Thursday,20 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1405, ( 9 - 15 August 2018)
Thursday,20 June, 2019
Issue 1405, ( 9 - 15 August 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Master Khan

Nahed Nasr joins in the celebration of one of Egyptian cinema’s brightest stars


A photo exhibition, a book, a film and series of articles marked the second anniversary of the death of filmmaker Mohamed Khan (26 October 1942-26 July 2016), testifying to his influence. Khan was one of the founders of Egyptian Neorealism, and from his debut, a short film named The Watermelon (1972), until his last film, Before the Summer Crowds (2015), he never stopped working.

Drawn from the private photo collections of his family and friends, notably the director of photography Said Shimi, Fi Hob Cinema Mohamed Khan (or “For the Love of Mohamed Khan’s Cinema”), a four-day exhibition at Al-Hanager Gallery, featured over 70 images of Khan on location and in private.


At the same time Dar Al-Karma has published a 290-page volume of Khan’s letters to his close friend, Shimi (part one of three, covering the years 1959-1966), which were collected, edited and commented on by the latter. “To you, who took my soul with him,” reads the dedication, “until we meet again”.

The book, Mohammed Khan’s Letters to Said Shimi, Part 1: A life Journey, has an introduction by Shimi, another by the prominent film critic Mahmoud Abdel-Shakour and eight chapters covering eight years and eight stages in Khan’s development (and their friendship), each including a commentary by Shimi as well as the text of Khan’s letters to him, respectively: Test of Friendship (1959); Exploring the Future (1960); Self-reliance (1961); Egyptian Nostalgia (1962); Year of Hope (1963); February Departure, October Return (1964); Lebanese Hardship (1965); and Painful Return to London (1966).

In his introduction, Abdel-Shakour stresses the cinematic and critical views of “all the European and world movies [Khan] watched” expressed in those letters, while in his Shimi explains the circumstances of his friendship with with Mimi, as Khan was known to him, and the functions of their correspondence during the latter’s frequent travels. “Most of these films I did not have the chance to see at that time and his letters enriched my knowledge.”

Their friendship started as a friendship between their father’s. Khan’s father, a Pakistani national, was a tea merchant who imported tea from India and Sri Lanka; Shimi’s was a doctor whose practise was in the same building as the latter’s office in Ataba Square. They were both fond of movies, so they went to the cinema together, while their two children had plenty of fun “playing around in that building”. but they managed to pass on their love of cinema.

Rashwan with Shimi

“Cinema was a part of our childhood,” Shimi writes, “and when we grew older we used to document the movies we watched in a notebook, rating them. A hobby that lived with us for a long time. Those letters were our way of resuming this hobby... They date from the time which formed our cultural, social, and national vision.”

In 1959, Khan’s father’s business collapsed and the family moved to London: “This was a very difficult year for both of us, I lost Mimi for the first time and thought he would never come back. I also lost my father in the same year...”  But on 24 October 1959, Shimi writes in his commentary on the 1959 letters, as a secondary school student he found out about the High Cinema Institute in Al-Ahram, and for the first time he realised that cinema was a subject he and Mimi could study and do for a living.

In the next chapter Khan speaks of his vision of cinema: “My late brother, a screenwriter I deeply admire, once said that the object of filmmaking is life and its price is also life. I find this very true. There is something between me and the movies. It is not a hobby but a love... a film for me is like a bride and the director is the bridegroom who wants to buy his bride a lovely dress. This dress is the story which he should tailor perfectly to fit her. If the dress is beautiful the bride will also be and the bridegroom will be happy, won’t he.”  

In another 1960 letter he speaks of a project he is thinking about: a short silent film featuring different kinds of beggars and “those people who give them money”, while in a 1961 letter he writes about Youssef Chahine’s 1958 Jamila the Algerian, on the Algerian militant Djamila Bouhired, which he saw at the Egyptian Embassy in London on United Arab Republic day: “I did not like this film. It is not realistic. The cinematography is bad. The acting is average. But I was happy I saw an Egyptian movie.”

the book cover

Yet the “future is harsh and merciless,” he writes in another letter from London that year. “I stand full of fear, unable to go forward or to retreat. Life changed. I am not that cheerful happy young man you used to know any more.  I am always sad, depressed – and busy. No one understands me or even tries to. All I do is try to understand myself.”

He was homesick, he was in his twenties and he felt he had achieved nothing, though in fact having mastered English he was writing. The first English story he sent Shimi, Shams, was to become the short film Darbet Shams (Sunstroke, 1980) years later. He also shared his dream of the two of them working together with Shimi as cinematographer.

Already the nationality issue that was to dog Khan until 2013, when he was 73 and near the end of his life was making itself felt. Though he was born in Egypt, the law didn’t grant him nationality because his father was not an Egyptian citizen. In a 1963 letter he writes, “Believe me, I am thinking day and night of returning to Egypt. But I have many problems, because I carry a Pakistani passport which makes me a foreigner in Egypt although I have a residency card. Here in England I am a foreigner, but it’s the same in the country where I was born and lived and loved”.

In a 1963 letter he says, “I know I will achieve nothing here in England. The progress of Egyptian cinema makes me happy but I want to be a part of this progress. I want to serve Egyptian cinema. I want to prove to myself, to my family, to everyone, to Egypt and to the entire world that there is an honest and sincere idea and by expressing this idea on screen it will be immortal. It will be not a lesson but a legend, a model, something that never dies. I should be a film director one day. I should breathe. I should live, brother. Don’t you feel that I’m dying? I’m gradually dying and no one knows but you.”

Khan as a little film buff

That year Khan briefly returned to Cairo but he had to return to England for his family while Shimi was being rejected by the High Cinema Institute. When he finally returned for good, he couldn’t obtain a work permit as a non-Egyptian and moved to Lebanon for a while. The book ends with Khan in Lebanon struggling with commercial movies he wasn’t interested in doing. “Never betray your love of cinema,” he wrote, “even if the idea came into your mind. Otherwise you’ve never loved it from the beginning.”

Khan made 30 films and Shimi has shot 92 films and television series.


Another aspect of Khan’s career is the focus of Ahmed Rashwan’s documentary Khan Al-Muallim (Khan, Mentor, 2018), which premiered at the Festival of Arab Cinema in Paris (28 June-8 July). Rashwan was Khan’s student, assistant and friend. The idea of making a film about Khan’s role in Egyptian cinema, which Khan knew and approved of, was born 15 years before. But, “though we were both eager to make it happen,” Rashwan says, “I didn’t start real work on the project till his sudden death”.

By now the film had changed somewhat, Rashwan’s grief pushing him into a more personal space. “It is not exactly a film about my relationship with Khan but more about how I see him, what I knew and what I did not know about him. going through all the interviews with his friends and co-workers made me feel like I was rediscovering him.”

With his father

One of the main elements of the film is the last seminar attended by Khan at the Daal Film Centre, where he spoke of his friendship with Rashwan and others. “It was the first time Khan spoke of me in public. He talked about how we met when I was a university student wanting to interview him for a film magazine and how this relationship developed until I became his assistant on three films.” For the film, Rashawan went on to interview all those Khan mentions in the seminar.

Artist and documentary filmmaker Ali Al-Ghazuli, for example, speaks of filming Khan’s 1986 film Awdat Muwatin (The Return of a Citizen), their only collaboration. Another Khan collaborator interviewed in the film, the cinematographer on Khan’s Mr Karate (1993) and A Very Hot Day (also 1993), is Kamal Abdel-Aziz. A third, who wrote four of Khan’s films – Al Rahgba (Desire,1980), Ta’ir ala Al-Tarik (A Bird on the Way,1981), Maw’ed ala Al-Ashaa (A Dinner Date, 1981) and Al Harif (The Street Player, 1984), is screenwriter-director Beshir Al-Dik, whom Rashwan did not know personally before interviewing him for the film.

Rashwan also stresses the concept of place, visiting some of the places where Khan filmed “to see how they’ve changed”, and makes use of archival material and visual records he himself made for Khan to produce not a biography or filmography so much as a record of Khan’s influence as a uniquely independent and passionate artist. “I can say Khan is the reason behind so many younger people’s love of cinema. He was one of the first established filmmakers in Egypt to experiment with a digital camera... His lifestyle and his filmmaking style are a great source of inspiration.”


Film critic Ahmed Shawky celebrated Khan’s memory in his own way by publishing a series of four articles on Filfan web site using Khan’s original film diaries for four of his films: Desire (1980), Sunstroke (1980), A Bird on the Way (1981) and Al-Tha’r (Revenge, 1983). The articles were initially part of a book project interrupted by the filmmaker’s death.

Shawky’s friendship with khan started six years ago when he was working on his book Taboo in 1980s Generation Cinema, which covered, among others, three of Khan’s films: The Return of a Citizen (1986), Supermarket (1990) and Fares Al Madina (Knight of the City,1993). While interviewing Khan for the book Shawky realised Khan used to document his process in these diaries, and he thought of writing a book in which these diaries could be reproduced alongside conversations with him.

“But our first session for the project was only few days before Khan’s death, when he gave me the original of only four of his film diaries. The rest of the dairies are now in the possession of his family”, who have other plans for them. “I have their permission to publish the articles but I still believe that such a book would be of a great importance especially to film historians and critics and the aspiring filmmakers”.   

The diaries give a panoramic view of the film industry in the course of Khan’s career, demonstrating his methodical and organised approach and so covering every aspect of the filmmaking process, how it changed over nearly five decades and how Khan adjusted and readjusted his approach to accommodate the changes. “He was such a versatile and creative director. But seeing his movies which are so full of emotion you wouldn’t believe the man behind them was such an accurate and organised person. It is a lesson for every filmmaker.”

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