Mar 28, 2017
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Mohamed Diab: Feminist, Sufi & Blockbuster Egyptian Director
by Doniphan Blair
Mohamed Diab enacting the lead in his best known script, 'The Island' (2007), about Egypt's most famous gangster. photo: courtesy M. Diab
RAISED IN ISMALIA, A WORKING CLASS
city 120 miles east of Cairo, but to a doctor father and college-educated mother, Mohamed Diab had a fairly typical upbringing—save for an obsession with Hollywood movies, which enabled his acquisition of near-perfect American English.
After taking a degree in commerce to satisfy his folks, that obsession drove him to risk going to Los Angeles in 2005 to study at that city's chapter of the New York Film Academy.
And a wise gamble it was given Riab was soon penning some of Egypt's biggest pictures. Indeed, "The Island" (2007), directed by Sherif Arafa, was Egypt's first blockbuster thriller. Based on the true story of a drug lord, Ezzat Hanafy, it became Egypt's "Godfather", both a critical and popular success, with its signature lines permeating dialogue across Egyptian society.
He also wrote "True Dreams", a 2007 thriller about a mother's inability to distinguish between reality and dreams, "The Replacement" (2009), about twin boys adopted into different families, and, with his brother Khaled (not a twin), "Congratulations" (2009).
"Congratulations" starred Ahmed Helmy, one of the top actors in Cairo, which is the Hollywood of the Middle East. Buoyed by these developments, Diab decided it was time to direct.
Following his proclivity for snatching stories from headlines, he wrote, directed and produced "678" (2011) about three Cairene women of differing status and situations but who share the profound injury and shame of sexual harassment.
One of the women in Diab's current hit, '678' (2011), which concerns the rampant groping of women in Egypt's crowded public places. photo: courtesy M. Diab
Released a month before Egypt's 2011 Arab Spring, it caused its own revolution by exposing the previously taboo issue of groping, which is endemic in Egypt. The ensuing civic discussion eventually inspired changes in the law. It also showed widely overseas and, amazingly enough, earned money.
In addition to being a feminist, Diab is a non-denominational Sufi: "Sufism is all about love; it's all about finding what is common in humanity. This is exactly what I think filmmaking is about." Given this, it is no surprise that the 35 year-old Diab is very upbeat and open-minded.
"I wish one day I could make a film with an Israeli artist, something like 'Paradise Now' [2005, about the travails of two suicide bombers], that shows we are not that different from each other. But it can't be now, with the craziness that is going on."
The San Francisco Film Society recently invited Diab to a two-week artist-in-residence during which they facilitated the showing of "678" to a variety of classes and gathering. It also screened at the Arab Film Festival.
With his wife, Sarah, and toddler daughter Nelly in tow, Diab's working vacation in California was a welcome relief from the tumultuous scene that is today's Cairo. We started our discussion there.
Extremely personable in person, and with pitchperfect American English, Diab is a fun and wide-ranging interviewee. photo: D. Blair
So do you want to talk about politics or just film?
Can I be Egyptian and not talk about politics? It's complicated and I am sick of it but I have to talk about it.
Your film '678' jumped right into the culture dialogue?
Definitely, there almost wasn't a dialogue before the film. The first thing that made people talk was the girl who was dragged [in the street after a guy groped her from a passing vehicle].
She was a standup comic?
No, [in real life] she is a film director. I just put that in because I liked the irony. She can't make people laugh but they laugh at the end [of the film] when she talks about sexual harassment.
So film can play a significant social role in Egypt?
Especially in a case like this when the problem is silence. The solution is to talk about it. Even the trailer helped. Whether you saw the film or not, everyone was talking about it.
Most males in Egypt are not harassers but most of them don't know about it. The harassers—which is like five percent—keep doing it because there are no repercussions.
The rest, the 90%, know nothing about it because no one in their circles will tell them. Their wife, their mother, their sister would never tell [them] if they got harassed. That's why the fight came in the beginning from Egyptian males.
We knew from the beginning this film is going to be fought like crazy. People are going to say, 'This a lie and exaggeration!' But it was helping to create a buzz.
I got sued three times. One [plaintiff claimed] I was encouraging women to stab men. One said the film has to be stopped from going to festivals because it makes Egypt look bad.
Diab shows little tentativeness when discussing his homeland's complexities and happily ventures anywhere with disarming honesty. photo: D. Blair
And one didn't fully go into the court system. It was from a pop star—-Tamer Hosny, one of the biggest singers in the Arab world. He called and told me, 'If you don't take my song out of the film I am going to sue.' I told him, 'I put your song in the film because I want to say something.'
[In the film,] there was a woman with a veil walking and a guy reached at her. That guy was mumbling that song. Since [the pop star] has a couple of songs that encourage men to harass, this was the message, 'Your songs are used to harass women.'
I didn't change anything in the film and told him I was going to go through with it. Later on, he did a song against harassment, so the pressure paid off.
Three weeks after the film, which [came out] under Mubarak [the old dictator of thirty years], they changed the law to make it clear: Sexual harassment was a crime. Then the law changed again when the military council was in power. The changes were small because [previously] sexual harassment wasn't in the law at all.
The film also criticizes the women.
Well, it's the truth. It follows actual stories.
You might think at the beginning of the film that the problem is that society is against women. But at the end of the film, you find that the three heroes are not utopia. They are actually judging each other and doing the same thing that society is doing—pointing fingers in the wrong direction.
One character said, 'We used to wear short dresses and no one bothered us.' Is that because there was a liberal time in the '60s or Mubarak held harassment down?
Yes. I used that phrase because lots of women use that in their fight.
Veiled women blame women who dress the way they want and women who dress liberally accuse the Islamic way of living for harassment. I think the two positions are wrong.
Women were wearing whatever they wanted in the '60s because we had better economic situation. We had more police. The transportation system wasn't that crowded. A crowded place is essential to harassment. Egypt has changed drastically.
With so many passionate interests, Diab gets animated easily about all sorts of things. photo: D. Blair
It is not only that the people have become more religious—religion has nothing to do with it. What proved that to me was showing the film all over the world and finding the most identical place to Egypt was Mexico and India. All you [need] is a stigma on women, crowded places and poverty and you have identical harassment.
If you were following the news last month: a woman is targeting bus drivers, killing them and leaving notes saying, 'Bus drivers are harassers.' That was in Mexico.
Everyone follows what is going in India with the gangs. If you go on a bus in India and dress like a woman—even with a beard, even me—it's going to happen to you.
I showed the film in New York two years ago. Every 15 minutes in the subway was [a recording]: 'If you got sexually harassed, call this number.' One of the most elegant places in the world but again: crowded!
Although the numbers are not the same—in Egypt the numbers are crazy, in India the numbers are crazy, in Mexico the numbers are crazy—but everywhere in the world it happens, unfortunately.
I was interested in some of your other films, the film about the drug dealer ['The Island'], was that your break through film?
Yes, I made a film before but that one put me in the spotlight. That was six years ago and until now that is the action film that grossed the most money in Egypt. I just finished writing the sequel.
It is considered the Egyptian 'Godfather'; everyone knows the lines; everyone loves the character. It is the first real [Egyptian] action film. It was a real story about a guy who had an island in the Nile, 17 acres in the center of the city.
At that time, the police were fighting terrorists all over Egypt. [But] in order to catch terrorists, you need to be a criminal. It was easy for him to catch terrorists who were hiding in the bush or the mountains. He delivered them to the police and they let him do what ever he wanted.
After ten years, he became like a god. No one could to touch him.
What drug was he dealing?
Getting animated on stage at a Egyptian film festival, Diab has also been interviewed by al Jezeera, European TV and elsewhere. photo: courtesy M. Diab
Mostly marijuana or hash but not only that. He used to sell arms. He controlled that place. No one could collect [fees] for water or electricity. Even the water around the island he electrified. No one could touch those 17 acres.
[In the end,] he got executed. But in the film, we changed the ending. We made him escape because we thought we would make a sequel if it was a success. And it was.
Did you ever talk to him?
Nope. When I was making the film, he got executed. But I went to that island and interviewed people who were close to the story—such an interesting story.
We don't associate Egypt with drug dealing but President Carter says when Sadat and Begin were making peace [in the 1978 Camp David Accords] one of their biggest arguments was about hash.
The hashish trade is still going on. The tunnels between Egypt and Gaza are a big part of the trade—that needs a big film!
The Israeli and Egyptian dealers are—
Friends! And I guess the Palestinians also. That is the only time they have peace, the three together.
That's why it would be a good film. I assume the hash comes from Lebanon—
Morocco, Lebanon, The Sudan, from where can you anything from Africa. The problem with Egypt is we have huge borders with The Sudan and Libya and not a single city—open borders.
Is filmmaking continuing now in this time of chaos?
It's hard to get funding, still we find way. What happened in the last three years has been a gold mine for filmmakers. It is the craziest thing that ever happened in our history. Great films are going to come but it is very hard to finance and no one is going to the cinema.
Passion is an Egypt tradition and here Diab's characters, taken directly from real life, argue amongst themselves. photo: courtesy M. Diab
How about documentaries?
Documentaries aren't that popular. Amr Salama and Ahmed Abdalla, a couple of my friends, made a big documentary ['Tahrir 2011'] that went to Venice. But Egyptians are not used to going to a theater to see a documentary.
But television is big and it could be shown there.
Sure and that's what happened.
You also have lots of 'soaps'?
Soaps are huge in Egypt. A lot of filmmakers are going into that since that is the only way to support yourself. I haven't made a soap but thank god we have it because all the film crews can do something while everything else is stopping.
Egypt is still the biggest center for Arab filmmaking?
Yes, the Arab speaking people of the Middle East are 300 million—the population of America—a huge, huge market [although] not every country has theaters.
Egypt is still the place if you want to make it. If you are a Tunisian actor who wants to get exposure, you have to come to Egypt. In soaps, films, music, it is the biggest market, 90 million people, almost one third of all Arab countries. And everyone likes our dialect; they can understand it and think it is sexy.
Is there a filmmaking area in Cairo?
No, it is scattered. In Cairo, we can't call it a 'studio system;' it is an 'independent mess,' as I call it. Every couple of guys has a company. In Egypt, every single day you can meet someone saying, 'I want to produce a film.'
We have two or three people who are controlling the distribution and that's when you [have what can be called] 'studios.' They control what is going to show.
There is no inheritance from the '60s?
That's the thing. In the '60s, films were the second grossing thing for the Egyptian economy, if you can believe that!
Exactly. Now it is OK but it is not generating the same amount of money. The connection was cut in the '80s and '90s.
Diab and his team do the Dubai International with anti-groping symbols on their T-Shirts. photo: courtesy M. Diab
Syria came up?
Syria came up in soaps, not films. But Egypt came back and now we have way better. We have the most advanced technology, cameras and cinematographers. [But] films in the Middle East haven't revived since the '60s.
But it's not like in the old days when if you were in cinema you were great and [, if you were] in soaps, you were bad. It is like what is happening in here in America: Television is big!
What did you shoot your film on?
35mm. But, after finishing with the budget, I shot the credits in my bathroom with a Canon camera.
There were a couple of times, like when I went to a [soccer] stadium, I didn't want to use the big camera, so I got a little digital. So [we used] five or six cameras but 90% on film.
The stadium and bus scenes were shot cinema verité-style?
Yes [for the stadium] but the bus[, where his characters were groped,] was a set up. That was one of the hardest things to shoot.
It looks very realistic.
It looks very realistic because of the constraints. I could've had the bus opened or shot through a window but I decided not to, to maintain realism. Shooting inside the bus was hell. People fainted, it was very hot, I had to stop every few minutes to make everyone drink.
I tried as much as I could to shoot everything real. There isn't a single set in the film. Not a single crane shot. Everything was hand held.
The title of the film was the busline?
Yes, 678. That means to me there is a counter, [the numbers] are growing... 6, 7, 8...
Even though there is not studio system and the finances are slowing, filmmakers are still active?
We found our way. Now with digital cameras, you can find a way to make a film. There is definite interest around the world: we get some funding from France, the European countries. I am finding it easier to make films because even my independent [first] film made money.
This film, '678', made two million dollars in France alone! It was the only Egyptian film in the last twenty years to make money abroad [but] not in the Arabic market. In France, it was a big success [but] the people who went were not Arabs.
Diab promotes '676' on Egyptian television with the famous bus scene in the background. photo: courtesy M. Diab
You speak great English, where did you learn?
What were some of your favorites?
At that time, when I was growing up, it was all the action films, karate, Arnold Schwartznegger—I just loved every Hollywood flick there is.
Then you grow and your tastes change. My favorite films right now are Charlie Kaufman, the work of Kubrick, Steve McQueen but especially films made in their own country [but then] crossed over. I liked the [Alejandro] Iñárritu film 'Amores Perros' . I liked 'Lebanon'  the Israeli film about a tank [crew during the invasion of Lebanon], and 'Paradise Now'.
That's a great film which worked everywhere. At the end, it showed we are not different from each other. The film is made by a Palestinian [and produced by an Israeli]. It tried, as much as the filmmaker can, not to take sides.
Nothing like that has come out of Egypt? Have any films addressed the Jewish or Israeli complexity?
No. It is very hard in Egypt. If you dared to make a film with an Israeli, you are going to be boycotted. In Egypt, the entire artistic community is boycotting Israel. It is a decision made before I was born.
One famous Egyptian director worked on 'House of Saddam', which is a big mini-series on the BBC. The main actor [playing Saddam, Yigal Noar] was Israeli and, 'Oh my god!', what happened to that guy in Egypt.
He looked like Saddam, the Israeli-Jewish actor—I love the irony—but what happened [to the Egyptian filmmaker] in Egypt, it was crazy. More then once they asked me to show '678' in Israel [but I had to decline].
I wish one day I could make a film with an Israeli artist, something like 'Paradise Now', that shows we are not that different from each other. But it can't be now, with the craziness that is going on.
Are you worried about things getting out of hand in Egypt?
It's going to stabilize chaotically. The chaos is going to stabilize and stay like that for a long time.
Before the revolution, the big problem was excluding the Islamists from the democratic system. And for that excuse, we didn't have democracy. The old regime said, 'If they come, they will be dictators.' Funnily enough, when they came to power—they became dictators!
Diab recommends the '40 Rules of Love' by the Turkish author, Elif Shafak, as the best narrative summary of his style of Sufism. photo: courtesy E. Shafak
[But] the army is doing is the same right now, excluding them from democracy, putting them in jail, killing them in the streets. No one can say anything, no one can defend the Islamists. They are killing them brutally—to be honest.
This whole situation reminds me of a scene in '21 Grams' [Iñárritu, 2003] when Benicio Del Toro's daughter is crying, saying her brother hit her. So the father slams his face and says, 'There is no hitting in this house!'
The stupidest thing in the world is to think you can eliminate 30-40% of the population. You have to find a way to include them. That is how the Islamists failed and [that is] how the army is failing now. What we have is a recipe for disaster.
I sympathize deeply with that problem. Changing the tone a little: Are you or any other artists in Egypt connected with Sufi traditions?
I myself consider myself a Sufi. Sufism is the closest understanding of Islam that you can get across to anyone. Sufism is all about love; it's all about finding what is common in humanity, believing that humans are one entity.
This is exactly what I think filmmaking is about. Finding what is common in humanity. If you saw life through anyone's eyes—anyone's, even the person you hated most in your life—you are going to sympathize with him. You will stop and be very careful when you judge any human being.
I remember making that film about that gangster. Before I knew him, I judged him; I hated him. But seeing life through his eyes—being raised as a criminal, his father was a criminal who taught him that to deal with drugs is right—[I changed]. He had completely logical excuses from his point of view.
Sufism used to be very popular in Mecca and Saudi Arabia but Islam has been kidnapped for the last 200 years. Sufism focuses on the change of heart and not the practice itself. Some people take it to the extreme and completely forget about the practice, and only care about the heart. Extreme Sufism is not what I believe.
[Extreme Sufism] is what drove Wahhabism [to emerge]. They wanted to get rid of the people saying [Islamic] practice is not important. This is what Mohammed Wahhab said. But if you are coming from a place fighting someone, you are going to do the exact opposite.
Sufism is very spiritual. So Wahhabism became the opposite and just focuses on the practice. So for 200 years in Saudi Arabia, Islam has been all about the practice—not focusing on the heart.
[With] this kind of Islam, people can stray and become terrorists——not everyone of course! By the way, the Wahhibis never condone terror. But I can see that someone who doesn't love humanity [can become a terrorist].
If you think we are all brothers, if you love everyone, if you think humanity is one entity, how the hell could you blow someone up or do anything [like that]? That is the opposite of Islam.
Are you involved with a Sufi tariqa [group]?
No, I am a Sufi of the heart. I am a practicing Muslim who is focusing on the Sufi understanding, without a tariqa or any group.
If you are praying and it is not reaching your heart and changing the way you are seeing the world, then you have understood nothing from religion. Religion, to me, is all about changing yourself and loving everyone.
Is this Sufism fairly common among artists in Egypt?
It is very common among artists. Art changes you. It is very hard to be an artist and a hateful person who thinks everyone else is going to hell. It just doesn't work with us. Sufism is about loving everyone. Most of the artists, this is what they believe.
And these artists will say they are Sufis?
Definitely, like 90%. Usually we don't consider it like a tag or label. You don't refer to yourself as a Sufi.
In my understanding, this is the real understanding of Islam—or any religion, by the way. If your religion isn't about loving humanity, there is something wrong with your understanding of it.
I don't know if you read that book the '40 Rules of Love' [Elif Shafak, 2011]?
I read part of it but didn't finish.
Please finish it. It is one of the best books on the Sufi understanding.
In the end, fiction can only cram in so much information about something. [But] the author really knew how to find a good story that explained lots about Sufism—the fight between spirituality and the practicers.
You find it in the historical story of Rumi. Shams Tabrizi [Rumi's close friend] gets killed in the end by the—she doesn't give them a label—but they are the Salafis. The same problem goes way back. It is one of the best allegories [about these issues].
One of my impressions is that some Sufis did get lost in the weeds of their own practices, too much rituals—
Definitely. That is the reason the Salafis showed up in the first place, because some of the Sufis strayed—but only some of them. You will find Sufis who are into crazy rituals , dancing all the time, not doing anything.
Which alienated average people?
Definitely. But the core [of Sufism] is what we talked about. It is one of the very first ideologies that discussed that humans are one entity. We are all one; I am you; I am everyone. It is such a philosophical way of thinking.
Many of the popular books of the last 50 years refer to Sufism. Like Paulo Cuelho ['The Alchemist', 1988] one of the biggest sellers of all times. He always opens his books by saying he was affected by Sufis—spirituality without restrictions.
Kahil Gibran as well. He laid the foundation when he moved to Boston as a teen.
Yes. I think one day I could make a film about him—that is a good idea—or the book ['The Prophet', 1925]. I guarantee you, it will be made into film.
Another good one is the novel 'Ali and Nino', about a Muslim guy falling in love with a Christian girl in Azerbaijan. It's an epic adventure story—Hollywood ready. But you can see them saying, 'Who's going to direct, it's too complicated.'
In the end, this is one of my targets, to establish myself as one of the options when it comes to something like that. To do things that brings the East and the West together.
One day I think I am going to write a film about Sufism, that shows that we are all together, in a way. Sufism is my favorite. It is one of those things you grow up with your whole life and then you [realize,] it is so interesting.
Unfortunately, the Sufis haven't really gotten together to form a movement against Islamists.
Sufis tried to fight [Wahhabism] but part of their real teaching is to not get involved in politics. They are trying but if you find the holiest place [Mecca in Saudi Arabia] kidnapped by the Wahhabis, people think this gives it legitimacy.
Wahhabis hate Sufis more than Jews. And [with Egypt] being very close to Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism is in our system. So most of us grow up thinking Sufis are bad.
Most people take Sufism lightly and think it is an interpretation the West could like—like some modern way of understanding Islam, which is completely not right.
By the way, I made a couple of religious programs about Sufism. This year at Ramadan, which is the holy month [and a popular time for TV watching in the Middle East], I wrote the first-ever soap [about Sufism]. It is only five minutes and [features] a tele-evangilist who is a Sufi. It completely attacked the Wahhabi ways.
Do you think your style of Sufism is coming back in Egypt?
Because of the Islamists taking over, people are saying there is something wrong with [their] understanding of Islam. We've had a tsunami of people becoming Sufis and atheists.
This is very weird in Egypt. Five years ago, there was a study from the Gallup Institute saying which is the most religious country in the world. Guess who it was? Egypt, both Muslims and Christians!
Among my friends, one of every five is an atheist and two are Sufis.
Are some of them into Sufi dancing?
Very few, not a lot. In Egypt, we have a strong Wahhabism, so it is hard for them to do that. But in Turkey, the dancing thing is more and more.
There was an Egyptian movie a few years ago about a Sufi dancer who had an affair—
I remember that film, 'The Seven Colors of the Sky'. Saad Hindawi, the director, is a friend of mine. But it is not that common. If you are doing it, you wouldn't say to friends.
Maybe a little more in Alexandria [where there is a bigger Sufi community]?
It seems like some of the characters in your film '678' were upper class and under different pressures.
Yes, they were all different but they unite when it comes to harassment.
So standup comedy is picking up in Egypt?
Yes, [that character] is based on a real person whom I saw doing standup and wasn't making anyone laugh. It was so embarrassing. I mixed that with the real story of a woman who was a director [who was grabbed from a moving vehicle and dragged].
When I showed [the director] that sequence, she started shaking and told me that is exactly how it happened. [But] I wrote it from the interview she made on television.
You have a proclivity for historical events and making them into narratives.
Yes, the story I am now trying to make in America is also based on an actual story. I have two next projects, one in Egypt and one here
The one in Egypt is about when they arrest people and put them in a van. It takes only about 20 people but [one time] they put in 40 and they left them in the sun. They all died.
I want to make that film with not a single shot outside the van. A very hard one.
The other one is about a woman from Michigan who was accused of killing her infant two year-old. [The authorities] took her other two children. She was acquitted of the crime but they didn't return her kids.
She proved her innocence years later but her kids were changed and brainwashed. They had been in therapy for ten years. They thought their mother was a killer.
The woman didn't give up. She wrote a law reforming adoption in Michigan. After five years, she passed that law and now she is fighting to make it a federal law—it's a crazy, long story.
And not related to Arab issues?
She is an Arab woman but for me it is about the American Dream. [Despite] everything that happened to her, she still believes in America. [She] thinks that in any other country, she wouldn't be able to change the laws and have a law in her name.
Her husband—they came here 30 years ago—was an Egyptian immigrant to Lebanon [but] they never gave him citizenship. Then they travelled to the place that can give him a new life—America—and five years later they gave him citizenship.
At some point, someone who works with him at Ford [Motor Company] tells him, 'If I were you, I would have taken my kids and gone home.' He said, 'This is my home; this is my only citizenship. I am not Egyptian or Lebanese.'
Dearborn is the most Arab place in America?
It is the most Arab place outside the Arab world. I am interested in showing that too.
If you go to the high school there, you see the football team and they all huge but they are Mohammed, Ahmed, Ali. It's weird. They are all proud Americans—that is another thing I want to show in the film.
I am going to try to do this one next but production works in a crazy way, so you never know.
It will need some US financing?
Yes, I am also trying the
Doha Film Institute
[in Qatar]. But, in then end, I don't want it to be completely about Arabs.
As a director, I am enjoying the scenery of San Francisco. Every street goes up and down, I don't have any ideas for a story but, as a location, it is perfect.
Perhaps have an Egyptian character come here for a visit?
Yes, but it needs some tension, some drama.
Have him be a terrorist?
That's so overdone!
It's great to get away, to relax for a minute. When you make an action movie, you shoot a scene and then you relax. But for three years, in Egypt, it has been non-stop climax. We can't take a break.
Posted on Oct 22, 2013 - 03:10 PM