22 - 28 June 2000
Issue No. 487
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Rendezvous at the snooker clubCinema's favourite bad boy is long grown up. Who would have thought genteel retirement would suit him so well?
Profile by Khaireya Khairy
The 1950s in Egypt were a decade of change on all fronts. Old faces were vacating the public sphere, offering ample opportunity for rising stars. All sorts of new alliances were being concluded between the young and the not-so-old. In 1953 -- the same year the republic was declared in Egypt, ending some 50 years of monarchy -- Youssef Chahine, himself a rising star at the time, approached two young men sitting at Groppi's and offered one of them the lead role in his new film opposite the most celebrated female star of the previous decade, Faten Hamama. The film, Sira' fil-Wadi (Conflict in the Valley), which appeared in1954, not only catapulted Omar Sharif to stardom but was also the beginning of a very dramatic love story between him and Hamama.
One year later, it was the turn of Omar Sharif's companion at Groppi's, except that the venue this time was the Snooker Club on 26 July Street. Ramzi Mahmoud Bayoumi (later Ahmed Ramzi) was playing snooker when Helmi Halim, an aspiring director searching for new faces for his directorial debut, approached the table where he was getting ready to play, his mind set on the five pound note wager on the table. Halim asked "Would you like to act in the cinema?" "Yes, yes," Ramzi answered quickly to get rid of the intruder and concentrate on the game. One month later, a car arrived at Ramzi's doorstep to drive him into the celluloid world that had become his fate.
Halim's directorial debut, Ayamna Al-Helwa (The Good Old Days), a romance about three poor university students, all in love with their pretty neighbour (herself ill with tuberculosis), was to become a cinematic landmark as it boasted one of the most memorable casts ever in the history of Egyptian cinema. Beside old hands like Zeinat Sidqi and Faten Hamama, Ayamna Al-Helwa featured Omar Sharif, Ahmed Ramzi and Abdel-Halim Hafez as the three students in love with Hamama. While this was Omar Sharif's second film, it was the first for both Ramzi and Hafez.
The crooked smile, the devil-may-care mop of hair: Ramzi may be best remembered as a rake, but he did evil with more than a touch of class
Ayamna Al-Helwa also marked the beginning of lifelong friendship between the two unknowns. The same year Ayamna Al-Helwa appeared, 1955, Ramzi cooperated with Hafez on another film, Ayam wa Layali, directed by Henri Barakat; the following year, they worked on another two films together -- Banat Al-Youm (Today's Girls), also directed by Barakat, and Al-Wisada Al-Khalia (The Empty Pillow), directed by Salah Abu Seif. Both films came out in 1957. From then on, Ramzi's reputation as the James Dean of Egyptian cinema -- some would argue he was a cross between James Dean and Marlon Brando -- was firmly established.
Ramzi is generally associated with rough and tough parts, always with a naughty edge. Was he not typecast? "This may be a reputation," he says today. "I often played tough guys, but I do not know that I was ever typecast." Besides, "I starred in around 300 films," which certainly offered him a variety of parts.
I am visiting Ramzi in his Zamalek flat. Its simplicity and elegance reflect his refined taste. Despite the daylight, the shutters are pulled and the curtains are drawn. The lights are on, but it is a far cry from the sun shining outside. With discretion, I ask why is it so. "I have a phobia of pollution," Ramzi promptly replied. Obviously that's why the carpets were rolled out of sight and the parquet floor glistened without a trace of dust.
When Al-Ahram Weekly photographer Randa Shaath joins us, she cries out: "What, no light? I must have natural light." Ramzi obliges, and the room is soon bathed in the sun's vivid glow. "There was a time," he recalls, "when photographers used whatever light was available." He singles out the late photographer Ahmed Khorshid, whom he considers the master of his trade. With two bulbs on hand, Khorshid used the newly produced fast film Tri Kodak to shoot a scene. "Today," adds Ramzi, "photographers mostly use floodlights to be on the safe side."
Before being photographed, Ramzi cautions: "Don't ask me to pose, I hate posing." It seems an odd revelation for an actor to make, but then he is not a cliché. After almost 30 years of semi-retirement, he is to be billed with Omar Sharif in a film that will be released shortly, and will act opposite Faten Hamama in a TV series now in production. In the former, he is the loyal friend of a business tycoon played by Omar Sharif, who sets himself the task of protecting his friend from a conniving wife and former secretary (Youssra), who is trying to have Sharif committed. In the latter, he is Hamama's long absent husband who reappears and tries to disrupt her life with her second husband.
Ramzi's decision to quit cinema came in 1966, after the industry was nationalised. "It went to the dogs," he says, a bitter memory playing in his eyes. "Nowhere in the world has the cinema industry survived nationalisation." He refers to Germany's UFA, once superior to Hollywood, as proof that "even Hitler failed. Most of the talent left. For one, Ernst Lubitsch, who directed The Blue Angel with Marlene Dietrich, left the country."
Though the political climate that began to settle on the country in the mid-1960s may have been one of the reasons for the departure of a number of Egyptian cinema celebrities, Hamama included, it must be also said that by 1966, when Ramzi acted his last young tough, he was already a bit old for the role. Thereafter, he was on the lookout for more appropriate roles. The search did not yield much; in the past 30 years, Ramzi has appeared in a dozen films, as compared to the 250 he acted in between 1954 and 1966, and for which he is remembered until today. Of those post-1960s films, forgotten by now, two stand out: Tharthara Fawq Al-Nil (Adrift on the Nile, 1971) and Al-Hobb Taht Al-Matar (Love in the Rain, 1975), both adaptations of Naguib Mahfouz's novels directed by Hussein Kamal.
"I am 70 now," Ramzi says. He does not look it; only his trademark mop of black hair is gone. The strands that remain, however, are not even grey.
Then again, young is as young does. Ramzi, again, takes great pleasure in confounding expectations. The last time he interrupted his long retirement, he chose to play the part of a kung fu master. Seven years ago, he came up with a basic plot, in which a kung fu trainer eliminates the enemies who killed his family. To master the game, Ramzi says, he was coached by Egypt's kung fu champion, Youssef Mansour, eight hours a day for two months. Mansour also directed the film, which was not a great success.
Ramzi is the product of two cultures: Egyptian on his father's side and Scottish on his mother's. His father, a noted orthopedist and university professor, died when Ramzi was nine. Ramzi's brother, Dr Hassan Bayoumi, followed in their father's footsteps and has his practice in London. Ramzi, a born renegade, was thrown out of a girls' kindergarten and changed state schools three times before the Minster of Finance -- whose English wife was a friend of Mrs Bayoumi -- intervened to have him settled at the prestigious boarding school Victoria College in Alexandria. This was followed by three years of medical school and three more at the faculty of commerce.
When the movies beckoned, he dropped out willingly. Mrs Bayoumi gently acquiesced. She realised that she had failed to direct Ramzi towards an academic career, and that he was inclined to make cinema his life. Ramzi was attached to his mother and sought her approval. He invited her to the premiere of his first film. When he asked for her opinion, she gave him a tepid answer: "Not bad." But he was told she had tears in her eyes.
Ramzi suffered deeply when she passed away. The daughter of a friend of Mrs Bayoumi remembers contacting him to ask if she could come to the funeral or help in any way. He answered curtly: "I would rather mourn my mother alone."
Ramzi's Scottish lineage ended with the death of his "Aunty Mac." He was called to Scotland in 1967 to claim his share of her estate. His daughter, however, seems to have been touched by her Scottish streak: she chose to study law at Aberdeen University. He says proudly: "Naila is a corporate lawyer with one of the biggest law firms in the world."
Ramzi has two daughters and a son. Each of his daughters has given him a grandson whom he occasionally invites to a frolicsome holiday at the seaside. His wife and son live in London for health reasons. They commute often for get-togethers. But he has not been on a plane since 1972. He goes to Austria by sea and train, then takes the Orient Express to London, which he finds blissful.
His pace at 70 is naturally slower than it was in his heyday. Once upon a time -- most legends start that way, and Ramzi is a legend -- he starred in three films at one go. He says he kept his clothes and a packed meal in the boot of his car and shuttled from one location to the other. He has a passion for cars. In 1967 he fell in love with a second-hand Raleigh. The going price was LE400, and Ramzi had nothing beyond the LE400 pounds he was to receive for a film he had been engaged for. He asked to be paid in advance. The producer agreed; the Raleigh was his. "In 48 hours I ran it twice to Alexandria and back," he recalls.
Today he owns a 1967 Jaguar, which he keeps in mint condition with the help of its manual and a good mechanic. He drives it each time he goes to Nuweiba and often goes from there to Taba for a meal. He admits he is both a gourmet and a gourmand, who appreciates good food. He was always fond of cooking, and claims he makes excellent fillets. He knows the best places in Paris and London and will seek out the best restaurants wherever he goes. "I will not visit the Eiffel Tower in Paris, or the Tate in London, but I always look for the best restaurant wherever I go."
Any other hobbies? "Life is my hobby. Living day by day as best as I can and as happily as I can." Future plans? "None." For Ramzi, the past is past, and the future is whatever it will be. All that counts is the present. His style of life "is very simple." How about reading? Not since he was young and devoured Oscar Wilde, Dickens, Bernard Shaw...
Finally, he points to the room he calls his den. "Music is my obsession" -- not any music, but old music and in particular old jazz. He kindly allows me to intrude upon this sanctum. The room is softly lit, to keep the daylight and pollution out. One side of the wall is lined with racks of tapes, CDs and LPs. On another side stand hi-fi equipment, old and new. His record player is carefully covered. Old Victorian Omar Sharif, his lifelong friend since their school days in the '40s, drops in sometimes, as do others, for a drink and to enjoy the music.
His real diversion, however, remains Nuweiba -- as long as it is free from the hustle and bustle of traffic and his bête noire, pollution.
photo: Randa Shaath