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'Diamond Dust,' a poisonous pleasure for Egyptian moviegoers

The book "Diamond Dust" and its adaptation for the stage didn't ruffle any feathers when they appeared in Egypt, but the movie version has proved to be controversial for taking on a political subject no one previously dared touch.

CAIRO — Tearing down pillars of modern Egyptian history can be lethal, as author and screenwriter Ahmed Mourad and director Marwan Hamed recently discovered with “Diamond Dust,” a political thriller dealing with the Free Officers Movement and the coup that dethroned King Farouk on July 23, 1952.

Diamond dust, one of the most dangerous poisons known, can kill slowly and gradually and without leaving any trace of a crime, if so used. This particular characteristic might be what prompted Mourad to choose it as the title for his 2010 book, on which the film is based.

This deadly poison slowly penetrates the body, making it a useful metaphor in “Diamond Dust” for the creeping corruption in Egypt's political and social life, slowly and secretly destroying the society. One of the most controversial scenes features Taha al-Zahar, the film’s unsuspecting hero, reading his father’s account of the events of 1952 and their consequences. “They removed a king and brought a million others,” his father had written in his diary, implying that the new rulers and their close circles also acted as they pleased. “They stabbed their leader, Mohammad Naguib, in the back and dragged the country into a tripartite aggression and defeat [by Israel] in 1967. They are the reason behind the corruption that is rampant in our nation.” Naguib, a Free Officer, emerged as the first president of the republic of Egypt, but was forced from power after 17 months.

“Diamond Dust” the book, published six months before the 2011 revolution, became a best-seller that year, but was not a source of controversy. Its adaptation for the stage in 2016 premiered without event. This August, however, when the film adaptation by Hamed, known for the daring drama “The Yacoubian Building” (2006), arrived in Egyptian cinemas, it created a stir.

The movie revolves around a part-time pharmacist who finds his father dead in their apartment. As he digs into his father’s past, he discovers a spider’s web of racism, corruption, political oppression and abuse of power. He also discovers that his father has left him a unique poison — diamond dust — to avenge the wrong-doers.

It would be easy to view the film merely as one of many other political thrillers portraying a battle between the meek and the corrupt, but a few scenes, including Taha reading his father’s diary entry blaming the Free Officers for corruption, has turned it into a political hot potato. Another scene has the media figure Sherif Mrad, played by Iyad Nassar, remarking on events, recalling “the coup of Free Officers against Naguib, when he decided the armed forces should return to their barracks and authority should be given to civilians to establish democratic life.”

To the film's detractors, the scenes are a deliberate attempt by the writer and director to paint the Free Officers Movement as the reason for political corruption in 1952 as well as today.

“Diamond Dust” is the first Egyptian movie to describe the 1952 change in government as a coup, rather than a revolution, as the state officially recognizes the event. In fact, the film is unapologetically critical of the whole movement. Egyptian cinematic works have criticized the politics of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the leaders of the Free Officers, and of his successors' regimes, but the Free Officers Movement itself had apparently been off-limits.

Thus, not surprisingly, many Nasserists and supporters of the 1952 revolution have harshly criticized the film. Last month, Magdy Eltayeb, film critic for the newspaper Al-Qahira, posted on his personal Facebook page, “Diamond dust is poisonous. … [The film] adopted a stance against the 1952 revolution. … It showed excessive sympathy with the Jews to the extent that this has undermined this work’s aesthetic value as a film noir.”

Al-Karama correspondent Mohammed Badr al-Din had a similar opinion. Also posting on Facebook, he called the film “malicious” and claimed that it sought to glorify Naguib by undermining Nasser through supposition.

Tareq al-Shennawi, a critic and professor at the Higher Institute of Cinema, described “Diamond Dust” as presenting a bold political vision.

“Many viewers saw this vision as biased, as it addressed only Abdel Nasser’s flaws and neglected his virtues, while glorifying Mohammad Naguib with no reliable proof,” Shennawi told Al-Monitor. “Egyptian cinema suffered a lot in the era of Abdel Nasser, who exploited cinema to promote the ideas of the July 23 revolution and gradually root out any opposing ideas. Egyptian cinema started breaking free from those restrictions with the film ‘Al-Karnak’ [1975], which criticized Abdel Nasser’s era, and ‘Ahl al-Qima’ [People on the Top, 1981], against [President Anwar] Sadat’s Egypt.”

Shennawi further explained that “Diamond Dust” crowns efforts to break from restrictions of the 1952 revolution and the Nasserist era by becoming the first film to present a vision challenging the revolution and forgoing promotion of regimes that have failed to maintain their principles.

The novel “Diamond Dust” takes place in 2010, but the film is set in 2018, with some scenes referencing current political debates. For example, in one scene, an image is shown of a newspaper interview with Mahrous Berjas, a corrupt parliamentarian killed by Hussein al-Zahar. In the interview, Berjas is quoted as saying, “Constitutional amendments favor the citizen,” a remark that sounds a lot like some Egyptian members of parliament who support amending the constitution to extend the presidential term of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

A hit, “Diamond Dust” has so far earned 27.6 million Egyptian pounds ($1.5 million) at the box office.