Friday, January 18, 2008


From the BBC:

There have been a number of deaths and considerable damage to crops in the Middle East as temperatures in the region have fallen to exceptional lows.

Local reports say that 10 people died in Saudi Arabia after snowfalls.

In Syria, temperatures have dropped to minus 16 degrees Celsius. There has been widespread damage to crops in Syria, Jordan and Israel.

There has also been snow in the Iraqi capital Baghdad for the first time in living memory.

The Middle East is a region used to extremes of temperature - but not ones like these. YES COS THE EXTREMES ARE WEARING STETSONS.

Kuwaiti meteorologists are eagerly watching thermometers to see if the previous low recorded in the open desert, minus four degrees Celsius in 1964, could be broken in the coming days.
Some in the Jordanian government are worried that food prices may increase, giving inflation another unwelcome bump.

But reports from Israel suggest the weather may not be bad news for everyone. PROOF AS IF ANY WAS NEEDED OF HIS SELECTIVE AND DIABOLICAL POWERS.

Some farmers are suffering, but there has been a jump in the sale of heaters and warm clothes, with retailers saying the demand for some goods has tripled.

This cold snap has been caused by a weather system that began in Siberia. HE MEANS TEXAS.

But meteorologists in the region cannot agree whether it is the result of climate change; the director of Baghdad's Meteorology Department reportedly said it could be, his counterpart in Amman disagrees. AND A NON-SPECIALIST IN DOKKI WHO HAS LOST FEELING IN HER HANDS EVEN WHEN INSIDE THE HOUSE SAYS THAT SHE CAN STILL SMELL THE SULPHUR. EVEN THROUGH THE ICICLES FORMED IN HER NOSTRILS.

The outbore

I was warned by various people about the mediocrity of Karim Abdel Aziz vehicle Khareg 3al el-Qanoon (the Outlaw) but, buoyed by the excellence of Egyptian action flick El-Gezira (the Island) and in the absence of an alternative, I went anyway.

I repented this decision at leisure, during the course of two excruciatingly long hours largely spent trying to work out if this was a re-make of another film or just a crazy quilt of the plots of every single gangster film ever made.

Writer Bilal Fadl sticks to the classic recipe for a gangster film which is as follows; take one small boy and make him witness his father’s death at the hands of the police. Add him to a large drug-lord masquerading as a businessman who is also the boy’s uncle and leave to stew for twenty years. When nicely done, add a tough-talking cop to this mixture who will supposedly create flavour by making the small boy turned heir to the drug throne suspect that his uncle played a part in his father’s death. Add garnish in the form of a wife/mistress/girlfriend. Try to enjoy.

I suppose that there perhaps was potential here for an interesting - albeit unoriginal - study in revenge, but director Ahmed Galal put pay to that by combining fantastical action sequences with dialogue so dull it made me regret that I have ears.

Take one of the film’s major action scenes for example. In it hero Omar (Abdel Aziz) is conducting a drug deal in the desert. The deal is busted by cop Rashad (Ahmed Said Abdel Ghany) who has approximately 240,000 arms-wielding policemen in tow. The inevitable gun battle begins during which men die more quickly than my will to live – all except our hero Omar of course who apparently has bullet-proof skin.

(A note in passing about Abdel Ghany: he seems to have a monopoly on police officers at the moment. No sooner did he finish policing the slums of Heyna Maysara then here he is fighting crime again – which is fine, except that in both films he wore exactly the same jeans and suit jacket).

Omar spurns the 4x4 jeeps and other fast-moving vehicles on offer and chooses to make his getaway in a articulated lorry, which is an unconventional approach but, we realise, one necessary for the action sequences which will ensue. Thus Omar and his lorry crash through a wall of police cars before he executes a vaguely-spectacular handbrake spin, again into a line of policemen conveniently assembled for this purpose.

The lorry is inevitably badly damaged during all this kafuffle but, luckily, it appears to have a self-repairing function which allows Omar to go head-to-head in a game of chicken with Rashad in a moment lacking any suspense whatsoever.

Funnily enough, Rashed in his 4x4 loses against Omar and his articulated lorry – fancy that! He swerves off the road and the car spins but Omar emerges intact, clutching the fashion sunglasses which almost everyone in the film sports most conspicuously.

The dialogue was entirely forgettable and revolved around the usual themes of betrayed trust and good vs. bad, interspersed with particularly annoying exchanges between Omar and his squeeze, played by Maya Nasri. Omar has married Maya in a secret ‘urfi ceremony and installed her in a flat where he visits her and carries out domestic pursuits like fixing lamps while Maya moans in a high-pitched wail about wanting to get married officially and have kids.

The unique point of Maya’s character seems to be to provide a moral conflict for Omar as he ‘evolves’ - or rather makes a 180 degree change overnight. Omar spends the first half of the film telling Maya that in Egypt “the son of the general becomes a general and the son of the drug dealer becomes a drug dealer” and that for this reason he will never reproduce.

Up pop Rashad and his sunglasses and half an hour later Omar is asking Maya’s mother for her daughter’s hand in marriage.

It is this which is the film’s essential flaw: the characters are so two-dimensional that attempting to saddle them with emotion or feeling is like trying to paint the Mona Lisa using crayons.

In fact when Rashad is blown up in a car bomb I didn’t feel moved in the slightest. My exact feelings were: one down, three to go.

It is perhaps for this reason that the film’s director chose to make Omar spend all but one of the film’s scenes (when he is chopping cucumbers in Maya’s kitchen) furiously smoke cigarettes. The effect is of a giant Post-It note plastered on Abdel Aziz’s head on which is scrawled BEHOLD! THIS MAN IS TROUBLED – particularly given the numerous close-ups of his overflowing ashtrays and endless inhalations.

Unfortunately, the directorial obsession with cigarettes comes a cropper in one scene where a cigarette mysteriously grows longer during its journey from the ashtray to Omar’s mouth.

A word has to be said about Hassan Hosny and, in particular, the disastrous casting choice which led to an inoffensive light-comedy actor playing a Godfather-type role.

While Hosny does possess Brando-like jowls, the comparison ends there. He was completely unsuited to the role, lacking the quiet menace which one associates with a homicidal drug baron and was instead vaguely ridiculous in his false eyebrows. His choice for the role was even more disastrous given his pivotal part his character plays in the plot.

But then this is a film which contented itself with looking good, with slickly dressed policemen and Italian sunglasses and the jerky camerawork and fast zoom in and outs which were de rigueur a couple of years ago but which are now just annoying.

I was happy to exit this film but annoyed - as I usually am after subjecting myself to an action film - that its makers had troubled themselves to sandwich together the action scenes (which are the film’s raison d’etre) with insipid and boring dialogue. If they had just pieced together the car chases and shoot-outs back to back we could have all gone home much earlier.

Originally published in Daily News Egypt

Monday, January 14, 2008

Getting there

There is a woman dancing by herself on a metro platform. Tiny steps forwards and backwards, her feet barely visible underneath the long skirt which looks like it belongs to somebody else. Her hands flutter up and down, pulled by the invisible strings of an inaudible tune.

A microbus cuts through the streets like a pinball to the soundtrack of happy birthday to you on its cassette player. But the familiar melody is in a minor key, oppressively slow, and sounds funereal instead of festive - like a wedding dress covered in sick, or a naked Christmas tree dumped in January. Otherwise there is silence inside the microbus, disturbed only by the scraping of the sliding door. The music is a clenched fist, ready to strike should you dare to hope.

The train pulls in and the woman gets on. She continues to dance but almost imperceptibly, her movements contained by the crowd in the carriage, and the train’s motion, which seems to overwhelm her own. She smiles and nods…smiles and nods… sparks of happiness sent out from the misfiring in her head.

A handsome young dude has the world at his feet and the only thing separating them is the bus he’s hanging off. The bus is still and silent, waiting for its cargo. A beautiful young woman approaches the dangling man. Ramsis? she asks him. La [no] he says, and she moves away as he watches her. Mata7’areesh [don't be long] he throws after her.

On a different metro platform a group of teenagers conduct a heated discussion across the rails from you. Their side is almost deserted, and the animation of their words float into the space. The swerve of the hands creating the silent mimed images is a beautiful dance, and a secret code.

Ramsis…Ramsis the handsome man shouts, arms clinging to the top of the door frame above his lacquered head. He moves over slightly to let the pretty girl on. She wasn’t long, after all. Mesh enta 2olt ennak mesh raye7 Ramsis? [didn't you say that you're not going to Ramsis?] she asks primly as she passes. La… ezzay...Ana 2oltelek Ramsis [how...I told you Ramsis] he whispers while their bodies are squeezed together in the door frame. The love letter goes unanswered.

A metro train on an outside rail is doused in the dying light of the retreating sun. In the women’s carriage there is a smiling woman with a silent staring old man baby boy sitting on her lap. The baby is a miniature of her. In the apparent absence of winter clothing both are bundled in layers of garishly-coloured summer clothes. The baby boy stares out from underneath a hat, his hands clasped together, considering his surroundings. His mother meanwhile repeatedly asks those around her to tell her when the train reaches Es3af. Mashy, 7ader, 7ader [alright, OK] they say, tired of the reminders from this woman who stinks of poverty and backwardness and who has the temerity to smile and stare and ask and ask and ask again.

The dancing woman has reached her destination. Lightly, she glides off the train and stands still, watching as the doors close. The train starts moving and she runs alongside it, skipping sideways and blowing kisses at the carriage until the train leaves her behind.

The train approaches Es3af. The passenger in front of the woman with the ancient baby tells her, elly gayya Es3af [the next stop is Es3af]. The woman stares blankly, smiling. Aih? She says after a while. El Ma7atta elly gayya Es3af [the next station is Es3af] the other woman repeats, more loudly, impatiently. The woman continues staring at the woman before the smile slowly turns into a joyous silent laugh, her shoulders shaking up and down, and she is untouchable.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Life of Brian redux

Amnesiac is watching American Gangster, a film about living the American dream Harlem druglord-styley in the early 1970s.

Everything is superfly.

She is sitting next to a Philippino maid and her assorted Arab charges. All are eating Doritos.

Just audible over their incessant crunching is a particularly tense scene between dreamy Denzel and the magnificant Idris Elba (who, IMDB tells me, is from Hackney. Hackney, incidentally, was once the north London version of Croydon but some time around 2004 turned into TriBeCa, giving hope to us all).

In this scene druglord Denzel is involved in a confrontation with young upstart Elba who, in a previous scene, had the temerity to try and tax him - cos Denz was in his yard, innit.

The confrontation takes place in front of a fruit stall. Remarkably, the scene of a load of pineapples doesn't detract from the tension.

HACKNEY MASSIVE ELBA: Yo man, yo want money from ME? Shiiiit man, no etc etc.

OLD BUT STILL FIT DENZEL: [Takes out a pistol and applies it to Elba's forehead while doing that unsmiling smile he does]

HACKNEY MASSIVE ELBA: Yo man, you gon' shoot me in front of aw dese people, muthafucka?


All hell breaks out on screen, people screaming, running, knocking pineapples over etc.
Cut to Hackney Massive Elba prostrate on the pavement, covered in blood, with a big hole in his head, before returning to dishy Denzel.