It began with angels and ends on screen
Tickets to admit
photo: Youssef Rakha
One of Fathi Abdel-Wahab's earliest memories is sitting in the back row of his maternal grandfather's movie theatre, in Qalyubiya. The Maadi- residing family would often spend the summers in the small town where his mother was born and where the patriarch in question just happened to own the local cinema.
"It was no more than a screen, several rows of concrete or wooden mastabas for the audience to sit on, and a projector powered by diesel oil or coal -- something that basic," he recalls. "I remember the person who operated it -- his name was Sayed El-Wahsh and he had to drink a litre or two of milk a day to compensate for inhaling all that exhaust. The milk was paid for by my grandfather, it was one of the perks of the job."
"I was only five or six at the time, and I would go more or less every night and insist on overseeing admissions. 'Show me your ticket. You go in, you wait...' Then, when the screening started, I would sit at the back to watch. Behind me would be the doors to the little administrative cubicles and, directly above my head the projector, or at least the opening from which the light emanated. I would look back and up and there would be this incredibly bright rectangle giving off rays of light in the darkness. I would follow the rays and suddenly as they hit the screen all that brightness would turn into people moving and talking. It was miraculous. And to this day I never go to the cinema without looking back and recollecting that sense of the characters being creatures of light, like angels, living in a world apart..."
At school Abdel-Wahab was gregarious. He organised activities, he directed commercial projects. Before too long he became known as a leader and impresario. Yet he managed to keep on track with his studies, at least until he arrived at university.
"Then," he explains, "a strange transformation took place, because it was then that I began practising art, acting as an amateur in the college theatre."
He had enrolled at the faculty of commerce, and until the year of his graduation, he insists, had no intention of becoming an actor.
"I was earning a certificate in order to work as an accountant. In fact I had a position lined up at the Arab African Bank, which was the best place for an up-and-coming commerce graduate to work -- you got paid in dollars, you had I don't know how many perks, your future was more or less secure."
But by the time he reached his fourth year Abdel-Wahab seems to have been sufficiently disillusioned to start thinking about alternatives.
"One day," he recounts, "at the height of summer, I had a public finance lecture. That was the subject I disliked most. I went to campus but I couldn't get myself to enter the lecture hall. So I skulked around until I bumped into a friend of mine who was also too late for the lecture and he invited me to the college theatre. I didn't even know a theatre existed. I had no idea what it was all about. I asked them what they did there and he said they acted. What do you mean, I said, they make up soap operas? No, he said, they produce plays, on stage."
Abdel-Wahab went along, he says, because it was cool in the auditorium, because he had nothing better to do and because he was faintly curious.
Everyone in the theatre was on stage, he remembers. Actor Salah Abdalla was directing a group of students.
"A few minutes later my friend went off to the bathroom or somewhere and I was there by myself, the only person off stage."
Then -- here as elsewhere Abdel-Wahab's talent for story telling imbues an otherwise pedestrian episode with unexpected charm -- Salah Abdalla called out to him: "Can you say, 'Our mothers gave birth to us free, I am not a bull and we will no longer be enslaved."
Abdel-Wahab recognised this as one of Ahmed Orabi's famous pronouncements and proceeded to intone it without thinking. "Raise your voice," Abdalla commanded, and he raised his voice. "Work yourself up into a fury;" and he did. "Okay," he was finally told. "Can you do this on stage, before the audience? Come to the rehearsals and you will find out everything."
Yet even as he proceeds to tell the story of his success Abdel-Wahab downplays his motives for going along with this -- the desire, however unexpressed, to act.
"Eventually I found myself a member of the acting team," he intones. "One play after another, and my roles were getting bigger. Suddenly I was a star."
Still no plans for an acting career, though. "It was a hobby, if you like, something that I didn't take too seriously."
Months later he was approached by a friend of his, Ahmed Shu'aib, about auditioning for a new theatre troupe Mohamed Sobhi and Lenin El- Ramli were founding. The duo had propelled one generation of actors to fame through plays like Wujhat Nazar (Viewpoints) and now they were on the lookout for other, younger actors.
"I refused," Abdel-Wahab says. "I told Ahmed that I had no interest in going professional. But he went ahead and gave them my name and phone number anyway. So I got this phone call specifying a venue and a time, there was a misunderstanding because I didn't realise I had applied and the person finally put the phone down. When I told Ahmed about it he was upset, but in the end he persuaded me to go. In that first round there were 4,000 applicants, divided into groups of 500 who went up on stage five at a time. They had arranged it so that you were hidden behind the curtain while you were examined. I tried to get my head around this idea of going through an acting exam, I had no concept of an audition at the time. Anyway, when you arrived you were seated in the theatre. They called your name and you went up, you auditioned and you went out through the back of the stage -- so that they kept those waiting in suspense."
Abdel-Wahab was in such a state of apprehension when he went up he tried to avoid walking on stage, squeezing beside the side wall and curtain instead. "A man came out and yelled at me, 'You there, what are you doing?' And when I said I was going in he pointed to the centre of the stage. By the time I got there I was totally white."
Abdel-Wahab was second in turn, and the applicant directly before him made such a fool of himself -- Abdel-Wahab gets up to demonstrate -- he had a distinct sense of foreboding.
"What have you prepared?" Sobhi asked. And, spotting an abandoned newspaper by his side, Abdel-Wahab asked if he could borrow it. "I acted out a news item from the crimes page." Weeks later he found out he had been selected for the second round, which included only 500. Abdel-Wahab had been sufficiently intrigued to want to find out "if I really had anything to do with this business;" and, with the help of Ahmed Abdalla, an older commerce graduate who was still involved in the college theatre he set out to prepare an elaborate scene involving a television presenter who goes off to Nuweiba' to meet people who have arrived from Kuwait, which had just been invaded by Iraq.
"We came up with 16 characters, all different. Add the presenter and you end up with 17 characters. I played every one of them. This time you acted on stage, the jury sat where the audience is supposed to be. I was significantly less agitated."
Out of 500, only 50 were selected; and Abdel- Wahab was one of them. Shu'aib, for one, did not make it, he recalls. "This was the beginning of my connection with professional acting."
After an eight-month stint of rehearsals and training sessions he performed for three seasons in Belarabi Al-Fasih (In Standard Arabic) which, if it confirmed his suspicion that he should pursue a career in acting also brewed trouble with his family.
His father was a senior journalist, his mother wrote documentary film scripts for UNICEF. Though they were not against acting in principle, Abdel-Wahab explains, they were concerned about their son's economic and moral future.
"I had been more or less financially independent since my school days, and I refused to take money from them. They also gave in to common perceptions of the artistic milieu, the moral hiccups of which are always exaggerated because they're under the spotlights, and this was cause for concern too. Being members of the ordinary public they had no idea about the growth path of an actor, either. They thought if you didn't immediately become a star you had failed. And they would see me sitting there, not being able to go out for weeks on end for lack of money. So it was a combination of concern and pity. But eventually it created serious problems."
Partly in reaction to his parents' stance, perhaps, Abdel-Wahab was to deny himself admission into the world of acting yet again. Participation in the Sobhi/El-Ramli troupe involved neither commercial success nor interaction with well-known names; financial rewards were nominal and after three seasons he felt the experience had exhausted itself.
"And that's when I decided to leave." On graduating Abdel-Wahab had given up the banking job. "The auditions were like a spark that alerted me to my true path," he says. Now that he stopped working in the troupe, however, he felt he had nowhere to go. Six months into homebound unemployement he "began to think the whole thing had been a coincidence, that I had never had anything to do with the acting business in the fist place."
For two months he was a receptionist on a Nile cruiser, between Aswan and Luxor. He made reasonable money, was comfortable and amused, but began to feel depressed.
"Clinical depression," he emphasises. "So I packed my stuff and, with two months' savings, put myself on a plane going back to Cairo. I didn't have the slightest idea what I would do with myself there, but I went."
He now realises that he had mistaken the difficulties in the path of every actor as evidence of failure.
"Maybe I thought talent alone was enough and didn't realise that first you had to work with more than one group of people and that your name had to circulate a bit, that you must accumulate a certain amount of experience."
Another stint of unemployment saw him through all the money he had saved, but no sooner had this happened than he was summoned by El-Ramli, who had separated from Sobhi, to participate in a new play, Al-Kabous (The Nightmare) -- his first and cherished lead. On attending the play filmmaker Dawoud Abdel- Sayed was impressed by his performance and offered him his first film role -- a small part in Sariq Al-Farah (Wedding Thief), "the first film script I had ever laid hands on," which in turn brought him a bigger role in Magdi Ahmed Ali's Al-Batal (Champion). He made an impression as the radical student who burns the Israeli flag in comedian Mohamed Heniedi's first mega-hit, Saeedi fil-Gam'a Al-Amrikiya (An Upper Egyptian at the American University).
"This was the beginning of my success, if you like," he explains. "This is what introduced me."
Abdel-Wahab's by then growing reputation was consolidated in Film Thaqafi (Cultural Film) -- a role for which he received the 2000 National Festival for Feature Films acting award and, more recently, in Hani Khalifa's much talked about Sahar Al-Layali (Wakeful Nights). In the meantime his role in Amira fi Abdeen (A Princess in Abdeen), a popular television drama, brought him both instant recognition and a gamut of awards.
"Suddenly people knew who I was on the streets."
As gregarious as ever, Abdel-Wahab is 32, married with a small child, and full of optimism for the future. As he rehearses the title role in the National Theatre's forthcoming production of Hamlet (to open next Thursday), he was awaiting the release of an Eid film, Bahebbak wana Kaman (I Love You, I Love You Too) and is preparing to embark on a new film, Ahmed Rashwan's debut -- to be called Meyya felmeyya Hayy (100 per cent alive) -- with Hind Sabri. He has no particular ambitions, he says, except "to go on acting". Nor does he bother too much about the quality of the work to which he contributes, "so long as the role services my own work." He is a little concerned about his financial and psychological future. "If an actor gets sick he becomes unemployed, he has no source of income. And then when you're a real actor," he says, "you give of yourself in each performance, you embrace aspects of your psyche that are normally avoided -- and there is always a chance that you might end up mad."
"You get what you ask for," Abdel-Wahab says. "If you're in it for the money you become very rich. If you're in it for glory, you gain respect and status but you might lose your sense of well-being irrevocably. But in the end if you're in it to act you end up acting -- more often than you could have dreamed of. Maybe when I fussed over people gaining admission into my grandfather's cinema," he adds equivocally, "I was presaging my own pursuit of admission into that world of angels, creatures of light. The world did not turn out to be as angelic as I had imagined, but all things considered I'm grateful I'm in it."