|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
6 - 12 September 2001
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A stage is all the world
Profile by Samir Sobhi
Some people are born to act. Aida Abdel-Aziz is one of them. Earthy matriarch or haughty aristocrat: she is equally credible in these and a dozen other roles. For Arab theatregoers, her explosive stage presence is associated inextricably with classical drama, but she is equally ubiquitous on television and in film.
She may appear quiet and composed, but it is better not to put rumours of a fiery temperament to the test: she can turn quite suddenly into a seething volcano and drown the object of her ire with the verbal equivalent of molten lava. Her friends describe her as warm and generous, her audiences respect her profoundly, and her fellow thespians refer to her as Ustaza Aida in informal homage to her mastery of her art.
One of Egypt's greatest stage actresses, Aida Abdel-Aziz was afflicted at an early age with an inconvenient malady: stage fright. Her school was preparing an end-of-year production, and the teacher asked who would like to play the role of Shagarat Al-Dorr, the Arab world's most famous female ruler. Abdel-Aziz's hand shot up, and she was chosen for the part. But at the first rehearsal, she was struck dumb: "The words stuck in my throat; my vocal chords froze. I was gripped by fear. Of course the teacher chose someone else for the role." Still, her resolve to become an actress did not falter.
To enter the Institute of Dramatic Arts, she had to audition before the famous director George Abyad. "I was asked to recite a monologue, but I said that I could not do it yet, because I was at the Institute to learn acting." This minor hitch was soon overcome, and Abdel-Aziz was asked to sing instead -- "not to assess my singing ability, but so that Abyad could hear my voice and form an idea of my delivery." She passed the exam, and graduated top of her class. Among her colleagues at the institute were Ezzat El-Alayli, Ragaa Hussein and Abdel-Rahman Abu Zahra.
Another classmate was Ahmed Abdel-Halim, later to become a well-known theatre director, who was a senior when Abdel-Aziz was still a first-year student. One of her professors was to direct a script Abdel-Halim was preparing, and told her to go and ask him for a role. "I had never met him before, but had heard he was about to graduate." Four months later, they were married.
As straightforward as ever, Abdel-Aziz raises her eyebrows and remarks: "I did not marry him with the idea of giving my career as an actress a boost, unlike many couples in the business who marry to cement their artistic collaboration. Our idea of marriage was to raise a family together and settle down to normal life. We went to London, where our children were born, and I dedicated all my time to my family."
Abdel-Aziz studied to become an art teacher, and indeed taught for a time, but gave it up to pursue a career in drama. Her academic endeavours continued, however, and, as the framed certificate on the living room wall indicates, she sought formal instruction in her field of predilection as well, graduating from the Higher Institute for the Dramatic Arts. The certificate on the wall, however, does not say enough about the brilliant student who was top of her class, and received an award from President Abdel-Nasser, not to mention a prize for her distinguished television performance, presented at the Egyptian Television Silver Jubilee celebrations.
Her outstanding academic record and her widely recognised talent notwithstanding, she continued to study the dramatic arts. In Britain with her husband, she devoted five years to acquiring skill in voice and movement techniques for the stage.
In her spacious Madinet Nasr apartment, a large collection of videotapes reveals far more than words will. It includes favourite Arabic and foreign films; her own works and those of her husband occupy a large portion of the stacks, but comedies like Madraset Al- Mushaghibin (The School for Troublemakers) and classics like Raya wa Sikina (the tale of the infamous Alexandria murderesses) as well as the staples of any self- respecting film fan's library -- the works of Naguib El- Rihani, Youssef Wahbi and Faten Hamama, to name but a few -- feature prominently as well. Spanish music and dance, to judge by the space allotted them, also receive her stamp of approval.
"I admire foreign films because they are more realistic," Abdel-Aziz says in down-to-earth tones that do not betray the bewildering character changes of which she is capable for the requirements of a role. "The actors are usually very proficient, and the events are shown just as they would happen in real life. I particularly like mystery and suspense when I am in a rage, or about to lose my temper."
Still, her collection remains incomplete: she is searching for Zeinab, the film based on Mohamed Hussein Heikal's novel -- the first novel, in the modern sense of the word, written in Arabic. She would also like to acquire Al-Warda Al-Bayda (The White Rose), starring Mohamed Abdel-Wahab and Raqia Ibrahim. She has favourite television programmes, too, which she usually records, to consult later, after she has enjoyed them a first time: one is Ghara'ib Al-Tabi'a (The Wonders of Nature), another Mustafa Mahmoud's series Al-Ilm wal- Iman, on science and faith.
The spontaneity of her performances could lead her audience to suppose that she is particularly gifted in the art of improvisation -- a time- honoured ploy of Egypt's best known stage actors, and one guaranteed to secure them a lion's share of adulation; but Aida Abdel-Aziz never departs from the script. She learned her lesson early on. It was one of her first roles, a play called A King in Search of Employment, in a scene with Hamdi Gheith. "I was overwhelmed with admiration for Gheith, who departed from the script and cracked well-timed jokes, which were met with laughter and applause from the audience. I thought I would seize the opportunity and do the same thing. But no sooner had I finished my joke, which was glaringly out of place, than I found the curtain falling -- on Gheith's orders. My blunder was unforgivable. He taught me a good lesson, which I shall never forget."
Abdel-Aziz is an impressive personality: a highly cultured artist with carefully considered opinions on many of the controversial issues affecting art in Egypt. As her former colleagues engage in public repentance and don the veil in droves, she argues that "dressing modestly is the essence of veiling; surely women are not meant to hide behind a black curtain."
Among the roles any actor is obliged to play at one point or another are characters that are less than likable. It is surely to Abdel-Aziz's credit that she has been so convincing even in parts that depressed her. One such role was the character of Sitt Hoda in a play by Ahmed Shawqi (dubbed the prince of poets), about a wealthy woman of the early 20th century whose taste in husbands was as lavish as her social habits. The list of her royal acquaintances was almost as long as that of her gold-digging spouses: a minor writer, a timorous civil servant, an alcoholic lawyer, a penniless contractor, an elegant layabout, a sheikh who locked her in the house, and an officer who attempted to gamble her fortune away... Sitt Hoda died just as she was about to tie the knot for the tenth time.
She has often played strong, ruthless women, although these do not reflect her nature in the least. In Du'aa Al-Mazloumin (Prayer of the Oppressed), directed by Hassan El-Imam, she belonged to a gang of thieves specialised in drug- dealing and kidnapping children. The unforgettable opening scene shows the members of the gang in the Gamaliya police station after their arrest.
Abdel-Aziz has also been typecast time and again as the mother figure: "I can't do it any more," she cries in mock despair. "A mother, to my mind, is a strong woman; the weak, submissive mother -- which is a more common character in our artistic tradition -- is not me at all. I've also had quite enough of typical peasant women."
Her presence on stage and film is so powerful that she often steals the show. People often stop her on the street to impart the often impassioned views her work arouses. These reactions -- often to roles long past -- are at least partly due to her stringency in selecting only parts her audience will appreciate, "because once the work is over, all I remember is how successful it was." She could seem guilty of arrogance: she has said that "audiences never flatter actors, but only give them their due;" yet a moment's reflection reveals what she really means -- the audience never lies. Abdel-Aziz, as anyone who knows her will confirm, detests hypocrisy.
Film, she believes, gives little to actors trained for the stage; rather, it is theatre that has much to teach cinema. Still, she has worked with the best directors of her time, including Salah Abu Seif, Mohamed Khan and Tawfiq Saleh. Perhaps her ardent preference for theatre is fuelled by its current status as something of an artistic underdog: why, she demands, are organisational capacities and financing set aside for lavish film festivals, while theatre is neglected, if not ignored? Furthermore, she argues, actors abroad command a larger share of respect as they accumulate expertise with passing years, while in Egypt growing older "means falling into oblivion."
She still nurtures many hopes and aspirations for the theatre, however, and dreams of one day opening a playhouse herself. Then she will be able to apply the principles she has polished through long experience. "A dramatic work," she asserts, "is far more than the event and the script. The actors' performance is crucial, and requires total immersion in their roles. Stage actors are the greatest assets in any dramatic work, and can be the principal causes of its success; yet a play is always a team endeavour." Her passionate views blur the boundaries between professional and private matters, for, according to Abdel-Aziz, "actors must consider the theatre as home. Each member of the team must feel that his views carry weight and are worthy of consideration and respect."
Abdel-Aziz played the role of the downtrodden, resentful school secretary in Damir Abla Hekmat (Miss Hekmat's Conscience) -- a role for which Faten Hamama herself, who was playing the eponymous headmistress, picked her. In a showdown between the two women, the secretary accuses the headmistress of stealing the position she deserved. Pouring out her repressed envy, the secretary compares the "rich and powerful" headmistress to her own poverty and wretchedness. Abdel-Aziz's memory of the role takes over, and her face twists in remembered rage as she relates the scene: "When the headmistress attempted to interject, I silenced her with: 'Who do you think you are? You're so full of yourself you could burst! Wake up! You're no better than the rest of us. You are just as worthy of the stones you have been hurling!"
Still trembling with anger, she sinks slowly back into her seat and heaves a slow sigh. The tension in the room is palpable. Then Aida Abdel- Aziz looks up, and smiles.
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