Nour El-Sherif: Proudly made in Egypt
Centre stage, actor Nour El-Sherif is excited to be receiving an honorary doctorate from a prestigious educational establishment. Enter the dean of Middlebury College, USA, stage left: "Nour El-Sherif, actor, director, intellectual, international film star. You've been called Egypt's most famous actor, yet your work transcends boundaries and borders. In more than 200 films, plays and television programmes, you have used acting to explore the human condition as it exists on the global stage. Your attention to detail, your commitment to research, and your fidelity to the truth has allowed you to embody myriad roles -- from the 12th century Islamic philosopher Averroes in Al-Masser (for which read Youssef Chahine's Al-Maseer, Destiny) to the Egyptian everyman, Said, in Eish Ayamak (Live your Days) -- with every fibre of your being, and the result has been convincing portrayals -- time after time, role after role -- of some of the Arab world's most vivid characters."
Interview by Injy El-Kashef
"So, have you been to watch the sun rising over Ramses in Abu Simbel yet?" -- my first question to the veteran, for some peculiar reason. Crossing his legs, cigarette in hand, he seemed remarkably comfortable with yet another journalist poking, with curiosity, into his life. "Not yet!" His big eyes blink; a full smile accompanies this instant, dramatically incredulous exclamation. "Can you imagine? I really do want to go though. When is it? [a quick calculation is evidently being carried out in his head] Maybe this year we can set it up. Poussy and I have wanted to do this for such a long time now." Spontaneous responses, engaging body language, genuine voice: not a trace of the actor as yet. This is a man speaking to me, and it seems well nigh incredible that, having "known" him for so long, really, I'm now meeting Nour El-Sherif for the first time.
Yet even now it's hard not to hanker back to his overpowering performance in Ali Abdel-Khaleq's Al-Aar (Disgrace, 1982). He played the elder son, his father's right-hand man -- and the only one of his children to be involved in a lucrative and appropriately clandestine hashish trade -- now forced, on his father's unexpected death, to confront his two brothers with the reality of the "family business", and draw them into a major operation his father had had no time to complete. And so true was his performance, so deeply Egyptian his sense of irony and manliness, that at least one of his many lines -- nefayyesh al-hawamesh ("let's plug the tins" where the hashish was stored) -- has earned a place in the contemporary vernacular. It was a challenge not to quote it back at him.
Had he been dark or dismissive, one might have -- if only to lighten up the mood. Yet the man I had just met was all light, in both senses. Comfortably if elegantly dressed, he had been sitting at a Mohandessin café table, piles of papers sharing the marble surface with coffee cup and ashtray as he pores over one of them, pen in hand. Always the same café, the same hour and the same purpose: "I like to watch people as I work; study their faces while they go about their business from the window up here. It's as close to reality as you can get nowadays, wouldn't you say?" A recurrent motif, this: regret over life reduced to "a semblance of reality" in so many ways: "it's as if people, everyone, is acting a part -- in an ongoing play, in which everything is the semblance of what it is meant to be, never quite the thing itself." There was no irony in hearing this actor speak such words, for within minutes of being in his presence one has already realised that acting is El-Sherif's profession, his alma mater, not his identity.
Yet, more than any other adjective, it is "Egyptian" that best describes him. Loyalty to the homeland may be hard to maintain in "this very cruel world", but his dream is to see his countrymen re-cultivating a sense of Egyptianness -- "the collective memory we have lost". Engaged in this argument, body and soul, he leans this way and that, deploring "capitalist cruelty that aims to eradicate human memory, the better to transform us into consumers". His spirit is zealous, his words radiating energy. And in no time, indeed, such passion illuminates the fight to be fought, the resistance to be put up. He tells me of a project in which public schoolchildren, encouraged by the company of stars, would be taken on treks to learn about their heritage on site. "One has to start at the roots. We are at a juncture, and we're moving so fast we don't have time to realise where we're going." He shrugs as he lights up again: "The artist is but a role model."
For his two daughters, he says, he tried to set an example of the capacity to exercise freedom, an inherent human attribute, he believes. "I'd encourage my daughter to disagree with her teacher, always respectfully, of course," earnestly, that latter remark, "to always have the courage to express herself, whatever the consequences; otherwise we end up like Youssef in [Dawoud Abdel-Sayed's 1991] Al-Bahth 'An Sayed Marzouq (Looking for Sayed Marzouq), who, having been instructed by a stranger on the street to "go home ya Youssef" as he headed out to express his views, became so terrorised that he locked himself in for the next 20 years."
But aside from the gravity of the thought -- that scary thought -- El-Sherif maintains his penchant for laughter. "We seldom laugh with genuine abandon any more," he says, visibly nostalgic, "though life can still be very beautiful -- enough to inspire joy." Indeed it is his ability to be thus inspired that could explain his success. He could be discussing literature with Italian novelist Alberto Moravia, or spending an afternoon with the late seminal man of letters Tawfiq El-Hakim -- or else simply kicking a soft ball around the film set. There is enough humility and depth of vision to allow for learning even as he heartily embraces his popularity, employing it in the service of the greater good -- and the future. Both joy and the drive to learn are aspects of the same desire to leave an imprint on the world: "Someone has to look after these kids, give them a proper understanding of who they are and what they are capable of." He frowns slightly, pausing to think. "Bring your little one to the play tonight," he says, referring to Alfred Farag's Al-Amira wal-So'louk (The Princess and the Vagabond), his latest contribution to the National Theatre, as both lead actor and director.
Despite resistance from his family, El-Sherif graduated from the Institute of Dramatic Studies in 1967, and starred in renowned director Hassan El-Imam's version of Noble Laureate Naguib Mahfouz's Qasr Al-Showq (Palace of Desire) -- his debut, undertaken in the company of such acting giants as Yehia Shahin and Amina Rizq. And he took to the cinema like a fish to water, collaborating, since then, with over 30 directors (though the lion's share -- 11 and 10 films, respectively -- must go to Hossameddin Mustafa and Samir Seif). As producer -- he established a production company in collaboration with his wife, film star Poussy -- he helped introduce a remarkable generation of directors: Samir Seif, Atef El-Tayeb, Hussein Kamal, Mohamed Khan, Mohamed El-Naggar. "At the time they were all emerging artists -- and you can only give a hand. It's something I'm very proud of," he says candidly. Seif's Da'erat Al-Entiqam (Circle of Revenge) was made in the year of El-Sherif's graduation, and his subsequent film, Qetta Ala Nar (adapted from Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ) earned El-Sherif three best lead actor awards in the same year.
An incredibly successful actor, with a few dozen awards to his name, El-Sherif has never been the subject of jet-set gossip. With his equally popular wife Poussy, he has meticulously safeguarded his family life -- the "sacred nucleus" to which he feels most loyal. "The comfort I felt when I saw Poussy face to face," he reminisces. "I knew she was the one, there could be no better wife for me." Since working together on Ta'm Al-Haya ( The Taste of Life ), that episode of director Mohamed Fadel's hugely popular televised series Al-Qahira wal-Naas -- where they first met -- that comfort has shielded the couple against society columns. Instead he has occasionally written his own column -- flirting with journalism in, among other publications, Al-Ahram's Nisf Al-Donya magazine, in which he interviewed the high-profile political analyst Mohamed Hassanein Heikal. A debating guest of seasoned journalist Neam El-Baz, El-Sherif has confronted such major intellects as Sheikh El-Baqouri and Mahfouz, on issues ranging from religion to politics.
And that, precisely, is the thing. El-Sherif is driven by curiosity, which leads him to search for knowledge in the form of answers, ideas, conversations -- and people. Starting as a straightforward interview, for example, this conversation developed into a complex, often heated discussion of video clips, Greek tragedy, post-9/11 America, ancient Egyptian fertility gods, numerology, music, herbal teas and the rise of divorce levels. He likes his green tea with sugar: "Yes, yes, it's healthier without, but it tastes better with," he laughs again, eye brows raised as if to state the obvious.
But does the man who played the phenomenally controversial Ramadan TV personality Hagg Metwalli -- the husband of four women -- believe in polygamy? "Well," he chuckles again, "I certainly believe one woman is less trouble." In certain circumstances perhaps, in certain cultures, he goes on -- addressing the dynamics of male- female interactions, an exhortation in which he refers to Muslim history with the facility of a scholar, almost, and during which metaphorical allusions to football indicate that this must be next on his list of interests.
At the top of this long list of interests, one surmises, must be politics -- arguably the actor's most abiding concern throughout his career. Among his films, indeed, Ali Badrakhan's Ahl Al-Qemma (Those at the Top, 1981); Atef El-Tayeb's Sawwaq Al-Autobis (The Bus Driver, 1983), Demaa Ala Al-Asfalt (Blood on the Asphalt, 1992), Nagui Al-Ali (1992) and later Leila Sakhena (A Hot Night, 1996); Mohamed El-Naggar's Zaman Hatem Zahran (Hatem Zahran's Times, 1988); Ali Badrakhan's Al-Karnak (1975); Said Marzouq's Al-Khouf (Fear, 1972); Hussein Kamal's La Shay' Yahimm (Nothing Matters, 1975), Ashraf Fahmi's Ma' Sabq Al-Israr (Premeditated Intention, 1979) and later Al-Shaytan Ya'ez (Satan Preaches, 1981); Youssef Chahine's Haddouta Masreya (An Egyptian Tale, 1982) and later Al-Maseer (Destiny, 1997), have all addressed political questions, whether local, regional or global.
"Before portraying Arafat," the actor who played the Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al-Ali declares, "I would first like to portray Ahmed Yassin. We have a duty to generate awareness. This is the only way art can have a direct impact; it should appeal to as many people as possible, it should be enjoyable, accessible, and it should ultimately have a point. With the introduction of spoken language to the arts was born a direct link between the performer and the viewer, in which the meaning is unified; with this link comes a responsibility. There was a purpose, after all, to the birth of drama," El-Sherif sounds perfectly unequivocal.
Later the same day, the little one has watched his play and waits for "Hassan" to appear "in real life". It is his first theatre experience, I tell El-Sherif. "And it is this," he replies, beaming with genuine joy, "that makes me happy."
photo: Injy El-Kashef