Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 March - 6 April 2005
Issue No. 736
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Impersonating stardom

Hani Mustafa ponders a legend

There is a striking similarity between American film star Sidney Poitier and Ahmed Zaki. Despite belonging to different times, both created a qualitative change in the image of the star in a specific cultural context. In the 1950s and 1960s Hollywood stars were handsome white men: Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando and James Dean. And not before the civil rights movement heightened opposition to racism could a black man like Sidney Poitier collect an Oscar -- best actor for Lilies of the Field (1963) -- having been nominated for The Defiant Ones (1958) in spite of the prevailing racism. He became the first actor to break received rules of stardom, and his films ( To Sir, with Love, for example) were nothing short of social-cultural bombs exploding against the backdrop of the 1960s -- intellectual and political turmoil. It was Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (1967) that epitomised opposition to racism, however, released at the zenith of the black rights movement and offering a fresh take on black-white relations in the context of American society. With Poitier's success -- critical acclaim, awards -- a new set of criteria was established, based on performance rather than conventional good looks.

Such is the story of Ahmed Zaki, who deployed his considerable talent not only as an actor but an impersonator as well -- in movie theatres, on stage and on the television screen -- to challenge a star image that had dominated the Egyptian film industry for six decades. In contrast to white skin, however, what Zaki fought against was rather a notion, a persona -- the tragic hero, good looking by the standards of the 1940s and 1950s, was played by Hussein Sidqi, Anwar Wagdi, Shukri Sarhan, Yehiya Shahin and Omar Sharif, and later, in the 1970s, by Hussein Fahmi, Mahmoud Yassin and Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz. Zaki's first experience of professional acting occurred while he was studying at the Theatre Institute in 1969: he was cast in a small part in the stage comedy Hello Shalabi ; and out of one small scene in which a room service attendant attempts to convince a down-and-out theatre director (played by veteran comedian Abdel-Moneim Madbouli) of his talent as an actor, he managed to make an impressive comic sketch, notably impersonating the celebrated actor Mahmoud El-Meligui in his trademark role of villain. Such impersonation was Zaki's favourite hobby, and it was a skill he developed brilliantly over time; his point of departure as a famous actor, in fact.

Interestingly, Zaki's principal leap to stardom resulted neither from his role in the phenomenally successful stage comedy Madrasit Al- Mushaghibin (The School for Trouble Makers) -- a version of Poitier's To Sir, with Love, incidentally -- nor from his rather bigger role in the similarly successful play Al-Iyal Kibrit (The Children have Grown Up) but from his 1980 television impersonation of the blind litterateur Taha Hussein ("the dean of Arabic literature") in the serial drama of the latter's eponymous autobiography Al-Ayyam (The Days). Such was its popularity the serial is still occasionally broadcast. It was not until the mid-1990s that Zaki, at the height of his achievement, chose to play President Nasser during the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, in Mohamed Fadel's black-and-white Nasser 56, a film that seemed to resuscitate the industry at the peak of the much discussed "film crisis". Several years later he not only starred in but produced the ambitious cinematic biography of President Anwar Sadat, Mohamed Khan's Ayyam El-Sadat (Days of Sadat) -- another box office hit. This year, while in the throes of the lung cancer that was to take his life, Zaki chose to star in another biographical film, Al-Andalib (The Lark), about legendary singer Abdel-Halim Hafez. Zaki identifies with Hafez on several counts: they both hail from the Sharqiya governorate; they were both orphaned, albeit in different ways; and both suffered a fatal illness. But in all three films Zaki had the chance to indulge his passion for impersonation.

Born in Zagazig, Zaki moved to Cairo to study theatre; and by the time he graduated in 1972, a state of intellectual turmoil pervaded the country; with widespread demands for freedom and democracy, the film industry in particular witnessed an attempt to forge new ground, transcending the notoriously frivolous commercialism of the 1970s -- a space for freedom and democracy -- spearheaded by the Society of New Cinema, led by directors Ali Abdel-Khaliq and Ghalib Shaath. Filmmakers soon began to contend with the conventional genres dominating the industry, producing work that was more cohesive and better able to reflect social realities. Zaki's beginnings took place in this atmosphere; he was a pillar of the 1980s so called "New Realism", and starred in many of Mohamed Khan and Atef El- Tayeb's creations: Mawid Ala Al-Ashaa (Date on Dinner), Tae'r Ala Al- Tariq (Bird on the Road), Zawgat Ragul Muhim (Wife of an Important Person), for which he received best actor award from Damascus festival in 1987, Ahlam Hind wa Camilia (Dreams of Hind and Camilia) by the former; and Al-Takhshiba (The Detention Room), Al-Hobb Fawqa Hadabit Al- Haram (Love atop the Pyramid Hill), based on the eponymous Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz's novel, Al-Barii (The Innocent), Al-Huroub (The Escape) and Deidd Al-Hukouma (Against the Government) by the latter. All adopted a staunchly critical outlook on their social-political subject matter. Zaki worked with other directors of that generation, starring in Al-Awama Sabiin (Houseboat 70), a complex detective movie, and the commercial hit Kaboria (Crab), both by Khairi Bishara. Later, in the 1990s, he played the lead in Dawoud Abdel-Sayed's Ard Al-Khouf (Land of Fear), a multi- layered epic film subtly incorporating political commentary.

Even when he played secondary roles -- Youssef Chahine's autobiographical Iskendriya Leih (Alexandria, Why, 1979) and Mohamed Radi's October War drama Abnaa Al-Samt (Children of the Silence, 1974), for example -- Zaki always managed to make a mark on the viewer. There were several recipes for success among actors of Zaki's generation -- Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz and Hussein Fahmi, for example -- but all depended on appearance, and they tended to involve typecasting lead actors in role of "jeune premiere", a practice that typically went hand in hand with romantic films; others, like Mahmoud Yassin, depended on vocal capabilities. Unlike anyone else, Zaki opted for a spontaneous, naturalistic approach, especially in those scenes that involved extreme dramatic responses; effective communication of emotions remained his top priority, so much so that he had no qualms about interrupting the actor opposite if this resulted in a more convincing portrayal of the emotion. Sometimes he giggled as he whispered a line of dialogue, exposing layers of feeling. Always the look in his eyes was of exceptional importance, for it often communicated what dialogue could not. It was the power of the eyes, combined with dark skin, that charmed the audience of Zaki and Poitier alike -- together with small ticks and tricks that will for a long time to come continue to occupy a place of prominence in the history of this most difficult profession.

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