Al-Ahram Weekly Online
11 - 17 October 2001
Issue No.555
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map


'Dirge without music'

By Lubna Abdel-Aziz

Lubna Abdel-Aziz It was the best of times. The five friends walked out of the Zoopalast Cinema and strolled leisurely down the Kurfurstendamme Blvd enjoying the pleasant breeze of a mid-August afternoon in West Berlin. As they sat sipping their 'Kaffee mit Sahne' at one of the numerous sidewalk cafes, gazing at the clear blue sky, and the beautiful people passing by, one of them broke the silence: "I have an idea. Why don't we have a film festival in our native Cairo like they have here?" After the initial startled silence, the chatter was deafening. On their return they established the Egyptian Association for Film Writers and Critics, incorporating seven more members. The original founders were Abdel-Moneim Saad, Mary Ghadban, Ahmed Maher and Nabil Esmat. This simple idea was conceived in the mind of their leader Kamal El-Mallakh - a gentle giant whose love for art and country surpassed all others.

One year later in August 1976, the first Cairo Film Festival was launched. It was an instantaneous success. Such celebrities as Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Farrah Fawcett, Claudia Cardinale, Alberto Moravia were only a few of the many who flocked to our shores. This week the Cairo Film Festival celebrates its Silver Jubilee. Hussein Fahmy is at the helm with the able assistance of Soheir Abdel-Kader.

Kamal El-Mallakh was no ordinary man. He was a thoroughbred. They called him "genius", "walking encyclopaedia", "Ancient Egyptian". He was all of these, and he was more. The love of art and the love of country were his very essence. Born to a devout Christian family in Southern Egypt, 26 October, 1918, Kamal was one of six brothers and sisters. He inherited his sense of duty and honour from his father and the love of God and his fellow man from his mother. The family soon moved to Cairo and the young boy was enrolled at "Al Saidiya" high school, where he discovered he could draw. He organised a students' exhibit of art works and invited prominent journalist Ahmed El- Sawy Mohamed, who surprised everyone by attending. He was the first in a string of luminaries and celebrities who befriended El-Mallakh throughout his life.

He joined the College of Fine Arts, Department of Architecture and on graduating was appointed instructor at the College. He joined the Army Reserve preparing him to serve his country. At the instigation of the great writer Dr Taha Hussein, another friend and mentor, he joined the School of Archaeology at Cairo University. He was hooked. It was the first time that he had come to meet his Ancient Egyptian ancestors. He spent hours plunged in books, manuscripts, pictures, historic accounts and in museums, monuments and temples. He deciphered their hieroglyphics, learnt their language, sang their songs. He knew of their philosophy, their art, their chores, their habits. He joined the Department of Antiquities and meticulously restored temples and monuments from Upper Egypt to the foot of the pyramids. In 1954, he made one of the most important archaeological discoveries in history, the solar boats of the Great Pyramid at Giza. He had found his life's mission.

photo: Emile Karam

But destiny had other plans for him. A call from his hero Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram in 1957 scratched all his other plans. Heikal invited him to join the paper on a full time basis. How could he refuse? He gave up everything and accepted the offer.

If archaeology was his muse, journalism was the love of his life. He took the back page of the paper, revamped it, dressed and decorated it. He launched his own column "Untitled". It emanated a glow that made it irresistible. It became the most popular page in the local press. He wrote about everything and about everyone, and everyone was entertained by everything he wrote. His style was rich and elegant, his prose powerful yet lyrical, his thoughts pure and universal. Brevity was the soul of his wit, precision the power of his vivid expression. He involved our emotions, as true artists must. He spread his aesthetic appreciation of the arts to multitudes of grateful readers. His ideas were so novel and appealing, other dailies followed the lead of Al-Ahram. The running commentary was: "the paper is now being read back to front".

He developed a passion for yet another art "The Seventh Art". The film community hovered around him, seeking his counsel, his ideas, his approval, his company. He attended many Film Festivals around the world, and served on many international juries. He was the quintessential ambassador for Egypt. He travelled far and wide inaugurating exhibits and lecturing on his beloved land. Famous playwright and novelist Tawfiq El-Hakim made this observation: "You must have been travelling again. Cairo lacks its energy and charm when you are gone Kamal" He sought harmony and grace from his training as an architect. He sought order and discipline from his training in the army. He sought novel ideas and discoveries from his training as an archaeologist. He sought beauty and truth from his love of the arts. He applied all this to his work in journalism.

He walked like a Pharaoh, stately and dignified. His smile was wide, full of optimism and sunshine. His eyes were sharp, penetrating and alluring. He possessed a childlike quality of innocence and purity, but his cardinal feature was his loyalty - to his art, his friends, his family, his profession, and above all, to his Egypt. At one of his lectures in Los Angeles, prominent educator, Angeline Lieber turned to me and said: "Why do I get the feeling he was dining with the pharaos yesterday?" She subsequently bought all his 32 books and visited Egypt with her friends several times.

I was still in high school when I first met El-Mallakh. He and my father were close friends and colleagues at Al-Ahram. One day he sought my father's advice in translating a series of English talks on art for Cairo Radio; my help was solicited. I dreaded the responsibility. When I suggested changing his title "The Whisper of Art", he refused. He was right. From that moment on, whenever he spoke I listened. I listened and listened - until he spoke no more. The last time I heard from him was when he called us in Houston from Colorado. It was April 1987. Suddenly, prematurely, unexpectedly, he had lost his youngest brother Ragai. This was his 'baby' brother, his best friend, his closest confidante - the son he never had. He was devastated - his grief was insurmountable. I could hear his heart break. Suddenly, prematurely, unexpectedly, he himself died a few months later, on October 29th 1987 - I have no doubt of a broken heart. Years later on returning to Cairo the words of Tawfiq El-Hakim came back to me - Cairo indeed loses much of its energy and grace with Kamal gone! This month Egypt commemorates 14 years of his passing.

When words fail us we seek those of the more able, the more expressive, such as Edna St. Vincent Millay's in her "Dirge Without Music"

Down, down, down, into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

The heart finds comfort in the knowledge that he left a rich legacy of word and deed. The soul finds solace in the belief that he is with his cherished parents, his loving brothers and sisters, his many faithful friends, his dearest brother Ragai, and above all, his beloved Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt.

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