Omar and Faten

Helal, trying to keep it together

This is an experimental post that blends fiction and reality.

The true reason for Helal’s mental breakdown was that he took to heart the Cosserian dictum, to wit, “Il n’a que les imbeciles qui écrive chaque jour,” as he brooded each evening by the Nile corniche under vanished trees planted long ago by the Khedive Ismael, gorgeous specimens long since deracinated and chopped for firewood.

Then he’s spend the night, not in some well-appointed locanda, but brooding on a threadbare mattress in a small rented room on the sootoh, that is to say, roof of the building across the Metro Cinema on Soliman Pasha street in downtown Cairo.

Amidst the clucking hens and small goats that now ran about freely on the roof of this formerly haute-bourgeoisie redoubt, Helal morosely chain-smoked his Cleopatra cigarettes and shisha bowls filled with what he furtively referred to as el haga, the thing.

Alone, he watched old Egyptian B&W movies on his cheap television, which unfolded on a nightly basis improbable tales of rich but liberal daughters with a sympathy if not attraction to men below their station in life. These roles were usually played by Faten Hamama, and the earnest young suitor, by Omar Sharif, whose character invariably came from a modest background.

Such films always included a portly balding patriarch whose vague job title was always moodir, or company director, but who lived  in a sumptuous villa with a beautiful garden that he never personally cultivated, as this might ruin his smartly-cut European badla, which is to say, suit.

At some point in the movie the father or baba could be counted on in a fit of over-the-top high voltage pique to start screaming “ikhrassi!” (“shut up!”) and “bara!” (“leave the house!”) at Faten, during some pivotal plot revelation, as his wife in the background screamed ya kharashi! (“Oh my Karachis!”), while repeatedly slapping her own cheeks, and raising her eyes to the ceiling in hope of some form of divine intervention.

Helal wept uncontrollably at such scenes, and then wept some more, as everyone did when viewing these old Egyptian movies. He loved these films so much more than the mouthy news discussion programs of Egypt’s new generation, with their harsh Gulfie-inspired primitive-sounding Arabic.

No, these movies were made when, as they say, “il balad kanit helwa” — when Egypt was beautiful, and her people docile and kind-hearted, except for any subject involving then deeply-hated England, with her Anthony Edens, her Harold Macmillans, and the lingering stench of Miles Wedderburn Lampson.

Even Egypt’s dialect from that period as he heard it spoken in those riveting Omar Sharif and Faten Hamama films was so much easier on Helal’s ears, which resonated with thousands of Romance Language loan words, the music of 50s Egyptian Arabic, the lilt of Fanten Hamama’s voice as she looked at Omar and said baheibak.

Much as he tried, though, Helal could not entirely escape hearing echoes of the cries of abandonment that he heard rise from all the rooftops and all the broken minarets and all the unlived lives whose anguish relentlessly intruded upon his solitary Cairene movie nights.

Yet, oh, how he loved the deliciously cathartic weeping that escapist movie-watching engendered in the now dolorously blue-balled and permanently-stoned former stud, reduced now to being little more than a street hawker, as Helal flagellated himself nightly in bouts of self-hate, especially when sitting on his flea-infested mattress, mooning over the lost pleasures of unforgotten Faten, as these films unleashed vast waves of pure heartbreak and lamentations of unrequited love — oh the tragic misunderstandings; oh the cruelty of Fate; oh Egypt Egypt Egypt, I am crying, ya Masr, crying, and it never bloody stops.

Omar Sharif died nearly three ago. He didn’t make it to the First Gouna Film festival, which featured this exquisite movie.

His movie career (for he was also a serious bridge gambler) had endured a long decline, and he didn’t live to hear his name ring out nightly on Broadway in a hit musical.  He spent the last years of his life in El Gouna; Omar lived in a hotel room and would sometimes go to a gym in Abu Tig Marina, and suddenly not know where he was. People would talk to him about his films, but he no longer remembered them and was surprised when he saw a younger version of himself on television. Alzheimer’s is cruel, but they say that till the very end, Omar would always ask about Faten, whom he had once married.

Faten died a few months before Omar, but no one had the heart to tell him. She had remained the love of his life, and that he never forgot.

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