27 June - 3 July 2002
Issue No. 592
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Youssef Dawoud:General Lipton roosts in the hinterland of hydraulics
"You'd be surprised!" This is Youssef Dawoud's most frequent interjection. Large and loquacious, he punctuates his discourse with a range of knowing -- (which should not be confused with knowledgeable) exclamations. These are in turn accompanied by nods, smiles, pinches of his (younger) interlocutor's cheeks and earlobes: an aging and at heart vulnerable performer's grandfatherly pleas for affection.
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"Nothing on earth compares to the delight of doing something that you really enjoy; and the difference between being an amateur and a professional actor is the difference between doing it just to do it and doing it for a living or deriving your sense of purpose from doing it"
"At the time the Faculty of Engineering wasn't difficult to get into," he says. "You'd be surprised to know that yours truly had achieved a secondary school total of 48 per cent, a figure that when speaking to friends and companions I tend to reverse for appearance's sake." He reverts to standard Arabic, to unintended comic effect, assuming a scholarly tone that fits neither his appearance nor the content of the statements at hand. "It turned out to be difficult, though. Far, far more difficult than I thought. As for the number of years it took me to finally graduate," another coy smile here, "I will keep that to myself." A practical man, Dawoud has made few claims on the world of acting and "art"; his approach is anything but existential. The full extent of his gift may remain forever a mystery: he has firmly embraced the status of a "professional comedian," a role that affords the actor few opportunities for character building or excavations of the psyche. Yet at least one of Youssef Chahine's former assistants insists that he was among the "new faces" considered for the lead in Alexandrie encore et toujours (played by Chahine himself).
While the conversation takes place, in the garden of the Floating Theatre in Giza, I am loathe to notice that Dawoud's real-life persona is more or less identical to the character that is his actorly incarnation. His trademark grin and the tendency to leave his mouth open long after the utterance is made recalls the comedian (and singer) Ismail Yassin's famously large masticatory apparatus. He has been compared to Hassan Abdeen and Hassan Fayeq, both large and bald comedians. But his voice and his complex plethora of mannerisms -- at once imperious and ridiculous -- are uniquely his own. He seems to be constantly in his own world. He wakes up late -- call him at 2pm and he will sound half asleep and barely manage to be civil -- and sets all his appointments at night, naming the venue at which he happens to be rehearsing. Dawoud is visibly upset at the suggestion that he should be photographed. It takes him half an hour to list the works in which he is currently engaged: the present Comedy Theatre production, with singer Ali El- Haggar and director Ashraf Zaki; Adel Imam's new film, Amir Al-Dhalam (Prince of Darkness, to be launched shortly); and several television serial dramas including one for children with, among others, directors Hussein Abul-Magd, Abdel-Aziz El- Sokkari...
"I went pro quite late," Dawoud agrees, "but I've been acting all my life. I was acting as a student at Alexandria University. That," he explains, "is part of the reason it took me so long to graduate. I was busy acting..." Why did he enroll in the Faculty of Engineering in the first place? "I had an uncle," he says, "who was among the greatest civil engineers in Egypt. Sobhi Wahba Abul-Dahab, he was called. And he participated in the rebuilding of the Aswan Dam, prior to the existence of the High Dam, the second time round. He also did major construction projects, notably in the north of the Delta. His projects all over the country still work perfectly while costing the government next to nothing for maintenance. He also happened to be a particularly wise man -- modest, confident and astute as they come. He was the ideal person, really, and very early on he became my role model. As soon as I learned to write, in nursery school, I would pick up a piece of chalk and write 'Engineer Youssef Dawoud' on the black board. The influence of this uncle," Dawoud adds, "was far-reaching. Older members of my family say that my character resembles his; I myself am aware of inheriting his personal characteristics, too. Khali Sobhi remains one of my favourite catch phrases..."
And acting? "Well, engineering turned out to be difficult," Dawoud repeats. "I thought it would be easy. At the time Egypt wasn't so crowded, you know. There weren't many of us in that class, as you can tell from my secondary school results. And we had this wonderful new Pharaonic-style building, designed by architect Osman Muharram Ali. But the subjects weren't as straight forward as I thought, oh God no. And in the open atmosphere of campus life, when you take into account my passion for basketball and my extracurricular acting, I had difficulties progressing from one year to the next. In the end I graduated with a second class honours degree. Like Khali Sobhi I specialised in hydraulics. And in fact, once I found a job at the Alexandria Oils and Soap Company, I became quite a clever engineer. Oh yes, I was a very clever engineer. Until 1986 I stayed an amateur actor, on the fringe of the milieu. It was always something I enjoyed. At school, when it was my turn to read I would impersonate the lion and the monkey. During family birthdays I would gather up my cousins and set up a little stage before the balcony, hanging a chair on the knob to create a throne and drawing the curtain over it. We also imitated Mama and Baba, Ammi and Khali: all our elders. And except for the person being imitated this was always the family's most popular number."
Early on Dawoud performed in Cultural Palace productions and with many local troupes. Of this period he remembers Hussein Gomaa's production of Sayed Darwish's operetta Sheherazade: "I played Qum' Al-Dawla. Yes, I sang. Singing is a whole other world of course but an actor can always perform in this capacity, which is not the same thing as being a singer. Ahmed Zaki, for example: he does that in his films. I myself have sung before now in films..." He also embarked on an abortive project with Hassan El- Geretly's Al-Warsha Theatre: "Kafka's Penal Colony, I think it was. We were looking for a theatre and we couldn't find one," he says. But it is clear that, while he appreciates Al-Warsha as a breeding ground for future stars (actress Abla Kamel being the prime example), Dawoud was busy with other plans. Going pro, he recalls, was "largely a matter of chance". He was also driven by finding himself looked down on by people no more gifted than he. "On the rare occasion when I had the chance to meet a well-known actor or actress I thought they were incredibly arrogant. You'd be surprised," he interjects again, "how arrogant they were. They spoke to me with very stiff upper lips, holding their noses as they did so, and I thought if they're so happy with themselves then so should I. My work, after all, was no worse than theirs. And the idea installed itself in the driver's seat of my head."
His gift notwithstanding, chance seems to have played a significant part in the shift. Dawoud happened to be in the cast of Zuqaq Al-Madaq, a United Artists production based on the novel by Naguib Mahfouz, when director Hassan Abdel-Salam took over from Fahmi El-Khouli. (Here, as elsewhere, Dawoud remembers only half of the relevant name. He is a remarkably forgetful man, and he has no qualms about crying out to one or more of his companions in the hopes of refreshing his memory.) The troupe had solicited the aid of local amateurs for its summer season in Alexandria, he explains. "I had a very small part," the cheerful baritone of the last few sentences sinks gradually to a mournful bass. "I was only really an extra. El-Khouli then had a dispute with the troupe and Abdel-Salam, when he came, gave me a larger, important part -- that of the British General Lipton," a part given to Dawoud less because of his relatively light skin than his peremptory bearing and imposing stature. "This was a major production," he testifies, mentioning the names of Ma'ali Zayed, Shukouku, Farouk Falawkas and Salah El-Sa'dani, as other cast members.
"After that play Samir Khafaga," according to Dawoud Egypt's leading talent scout, "told me 'Come along and work with us in Cairo.' He promised to look after me; and he kept his promise."
Dawoud undertook early retirement, went to the trouble of joining the Actors' Syndicate -- "a painful and involved production in its own right" -- and attended classes at the Theatre Institute. Has fame affected his life? "After going pro and becoming famous I turned into a public figure. My conduct and language are closely observed at all times, and I'm forced to set an example, as it were. No longer can I be part of any old gathering or enter any old place. My income," he insists, "has not risen dramatically, no. In real terms it's more or less the same, in fact, since being a professional actor is expensive in itself. Thank the Lord, I'm well off enough." Nor did fame alter Dawoud's private life. "I've been married since 1961. My eldest son is now 30 and he has a little boy, Youssef. My daughter Dina too is married and she has Nada and Daniel. And like my mother and father -- a bank manager -- my children have absolutely no connection with art of any kind. They simply accept me."
Of the three media in which he has worked -- theatre, cinema and television -- Dawoud prefers the first. "But sadly I've been forced to keep away from theatre, at least in part," he says, "by the many diseases it has contracted, from the weakness of the scripts to unprofessional conduct on the part of some colleagues, to the imposition of obscene sequences and remarks that bore the audience and pointlessly extend the duration of the performance -- up to and including, that is, ticket prices that are so prohibitive theatre owners are forced to close down three to four days a week." While not excluding other troupes, Dawoud mentions Mohamed Sobhi and Adel Imam as the exemplars of a commercial theatre in which he continues to be interested. His recent experience with candid- camera comic Ibrahim Nasr, by contrast, was a disappointment. Of Zakeya Zakareya Tatahadda Sharon (Zakeya Zakareya Challenges Sharon), Dawoud says, "It was not altogether blessed with success. The audience had already encountered [Nasr's candid-camera persona] numerous times on television and in the Balloon Theatre; and the title was not entirely effective. It started out being Zakeya Zakareya fil Islahiya (Zakeya Zakareya in the Penitentiary), I played the penitentiary's despotic master; and later on they placed a wig on my head and called me Haroun so that I would resemble Sharon. No, it had absolutely nothing to do with Sharon or the Palestinian question or the Intifada; the title just happens to be misleading. Which is why the audience failed to show up, I think, once they discovered what the play was really about."
Of his stage experience he commends Mala'eeb (Ploys), Al-Za'im (Leader) and Al-Wad Sayed Al- Shaghal (Sayed the Servant Boy), the latter two with Imam. His collaboration with Imam -- "a person whom I owe a lot as he presented me to people in the best possible way" -- brims over into his cinematic career, the highlights of which must include Al-Nimr wal-Untha (The Tiger and the Woman, also with Imam), Samak Laban Tamr Hindi (Fish Milk Tamarind) and Al-Shaytana Allati Ahabbatni (The Devil Who Loved Me). Of the filmmakers with whom he has worked his favourite is Samir Seif: "In his hands the actor is a well protected deposit. He represents a form of impeccable simplicity. On the set his presence is barely noticeable, so quiet and pleasant is he, but at the same time he is a decisive leader."
Dawoud's television appearances are numerous; he remembers, most fondly, Al-Souq (The Market), Samhouni Makansh Qasdi (Forgive Me I Didn't Mean To) Al-Ganeb Al-Akhar (The Other Side) and "a tiny, imperceptible role that I treasure in Raafat El-Haggan". Television, Dawoud gratefully asserts, "is what gave birth to us, what gave us shape and colour and made us sell. If not for television people would not have known of our existence in the first place".
As the conversation draws to a close, Dawoud seems eager to emphasise ideas touched on earlier. The vocational dimension of his acting career, for example, finds expression in such comments as, "Nothing on earth compares to the delight of doing something that you really enjoy; and the difference between being an amateur and a professional actor is the difference between doing it just to do it and doing it for a living or deriving your sense of purpose from doing it." By now it is evident that he cannot help being repetitive, and his repetitiveness ends up being endearing. In the media Dawoud appears to be ageless, but face to face (and this is one of the few qualities that distinguish his real-life persona from the all-embracing character of the actor Youssef Dawoud) his age manages to seep through the surface. "Will this be fine for you now?" he asks finally, his tone having all vestiges of hurry. "I must go back and resume singing," he laughs. "Ask about photographs of me in your archives," he says again. "You'd be surprised how much of a pleasure this was."
Letter from the Editor
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