Khaled al-Berry’s enjoyable and pioneering memoir, “Life is More Beautiful than Paradise,” translated by Humphrey Davies and published in 2009, is now set to be made into a feature-length film.
The film script will be written by Mohamed Rifai and directed by Magdi Ahmad Ali. As a director, Ali is known for his attraction to literary works, like Ibrahim Aslan’s “Nile Birds,” and for his ability to address controversial topics in an unflinching manner, as in his “Girls’ Secrets.”
Berry’s memoir is a moving portrait of adolescence. The book is moving not because of the its subject matter – as a young man, Berry went to prison because of his affiliation with the banned Jama'a al-Islamiya – but because of the way the narrator reflects on the ordinary details of growing up.
The autobiography opens in Assiut as Berry is entering his teens. School is cancelled because of security concerns, and many parents come to pick up their children in cars. But Berry’s father recently sold their rundown ’68 Opel, so he ends up walking home with some of the other boys.
One of them mentions Jama'a al-Islamiya. Berry parrots his father’s opinion: “[Gamal] Abdel Nasser understood them and imprisoned them.” But the other boy vehemently disagrees. He reproaches Berry for condemning those he doesn’t know, and portrays the members of the Islamist group as heroes defying a corrupt regime. This boy has seen Berry shy from a fight, and promises to make him a gift of a bicycle chain.
“I spent the night dreaming of the bicycle chain,” Berry writes, “just the way I used to dream that I was Bruce Lee, after seeing a movie of his, or Muhammad Ali Clay, after seeing a movie about him.”
Berry continues his talks with the unnamed Chain Boy, who already has a connection with Jama'a al-Islamiya. Through Chain Boy, Berry gets to know others in the group. Slowly, he moves into their circle of influence. He enjoys much about his time with them: the soccer games, the peace at the mosque, their lively discussions. Berry wants what perhaps all adolescents want: acceptance, distinction and protection.
Bit by bit, Berry changes. He gets rid of most of his music and replaces it with Quranic chants. The brothers are impressed with his ability to memorize and argue, and nickname him Sayyid Qutb the Younger.
But ultimately, Berry shrinks from this path. He says that he begins the story as an eagle, but, in the end, finds himself “metamorphosing into an ordinary bird. I was no longer Brother Khaled, who had memorized the whole Quran and was ever ready to raise the fighting banner of Islam, but neither did I possess the vocabulary of the new world in which I lived.”
Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Council has already flagged Berry’s book for its frank discussions of sex and religion. But Berry says – perhaps optimistically – that he doesn’t expect the film to run into trouble with government censors.
“They don't need to,” he said. “There's nothing in the book that is censorable or worth censoring. It's a simple story about a coming of age of an ordinary person who happened to be politically affiliated with an Islamic group – the trend of the time.”
Berry ends the book having morphed into a regular young man, a university student obsessing over literature and film and girls. The book closes with straightforward descriptions of women, sex, and “a mucus-like fluid.”
He expects the ending to be in the film: “I even have a certain picture in my mind for the scene – I won't mention it because I'm not involved in the adaptation. Yet, I'll give you a clue. It's around the same time that I looked at my body fluids in a certain way, another chap was looking at Naguib Mahfouz's body fluid. Now, who is more dangerous to others?”
Berry said he was happy that Ali would be directing the film.
“I'm glad that a director whose artistic abilities I really admire chose to adapt this book.” He also gave a nod to the difficulties that Ali might face: “It needs courage.”