|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
7 - 13 June 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
photo: Moussa Mahmoud
Show business as usualPiranhas have nothing to teach him -- he won't move in for the kill, although his tactics may surprise potential victims. He knows the singer, and the spangles, are just as important as the song
Profile by Mursi Saad El-Din
I remember the first time I met Samir Sabri, in the early 1960s: he came into the office of Youssef El-Siba'i, who was at the time secretary-general of the Afro-Asian Peoples' Solidarity Organisation (AAPSO), with his father, who was a colleague of El-Siba'i. Samir had just graduated from the English Section at the Faculty of Arts, having previously finished his studies at the famous Victoria College. That in itself was as good as a guarantee that he would find employment: students of Victoria College were renowned for their command of the English language. He then went on to study drama at Oxford, specialising in Shakespeare.
Samir was immediately appointed as a translator at the AAPSO. At first, he worked mainly on the interpretation of Arabic texts into English, but the written word was not his only tool: with a little training, he soon became one of our best simultaneous translators.
"That job gave me a unique chance to visit some exotic countries in both Asia and Africa. I shall always remember looking at the Taj Mahal in India bathed in moonlight, or gazing up at the snows of the Kilimanjaro from my hotel in Moshi, Tanzania," he reminisces.
Samir was soon ripe for a drastic change, however. One day his father came to me and whispered, as if imparting a state secret, that Samir had embarked on an artistic career. This transition marked his debut in the world of film and theatre. We lost an excellent translator, but our loss was show business's gain.
By the swimming pool at the Nile Hilton, Samir and I began reminiscing. Through Abdel-Halim Hafez, he was introduced to Lubna Abdel-Aziz, who at the time was responsible for the children's programme on the local European Service. I remember those days, since I also took part in Auntie Lulu's programmes. The participants were a wonderful group of fluent English speakers, including Alec Megally, who later became the head of the translation department at the World Bank.
Samir's artistic career began with his radio programme "The International Club," which was later transferred to television, enjoying a decade of success. The programme's popularity, and Samir's already evident charisma, prompted a rush of film offers. He started alongside Abdel-Halim Hafez in My Father is Up The Tree, then reached cruise control with a lead role in the musical Bamba Kashar, named after the foremost songstress of the early 20th century.
Samir has played the lead in over 85 films. Not content to appear in films produced by others, Samir took the next step and decided to start up his own production company. He has produced some 16 films, including Ahlan Ya Kabtin (Captain Ahoy, which came out in 1980, featuring a veritable pantheon of the actors who had attained stardom during the preceding decade: Samir, of course, but also Nelly, Samir Ghanem, Sanaa Gamil, Abdel-Moneim Madbouli and Emad Hamdi). Other productions included Gahim Taht Al-Ma' (Hell Underwater) and Dumou' Sahibat Al-Galala (Her Majesty's Tears -- referring not to a monarch but to the press) as well as many others, with stars like Adel Adham, Nagwa Fouad, Nadia Lutfi, Youssra, Farid Shawqi and Laila Oloui.
How did he feel playing opposite such well-established stars? "At first, I was a little scared. I was not sure how I would fare with them. But then once you get into the spirit of the story, you forget all about your fears."
He had discovered his passion for acting during his school years at Victoria College. "As you know," he explains, "the English system of education puts an emphasis on school drama. Naturally, Shakespeare's plays were selected for performance. I played Hamlet. I can still remember myself, clad in black with a wooden sword trailing behind, strutting across the stage." He must have played the part well, because he received a standing ovation from his schoolmates; while this could be put down to boyish enthusiasm, the grown ups -- parents, teachers and education officials -- joined in the roar of appreciation.
NEW DIMENSIONS: clockwise from top left, Those Were the Days; Hell Underwater; Hell Underground; talk shows take shape; an episode of This Evening
The performance gave him his first inkling that he had a talent for acting and, more importantly, the ability to play dozens of different parts: an aristocrat, a rogue, a peasant, an effendi... Samir is at ease in tragedy, comedy and melodrama.
Acting, however, is not where Samir has made his most indelible mark. Today, he is best known as a consummate entertainer, whose shows are extravaganzas of dance, song, clever interviews and subtle humour. His TV programmes include Hadha Al-Masa' (This Evening) and Kan Zaman (Those Were the Days), which received first prize at the Cairo International Television Festival. These two programmes epitomise Samir's gift for bringing out the best in his guests, and his ability (worthy of a conductor) to create organisational harmony in the midst of potential chaos.
His interview with Mahmoud Abdel-Karim, the Egyptian world professional squash champion, is a textbook case of interview technique. He never pries, but his questions revealed details of the man's life and sporting career as well as a panorama of life in Egypt in the late 1940s and early '50s. His is not the aggressive approach so popular on TV today; Samir is gentle and understanding, coaxing answers out of difficult subjects and never antagonising his guests.
Besides talk shows and interviews, Samir is best known as an entertainer with his own troupe of musicians and dancers. He is even credited with introducing the idea of floor shows -- replete with various dance routines, costume changes, singing, and special effects -- to weddings where once a single dancer performed. He keeps the singing role to himself, presenting cover versions of well-loved songs by famous singers as well as his own compositions. Samir and his troupe are sure to steal the show, which must be why they are so sought after by festival organisers and wedding planners.
It would be almost impossible to count, let alone list exhaustively, the prizes he has won: he has received awards from Queen Nour of Jordan, the Egyptian Catholic Film Centre, the Egyptian Society for Cinema Writers and Critics, as well as several from the charitable societies for which he performs free of charge. Adorning the walls of his personal hall of fame are also certificates of merit, from the mayors of New York and Los Angeles.
Innovation is one of Samir's strongest points: soon bored, ever active, he has a knack for always coming up with something new. "This Evening" is filmed at one or another of Cairo's five-star hotels, which makes for a natural atmosphere and takes it out of the film studio's sometimes stifling framework. Watching the show, one never feels that it is carefully planned. The context gives it a spontaneity lacking in many TV productions.
He admits, however, that a degree of orchestration does go into the making of the show. He always invites at least one leading personality to appear, whether his guest is a physician, a politician or a thespian.
The show has therefore served indirectly as a talent scout, turning up unknown or rising artists who are given a rare opportunity to perform in public. Often, too, entirely unexpected gifts are revealed: I remember attending the filming of one of his shows and watching a young Japanese woman perform an Oriental dance; her technique, to my amazement, would have put many professionals to shame. I later learned that she worked at an upmarket night club.
Far from being a showman secure that his talent will always save the day, Samir does his homework thoroughly. His questions reflect his extensive knowledge of his guests' background, and he will invariably claw in-depth information out of the interview. His questions, however, are never rehearsed, but take their cue from the guest's mood and willingness to talk, which makes the answers quite natural. I know this because I was one of his victims on a programme where he confronted me with questions I had never anticipated.
Samir's enthusiasm for innovation is also reflected in his choice of subject matter for his films when he is wearing his producer's cap. His most recent endeavour, Gahim Taht Al-Ard (Hell Underground) deals with an issue that affects Egypt tragically, but is not necessarily a predictable theme for a feature film: land mines. The film is dedicated to the late Princess Diana, whose activism on behalf of land mine victims was well known.
The problem is a serious one in Egypt. During the second World War, the Western Desert was a theatre for large-scale confrontations, and was occupied by British, German and Italian forces. Each of them, on retreating, planted mines in their wake. On many occasions, Egypt has brought up the issue of removal (which requires equipment and expertise, and for which the former belligerents are responsible) at the United Nations and with the countries concerned, but so far nothing has happened. The mines are still there, a deadly hazard to the inhabitants and a major obstacle to desert tourism.
The film has received good write-ups, with critics praising not only the serious subject but also the standard of acting. Afaf Yehia wrote in Al-Akhbar: "With his role as a commando, Samir Sabri has added yet a new dimension to his excellent performance record."
Samir plays the part of Ghazi, a young commando who belongs to a Bedouin tribe, fighting a conspiracy between British officers and an arms dealer intent on acquiring the weapons left behind by the parties to the conflict.
Ghazi manages to strike up a friendship with the arms dealer and becomes his second in command. But the arms he receives (originally destined for shipment to Israel) he passes over to Palestinian commandos, who use them against the British.
Another critic, Fathi El-Ashri of Al-Ahram, opined: "Samir Sabri played his part with emotion and sensitivity, thus convincing the audience without resorting to his other talents."
Multitalented he may be, but Samir Sabri's image will always be that of a star: an entertainer, master of ceremonies, interviewer and great innovator.
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