Rushdi Abaza and Omar El-Sherif fit snugly into both a comprehensible social setup (one in which people knew exactly where they belonged) and a filmmaking tradition as powerful and sustained as the best of Hollywood. By the time El-Imam decided to concentrate on music, on the other hand, he was at a difficult age, too old or too young for most lead roles; the fact that he was Hassan El-Imam's son stood in his way, so did his Westernised orientation; and both society and filmmaking were thrown into confusion. "I continued to act but only very offhandedly," he recounts. "Something in me told me I should keep doing it, if only to dispel the notion that I acted only courtesy of my father..."
In time Hassan El-Imam passed away. "The very people who had insulted me found themselves in a spot: their children had grown up and they wanted to act. And they were afraid that people would do to them what they had done to me. In fact," El-Imam digresses, "this turned out to be the norm throughout Hollywood. Actors, it transpires, are like jewellers: the son inherits the profession."
At a Nile bank café in Zamalek, 12 years ago during a summer of insolvency, El-Imam was to meet with "a fellow wanderer", filmmaker Khairi Bishara who, together with scriptwriter Esam El- Shammaa and actor Ahmed Zaki, had a two-page treatment of a film entitled "The Boxer". They had not managed to receive the necessary funding despite Zaki's stellar status, and when El- Imam read the treatment he felt it was exactly what he had been looking for: "A film that wasn't about a poor man in love with a rich girl, that spoke to a less complacent audience and had originality."
In the initial treatment there was, he recalls, a pro-poor, anti-rich element, which El-Shammaa quickly agreed to excise. Thus was born the cult movie Kaboria, a hit of which El-Imam is justifiably proud. Not only did he manage to procure the funding as executive producer -- an experience he came out of the film not wanting to repeat -- but he finally found an appropriate role. "It was as if I had to wait till I was old enough," he explains, "but gradually I began to receive offers."
Several television appearances, a "grassroots" role in Inaam Mohamed Ali's Suez War film Hikayat Al-Gharib (The Stranger's Tales), and commercial stage comedies. "And all the while I understood that in order to rise from the status of an actor to that of a star and then a superstar you had to await the hit that would make your name: something on the strength of which you can continue to work and grow..."
Ironically, where the composition of film and play scores had allowed him to avoid participating in projects he found artistically or administratively untoward ("the Omar Effendi syndrome" of having to deal with a bureaucratic atmosphere is one thing El-Imam never regretted eschewing), music has now drastically receded.
"I have reached a certain degree of saturation in terms of humiliating music," he confesses. "Of making a frivolous song so that people will say, how nice. Simplifying the tune more and more and more until it reduces to a jingle. At a certain point I made the decision that I just wouldn't do this again, even if it came to making music for myself, on my own, putting it on a CD and bequeathing it to the children. Because it turned into a clinical condition: I would sit down to work and my hands would get numb, or I would feel needles piercing my body." His collaboration with Mohamed Mounir -- on Eftah Qalbak (Open Your Heart), one of the latter's best cassettes -- is an experience he recalls with pleasure. But on the whole he feels "there is absolutely nothing original being made." This is the only moment at which the emotion in El- Imam's voice sounds somewhat desperate. He could no longer be party to this lack of originality, he seems to be saying. And it is impossible not to regret that.
By the time the children of El-Imam's detractors had grown up post-revolutionary disillusion had resulted in a loss of left-wing faith. And together with notions of love and peace, flower power had vanished. This no doubt facilitated a certain level of success but at the same time, you cannot help surmising, it bears the subtle signs of a less obvious, more private tragedy. Perhaps this is El-Imam's best kept secret: that in the death of his early dreams of making hugely popular, universally directed, irreverent and poignantly human music, a large part of his own sense of self had expired. It would take some two decades of struggling, dreams of super-stellar status come true, family life and a clinical condition for that part of the self to live again, "in secret" and on privately produced CDs to be bequeathed to his children.