On the second day of 2021, Egyptian cinema lost Wahid Hamed, one of its prominent figures.
Born in 1944 in Sharqiya, Hamed was not only a screenwriter but also a columnist for several magazines and newspapers.
He graduated from the Faculty of Arts at Ain Shams University in 1967, and began his career writing short stories. During the press conference following his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Cairo International Film Festival last month,
Hamed recalled being encouraged to write for the screen by the great short story writer and playwright Youssef Edriss. From then on, he devoted all his studies and efforts to audiovisual tales that would touch on the suffering of the middle and lower classes. He wrote over 80 films, stage plays, TV and radio dramas.
Hamed’s long screenwriting career is punctuated by masterpieces. In 1979 he wrote the TV series Ahlam Al-Fata Al- Taeer (Dreams of the Flying Boy), starring the phenomenally popular comedian Adel Imam and directed by Mohamed Fadel. It was inspired by Milos Forman’s 1975 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which won Jack Nicholson his first Academy Award. The TV series had unprecedented success, and became the first step on Hamed’s upward journey.
Hamed and Imam formed a team that managed to make a string of significant critiques of the Egyptian political and social scene. In 1983 they made Al-Ghoul (The Ogre), directed by the late Samir Seif. It was an adaptation of Hamed’s radio series Qanoun Saksonia (Saxony Law), and it was blocked by the censors for its violent ending, in which the everyman protagonist (Imam) kills a corrupt businessman (Farid Shawki) with a cleaver.
It was eventually approved with a major change to its ending. Because it involved a critique of president Anwar Al-Sadat’s Open-Door policy, many thought the killing was a reference to Sadat’s assassination though this was not true. But the weaving of social, economic and political criticism into stories that reflect the suffering of the lower classes would continue.
Al-Leab Maa Al-Kobar (Playing with the Giants, 1991), the duo’s first collaboration with director Sherif Arafa, was followed by Al-Irhab Wal-Kebab (Terrorism and Kebab, 1992). A black comedy, Terrorism and Kebab recounts the tragic situation of an ordinary man who, while trying to transfer his son from one school to another, ends up facing the corruption and bureaucracy with which Cairo’s Kafkaesque government complex, the Mugamma Al-Tahrir, is rife.
A hostage situation is resolved in the most unexpected way. The third variation on the same theme, and the trio’s third collaboration, was Al-Mansy (1993), which stressed the working-class character’s morality more than the previous two.
It was in the 1995 Toyour Al-Zalam (The Birds of Darkness) that Hamed shifted his focus, displaying two sides of the same corruption and dysfunction in the government and the Muslim Brotherhood. It was one of Imam’s handful of roles that include some degree of villainy.
He played a corrupt provincial lawyer who quickly rises in the ranks of government. But it is through his antagonist (Riad Al-Kholy) – a university colleague of his who follows the exact same course but within the Muslim Brotherhood – that Hamed demonstrates how the regime and the opposition can be two sides of the same coin.
One of Hamed’s significant works was Al-Baree (The Innocent, 1985), directed by Atef Al-Tayeb, which carries a direct statement against torture. The script illustrates the suffering and the confusion that faces Ahmed Saba’ellail (Ahmed Zaki), an innocent villager who is serving as a police soldier in a political prison after the 1977 uprising. He is told that the prisoners are “the enemies of the country”, but he finds out that they include a university professor (Gamil Rateb) and a university student from his village (Mamdouh Abdel-Alim).
On the other hand the film shows the brutality of the prison director, the police officer Tawfik Sharkas (Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz). The film was rejected by the censors until a viewing committee including Minister of Defence Field Marshal Abdel-Halim Abu-Ghazaleh, Minister of Interior Ahmed Rushdi, and Minister of Culture Ahmed Heikal approved it and the ending was changed.
Hamed’s conviction that Wahhabism and Islamic extremism are a major obstacle to building a modern society is clear. In 1994, he wrote the TV series Al-Aila (The Family), which tackled the relationship between poverty and the spread of the Islamic fundamentalism. Directed by Ismail Abdel-Hafez, the series starred Mahmoud Morsy, Abdel-Moneim Madbouly and Laila Elwy.
In 2010, he made the first season of the TV Series Al-Gamaa (The Brotherhood), directed by Mohamed Yassin, which dealt with the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 and the political circumstances of its rise during the 1930s and 1940s. The season ended with the assassination of the Brotherhood’s founder Hassan Al-Banna.
The second season was made in 2017, directed by Sherif Al-Bendary and dealt with the relationship between the Free Officers and the Muslim Brotherhood during the 1952 Revolution and the Nasserist era. There was news of preparations for a third season to be directed by Yassin on the Brotherhood under Sadat and Mubarak.
Hamed’s work focused on local issues and Egyptian society. His contribution at the international level was very small, though his 2009 film Ehky ya Scheherazade (Scheherazade, Tell Me A Story), directed by Yousry Nassrallah, did premiere at the Venice Film Festival (out of competition) and won him the best screenplay award at the Brussels International Independent Film Festival.
Hamed’s main cause was the plight of the deprived and the oppressed, a position summed up in something Imam says in Terrorism and Kebab. The quote spread far and wide on social media as soon as his death was announced: “All I ask for is my dignity, that I should not be insulted at home, at work, or on the street. I don’t believe I can be punished for these demands.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.