Friday, June 08, 2007

MOHAMMED SHEBL 1949-1996: THE LAST REEL

Truly, one of my heroes and the only Egyptian iconoclast that I knew, in the 80s. I was emailing Amnesiac and he came up, so after extolling his many virtues to her, I googled him and this came up.




by Samir Raafat
EGYPTIAN GAZETTE, October 10, 1996


Mohammed Shebl's tombstone

Egyptian Movie director, film critic, talk-show host and radio personality Mohammed Shebl died on October 2, 1996 from cirrhosis of the liver. His films include Anyab (fangs), al-Tawiza (the talisman), al-Kabous (the nightmare), Gharam wa Intiqam bel Satour (Love and revenge with a cleaver). A few weeks before he died, Mohammed Shebl had attended the Locarno Film Festival where al-Qadiya (the trial) was screened. This was one of the last works in which Shebl collaborated with film director Youssef Shahin.

Mohammed Shebl and I went to the same school in Maadi and for several years we were in the same grade. Together with our classmate, Serge Walberg, we formed a threesome. While Serge and I were native Maadiites, the Shebl family had arrived from Japan where Mohammed's father had been counselor at the Egyptian Embassy.

Ever since his Tokyo days, Mohammed was enamored with everything Far Eastern. He would occasionally invite us over to his parents' flat on Road 6 for Chinese meals where we ate with chopsticks listening to what sounded like colliding pots and pans and wailing ghosts. "This," Mohammed would inform us condescendingly, "is Madame Butterfly's command performance in Cantonese." Whether it was Cantonese or Burmese it sounded equally awful.

He would invariably show us dwarfy-looking plants and figurines uttering unintelligible words that sounded like "bonzai", "kamikaze" and "kabouki". Nevertheless, despite our disrelish for his oriental food and alcohol-free Saki, Serge and I returned to Mohammed's each weekend. Besides his Sino-Japanese music and suspicious edibles (you must have been really hungry in order to munch whatever it was you were served in lacquered bowls) there was the wonderful Grunding recorder. None of us had seen such a magical contraption before. These were the Nasser days and Egypt was light years behind in telecommunications and sound systems.

I remember how one day we listened in awe to the entire soundtrack of Youssef Shahin's movie "Gamila Bohreid." She was the Algerian freedom fighter who had become a post-colonialism world legend. I think from that time onwards Mohammed was a devoted roadie of Shahin's whom none of us knew, for our movie knowledge was limited to Westerns and American epics, most of which we had seen at the Maadi Sporting Club outdoor cinema. Mohammed on the other hand was quoting Cecil B. de Mille, Fassbinder and von Sternberg. We had no clue at the time that years later Mohammed would himself become a rising movie director.

Ocasionally Mohammed would ostensibly bombast us with stories of his controversial icon Y. Shahin. But then Mohammed loved anything contentious which is why his two first movies (variations of the Rocky Horror Show) were deemed as such by un-merciful critics who failed to understand Shebl's Mephistophelian genre.

It was at Mohammed Shebl's that I also met the English historian Arnold Toynbee. He was a friend of Mohammed's father, Ambassador Fouad Shebl. One day, Serge Walberg, whose family decided to emigrate to France in 1964, boldly asked Toynbee for a reference to get him into a school in the UK. Toynbee was most obliging and Serge ended up in in a boarding school in Ramsgate in England, which, incidentally, he hated.



Saiid Shebl's tombstone: died 8 September 1969
Another person we ran into at Mohammed's house was his older and only sibling. I don't ever recall seeing Saiid Shebl in anything but his PJ. He never left the house, most of the time holed up in his room which was off bounds. One day at university we were told that Saiid had committed suicide. Mohammed never spoke of him again. It was as though he had been betrayed or abandoned. From that day onwards Mohammed, now the only son, seldom spoke of his family.

I recall that a few years before his brother died, Mohammed had left Egypt to join his father somewhere in the Far East and it would be several years before we met again. From the grapevine I learned he was studying Chinese and Russian literature or something equally exotic. This to was his Fu Manchu period. Later, still sporting his drooping Chinese mustache, he fascinated me with stories of the Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow to Beijing. That was as good a place as any to practice Russian, Mandarin and Cantonese. Mohammed had a good grasp of all three.

In typical diplobrat fashion Mohammed followed his father's footsteps and spent several months in the United States as a rookie Egyptian diplomat. But his foreign service pursuit somehow took a turn for the worse. He hated the rigidity of officialdom and could not hack the bureaucracy. He had also divorced his young bride.

Released from career and marital obligations he went into music and film.

Mohammed appeared on Radio Cairo's European Service simultaneously hosting talk-shows, plays, and endless retrospects on the Beatles. If anyone knew the size of the Beatles' socks it was Mohammed, for he had become Egypt's foremost authority on the celebrated British pop group.

Ever since Egypt's first groupie band - "The Mass" - was formed in the 1960s Mohammed was right there at the center of Cairo's rock music scene. The Mass, which was composed of Tarek "Ricky" Nour (now Americana), Ashraf Salmawi (presently artist in UK), Mourad Rushdi (accountant in the Gulf), and the Amr Mansour (died from broken spine resulting from bad fall in Club Med's swimming pool), relied on Mohammed Shebl for promotion and the management of its well attended concerts. Mohammed was going to be the group's 'Brian Epstein.'

One of the upsides of driving down Maadi's Cornish was that you could hear Mohammed's voice blasting out from the radio. What better way to start off your 9 to 5 day than listening to the daring and licentious diatribes of Radio Cairo's enfant terrible.

By the late 1980s Mohammed Shebl had become the undisputed star of the breakfast talk-show circuit. By now he had plunged into showbiz, wallet and life savings first. Alas, his first movie bombed depleting him from his financial resources with over 100,000 pounds disappearing out of the window. The showbiz Gods were definitely not on Mohammed's side. His karma ran out on him again when one day the bell rang: "Mohammed Bey, look out of the window, there's been an accident!" He looked and there was his car flattened by a large tree which had decided to commit hara-kiri on Mohammed's brand new un-insured car. Naturally, it was a Japanese make.

The pile of glass, metal and upholstery was Mohammed's second and last car. From then on it was taxis and auto-stops. Since most of Maadi knew him, hitching a ride into town was no big deal. The number of times I stopped to pick him from in front of his street corner only to drop him half an hour later at the television building were countless. It was during these fortuitous encounters that I had the benefit of a pre-preview to various screenplays or movie scripts. Some were more misanthropic than others. But because of their hilarious characters these rides were among the shortest into town lasting only a few minutes or so it seemed.

One day in 1983 Mohammed asked me to appear as an extra in his movie The Talisman together with our mutual friend the American author and traveler extraordinaire Cassandra Vivian. This was one of the few times I watched Mohammed as he performed behind the camera shouting orders in typical Dom De Luise (Blazing Saddles, 1973) fashion.

It was on one of these random drives ten years later that Mohammed asked me if I had anything publishable for the Egyptian Gazette where he worked at the time. He had been the originator of the refreshing and biting series "Between a Rock and a Hard Place" as well as his by now very famous "Reel Talk". In those days I was writing the occasional article (long rambles, as some of my friends say) for the Ahram Weekly. It was also then that we discussed in earnest the co-production of an Arabic Movie Almanac/Guide which was never realized.

In the days that followed I would slip feature articles under Mohammed's door hoping he would deliver it to the Gazette. I purposefully avoided the bell for fear of being subjected to some more Shahinesque parables or to some experimental Chinese delicatessen. Sometimes he would catch me in the act and I would then be subjected to both. But because of Mohammed's exceptionally good laughs and whimsical stories punctuated with a variety of four letter explicatives, I somehow managed to swallow the 'Shahin Chop Suey.'

Mohammed's perverse, witty, astute and acerbic interpretations on what was going on around us whether in Egypt or the Middle East was unique. I do not doubt for a minute that 'The World According to Shebl' in book form or screenplay would have been a big commercial success. Certainly much more original than the feeble attempts put out by his better known peers and would-be mentor.

By the time I had the benefit of a regular column in the Egyptian Mail, Mohammed had defected to the competition so that in fact we had simply traded column space. Whenever we would meet after 'the swap' we immediately compared notes. "I have been de-fanged... I am muzzled... I am cast%**d," he would bellow in the car referring to the reduced latitude he had at his new paper. Not at all surprising since at the Gazette he had had absolute editorial freedom which brought out the best and most creative in him. "One day I will return to the Gazette and boy will I give its readers something to chew on." was what Mohammed told me on one of our last rides into town. "Yes, yes, I've heard it all before" was my hurried reply, for I had grown used to Mohammed's moods: up on Mondays and down on Wednesdays interspersed with a lot of "Jo this" and "Shahin that."

During the past 18 months Mohammed had been working on a documentary on "Joe" which meant filming Youssef Shahin on any ordinary day doing the most simple of chores like puffing a cigarette, scratching his hair or reading a newspaper. As though to comfort Mohammed for this strenuous artistic endeavors I would state that when Shahin is gone this will be a winner and perhaps 'one day' you will recoup some of the moneys you lost thanks to his inappropriate advice.I was referring to Mohammed's fated first film which had had the blessings of his mentor but had bombed royally. His replies would be an indifferent or less than enthusiastic "Who knows?" as though he already knew he wouldn't be around to see the fruition of his Shahin labor

Sadly, the 'one day' will never be and even worse, no one has done a documentary on Shebl. As for his resuming "Reel Talk" it never happened. Instead, I find myself with the downhearted task of writing Mohammed's eulogy in "his" Egyptian Gazette for the benefit of his disbelieving fans, friends, neighbors and colleagues none of whom have forgotten his punchy articles, fiery editorials, controversial avant garde movies, hilarious talk-shows and yes, his excellent Beatles retrospects.

As his favorite pop group put it so well in their hit song "Hello, Good-bye" it was now our turn to bid Mohammed Shebl, so long and good-bye.

4 Comments:

Blogger Amnesiac said...

Does sound like he was one of a kind - what a shame he's gone. And great obituary.

2:42 PM  
Blogger Forsoothsayer said...

i have never heard of this person...but it does sound like he inhabited a much funner world than we do.

2:36 AM  
Blogger Basil Fawlty said...

Not from what I remember: I hated living in Cairo at that time.

In 1989 (around the time when I first became aware of him), you lifted the phone receiver and waited 2,3, 4 minutes to get a dial tone, wearing shorts in the streets (for a boy) was a no-no, cab drivers wouldn't take you to Ard el Golf from Nady Heliopolis and I knew of one shop, in Maadi, that sold foreign candy.

My point is that Shebl made it funner than it had any right to be.

10:07 PM  
Anonymous metaweh said...

We did over a dozen radio programs in studio 42, of which I have four archived. He had his excentricities but they we're all from a man with a good heart. During One programme (I recall) that the engineer (in the studio) set him off and he left the programme for me (solo) just because of a remark she made! I'm certain that theres reel talk in heaven even though the earthly last reel has played...

8:30 PM  

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