Tamer Habib

The Master of Egyptian On-Screen Storytelling

If you are a movie and TV buff, it is more likely than not that your favourite Egyptian film or TV series was written by Tamer Habib. From big-screen classics like Sahar El Layalie (Sleepless Nights) to small screen sensations like Grand Hotel, Habib’s work easily speaks for itself, and for the avid fans who find solace in seeing their emotions depicted on the screen. In addition to screenwriting, some songwriting and occasional television hosting, Tamer Habib is also a mentor to the many students who flock to his cherished writing workshops and classes. eniGma’s own Mohamed Hesham, who is one of those students, sat down with Habib to hear the iconic screenwriter tell the story of his own journey to success.

I had admired Tamer Habib’s legendary work long before I got the chance to attend his workshop for aspiring writers and get to know him on a more personal level. I was already aware of his reputation as an exceptional human, and in his class, I got to experience what an exceptional teacher he was as well. Rather than teaching you the basics which you could learn elsewhere, he likes to pass on his real-life knowledge and career experience. Habib has a trove of rich insider stories that he tells in the most hilarious, endearing manner. Unfortunately, I can’t repeat most of them, partly because they are too juicy, but mostly because no one can quite tell a story like Tamer Habib.

Growing up, Habib’s favourite hangout was the cinema. He would go to the movies at least twice a week. “I remember seeing Khali Balak men Zuzu (Beware of Zuzu) for the first time when I was about three years old. That film has a very special place in my heart,” says Habib. While in high school, he made sure to watch every single movie in every film festival that came his way. “During my senior year, I skipped school one day to go to the premiere of El Youm El Sades (The Sixth Day). When I watched that movie, I just knew that that was what I wanted to do,” recalls Habib, although at that time he wanted to be an actor. “When I developed a better understanding of the film industry, however, I wanted to become a director,” he adds.

Knowing his passion for writing and storytelling, a family friend advised him to study screenwriting instead, but his application to the Cinema Institute was rejected, and he ended up studying Business Administration. “I failed during my first year of university because it was not what I wanted to do,” he recalls. Nonetheless, he graduated and went on to work in accounting. “Those were the worst three years of my life. When I went into severe depression, I decided to start from scratch. I quit my job and applied to the Cinema Institute again.” This time he was accepted.

Habib’s first venture into actual screenwriting came during his senior year at the Institute. He coincidentally got an offer to write a screenplay adapted from Ehsan Abdelkodous’s novel, El Nadara El Soda (The Black Glasses), so he did it as his graduation project. Although he got an A+, the movie didn’t end up moving forward. Shortly afterwards, he wrote a short film with a colleague called El Tayareen (The Deliverymen). “We sat with a producer who really liked the idea and offered to make it into a feature film. We signed the contracts but, unfortunately, the project was stopped a week before production, and I felt extremely demotivated,” he recounts. Thankfully, legendary director and screenwriter Daoud Abdel Sayed, one of Habib’s mentors and idols, helped him out of his sense of failure. “Mr. Abdel Sayed told me how he had worked on at least 10 uncompleted projects before he got his big break. So, thanks to him I kept going.”

“Shortly after, I wrote a film inspired by my real life and that of my friends; I was sure no one would find it interesting. However, Mr. Abdel Sayed liked it and pushed for its production,” he says. That film was Sahar El Layalie (Sleepless Nights), which turned out to be Habib’s big break. The star-studded film catapulted Habib to fame. Starring Mona Zaki, Ahmed Helmy, Sherif Mounir and Khaled Abol Naga, Sahar El Layalie follows four couples who are best friends from college, as they navigate their relationships, including the lies they tell each other and more gravely, the lies they tell themselves. The film opened the door for more opportunities for the newly acclaimed screenwriter.

Habib’s next hit film was Hob El Banat (Girls’ Love), starring Laila Eloui, Hanan Tork and Hana Shiha as three estranged half-sisters. “The producer wanted to make a movie that would buck the prevailing trend of exclusive male leads at that time,” Habib explains. It is widely regarded as one of modern cinema’s few films with a cast of female leads and a feminist perspective at heart.

These two films earned Habib his well-deserved reputation as the go-to writer of tremendously relatable, delicate stories involving a range of human emotions. He was well-positioned to take on his next great romance, An El Eshq Wel Hawa (On Love & Passion). Starring Ahmed ElSaka, Mona Zaki, Menna Shalaby and Ghada Abdelrazek, this film became one of Habib’s most critically acclaimed works to date. “It took me three years to write this movie about different types of love. I played it like a mathematical equation, starting with A and B at a certain moment and then seeing the results,” he explains.

Habib’s biggest box office draw, however, was the romantic action-comedy film Taimour & Shafika, starring Egypt’s favourite screen duo, Ahmed ElSaka and Mona Zaki. The project began as ElSaka’s loose idea which he presented to Habib to develop into a screenplay. It was about a love story between a woman in an important government position and her secret service bodyguard. Habib hesitated at first, but he eventually accepted the challenge, and it went surprisingly smoothly. “Now, ElSaka is dying to do a sequel after all these years,” says Habib, who quickly adds, “But I feel like the only film I would, maybe, do a sequel for is Sahar El Layalie. It would be interesting to see where those characters are today. Otherwise, I feel that sequels are very tricky. If a sequel is not planned from the start, it’s usually not as successful as the first film. It also potentially messes with the legacy of the original.”

Habib’s last silver screen instalment was 2011’s Wahed Sahih (The Right One), starring Hany Salama, Kinda Alloush, Bassma and Amr Youssef. It explores the concept of soulmates and the idea of independence versus codependence. “It came about when Hany Salama was so upset that he was not in An El Eshq Wel Hawa, that he asked me to write a film for him. The film’s premise echoes parts of Salama’s personal life,” Habib reveals.

By then, Habib’s success had extended to writing for television as well. His first work for the small screen was Khas Gedan (Top Confidential), starring his idol, Youssra. “It started when Ghada Selim, the director, told me she wanted to do a movie about a therapist. We brainstormed together and I suggested she incorporate the patients’ stories in it as well. She liked the idea but felt it would work best as a series, and she asked me to write it. I refused at first because I had never written for television before. Then producer Mr. Gamal El Adl, joined her in asking me to do it. When I told him that I was very slow and writing a series would take me ages to finish, he told me I could take the time that I needed,” Habib recalls. “I was very interested in psychology. On top of that, Youssra was chosen as the lead, so I was sold!” he adds.

Habib’s second project for television, Sharbat Loz, was also a collaboration with the legendary, Youssra. “I love Youssra, and I love her spirit on a personal and professional level. We had agreed we would work together on her next role. Most of her roles at that time were of sophisticated women, so I wanted to have her play a lower-class woman. When I cracked it to her that I wanted her to play a ‘b**** from the ghetto,’ she loved the idea!” he says with a laugh. The series was a hit in Ramadan 2012, simultaneously marking Samir Ghanem’s comeback to acting and the introduction of an ensemble of fresh faces: Amina Khalil, Saba Mubarak, Injy El Mokkaddem, Mohamed Farrag and Ahmed Dawood, who would all become A-listers of their own. The following year, Habib capitalised on the success of Sharbat Loz with a new series that featured most of Sharbat Loz’s cast. “In Nekdeb Law Olna Mabenhebesh (We’d Be Lying if We Said We’re Not in Love), I was inspired by Meryl Streep’s film, It’s Complicated, about a lady who has somewhat given up after a messy divorce, but then starts to find herself once again when a new love interest ignites that flame within her,” he explains.

In 2015, Habib’s string of successes led him to his first epic period piece. Relating the journey of a young country girl who rises to become a famous singer, the screenplay for this piece was based on a successful Columbian TV series that had already spun off 13 international adaptations. “Before writing my own adaptation, I needed to know who the lead would be. We wanted Sherine, but she had decided to steer away from acting after past disappointments. However, when she knew I would be the writer, she agreed,” says Habib proudly. Although she had a huge fan base as a singer, featuring Sherine as the lead actress was nonetheless a risky move after her previous unsuccessful attempts at acting. However, Habib and director Mohamed Shaker’s faith in her ultimately paid off. “Sherine started to actually find her own life story within the plot, and she truly inhabited the character. We were very impressed,” says Habib.

A year later, Habib graced the small screen with Grand Hotel, one of the greatest television dramas in Egyptian history. The series was an instant hit and became a classic destined for greatness. Executed flawlessly, with the right tone, cast, setting, costume and, of course, dialogue, the 2016 adaptation of the Spanish telenovela with the same name, was a smash hit on all counts. “At the beginning, I refused to do it. The original Spanish series, Grand Hotel, on which ours was based, was mainly built as a crime mystery, so I did not really feel connected to it. I only started falling for the story when I reconceived it as a classic romance which happens to take place within a crime,” Habib recalls. The series starred Amr Youssef, Amina Khalil and Dina El Sherbiny, additionally featuring masterful performances from Mohamed Mamdouh, Sawsan Badr and Anoushka.

By 2017, Habib had already become the unofficial king of Ramadan dramas – a status which he further solidified with his remarkable reimagining of Ehsan Abdelkodous’s classic novel, La Totfea’ Al-Shams (Don’t Turn Out the Sun). In doing so, he achieved the brilliant feat of successfully retelling a well-known story but with a modern twist. With his gentle grip on emotional nuances and his innate knack for poignant storytelling, Habib found relevance and timeliness in a traditional plot, pulling in millions of viewers. “I admire Ehsan Abdelkodous so much that I took inspiration from other novels of his, as well, in my screenplay. For example, Shereen Reda’s character is drawn from El Nadara El Soda, Riham Abdelghafour’s role was inspired by a character from La Anam (I Don’t Sleep) and Amina Khalil’s storyline was borrowed from Damy Wa Domou’ey Wa Ebtesamaty (My Blood, My Tears and My Smile). I really enjoyed doing that. Ehsan Abdelkodous’s son figured out what I did on his own, and he told me if his father was alive, he would say that I’m the most successful at adapting his work. I consider this to be my biggest achievement in life,” Habib proudly declares, with his usual broad smile.

2020, on the other hand, was a rather turbulent year. Several reasons factored in the ultimate flailing of Habib’s latest television series, Lea’bet El Nesyan (A Game of Forgetfulness), starring Dina El Sherbiny and Ahmed Dawood. After much persuasion, Habib agreed to work on the project, which is an adaptation of a Mexican mini-series. It faced several challenges, one of which being the pandemic, putting production on hold and forcing recasts and general reworking. “I’m a person who thinks with their heart, not their mind. When I decided to follow my brain and mainly think about the success of the series, it did not turn out amazing. Since then, I decided to take on only what I truly feel and love, without factoring in the algorithms,” he says with determination.

Today, one of the projects the screenwriting wizard is working on is Eutopia, a series that Habib has been developing for almost a decade. “It’s on track to finally come out next year,” he reveals. His more imminent projects include a screen adaptation of The Big Million, a radio series he had written a few years back. “The same producer of the radio show asked me to turn it into an eight-episode series for Shahid. I loved the idea because it’s a romantic comedy and I wanted to turn it into a musical as well,” reveals Habib. “After finishing it, I will get back to Eutopia,” he promises.

It’s difficult to sum up this prolific screenwriter’s achievements, not to mention his other bursts of creativity, like the gem that is Talat Da’at (Three Beats), one of the biggest hit songs of all time, which was produced in the span of a few days during the first edition of El Gouna Film Festival. More importantly, as everyone who knows him will tell you, Habib is a man with a heart that is even bigger than his radiant smile, earning him his place as a great friend of so many – from the stars who cherish him and consider him a close confidante to his students who adore him and hold him in high regard.

Photography by Fady Moheb Doss
Art Direction by Hend Elkhouly
Styling by Seba Magdy
Location: Nile Ritz-Carlton
Suit by Cavalli Class
Cufflinks & rings by Azza Fahmy