1 - 7 August 2002
Issue No. 597
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Ali Hassanein:On how to become an enigma
The coiffeur's ghost
Ali Hassanein is a little older than he looks. Confident and outspoken, he nonetheless lacks the extravagant sophistication of his most famous character, the title role in Dawoud Abdel-Sayed's Al-Bahth 'An Sayed Marzouq (Looking for Sayed Marzouq, 1992), an amusing paradox of a man symbolising absurd, inexplicable (financial and social) power. Sporting white baseball cap and sunglasses, his white hair cropped short, he is remarkably different from the Lion King image he usually projects -- an image now partly explained by the information that for many years he worked as a hairdresser, in Egypt and Canada, before devoting himself to acting.
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Hassanein never went to university. During the summer holidays he learnt his family trade: hairdressing. "It was a way of increasing my allowance to make simple pleasures like the cinema possible. But even then I was absolutely sure that I wanted to be an actor. Nothing else. I received the secondary school certificate and that was the end of my formal education. I have always been an avid reader of every subject under the sun, however. And by the time I graduated from school, my acting career was already, at some level, underway. Hairdressing was never even a consideration at this stage."
He meets me outside Ali Baba's Treasure, a decidedly run-of-the-mill "gallery" operated by his wife and daughter, he informs me, and located in Horreya Square, Maadi. On unlocking the door it transpires that the electric switches are beyond his reach and he asks me to switch them on. "You're taller," he says, and there is no humour in his voice. He positions himself behind a wooden table, the sloping top of which, if it suggests anything, suggests an old grocer's counter. He seems a little apprehensive at first.
"Today is the gallery's weekly day off," he explains. "I don't do anything other than acting, no. Which is why I sometimes come here in the absence of the gallery's regular managers. It's boredom," Hassanein mumbles; "in the absence of work boredom brings me here." All around there are plates and pendants, plastic figurines and ornate frames whose (Muslim) religious bent is surprising.
Ten minutes into the conversation -- the course of Hassanein's impromptu confession is still meandering, his voice is halting -- there is a power cut and he groans. The daylight is sufficient but the heat and humidity are stifling. Hassanein rises abruptly to fetch a cold drink, looking longingly at the air-conditioner on his way out. By the time he arrives the power is back on, however; the brief hiatus works wonders.
"It is true I have given this account of my early career many times" -- Hassanein had objected to my initially questioning on this pretext -- "but as I think of it right now, and all the images creep back into my mind, I feel a peculiar, melancholy joy. There is an intimate joy in remembering your earliest beginnings, I'm discovering even as we speak," Hassanein confides. "The genesis of a human being," he adds.
As a primary school student at Ras Al-Tin Primary, Preparatory and Secondary School in Alexandria, he would listen to the daily episode of the serialised radio drama currently being broadcast, in the company of his friends. "One of us would transcribe the dialogue, as far as this was possible. Another would behave as a director. And during break time we would act out the parts. I realise now that my only aim since then was to become an actor. To act: that is all I ever wanted to do. Even at this early stage I would become so engrossed in the part I was playing I'd cease to be aware of my surroundings. Effortlessly, I would learn my part by heart -- become it completely."
One, obviously fondly, remembered episode: "I was acting the part of a blind sheikh -- I've acted that part since my schooldays, as you can see -- and I'd barely got off the stage when I felt a hand gripping my shoulder and heard my English teacher's deep voice, 'Come with me.' He was head of the extracurricular acting association and he gave me the part of the British Occupation in an allegorical play the school put on; that was during the preparatory stage, yes."
During that performance Hassanein was spotted by his Arabic teacher, the radio dramatist Sami Mounir. "One day he said to me, 'Apply for the Radio Union exams so you can register your name as an actor.' Almost immediately I did. And I passed. The day I took the exam, in fact, I began acting the lead role in Mounir's radio drama Al-Rahil (The Traveller). This was my first breakthrough..."
It was to be the first of many instances of unexpected good fortune: Hassanein's early radio glories constitute what he calls a stop.
"Such stops have been a pattern in my life," he explains. "It is strange how, even though success was never as forthcoming as I wanted, there are these breaks in the tapestry of my career. If we fast forward to 1992, again, you see that even though I was hardly known I was given a major role in a major film. I had given up, almost. But after that I kept getting film offers, and I appeared in Ice Cream fi Gleem, Al-Kit Kat, Al-Firqa 12 (Team 12). Thus, in the 1990s, I was reborn as a professional actor... I have mentioned Al-Rahil, which turned me, at a very early age, into a local radio star and by extension a well-known local amateur stage actor; that was in the mid-1950s. And it was through success in the Alexandria radio, a little scheme that I devised to convince my father of the plan -- procuring a letter of recommendation to the radio in Cairo, and another letter addressed to myself -- that I managed to make it there, where I wanted to work in television. I was helped by such well-known radio figures as Safia El-Mohandes, Mohamed Elwan, Fayez Halawa, Ibrahim Abu Hatab -- all of whom I'd encountered in Alexandria. They gave me parts in their radio dramas and promoted my career. Financially life in Cairo became less and less viable, however. And there remained the television issue: there were many failed attempts to participate and to register as an actor. It wasn't until they registered me as an extra that I rebelled, however, offering my hairdressing services at the coiffeurs I knew of and establishing a life here independent of acting. Whatever happened I wasn't going to be an extra...
"And professional acting didn't enter my life again until I came back from Canada. But before the stop of Sayed Marzouq, there was Al-Wazir Al-Ashiq (The Minister in Love), a major play that participated in four festivals worldwide and another stop, which was my initial drive to give up the hairdressing, make-up and massage business I had established on returning from Canada. In the early 1980s I read in the papers that the Theatre Institute had introduced a mature student programme. And it was as if the volcano that had been lurking inside me for close on a decade was finally erupting. After Al-Wazir Al-Ashiq I thought I would rise to fame like a shooting star. I thought I would never stay home again. Then I found what I was looking for, finally. Despite the occasional role in dramas produced in Ajman and Dubai and the occasional stage appearance, I did stay home, of course, for long stretches at a time. Sayed Marzouq was the next breakthrough but since then much of my work has been restricted to television; the film industry seems to have turned away from me slightly. Right now, notwithstanding being a guest of honour in film maker Sherif Mandour's film Huwa fi Eih (What's Up), I am working on a number of television dramas: Shams Nuselliel (Midnight Sun), directed by Reda El-Naggar; Nur Al-Qamar (Moonlight), directed by Sami Mohamed Ali; and Seif Al-Yaqin (Truth's Sword) by Wafiq Wagdi..."
What of the years between being registered as an extra and enrolling at the Theatre Institute, about which Hassanein seems to have been reticent?
"As I told you, I almost gave up."
He speaks of a life-changing encounter with one of his clients, a Swiss diplomat's wife who was so impressed with his hairdressing skills she took him along to her next destination, Canada.
"From day one," Hassanein insists, "I knew I would return; there was no question about it. Yet the strange thing is that, while I had suffered in a number of ways here in Cairo, I was perfectly spoiled in Canada. I worked well, acquiring skill and becoming a professional -- building the bases for the business I would establish on returning, eventually, in the early 1970s. I was so successful I even began giving courses; the job acquired an academic twist, and I made good money. Every year I would say, 'I am going back.' My original benefactors, my clients and colleagues would persuade me to stay. Then I could no longer resist and I returned. Acting was but a distant memory, but I knew I would live here."
Of all those he worked with, Hassanein, while not excluding others, singles out actors Ahmed Zaki (with whom he has done only a single, albeit two-day long, shot but with whom he hopes to work again), Nour El-Sherif (co-star of Al-Bahth An Sayed Marzouq ) and Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz (Al-Kit Kat). Zaki, Hassanein claims, is a giant; "his instincts are always extremely helpful and he can take any role in his stride; working with him would teach me a lot, as well as giving me the chance to enjoy inspecting his distinctive style at close range." El-Sherif, by contrast, is a master methodologist. "I was fascinated with him and with the way he works, the system he has devised for himself."
"Throughout the duration of shooting a film he keeps a little notebook in which he takes down every detail of every scene he acts: his position, his tone and facial expression, what he is wearing and why. So that the overall performance becomes something much more articulate and complex than any one scene." And Abdel-Aziz, perhaps, is something in between: "the strict methodology he employs never impinges on the intuitive strain that runs through his work."
In the latter two encounters the director in question was Abdel-Sayed, the man Hassanein credits with giving him access to the world of the cinema, giving him what he considers to be his greatest role to date.
"When we first met," Hassanein remembers, "all I could see was his exceptional refinement as a human being: he is polite to the point of embarrassing his companion. And as an artist I found him extremely engaging. He talks with the actors, he discusses the role with you, works out what you think of it and from within your conception of what the character should be like reaches a very successful marriage of his vision to yours. With Sayed Marzouq, it was obvious to both of us that this was no everyday character whom you could tackle generically. Sayed's every gesture, even his smile was deeply considered. It had to have that strange, paradoxical taste to it. And without input from both actor and director, without Abdel-Sayed's genius for drawing out a character, that wouldn't have come through in quite the same way. His methods were remarkable..."
Hassanein has fond memories of every director with whom he has worked and his system of interaction with them might offer an insight into his character. "I am very understanding of the human dimensions of any working environment," he explains. "And my motto is, 'If you want to possess an artist, spoil him.' Yet there is no doubt that, at a much deeper level, one appreciates the huge undertaking of the average film-maker -- all that he has to keep track of and control. I believe in the director's ability to see through the actor, and to determine the actor's most glowing moments. It is the director who owns the keys to the actor's deepest recesses; he knows how to open every inner door. So when you take into account the fact that whenever I've dealt with a director I've had all this at the back of my mind -- this deep professional respect and this latent love -- you see how unlikely discord becomes; how it's far more probable for me to get on with my directors than otherwise"
Hassanein has been married for 31 years. He has six children and seven grandchildren; one son has yet to marry; one lives in the United States.
"A very simple, straightforward existence," he says, "guided by love." He does not say much about his personal life, yet he makes it clear he has nothing to hide. "Names are coming back to me, strangely enough. I have recollected so many faces and voices. This," he insists, "is the story of my beginning as an actor. I have yet to live the middle and the end."
Before I leave Ali Baba's Treasure, bearing stills, notes, photographs, Hassanein begins to ask me a favour, then thinks better of it. "Please," I insist. And he responds, "It's really OK." Hours later it occurs to me that he probably wanted me to reach up to the electric switches near the door and switch them off again.
Letter from the Editor
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