Egypt’s cinematic gems: An Important Man’s Wife

In one scene in Zawgat Ragol Mohem (An Important Man’s Wife), the excited police officer serves breakfast in bed to his pregnant wife. He leans toward her belly and pretends he’s speaking to his son, officer Ashraf.

“You already named him and gave him a job?” the wife asks.

“Of course!” the husband answers. “Police officers rule the world, then, now and in the future.”

Elsewhere 1991 saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of an era, a dream and an idea, but for Mohamed Khan and Egypt the year 1970, with the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser, marked an era’s end and the start of an new one. Showing the violations of the newborn Sadatism identifies what Nasserism was not.

Directed by Khan in 1987 and written by Raouf Tawfik, An Important Man’s Wife is a take on the psychological and social effect of authority. It captures the clash between hungry fascism and optimistic romanticism through tracing the arc of a romantic relationship.

Hesham (Ahmed Zaki) is a State Security police colonel whose opportunistic and oppressive values prevail in the film. Mona (Mervat Amin) is a dreamy young woman whose generation grew up listening to songs by Abdel Halim Hafez and a nationalistic sentiment that refused to die.

Khan has a long history of making women the gauge of society in his films; through their reactions and interpretations we know what’s actually taking place.

An Important Man’s Wife is no exception, hence the name. Mona reflects her husband’s transformation from low-ranking officer in a small village to colonel in the State Security Cairo branch. Her discovery of her husband’s corrupt spirit and narcissistic self, which divides the world into “I” and “other,” is shown on her face, from pure teenage affection to eye-opening surprise, to tiring steadiness, to despair and collapse.

At the beginning, Hesham purposefully seduces Mona with his influence and confidence. She wants to live a fairytale, or rather a romantic song by Abdel Halim, whose singing we watch with her in the opening scenes.

To reach higher positions, Hesham cultivates a tight relationship with his superior, whom he despises. His voice and physicality change from assured and ardent with Mona to obsequious and agitated when speaking with his boss.

The differences between Mona and Hesham are very obvious, but reach a peak at a new year’s party full of his superiors, important politicians and Parisian food and drink — pointing to the posh lifestyles some people lived as result of Sadat’s “open door” polices. The politicians gather in a friendly discussion of hypocrisy and fake smiles: they trash talk communism and Nasser’s High Dam, applaud privatization and accuse workers of laziness. While Hesham agrees with anything that’s said, Mona angrily defends the dam as a project that saved Egypt from drought and flood. He violently berates her for fleeing in the face of “the cream of society.”

Two major incidents drive the film’s plot, which is supported by a visual focus on details: of the two leads’ convincing acting, and of life in the changing city.

The first incident is Mona’s pregnancy. When she miscarries, the futures both she and her husband had imagined die. Hesham’s aspiration for more power, as well as his image of a hierarchy with his anticipated police officer son on top, is destroyed. On the other hand, Mona’s romantic hopes are dashed.

With this, Khan marks the end of generation’s dream. A generation that expected independence and emancipation under Nasser. A generation that took to the streets and shouted “we will fight” while half the Armed Forces were pinned down in Sinai in 1967.

The other plot catalyst is the January 1977 demonstrations, when millions took to the streets to protest Sadat’s cutting subsides on essential food items. Later on, Sadat and his media machine called it the “thieves uprising,” blaming communists, workers, students and intellectuals for agitating the masses. Hesham is one of the police officers who engineered mass arrests in dawn raids on charges of attempting to overthrow the regime.

Khan didn’t just use the 1977 uprising for plot purposes — he historicized one of the most critical moments in Egypt’s modern history, arguably a more brutal and class-conscious rehearsal of the January 25 revolution.

To this end, Tawfik wrote concise dialogues that summarize thousands of pages of history.

“Didn’t they say everything would be prosperous?” says Hesham’s doorman, sitting hopelessly in front of their building. “Why did they do this? How will the poor live now?”

Indeed, after the 1973 “victory,” state media and popular culture optimistically promised the masses fake prosperity and freedom of consumption, as foreign trade increased and luxury goods poured in to satisfy the needs of the upper classes.

One of Tawfiq’s dramatic dialogues takes place between Hesham and a lower-ranking officer, as the latter tries to convince him that the January 1977 arrests included police agents and people residing abroad, meaning the arrests were arbitrary and illegal. This was true in reality: Most defendants were acquitted as the judiciary found it would have been impossible to mobilize the masses and plan a popular revolution in such short time.

When this verdict was reached in 1981, the state needed a scapegoat to cover the scandal. In the film, Hesham is sacrificed along with his boss. Pushed out of his powerful castle, a normal citizen again, he starts to collapse. Hesham became an officer during Nasser’s era, practiced his violations in Sadat’s era, and his downfall comes in Mubarak’s era.

Khan was one of the first filmmakers to highlight the brutality, narcissism, inferiority complexes and paranoia of the police. Oppressive power not only kills the victims, but also backfires. The very idea that police officers are superior human beings who must protect the country from its enemies is central to how Hesham, and his many real life counterparts, build their understanding of the world.

Unemployed, in a cafe Hesham meets a journalist he had falsely charged with treason.

“We’re in a state of war,” he says. “Our job is to protect the homeland.”

“Who told you that you and your actions are protecting the country?” the journalist replies. “We know the origins of the real war. The other wars are in the minds of you and your colleagues. You created them to misguide leaders and divide the people.”

But viewing this film as political piece denouncing police brutality might not be wholly accurate. It can be seen as a two-hour demonstration of the pathos of romance, or of what Khan called “the time of Abdel Halim Hafez.”

Adham Youssef 

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