The lone howl: On Syrian director Abdel-Latif Abdel-Hamid

Hani Mustafa , Tuesday 21 May 2024

Last week Arab cinema lost a prominent filmmaker and screenwriter. Born on 5 January 1954, Abdel-Latif Abdel-Hamid, passed away on 15 May 2024 at the age of 70

Abdel-Latif Abdel-Hamid


He studied filmmaking at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), graduating in 1981. 

He was then an assistant to Mohamed Malas in his iconic film Ahlam Al-Madina (Dreams of the City, 1983), and this may at least partly explain his joining the 1980s neorealist movement represented by Malas in Syria and Mohamed Khan, Khairy Beshara, Atef Al-Tayyeb and Daoud Abdel-Sayyed in Egypt.

He made three films while studying in Moscow: Tosbehoun Ala Khair (Good Night), Dars Qadim (An Old Lesson) and Rasan Ala Aqeb (Upside Down). His professional career took off with two short films: Aydina (Our Hands, 1982), and Umniyat (Wishes, 1983). His debut feature narrative film was Layali Ibn Awa (Nights of the Jackal, 1989), which won the Grand Jury Prize in the Annonay International Film Festival in France in 1990.

He would go on to make 13 more features: Rassaelle Chafahyia (Verbal Messages, 1991); Souod Al-Matar (Rising Rain, 1994); Nassim Al-Roh (Soul Breeze, 1998); Qamaran Wa Zaytouna (Two Moons and an Olive, 2001); Ma Yatlubuhu Al-Musstamiun (At Our Listeners’ Request, 2003); Kharej Al-Taghtiya (Out of Coverage, 2007); Mattar Ayloul (September’s Rain, 2011); Al-Asheq (The Lover, 2012); Ana Wa Anti Wa Ummi Wa Abi (Me, You, Mother and Father, 2016); Tariq Al-Nahl (Bee’s Way, 2017); Azf Monfared (Solo, 2018); Al-Eftar Al-Akhir (The Last Breakfast, 2021).

Layali Ibn Awa was one of the earliest non-Egyptian Arabic films that I saw when it was screened in the Cairo International Film Festival in 1989. The story takes place in a village in the countryside of Latakia, illustrating the details of the life of a middle-aged farmer, Abu-Kamal (Assaad Fadah) and his family. From the pre-credit scene, Abdel-Hamid, who also wrote the script, establishes a very interesting detail that is significant to the whole story. Abu-Kamal is unable to sleep at night because of the howling of the jackals in the area near his house. He wakes his wife Um-Kamal (Najah Al-Abdallah) very aggressively. She alone can use her mouth and fingers to produce a very high-pitched whistle that immediately makes the jackals stop howling.

The scene shows Abu-Kamal’s negative attitude towards his wife, which the filmmaker stresses repeatedly while portraying the routines and moods of his protagonist. In another scene, Abu-Kamal uses a plastic whistle that he bought when he travelled to Latakia, but it doesn’t work. Again he tells his younger son Bassam that if he learned to whistle he would buy him the bicycle he wants. But the only thing that can stop the howling is Um-Kamal’s whistle.

 The film primarily illustrates the day-to-day life of Abu-Kamal as seemingly one member of the family after another is lost or moved away from him. The film starts with the whole family except for the eldest son Kamal, who is studying in Latakia, though when the father travels there to check on him after he fails to show up to his sister Rima’s wedding, Abu-Kamal finds that Kamal has been dazzled by the city and is no longer keen on continuing his studies.

 Each member of the family has his own story, which presents some sort of tragedy or a conflict. Although she willingly gives everything for Abu-Kamal and her family, Umm-Kamal is the main target of his bullying. She also suffers from some sort of a heart disease. Abdel-Hamid shows a very slight emotional sympathy of Abu-Kamal towards his wife when she is bedridden in real pain. She leaves a gaping hole in everyone’s life when she dies.

Almost every day, his other son Talal (Bassem Koussa)  walks through the fields just to take a peek at his neighbour Hayat while she is breastfeeding her newborn son. The filmmaker presents this woman as a combination of sex object and mother. She attracts not only Talal but also some other men in the village. When Abu-Kamal sees Talal hugging Hayat, he punishes him by shaving his head. This happens to be the exact moment when a soldier from the police station comes to take Talal to do his military service, especially now that there is news on the radio that the Israeli troops are moving towards the Egyptian border. That would be the week before the 5 June 1967 war on Egypt and Syria.  

This situation is being built up very slowly. At the end of the film, Hayat seduces Abu-Kamal’s younger son, Bassam, who is nearly 12 or 13. When his father Abu-Kamal asks him what he wants instead of potatoes and he says he wants yabrak (stuffed vine leaves), which they don’t know how to cook now that Umm-Kamal is no longer with them, he tells Bassam to go to Hayat to learn how to cook it. At her house Hayat tells Bassam that he needs to wash himself properly and she offers to bathe him in the stream bath the next day. But when he goes back he finds Hayat’s husband sitting by the stream bath holding a rifle with the bodies of his wife and another man lying next to him.

Abu-Kamal’s younger daughter, Dalal, who seems to be in her early twenties, has her own tragedy since she is in love with Ali the shoemaker who promises her that he will ask for her hand. Abdel-Hamid creates a light comedy from this situation. Each time Ali meets with Abu-Kamal he is confused and after speaking a few words he salutes him and the rest of the family one by one and leaves without even mentioning his purpose. This line of the story, although it has a comic component, reveals a very important part of the traditional social structure of Arab society: even if he is not wealthy, a farmer remains superior to a craftsman. But comedy turns into tragedy when Dalal gets pregnant and has no choice but to elope with Ali.

I feel this film shares thematic features with many Egyptian films, which tend to centre on middle class issues and often feature the radio, which accompanies Abu-Kamal and his family in the morning and at work. They listen to songs like Umm Kolthoum’s Sabah Al-Khir Yalli Maana (Good morning, companions) and Mohamed Kandeel’s Ya Helw Sabbah (Say good morning, beautiful): the sound of Arab society at the time. The radio is also his main source of information about crop prices and political developments.

The importance of this film is in the way Abdel-Hamid balances a range of emotional and aesthetic modalities and storylines while maintaining a historical line that remains paramount. At the end of the film he is taken by the army to be part of the security team guarding on the bridge near the village, and the officer tells him something that cannot be heard but it is clear that his son Talal was killed in action. Umm-Kamal, still alive at this point, feels that he is hiding something from her. But it is the news that kills her. The only remaining child tries to live with his father but everything collapses before his eyes, even their neighbour Hayat.

Abdel-Hamid wove the dramatic lines of the film in order to close the circle and return to his starting point. The scene shows Abu-Kamal walking outside his house at night in the rain, with thunder and lighting, failing to produce a whistle that will make the jackals stop howling.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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