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.

leaving america


سيد الدبان

flytrap in el gouna
the flytrap in our garden

In Gouna, Egypt, the nights are long in winter, but the days go by fast.

Already there are only 10 days left before my wife returns to FLA; after that, I shall, once again, be alone in this vast villa that faces the dust-covered, igneous Eastern Desert mountains of the Red Sea.

I have been in Gouna almost four months. By the time I leave, it shall be six.

That is more than enough time to take stock of oneself, and decide if being an American expat shall be a more or less permanent state of affairs, or shall I instead do a reverse snowbird thing:  leaving the Sunshine State in Fall, not returning till Spring.

But such matters were not paramount for us yesterday; instead we focused on getting over the nasty bout of flu that my wife contracted on the flight over from New York on Egyptair.  She had recovered, more or less on Tuesday, for she is stronger than I in many ways, but yesterday for me was very bad:  body aches, stuffy nose, cough, and greenish lung phlegm.

We decided not to venture out.

Instead we remained at the villa, hoping to sun ourselves by the pool.

This was easier said than done.

Unfortunately, Egypt is host to a particularly persistent variety of house flies. They are impossible to evade when the day is relatively windless, as was the case yesterday, even with a flytrap pot nearby.

el gouna egypt
Trapped, but he’s got friends

After applying various smelly anti-bug concoctions, my wife gave up, saying: “what does it take?!” (When we return in October I shall most definitely be bringing with us an Excelle fly whisk, which are known in Egyptian Arabic as menasha li’l zoubab.)

fly whisk
This is a must in El Gouna

I was more determined, for I had the flu aching up my joints, and wanted the sun to provide salutary heat therapy.

I had the bright idea of dismantling the mosinet from the top floor bedroom, which we call the Tower of Isolation, and do not sleep in, for it is the coldest room in the house, and the wind rattles the shutters at night, and brought the unused travel mosquito netting down poolside.

Then I placed two chaises longues side by side, and set up the mosinet on top of them.

el gouna egypt
Inelegant, but effective

As you can see, it wasn’t a perfect fit, but it was good enough — especially after my wife plugged a little tear hole with a bit of TP.

Safe at last from the marauding squadrons, I read for a bit in this protective Lord of the Flies (which is the translation of the Arabic title of this post) cocoon — L. A. Tegenza’s The Red Sea Mountains of Egypt, the perfect book to read in El Gouna — then after an hour or so went inside to take a long nap.  

When I awoke, I brewed two cup of anise, and then we took the bus downtown.

We got off at the hospital and exchanged the useless cough syrup they had given us yesterday for a brand that was much more effective (Notussil), and bought a strip of band-aids, a bottle of Otrivin baby saline (which does wonders to clear the nostrils of dust), and a tube of Fucidin antibiotic ointment (great for dabbing on a mosquito bite).  The whole thing cost us only 12 LE (68¢, because the bottle of useless herbal extract cough syrup I was returning had cost 30LE).

As we walked from the hospital to Kan Zaman, the Egyptian restaurant downtown, I heard the call of the muezzin for the asr prayer; this is the first time I had heard the Muslim call to prayer in El Gouna, and it pleased me.

At Kan Zaman, we supped on a simple Epicurean meal of lentil soup, eish baladi and stuffed grape leaves, to the accompaniment of Om Kulthum and Abdel Halim in the background. We were the only customers there, as El Gouna has now emptied out of weekend vacationers from Cairo.

With tip, that delicious light meal came out to 85 LE (around 4 dollars US), and then we took the bus back home around 7:30PM, but not before stocking up on TP, biscot, and Mars Bars from Best Way.

We sat in the living room, and watched CNN for about 5 minutes, but I soon switched the channel.  It is obvious that American media remains obsessed by the vile orange dotard, like a cobra by a mongoose, but I have found that living in Gouna, after a period of several months, you can detox yourself from that whole scene.

I pay increasingly detached attention to the threnody of desolation emanating from the US, which has little to do with my life in El Gouna, thank God.

I was asleep by 9PM, and woke up just before dawn, and getting up from bed, or rather, the living room sofa, I realized I no longer had the flu.

Allahu akbar.  

el gouna
View from the kitchen window

I watched from the kitchen window the Eastern sky turn from starry ink black to purple to mauve and pink, and I knew today there would be good tuc tuc riding (a paraphrase of a line uttered by Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia), for I no longer felt achy from the flu.

Later this morning, my wife and I shall finally get to visit Element beach.

I don’t know why it’s so, but life here just makes more sense. The center is holding, as we establish a meaningful routine for daily life and live in a manner that is simple, peaceful (despite the skeeters and flies) and enjoyable, one that is largely independent of the stress-filled chaos now roiling the lands of the franks.


leaving america

The Joker


mass invitation
Flyer image owned by this author; and is used with permission by

One of the cool things about Gouna is that there is a cadre of people who live here who not only have a historical memory of Egypt across the sweep of time, but also remember me as a young lad.

Earlier today, I chanced to spend time at 7th Star in Abu Tig marina with someone named Mourad whom I have known most of my life.

I brought up the subject of an amplifier I once owned, and Mourad recalled that it was a Watkins, which jogged my memory of the time when I bought it.

Now time in Gouna is serious business.

After all, the movie Photocopy won El-Gouna’s Golden Star Award for Best Arabic Feature Narrative Film  a few months ago. at GFF.

And it is Gouna where Omar Sharif moved to in his dotage, staying at a hotel just down the street from where I’m currently living. He was suffering from Alzheimer’s by then, and could not remember the magnificent movies he was in that continue to play on Egyptian TV to this day.

Fifty-one years ago, I was a teenager who spent the summer of 1966 in Swinging London. Mourad and I had decided to form a band, and I was determined to buy an electric guitar and amplifier.

I remember taking the tube to Charing Cross Road, and getting off at the Tottenham Court Road stop.

I headed to the famous Selmer shop that used to be there, where many well-known rock guitarists from the era bought their gear.

I was going to buy a Vox amp, because that is what the Beatles used, but in the end, I went for a second hand Watkins Joker, because it was a more sophisticated piece of musical machinery, but also because it was cheaper than a brand new Vox.

I returned to Egypt in late August, and by September, the late Amr Mansoor, Mourad and I began practising in a small alcove by the dining room in the flat by the Nile that  my parents rented in Zamalek. Not long after that, Ashraf Salmawi and Tarek Nour joined the band.

It went on to become one of the biggest rock groups in Egypt of the period. The name of this band was The Mass, an anagram derived from our first names. 

Alas, I was not to enjoy the success of the rock group that I founded with Mourad, for my parents had decided to emigrate from Nasser’s Egypt, and by February 1967, we were in New York, and would never again live as a family in Egypt.

I generally do not like to dwell on diaspora nostalgia, but it irks me that I was probably the only songwriter of the group, and thus the Mass remained to the very end a band that did covers, never originals, even as as I wrote dozens of songs in New York during that period, most mediocre, a few not.

I can say today without rancor that for many years I wrongly felt that I had been robbed of the sort of young adulthood that I expected to have, had we remained in Egypt.

But that’s not what happened.

The good news is that more half a century later, I once again hooked up with Mourad and Tarek in the resort town of El Gouna, Egypt.

Gouna Egypt

Not something that I would have envisioned when I found myself suddenly stuck like in some sick joke in the Deep South of the United States, sixteen years ago, with no apparent way to escape the hell of living in massively xenophobic Florida.

Well, those days are now over, and on Saturday, I will finally be leaving noisy (by night) Abu Tig marina, and moving to a beautiful villa on a lagoon that leads to the nearby Red Sea. If things go well, I shall again rent in October of 2018, and this time I shall bring my guitar.

Who knows?  

Perhaps one day a reconstituted The Mass shall play a song or two on some Saturday night at Dawar el Omda in downtown Gouna, and for just one moment, it could become 1966 again, almost, but not quite, and for that one moment, it might seem to be as if I had never left my beloved Egypt.

Unlikely to happen, but isn’t it grand to think that it might?

leaving america