Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
26 April - 2 May 2001
Issue No.531
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Amal Tulaymat
photo: Randa Shaath

Amal Tulaymat:

In the stars

With parents this famous, how does one carve out a space of one's own? Well, Mimi did it her way

Profile by Safynaz Kazem

Born under the sign of Libra, Amal Tulaymat is a devout woman who performs her daily prayers punctually. Switching off the TV at 8.30pm, she is a very early bird, waking at 4.30am. Ringing the door bell of her Giza flat near University Bridge on 13 November, I recalled that we had laughed over the phone when she gave me an appointment on that date, adding that she lived on the 13th floor, in flat 13. When I told her that my address when I lived in New York was 13 West 13th Street, she laughed but was quick to note that she is not a superstitious person. Libras are level-headed people in general and usually generous with others, I said to myself, but are by no means easy to get along with. Suddenly, they can switch to the opposite extreme and become inaccessible. Perhaps it is safer, then, I reminded myself, to approach her from downwind, as hunters of gazelles would do.

"Which of your two names do you prefer: Mimi or Amal?" I asked. "Probably Amal," she replied. "It's the name my father chose for me; but everybody calls me Mimi."

Amal Tulaymat was born on 20 October 1924 to a father and mother who were both pioneers in their respective fields. Her father, Zaki Tulaymat, a brilliant actor and director, was a pillar of Arab theatre and founder of the Egyptian as well as the Kuwaiti institutes of dramatic art. Her mother, Rose El-Youssef, an actress, became the owner of the widely read weekly magazine named after her. Amal is also the half-sister of Ihsan Abdel-Quddous, one of the most popular Arab novelists and former owner and editor-in-chief of Rose El-Youssef magazine.

Though Mimi has never dabbled in writing or acting herself, she is well known in both worlds and a close friend of celebrities in these two fields. I met her for the first time in the house of the late writer and journalist Ahmed Bahaaeddin in Cairo in 1959. The second time I saw her was in England in 1970; she invited me along with other friends to her house in London. She had welcomed me warmly, telling me that she liked the article I had written about Faten Hamama, a close friend -- especially, she said, because the article had raised Hamama's spirits. The great actress had been saddened by the attack on her in Al-Ahram accusing her of having abandoned her country to make her home in London.

Now I am seeing Mimi for the third time, 30 years later, and I see that she has not lost her unforgettable smile, nor her seemingly quiet nature. She lives in a spacious split-level apartment, yet no house help is in sight. She has the electric kettle on, and the cups are ready for coffee or tea. The first level of her flat consists of a reception area and a balcony lined with sofas tempting visitors to relax and contemplate the Cairo skyline and the river below, enjoy the winter sun, or smell the summer breeze with the moon rising in the sky.

Paintings hang on long strings so that the nails do not pierce the walls. All the work is by Egyptian artists: Helmi El-Touni, Abul-Enein, Abdel-Wahab Mursi, El-Nawawi, and others. Some years ago, she exhibited art for a commission on sales. "But when I turned 70, it became a headache rather than a pleasant pastime. Women can be a pain in the neck; they rarely keep their appointments. I had a reputation for selling at less than market prices, because my motive was always to help young artists rather than to make money."

I looked at the signatures. Many names were unknown to me. Evidently, the very well known artists sold their work like hotcakes at exorbitant prices, but the less known ones, whose work was good, were the ones Mimi encouraged.

She went into the business when a friend and his wife saw her own paintings, and the man, a bank chairman, asked her to suggest a selection of paintings to decorate the offices, within a budget of LE3,000. "The artists insisted that I take a commission, because I was helping both them and my friends. Then I went on with the business. I was guided by two principles: first, the decision to restrict my collection to the work of less known artists, whose work was more affordable, and second, the conviction that none of my clients would buy an abstract work."

I thought the time had come to ask her more direct questions about herself, and immediately noticed some resentment in her eyes. I braced myself to resist and fight back, as I do when facing any of my Libra friends, or my daughter Nawwara. T S Eliot and William Faulkner were Libras too. I will not include Tawfiq El-Hakim, since I failed with him so badly I came to hate him for it. "Mimi Hanem," I said, "it is natural to ask you questions about yourself. You are the product of the conjugal relationship of two celebrities of 20th-century Egyptian cultural life."
Rose El-Youssef with Amal Tulaymat and Ihsan Abdel-Quddous

'I loved my mother, but nobody can be like her -- she was extremely ambitious. Her mission in life, she felt, was to do some good for her country. Everything else was secondary. In that, she followed her star. She was different, and altogether special: one of a kind'

I followed up with a quick question: "Are you as ambitious as your mother?" Amal paused. "I loved my mother, but nobody can be like her -- she was extremely ambitious. Her mission in life, she felt, was to do some good for her country. Everything else was secondary. In that, she followed her star. She was different, and altogether special: one of a kind. I came back from school one day and found an official in our house with a writ of attachment on my mother's property -- her clothes and furniture -- on account of some legal matter that had to do with the magazine or newspaper she had founded, I am not sure which. Mahmoud Abbas El-Aqqad wrote in that magazine. Kamel El-Shennawi gave me Arabic lessons, because I was at the Lycée Français and foreign schools at the time did not teach Arabic."

Her mother, Amal says, was charismatic. "Was she a Leo?" I inquired. "Far from it; she was a Capricorn." Capricorns are often stingy," I remarked. "Not really," she replied. "They love money, not to hoard, but to spend lavishly on their pleasures. Capricorns are selfish -- it is congenital." Her words were pure Libra, but she felt she had let something slip, and as a good Libra, stung by her conscience, she asked in a terrified tone: "Will you write everything I say?"

I retorted with a Leo's pride: "I am not coming to catch a few words, I am coming to draw a picture of you, for people to read about you and come to love you as I do. But, by the way, I loved your father more than your mother!" I quipped. She was a little taken aback.

"My father was a Taurus -- stubborn indeed. That is how he won the battle and the Institute of Dramatic Art saw the light."

Amal went to a kindergarten run by a lady the children called Abla Zouzou. She was a radio pioneer, a presenter of children's programmes. "I still have photos of myself as a child with Abla Zouzou, the school garden and the tortoise I played with." As she attempted to rise and fetch the photos, she apologised for not having prepared them before my arrival, explaining that she had thought I was coming to talk about her parents, not about herself. "After three years, I went to the Lycée in Bab Al-Louq. My parents separated, and I went on living with my mother on Al-Hawayati Street, better known today as Youssef Al-Guindi."

Her half-brother Ihsan (whom she refers to as "abeh," a polite way of addressing an older person in Turkish) did not live with them, but with his father's family in Abbasiya. "They were more conservative than us. My father had studied in France, so our style of life at home was different. I grew up with a nanny and driver, and realised that I was more privileged than he was."

When she finished school, she went to the American College on Queen Nazli Street for two more years. But her mother had decided that Mimi had had enough education. "It was not that I was not doing well, but I was not a hard worker. I failed in the conversion class (from French to English), and so my mother had an excuse to take me out of school, claiming that I was not made for learning. Later I got to know that the exorbitant school fees and the financial crisis my mother had just been through with her publication, which had come under fire from the Wafd, were the real causes for the abrupt end of my formal education."

In 1925, one year after Amal was born, her mother stopped acting and started work on the publication. "There are photos of her acting in David Copperfield when she was pregnant with me. She stopped acting to give birth, and to sort out the dispute that had started to rage with Youssef Wahbi. My father was not known at the time, and was just about to go on his scholarship to Paris. He had come first in a competition and won the scholarship. My mother, I believe, won an award of some kind, or the title of best actress, I do not recall." Zaki Tulaymat's family was from Alexandria, although the Tulaymats were originally from the eponymous village in Syria. His mother was Caucasian, his father Syrian. "My father and Uncle Saleh both loved acting, and joined Mohamed and Mahmoud Taymour's theatrical troupe. My father had graduated from the Faculty of Science, and was appointed to the zoo, quite absurd for someone who was made for the stage. His family broke with him, considering him to have brought shame on them for choosing such a base career. He met my mother at the time. She was pregnant with Abeh Ihsan and divorced from her husband, Mohamed Abdel-Quddous. My father stayed by her side until she gave birth, and they got married."

When Amal left school, her mother already had plans for her: "She wanted me to learn drawing and work at the magazine. I started to go there every morning; it had been moved to an old dilapidated building on Falaki Street. I wanted to do oil painting, but my mother insisted that I learn how to draw caricatures under the instruction of Zohdi. But because I intensely disliked caricature, I never made any progress."

Patience was not one of Rose El-Youssef's virtues by any means, as her children knew all along. "I cannot say there were no tender moments, but she was a very disciplined woman and expected people around her to be the same." She certainly instilled in Amal patriotism and a strong affinity for politics. She was not an ordinary woman: she had tasks and projects to accomplish, as did Tulaymat. Neither would give up any of their ambitions or life commitments for anything in the world. "Despite all the hurdles, my father succeeded in founding the institute. As for my mother, she gave up acting when she was in her prime, because she had become disillusioned with the conditions of the theatre, and realised that it was no longer the dream she had wished to fulfil. Acting was no longer a matter of talent... Youssef Wahbi was somehow involved. George Abyad and Fatma Rushdi were angry with him..." Realising that she was about to say something she would regret, Mimi suddenly cut it short.

Acting, for Rose El-Youssef, was a sublime activity, and she could not watch its desecration. She had been confirmed in the art by people of the calibre of Aziz Eid and George Abyad, who knew where to tread. Yet nobody knows anything for certain. Amal herself didn't know whether Rose was Muslim or Christian "until she told me she was Muslim and taught me to recite the Fatiha." Both parents were religious in their own ways. For them, religion was kindness towards fellow humans. After working 10 long years in Kuwait, Tulaymat had only LE3,000 in the bank, and his pension. If she was charitable, he told his daughter, she would always find someone to stand by her in her darkest moments.

Mimi passes swiftly over the hardships she encountered in her life, and the crisis that forced her to leave Egypt and live in London from 1964 until 1974. She was compelled to relinquish her rights to the magazine when the private press was sequestrated, and she had to pay the taxes of her then husband, Ahmed El-Guindi. Her serene smile camouflages the bitterness. She resumes her narration, becomes suddenly aware of possible exposure, and backs off.

At 76, her childhood still seems to dominate Mimi's life. After the caricature lessons with Zohdi, she went to the Academy of Arts to audit drawing classes. What did she do with all the art lessons she took? "Nothing! My mother went on torturing me, and I tortured her back. I told her I just wanted to get married and have children. Abeh Ihsan was in his third year of law school when he failed his exams and had to take a make-up exam. He was in love with some dancer whom my mother blamed for his bad results. So one day, my mother went to the nightclub where his love danced and dragged him out." She adds, laughing, that Abdel-Quddous used the scene in one of his novels.

"When my mother reported me to Abeh Ihsan for cycling with a boy who was a neighbour, he got cross and took me from our home in Garden City to live with him in Abbasiya. He used to escort me to school at the American College and bring me home every day, because he said I was playful. Abeh Ihsan was very conservative. He could not stand to see mother working and urged her to stay at home. She had toiled, he said, brought up her children and it was time to call it quits. When I was married to Ahmed El-Guindi, we used to invite Abeh Ihsan's wife to the cinema if he was travelling. But he was not happy about it, asserting that a woman whose husband was away should not be seen outside her home at eight in the evening. Going to the cinema at nine and returning at midnight was an outing for a woman in the company of her husband and no one else."

Why, though, had Rose reported her to Ihsan, rather than to her father? "Because she felt my father spoiled me. He invariably took my side. I was his only child, and he doted on me. When he was still living with us, I used to sleep with him in the same room, and my mother slept in a separate room. He used to stay up late reading, and mother went to bed early and woke up early. By the time he woke up at 11am, I would have been pulled out of bed stealthily by my nanny, Fatma, dressed and taken to school. My mother would already have read the morning papers, and gone off to the magazine. Each of us had his own world, but I have always been closer to his."

After her divorce from Salah Abdel-Gayed, journalist and father of Amal's eldest son Zaki, she thought of going to live with her father, but it did not come to pass. Soon after her divorce she was married to Ahmed El-Guindi, with whom she had three children: Fatma (her mother's given name), Zein and Youssef. Amal and El-Guindi were divorced after a marriage that lasted 25 years.

Where are the children now? Zaki emigrated to Canada, where he runs a restaurant. Youssef lives in the US, Fatma is here, and Zein is married to the grandson of Lord Cromer. On hearing this, I could not hide my surprise. Amal laughed and said that at the time, her husband had found it unthinkable that the granddaughter of Youssef El-Guindi, the Egyptian hero who had resisted British occupation, should marry the grandson of the British commissioner, Lord Cromer, who represented British occupation. But Alexander Baring Cromer became a Muslim and they now have two children.

Amal's favourite writers are "Abeh Ihsan and Ahmed Bahaaeddin. I feel strongly for anyone who writes, because I know the hardship involved. My mother is rewarded for her labour and sacrifice every Saturday when Rose El-Youssef is on the stalls, and my father is honoured each year at the graduation of students from the Institute for Dramatic Art, which he founded."

A quick-tempered person, Amal's threshold of tolerance is quite low. She says she had an unhappy childhood, and later, any happiness was brief. She is quite impatient and therefore tries to avoid discussions. Today, she is neither bitter nor angry at her life, but a profound sadness seems to have settled deeply in her heart. Yet she is at peace with herself, and feels quite self-sufficient.

"My happiest moments were moments of security -- when I got married to Ahmed El-Guindi and I was having my children. My other happy moments were when I was a child and lived with my father and mother under the same roof." She was 13 when her mother was imprisoned. Her nanny told her at the time that Rose El-Youssef was away on business, but Amal soon discovered the truth.

Faten Hamama is a close friend, although Amal no longer sees her as frequently as when she was living in London. "But my closest friend today is a great lady, someone of whom you may not approve entirely: Mrs Sadat."

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