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Books not to miss this book fair - The dreams and agonies of an Egyptian filmmaker

With the inauguration of the Cairo International Book Fair (22 January-4 February), Ahram Online offers a series of recommendations for avid readers

Dina Ezzat , Friday 24 Jan 2020
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Khetabat Mohamed Khan Ila Said ElSheemy (“The Letters of Mohamed Khan to Said ElSheemy”) (Volumes I & II), (Cairo, AlKarma Books), 2018 and 2019.

This book is the story of a young man, who was not born Egyptian but who identified as nothing but Egyptian, and who had to leave Cairo for London in 1959 with his family, and whose heart and mind were all focused on one thing: to come back to Egypt and to make good movies.

It is also the story of two young men who grew up together and shared a passion for filmmaking that took them both, on parallel paths to become two of the most prominent names in the Egyptian film industry in the 1970s and 198s.

It is about film director Mohamed Khan, whose life in Egypt was interrupted by the need for his Pakistani-born father to leave in the late 1950s, and it is about cinematographer Said ElSheemy.

However, the story is told to the reader through one narrator only: Mohamed Khan.

It is told through the letters that Khan kept sending ElSheemy during his years in England. In those letters, Khan shares with his closest friend his dreams, his frustrations and details of his day-to-day life.

In two consecutive large volumes that were issued in two consecutive years, ElSheemy shares long extracts of this dedicated correspondence.

“One day we were having coffee in this particular coffee shop that we frequented often in our neighbourhood and then Khan realised I had kept those letters he had been sending me from England,” ElSheemy recalls in his introduction to the first volume, which was titled Khetabat Mohamed Khan Ila Said ElSheemy – Meshwar Hayat (“The Letters of Mohamed Khan to Said ElSheemy – Life’s Paths”).

Khan, ElSheemy added, was very keen to see those letters, to reflect on things he said and thought in his younger years. He had lost ElSheemy’s letters to him in the many moves he made from and to Egypt, but he thought that his correspondence would still tell an interesting story, even if it was one-sided.

In 2016, Khan passed away at the age of 74. ElSheemy then decided to go ahead and publish the letters, “knowing that this would be to Khan’s liking,” to tell the story of the making of one of Egypt’s most prominent filmmakers.

In the first volume, ElSheemy included the letters – “edited mildly to protect the privacy of some people and not to over-expose intimate information that Khan had shared among friends” – he received from Khan between 1959, when Khan was actually boarding the boat to leave Egypt, and 1966.

The second volume, which was titled Khetabat Mohamed Khan Ila Said ElSheemy – Intessar LelCinema (“The Letters of Mohamed Khan to Said ElSheemy – the Triumph of Cinema”), includes letters from 1967 to 1972.

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Both volumes, which come to close to 800 pages with photos, offer a very close insight into the making not just of Khan and ElSheemy, as prominent film industry figures, but also the evolution of the film industry in these years.

There are also the very detailed and thorough remarks Khan often makes to ElSheemy about the films he watched while in England, be it Hollywood productions or European films, which can tell us quite a bit about the evolution of American and European cinemas in these years.

However, these two volumes do not just reflect on the film industry and the diligent efforts of both Khan and ElSheemy, especially the former, to enter it. It is more about the life of two young men who were born in Egypt before 1952, and who grew up in cities and communities that have changed significantly in that time.

The first volume is particularly emotional, as it carries a lot of the sentiments that Khan felt while being almost forced to leave Egypt and while trying to make a new life in London under dire economic conditions, and without any certainty about anything except his inescapable passion for the cinema.

Khan’s faith in love “which is not always so sweet,” his fear of and curiosity about death “which only hits the body but never the soul” and his anticipation of an inevitable return to Egypt are all inundating.

The second volume has a lot more about Khan’s evolving ideas on filmmaking. He shares with ElSheemy early ideas for possible films that are conceptualised in a great deal of detail.

As Mahmoud AbdelShakour, a film critic, writes in a brief introduction to the first volume: every set of letters that ElSheemy received from Khan in any of the eight years to which this book is dedicated makes a fascinating and exciting read.

Clearly the language is captivating, just like in Khan’s movies. And the stories of a young, Egyptian-born man who suddenly finds himself in London at the very onset of the exciting 1960s are inevitably interesting.

But as art critic Ahmed Shawky writes in his introduction to the second volume, there is also something that goes way beyond the Khan story, or for that matter, the story of the launch of Khan’s cinema career. There is, Shawky wrote, the story of this generation of Egyptian men who were born in the early 1940s and who lived to see the end of monarchy, the defeat of 1967 and the crossing of 1973 – all of which had considerable impact on their lives.

Unlike constructed memoires, the letters carry a lot of spontaneity and considerable details that keep the reader entertained through the two volumes’ hundreds of pages.

Each of the volumes is divided into chapters, each of which is dedicated to a set of letters of a certain year – with a commentary from ElSheemy at the end of the chapter that, in a sense, tells a bit of his part of the story, or tries to explain a few points in Khan’s letters.

ElSheemy is planning a third volume on the remaining letters he received from Khan during the latter’s years in England.

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