By Ramadan A. Kader
When it first hit the cinema screens in 2010, the comedy “Assal Eswed” (Black Honey) received mixed reactions. The film, starring comedian Ahmed Helmy, provides a view of an Egyptian-born American of his homeland that he left when he was a child. While some critics praised the picture as balanced and realistic, others panned it as unfair to the country and its image.
All the same, “Assal Eswed” was released to the general public without much hassle from censors and proved a box-office hit.
Directed by Khaled Mar’ei and based on a screenplay by Khaled Diab, the film tells the story of Masry Sayed (Egyptian the master), an Egyptian-US citizen, who returns to the homeland after his father’s death.
The protagonist, played by Helmy, is eager to revive his links with the motherland and capture its magic with the lens of his camera as a photographer. But a series of misfortunes he experiences since the minute he lands at the airport reshapes his idealistic expectations and brings him down to the earth and to the Egyptian realities.
He is conned by the driver who transports him from the airport to a Nile-side hotel. Traffic pandemonium and favouritism disappoint him. A horse owner, serving foreign tourists at the Pyramids, cheats him after he learns that he is originally an Egyptian.
Masry reaches the conclusion that foreigners receive better treatment in Egypt than natives.
He loses his US passport when attacked by angry demonstrators in an anti-Washington protest. The incident puts an end to the preferential treatment he received as a foreigner at the hotel.
His predicament deepens when in a fit of anger he flings away his Egyptian passport. Therefore, he is stranded in his homeland, which he desperately wants to leave for the US.
In his hectic attempt to get a new US passport, the protagonist wades through Egypt’s legendary red tape. Sensitive issues such as poor standards of education and transportation, bribery, unemployment as well as police abuses are featured sometimes in a manner that verges on black comedy.
The subtle criticism of the Egyptian lifestyle is convincingly counter-balanced, though. This happens when Masry rejoins his childhood friend Said and his family. Life with them proves an eye-opening experience for the disenchanted US citizen. They accommodate him until his father’s neighbouring long-neglected apartment is overhauled. Said’s family helps the protagonist to put his life in order and learns firsthand about the ordinary Egyptians’ life.
They suffer economically, but are socially interdependent. The bright (honey-like) side of the Egyptian life unfolds on such occasions as the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan when Masry shares his hosts their sunset and pre-dawn meals. Mawaed el-Rahman, or Ramadan’s characteristic charity street banquets, are presented, boosting this feel – good factor.
On Eid al-Fitr, which follows Ramadan, his friend’s caring mother gives him a cash gift, an Egyptian age-old hallmark of celebrating the annual event. A sense of community is unmistakable in locals’ relations. They exchange sweet dishes in Ramadan. Said gives a lift to his neighbour’s schoolgirl on his rickety motorbike.
Having obtained a new US passport, the hero packs up to leave Egypt for the US. Minutes after his take-off, he changes his mind and decides to stay in Egypt and relishes its bitter-sweet life.
Eight years after its public screening, “Assal Eswed” is remembered for its theme song “There’s Something Sweet About It”. Composed by celebrated musician Omar Khayrat, the song has amounted to an informal national anthem.
Both the film and the song lyrics rediscover merits of the Egyptian way of living that are concealed under the surface of harsh realities. It’s one whole package. It has a taste of honey, which may be black in colour.