By Hoda Nassef
The Top TV serial during the holy month of Ramadan a couple of years ago, was written by the now-famous and ‘en vogue’ top story-teller: Magdy Saber. Not particularly keen on Egyptian TV series and plays, I, amongst millions of other spectators were glued to the TV’s “idiot box” during the month of Ramadan in November 2003, and ending after approximately thirty days, extending to the first week December. Not only was it aired twice a day (at night after the Iftar, then a repeat show the following afternoon) but was also viewed through satellite stations, and in the Gulf and Arab countries. Who is Magdy Saber? How does he write his plots and characters so convincingly and realistically? I felt that this man really knows the psychology of all members in a typical Egyptian family, from children to teenagers, to adults and senior citizens, and the real essence of a contemporary middleclass family. What intrigued me even more, was his portrayal of the women, especially the character of “Faten”; a young and beautiful widowed mother of two teenage children, and how she single-handedly managed to raise them, educate them, keep a job and her own self-dignity without resorting to compromises and several temptations for an easy way out, and without breaking under all the stress, obstacles and intrigues in her path. Meet the man who wrote, amongst other books, “Aina Kalby.”
He likes to joke. I was not aware that he was sitting at the table almost behind me when he made me a phone call through his cell phone. Although we never met, I would have recognized him due to his sudden appearances on television talk shows, yet, he could not have guessed how I looked. After we exchanged greetings, his story rolled on.
“This morning I was at the University of Information. They held a conference in honour of the achievements and rating ballots for best performances during Ramadan, and they honoured all the cast of the last TV serial, “Aina Kalby” (Where is My Heart) A rating ballot had been previously made in order to vote for the best TV programme, best actors, etc. This ballot was made in a very professional and scientific way, and they took votes from various people, in various walks of life and backgrounds, totalling 50,000 votes. The results were as follows: the TV serial “Aina Kalby” won Best TV Serial vote; I won as Best Writer; Magdy Abou Emeira won as Best Director, Yousra as Best Actress. The Best Actor award went to Hassan Youssef for his role in the portrayal of Sheikh Mohamed Shaarawi in a TV serial during the same month of Ramadan last year.”
“Are the awards certificates of merit, or do they include financial bonuses?” I enquired.
“No, they are certificates of merits. And for artists, it is all they really want. To be appreciated by the public, on such a huge scale, is rewarding and more than satisfying. Money can’t replace this. An artist doesn’t appreciate money as much as he appreciates the symbolic award directly from the public; his or her audience. Their votes indicate that they really like you or what you do. This is very important for a writer, and for any artist in general. Furthermore, this is the first Egyptian TV serial that had the highest ratings even outside of Egypt, and the first time that twenty-one Arab and Gulf countries bought it and aired it the same month.”
“Please tell me more about your background. Start from the very beginning. Where and approximately when were you born?” I asked Saber.
“I was born in a tiny village in Sohag, Upper Egypt, in the late fifties, and middle of December. I’m Christian, by the way. My full name is Magdy Michael Saber (pronounced Mee-cha-eel in Arabic). My father was very young when he got married, sixteen actually, and my mother was one year older. I’m a Sagittarius! When I was one year old, we moved to Cairo permanently, and Shoubra was my first real home. The ‘haie’ (popular district) of Shoubra taught me a lot, and rooted my first impressions of Life. I consider Shoubra, or rather call Shoubra ‘the common district of common aristocrats’. In Cairo, my two sisters and brother were born. Wafaa, then Alaa, then Marcelle. Marcelle is ten years younger than I.”
“I went to all-boys’ schools. When I was eighteen, my family moved to Heliopolis, and I entered the Faculty of Commerce, Ein Shams University. It made me miserable, because my dream was to become a doctor! But my final high school grades did not give me this chance. You know, the old ‘title-prestige’ complex most of us had in the past. Being a doctor in Egypt twenty years ago was considered prestigious. But now, of course, mine as well as most of the people’s concept about becoming a doctor has changed. It is not always everybody’s goal now. And, education nowadays offers other options.”
“I started working when I was a university student, at all sorts of odd jobs, ‘here and there’. My father, God rest his soul, died when I was thirty years old, but before that he was sick for a very long time, and I had to help in sustaining my family - as is the tradition with most first-born conscientious sons. In other words, at a very early age I was responsible for supporting my family and studying at the same time. I am now married and have two daughters, Maria, who is nine and Sandra, six. They go to a nuns’ school in the suburbs, because my wife and I also prefer that our daughters do not attend ‘mixed’ schools. I was particularly keen on that. I’m still basically a typical “sa-eedi” (Southern or Upper-Egyptian) in that I don’t encourage mixed schools for girls. They have plenty of time for getting to know boys later on! Now is the time to educate them fully and properly, without outside distractions.”
“When did you start to write?” I asked.
“By chance, I had my first story published when I was a university student. I’ll tell you how it began. My father was a big “tager” (tradesman) of foodstuff from Upper Egypt in ‘souq (market) Rode El-Farag’. He also loved to read, and he eventually formed a big library of sorts inside his shop. So, whenever I had time, regardless of nature of the book, I would read anything I could lay my hands on. Also, a man near our street had a huge display of second-hand books. Every day I would buy five books from my allowance for five piasters. Each book cost me one piaster. Then, I would trade the books for five others the following day. It did not matter what subjects they were about. Maybe this gave me an early awareness and enlightenment on world issues. Reading, and more reading, was my ultimate pleasure and joy in my youth. When I was nine years old and during the summer vacation, I read Anis Mansour’s ‘In the World, and Around the World’ five times. The book had 1,000 pages! But I also read the works of the classic Egyptian writers, and many of the translated works of great authors, as well as scientific books and a sundry of others. Therefore, my love of reading began before I was nine,” added Saber.
“When and what was your first published work?” I enquired.
“I remember that when I was eleven years old, I wrote a political novel about Port Said, and I was awarded first prize of Egypt, competing amongst many older amateurs. I had never visited Port Said, but my intensive readings about it and its war and political situation, motivated me to write. It was my first real attempt at writing.”
“How did you feel when you won?” I asked.
“I don’t really remember the emotions I felt, nor did I realise at that time the importance of the prize, even though it was a sign of my ability to tell a story and be appreciated for it. It did not occur to me that I had talent in writing at that time.” “At least you must have been good in literature and writing compositions at school?” I asked rhetorically. “Yes. I was the first in my class in classic Arabic and literature, as a matter of fact,” he replied.
“And, when I was fifteen, I wrote my first play,” continued Saber. “The strange thing is that it was published, but years later, during my first term at university. “It was a police story, about a theft of antiquities, called ‘The Riddle of the Second Theft’”. He explained that to have it published in the first place was a difficult feat, because “Dar El-Maaref” (an official publishing firm) published only work from known literary figures. There he met Mahmoud Salem (renown children’s book author) who praised his work and told him that it was hard to believe a fifteen-year-old could write so well. He also told Saber not to write anything more until he was more mature, in order to have concrete background experience. Saber took his ‘advice’ seriously, and stopped writing for five years. In any case, the same book was published, without a single change in it, five years later. From there on he was contracted to write serial books on a monthly basis through several publishing firms in Egypt, and in other Arab countries, and by the time he finished university in 1983, he had twenty-five books in the market. His books included series for children, teenagers, and adults.
“What was your first job, after graduation?” I enquired.
“After completing my military service in 1985, I was immediately employed. The Ministry of Finance announced that they wanted 500 employees, and I was the thirteenth chosen from the 11,000 applicants. I thought I would be assigned to the customs duty bureau, which would have been interesting. But I was assigned to the tax department, which I did not like, and I quit after only six months. I hated the boring routine and to be restricted in my movements and imagination. In fact,” he continued, “I discovered that I am against all job routines, and all types of restrictions. My university colleagues were surprised that I quit, while they were still job-hunting. According to them, I should have been grateful for being employed so fast in the first place. But, since then, I have never applied for another job.”
“Refusing to become a regular employee, I chose instead to work as a freelance writer,” Saber continued. “I worked for several Egyptian and Arabic newspapers and magazines, wrote columns, and made cultural and artistic reports, until my name became relatively well known in the world of Arabic journalism. However, my main niche was in writing stories, which I did not cease to do, even while freelancing as a journalist. Due to my limitless imagination, I wrote about three hundred books for children, each one a bit educational or teaching a morale. And, about fifteen years ago, I won the Suzanne Mubarak Prize for children’s literature, for the book called “The Rich Merchant and the Honest Youth”. I wrote also a known series for older children called “The Suicidal Group” about espionage, in which three Egyptian teenagers worked secretly for the government.”
At this point, I remembered his TV serial (The Other Side). It was a unique mystery and suspense story, without the usual exaggeration of most Egyptian TV dramas where the “bad guys” grimace and grunt, while the “good guys” swing angelically on their halos! Saber’s expression of suspense is written more subtly.
I asked him to tell me about his personal life at the time of his growing literary success. “Were you married by then?” I asked, remembering how young his parents were when they got married.
“I got married when I was thirty-two. Thank God I am a happily married man. Maybe my marital stability helps me in achieving my professional goals.”
“When did you first start working for television? What was your first script, or TV serial?” I enquired.
“I also wrote a series of romance novels. It was out of one of these romance novels that I was launched into writing for television for the first time. Ra’ed Labib, who is a TV film director and one of my friends, read the novel and asked me to turn it into a TV script. I told him that I had no experience in scriptwriting, and he said that my stories are almost complete scripts, and all that I needed was to read some more scripts to get the knack of it. I took his advice, read many scripts and discovered that I already write in a script-form, and then I re-wrote the novel he selected as a film. The first two-hour TV film I wrote was in 1996 and went by the name of “El Lekaa’ El-Thani” (The Second Encounter).
Due to the success of the film, I was asked to write whole serials, which was very challenging, and more difficult. So, my first TV serial of 25 shows was called “El Madi Ya’oud El-Ann” (The Past Returns Now). I received lots of praise from everybody, because they said it was difficult to believe that the successful serial was my very first attempt, and won the acclaim it had. For me, it was a matter of ‘to be or not to be’ and their encouragement was my pivoting guidance. I had found my true vocation, so from there on I transformed many of my stories into TV scripts. By the way, both TV shows were bought and aired first by the Gulf and Arab countries, before being aired on local TV.” he said.
“Were any of your novels written for the Cinema?” I asked.
“No. But my strategy is to write first for television, and later to write for cinema and the theatre. Then, I wrote ‘Harrat El-Mahroussa’ (The Mahrousa Alley) in 1997. At first a producer took the story and showed it to the director Magdy Abou Emeira, who liked it on the spot. Emeira got a very big cast of stars for the serial. It was a smashing hit, and it was through the unsuspected success of this second serial that my name became known amongst the TV drama writers, and I was sought out for more work that I had time to handle.
Switching back to his ‘personal’ life, I cheekily asked him, “Was your wife’s joy for this enormous new success the same as her joy when your first novel was published, when you were not yet known?”
He laughed, then said, “No. She did not understand the lifestyle of a writer in demand, at first, and my daily routine had changed a lot. She might have been a bit worried at first, or naturally a bit jealous. But now she understands and appreciates the importance of attending all these meetings. She fully understands if I am out a lot and have lots of meetings to attend.”
“Do you have special moments or hours to write? What inspires you to write, or rather, how and when do you feel like writing?”
“I like to listen to music when I write, or listen to my favourite singers, and I carry with me a little note pad to jot down my thoughts once in a while. You won’t believe this, but I get many of my scenarios and plots when I am sound asleep.” “What? Do you mean when you are relaxing in bed and meditating?” “No. REALLY asleep! While I’m asleep, my subconscious is active. Even if I have some personal problems, I dream about the solutions. And, in many of my stories or scripts, I dream of the plots and scenarios, and then I wake up and remember the whole script in my dream, and write it down.” Unable to fathom such a marvel, I said goggle-eyed, “Then you are lucky. Maybe this talent is a real blessing from God.”
I asked him “ Are your heroines or heroes real-life people; people you have actually met?”
He said that they are a combination of fiction, and people he knows or has heard or read about, and that in ‘Aina Kalby’ nearly all the characters were familiar people not only to him, but also to most of the public or TV spectators. In short, he gets his characters from life, or life’s experiences.
“Since apparently you are a happily married man, that implies that you don’t have outside flings, so how do you know women so well, and write so realistically how a woman would feel and react, and what she would do or say?”
He answered, “I always try to put myself in the other person’s shoes, and imagine what he or she would say or do, and I’ll tell you another secret: observing people. My mind’s eye is like a camera, and I can observe minute details in someone that the ordinary person may not see. And then my imagination fabricates the rest.”
“Who selects the cast or the stars of your novels? And, what is your next project?” I asked.
“I select them because often they are in my imagination while I am writing. I’m working now, or rather writing a new TV serial, starring Elham Shahine. For the moment, the title is called ‘El Attarine’. This is a known ‘popular’ district in Alexandria, and her features and type suits the role. Maybe Hisham Selim will take the leading male role. Also, I am writing a film, a light comedy - not the usual farce - for the silver screen by the name of ‘Halawet Rohh’ (Beauty of the Soul). It depicts corruption in general. We haven’t chosen the cast or stars yet. Finally, I am meditating about a theatre play for the near future.”