21 - 28 January 1999
Issue No. 413
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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A word or twoProfile by Ahmed Bahgat
Theatre remains the true vocation of this 'comprehensive artist'. From stinging satire to social criticism, pedagogy to pure parody, he has been making audiences laugh, think -- and feel -- for over 40 years
Egyptians are known for their sense of humour -- for laughing loudly in the face of adversity. Laughter carries them through the hardest of times. If the ability to laugh is a talent, however, the ability to make people laugh even through their tears is a gift, and Fouad El-Mohandes is exceptionally gifted in that respect. Even as a child, El-Mohandes was aware of this magnetic power of his: he could draw people in and make them laugh with almost frightening ease. His playmates in school and in the neighbourhood of Abbasiya where he grew up would gather around him eagerly to hear his jokes and watch his impromptu sketches, and he always had a funny and entertaining perspective on anything he encountered. He treated his classmates to hilarious parodies of their teachers, the teachers to a parody of the headmaster, his siblings to parodies of his parents, and each of his parents to a parody of the other. "I shall never forget the day when my mother came to attend the annual ceremony at school and saw me on stage doing a comic scene. She was so horrified by what I was doing that she shouted at me to get off the stage at once. Actually, I obeyed her," El-Mohandes recalls, laughing.
There is nothing in El-Mohandes's family background that would have encouraged him to take up comedy as a career. His father, Zaki El-Mohandes, or Zaki Bey as all those who knew him addressed him, was a scholar and a linguist, whose long and distinguished scholarly career began in 1914 when he obtained a higher degree in education from England, and was crowned in 1973 by his election as chairman of the Arabic Language Academy -- a post which Taha Hussein had occupied until his death the same year. His mother, Fatmah El-Ziyadi, had a legendary reputation among her friends and neighbours in Abbasiya as an exemplary model of propriety and discipline. She died in 1948, and it is anyone's guess how Fatmah Hanem would have liked the idea that her son was the most popular comedian in the Arab world. His father, however, who died in 1976, after El-Mohandes had reached the peak of his success, was very proud of his son's achievements.
It was probably Zaki Bey's love of the arts and his liberal views that encouraged El-Mohandes to take an unusual step for somebody of his social background, upon graduating from the Faculty of Commerce at Fouad I (now Cairo) University in the 1940s. "After obtaining my BSc, I decided to take up acting as a career. And to learn the secrets of the profession I followed Naguib El-Rihani everywhere like his shadow: the theatre, home, wherever he went I went. I was his disciple, and often after he would finish acting a scene in a play or in a film he would turn to me and ask, 'What did you think of that?' Fancy this: him asking me, little me, what I thought of his performance!"
Naguib El-Rihani is this century's uncontested master of Arab comedy and, when Fouad El-Mohandes decided to become his apprentice in the true sense of the guild tradition, El-Rihani was at the peak of his career; his theatrical troupe's quarters in Emadeddin Street were long established as the Lourdes of comedy, and his films were the biggest box office hits. Ever since Fouad El-Mohandes was very young, his schoolmates remember him imitating the way El-Rihani talked, walked and looked.
While at university, El-Mohandes produced one of El-Rihani's plays, Talatin Youm Fil-Sign (Thirty Days in Jail). Naturally, he took the part played by El-Rihani, who attended one of the performances. It was probably that role that made El-Rihani accept to take him on as an apprentice when El-Mohandes turned up later on his doorstep. El-Rihani had even offered him the opportunity to bask in the troupe's glory on Emadeddin Street, in a minor role of course.
El-Rihani's sudden death in 1949 was a severe blow to El-Mohandes. "I had pinned all my hopes on him. He was the one who was supposed to guide my steps." This abrupt end to the apprenticeship forced El-Mohandes to follow a more catholic path, and take whatever was available.
The technical Secretary
Ayoub, with Omar Sharif
as'Amm Fouad in the children's Ramadan Riddles
A Truly Respectable Family
in his study
"My first brush with fame came through cinema and radio. [Film director] Ezzeddin Zulfiqar was an old family friend. He had always liked my natural way of acting, so he offered me supporting roles in his films. Whenever I finished a film for him, he would call and say, 'Get ready for the next'." It was roles of the kind that El-Mohandes played in such Zulfiqar hits as Bayn Al-Atlal (Among the Ruins), with Faten Hamama and Emad Hamdi in the lead roles, and Nahr Al-Hobb (River of Love), with Faten Hamama and Omar Sharif, that made his face familiar to Egyptians and established his reputation as a sophisticated comedian who could pull off the most difficult parts.
Besides the supporting film roles he played during the 1950s, Fouad El-Mohandes's voice could be heard every morning by the millions who tuned in at 9.00am to listen to the programme hosted by his sister, Safiya El-Mohandes. The 30-minute Ila Rabbat Al-Buyout (To Homemakers), which has been running for over 40 years now, included a five-minute instalment in the saga of an extended Egyptian family (the family of Marzouq Effendi) and their friends and neighbours. Fouad El-Mohandes played Dr Sami.
Today, El-Mohandes is still faithful to radio, the medium that introduced him to Egyptians perhaps more consistently than any other. Every morning on Kilmitayn Wa Bas (Just a Few Words), a programme written by Ahmed Bahgat and directed by Youssef Hegazi, he plays the role of social critic and reformer. The show criticises both ordinary Egyptians and the bureaucracy that makes small emperors of civil servants. The programme has been running for quarter of a century, and seems to have inspired many of the bureaucratic reforms the state has begun to implement.
It was not until the early 1960s that Fouad El-Mohandes began to play leading roles on stage. Egyptian TV in its early years encouraged the production of comic plays, which were then broadcast for the masses to enjoy. One of the most successful plays of the time was Al-Sikirtir Al-Fanni (The Technical Secretary), revived from El-Rihani's repertoire. Here, El-Mohandes played the role of Yaqout Effendi, a poor schoolteacher who falls in love with a wealthy young aristocrat. The latter was played by an unknown actress, one Shwikar Toub Saqqal, whose main credentials at the time, beside her pretty face, consisted in the fact that she was French educated, and could therefore roll her Rs like Mimi Shekib opposite Naguib El-Rihani.
Fouad and Shwikar, as she is now known, were married in 1963, and their work together yielded one of the most successful artistic partnerships in the Arab world. She was the quintessential coquette of the 1960s; he was the man tortured by the love of this pretty and difficult woman.
In the 1970s, when theatre was no longer monopolised by the state, El-Mohandes formed his own troupe and began to act in the theatre that still bears his name in Zamalek. One of the most memorable plays of that period is his adaptation of My Fair Lady, in which he and Shwikar reversed their customary roles: he played the aristocrat, she a common street girl, who picked pockets for a living in the Arabic version.
Their cooperation yielded many other memorable performances, among them Ana Wa Huwa Wa Hiya (I and He and She). This play also went down in history because it introduced an unknown young actor, Adel Imam, in the role of Dessouqi Effendi, the clerk of a famous lawyer played by El-Mohandes. This time, it was El-Mohandes's turn to play the mentor and introduce a future star to the public, just as El-Rihani had introduced El-Mohandes himself.
Together, El-Mohandes and Shwikar produced countless radio soap operas, films and plays. In Ana Fayn Winti Fayn (Where Am I, Where Are You?), Shwikar played an aristocratic Turkish widow; El-Mohandes was a dead ringer for her late husband, and was brought in to help clear up inheritance problems. El-Mohandes's talent and skill shone through in one particular scene, in which he had to bid farewell to Shwikar's daughter. The scene was highly dramatic, and audiences wept copious tears at the little girl's agony. Typically, however, El-Mohandes blew his nose loudly in the middle of the scene, and soon had the audience in stitches.
As recently as 1995, after they were no longer married, Fouad and Shwikar travelled to Los Angeles to receive an award as the best comedy duet in the history of Arab drama from the Arab community in the US.
Fouad's plays are situation comedies, in which laughter depends very little on the exaggerated moves and gestures that were so popular in Egyptian comedy before his time. His ability to generate laughter depends on being natural, and guiding his spectators gradually to a climax where laughter becomes cathartic, purifies the soul and leaves the spectators with a moral to think about. Virtue emerges victorious in the end, the roots of evil are laid bare and the bad guys are soundly defeated.
His theatre generates hope and stimulates fresh -- albeit painful -- thinking about the strange fortunes of life. He is known for his meticulous involvement in preparing any script. He reads the script, imagines himself in every scene, scrutinises every situation and writes extensive notes recommending what should be added or deleted. At the end he presents a written opinion stating his conditions for accepting the script, or why he is turning an offer down.
Having been in the spotlight for more than four decades now, people think, Fouad El-Mohandes's persona in real life is identical to who he is on stage. Nothing could be further from the truth. For an artist of his stature, he is a bit of a bore. He goes to bed at 9pm sharp, and wakes at the crack of dawn, like a professional soldier. He does not drink, and he punctually performs the five daily prayers.
He has been married twice: once in the early 1950s to his next-door neighbour in Abbasiya, Effat Surour, with whom he had his two sons, Ahmed and Mohamed; then to Shwikar, whose daughter from a previous marriage, Minnat Allah, he considers his own.
At the age of 75, he now lives alone in his flat in Zamalek. His two sons live upstairs. When his heart problems began back in the late 1980s he said: "It is only natural that my heart should begin to suffer. I have often lived with my heart, rather than my mind."