Egyptian to the marrow: Mohamed Khan Letters to Said Shimi, 3rd Volume, Cairo: Al-Karma, 2020, pp.332
Egyptian to the marrow is the third volume of Said Shimi’s trilogy Mohamed Khan: Letters to Said Shimi, in which the cinematographer recounts the life of his late friend filmmaker Mohamed Khan (1942-2016), based around the letters Khan wrote him while he was in London (1959-1977). Shimi’s letters to Khan, as the author explains in the first volume, were lost on the way back to Cairo. Shimi’s way of keeping Khan alive following the director’s passing was to review and eventually publish his letters.
The third volume, concerning 1973-1977, appeared with Al Karma this year to coincide with its best publishing house award at the Cairo International Book Fair. The second volume had won the fair’s best book award in 2019. In his introduction film critic Kamal Ramzy writes, “For Khan, an expatriate at the time of writing those letters, Said Shimi represents a fundamental aspect of the home country, but also a hopeful prophecy of the future...” For his part Shimi comments on the differences between them at the time: “At that time I was involved in the film industry, while he was still struggling there in the city of fog with a heart full of anger and bitterness trying to find the way out. This explains his angry tone in some of the letters.” The love of cinema that bound them would ultimately triumph.
This book is divided into six parts, the first five of which correspond the years in which the letters were written: 1973-1976. They are entitled, respective, “I write to you in order to breathe” (28 letters), “Finally marrying: us coming back to Egypt an adventure or a gamble” (22 letters), “Hope is born: Hassan, Khan Junior’s birth” (26 letters), “A turbulent year” (24 letters), and “Difficulties, decisions and return” (four letters). The sixth chapter, “Life cycle after autumn 1997”, recalls the friends’ reunion after Khan’s return, Khan’s early career and their collaboration with Shimi working as DOP on Khan’s films. All are accompanied by archival photos.
The book is full of memorable moment. The death of Khan’s father in 1973, for example, was a catastrophe and a turning point: “He became aware of the importance of working harder to keep the family prosperous and pay his late father’s debts.” Casting aside his filmmaking dreams, he worked as a taxi driver. Shimi visited him twice, staying with him. “What I discovered was that his mind and soul were full of cinema, it was the only topic of conversation. He did not stop thinking about how to return to Egypt and make his first feature film.” The year of the October victory, 1973 gave Khan hope.
In 1974 he was still struggling to find a way back, frustrated that his ideas never see the light. Shimi suggested making a documentary about young Egyptians in London, but Khan was not too keen. He quickly became preoccupied with his marriage to an Egyptian woman, the jeweller Zeinab Khalifa, who made him more eager than ever to return, and the birth of Hassan. Shimi was worried that Khan might not be able to realise his dreams on his return, and he warned him, but Khan proved stubborn: “The issue of my return to Egypt is very realistic without any doubt. It is only a matter of time and a little organisation. Cinema is in my blood like the Italian wine that you love so much, the older the better. Me too, I became more cinematically mature and I am pretty sure of what I can do, and how I can contribute.”
By 1975 Khan had a detailed return plan. Feeling that he was growing older and had no more time to waste, Khan outlined the kind of cinema he wanted to make: “Arab filmmakers learned to fight capitalist society with capital. They want to make films to show the West that in the East we too have intellectuals who see the world the way Westerners see it. Their films are not really about humanity. They are not about workers, peasants, employees, soldiers, judges, even thieves. I am not talking about documentary films, but drama, melodrama, and comedy feature films about society, our society. Films that are entertaining, exciting, and tackle important issues at the same time.” In the letters following his visit Khan speaks of a film project he would later realise in 1983 in The Street Player, starring Adel Imam, which Shimi filmed just as planned.
Next year Khan made a short exploratory visit with his small family. Both friends had financial difficulties, but Khan was full of hope and faith in his role in the Egyptian film industry. “It was a very strange hope that motivated him,” Shimi writes. “A hope that no one else but he could see or feel. I believed in him although I had a lot fears at the same time.” The final decision to ignore all his friend’s warnings was made in 1977. “My return to my beloved career is essential,” Khan writes. “And you don’t see how important it is. You act like someone who is eating mutton in front of a hungry man. Instead of inviting him to the meal he starts to theoretically talk to him about his philosophy of the value of a loaf of bread.”
Khan came back with the idea of his first feature, Shams (Sun), later called Darbet Shams (or Sunstroke), starring Nour El Sherif (1946-2015) who was so enthusiastic he produced the film. The rest would be film history. The two friends often collaborated but even when they didn’t their close friendship remained till the last day of Khan’s life.
“I tried in the trilogy to introduce Mohamed Khan as I knew him. He was an Egyptian to the marrow who challenged every kind of obstacle and frustration to achieve his dream. His realistic style in filmmaking became a landmark in Egyptian cinema that was followed by others. He put all that he earned from cinema in cinema as he financially produced many of his films, those that were inspired by the stories of the people. That is why he lived with the people’s love and made films to his last breath. Whenever we were together in his car while he drove, if I made any comment warning him about a bump in the road, he would respond, in English, ‘I am the captain of the ship’. And he was. He was the captain of the ship of Egyptian cinema.”
Reviewed by Nahed Nasr