Eid season has been commercial film release season almost since the start of the industry in Egypt, but this year the pandemic has made things difficult even after movie theatres reopened to 25 percent capacity a few weeks ago. Saheb Al-Maqam (The Shrine Owner) – the latest production by Ahmed Al-Sobky, directed by Mohamed Gamal Al-Adl and written by Ibrahim Eissa – was therefore released on the Shahid VIP platform online.
The TV celebrity, journalist and novelist’s second attempt at writing directly for the screen after Al-Deif (The Guest, 2019), directed by Hadi Al-Bagouri, Saheb Al-Maqam follows in the footsteps of Magdi Ahmed Ali’s Mawlana (2017), written by Ali and Eissa and based on Eissa’s eponymous 2012 novel. Here as elsewhere, notably as editor of Al-Dustour (first in the mid-1990s and again in 2004-2011), Eissa’s central theme is extremist religious discourse and its origins in contemporary and Islamic history.
In Mawlana, the protagonist, Hatem (Amr Saad) is a preacher who struggles to defend an enlightened view of religion against the Salafis who attack his friend Mukhtar (Ramzy Al-Adl) for being a Sufi sheikh – an event, as it turns out, orchestrated by the secret police. In Al-Deif, Eissa ups the ante using the Greek unities, with Yahia (Khaled Al-Sawy), a writer and Islamic history scholar, ends up in an ultimately fatal argument with Osama (Ahmed Malek), the Salafi engineering professor who visits him to ask for his daughter’s hand but has been planning on assassinating him all along.
In the new film the protagonist, Yahia (Asser Yassin) is a greedy businessman who pays no attention to human beings. Bayoumi Fouad plays Yahia’s two twin partners Halim and Hakim, who come across as an embodiment of good and evil in Yahia’s life. At the start Halim is telling Yahia about the kidnapping of five company employees by a terrorist group in Iraq, and Yahia refuses to pay a $10 million ransom. He later manages to secure their release for $70 thousand. Regarding a project requiring the demolition of a Sufi shrine, Halim suggests funding the Salafis in the area, encouraging them to stage a protest against the shrine to facilitate removing it.
But this prompts a spate of bad luck with Yahia’s North Coast villa burning down, his Alamein land lost and his company shares plummeting on the stock market. Finally his wife Randa (Amina Khalil) has a stroke and goes into a coma. Thus Yahia begins to change. It is a variation on a very widespread theme (Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol inspired a good few such films in its own right): the dramatic change in a character resulting from a given misfortune.
During Randa’s coma, Yahia meets Rouh (Yousra), a woman who works in the hospital, though – dressed variously as a doctor, a nurse, a security guard, a cleaning lady – she seems to be otherworldly. And at regular intervals she gives Yahia advice on his road to redemption. Yahia begins to visit the major shrines in Cairo: Al-Sayeda Zeinab, Al-Hussein and Al-Imam Al-Shafie – where supplicants are known to write letters and slip them into the shrine – and he decides to find the writers of these letters and solve their problems. Eissa may have been influenced by the late sociologist Sayed Owais’s analysis of those letters, Letters from the Egyptians to Imam Al-Shafie.
From then on, the script moves onto a series of dramatic episodes recounting the story of each supplicant. Most are tragic and reflect extreme poverty but, in one case – a kind of comic relief episode, although it is black comedy – Yahia realises that one letter sender’s wish came true when he married his beloved – only to end up miserable. Al-Adl capitalised on the opportunity to feature as many stars as he could, and despite the brevity of the resulting roles many of them give stunning performances: Mahmoud Abel-Moghni, Injy Al-Moqaddem, Reham Abde-Ghafour, Mohamed Lotfi, Salwa Mohamed Ali, Farida Seif Al-Nasr, Mohsen Mohieddin and the late Ibrahim Nasr.
In his previous two films Eissa managed to build tight plotlines that involved arguments between moderate Islam and extremism, which gave the feeling that Eissa was in favour of a rational interpretation of Islam. In this film, though he maintains his stance against extremism, he seems to be turning to superstition and the paranormal.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly