Kamal Attiyah: The philosopher-filmmaker
Working on and defying the passage of time
Profile by Samir Sobhi
"I don't lecture in my films. I just put my thoughts on the screen, just as you may sit alone and turn an issue over in your mind. This creates a mental and emotional tension of which the viewer is part." This is how Kamal Attiyah, 85, characterises a career that began in 1950 and gave us such memorable films as Al-Mugrim (The Criminal), Qataltu Zawgati (I Killed My Wife), Bint Sabatashar (Sweet 17), Suq Al-Silah (The Arms Market), and Al-Shaware Al- Khalfiyah (Backstreets ). Like Youssef Chahine, Hassan Al-Imam and Kamal Al-Sheikh, he grew up watching films made by the pioneers of Egyptian film, Mohamed Karim, Ahmad Badrakhan and Niazi Mustafa.
For an artist who produced so many of the silver screen's truly ground-breaking films, Attiyah is amazingly low-key. Yet, he can hold forth with authority on any number of topics, from philosophy to mythology, from the secrets of the criminal mind to the abstraction of Puritanism. His memory teems with imagery, and he can draw scenes from a forgotten past with sharp, crisp, colourful detail.
Attiyah started out as a journalist, a career that left its mark on his work, both as director as well as song and script writer. He still talks with immense admiration about the man he considers as one of the greatest journalists of his time, Mahmoud Abul-Fath. The latter, he says, published the Sidqi-Bevin treaty before it was released to the public and used to go carefully over every single line in his paper before it went to print.
"I learned from the errors in my movies, and learned more from the things others did right in theirs. The better the competition was, the more I learned." Attiyah is not one to sneer on superstition. For him, the number seven holds a certain appeal. "I was born on 7 October, in the seventh month of pregnancy, and made a career in the Seventh Art. Fate or coincidence?"
Attiyah grew up in a working class neighbourhood, but his family was careful to impart him with a sense of privilege and entitlement. "I was born in 1919. My father, who worked for the railway company, died when I was little, and I became the man of the family while still a child. We lived in Al-Tirah Al-Bulaqiya Street. My mother lavished money and care upon us, to compensate for the loss of our father. We wanted for nothing, except for the word 'father'.
"I will tell you a story about my mother's lavishness. A man from what was then called the Accounting Council (Maglis Al-Hesba), a government body that audited the expenditure of money inherited by the underage, came to our house. His name was Hassan Abdel-Wahhab. I remember him admonishing my mother, for she had spent 40 piastres on shoes for me. 'I am a grown-up,' the man said, 'and yet my shoes cost only 12 piastres.' My mother quietly responded: 'These shoes are ones I bought with my own money, not from the inheritance. My children have to have the best.'"
Attiyah's earliest hobbies were audio-visual in nature. "Since my childhood, I liked to draw and take pictures. I studied music and wrote songs even before I made a career of brining fiction to life," he says. He was also sartorially precocious. "I began to grow up, and wanted to look like a man. I wanted a suit with long trousers, a shirt, and a tie. So, I had a suit made from English fabric, by a good tailor, and it cost LE2.25. My mother liked it. I went in style to my school in Geziret Badran in Shubra. I was full of myself, standing in my new suit at the morning assembly.
"Suddenly, the school headmaster, Mohamed Bek Abdel-Samad, who was a member of the Wafd Congress at the time, noticed me and started laughing out loud. He then called the school janitor, Abdel-Sami, and told him to bring the garden scissors and rearrange my clothes. Abdel-Sami proceeded to shorten my long trousers on the spot. The humiliation was immense. The janitor undid my tie, wrapped it with the extra cloth cut from my trousers, and stuffed the bundle in my coat's pocket. The school talked about nothing else for the rest of the day. I went home, distraught and thinking my mother would be angry, but she laughed at how I looked, and made me laugh too. She asked me if the headmaster said or did anything that was insulting to me in person, aside from ordering my trousers shortened. I said no. OK, she said, this is the school's system and we have to respect it; had he insulted you in person I would have defended your dignity. She then sent the trousers to the tailor to be properly adjusted."
An actress with exceptional beauty and a knack for diatribe gave Attiyah his first insight into the world of prima donnas. "Most of the other students liked acting. I didn't. But I took home the script for our school play, which was directed by the great actor Mohamed Tawfiq, and read it, just for fun. The play was to be performed not in the schoolyard, where the rehearsals were held, but in Brittany Theatre on Emadeddin Street. I went with the troupe to watch the opening performance from backstage.
"It was a new experience and ended on an unexpected note. Fatema Rushdi, who had hired the theatre for a soiree show, was angry because our show took too long and her audience were about to arrive. The most brilliant actress of her time unleashed a stream of insults upon us, shooing us off the stage. We were stunned. As the torrent of abuse flowed from mouth, we were looking at her half-naked body. She was beautifully formed and incredibly sexy. We were dumbfounded and just kept staring at her. We were just adolescents, and here we were, faced with the perfect female figure."
His memory of another actress of his time is more sedate. "My memory of Aqila Rateb another great actress, is quite different. Aqila had a face blessed with calm beauty, and this face went with a beautiful body discretely hidden under modest clothes. I used to see her by chance, sitting in her balcony on Shubra Street, as I walked home from school. She would be sitting there, reading or just looking at the traffic going by. Her elegance was unique, and it gave me a glimpse of a world of which I was to be part."
Growing up in a country under occupation, it is hard to avoid politics, even as a child. "I had my first lesson in politics when I was just a child. It all began with a Wafd demonstration against then-Prime Minister Ismail Sidqi. The demonstration was ordered by the Wafdist headmaster of our school. The demonstration started at the high school and then extended to the elementary school. Everyone was shouting: 'Down with Sidqi!'
"I was just watching, but the police arrested me and a friend of mine. We were taken in a police van to a cell in the Shubra police station. After what seemed forever, the door opened and we were moved to a van that took us ... to where do you think? To the prime minister's office! We couldn't believe it. We found ourselves, mere children, standing in front of Sidqi Pasha in person, with some police surrounding us, no doubt to protect the prime minister of a possible assault on our part. The pasha dismissed them and asked us to have a seat. 'Would you like coffee or tea with your cigarettes?' he asked. We thought he was making fun of us and would soon throw us into prison forever. 'Obviously you don't smoke,' he said, 'but some children your age cannot wait to grow up; as soon as they get fuzz on their face, they start shaving, just cannot wait. Why were you demanding Sidqi's overthrow? What did Sidqi do for you to want him out?' the pasha asked, and we didn't answer. 'Look, he said, I will give you a chance to ask those who you imitate, those with whom you shout for my overthrow. Just ask them why they are acting so. You go home now, and when you find out why they want me out of office, come and tell me. Goodbye, good meeting you, and I wish you independent and free minds,' the pasha said."
Attiyah's song-writing talents started at an early age. "I was an avid reader and I wrote song lyrics, some of which were published in Al- Sabah magazine. Headmaster Erian Bek Girgis found out and commended me in the school assembly. I was so proud... I liked the songs of Mohamed Abdel-Wahhab, Munira Al- Mahdiyah, and Umm Kulthoum. I also liked Sayed Suliman, who used to sing in the Sudanese dialect. My mother banned certain songs from the house, deeming them inappropriate. These included Munira's song 'Let Down the Curtain Nearby, So the Neighbours may not See Us'," he said.
Attiyah wrote several pop hits in the 1950s and 1960s. These include Sabah's famous song "El-Ghawi Yennaqqat Betaqitu" (Lovers Give Away Their Hats), Hoda Sultan's "Ala Bab Haretna" (On Our Alley's Gate), Nagat Al- Saghira's "Dawwebni Daub" (Melt Me More), and Mohamed Fawzi's "Ayh Ya Tara" (What Could It Be). Sometimes he would only write the lyrics, but often he wrote the score as well.
Attiyah's artistic ambitions began to flourish when, following a sickness that kept him away from school for a while, he decided to enrol in an art school. "I joined the Leonardo Da Vinci Institute, located near Emadeddin Street, the centre of art in Cairo at the time. I continued to write songs for musicals. I was once paid LE1.50 for my efforts, which was then equivalent to the monthly rent of a three-bedroom flat on Al-Malika Nazli Street, now Ramsis Street. I also made money by modelling for art students in the same institute. I recall a female colleague who liked to paint me in the shape of an apartment building entrance, a balcony, a bathroom, or a kitchen!"
It was Attiyah's talents as a writer that led him into the film world. "I wanted to be a journalist, and was freelancing for Rose Al-Yusuf when I met filmmaker Salah Abu Seif in 1946. He asked me to work on a script for a film he was doing, then made me his assistant in three films, and I wrote some of the songs for these films."
For Attiyah, cinema was not just about what you do, but who you meet. "Some friends you never forget. My friendship with film editor Emil Bahari started when we worked together in Always in My Heart (Dayman fi Qalbi). Ahmad Badrakhan became my friend because we were both song writers. As for Henri Barakat, we became close because we both liked backgammon and went regularly to the Writers Club. Mohamed Karim was a great friend and a man with great taste. He was once criticised because he used artificial flowers in his films. The criticism annoyed me, for the type of natural flowers he wanted to use in the scene was out of season."
Filmmaking often involves an element of the accidental. Attiyah enjoys recalling the inspiration behind every film. " Resalah Ila Allah (Letter to God) began with a phone call from my dear friend Ibrahim Murad, who demanded to see me urgently. I went and he said, 'Letter to God, this is how I will call this film.' It was a real life story he came upon in an old magazine, the story of a deranged person who wanted one million pounds, and asked God for that sum in a letter he posted. The letter became source of entertainment for mail company officials, moving from one hand to another till the minister knew of it and the newspapers got a whiff of the story."
Qandil Umm Hashem (Umm Hashem Lantern), 1968, was based on the well-known Yehia Haqqi novel. Mohamed Karim, the veteran filmmaker, made these comments about the film: "One thing I like about Kamal Attiyah is his perseverance. He put up with years of persecution that deprived him from a job in which he excelled, and bounced back. The scenes in Germany were perfect, so was his ability to show the student life abroad and the love and closely- knit social harmony at home."
Street scenes are often a problem. In at least one occasion, this problem was solved with an unusual solution. "During the filming of Qataltu Zawgati (I Killed My Wife), 1956, we were shooting street scenes with Emad Hamdi and Madiha Yusri in Mansura. The sight of such famous actors drew large crowds, which made it hard for us to film. We had to call in the police, but the latter were more interested in watching than keeping off the crowds. Suddenly, a well- dressed giant of a man appeared from nowhere and yelled at everyone to go away, and they did. He stood nearby until we finished filming and I thanked him for his help. Then I asked who he was, and I was told that he was just a madman who is feared by the public and police alike."
Attiyah worked once for Hollywood and enjoyed it. "Metro-Goldwin-Meyer produced a single film in Egypt and asked me to direct it. The chairman of the Metro Studios had seen Ushshaq Al-Leil (Lovers of the Night) in Cinema Metro in 1957 and asked me to direct the film. I agreed and they paid me LE5,000 -- big money at the time."
Aside from directing films, Attiyah also wrote numerous scripts. "I wrote the script for several of my films, including Qataltu Zawgati (I Killed My Wife), Al-Muttaham (The Accused), Abid Al-Gasad (Carnal Slaves), Thawrat Al-Banat (Girls Revolt), Ghadab Al-Halim (Fury of the Patient One) and Isabatuna Laysa Laha Faraun Akhar (Our Gang Has No Other Branches). I also wrote scripts for nine movies by other directors." But some of his scripts never made it to the screen. "I have been trying for years to get the Censorship on Artistic Products to approve a film about executions in Egypt. And I still haven't got the approval." The director is not yet done making films. "I am now doing research for a film called Ghadab Ul-Ati (Anger to Come) and hope I will have the time to finish it."
The title of a film is not an afterthought, not for Attiyah. "The titles of my films are an integral part of the work. It is rare that I would start working on a film and change the title halfway through. The title is part of the film's identity and is usually known right from the start. We, the old generation of filmmakers, felt strongly about the titles of our films. We selected the titles first and kept them unchanged throughout."
Attiyah recalls some of the films he made in a career that spanned over half a century. "In Al- Mugrim (The Criminal, 1954) the central character is a villain engaging in robbery, abduction, murder, and blackmail. Qataltu Zawgati (I Killed My Wife, 1956) involves a man who convinces everyone of the reasons he had for committing a crime. Al-Muttaham (The Accused, 1957) is about a man falsely charged with murder and faced with execution. In Ushshaq Al-Leil (Lovers of the Night, 1957), the main characters are people who spend most of their time in nightclubs. Bint Sabatashar (Sweet 17, 1958), is about a teenage girl struggling with her identity."
Morality is one of the main themes of his films. Attiyah is an educator, not just a brilliant entertainer. " Akher Man Yaalam (Last to Know, 1959) is about marital infidelity. Suq Al-Silah (The Arms Market, 1960) is about the crimes associated with the illegal weapons trade. Abid Al-Gasad (Carnal Slaves, 1962) is about men who treat women as sex objects. Madinat Al- Samt (City of Silence, 1973), is about a corrupt city in which people are reluctant to stand up for their rights."
photos: Sherif Sonbol