18 - 24 February 1999
Issue No. 417
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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In the time of loveFor years, her fundamental decency, sweet temperament and intimate, effortless appeal won the hearts of millions. Although she has been out of the limelight for almost a decade, nothing could prevent her from returning to our houses to entertain, edify -- and be loved...
Profile by Youssef Rakha
"My father was in civil service in Assiut and, when he fell ill after we were transferred to Cairo, my sister Khayriya [the celebrated comedian] and I thought of going out and working to help a little with the family expenses." Samira Ahmed speaks energetically, with an exceptional willingness to make herself known to her interlocutors -- whoever they happen to be. Her eyes sparkle, and, despite the upbeat tone in which she recounts her early beginnings, a sense of sadness betrays her voice while she remembers her father's illness. Her enchanting smile punctuates her sentences.
"We were both interested in performance arts. Khayriya used to get totally absorbed singing Umm Kulthoum's songs, and I staged little playlets with my friends and neighbours on the landing. But when my father fell ill, it was Khayriya who went out first, and she started on the lowest step of the ladder, as an extra." Ahmed gets up to attend to her two little dogs and, though she keeps them at bay throughout the conversation, it is obvious that they are very important to her. An avowed animal lover, she doesn't mingle too much with fellow human beings and although she has excellent relationships with many of her colleagues, whom she sees only occasionally, she makes a point of protecting her privacy.
"I was saying that Khayriya took me with her," Ahmed continues as she comes back, "and that was the way I started. But I had absolutely no idea that I would one day become a film star, I couldn't imagine it, even after I passed that stage and began to play minor roles, which gradually got bigger and bigger. It was a slow but very rewarding learning process, and an uphill struggle at first." Ahmed received no academic training in acting but, as she announces proudly, she studied articulation with the great actor Abdel-Wareth Assar. "He was a wonderful man, like a father to me, and he would tell me how to pronounce this word, how not to pronounce that. I had learned more and more as my roles expanded. Then one day Anwar Wagdi [the famous actor, director and producer, one of the earliest pioneers of Egyptian cinema] came up to me and said, 'You will play the lead opposite me in my next film [Al-Ustaz Sharaf, 1954].' And from that day on, things started happening."
Things started happening, in fact, not only in Ahmed's life, but also in the whole milieu. Some of the greatest directors in the history of Egyptian cinema, Hassan El-Imam and Salah Abu Seif among them, had emerged only a short while earlier, the most successful production companies were at the height of their power, and Ahmed's career took off just as the golden age of the cinema was beginning to dawn. The 1950s and 1960s, moreover, during which Ahmed's effortless style first endeared her to cinema-goers, were the age of romance and romanticism, idealism and idyll, tenderness and tenacity -- in short, a time of love. In such light-hearted romances as Al-Banat Wal-Seif (Girls in the Summer, 1960) and Shati' Al-Hubb (Love Beach, 1961), in which she collaborated with two of the most popular singers of the time (respectively, Abdel-Halim Hafez and Farid Al-Atrash), Ahmed would soon develop the image of virginal beauty and intimate familiarity which was to mark her off as a very special kind of film star. The image that would continue to mature with her.
Thanks to the abiding sincerity of her performances and her unique charisma, Ahmed would invariably manage to hold her own despite searing competition with many a forbidding talent. "My role model was, and still is, Faten Hamama [probably the most well-established Arab actress, the 'Queen of the Arab Screen' as she is known throughout the Arab world]. But there were others too: Fardous Mohamed, Amina Rizq, to mention but two of them. I've always loved their performances and felt their sincerity." She never tried to copy them, however, and it was invariably "a question of concentrating, trying to get the feeling across in the most immediate way, so that you could tell what I felt without me saying anything, and without me appearing to make an effort. Because I am a film actress, it is always the image that is paramount." She pauses to smile once more, adjusting her hair in an involuntary display of charm. "And to be myself," she adds.
Paradoxically, though, nothing could be farther from herself than the roles in which Ahmed was said to specialise during the early part of her career. In Aghla Min Inaya (Dearer than my Eyes, 1955), she played a blind girl. No sooner had she made an impression than she extended the range of the disabilities she could portray in Al-Kharsaa' (The Mute Girl, 1961) and Hal Ana Magnouna (Am I Insane, 1962). For a long time "I was stuck with disabilities, my name became associated with disabled roles. It got to the point where I started worrying. I thought, would I go on playing disabilities for the rest of my life? Until they began to give me normal roles." Innocence and moral rectitude were the only qualities she had in common with the protagonists of these early melodramas, and they were to remain associated with her for the rest of her life. But in later hits like Qandil Umm Hashem (Umm Hashem's Lantern, 1968) and Al-Shaymaa' (1973), she sought out roles that were more directly related to her own perception of who she was. "In my opinion," she remarks, "these are much more difficult. Because it becomes a question of getting the feelings across in a much more subtle and truthful way. It is not merely a matter of giving people the impression that you are blind or insane -- however difficult that may be. It is more to do with getting yourself across. Who you are." And perhaps it was the lack of an opportunity to convey her emotions in this way that prompted Ahmed to disappear from the silver screen in the late 1980s, with an eventful career behind her and 85 films to her credit. It would be another decade before she returned.
"When I'm offered a role," she explains, "I ask myself whether it's appropriate, whether it fits me, whether I can say something through it. And I like it when I feel that the character has the same traits as I have. I can't play just any role now; it has to be right for me. So I spent this period searching for the right roles. There were many attempts, people wrote things for me, but at the last minute I would decide that it wasn't right, that it wasn't me. I am primarily a film actress, and you know how the cinema has declined, how difficult it has been for everyone." Her production company, which was founded during that period and is now run by her daughter Galila, a script-writer and part-time actress who only works in AUC productions, may have been an attempt to provide a remedy. "I feel that it's changing again, that the cinema might start taking off once more and that I might go back to it in the near future. This year I'm not going to do television but cinema. My daughter is writing the script. Of course," Ahmed says coyly, "it all depends on the times." And Ahmed's long-awaited return, surprisingly, has not been due to the cinema, but to television. After a successful series in Ramadan 1996, Didd Al-Tayyar (Against the Current), in which she played a middle-aged wife who grows more and more estranged from her husband as she discovers his immorality and corruption, in Ramadan 1998-'99 she astonished everyone as Wafiya, the originally Upper Egyptian "woman from the time of love" who enters the disorderly and aimless lives of her nephews and nieces, a group of adolescents who have had no one to look after them and have lost control of their lives.
"The idea itself made me think, children will dislike me, because I'll be giving advice, people will think I'm moralising." The phone interrupts our conversation: an official is asking Ahmed to participate in one of the numerous seminars that have been held since A Woman from the Time of Love. She cannot give him an answer just yet, and when he asks whether he can phone that evening, she says no. Ahmed does not enjoy receiving phone calls in general, but when they occur at night, she is particularly disturbed. "It was through the phone that I found out about my sister's death," she explains, "and it was late at night. But to get back to what I was saying. The point is that advice, unless it is provided in a smooth way, in a simple way, is bound to upset people, both young and old. Age makes no difference. So I was a little afraid. But when I started working, thinking about the character and which angle to approach it from, I said to myself, 'You should say everything with a smile, you shouldn't say anything in the manner of a schoolteacher,' because the people I was coming to, especially the children and the youngsters, were people I didn't know very well. I even had a line where I said that the last time I saw this boy, the eldest, [the young actor] Mohamed Riyad, was 12 years ago, so he would have been what -- very young." But the fact that Wafiya was, in effect, an incarnation of Ahmed herself, and consequently a superb vehicle through which the actress could exercise her power over the hearts and minds of a much wider range of people, made the challenge worthwhile. "Wafiya too is Upper Egyptian, and she has many of my moral and psychological traits. As I read [the script-writer] Osama Anwar Okasha's words, I had the feeling that I might have said them before. On some occasions I actually asked him, 'How do you know me so well?', especially as we hadn't cooperated before. But it was true, almost unbelievable, the extent to which the character resembled me."
Poised on the threshold of a further breakthrough in her career, Ahmed is more than content. Her daughter is her best friend and most intimate confidante, and her quiet, comfortable life in Zamalek is conditioned by a strict routine. An early riser, she is never late for an appointment, and enjoys the respect and admiration of everyone she knows.
But how has her recent success affected her? And what about the time of love during which she made her name? Is she often nostalgic? "Of course I am nostalgic for that time. But the recent experience has made me very content. The astonishing thing was that, after the series was broadcast (and we were shooting the whole time, till the last day, in Ramadan, so I hadn't actually seen the episodes), every time I walked in the streets, young people would follow me with their cars. They would stop me and shout, 'You're great, you're awesome...' And then I found little children talking to me. Wherever I went, little people would come running, calling me 'Tante Wafiya' and expecting me to kiss them. This was a surprise, that young people and children had been watching the series. And it really made me happy: the fact that, although I was giving them lessons in morals and principles and all the rest of it, they had accepted me. It was a very comforting experience. People are expecting a sequel," she says, "but I don't think so. I feel that if something is right, it should remain complete in itself. And, however nostalgic I may be, the time of love isn't over. Even though Osama's choice of title is beautiful," Ahmed smiles again, "I feel that every time I live is a time of love."
photo: Mohamed Mossad