Hassan & Marcus is a 2008 Egyptian film that arguably features the most prominent actors in Egypt and the Middle East: Adel Imam and Omar Sharif. Directed by Ramy Imam, the son of Adel Imam, the film is about love, brotherhood, and humanity between different religions in the Middle East.
Hassan & Marcus is a comedy featuring Mahmoud, a Muslim sheikh (played by Omar Sharif) and Boulos, a Christian theologian (played by Adel Imam). Both men found themselves threatened by religious extremists on both sides. To protect them, the Egyptian government places Mahmoud and Boulos in a witness protection program that requires they leave their current address and disguise Mahmoud as Marcus, a Christian, and Boulos as Hassan el-Attar, a Muslim sheikh.
Unknowingly, both men move into the same building where they try to live normal lives. They eventually become partners in a bakery, and Boulos’ son Guergues even falls for Mahmoud’s daughter Fatima. During their journey together as business partners and prospective in-laws, the two men experience and witness both prejudice and social persecution.
Hassan & Marcus was based on a stage play written by Naguib Al-Rihani and Badi’ Khayri titled Hassan, Marcus and Cohen. The play moved to the big screen in 1954 and told the story of three businessmen — one Muslim, one Christian, and one Jewish — who were able to work together despite their religious differences.
Hassan & Marcus addresses issues of religious extremism, intolerance, and sectarian violence and emphasizes the possibility of friendship and love between members of different religions. The film does not shy away from portraying internecine religious conflict in Egypt.
The film features debates that were rarely heard in public at the time in Egypt. In one scene, priests complain about severe state prohibitions on building churches and the small number of Copts allowed in ministerial positions. In another scene, Muslim scholars discuss how Copts – who make up an estimated 10% of Egyptians – control the national economy. Discussions like these, while frequent, were usually relegated to the private sphere.
The love story between Guergues and Fatima highlights another sensitive issue in Egyptian society. Marrying into a different religion or having a mixed marriage is not generally applauded in the Arab world. The film addresses these problems with a strong and effective message in favor of coexistence and acceptance of others, while favorably highlighting the convergence, integration, and similarities between religions.
There is no civil marriage in Egypt with both Coptic and Muslim religious organizations forbidding interfaith marriage. Cross-religious love affairs are frequently cited as an impetus for sectarian strife. In the past, featuring such relationships in films risked angering government censors. In 2010, Egyptian censors banned the screening of the movie “Al-Khorouj min al-Qahira” (Cairo exit) because it featured a love story between a Coptic woman and a Muslim man.
Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime on February 11, 2011, tension between Muslims and Christians in Egypt has been on the rise. The demonstrations in front of the Maspero TV station on October 9 and 10, 2011 is one sad example of this violence: peaceful protesters, who intended to stage a sit-in in front of the television building in Cairo, were attacked by security forces and the army, resulting in 28 deaths and 212 injuries. Most of the victims were Coptic Egyptians.
Things have only gotten worse since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013, and the government crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of those upset by the government’s actions have accused the Coptic community of siding with the army. In August 2013, about 30 Coptic churches, mostly in areas south of Cairo, where large numbers of Coptics reside, were attacked and destroyed. According to Samuel Tadros, an Egyptian scholar, the attacks are the worst violence against the Coptic Church since the 14th century.
At the time of its launch, the message of Hassan & Marcus proved so controversial that a Facebook group was created under the slogan “A call to all Muslims, boycott Christian Adel Imam,” sporting Adel Imam’s picture in Coptic garb and calling for a boycott of his movies. Imam, Sharif, and others in the film vehemently defended its content and criticized many conservatives and religious extremists who considered it blasphemous.
Tears, laughter, love, and tragedy make this movie a compelling piece of work. Given recent events in Egypt and the rise of sectarian conflict, it is a must see. The story of Hassan and Marcus has a strong message of acceptance and inclusion. As Yousef Maaty, the main writer of the movie says:
I think a film should have a message and one of my messages is to make people love each other. Every day we hear that Christians and Muslims are in an eternal quarrel but when audiences see this film I think it will change something inside them.
Click here to watch the movie with English subtitles.