Abu Bakr Ezzat :
All at the same time
Of work and leisure
Face to face Abu Bakr Ezzat does not differ appreciably from the image promulgated in some 40 plays and 60 films, not to mention television serials. The most obvious difference, perhaps, is his age. Large, affable, constantly distracted: he lives up to his reputation of being both humorous and a tireless woman-watcher. His eyeballs are never in one place for more than a few seconds at a time. And he knows how to disarm his interlocutor, instantly neutralising tension while at the same time, through a combination of cutting wit and pleading affection, exercising a kind of authority over those who surround him.
Click to view caption
The many faces of Abu Bakr Ezzat; (bottom right) with Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, receiving the best actor award at the 1996 Cairo Film Festival
Ezzat has opted for the usual pre-rehearsal meeting on location -- he refuses to name the work in question -- in a boat-restaurant opposite the British Council; and he is no more than a few minutes late. "They call me Big Ben," Ezzat declares, only half jokingly, in the course of one of the numerous conversations he conducts simultaneously. No sooner does he acknowledge your presence than you find yourself engulfed by a large battalion of other actors, technicians, production assistants, photographers, fans. Ezzat welcomes everyone, giving each the impression that he is attentive, even concerned. Yet his only genuine worry is the fact that the tea and water he ordered have yet to arrive.
"Let's not talk too much about this," he responds to questions about his earliest connections to acting. "It's all been said before."
Another shouting match with the waiters serves to confirm his conversational prowess, followed by a quick flick through the script before him after which the topic we were not supposed to spend much time discussing appears to have slipped his mind.
"When I was a secondary student," he resumes on being reminded. No longer dismissive, Ezzat is nonetheless palpably reluctant. "At the time there existed something that's no longer part of school life, sadly. But it was an extremely important thing: extracurricular activities."
The actor goes off on a tangent.
"The Khedieval Secondary School, I went to. And we had all manner of activities going for us. If you were interested in sport there was sport. If you had a penchant for singing you could join the choir. And if you liked acting there was a school theatre."
Born in 1933, Ezzat does not seem at all nostalgic. "I was drawn to theatre -- so I joined the acting team. Our supervisor was Kamal Yassine, and it was he who encouraged me, on graduating, to enroll at the Theatre Arts Institute..."
Like many actors of his generation Ezzat also enrolled at Cairo University, graduating from the Sociology Department of the Faculty of Arts as well as the Institute.
"And what's wrong with doing two different things at the same time," he asks rhetorically. "I've always been interested in the arts, and I like to read a lot. So it wasn't altogether unexpected that I should want to study sociology, was it. And why not be an actor and have qualifications as well. Is anything wrong with that?"
Social pressure may have played a part in this -- the future of even a qualified actor was not, after all, as prestigious or secure as that of a Cairo University graduate -- but financial need seems to have been a more essential driving force.
"In fact I not only studied at Cairo University," Ezzat resumes. "I also joined the Zaitoun Teaching Institute, graduating after two years, when I was beginning my third year at Cairo University. And after that I would be teaching in the morning, studying in the afternoon. All at the same time."
Now that it has finally arrived Ezzat painstakingly assesses the temperature of the bottle of water before letting the waiter open it. It is not cold enough.
"And, you know what," he goes on. "Whether it was the Sociology Department or teaching, anything that you do in your life helps with acting. My stint as a teacher was actually of tremendous benefit to me. It was extremely valuable experience for my development as a person and, more importantly, as an actor. And now that I've been through so much I can honestly declare something: teaching is a form of acting. Pithy, eh?"
Ezzat turns to the nearest production assistant, giggling wildly. "That's a pronouncement."
He takes a sip of tea and gradually resumes his serious tone.
"Because if you think about the dynamics of the classroom, and then imagine yourself on stage, you immediately realise that it is more or less the same thing, at some level at least. As a primary school teacher, standing before 40 students, trying to explain something to them, you are just like an actor before an audience, trying to convey an episode or feeling. Acting too is a kind of explanation," he hazards before greeting yet another arrival at the table.
"Even now there are such things as educational theatres," he sounds desultory, "which only goes to show that the two disciplines have much to do with each other. It couldn't possibly have hurt. So," he sighs briefly, calling for the photographer to ask for some publicity photos, "I joined the acting institute. There were only two departments in the institute at the time: criticism and acting; and I went with the latter, yes, of course. At the time we had major, major figures teaching us. I remember being taught by [the critic] Mohamed Mandour, for example. Some of those who taught me, like Ali Fahmi and Nabil El-Alfi, had a very positive influence on me. To this day I feel indebted to them. But to get back to how it all started," Ezzat seems suddenly impatient. "Among my teachers was Professor El-Tatawi; at the time he was part of the Free Theatre, which was in full swing. He noticed me and he said, 'Why don't you come and work with us in the Free Theatre?' As simple as that. It all happened gradually, one project at a time. My first role was Kamal in [an adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz's novel] Qasr Al- Shawq. Anything else?"
Ezzat insists that he does not remember particular roles or works. He dismisses the anecdotal approach as "idiotic", and fails to provide even the barest outline of a chronology. Yet as he speaks he evokes countless appearances in theatre, television and cinema. In Al-Dukhoul bil-Malabes Al-Rasmiya (Entry in Formal Attire), probably his best known play, opposite Sohier El-Babli, he was a penniless philosopher who accepted a job as a cook only to realise that the job application was a ruse on the part of the rich employer, whose intention was to find herself a dependent husband. Although less focussed, his meandering remembrance of his principal career moves is reminiscent of his give-and-take routines with El-Babli during the job interview. He is just as imposing, as entertaining and involved. Yet unlike that of his characters, in this conversation Ezzat's attitude is evasive. "You have tired me out," he declares in mock protest. "Tell me what you want to know so we can end this interrogation..."
Work is work, he says, a means of earning a living. "No, no," he refuses again. "I will not mention specific work. All my work is good," he insists, muttering, "although the vast majority of them were rubbish, but..."
Ask why he might participate in a project he deems inferior and Ezzat is sharp. "Bread-winning," he retorts. "What did you expect I would tell you! I have," he goes on, delighted with his own eloquence, "a theory about life. It's a very simple theory. The human being was created in order to work and then enjoy himself," he sums up in emphatic classical Arabic. "Nothing else."
Money is always of concern, he implies, but never the object. "The flat I'm living in now, for example, on Zamzam Street, in Mohandesine. A long time ago I was offered a place right next to it and I refused because it was too expensive. More recently the price had gone up a thousand fold, and I took it."
Ezzat takes another sip of tea. "I spend as I earn, I never had plans for the future and nothing could ever have gone as planned. I work, and then I enjoy myself. That's what I do. And that's reflected in my career as an actor."
As to the choice among theatre, television and cinema, Ezzat has no preferences. "Each sphere has its own beauty, its unique joy. But insofar as you choose, that has more to do with the quality of the role. A role that incorporates stages, dimensions -- that's a good role," he says. "Art, you understand, is not chemistry. It is not a set of equations. Invariably there is an element of experimentation, of surprise. And since you seem to delight so much in this idea of me taking on jobs for the money, let me tell you that I never participated in a work which I knew would be bad from the start. If it's really bad, if it's obviously bad, I always say no. And there were many occasions on which I didn't like something about the way I was treated and just left. I don't care. If it's upsetting me I let it go -- without thinking. But sometimes you join a cast thinking this project is going to be one thing, and you end up realising it's quite another. That's what I mean when I say there is an element of the unexpected. And in a way that's the joy of art, no? I will give you an example..."
Ezzat appears delighted at having remembered a lucid episode, though another bout of eyeing takes place before he begins to cite it. "At the Rihani Theatre we staged a play written and directed by the great Sayed Bedier; it was called Sanna Ma'a Al-Shughl Al-Ladhidh (A Year With Pleasant Labour); and it was an incredible success. It was the first Egyptian play to stay on for a year, then two, then three years. It was miraculous. The cast included Laila Taher, Adli Kaseb, Ibrahim Saafan. Anyway, some time later we staged another play by the same writer- director, with the same cast, on the same stage; it was called Miya Taht Al-Sifr (100 Below Zero), and it was such a flop it didn't last more than a few days. That shows you how unexpected art is, that it requires a stroke of luck, a touch of divine intervention, besides all the ingredients required for success. And that's the way art works. That's why I can say with impunity that I've participated in some work that might not be entirely up to scratch. The point is that many things have promise, and if you're willing to experiment, which as an artist you should be, there is no guarantee of success. It's all just part of the job."
By the time he is dragged to the location, some distance away, Ezzat has evaded a few more questions. Of his family life he says only that he is "married to a great woman", Kawthar Hiekal, the media figure and script writer who has recently provided him with three television roles. "And I have two daughters: Samah, now a great writer for Channel 4; and Amal, a programme coordinator, also great, in the Egyptian satellite channel; both are married." Of the figures with whom he enjoyed working: "All of them," he insists, singling out only the late Atef El-Tayeb -- with whom he worked on Didd Al- Hukouma (Against the Government), Talatin Yom fil-Segn (30 Days in Jail), Al-Mar'a wal-Satour (The Woman and the Butcher's Knife, for which he received a Cairo Film Festival Award in 1996) -- and his wife. On fame he is likewise brief.
"First I wanted to become a doctor; as far as medicine is concerned, I ended up being a patient. But I never regretted my second choice. The exciting thing about acting is that there is no routine to it, you're always reinventing yourself, doing new and different things all the time. Nor do I ever regret having become well known. People talk about the troubles of being famous, the lack of privacy. It's not true. My work earns me people's love. How can anybody fret about that?"