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22 - 28 February 2001
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Working on success
Stardom never comes easy. Its path is long and arduous. But when it comes, it strikes like thunder
Profile by Mursi Saad El-Din
It took Hisham Abdel-Hamid nine films and three plays to realise his dream of becoming a full-fledged star. In many ways he was a "star manqué;" stardom always eluded him just when he thought it was finally within his reach.
Now Abdel-Hamid is up there with the big names, but paradoxically it was not a film or play that hoisted him to the top. Rather, it was a television series -- the by now infamous Awan Al-ward (A Time for Flowers) -- that kept viewers glued to their TV sets every night throughout the month of Ramadan. People were in a frenzy of expectation between one episode and the next; appointments and social commitments were cast aside to accommodate viewing times. People raced home and threw themselves down, breathless, in front of their sets, waiting impatiently for the night's episode to begin.
Since the soap opera ended, Abdel-Hamid, Youssra and the rest of the cast have been caught up in a whirlwind of interviews, discussions, seminars, visits to sports clubs and Rotary Club meetings. It seems it will never end.
While the spotlight has been on all those involved -- actors, writer and director -- it is Abdel-Hamid who has the lion's share of the glamour. The reason, to my mind, is that he plays the role of a police officer who does not conform to stereotype. Colonel Mahmoud Bakhit is an officer with a kind heart and sympathy for the criminals he deals with. In most films, policemen are serious; they are rarely, if ever, seen to smile, and they speak loudly in gruff, gravelly voices. Not so Mahmoud Bakhit.
I do not know whether it was the writer, Wahid Hamed, who was responsible for imbuing Bakhit's character with this amiable personality, or whether it was Abdel-Hamid's interpretation that made the policeman such a friendly and sympathetic man. Abdel-Hamid says it was a combination of both. The writer laid out a general framework for the character, while Abdel-Hamid gave it the details that made Bakhit human, fleshing him out and giving him bodily substance.
Is there any similarity between Bakhit and Abdel-Hamid? "Oh, you mean that both of us are bons vivants. Both had affairs before marriage and both are heavy smokers. In fact, there is another similarity: we both married rather late. An officer does not reach Bakhit's rank before the age of 35 or 36, and I was 36 when I married."
Abdel-Hamid became passionate about acting at a very early age. "When I was six, I used to love going to the cinema. I used to call it 'the dark room.' I had a liberal, open-minded father and he used to take me to the cinema. I still remember some of the actors I used to see in films. Of course they were all Americans, and this is why I have always associated films with America."
Abdel-Hamid in "Without Words"; in an action solo; a romantic moment with Youssra in Awan Al-Ward; as King Farouk at the National Theatre; and with Laila Olwi in his debut, The Passion of Asps
Apart from these early experiences, however, Abdel-Hamid had no role models in whose footsteps to follow when choosing acting as a career. "My grandfather was interested in acting, but he studied at the Faculty of Fine Arts. I remember him telling me that during his student days, he and Abdel-Moneim Madbouli had produced a play together at the Faculty."
Like many Egyptian actors, Abdel-Hamid graduated from the department of acting and directing at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts. He finished university in 1984 and began his professional career as a director, staging The Talking Clock by Tom Stoppard, Genet's The Maids, The Lesson by Eugene Ionesco, and Men Have Heads, by the Egyptian playwright Mahmoud Diab.
His first major role was in The Passion of Asps (1988), opposite Laila Olwi. Film critic Tareq El-Shennawi remembers noticing him in the film. "When Hossameddin Mustafa [one of Egypt's leading film directors] gave Hisham that role, I thought: here is a young actor who is handsome, talented, cultivated, but somehow lacking in presence. Generally, his roles did not bring him closer to the audience. It's as if he was wrapped up in paper."
Then, El-Shennawi says, "the role of Mahmoud Bakhit came along. Not only did it tear off the wrapping paper, it made him a star -- and, paradoxically, brought him very close to the audience. He's a star, but an approachable one. They feel that they can touch him, and so the aura of aloofness that stood as a barrier between him and the audience is no longer there. It has dissolved."
Although he has talked endlessly about the main issue in the plot of Awan Al-ward -- the relation between Copts and Muslims in Egypt -- Abdel-Hamid still has much to say. "It was high time to deal with this issue without timidity. Some films and TV series have dealt with it in a marginal or incidental way, by incorporating a Christian character, for instance; but there was never an open and frank treatment of the issue. We were like ostriches hiding our heads in the sand."
The series, of course, aroused a storm of press commentary. So great was the public controversy that, in one issue alone, the weekly magazine Rose El-Youssef published eight articles devoted to Awan Al-ward. One was about the two Christian lawyers and the priest who filed a lawsuit against the show. The article compared the trio with conservative Muslims who had also been outraged by the message.
Interviews with leading figures in the Coptic community showed sharp differences in opinion: Dr Yunan Labib Rizk, for instance, described the series as "too idealistic," adding: "People are not as tolerant as that when it comes to religious issues."
Father Yohanna Qolta was more outspoken, describing Awan Al-ward as "a brave step," while Mona Makram Ebeid concluded that it had "dealt with some taboos we thought nobody would dare to broach."
The hue and cry may seem a little puzzling to viewers who did not really notice the religious theme, so immersed were they in the story of the kidnapping. When Amal (played by Youssra) and Bakhit discover that their baby has been stolen, the plot shifted dramatically and the question of national unity was shelved. Suddenly, social commentary gave way to a thriller, and a convincing one at that.
As far as Abdel-Hamid was concerned, "my role really started with the kidnapping. For me that was the beginning of what you could call stardom. The issue of the national, unity was dealt with more by our parents' characters, not by Amal and Bakhit. In fact, I would even go further, and say that the question of Christian-Muslim marriage was never the issue. That's the funny thing. Amal's father was Muslim, so she was a Muslim. What was the fuss about?" The question may appear disingenuous, but the point -- given the interest of the majority of viewers -- is well taken.
Interestingly, Wahid Hamed is Muslim while director Samir Seif is Christian, so the series itself could be presented as proof that national unity is alive and well. Both, ultimately, are satisfied with the results and both are proud of the show's success, as well as the controversy it aroused. Abdel-Hamid even believes that the fact that it offended both Muslims and Copts is another sign of national unity.
The controversy, however, was so intense that, apart from the dozens of articles it generated, Pope Shenouda invited the cast to a meeting attended by Prime Minister Atef Ebeid. "There was an open discussion," says Abdel-Hamid, "and the Pope showed tolerance and understanding, which greatly helped to assuage the problem. If an issue like this is not discussed, if the pros and cons are not aired, then this is a sign of apathy and indifference. Let the people think, argue and come to an understanding. They should know what is going on."
There is no doubt, at any rate, that the daring and realistic way in which the series dealt with this eminently sensitive issue gave vent to feelings that have long been inside people's hearts.
As for Abdel-Hamid himself, he has played both leading and secondary roles in a number of films, among them Poison Love and A Criminal with Honours. The latter film, an action thriller featuring Raghda, was aired on television just a few days before the celebration of Police Day. Abdel-Hamid plays the role of a criminal who reforms and saves the lives of dozens of schoolchildren whose bus was about to be blown up by Islamists.
Police Day is marked every year to commemorate the heroic resistance of the Ismailia Police against the British forces. As part of the celebrations, Channel 3 invited Abdel-Hamid to appear on the TV programme Open Day, thus recognising his role as the ideal police officer in Awan Al-ward. The questions posed by viewers reflected the star status he has achieved. Most of the questions came from women, which quite naturally led us to the topic of his spouse -- or, more specifically, whether or not she is jealous of his female fans.
Abdel-Hamid's wife, Nadia Soliman, has her own Internet business. They have been married for two years, after a long engagement. She is one of his biggest fans. Soliman, as it turns out, is not at all jealous of the young women who pursue him now. "I would feel upset," she laughs, "if Hisham were to go unnoticed. I am happy that my husband is so successful. I feel proud, really proud, when I go out with Hisham and I see young girls rushing up to him and asking for his autograph. It's thrilling; it makes me feel that I'm married to a star."
Soliman never misses any of his films or plays. She was especially proud of him in the role of King Farouk at the National Theatre. "He looks like Farouk in his young days, when he was handsome and smart," she says. Just the right thing to say about one's husband!
There is another side of Abdel-Hamid that fewer people know about, however: he is a great mime artist. In fact, his work first came to my attention through a video of a show he had put on at the Egyptian Academy in Rome. A mime performance titled (appropriately enough) "Without Words," it was a call to peace, a solo performance in which Abdel-Hamid portrayed the artist's attitude to war. Politics aside, he proved himself to be a master of the art -- supple in body and expressive in face beyond the possibilities of spoken language.
"I have always been fascinated by Marcel Marceau," Abdel-Hamid explains, "and I remember his definition of mime as being the art of expressing feelings by attitudes and not a means of expressing words through gestures. That is exactly what I tried to do in that show. I did not try to express words, but attitudes."
"Without Words" has been described as "a story that cuts across language barriers and cultural differences." It was the element of humour, however, that revealed the true extent of Abdel-Hamid's proficiency in his art.
So now Hisham Abdel-Hamid is a star. What is his ambition for the future? "Of course, I have to be careful in the selection of roles. There are many great writers, directors and many other people working together. One thing, however, is important: we cannot settle for anything mediocre."
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