The novel screen

Soha Hesham , Tuesday 7 Mar 2023

With a special programme of Naguib Mahfouz films, Zawya art house recalled the late novelist’s unique bond with the silver screen, writes Soha Hesham

Tharthara Fawq Al-Nil
Tharthara Fawq Al-Nil

Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s presence is unavoidable whenever and wherever you look at Egyptian film history. The Zawya art house Naguib Mahfouz Festival (15 February-2 March) featured seven films showcasing his dual role as a novelist many of whose books were made into films and as a screenwriter writing directly for the screen since 1947: Bedaya wa Nehaya (A beginning and an end, 1960), Bi’r Al-Herman (The well of deprivation, 1969), Al-Karnak (1975), Al-Sokkarya (Sugar street, 1973), Al-Ikhtyar (The choice, 1971), Tharthara Fawq Al-Nil (Chitchat on the Nile, 1971) and Ana Horra (I am free, 1959).

Based on Mahfouz’s eponymous novel of 1949, Salah Abu-Seif’s Bedaya wa Nehaya – the first Mahfouz novel to become a film – was written by screenwriter Salah Ezzeddine. Other than shortening the first 10 chapters, which tell the story of a lower middle-class family’s impoverishment following the father’s death, when they are forced to move into the basement of the building where they have lived all their life, the screenplay is extremely faithful to the book. Together with the helpless mother (Amina Rizq), three sons, Hassanein (Omar Sharif), Hassan (Farid Shawki) and Hussein (Kamal Hussein), and a daughter, Nefeisa (brilliantly performed by Sanaa Gamil), attempt to find their way in the world. Hussein leaves Cairo to seek his fortune as a provincial teacher, Hassan chooses a life of crime, and Hassanein attempts to become an army officer and on failing commits suicide, while Nefeisa, after the local grocer’s son Suleiman (Salah Mansour) takes her innocence and refuses to marry her, becomes a prostitute and on being discovered also commits suicide.

Deferring to Abu Seif, the friend who introduced him to cinema, Mahfouz never wrote the screenplays for his own books. Rather, he adapted the work of fellow novelist Ihsan Abdel-Quddous, whether in Abu Seif’s Ana Horra or Kamal Al-Sheikh’s Bi’r Al-Herman. The latter is based on a short story by Abdel-Quddous for which Mahfouz created a treatment later fleshed out by Youssef Francis. It stars the legendary Soad Hosni in one of her unforgettable roles as Nahed, a respectable young woman with dual personality disorder who every night escapes her house, unbeknown to her parents (Salah Nazmi and Mariam Fakhreddine) to become the femme fatale Mervat, who actually tries to seduce Nahed’s fiance Raouf (Nour Al-Sherif) and ruin his relationship with Nahed. The film also features the great Mahmoud Al-Meligui as Nahed’s psychiatrist. The film is a gripping psychological thriller, benefitting no doubt from Mahfouz’s as much as Abdel-Quddous’ storytelling genius and his attention to detail.

Mahfouz collaborated with Egypt’s best known auteur Youssef Chahine on writing the storyline of Al-Ikhtiyar (The choice), which Chahine then wrote and directed. It’s an unusual story for Mahfouz, a psychological drama following the story of Sayed (Ezzat Al-Alaili), a famous author married, and his wife Sherifa (Soad Hosni). They are about to travel so that Sayed can start his job at the United Nations when they find out from the newspaper that Sayed’s twin brother (brilliantly played by Al-Alaili) has been murdered. They postpone the trip to find out what happened, and police suspicions point to Sayed himself.

Tharthara Fawk Al-Nil and Al-Karnak both tackle the political issue and are both adaptations of eponymous novels by Mahfouz. Set in 1964, in the build-up to Egypt’s calamitous defeat in the 1967 War with Israel, Tharthara Fawk Al-Nil is the story of a civil servant, Anis (Emad Hamdi) who, dispirited by the bureaucracy and hypocrisy of the government, joins a hashish-smoking circle on a houseboat owned by his old neighbour Ragab (Ahmed Ramzi), where he meets other disaffected characters only for their association to end in disaster. The film, written by Mamdouh Al-Leithi and directed by Hussein Kamal, departs a little more from the book than Bedaya wa Nehaya to make a political point more forcefully.

Ali Badrakhan’s Al-Karnak, also written by Al-Leithi, was made within a year of the novel’s publication. Both revolve around the theme political oppression under Gamal Abdel-Nasser through a story told by a novelist named Taha (played by Emad Hamdi), a regular at the coffeehouse named Al-Karnak, the true protagonist, where three medical students, Zeinab Diab (Soad Hosni), Ismail Al-Sheikh (Nour Al-Sherif) and Helmi Hamada (Mohamed Sobhi), become involved in politics only to end up as political prisoners following a major strike in the industrial Delta city of Al-Mahalla Al-Kobra and find it hard to resume their lives on their release. Ismail and Helmi are kept in prison while Zeinab is forced to spy on the coffeehouse goers for the benefit of the secret intelligence. All this happens in the build-up to the 1967 War.

After the rise of president Anwar Al-Sadat on Nasser’s death in 1970 the intelligence head Khaled Safwan (Kamal Al-Shinnawi), a thinly veiled version of Nasser’s real-life intelligence head Salah Nasr, is tried and imprisoned. While Helmi dies of torture in prison, Ismail and Zeinab team up to help medically with the war effort. The film, which adds details not to be found in the novel and includes graphic depictions of torture, ends with the radio presenter announcing Egypt’s victory in the October War.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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