Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The seeds of magic

“We’ve lived to see it!” has been the first refrain with which friends and comrades of my generation would meet each other in the wake of 25 Jan. 2011, remembering as well all those who didn’t. Since then, a recurring thought has often passed through my mind: what would Radwan El-Kashef have made of it all?

This is what I wrote on his passing more than 11 years ago

Al-Ahram Weekly 13 June 2002



Were a passion for life a factor in determining longevity then cinema director Radwan El-Kashef, a lifelong friend, would have outlived us all. He did not, and the attempt to recapture Radwan, to keep him alive in my mind's eye, is at once a comfort and torment. The image of his face: broad receding brow, Semitic nose, intelligent, slightly protruding eyes, their unlikely green ever-shining in laughter as in anger, brings warmth, but the mind balks at its own attempt at acceptance. Memories will not do.

What of the days, months, years to come; what of the many films that are yet to be made, the shared triumphs, and defeats; the many stories that are to be told and retold, the political discussions that, within our old circle of friends, often descended into riotous shouting matches, but ultimately enriched us? And what of the laughter? Radwan, the ultimate storyteller, gave to his many friends the gift of laughter, at themselves, at their lives and reality, at one another and at himself. Radwan's quip of the moment would swiftly make the rounds of our circle of friends, to be told and retold. Not that he would shy from repeating it himself. Having hit upon a good "effet", as he called them, he would peer from beneath heavy eyelids, eyes gleaming wickedly. "A good one, eh?" he would ask, and go on to repeat it to as many of his many close friends as possible.

Thus it happened that the many events, petty or formative, happy or sad, that made up our daily lives would take on new meaning, assume an element of drama and hilarity once subjected to the Radwan effet. They would become stories.

In the recounting, a Radwan stroll along the Nile is easily transformed into drama, sometimes too incredible to believe: a naked man walking down Shubra Street in mid-afternoon without anyone so much as commenting on the fact; or a man walking along the Nile Corniche in Zamalek with an ostrich under his arm; or even more incredible, the stories of how a Sa'idi travelling third class would have his relatives hurl him onto the train through a window; and how one man spent the train ride between Sohag and Assiut standing on his head, held in place by the squashed mass of human bodies. We would harangue him about his all too fertile imagination. His standard response: "You don't look; I do."

Whether he really did see a man carrying an ostrich in Zamalek or a fellow Sa'idi travelling on his head we'll never know, but Radwan did look, and listen. People, friends he had known all his life, strangers he would be unlikely to ever meet again, were a source of endless fascination. There was no hello at the other end of the line when you received a phone call from Radwan; rather "Eh, what's the news?" The question was never rhetorical.

But there will be no more phone calls from Radwan.

Memories offer little solace, yet they keep coming. The January '72 student uprising had just shaken the country -- the time for great changes had come (or so we thought). A small-bodied young man, all nose and heavy eyeglasses, even then slightly balding, makes his occasional appearance on campus. He is not yet in university, but is pulled there by the "movement." Radwan is from Manial Al-Roda, a middle-to-lower middle class island in southern Cairo; the "Manial group" vouch for him. For some reason he singles me out. It was a time of relentless political discussions, readings, debates and, always, activism. Trying to make up his mind from among the different tendencies within the self-styled "radical left", the intensely curious Radwan would, almost slyly, arrange it so that the main protagonists would debate their positions before him.

A few months and he's in Cairo University, a class-mate of my sister, Hala, at the Faculty of Arts, a short stretch away from my own Faculty of Economics and Political Science -- the twin "hotbeds" of left wing activism on the main campus. I can see it now: the Faculty of Arts "press corridor", covered with wall newspapers. Radwan's contribution is distinct in being wholly alien to the agit-prop format of that peculiar medium which, despite -- or because of -- its very rudimentary technology was for a time instigating a communications revolution of sorts in the country. Radwan, however, specialises in extremely long analytical pieces, written in small print, which, I would jokingly berate him, made me his sole reader.

Memories come through as images: small Radwan and even smaller Hala, standing defiantly in defence of the wall newspapers before two giants -- muscular, martial arts- trained police agents posing as concerned students. The inevitable scuffle begins, Radwan's eyeglasses fly through the air, followed by Radwan himself; Hala, only partially protected by her gender, shouts at one of the police agents the unlikely warning that she will "squash [him] like a bug"; the more athletic Samir leaps in with a well aimed punch at the police agent's jaw; dozens of wall newspapers are torn to shreds.

And then, the moments of triumph: tens of thousands of students attending rallies, occupations, demonstrations on campus, demonstrators rushing out onto the streets, confrontations with the anti-riot police -- young people in their early twenties, determined to change the face of the country and the world. And, naturally, the arrests, the going into hiding, the "safe houses" -- furnished flats or rooms, hired with false IDs -- the remembrance of which would in years to come provide innumerable anecdotes and much hilarity.

And somehow, through it all, a whole life was being shared as intensely as it was being created. Again, memories translate into images: A day trip to Al-Qanater -- 16-year-old Azza, who was to become Radwan's life-long partner and the mother of his two children, makes her entrance into our lives. We jokingly berate Radwan for being a "cradle snatcher"; evenings spent at the very tip of Roda Island, in the garden of the Manasterly Palace, sipping cold Stella beer, gazing at the Nile and, always, talking; snatched excursions to Alexandria, where the boys and girls surreptitiously defy convention by spending the night under one roof; Radwan's dimly lit parental home in Manial -- family members lined up in a narrow corridor before an ancient black and white TV which gives shadows instead of a picture and which Radwan would replace, years later, with his first earnings; the inevitable tabikh (rice, meat and stewed vegetables) that is insistently offered to Radwan's friends even on the briefest of visits; the hilarious luncheon which saw two ducks Radwan brought all the way from his Upper Egyptian village cooked à l'orange by my mother -- to Radwan's utter mortification.

Radwan and Azza's wedding party, boycotted by his family, is held in her family home, a small flat in the same Roda building where his own family lives. We need a suit that will fit the bridegroom. We hit upon one belonging to my brother, Alaa, bought at a C&A sale in London a few years before for another wedding. The trousers and cuffs are shortened slightly. Azza, in white wedding dress, looks like a fairy-tale princess.

Memories of Radwan invariably slip into recollections of Radwan's stories, the stories always generating a world of images. I visited Radwan's village of Kom Ishgaw, near Sohag, twice -- once on the occasion of the death of his younger brother (some 10 years ago) and the second, when we accompanied him on his final journey home last week. Both times I was struck by the instant recognition. Through innumerable stories of the Sa'id, Radwan had brought his home village alive in the imaginations of his friends, at once hum- drum and mythical, every-day and legendary. Radwan, the left wing activist and intellectual, the philosophy graduate, searched for essences and laws of motion, yet his vision of the world was intensely sensual, finding endless fascination in the details of people's lives, and the many ways in which they shape and are shaped by their physical and spiritual environments. Radwan's curiosity about the sensual world had but one boundary: people.

This passion for detail Radwan would explain as an element of his Sa'idi, or to use his preferred designation, southern, roots. Ask a Sa'idi the most mundane question, Radwan would remark, and you get a story: "It was a Wednesday..." the story would begin, according to Radwan. Above all, however, Radwan's attachment to the Sa'id was intimately tied to his mother, and through her to the world of women. Sa'idi machismo notwithstanding, Radwan was unabashed about his preference for women's company and friendship. Notes we found in his papers upon his death contain the following passage: "The world of women, for me, is a world of symbols, concealment and allusion. It is a world in which messages have a magical, deeply intimate character, implying a reality different to that which is lived. For me, the world of women is a storehouse of genuine feelings, expressed indirectly, magically." He speaks of the stories of grandmothers, mother, aunts and women servants as epic poetry, laden with sorrow, but ultimately reconstructing reality, not as it is lived but as it is desired.

Radwan's two films about the Sai'd, the little-known but stunning Al- Janoubiya (The Southern Woman), his graduation project at the Cinema Institute, and the prize-winning Date Wine, were firmly situated within just such a women's world: reality, mundane and magical, seen through women's eyes.

Yet the Sai'd was just one part of Radwan. He was also a son of Manial Al-Roda, urban to the core, streetwise, and possessed of remarkable ibn al-balad wit. Two worlds sat on his shoulders, one of the past, another of the present, one magical, the other earthly, one female, the other male. Deeply attached to an almost legendary past, he was also a consummate modernist, militant in his secularism and, to his very last day, unwavering in his dream of a more equitable, free and just world. His different worlds may have existed as parallel universes between which he travelled swiftly and with great ease, or they may have been synthesised by his profound belief in an indomitable human spirit which, chained and bound, is nevertheless constantly craving freedom.

Whatever the case may have been, Radwan had many more stories to tell, films to make, loved ones in whose lives he alone could instill a unique quality of joy.

The need to recollect is checked by the need to explain. But what is it that could be explained: Radwan himself, our friendship or the mysterious bond that made the two of us part of a curious extended family that took on natural parents and children as well as progressively new members, all of us from the most diverse backgrounds, but inseparably joined.

There may be no explanations that would suffice. After all, who can explain magic?

Hani Shukrallah