Cairo, Baghdad, Beirut, Cairo: a circular journey
From the middle on
photo: Randa Shaath
For most artists and filmmakers the interface between art and politics is accidental, an overlap that may occasionally crop up in their work or, more likely, in an occasional chat about current affairs. Not so for Fouad El-Tohami, though, for whom it remains a source of endless tension, a state of fusion and occasional alienation that transcends the realms of the accidental to become part of the fabric of a life that remains resolutely a mixture of art and politics.
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Clockwise from above: El-Tohami with late director Salah Abu Seif at Tashkent Film Festival in 1982; in Karlovy Vary, 1978; shooting Al-Tagroba (The Experiment), 1978; Thalath Asabie Nasheta (Three Active Weeks), 1968; on the frontline during the war of attrition
"Can we start from the middle, from the time you became involved in film?"
He fires back without a pause. It is as if the script is ready, as if the camera is rolling, in close up shots, recording the tiniest reaction, the smallest tremor of an eye, a mouth, or a hand.
"At that time I was in a military prison, having been detained in 1959. Before that I had enrolled in the Sociology Department of the Faculty of Arts. This, of course, was not my choice but a result of my scores in the pre-college general exam. My brother Salah, the late documentary filmmaker, sent me a book that he had just translated, The Art of the Film by Ernest Lindgren. I read the book three or four times and felt that I belonged in this world, the world of cinema and art."
Egypt and Syria were united at the time, and the state was busying itself with the blanket detention of Egyptian leftists, beginning in the late 1950s and continuing until President Abdel-Nasser launched a raft of socialist policies along with the National Charter. The immediate response to these latter moves was the decision by Egypt's communist parties to disband and among the disbanded parties was the Democratic Movement for National Liberation, to which El-Tohami belonged. Shortly afterwards the government freed all communist detainees.
A year earlier the army had dismissed reserve NCO Fouad El-Tohami, facilitating his transfer from a military to civilian prison. It was at this point, he recalls, that his decision was made: as soon as he was released he would join the Theatre Institute of the Academy of Art rather than study sociology. He also intended to work in cinema during his course and familiarise himself with filmmaking techniques.
Salah, his older brother, was unaware of this decision when he asked El-Tohami to join him in the film industry following his release from prison. "Salah learned of my decision decades later, when the Ministry of Culture decided to honour me in 1995 by issuing a book about my life, by Mai El-Tilmisani, in which this episode was mentioned."
El-Tohami's cinematic apprenticeship began with learning how to use moviola editing machines, and mastering the technicalities of editing and sequencing. He remembers his first encounters with the German moviola, which was more complicated than similar machines. He would leave "the editing room in a state of semi-stupor". After which he "decided to read intensively about the technicalities of film work".
Within a short time he had acquainted himself with the details of the filmmaking process and began to make his own artistic input.
"I worked with my brother Salah for four years and he was amazing. Together, we finished about 45 films, a rate of almost one per month. And I continued studying in the Theatre Institute."
In his final year at the Institute El-Tohami went to see a show by the Beheira Folk Dance Troupe. At the show he met Wagih Abaza and introduced himself.
"I had met him in Tell Al-Kabir when he was distributing weapons to the volunteers who were fighting the British army in the Suez Canal. When he knew I was an assistant director he asked me to make a film about Al- Beheira."
El-Tohami eventually wrote the script though brother Salah, and Saad Nadim, senior officials at the National Centre for Cinema at the time, refused to let him direct because he was still a student. They commissioned Abdel-Qader El-Tilmisani to direct Gedaan Al-Beheira (Tough Guys of Al-Beheira) was produced in 1966. A year later El-Tohami graduated from the Theatre Institute.
The time El-Tohami spent in prison in 1954, and again in 1959, does not seem to have dented his admiration for the late president, whom he regards as a symbol.
Abdel-Nasser's attempted resignation, after the 1967 war, was for many, including El-Tohami, a confirmation of national defeat.
"Everyday, after I finished exams in my final year I would walk to Studio El-Nahhas."
This was in the days preceding the war, and the production of war mobilisation movies was paramount. "On 7 June I went there and learned of the defeat. The atmosphere in the studio was heavy. My brother Salah was there, as were Saad Nadim and Hassan Fouad. Two days later I watched Abdel- Nasser's resignation speech and did not know what to do. I went into the street only to discover that many others had done the same, without thinking."
As soon as El-Tohami became a professional filmmaker his political principles and beliefs found their way into his work. The first work he directed was Thalath Asabie Nasheta (Three Active Weeks) in 1968. It focussed on a training session organised by the Arab Labour Union for workers from several Arab countries.
In the following years the war of attrition would influence Egyptian society in a major way. Everyone wanted to do something to "remove the traces of aggression", the phrase Abdel-Nasser coined.
In 1969 El-Tohami wanted to make a film at one of the outposts on the frontline, the main aim being to show the public that the Egyptian army was still engaged in war, that nothing was quiet on the eastern front.
"We had a serious problem: the camera. The management did not want it to be in harms way and they were afraid the camera would be hit."
But El-Tohami persevered, and finally got the go ahead from his higher-ups. He went to the front with a film crew and a representative from the Morale Unit of the Army. The latter left them at the Governorate Offices to finish some paper work while El-Tohami proceeded without him to one of the frontline position, only to be rebuffed by the field commander for not bringing along the Morale officer. While negotiating with the field commander an explosion occurred.
"It seems to me that the sound of the explosion suggested to the commander that his position was under attack, so he asked us to get inside the bunkers. After a while I felt that I should check on the cameraman, the sound engineer and the driver to find out what was happening since it was potentially exactly what I wanted to film. So I emerged from the bunker, which annoyed the officer but impressed him at the same time. After which we became friends."
The period from 1969 to 1972 was a productive one. El- Tohami produced a number of war films: Lann Namut Marratayn (We Shall Not Die Twice), Madfaa Tamania (Gun 8), Shadwan and Al-Regal wal Khanadeq (Men and Bunkers).
Abdel-Nasser died while El-Tohami was in Moscow attending a film festival. He went down to the streets and filmed Al-wadaa fi Mosko (Farewell from Moscow), an account of the Russian reaction to the news.
Egypt was to pass through turbulent times prior to the 1973 war. Writers and intellectuals were frequently transferred from job to job, allocated to posts that had little to do with their experience. El-Tohami lost his job as a director with the National Centre for Cinema and became an employee at the General Information Agency. While attending a Palestinian film festival in Iraq in 1973 he absconded and for the next 16 years lived in voluntary exile.
The first five years of his exile were spent in Iraq. When the war broke out, on 6 October 1973, he asked permission from the Iraqi authorities to film on the Syrian front in the Golan. His boss at the time, the head of the Iraqi Cinema and Theatre Agency, was Mohamed Said Al-Sahhaf, later Iraq's information minister. El-Tohami filmed the war from the Golan and his footage was aired on Iraqi television.
Prior to the 1973 war El-Tohami was working on the film Naftuna Lana (Our Oil Belongs to Us), about the oil pipeline linking Kirkuk with Syria. Immediately after the war he made a film about the Oman Liberation Front.
During his time in Iraq El-Tohami made several documentaries, including Oghniyat Amal Iraqia (Iraqi Work Song). He also directed a single drama, Al-Tagroba (The Experiment), for which he wrote the script, based on the novel by Dia Khodayer about the struggles with irrigation and the remnants of the feudal classes, faced by a group of peasants on a collective farm. And in 1978 he won a special jury award at the Karlovy Vary Festival in what was then Czechoslovakia.
Meanwhile opposition to Sadat's policies was mounting in Egypt, particularly after his Jerusalem visit in 1977 and the subsequent moves towards a peace deal with Begin's Likud government. In Iraq Saddam Hussein, still vice-president, was tightening his hold on power. In 1979 Saddam had himself declared president in place of Ahmed Hassan Al-Bakr, said to have resigned for health reasons. El-Tohami left Iraq for Beirut and Damascus.
"There was an attempt to create a Writers Union to replace that based in Cairo. I opposed the move vehemently. I was convinced that if the Writers Union in Egypt had become reactionary, then it was up to its members to change that. The whole idea of alternative unions was wrong."
In Beirut El-Tohami found himself caught up in the political whirlwind of the early years of civil war. The city had become a gathering point for Egyptians of various political affiliations, their only link being a shared opposition to Sadat. Some suggested the formation of a national union for Egyptian expatriates.
"We formed the organisational structure of the union and held elections. A friend named me as a candidate for the post of secretary-general and, amazingly, I won by a landslide."
"We worked hard to avoid being used by any party. When we had to choose where to hold a press conference to announce the creation of the union we had two options -- one was the Palestinian News Agency and the other the Lebanese Press Association. We selected the second in order not to appear as if we were a creation of the Palestinians."
"Beirut then was in a state of flux. Most of the nationalist organisations were in one building. You would go up to the fourth floor and be at the offices of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. On the sixth floor was the Lebanese Communist Party. The last floor contained Abu Ammar's [PLO leader Yasser Arafat] offices."
At one point El-Tohami was told that Palestinian security had stopped 17 Egyptians who were heading to east Beirut to look for work.
"I discovered that these were simple peasants who had sold all their belongings to come to Lebanon to work. At the time the airport was closed. After a discussion with Abu Ammar the airport was opened and the PLO paid for the peasants' tickets back to Egypt."
The security situation was terrible. El- Tohami recalls his arrest by Phalangists.
"I was arrested with Adib Dimitri, a wellknown marxist writer and activist, who was like a brother and a mentor for me. They put us in solitary confinement. I had been imprisoned many times before but I had never seen such a small cell in my life. It was tiny, painted black, and had no opening apart from the crack beneath the door, which was the only source of light. After a while we were moved to a regular room. They gave us refreshments and cigarettes and found out we weren't Palestinian fighters. Then the situation changed. They took back the cigarettes and sent us to our cells again. I thought that they had received some incriminating information and that this would be the end. I felt sad for my friend Dimitri, who was an old man. After a while they took us to a man who turned out to be Johnny Abdou, the head of the intelligence services, also known as the Second Bureau. Having learned who I was Abdou said he would hand me to the Egyptian Embassy. I said I had no trouble with the Egyptian Embassy. I figured that the worse thing that could happen to me if I was deported to Egypt was a political trial, a much better fate than being killed by the Second Bureau. They took me to another officer who began to question me about my political stance. I defended the Palestinian cause and Abdel-Nasser, staunchly so because I thought this would be my last ever political discussion. In the morning, this same officer came back and said: You fooled me. You didn't tell me you were the secretary- general of the Egyptian Union. I said: You didn't ask. He said: The papers say that the Lebanese army is detaining you and that a press conference would be held by activist Michel Kamel and writer Abdel-Rahman Al- Khamisi about the matter. I told him I would talk to them and he said that they had already called them and told them that the conference must be cancelled. It was then that I breathed a sigh of relieve and knew that the incident would end well."
Though El-Tohami was not making movies during this period he continued to attend film festivals. In 1982 he left Beirut for the Tashkent film festival. Israel invaded Lebanon, and El-Tohami had to head back to Damascus. Throughout this period his family continued to live in Cairo, as they had since 1980: his wife Thanaa and two sons; Khaled, who now lives in Prague, and Mohamed, who works in cinema but focusses on drama and acting.
After a period of travelling between Damascus, Cyprus and other destinations, El-Tohami returned to Cairo in 1989 and resumed his work in cinema. He was placed in charge of the Film Magazine and the cinematic programme produced by the National Centre for Cinema where he introduced short documentaries by young filmmakers. Within a year of its creation the Magazine turned into the Young Filmmakers Unit, which gave new directors -- including Adel Adib, Nahid Ghali, Taghrid El-Asfoui, Nagi Rizq and Ahmed Maher -- their first chance.
The Unit produced several award winning films including Okazion (Sale) by the late Hosam Ali, Al-Rahil ala Waraq (Departure on Paper) by Ahmed Maher and Sharia Qasr Al- Nil by El-Tohami in 1993.
In Octover 2001 El-Tohami entered the Ismailia Film Festival with Karima Mansour, Surat Shakhsiya lam Tuktamal (Karima Mansur, An Incomplete Persona), about the dancer artist and her show The Taming. He remains a familiar face in activities of the film industry, particularly the Society of Documentary Filmmakers, which meets every Tuesday at the Cinema Cultural Centre on 36 Sherif Street.