Resources / Cardenio / Egypt

Wahm El-Hobb (The Illusion of Love)

Lenin El-Ramly
Cairo, Egypt

Written and directed by Lenin El-Ramly

A synopsis of the adaptation, by Hazem Azmy, coordinator of the Cardenio in Egypt Project: 

Love is but the figment

of our own imagining.

Had it never existed,

we would have had to invent it.

* By way of Overture: In the initial blackout, we hear the voice of a young woman asking a man to choose either “life” or “non-life”. He needs some time to think, he says, but she is only willing to give him three seconds. 

* Anees’s estate in Upper Egypt: We see Walid sitting in the balcony recollecting, in the span of two minutes, everything that transpired during the past few hours. Images, lines of speech, and events come back to his mind in the form of disconnected fragments lacking in any proper chronological order.

* Walid remembers his arrival at the estate to attend the ceremony of signing the marriage contract between his best friend Anees and Kamla, a young painter whomWalid had known long before she met her fiancé. Walid appears to be in a jovial mood and tells everyone he must leave in a short while due to other commitments.

* Anees, a wealthy businessman in his mid-thirties and the unrepentant survivor of two failed marriages, has invited a small group of his friends to stay the night so that they may attend his wedding party on the next day. After the party, he intends to travel with his wife to for their honeymoon. We see Adam and his wife Sally as well as Dalia, Sally’s veiled sister who has just broken up with her fiancé and is well known for her acerbic tongue. Also seen onstage is an unnamed, chronically absentminded young man to whom Anees refers as D.J. We know from Anees that he is a distant relative who is fresh out of asylum after receiving treatment of heroin addiction. Next to arrive is Radi, a theatre director with a penchant for histrionics, who brings along Suzan, a famous star actress. Anees keeps repeating that it will be a night to remember. Kamla is excited at the prospect of marrying the man she loves. Walid expresses an inexplicable premonition about what will happen tonight.

* Walid’s biggest worry, it turns out, centres around his and Anees’s alcoholic friend Adam. As we understand, there is a certain secret between Walid and Adam that the first wants to keep – at any cost – from the wedding couple. Walid’s anxiety turns into horror when he learns that Adam has already spilled the secret to others -- including his temperamental sister-in-law, Dalia!

* Traditional Music from the neighbour’s house announces a folk wedding celebration taking place at roughly the same time

* Whatever possesses people to enter wedlock, Walid wonders. Continuing with this line of thought, he confides in Kamla that he feels “unfit” for marriage (psychologically, that is!)

* The village mayor hands Anees a piece of hash as “a wedding night gift”. Anees seems obliged. The businessman, who does not rule out the possibility of running for a parliamentary seat, heeds the Mayor’s advice to call on his rural neighbours by way of congratulating them on their daughter’s marriage. Kamla accompanies him to see the bride in person and to give her some wedding gift money.

* We hear a bull roaring and Salma, the rural maid, tells the group that the bull is about to “cover the cow”. Adam asks Salma to take him to watch the process but she tells him that women and children are not allowed to be present. Walid is quick to remark cynically that even the bull is getting married. Adam tries to get Suzan to dance with him, but his wife soon appears. Dalia comes back, having watched the bull engaging in the act. She is about to vomit.

* Kamla is back from the neighbours’ wedding celebration with a feeling of heavy-heartedness: The bride is only 17 years old, while the groom is in his fifties. As we know from her, the tearful bride seemed extremely anxious about the time-honoured virginity test known as the “bloody handkerchief”. Sally is aghast that such an ancient custom still persists, but Dalia quickly maintains that a forthright girl should have nothing to worry about.

* Much to her surprise, Kamla has been hearing rumours that the seemingly shyWalid is dating a lot of women. Walid explains to her that it is the ladies who always initiate the courtship, while he, as a gentleman, is bound not to disappoint them (!)

* Anees is back to tell Kamla he has agreed with the traditional band to play in their traditional-style wedding party. Noticing her bad mood, he asks Radi to conduct a rehearsal for tomorrow’s wedding procession.

* While all engage in dancing and merrymaking, Walid is lost in thought, recalling poet Nizar Qabbani’s lines: 

Love is but the figment

of our own imagining!

Had it never existed,

we would have had to invent it!

* Salma, the maid, enters to break the bad news: the bride has failed to produce a handkerchief stained with her hymen blood. It has now become clear that she was not a virgin before marriage, a transgression for which she is very likely to be killed by her own father or brother.

* A mood of gloom sets in. Women and men, each group seated separately, engage in a frank discussion about the intimate protocols of the wedding night.

* Anees confides in Walid his own anxieties about Kamla. “Like a beautiful yet wild mare” she can act impulsively and most unexpectedly. Last night, Anees reveals, he and Kamla consummated their yet-to-happen marriage – at Kamla’s own request. Whatever Walid says about her spontaneity, how could she be so daring to initiate this type of intimacy? suspiciontorn Anees asks. Kamla was, indeed, a virgin but, given recent medical advances, how can a man be sure anymore?

* Walid begins defending Kamla against Anees’s suspicions, only to be bombarded with a curious request by his best friend: to pretend to make amorous advances to Kamla so that Anees may test her faithfulness through her reactions. The astonished Walid is adamant in his rejection.

* The Mayor is back to convey to Anees that the band would be unable to come to tomorrow’s wedding, in respect for the mood of gloom hovering over the whole village. The Mayor predicts that the disgraced bride will be killed soon. “It serves her right,” the Mayor concludes and Anees seems to concur (since he must not be seen to undermine his own people’s customs and traditions, as he explains to his bride, who now cries in horror and disbelief). By way of changing the mood, Radi suggests that he and Suzan play in front of the group a scene of the play they are now rehearsing. It is titled Cardenio and based on a “lost” play by Shakespeare.

* As preparations for the scene begin, Anees manages to extract fromWalid his “word of honour” to help him with his stratagem.

* All are seated to watch the play: Cardenio (played by Radi) leaves his fiancée Luscinda (played by Suzan) in the care of his bosom friend Don Fernando (played byWalid). The friend makes amorous advances to her but she rejects them. Enraged, he tells her that he will force her to marry him by obtaining her father’s consent: he is a man of great wealth and power. Cardenio comes back to hear Luscinda accepting to marry Don Fernando. He instantly collapses while exclaiming “Frailty, thy name is woman!” Learning of her lover’s misfortunes, Luscinda makes a heartrending soliloquy in which she asks God and the angels of heaven to strike her dead. The scene thus ends, but Radi tells the group that he has asked the playwright for an alternative ending.

* They play the other version of the scene: When Don Fernando offers his love to Luscinda and she rebuffs them, he drinks a poison potion. Luscinda cries to see the young man dying for her. As if by sheer magic, She finds herself deeply in love with him!

* Kamla objects to the second ending passionately, calling it “unethical”: How can an honest woman have such a quick change of heart? Radi is still unable to choose between the two endings.

* Electricity is cut off. The maid comes back to tell them that the disgraced bride has been killed by her father. Kamla collapses. Anees suggests postponing their wedding party till tomorrow. To change the mood, he proposes to show the group his excellent collection of Arabian horses. Kamla, however, decides she is in no mood to accompany them.

* Anees goes alone with Suzan for a horse ride, while reminding Walid of the “word of honour” he gave him

* Kamla is not pleased that Anees has left her alone while being in in such a bad mood. Walid consoles her. During the conversation, he reveals to her his belief that all love is a mere illusion. She is shocked. She asks him what he thinks of the scene they have just seen. “What would you do if, like the play, I come to you now and tell you that I love you?” Walid asks her half jestingly. Kamla gets angry so he instantly tells her that he has said such words at Anees’s own request. She quits the place even angrier.

* In the dark, the disgraced bride, Waheeda, sneaks into Anees’s graden. She is discovered by DJ to whom she reveals her true identity. She tells him how she was deceived by her lover, Hassanein, who eventually deserted her (although she would continue to love him till the day she dies, as she tells DJ). Having miraculously escaped death at the trembling hands of her father, she has now come to Kamla to seek her protection.

* Walid is about to leave , but Kamla enters to tell him that she, too, loves him. He instantly realises that she only wants to give Anees a taste of his own medicine. Kamla asks Walid whether he was pretending when he told her he loved her. Walid remains silent, but his looks betray him. Kamla, reading an unmistakable declaration of love in Walid’s eyes, slaps him and dashes out.

* At long last, Walid realises he is in love with Kamla. Kamla comes back to apologise to him and tells him they should remain friends. Once he exits, she suddenly breaks into tears.

* DJ andWaheeda again. The rural young lady is beginning to “feel something” for the disaffected young Cairene, who promises to help her escape the village. Walid appears and tells them he has been observing their exchange right from the start. He comes back with Kamla who embracesWaheeda and tells her she will save her life.

* Walid tells Kamla the secret: He has made a bet with friends that he his will induce her and Anees to fall in love with each other. He has created for both of them the illusion of love. Kamla slaps Walid again. Adam enters and knows fromWalid that the latter wants to tell Anees about his feelings for Kamla. Adam asks Walid to leave at once before committing such a folly. The half-drunkWalid is unable to find his car keys.

* Adam tries to seduce the maid but is seen by Dalia, who summons her sister at once. Sally demands divorce, and Walid fails to reconcile the two. Adam breaks into tears and tellsWalid he decided to get married to escape his feeling of loneliness, only to become even lonelier ever since. * Anees and Suzan are back from their horse-riding. We know from the manner of their conversation that the two are becoming increasingly intimate with each other.

* Walid and Kamla appear together in the terrace. Suzan and Anees eavesdrop on their conversation.Walid confesses his love for Kamla and Anees thinks that his friend is only acting according to the plan. Kamla tellsWalid she loves him too. Anees intervenes before the two are locked in a romantic embrace. Anees tells Kamla he understands she is only trying to spite him, and he asks her to forget the whole story and move on. Walid confesses to Anees that he is really in love with Kamla. Anees appears increasingly tense as he begins to lose control over the situation.

* Waheeda reappears, now awkwardly clad in one of Kamla’s more revealing dresses. The mayor enters to tell them that the police is looking for the run-away bride to save her life, but that she is destined to be killed sooner or later. DJ takes it upon himself to save her.

* Sally leaves to Cairo. Adam dutifully follows her. Dalia realises she has no one to drive her back to Cairo. Radi, in a taming-of-the-shrew moment, orders her to carry one of the heavy suitcases if she wants him to drive her in his car (instead of Suzan). After a moment of angry hesitation, she relents!

* Despite Anees’s warnings, DJ elopes with Waheeda in a Nile felucca!

* Anees decides to travel at once with Kamla. Walid finally remembers that he came by train and did not bring along his car. Kamla enters and asks Walid the question we heard in the beginning of the play: to choose life or non-life.

* After a three-second pregnant pause, Walid is still silent and indecisive. Kamla is about to leave, but Walid holds her hand in love.

* Kamla tells Anees she is leaving withWalid and returns to him his gifts. Still trying to recover from his anger and disappointment, Anees asks Suzan to accompany him instead. The maid and the servant are jubilant since they will have the mansion all to themselves, with large quantities of food and other goodies available for their sole consumption. The sound of the bull is heard again from a distance. He has successfully fully covered the cow!

*By way of Epilogue: Walid and Kamla are seen in silhouette under the moonlight. At her own request, he sings her a tender romantic song.When the song is over, however, we hear a voice-over of Walid still recalling his signature mantra:

Love is but the figment

of our own imagining!

Had it never existed,

we would have had to invent it!