5 September 2010
Ever been tempted to weave a real historical character into a piece of fiction? History is so crammed with fascinating figures and events that it takes an enormous amount of hard work to sift through the past for the tales that can be seen as relevant in modern-day drama creations.
Making up dramas using actual historical people and events sometimes makes for insoluble dilemmas. This conflict between drama and history is clearly demonstrated in the story of Sheikh al-Arab Hammam which is being aired as a TV drama series by al-Hayat satellite channel during Ramadan. Sheikh is literal for ‘elder’ and ‘Arab’ is commonly used by Egyptians to denote tribal communities in Egypt. The drama was written by Abdel-Rehim Kamal and directed by Hosni Saleh, with the veteran actor Yehia al-Fakharani playing Hammam.
Hammam, the honourable
Hammam bin Youssef lived in Upper Egypt in the 18th century. He was the grandson of Sheikh Ahmed Hammam, who came from Morocco and resided in Egypt with his tribe, the Hawara tribe. In 1765, after a number of conflicts and battles with Mamluk princes, Hammam founded an independent republic in Upper Egypt which lasted for four years until 1769.
Fortunately we have some vivid accounts of Hammam and his life. The historian Abdel-Rahman al-Jabarti (1753 – 1825) was a Somali-Egyptian Muslim scholar and chronicler who lived in Cairo for most of his life, and who, in his enormous book Aja##ib al-Athar fil-Tarajim wal-Akhbar (The Wonders of Heritage in Biographies and Events) , referred to Hammam after his death as:
“The great, glorious man has died. He was the shelter of paupers and princes, and the resting place of elders and nobles. The sheikh of the Arabs, the prince, the honour of the State Hammam bin Yousef bin Ahmed bin Mohamed bin Hammam bin Zubeih bin Sebeih Hawari, whose good and righteousness covered the near and the distant.”
As for Hammam’s generosity, Jabarti wrote that his servants spent all day and night preparing food ready for any guest who might drop in.
Hammam was a wealthy man. His family possessed 242,000 feddans (a feddan is 4,200 square metres of land), and 12,000 head of cattle and buffaloes. However, the drama serial on Hammam’s life did not do justice to his generosity and wealth. For one example, according to Jabarti, Hammam employed a great many officers and katabah, literally scribes (those would be known today as clerks or accountants), who were Copts—Copts are famous throughout Egyptian history as adept, honest accountants—and who worked in shifts day and night. Hammam would spend the first three hours of the night with the scribes and follow up on every minor detail. That Coptic character in the drama serial was a scribe named Boulos, played by Hussein Shaaban, who was obedient and quiet in most of the scenes.
Jabarti, who must have known Hammam, also gave some snippets of personal observation. He noted that when Hammam met members of the public he would later wipe his hands and face with rose water for reasons of hygiene, but this detail was omitted in the serial.
All went well for Hammam until Egypt’s Ottoman ruler Ali Bey al-Kabir set his heart on gaining independence from the Ottoman Empire and became engaged in a war with the Mamluks from 1765 to 1769. One of his adversaries was Saleh Bey, who was a good friend of Hammam. Hammam provided his friend with money and men, but after several battles and treaties of reconciliation Saleh Bey was murdered by Ali Bey and his men. Hammam, who was deeply saddened, suggested that Saleh’s men and all Ali-Bey’s enemies should occupy Assiut, the town that was the symbolic gate to Upper Egypt, and he provided them with all the necessary means to do so. This provoked the fury of Ali Bey, who sent a force of his leading men under the command of Mohamed Abul-Dahab, who played a vital role in these successive hostilities. When many of his supporters surrendered, Hammam did not have the power to withstand the enemy.
Treachery and deceit played a major part in Hammam’s downfall. According to Jabarti, Abul-Dahab sent several messages to Hammam’s cousin, Ismaïl Abu-Abdullah, in an attempt to lure Ismaïl over to his side. Abul-Dahab even promised to make him chief of Upper Egypt in place of Hammam. Ismaïl, believing these promises, deserted his cousin and his tribe. When Hammam was informed of this he was so saddened by the treachery that he left Farshout, the town that was his seat of rule and, three days later died, broken-hearted and defeated. Ali Bey moved into Farshout and looted all its wealth. Hammam bin Youssef’s republic had fallen, and the Mamluks returned to Cairo.
A charismatic man
Hammam’s republic, Louis Awad says in his History of Modern Egyptian Thought, was the first republic system in Egypt, preceding the French military campaign by Napoleon in 1798 and its so-called Egyptian republic.
The remaining monuments of the republic of Sheikh Hammam are a mosque named after him in Farshout and now supervised by the Antiquities Authority, and, some eight kilometres from the town, the ruins of the citadel from where he directed his military manoeuvres. His palace has been destroyed.
In the TV drama Fakharani managed to convey the wisdom and charisma that earned Hammam the admiration he inspired in his lifetime. The serial has been praised for reviving the facts about this little-known historical figure. Hammam’s family, however, has brought a legal case against the serial on the grounds that it defamed the image of their revered ancestor, who had only one wife, Salha, the mother of his three sons, Darwish, Abdel-Rahman and Shahin, and never married another woman as depicted in the serial.
This again raises the question of whether a fabrication in fiction or dramatic art can legitimately be woven around a character who is inspired by a real person? Surely drama can make use of a ‘poetic licence’ not permitted to historians. While historians and researchers search for historical truths, seekers of entertainment should be allowed their hour of fantasy—just as long as the two are not confused.