A dialogue with my friend who’s a Waheed Hamed atheist

Wael Hamdy is an Egyptian script writer and film critic.

Andeel: Peace be upon you.

Wael Hamdy: Same to you.

Andeel: Ready?

Wael Hamdy: Yeah, went to the toilet and everything’s set.

Andeel: Haha, perfect. Q: Did you read the previous two dialogues?

Wael Hamdy: I read the Mohamed Mounir interview.

Andeel: Comparatively, who do you think is unbelieved in more? Mounir or Waheed Hamed?

Wael Hamdy: Hmm … I believe Mounir is more unbelieved in — taking into account that he had more believers in the first place, a lot more that Waheed Hamed’s believers. It’s obviously related to the difference in stardom levels between a singer and a scriptwriter.

Andeel: Can we consider Waheed Hamed a star scriptwriter, by cinema standards?

Wael Hamdy: Sure.

Andeel: Why?

Wael Hamdy: In writing, Waheed Hamed is like Osama Anwar Okasha, and like Youssef Chahine as a director.

Andeel: What is it that he has that’s made him a star scriptwriter?

Wael Hamdy: Star has more than one meaning here: First, a lot of ordinary people know his name, which is a bit unusual for this profession, especially in our country. It’s true that lots of people might not know what Waheed Hamed is doing exactly — writer or director or producer, making movies or novels? But in the end he’s a known name for them, which is a type of stardom — you feel that when you compare his name with Ibraheem al-MougyYoussef Gohar or Bashir al-Deek.

Andeel: I know Bashir al-Deek, but these other two were playing for Zamalek football club, right?

Wael Hamdy: No, Youssef Gohar played for Al-Tirsana club.

Second: Waheed Hamed is a star in his field. Meaning he can force his standards and conditions on production.

Andeel: Which is a very difficult thing. How did he manage to do that?

Wael Hamdy: I used to believe that these abilities only came from the fact that his work is very successful commercially, so has a strong credibility with producers. Especially as he’s produced films himself, making it clear that he could work without producers. I think the first movie he produced was Al liab maaa al kubar (Playing With the Big Ones, 1991).

Andeel: Oh yeah? He produced that?

Wael Hamdy: Yes. He also produced many other titles after that, Idhak al-soora titlaa hilwa (Smile to the Camera), Al-Waad (Promise), Mohami kholaa (A Divorce Lawyer). But after I grew up a bit I figured that he had another source of power as well. I don’t have anything to prove it, but I’m sure that he’s very strongly connected to specific offices in the state.

Andeel: Sweet!

Let’s go back to the springy period. Do you remember the first movie you saw of his?

Wael Hamdy: There were lots of movies by him that I saw when I was young without knowing they were written by him. Later, after developing more of an interest in cinema and its archive, I figured out it was him. So I can’t remember the first movie, but I remember learning that Al-Ghoul (The Ogre), Al-Takhsheeba (Custody), Al Baree (The Innocent) and Malaf fe aladab (A Case of Public Morals) were all written by him, and I think they’re all great movies.

Andeel: Do you remember the first time you studied the script of one of his movies, and felt its role in the movie clearly?

Wael Hamdy: The first movie I watched knowing ahead that it was written by Waheed Hamed — the first movie I ever saw in the cinema actually, before that it was all VHS — was Al-Irhab w kebab (Terrorism and Barbeque).

Andeel: What was so impressive about that movie’s script for you?

Wael Hamdy: The one-location concept (the Tahrir Mogamaa) and the one-day plot line. And the unexpected easy ending despite the complexity of the situation. These were impressive details about the script.

Andeel: Do you see his scripts as having a specific character, or repetitive features that he seems to like to play with a lot?

Wael Hamdy: In his best movies, which I still find great by the way despite my unbelief in him, you will always find the idea of a struggle between a weak protagonist and a gigantic being a million times bigger. He knows how to play with this relationship and make you totally sympathize with the protagonist. Also the slim dialogue is of course an inherent part of his most valuable skills.

Andeel: But if the theory about him being connected to the state is true (and I’m sure it is) then the weak protagonist against the strong being pattern is definitely a very dangerous trick.

Wael Hamdy: I think I know what you mean. This is part of the way my thinking changed about him after growing up and seeing his work in a different light. When you see these unbalanced fights in his movies, they usually end in one of two ways: Either the protagonist survives safely, without managing to cause any damage to the giant — like in Terrorism and BarbecueAl-Mansy (The Forgotten), Al-donia ala ginah yamama (Life on a Dove’s Wing), Al-Nom fel Asal (A Deep Sleep) and A Case of Public Morals — or the protagonist gets crushed by the giant — The CustodyThe InnocentPlaying with the Big Guys and Kashf al-mastour (Unveiling).

There were exceptions in the very early stages of his career, like in The Ogre, when the protagonist killed the giant.

So I think Waheed Hamed developed a belief, or adopted one, that an ordinary citizen’s fight with the authorities would never triumph. This belief might be the reason for his strong relationship with the state, or might be the result of it, you choose!

Andeel: Ok, so when you liked him, how did you feel about these stories, the endings where the protagonist draws with the evil force, or gets crushed? How did they make you feel?

Wael Hamdy: I used to feel comfortable when they drew, and I think this is the feeling the state liked about his movies, because the message is simple: Get as angry as you want at the government, but remember that fighting with it might destroy you — if you survive, breathe and be thankful.

When the protagonists got crushed I felt oppressed and angry — but let’s note that most of his movies with endings that triggered angry feelings were directed by Atef al-Tayeb.

Andeel: Were you inspired, as a writer, by anything Waheed Hamed had?

Wael Hamdy: The dialogue in his movies is always very distinctive and untraditional. I used to like that a lot.

Andeel: When did you start getting angry at his work? When was the first time he let you down?

Wael Hamdy: A movie called Al-awila fil gharam (In Love We Begin, 2007), I think. I found it really poor. I was very shocked at Mr. Waheed.

Andeel: Talk to me about that movie.

Wael Hamdy: Because of it I had a second look at all his movies. I discovered that he went up and down according to the director he worked with. With In Love We Begin it was pretty obvious that he was behind the wheel and nobody was questioning him. The result was bad. A loose plot, deformed blurry characters, pretentious worlds, bad dialogue even.

What confirmed my theory was the fact that his next movie, Ehky ya Shahrazad (Shahrazade, Tell Me a Story, 2009) by Yousry Nasrallah, was great.

Andeel: There were tales that he copied ideas from Latin American cinema or other cinemas that aren’t well known in Egypt. I think somebody told me Terrorism and Barbeque and The Forgotten specifically were not original. What do you think of that?

Wael Hamdy: I also heard that, but never saw proof. Generally the issue of artistic plagiarism and adaptation is very complex for me. There are millions of factors that can intersect and give us the impression that a work is stolen when it might only be a mutual influence due to surrounding conditions. But if I put myself outside the situation and try to measure how Egyptian these two films specifically are, I think Terrorism and Barbecue is 100 percent Egyptian. The Forgotten could be a bit influenced by non-Egyptian worlds.

Andeel: What do you think of the TV series Al-Gamaa (The Group, 2010)?

Wael Hamdy: This is one of the works that proved the “connections” theory for me, for a simple reason: When state TV in Mubarak’s time wanted to make a show about the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, it definitely wouldn’t choose a writer randomly. But away from all that I think that ideologically the show was trying to be neutral — though the kind of neutrality one builds after already having a point of view and a judgment. Other than that it was entertaining, of course.

Andeel: What did you find entertaining about it?

Wael Hamdy: Lots of factors that had nothing to do with the writing itself. Mohamed Yaseen is a very good director, he presented a very good-looking image and directed the actors very effectively, managed to create the 1920s and 1930s atmosphere to a standard we aren’t really used to.

Andeel: “The kind of neutrality one builds after already having a point of view and a judgment.” Isn’t any neutrality ultimately like that?

Wael Hamdy: You might be right — but there’s a difference between having a point that I’m trying to deliver through pretending to be neutral, and being truly neutral and trying to put myself in the shoes of the opposite side and adopt their point of view.

Do you know what’s wrong with The Group?

Andeel: What?

Wael Hamdy: The fact that it was inspired by the concept of “the group,” in the sense of making a show about “the others” who call themselves “the Muslim Brotherhood.” The direction that leads to notions like “we are a nation and they are a nation.” The show isn’t about a number of “Egyptians” who share a specific ideology toward political and religious reformation.

Andeel: I guess if Waheed Hamed was the kind of scriptwriter who saw things like that, he wouldn’t have been chosen for this zillion-pound show.

Wael Hamdy: Exactly. It was more of a “freak show,” like, we’ll show you some weird creatures living among us. So any attempt to put on “neutrality” after a start of that sort will fail. Let’s say objectivity instead of neutrality to be more accurate.

Andeel: If that show was made now, instead of before the revolution, what do you think would have been different about it?

Wael Hamdy: I’m indeed curious to see the second season. Apparently it’s being written right now. But in general, I believe the objectivity thing will dramatically disappear and stop even being a concern.

Andeel: Honestly, when I saw the show, I felt that the state is too scared of the Brotherhood. If I was them and saw that, I’d have felt encouraged to do all the stupid things they did.

Wael Hamdy: It’s because of that language of the “other.” It reminds me of a line Waheed Hamed himself wrote in Terrorism and Barbeque after the TV announced that the hostage-taker’s a mentally disturbed person. The protagonist then says: “Why is that, Mr. Minster? We were doing fine. But if you think I’m mentally disturbed, I shall behave like someone who’s mentally disturbed.”

Andeel: Exactly. But maybe the guy is just simply more scared of Islamism than of an oppressive military regime, and he made his choice and picked his path.

Wael Hamdy: He definitely is.

Andeel: The problem is that fear is non-negotiable. The thing is, why is an artist’s fear less justified than my aunt’s or your aunt’s natural fear?

Wael Hamdy: I have no problem with his Islamophobia. My problem is that he presented himself for a really long time as someone who refused oppressive military authoritarianism, despite his complete willingness to hide under its wing to protect himself from the bad ones he fears. It reminds me of the way I hated the end of Youssef Chahine’s Al-Maseer (Destiny, 1997).

Andeel: That takes us to the famous “dilemma” (which I don’t find that much of a dilemma) of how can you support freedom if it serves oppressive ideas?

Wael Hamdy: Indeed it is no dilemma. I can oppose all sorts of oppression without supporting one oppressor against the other. I think there have been many examples of this around us, in art and journalism and politics.

Andeel: Can you mention examples of artists who achieved an alignment with freedom without taking sides?

Wael Hamdy: I think this formula shows very clearly in the artist’s announced opinions and acts more than it shows in their work. If we choose to focus on an artist whose work clearly calls for freedom without taking sides, I think Atef al-Tayeb is the best-known example.

Andeel: How do you see the difference between Islamism in Tayeb’s vision and Waheed Hamed?

Wael Hamdy: Tayeb didn’t deal with Islamism much, but he pointed at radicalization as a symptom of an ill, oppressed society. One of the nicest signals of the political impact of oppressive authority and religious institutions on a citizen in Tayeb’s movies that I remember isn’t even directly political — Al-hob fawqa hadabit al-haram (Love on the Pyramids Plateau). The sexually frustrated young man who can’t afford marriage and cannot find a solution, neither in politicians’ statements nor in Shaikh Shaarawy sayings.

Andeel: If Atef al-Tayeb was still alive, and witnessed this Islamic explosion, what kind of movies do you think he would have made?

Wael Hamdy: I don’t have any visualization. I can imagine him announcing his opinions — I think he would have been called a “fifth column” — but artistically I don’t know how would he have told the story. Maybe he would have made something like Salah Abou Seif’s Bayn al-Samaa w al-Ard (Between Heaven and Earth), and put various different types inside a mutual tragedy.

Andeel: What do you think Waheed Hamed’s major concern or cause is?

Wael Hamdy: Right now I don’t know. Earlier I believed his main concern was triumphing on behalf of the humble citizen against all sorts of oppression. Looks like it wasn’t all sorts, and also it looks like for him the humble citizen is the citizen who doesn’t sympathize with Islamism.

In short, I believe his main target is fighting against radicalism and religious authoritarianism, even if that means allying with another type of authoritarianism.

Andeel: An embarrassing question, without mentioning names: In today’s generations who were brought up with his movies, do you see extensions to this idea?

Wael Hamdy: Of course there are lots of extensions of Waheed Hamed’s school, a lot. From people I know in person there are at least six or seven.

Andeel: Shit!

Wael Hamdy: I swear!

Andeel: So how many are atheists?

Wael Hamdy: You mean against his way of thinking?

Andeel: Yes.

Wael Hamdy: A good bunch as well. I know four, and there are three I suspect.

Andeel: Hahaha. What do you think is the strongest factor that slows down people’s ability to break free of liking figures like Wahid Hamed?

Wael Hamdy: Good craft. In the end you’re talking about someone who’s really good at what he does. That’s first. Secondly, the history of great works. You can’t drop that off your account. These are works that leave a strong mark on your subconscious, so re-evaluating them becomes a very difficult task.

The thing that can very easily accelerate unbelief though is watching people like Waheed Hamed speak on TV.

Andeel: The scarcity of talented writers and the small size of the industry sometimes gives people a bigger status than they deserve, don’t you agree?

Wael Hamdy: Hmmm. The theory generally is correct, but I don’t think it fits Waheed Hamed, because he actually appeared during a period when the industry was thriving and lots of talents were emerging — the golden generation of the 1980s, I mean.

Andeel: Mmm … If we claim that Waheed Hamed and his beliefs are a natural result of the political conditions in which he built his mind, what’s the difference now, and what kinds of writers can the current conditions produce?

Wael Hamdy: The golden era for Waheed Hamed was a time when the authorities in Egypt were trying to look democratic and in favor of freedom of speech. Nowadays, if we can call it an era (God knows what’s gonna happen), the authorities don’t seem to care at all about having a democratic reputation, so I believe the talented writers of the future will divide into three types: One that’s completely broken before authority and trying to praise it as hard as it can, another that will avoid having any political agenda, and a third that will try and be symbolic and subtle to deliver messages. Then of course the type that will be direct and have their work banned. I feel a 1960s vibe coming up ahead.

Andeel: I think that’s going to be a good thing.

Wael Hamdy: Could be …

Andeel: Are you happy now?

Wael Hamdy: I’m happy with this conversation.


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