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In flesh and blood

By Ramadan A. Kader

Very few Egyptian films have addressed the thorny issue of trading in human organs. “Elhaquna” (Help Us) is a milestone picture among this handful of productions that early drew attention to this illegal business. Produced in 1989, the film tells the story of Qurashi, played by iconic actor Nour el-Sherif.

Qurashi agrees to donate blood to Rafat Zaher, a business tycoon and owner of a luxury private hospital. Zaher Bey, portrayed by acting heavyweight Adel Adhm, suffers from renal failure. The mogul employs Qurashi as his chauffeur in order to ensure that he and his blood will remain within reach.

The drama picks pace when Qurashi finds out that one of his kidneys has been removed from him without his knowledge after he has undergone surgery. After breath-taking search, he discovers that his kidney has been unlawfully seized from him and transplanted in the tycoon.

Qurashi sets out to hunt down his victimizer and regain his right, backed by a female lawyer.

Intimidation by Zaher Bey and his accomplices fail to silence the victim. The clique shifts to temptation. They offer him 500,000 Egyptian pounds, a hefty sum of money by Egyptians’ standards in the late 1980s when one dollar hardly equals three local pounds. Qurashi outwits and traps the bribers by secretly taping their offer. The recording exposes Zaher and his coterie. They are brought to trial and placed inside an iron cage.

Pleading his case at the packed courtroom, Qurashi requests the chief judge to order his stolen kidney be retrieved.

“These people have stolen my flesh and sucked my blood,” he says in a master scene in the film. “This is too much. I’m an ordinary Egyptian citizen and like many among them do not know much in the law. But what I know is that when the thief is caught and admits to the act, the stolen items should be returned. I want my kidney back, Sir Justice,” he demands.

But when the chief judge tells him that his request is unlawful and that regaining the kidney from the defendant, now sitting inside the cage, will put his life at risk, Qurashi looks baffled.

“If this man is not executed, pickpockets will board public buses armed with scalpels in order to steal kidneys from people,” he tells the court.

Seeing a picture of then president Hosni Mubarak hung on a wall inside the courtroom, he daringly turns and looks at him in the face. “They’ve stolen my kidney and nobody could retrieve it to me. Are you pleased with this, Mr President? We’ve been robbed, even our flesh,” he bluntly says as the film ends on an ominous note.

“Elhaquna” and “Gari Al Wuhush” (The Monsters’ Run) (1987) were among the first Egyptian films to look into the trade of human organs – although in different approaches. Both were directed by Ali Abdul Khaleq and starred El-Sherif, who died in August 2015.

In the two films, poverty is provided as a main factor manipulated to lure the impoverished people to part with their organs in exchange for cash, a process banned by the law.

Despite his limited financial sources, Qurashi is portrayed as an exception and a catalyst to others not to bow to tempetations and even struggle to regain their “stolen flesh”.

In the famous court scene, he says: “I willingly donated my blood to him, but he stole my kidney.”

The film, based on a screenplay by Ibrahim Masoud, stands out among the legacy of both el-Sherif and Adham as each showed their acting mettle in their tug-of-war, the repercussions of which are aimed at beyond the screen. The message is to alert authorities about the importance of toughening penalties against dealers in human organs.

The title of the film sounds a desperate call and serves as an alarm. Several rings involved in human organ trade have since been dismantled and brought to justice in Egypt. In July, a Cairo criminal court is due to rule in a case involving 41 defendants, including doctors and hospital workers, charged with illicitly dealing in human organs.

Like several of the 1980s productions, “Elhaquna” is critical of the controversial ifitah open-door economic policy initiated by Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar el-Sadat, in the mid-1970s. Qurashi’s lawyer, played by Fadia Abdul Ghani, lashes out at Zaher Bey and his three business partners: a notorious doctor, a bellydancer and an undertaker. They are presented as symbols of the infitah breed, who stop at nothing to amass wealth and tamper with people’s well-being.