18 Classic Arab and Arabic Book-to-Film Translations

Taken from our Friday Films series, these have been narrowed to the classic book-film combinations where the film can be watched (for free) online:

There are many more recent classics, such as the television adaptations of Sonallah Ibrahim’s Zaat, Yousry Nasrallah’s adaptation of Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun, and others. But the films below represent, for the most part, art from an earlier era.

A Nightingale’s Prayer, based on a novel by Taha Hussein, directed by Henry Bakarat 

The film and novel are both significant twentieth century artistic productions. The 1934 novel is narrated by the charming Amna, who’s from the Upper Egyptian village of Beni Warkan. She’s all at once jealous, bright, greedy, insightful, and human. It’s a novel with significant insights into class and gender in twentieth-century Egypt that’s also fun to read. A.B. as-Safi has done a translation, which he writes about here, but it doesn’t seem to be in print.

Mada Masr notes, the film “has minimal dialogue and depends…on the protagonist’s monologues and promises to the bird [nightingale]. … Yet Barakat and writer Youssef Gohar also created a poetic script that almost matches the novel’s genius.”

Kit Kat, based on Ibrahim Aslan’s The Heron, directed by Daoud Abdel Sayed.

The film version, written and directed by Daoud Abdel Sayed, got a “best director” prize at the Biennale des Cinémas Arabes in Paris and the Damascus Film Festival in 1992. The film was placed on the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF)’s list of “the 100 Most Important Arab Films” and the novel, meanwhile, was on the list of the Arab Writers Union’s “best 100 novels” of the twentieth century. Ibrahim Aslan’s The Heron is in English translation by Elliott Colla.

The Collar and the Bracelet, based on a novel by Yahya Taher Abdallah, directed by Khairy Beshara.

Abdallah’s The Collar and the Bracelet, which has been beautifully translated by Samah Selim, was translated to film by Khairy Beshara in 1986 and named one of the Best 15 Films of the Last 100 Years, as chosen by 20 critics. Selim’s excellent work on the translation won her the 2009 Banipal Prize for Arabic literary translation. Beshara’s film stars Sherihan, Ezzat El-Alali, and Fardos Abd El-Hamid.

The Dupes, inspired by Ghassan Kanafani’s novella Men in the Sun, directed by Tawfiq Saleh

The Dupes, directed by Tawfiq Saleh, is based on Kanafani’s most popular and acclaimed novella. The film was released the same year Kanafani was assassinated by a car bomb. But according to Cinema Arabiata, “Kanafani did watch The Dupes, released earlier that year, according to Salem who reports having freighted a copy of the film personally by car, from Damascus to Beirut.”

The Water Carrier is Dead, based on a novels by Yusuf al-Sibai.

The Water Carrier is Dead (Al-Saqqa Mat) was selected by the Arab Writers Union as one of the top 105 novels of the 20th century. While there isn’t an English translation of the novel, al-Sibai’s The Cobbler and Other Stories (Cairo, Permanent Bureau of Afro-Asian Writers, 1973) was published in English, and al-Sibai also has a story in Egyptian Short Stories, a collection edited and translated  by Denys Johnson-Davies.

The Egyptian Citizen, based on Yusuf al-Qai’d’s War in the Land of Egypt

Yusuf al-Qa’id’s award-winning novel, War in the Land of Egypt — chosen as one of the “top 105” of the twentieth century by the Arab Writers Union — is an underappreciated gem translated into English by Lorne Kenny and Christopher Tingley, published by Interlink in 1997. The novel is set during the October 1973 war and was published in Lebanon in 1978, just before the signing of the Camp David Accords. In 1991, it was made into a film starring Omar Sharif and directed by Salah Abu Seif, called Al-Mowaten Masry (The Egyptian Citizen).

Diary of a Country Prosecutor, based on a novel by Tawfiq al-Hakim, directed by Tawfiq Saleh

Mada Masr critic Adham Youssef has called filmmaker Tawfiq Saleh a “militant with a camera.” The 1968 film version of the great Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Diary of a Country Prosecutor (1937), translated into English by Abba Eban, was one of several book-to-film projects Saleh took on.

Adrift on the Nile, based on a novel by Naguib Mahfouz, directed by Hussein Kamal

According to film critic Hessen Hossam, the movie answers three questions: “What’s the importance of cinema?” “What’s the big fuss about a black-and-white downer of a film?” and “How significant is a bunch of chitchat on the Nile?”

Al-Haram, based on a novel by Yusuf Idris, directed by Henry Barakat

Al-Haram (The Sinners in English translation by Kristin Peterson-Ishaq) was based on a 1959 novel by Yusuf Idris. The film was directed by the great Henry Barakat — who also directed the The Nightingale’s Prayer and The Open Door — and it stars Faten Hamama. It centers around the marginalized Aziza, who is raped, carries the baby to term, and then kills the baby after its birth. The film was nominated for the Prix International at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival.

Miramar, based on a novel by Naguib Mahfouz, directed by Kamal el-Sheikh

Miramar is among Mahfouz’s strongest short novels. Set in Alexandria in the early 1960s, it’s described by the American University in Cairo Press’s Neil Hewison as such: “everybody must have their favorite Mahfouz novel, and this is mine. It is the story of Egypt and its Revolution, brilliantly told by four very different men staying in an old-fashioned pension in Alexandria, as they hover around the country girl who works there.”

The Mountain, based on a novel by Fathi Ghanem, directed by Khalil Shawki

Ghanem’s debut novel, The Mountain (al-Jabal), was published in 1958. Ghanem went on to write many of the key works of the mid-twentieth-century Egyptian literary scene, including The Elephants and The Man Who Lost His Shadow, translated by Desmond Stewart and published by AUC Press. The film was released in 1965 and starred Samira Ahmed.

The Lamp of Umm Hashem, based on a novella by Yahia Haqqi, directed by Kamal Attiya

The Lamp is perhaps Haqqi’s best-known work. It’s been translated twice, once by M.M. Badawi and once by Denys Johnson-Davies, in a collection with other short stories by Haqqi, published by AUC Press. The film was not Attiya’s favorite. According to an obituary of Attiya that ran in Al-Ahram WeeklyAttiya complained, “I made so many sophisticated movies, but people can only remember Qandil Umm Hashem.”

I’m Free, based on a novel by Ihsan Abdel Quddous, directed by Salah Abu Seif

A number of Ihsan Abdel Quddous’s (1919-1990) popular novels have been adapted to film, although, despite his massively popularity, his work has not made its way into English. His I’m Free apparently has been translated by Trevor LeGassick, although it’s out of print. In an assessment of the film, Rowan El Shimi wrote: “Salah Abu Seif’s 1958 production Ana Hurra (I am Free) was definitely ahead of its time. But then again so was the Ihsan Abdel Quddous novel it was based on, published in 1952.”

A Beginning and an End, based on a novel by Naguib Mahfouz, directed by Salah Abu Seif

Bidaya wa Nihaya came out in 1960, directed by Salah Abu Seif, starring Farid Shawki, Sanaa Gamil, Omar Sharif, and Amina Rizk. From MOMA: “This landmark work of Egyptian realism, the first of Abu Seif’s collaborations with Mahfouz, follows a widowed mother’s hellish struggle against poverty.” The film was nominated for a Grand Prix at the 2nd Moscow International Film Festival in 1961, and Sanaa Gamil won a Best Supporting Actress.

For Bread Alone, based on a novel by Mohamed Choukri

The film For Bread Alone is based on the controversial, much-banned, landmark 1952 autobiographical novel by Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri. The film was “produced and largely crewed by Italians and helmed by Algerian Rachid Benhadj,” according to a brief 2005 review in Variety, which suggests “‘Bread’ might ultimately fare best on television.”

A Touch of Fear, based on a novella by Tharwat Abaza.

A Touch of Fear (1969) was based on a novella of the same name by Egyptian “Knight of the Arabic Novel” Tharwat Abaza. The novel made the “top 105” list of the best novels of the twentieth century, compiled by the Arab Writers Union, and an English translation was published by the General Egyptian Book Organization in 1992. Some copies seem to be for sale online, but none in a quick scan mentioned the translator.

The Impossible, based on a novel by Mostafa Mahmoud, directed by Hussein Kamal.

Mahmoud was a physician and a prolific author, having written eighty-some books on various subjects, but known mostly as an Islamic writer. But The Impossible is not one of his didactic works, but a melodrama about an unhappy man who finds the impossible — love.

The Land, based on a Popular Novel by Abdel Rahman Al-Sharqawi, directed by Youssef Chahine

Al-Ard, directed by Youssef Chahine, was based on a 1954 novel by Abd al-Rahman al-Sharqawi (1920-1987). I was translated into English as Egyptian Earth (1962) by Desmond Stewart.