Love, actually, Egyptian Style!
When my dear friend, Noel Rands, secretary of the esteemed British Egyptian Society (BES), asked me to write a piece recommending films which people shielding in the COVID pandemic can enjoy, I jumped at the opportunity of reminiscing about films that were part of my ‘happy memories’. Growing up in Khartoum, Sudan in the 70’s, Egyptian cinema was a popular form of family entertainment. Our family’s Thursday night cinema outing often started by a delicious strawberry ice cream in the Hilton Hotel overlooking the confluence of the White and Blue Niles, followed by an Egyptian film at the indoor air-conditioned ‘Friendship Hall’ cinema.
Sharing my top ten Egyptian films of all times, I chose a theme that is uplifting, namely ‘Love’ that is a many splendored thing. In (almost) chronological order, here are my all-time favourites:
- ‘Our Happy days’ (Ayamna al Hilwa) (Helmy Halim, 1955). Faten Hamama, the Lady of the Arab Screen (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faten_Hamama) was Hoda the young poor woman who has just come out of an orphanage. She lives in a one bedroom flat with three young men as neighbours. The three dashing men played by Omar Sharif, Abdel Halim Hafiz and Ahmed Ramzi all fight for her affection. Wearing its heart on its sleeve with a large dose of sentimentality, the film shows Hoda falling victim to TB. The three musketeers dismiss their rivalry to secure enough money to pay for her life-saving operation. Only a heart made of stone cannot be moved by the overwhelming love, friendship, and sacrifice on display.
- ‘Life is a moment’ (Al Omr Lahzha) (Mohamed Radi, 1978). Based on a story written by Yusuf Sibai (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yusuf_Sibai) exploring the 1967 military defeat on the morale of Egyptian soldiers till 1973 October Victory. Magda (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magda_al-Sabahi) the iconic actress, produced the film and took on the central role of ‘Neimat’ the war reporter who immerses herself in the lives of soldiers on the war front. A patriotic sense of belonging to the Motherland Egypt at a critical time in its military history rendered the film a ‘timeless classic status’. Sadly, upon its release the film was banned and boycotted by Arab nations denouncing the Camp David Peace Treaty.
- ‘Forget me not’ (Ozkooriney) (Henry Barakat, 1978). Originally made in 1959 as ‘Between the ruins’ (Bein al atlaal) (Ezzel Dine Zulficar) starting Faten Hamama and Emad Hamdi. I am more fascinated by the later remake in 1978 starring Naglaa Fathi and Mahmoud Yassin, the sweethearts of Egyptian cinema. Mona and Mahmood are the doomed lovers who cannot celebrate their love. Mahmood, an author famous for romantic books, is married to his cousin who suffers from a heart condition with few months to live. Driven by a strict moral code of selflessness, Mona and Mahmood reject the opportunity of being together opting for a life of platonic solitude full of memories of a cherished love.
- ‘Love in a prison cell’ (Hob fei al zinzanah) (Mohamed Fadel, 1983). Love can flourish in the most unlikely of places including prison. Fayza (Soad Hosny, the Cinderella of Egyptian cinema (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soad_Hosny) and Salah (Adil Imam) are spending time in neighbouring prisons. In one of the most endearing scenes in Egyptian cinema, a green scarf that belongs to Fayza becomes the means of communication between the two lovers. The film music score composed by Ammar Al Sheirei adds layers of poignancy to a love story fighting against all odds. Escaping prison is only the beginning to Fayza and Salah’s plight in an oppressive society.
- ‘Love on the Pyramids Top’ (Hob fogh hadhbat al Haram) (Atef Al Tayeb, 1986). In the mid 80’s the Egyptian economic crisis made it almost impossible for low income individuals to get married in a home of their own. Naguib Mahfouz (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naguib_Mahfouz) wrote a short story describing the helplessness felt by those generations. Ahmed Zaki and Athar Al Hakeem are Ali and Rajaa a young engaged couple who decide to wed in secret. In a heated moment of passion, they get intimate in a public space, and are arrested for ‘public indecency’. What began as love endorsed by friends and family turns into a ‘criminal record’.
- ‘Sleepless nights’ (Sahar al layali) (Hani Khalifa, 2003). Written by Tamer Habib (the undisputed master of dissecting human relationships), we follow eight characters through 72 hours of relationships ups and downs. All characters are richly nuanced; the womaniser who cheats on his forgiving wife, the manipulative wife who constantly reminds her husband of her superior social status, the married couple whose unfulfilling sex life is driving them apart, and the couple fearful of committment. Love comes in different shapes and forms from the selfish type to the destructive type to the enduring one; in all cases change is inevitable, and forgiveness is key for life to carry on.
- ‘Girls love’ (Hob al Banat) (Khaled Al Hagar, 2004). Exploring themes of love, fidelity, family, and friendship from a women’s perspective in a romantic comedy/ musical is a breath of fresh air. Three estranged sisters (Laila Eloui, Hanan Tourk and Hana Sheiha) are forced to live under one roof to receive their father’s inheritance as his will dictated. Each one of them is struggling with her own insecurity and prejudice. A neighbour who happens to be a laid-back psychiatrist Dr Moheeb (Ashraf Abdel Baghy) offers professional support as well as romantic mentoring for these women till they find ‘Mr Right’ and live happily ever after.
- ‘About love and longing’ (An al ishq wa al hawa) (Kamla Abou Zekry, 2006) another ensemble piece of interconnected stories of love, betrayal, evolving as a human being and adapting to change. Alia (Mona Zaki) is a wide-eyed young woman who falls in love with Omar (Ahmed Al Sakka) a rich businessman. Her modest family background and being raised by a sister whose source of income is morally dubious does not allow for a happy ending with her rich boyfriend. Alia’s chance of finding ‘true love’ is crushed when a besotted admirer Ashraf (Magdi Kamel) turns out to be a drug addict. Ultimately Alia finds her true calling in art and creativity as a singer.
- ‘In the Heliopolis Flat’ (Fei shaghat Misr al ghadida) (Mohamed Khan, 2007) is the best Film for a romantic Valentine evening. To the sweet tune of Leila Mourad’s ballad ‘My heart is my guide’ (Ana ghalbi dhalili), we follow Nagwa (Ghada Adil) as she travels from Al Minya to Cairo is search of her primary school music teacher Ms Tahani to ask her advice whether she should agree to an arranged marriage or wait for ‘Prince Charming’. As a stranger in Cairo, she meets people who show her kindness and sympathy. But above all she meets Yahia (Khaled Abol Naga) who might be the knight in shining armour she always dreamed of. A final scene in Cairo Train Station where Nagwa and Yahia exchange phone numbers for the first time is simply ‘magical’. The possibilities are endless; they might be together forever, or they might not! You can imagine how the story ends or begins while humming to the tune of ‘My heart is my guide’.
- ‘Take care of Zuzu’ (Khali balak min Zuzu) (Hassan Al Imam, 1972). A film that broke all records upon its release by screening in Egyptian cinemas for a whole year. written by the multi-talented journalist, author, poet and philosopher Salah Jahin (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salah_Jahin), music by the composer Kamal Al Taweel, directed by the ‘Masterpieces Maker’ Hassan Al Imam, and starring the charismatic Soad Hosny at her prime. The film is a charming love story between two people from wildly different social backgrounds: Zainab (or Zuzu), the role model university student, daughter of an ageing belly dancer Naima Almazeya (Taheya Karioka), and Saeed (Hussain Fahmy), a rich Theatre director. Hosny earned her iconic status as a versatile actress who can sing and dance in this classic film. ‘Oh, cool boy’ (Ya waad ya tagheil) song was an instant hit. You will be lifted by its sweet melody and jubilant energy of Zuzu experiencing the excitement and elation of first love, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgXfdX802rs
Stay safe and well
Dedicated to my soul mate, my one and only Mei, and three children (aka The Four Ms) who brighten my life with their unconditional love.
Senior lecturer in Geriatrics, Brighton and Sussex Medical School
Film and media correspondent, Medical Humanities Journal
Co-Founder of the first Arab Forum for Medicine in Film ‘Egypt Medfest’
You can check Khalid’s website by clicking this link here, for short films to watch and more information about my best top ten films of all times