“Some film directors and script writers collect snippets from newspapers and magazines, whether crime news or events that might have caught their attention as they searched for potential ideas which can be molded into film scripts... Although I’m not a fan of such acts of collection, I once stopped at a news story about a Lebanese woman who poisoned herself and her lover, imitating Romeo and Juliet, for her lover not to succumb to his family’s pressure and marry another woman. The story inspired me with the idea for my film Mawaad Aala Al Ashaa, which took a different course... At other times, ideas for films bloom from small seeds, and are inspired by certain discussions, as was the case when I wanted to make a film about money in the world of businessmen, and which eventually manifested itself in my film Faris Al Madina.” – Excerpt from A Director on the Road
So writes iconic director Mohamed Khan in his newly released book Mokhreg Aala Al Tareeq (A Director on the Road), published by Kotob Khan, which had a book-signing event 20 December at Maadi-based Kotob Khan bookstore, in the presence of Khan himself.
The book comprises a huge selection of articles published between 1990 and 2015 in an array of Arab newspapers, including London-based Al-Hayat, Kuwait-based Al-Qabas, and later the Cairo-based papers Al-Dostour and Al-Tahrir.
Opening the event, Karam Youssef, Kotob Khan’s owner and the book’s publisher, expressed her happiness with “winning [the publishing rights of] a book by Mohamed Khan. I’ve always been a big fan of his work, and Khan is also a dear friend.”
Youssef, who also revealed an interest in eventually publishing Khan’s memoirs, proceeded to explain how the idea for the book came about.
“When I heard from Khan that he was planning to stop writing for Al-Tahrir … and given that I had been following his articles for years then, I asked him if we could collect the published articles in a book. About a week later, Khan brought me a huge folder of fax copies of articles, for he had written and sent out his articles through fax, cut out and pasted on paper.”
“I photocopied all the documents and we began choosing the articles that would go in the book… It was very clear to me how Khan had a vision as he wrote those articles, and this is what distinguishes a noble person from others. The artist’s role, I believe, is to have the vision, and in the process [inspire us] to follow their lead.”
The articles’ topics, Youssef explained, ranged from discussions of independent cinema and low-cost film production, to the problem of film distribution locally and in the Arab region.
The book’s importance, Youssef asserted, comes from the fact that “the Arabic library suffers a dearth in books on cinema, and also because whoever reads the book will get to know Khan and become familiar with his point of view on life and other matters.”
Following Youssef’s opening words, journalist and film critic Essam Zakaria said he was surprised to find out that Khan wrote so prolifically.
“While I did follow the articles Khan wrote for the daily Al-Tahrir, and liked them very much, I wasn’t aware he had been writing since the 90s. I was also surprised because we suffer this lack of film-focused publications in Egypt and the Arab world. We unfortunately lack the persistence to search for filmmakers’ memoirs and other documents, which can all function as important sources of knowledge.”
As Zakaria put it, the articles, while “not exhibiting literary or linguistic boastfulness, are steeped in simplicity and employ a direct storytelling style.”
Khan, in writing about his own relationship with production over the years, has offered a “documentation of production in Egypt over the past 25 years and up until the arrival of independent and digital cinema,” Zakaria added.
But as Khan himself revealed, his relationship with writing goes all the way back to his childhood.
“In school, we had an oral expression class, and in every lesson, my classmates would raise their hands and shout ‘Khan, Khan. Let Khan do it’ to the teacher. I was a good storyteller. And I would entirely make up events while telling a story.”
“I loved storytelling, and cinema is essentially an act of storytelling,” Khan added.
“I write freely, sometimes in classical Fusha, other times in colloquial Arabic, but the writings are always about cinema. I’m happy this book saw the light, because papers die out, whereas books live on.”
For his part, writer and film critic Mahmoud Abdel-Shakour applauded the book, stressing on how the book can inspire the young aspiring filmmakers.
“The importance of such a treasure is two-fold. It is first and foremost a service to humankind. In his youth, Khan had traveled to London to study engineering, and there took the life-changing decision of studying cinema instead. Later, he came to Egypt and began his career as a film director. There must be among the audience youth who have a passion for cinema and who, when reading this book, will be inspired to audaciously change their lives and pursue cinema.”
The book, Abdel-Shakour added, also provides this “documentation of a certain age in cinema.”
“When Khan came back to Egypt in the 1960s, a filmmakers’ generation was subsiding, and a new generation was seeing the light, among whom was Khan and his colleagues. Together, they were able to change Egyptian cinema from within. As such, when we talk about the term neo-realism in cinema, we must remember that Khan, Atef El-Tayeb and Dawoud Abdel-Sayyed introduced such changes from within Egyptian cinema, each leaving his own print.”
Writer Ihab El-Mallah said that if he were to give the book another title, it would be ‘Behind the Camera’, because it “presents an extended documentation of the industry and its people, and provides much detail about Khan’s relationship with people, the image and cinema.”
Mallah then proceeded to read some excerpts from Khan’s book, one of which is translated in the opening of this article, before Khan proceeded to answer the audience's questions and sign book copies for his ardent fans.