In an unprecedented media stunt last December, the privately owned satellite channel Al-Hayah hosted a purported drug dealer on its live talk show, “Kalam fe Serak.”
The incognito felon sported a wig and oversized sunglasses to conceal his identity while he spoke about his profession and the LE10,000 he generated on a monthly basis. But what was meant to be a journalistic breakthrough was quickly seen as another gag by a blighted media apparatus, and a mocking gala ensued on social media.
The naivety of the incident contrasts with the multifaceted complexity with which Egyptian cinema has portrayed the capricious drug-dealer character. From a wise sheikh to aristocratic old ladies, the gamut is wide, colorful and strange, varying according to the times and the whims of directors. While Ahmed Zaki’s character in Tarek al-Arian’s engrossing Scarface-inspired Al-Imbrator (The Emperor, 1990) is cinema’s classic macho kingpin from Batneya, here’s a selection spanning 70 years of the weirder and lesser-known dealers in Egyptian film.
1942: The vengeful wife
In Henry Barakat’s Al-Motahama (The Defendant), the drug dealer is a small but powerful element in a tale of love, infidelity and revenge. After Moalem (Master) Borai is sentenced to 15 years in prison, his wife and accomplice Moallema Shafiqa (Fardos Mohamed) vows to avenge her husband and frame the prosecutor’s wife, Samiha (Assia Dagher). The upper-class housewife falls victim to the cunning scheme and a dreary social tragedy ensues.
Around World War II, the trade in heroin and cocaine is said to have decreased considerably, resulting in an increased consumption of opium and hash smuggled in from neighboring countries. Shafiqa is a shisha-smoking, strong and bitter drug dealer driven by hate for the law. Despite her crucial influence on the course of events, she disappears after the first 15 minutes of the two-hour melodrama. Her profession — we never find out what drugs she’s selling — is merely a reason to put her husband in jail and give her a reason for vengeance.
1956: The tattooed man of God
Produced by Aflam al-Aahd al-Gadeed (New Era Films), Niazy Mostafa’s Rasseef Nemra Khamsa (Dock Number Five, 1956) reflects the image of post-revolutionary social and political justice that then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s state aimed to project.
Shaweesh Khamis (Farid Shawky), a low-ranking navy officer, launches a campaign against Alexandria’s mightiest drug smugglers. They’re run by an apparently benevolent and religious man called Moalem Bayoumi (Zaki Rostom). Rosary in hand, he spends most of his day at the mosque or doing good for those in need — including Khamis. But he’s also the biggest smuggler in the city, attaching small containers of heroin and cocaine to pigeon legs, an ingeniously risk-free method. And being the good man he is, Bayoumi’s the last one the police suspect.
Eventually, however, he has to resort to diabolic schemes to escape the navy’s strong grip. Rostom, “villain of all villains,” wittily exaggerates Bayoumi’s goodness with a constant sinister grin and unblinking glare. Despite his increasingly evil acts, he always greets Khamis with the famous sentence, “Go … may God bless your house.” He’s simultaneously the best of friends and the worst of enemies.
1957: The sexy foreigner in a bathing suit
Fateen Abdel Wahab’s comedy Ibn Hamido also goes for the ever-juicy topic of drug smuggling. Low-ranking police officer Ibn Hamido (Ismail Yassin) and Captain Hassan (Ahmed Ramzy) are on an undercover mission to capture a gang smuggling narcotics overseas. The villain this time is a sexy-looking woman of foreign origins called Latania (renowned dancer Nelly Mazloum).
This movie, like the previous one, glorifies police efforts and makes good use of Yassin’s prior successes in the famous series of movies named after him, which all revel in the Nasser-sponsored era of nationalism and patriotism. Latania and Maryse, her assistant, float around in the background in their swimsuits, snorkeling and babbling away in sharp accents.
It was probably a political move to cast the villain as a foreigner living among Egyptians. The recently liberated state feared the colonizers’ return, especially after the tripartite aggression in 1956, and launched a campaign against Egyptians of foreign origins, especially the Jewish community. The false flag bomb attacks on civilian targets by some young Jewish Egyptians affiliated with Israeli intelligence occurred just three years before the film came out.
But not to stray away from what he does best, Abdel Wahab also makes his villain a woman to add to the comedic events of the beach stakeout.
1976: The government hypocrite
After a wild party, actress and socialite Sanaa (Soheir Ramzy) is found stabbed to death in her idiosyncratic downtown Cairo penthouse. An investigation into all the invitees commences, and the mystery unravels. One of the main characters of Said Marzouk’s The Guilty is Fahmy al-Qalyouby (the ingenious Tawfiq al-Deken), a new type of smuggler — the official type. He’s a Ministry of Supplies employee who provides Kamel’s parties with stolen food, drinks and drugs.
Qalyouby epitomizes government corruption — he smuggles subsidized goods to the rich and acts as an interim hash dealer. Unlike most cinematic drug dealers, Qalyouby makes little profit, but it’s still 10 times more than his meager ministry salary. He risks his job for a few laughs and a couple of puffs with the star and her rich friends, clinging to the smallest likelihood that one day he may become one of them.
Corruption is Qalyouby’s raison d’être — he could just have easily been a thief, embezzler or fraud. President Anwar al-Sadat’s open-door policy exposed the Egyptian market to the world and gradually turned it into a consumer’s economy. This required characters like Qalyouby, a middleman aspiring for more at any cost.
1985: The trendsetter
In the mid-1980s, cinema was hit hard by a phenomenon known as “entrepreneur movies.” These flicks’ cinematic value was usually as low as their budgets, and producers aimed at generating profits when the movies got to video tape. VHS was the marvel of the 1980s, and just as it became the new craze, drugs were making a strong comeback. Newspapers were filled with stories about cocaine-dipped flowers sold in front of schools and young upper-class users turning into dealers to fund their expensive highs.
This new social trend called for an original representation of the iniquitous character, and the result was Al-Keif’s Bahz Beh (Gamil Rateb), an evolved hybrid of the typical galabeya-wearing brute of myth and the money-making 20th-century capitalist.
Still in a galabeya, Bahz Bey possesses the cunning of a shrewd entrepreneur and the eloquence of a convincing salesman. He stumbles upon a fake hash blend and decides to capitalize on its cheapness by cutting it with amphetamines and selling it at a higher price. The hybrid drug reflects a generally acknowledged rise in stimulant abuse during that tumultuous decade.
Rateb and director Ali Abdel Khaleq draw a ruthless yet appealing character you can’t help but love. He is funny, weird and convincing. His French accent (Rateb started his career in La Comédie-Française and was normally typecast as an aristocrat or wealthy businessman) gives Bahz a quirky twist.
1993: The wig-wearing kidnapper of children
Yousry Nasrallah’s Mercedes is a cinematic assemblage of uniquely creepy characters, and Raeefa — the drug and human organ dealer who’s always accompanied by her veiled aristocratic-looking partner — is no exception. The two middle-aged women roam around the city in a Mercedes, kidnapping street children for human spare parts before returning to their villa in the suburbs, which is guarded by a squawking duck.
What is eerie is their raging ordinariness — they’re two typical upper-class old women with the brains and the aptitude of Satan himself. Nasrallah rid his dealer of all the cinematic clichés affiliated with the villainous character: She’s an aunt, businesswoman and socialite who gathers with her girlfriends and gets married, like everyone else. But her normality is the key to her excessive creepiness.
Raeefa is driven by pure thirst for evil, not money. Her upper-class background provides wealth and status, yet she chooses a career in slicing up young children. She triumphs over other dealers with her gray wig and a natural aptitude for vice. But eventually a relative presents her and her partner with a plate of biscuits dipped in cocaine instead of sugar. Their corpses are found covered in confectioner’s sugar, wig-less and veil-less.
Nasrallah’s dealer is a product of the continual rise of ravenous capitalism in the 1980s and 1990s. A new brand of businessperson — wealthy, greedy and immoral — surfaced as the middle class got swallowed up, and the social grid began to consist of the very wealthy and very poor. Raeefa represents the death of socialism.
1999: The savant
“Killing a soul is the hardest thing, but sometimes we have to kill,” declares Moalem Hodhod, philosophizing the greatest sin. “God made each one of us for a reason.”
In Daoud Abdel Sayed’s Ard al-Khof (Land of Fear), Hodhod is like a hoopoe to Suleiman the prophet, speaking words of wisdom to protagonist Yehia (Ahmed Zaki). With miracles literally a clap away from his murderous hands, he has a special religious philosophy that creates a halo of mystical reverence around him.
“God made us drug dealers to please people, and he made us wealthy,” he says, “but all this wealth is his, not ours.”
He knows he’ll meet with the punishment of a sinner, but doesn’t cease to try and please God in all his deeds. Hodhod is God’s messenger of pleasure and good moods, selling hash to those who need it. But he refrains from dealing in cocaine, because it’s sinful. He’s at peace with himself, both the good and evil. His glare of contentment, gloom and confidence makes him mighty in an almost non-human way.
More than his predecessors, Hodhod has a real raw goodness mixed in with his evil, reflecting the pressing question Abdel Sayed asks in most of his movies: What is good and what is bad?
2012: The cliché of the callous Bedouin
Two of the main heartthrobs of current Egyptian cinema star in Sandra Nashaat’s blockbuster Al-Maslaha (The Goods). Ahmed Ezz plays ruthless Bedouin drug dealer Selim, who’s trying to evade a vengeful chase orchestrated by righteous police officer Hamza (Ahmed al-Sakka).
Selim is a different style of dealer from his cinematic predecessors. He’s one-dimensional, rooted in the naïve stereotype that every Bedouin from Sinai is a drug smuggler, and is mean, sleazy and brutal. But in an echo of those Nasserite gangster movies, The Goods glorifies the police officer and the security force in general. Hamza, like his martyred brother, is drawn in an almost saintly light: A hardworking and kind officer with a nice family who prioritizes his work over everything.
The police as an institution was broken in 2012, and its comeback to Egypt’s streets had to be gradual. Maybe The Goods was a social lubricant to ease the re-acceptance of a body that had become foreign to the masses. It also reaffirmed the police narrative of Sinai as a site of lawlessness that needs beating into shape, rather than development, with Bedouins — definitely not the government — squarely to blame.
The thriller was released a year after the January 25 revolution, although it was shot before, so it’s a miracle that it made an LE20 million profit.