Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 Dec. 2002 - 1 Jan. 2003
Issue No. 618
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A white flame

Technically, her acting had a cool, smooth, unblemished surface; but its impact was that of burning ice. Nehad Selaiha remembers Sanaa Gamil, who died on Sunday


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The many faces of Sanaa Gamil on stage and on film and television screens
Elegance was the hallmark of Sanaa Gamil as an actress and a woman. Off the stage or screen she was always dressed to the nines and more often than not in white. She seemed to favour this colour, or rather, non-colour, perhaps because its neutrality at once offset and softened the impact of her forceful presence and overpowering personality, or maybe because it did not overshadow the natural beauty of the exquisite fabrics and delicately-embroidered lace she favoured. The first time I met her in the early 1980s, it was at a small dinner party in a posh hotel, hosted by the late dramatist, Nehad Gad, to discuss a project for a one-woman play (which, sadly, never materialised). She wore a fluffy, snow-white fur wrap which seemed in perfect harmony with her polished, aristocratic voice, the plate of smoked salmon and the glass of sparkling white wine she ordered.

I was not a little undaunted by such perfection of appearance and deportment and thought that, together with her fluent French, traces of which remained discernible in her intonation till the end, it was perhaps what had made her a perfect cast in such parts as Magdelon in Molière's The Affected Ladies (in the early 1950s), the princess in Alfred Farag's The Fall of A Pharaoh (1975), Raqiqa Hanem, the Pasha's wife, in No'man Ashour's The People Upstairs (1958), and the eponymous heroine in both Tawfiq El-Hakim's Shams Al-Nahar (1965) and Sheherazade (1966). But Gamil had also acted the witty, crafty maid, Toinette, and the humble servant, Claude, in Molière's The Hypochondriac and The Miser at the beginning of her career, and was successfully cast as the unprepossessing , impoverished and hardworking spinster twice, when she was still only a little over 30 and a very attractive woman -- first in 1959, in A House of Glass, loosely adapted from one of Jean Cocteau's plays (it is not certain which), then as Gamalat, in Mikhail Roman's Smoke, in 1962, one year after she had scooped the best supporting actress award at the Moscow Film Festival with a similar role, as Nefisah, in Salah Abu Seif's memorable film version of Naguib Mahfouz's famous novel A Beginning and an End.

In other parts, too -- as Ragaa' in No'man Ashour's The Female Sex (1960), Lady Macbeth in a production by Hamdi Gheith in 1963, the woman in Anis Mansour's two-hander, full-length The Neighbourhood, Samia in Tawfiq El-Hakim's The Fate of A Cockroach (1966), the mercurial, multi-faceted, constantly changing Nunu in Youssef Idris's Terrestrial Farce (also 1966), Serafina, the nervous, sexually frustrated widow and mother of a teenage girl in Ezzat El-Amir's adaptation of Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo, rechristened The Lion Tattoo (1972), the narcissistic, egotistical Awatef in Rashad Rushdi's The Light of Darkness (1971), and Alice in Gamil Rateb's stage production of Strindberg's The Dance of Death, performed in French and Arabic in Cairo and Paris in 1977 -- Sanaa Gamil brought to life many variations on the character of the wife and mother, ranging from the loving and cheerful, the humble and downtrodden, the flighty and feather-brained, the weak and nervously vascillating, the selfish, greedy and grasping, the strong-willed, obstinate and possessive, the pushy and nagging, the shrewish and domineering, down to the viciously vindictive and downright murderous.

In her last memorable stage appearance at the Opera House, in Mohamed Sobhi's production of Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Visit, opposite her friend and soul-mate Gamil Rateb as Alfred III, she seemed to draw inspiration from all her former stage parts. As the aged, seven-times married, infirm and vulgar Claire Zachanassian, who nurses a lethal thirst for revenge and still carries within her the pain of the young woman who was cruelly spurned by her lover, denied justice by the court and ostracised and hounded out of home by the villagers, she brought together different aspects of all the women she had impersonated before and wove them in a taut, seamless, and finely-detailed performance, alternately vulgar and pathetic, abrasive and tender, shocking and poignant, but always riveting and unfailingly mesmeric.

Eight years after The Visit, precisely last year, I had the chance to see her once more off stage; it was in Maadi, in a small but select gathering of theatre people, intellectuals and artists, at the literary salon of Lotus Abdel-Karim. This time I found the courage not only to shake her hands but also to give her a big hug and kiss her on both cheeks. The occasion, as the invitation card mentioned, was "to honour the rich and lasting achievements of the great and gifted Sanaa Gamil" -- or, rather, Thurayya, as she was christened by her father, Youssef Attallah, in Mallawi (a small town in Menya) in 1930. Little did Mr Attallah realise when he gave her this auspicious name (which means a lamp or chandelier) that he was intuitively reading the future. He could not have known, indeed would have been deeply offended if anyone had told him, that his little girl whom he promptly consigned to the care of nuns to learn French, sound morals and etiquette and prepare for the leisured life of a gracious wife to a well-to-do husband, would escape to Cairo in her teens, illicitly join the Acting Institute recently founded by Zaki Tulaymat, take up acting while still a student under a new name which nevertheless carried the same meaning (light) as the old one, live to make this meaning come true and become a veritable beacon to all aspiring actresses. It was a daring risk the young Thurayya took and one doubts if she could have sustained it had not the Acting Institute in those days made the wise decision of paying female students a monthly allowance by way of encouragement and to help them survive since most of them were boycotted by their families. Vectran actress Samiha Ayyoub recalls that it was six pounds -- respectable civil servant's salary at the time. The strength of mind, independence of spirit and determination which characterised the young Thurayya were carefully preserved and jealously guarded by the older Sanaa, and she gave them new confirmation when at the age of 30 she met at a party the man who was to become her life-long husband, closest friend and sole love, writer and journalist Louis Grace. Trusting to her intuition, she rushed headlong, refusing to play the coy mistress, and made what amounted to a proposal. As he was leaving the party, which took place at her flat downtown, she accompanied him to the door and asked him if he had three half piastres on him. He was taken aback and befuddled, he remembers (she was by then a star at the National Theatre and earning a good income); he fumbled in his pockets, coming up with two whole piastres which he offered to her. She quizzically smiled as she said, "Make sure you use them to phone me up tomorrow."

Though Sanaa Gamil was awarded the Order of Arts and Sciences by Nasser in 1969 and the Order of Arts by Sadat in 1976, Lotus Abdel- Karim thought she merited more honours and held this small gathering at her salon to confer upon her a special medal as founder and editor- in-chief of the literary magazine Shumou' (Candles). As if not to disappoint me, Gamil, once more, came in a beautiful white dress with a long lace jacket embroidered with small pearls. And though obviously weak and ailing, as elegant, proud and refined as ever. Her wit, scathing sense of humour and ironical turn of mind were also unimpaired. As she spoke her thanks in a tremulous voice, in Arabic, with the same French intonation which miraculously disappeared in acting, I found myself pondering once more this paradox, or "invention", as comedian Fouad El- Muhandes prefers to describe her, called Sanaa Gamil. As a person, she could switch from high French to the pure Southern (Sa'idi or Upper Egyptian) dialect in almost the same breath, enjoy smoked salmon and the most traditional Southern dishes with the same relish, be fiery, rash and impetuous one minute and gentle and profoundly sagacious the next, strike you as a bundle of emotions one moment, then suddenly tense up and harden like an obstinate, impervious rock, a soft, cuddly kitten who could become a tigress at a moment's notice.

No less of a paradox as an actress, whether on radio, television, the stage or screen, she was at once a mistress of comedy and tragedy, playing both with the same zest, flair and competence and holding her grounds against the paragons in both fields. Like a champion tennis player -- again Fouad El-Muhandes's description -- she could fence and parry with stunning ease and in all the thrilling, delightful matches she played opposite comedians of the calibre of El-Muhandes or Abdel- Moneim Madbouli and Sayed Radi, or tragedians, like Amina Rizq she never missed a ball, often serving smash-hits. Whatever she did, she approached with great fear and trepidation, threw herself into with passion and dedication, handled with integrity, humility and care and lavished on her vast store of technical and human experience. Though a craftswoman of the first order, her technique remains elusive, like a deeply buried secret only discernible by the intense white flames it gives off.

The last time I saw her was in the final ceremony of the CIFET last September when she was honoured by the festival, drawing a homage of applause that lasted a full five minutes. And she was again in white, as elegant, distant, bewitching and elusive as ever. A true artistic aristocrat. Her frailty, however, left no one in doubt as to the state of her health and made many in the audience cry. Playwright Fattheya El-Assal, who sat next to me, whispered bitterly, "This should have come earlier." Comparing her to the actresses of her generation, who surrounded her after the ceremony, I suddenly saw why she inspired in me so much love and awe and why she was so special and also so frail. Like an uninsulated power conductor, a naked, electric wire, she responded immediately, spontaneously, ardently to life, never sparing herself and shunning all protective shields. That is why her acting was always imbued with a sense of urgency, why she could play the fluffy kitten, the evil, rapacious female, the ugly spinster, the poor victim, the dangerous wild-cat, and the clown with the ring of truth never missing, why one never noticed her physical attributes, or stopped to consider whether she was pretty, plain, beautiful (in the sense in which Anna Maniani is) or simply attractive, as if she were a disembodied spirit. Was this why her physical presence in real life seemed unreal, a fabrication, and why in acting her body seemed to melt and recreate itself in the image of the character and its feelings? Was this her secret? A tempestuous flow, momentarily arrested in the semblance of a cool, smooth, perfectly even, bright surface for a brief snapshot, only to dissolve afterwards and revert to its original tumultuous liquid state?

Like a pearl-fisher, with every part she took on, she had to sink her body to reach the hidden treasures and only surfaced to deliver them and sink again. Finally, the pearl-fisher became weary, cracked under the strain, and went to rest, leaving the treasures of a lifetime of ceaseless toil. May Sanaa rest in peace, but her flame will burn for a long time yet though the white ice has melted.

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