Ashraf Abdel-Baqi: A contemplative comedian
Born in Hadayeq Al-Qobba on 11 September 1963, Ashraf Abdel-Baqi was the first Egyptian actor to create his own website. Today, many other film stars have followed suit. His fascination with theatre began at an early age. He enrolled at Al-Noqrashy Secondary School precisely "because it was one of the few schools in the country that offered drama in its curriculum". He graduated from Ain Shams University's Faculty of Commerce. His heart, though, was in drama. Initially his family was not supportive of his choice of acting as a professional career. The encouragement of his eldest brother, however, radically transformed his parents' negative attitude towards acting. Abdel-Baqi's stage debut was the play Khashab Al-Ward (Rosewood). His cinematic breakthrough came with the comedy Sayidati Sadati (Ladies and Gentlemen) in which he performed alongside comediennes Maali Zayed and Abla Kamel. He became a household name. One success led to another. He has acted in no less than 54 films, 16 television soap operas and 14 plays. His talent was corroborated in the 1993 bombshell Al-Irhab wal-Kabab (Terrorism and Barbecue) when he played a memorable part together with the king of Comedy, the veteran star Adel Imam. Ramadan 2007 witnessed Abdel-Baqi in a pioneering new venture, as the star in Ragul wa Set Settat (A Man and Six Women) "It is the first sitcom to be aired on Egyptian television during Ramadan," -- a claim disputed by many critics.
Interview by Gamal Nkrumah
Next time the Iftar conversation stalls, throw in this question: who is Egypt's most respectable comedian? The air will quickly fill with opinion as in all probability a majority of adults -- both women and men -- will align themselves with the upright propriety of Ashraf Abdel-Baqi.
I meet the man in person for the first time in the dramatic light and shade of one of the downstairs classrooms of Cairo's Irish School in Doqqi. It is Ramadan, just after midnight and as far as he is concerned, the night is still young. Abdel-Baqi has the easy smile of a man who is proud of his achievements. He could be very religious one minute and absurdly comical the next.
"The age of romance is over, people want a good laugh," Abdel-Baqi insists. He cuts an imposing, dashing figure -- dark, rugged features and eyes that are simultaneously playful, solemn and intense. However, his charm has less to do with looks than attitude.
Abdel-Baqi has no compunction about impressive stunts and action consequences, no nightmares about failed ventures. A religiously observant comedian seems to some to be a contradiction in terms. Not so for Ashraf Abdel-Baqi.
Jovial camaraderie becomes him. He jests a little, but always returns to serious social concerns. Abdel-Baqi's biting comments contain details that imply an insider's knowledge of the workings of contemporary Egyptian society.
"There are actors who have lost the love and respect of their fans because of the manner in which they lead their private lives."
Soapy overstatement, perhaps?
"On the contrary, being funny and feigning feeble- mindedness are two radically different games."
The fact that he is in his mid-40s only adds to his allure and sex appeal.
"An actor is a public personality, like a politician. Actors have to watch their every word and deed. They are role models, and as such they have a moral responsibility towards their fans. An actor must never let his fans down," he notes.
Abdel-Baqi is never short of chat-up lines. He explains that with the proliferation of pan-Arab satellite television channels there are plenty of opportunities for actors to account for their actions and clarify their positions on a wide variety of social issues. The satellite channels are the perfect means of communication between the actor and his audience.
He is fond of living life on his own terms. He has played many roles on the big screen, overwhelmingly comedy.
In all those roles Abdel-Baqi quietly and radically sought to redraw mind-maps of the Egyptian culture scene. "The controversy surrounding the supposed decadence of actors has been with us since the introduction of the silver screen," Abdel-Baqi explains. There are those in contemporary Egypt who strongly believe that those in the entertainment industry are a corrupting influence on the moral uprightness of the nation. He gives short shrift to those who entertain such opinions.
Religious zealots and conservatives have fought tooth and nail over this particular issue with the liberals and secularists of the entertainment business. The very notion of entertainment has come under fire from militant Islamists. For those in the entertainment industry it is a bread and butter issue: their very livelihoods are at stake. Music, song and dance are not incompatible with religiosity, Abdel-Baqi contends -- nor is acting.
A long moment of locked eyes, and then he speaks to the floor between us, smiling bashfully to himself. "I tend to think some things are off limits," he suggests in hushed tones. There is a little pause.
"I wouldn't want my children to watch certain films, or television programmes for that matter," he shakes his head disapprovingly. "There is such a thing as propriety".
Abdel-Baqi speaks fondly of his family. He has four children -- Ahmed, Hoda, Nour and Zeina. He concedes that he would like to spend more time with them than he actually does at present. Thanks to a flourishing acting career, he has enough disposable income to raise his children in a manner to his liking.
"You can simultaneously be a loving parent and an actor, you know," he chuckles. "I do not think it is any more difficult for an actor to be a good parent than a medical doctor or an engineer. Children must be made to understand at an early age that their father must earn a living, and that he is obliged to spend time away from home to secure a decent standard of living and provide for the family. But, parents should set aside quality time for their children. And actors do not have licence to obtain leave of absence from their family commitments," the tenor of his thoughts obviously matches the tonal register of his statement.
So do any of his children display a latent talent for acting? "I warn them that the choice of acting as a career is a difficult one. I would not wish it on any of my children to become an actor or actress. I hope they choose a profession that is less troublesome than acting," he shrugs his shoulders.
His wife, daughter of the former minister of housing Salah Hassaballah, is a towering figure in his emotional life and the "perfect mother". He has befriended many actresses over the years. His relationship with his female co- workers is restricted to "professional and moral support".
Abdel-Baqi expressed tremendous admiration for the professionalism of stars like Youssra, Laila Elwi and Ilham Shahin. "We are friends, but our friendships are based on work-related concerns," he insists. Then he softens a little. "Terrific actresses," he enthuses.
He speaks gently with graceful humility and the humanity of a man who has lived and learnt, after his own fashion, to let live. While he himself would not cultivate intimate friendships with female actresses, he refrains from condemning those of his colleagues who do. "You have to be true to your own culture. But there is plenty of room for civilised dialogue and the amicable exchange of ideas," he grins.
If he has optimism it is that such dialogue continues even while competing ideologies and conflicting perspectives are squaring up to each other. There lies the rub. The cinema and television are powerful mediums that can advance tolerant debate. The actor is in a powerful position to foster the spirit of tolerance and open-mindedness -- an understanding of the other.
Many of his peers in the entertainment business knock back the whiskeys and know every after-hours club in Cairo. "They have freedom, but no fulfillment," he muses. "Stuck resolutely in denial. Not that I judge them," he adds quickly.
On stage he might be a jester, but in real life he hardly ever leaves the religious imperative behind. He has worked with some of the best directors and scriptwriters of Egypt. And he ranks himself among the "country's best actors". He is especially proud of working closely with Youssra on several landmark movies in his acting career. Hassan wa Aziza: Qadiyat Amn Dawla (1993) with Youssra was a turning point. She was the star, but he carved a significant niche for himself in the film. Again Kalam Al-Leil (Night Talk) with Youssra was another milestone.
His first love, though, was the theatre. " Khashab Al-Ward was the beginning," Abdel-Baqi reminisces. He was introduced to one of his mentors, Hani Mutawe', and of course, the Alexandrian actor Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz. Those were exciting years as far as Abdel-Baqi was concerned; and he relishes the memories of those "struggling years" before he started to star in blockbuster hits.
Cinema, however, was different. Throughout his childhood, he spent many a weekend traipsing round the local picture houses. In the cinema, in front of the camera, he is great. Does one detect some big-screen bias? "No, television and cinema are just different. The actor has to adjust to playing a different role. The theatre, however, is a world apart," he smiles.
In his teens he was a keen cinema goer. The big break came with Ice Cream in Gleem (a suburb of Alexandria). The light-hearted musical was an instant success smashing previous box office records of similar musicals. The 1992 blockbuster was directed by the ingenious Khairy Bishara, the leading role was that of pop star and teen idol Amr Diab. Abdel-Baqi's was relegated to the provision of satirical touches, but his intense energy on the big screen was nothing short of spellbinding. Irony and imagination juxtaposed on pop songs and the pretty faces of the then budding actresses Jihan Fadel and Sabreen proved to be a winning combination. Indeed, Ice Cream in Gleem was replete with nostalgic imagery, intensely focussed on the dreams and melodrama of youth.
In sharp contrast was the 1993 masterpiece Leih ya Banafsig (Why, Violet?) which did not achieve the commercial success of Ice Cream in Gleem, but was highly acclaimed by the critics. Directed by the late Radwan El-Kashef and starring dancer-actress Lucy, Farouq El-Fishawi and Hassan Hosni, Leih ya Banafsig was a sensitive, exquisitely sensual and touching film with vivid, pulsating imagery.
For Abdel-Baqi, of course, acting is a way of life, at least in the sense that it is something he fiercely believes in.
In spite of his resounding success as a film star, nobody can accuse Abdel-Baqi of being a cinematic snob when it comes to television. "Television and the cinema are very different mediums. And the theatre even more so." He claims that with the theatre he is freer to create his own behavioural template.
Then came the real challenge. He got the leading role in the comedy Rasha Gariaa (Bold Splash). "This is the first film that I call mine." It was in his opinion a film that helped redefine Egyptian comedy.
He shakes his head, and lets out a gruff chuckle. Its guiding aesthetic appealed to a diverse cross-section of Egyptians in particular and Arabs more generally.
Ashyak Wad fi Roxy, "The Dandiest Boy in Roxy" (a Heliopolis district), on the other hand, was an abysmal failure. He nods his head in agreement. "That was one of my gravest mistakes," he frowns.
Well-chosen witticisms have been Abdel-Baqi's trademark. Myriad newspaper and magazine interviews and appearances on television have turned him into a celebrity.
Abdel-Baqi played prominent parts in a number of films including Khali min Al-Kolestrol (Cholesterol-Free), written and directed by Mohamed Abu Seif. The film was a frivolous comedy starring veterans Ilham Shahin and Hassan Hosni. Another of Abdel-Baqi's memorable movies was Mowaten Masry, (An Egyptian Citizen), and Saheb Sahbo (His Friend's Friend) in 2002. In the former he acted side by side with Omar Sharif.
After Aris Min Geha Amniya (2004), a comedy by seasoned stars Adel Imam, Lebleba and directed by Ali Idriss, came Romantica (Romance), directed by Mamdouh Abdel-Alim, in which Abdel-Baqi starred alongside Lucy -- another box office hit. There is a separate book to be written about most of these films.
Hobb Al-Banat (The Love of Girls), the 2004 romantic comedy about three half sisters who share a dad, but have three different mothers, is another of his films. Abdel-Baqi plays the part of El-Noshokati, a psychiatrist, who resolves the emotional entanglements of the damsels in distress. Mixed-up emotions, lack of love and a firm family bond ruined their lives. Abdel-Baqi came to the rescue of the three sisters Laila Elwi, Hana Shiha, and Hanan Turk. He knew all too well their medicine -- all they needed was love.
Unencumbered by any such emotional baggage, Abdel-Baqi boasts about the sitcom that has got many viewers glued to their television sets after Iftar: Ragul wa Set Settat. In this particular sitcom, Abdel-Baqi dumps the slapstick and wisecracks on the viewers. "A Man and Six Women" is not exactly a sitcom designed to keep the viewers' brains ticking over during Iftar. The long indolent hours just after Iftar are traditionally inundated with soap operas. Sitcoms are a new phenomenon in the Arab world, fast gaining popularity among Arab viewers.
Needless to say, in terms of realism, though, Abdel-Baqi has the edge. It is not hard to see this sitcom as a grey area where new-age beliefs and traditional costumes blend in with black humour.
There is a world-weary incredulity in the new and hilarious sitcom, as Abdel-Baqi pits one close woman relative against another. The women fight it out, and it is with histrionics. Watching telly in Ramadan has undergone radical change.
Theatrical and fast-paced, there is a whiff of visual histrionics about this particular sitcom, but it is a courageous experiment all the same. No selfish lifestyle for he-women, but lashings of self-indulgence for the man of the moment. Abdel-Baqi managed a smile.
"Sitcoms are an old medium in the West. In the Arab world, however, it is a new phenomenon," he obviously does not wish to be drawn into the prickly question of the battle of the sexes. He explains that sitcoms are a genre of comedy that originated in American radio, but is now confined almost exclusively to television.
So what is Abdel-Baqi up to these days? He is currently shooting a film directed by Said Hamed and Ala Gamb ya Osta (Pull-up Driver). "It is the story of a taxi driver and his adventures. He roams the streets of Cairo in 2007. He picks up someone, and drops them off. He chats with people from all walks of life. He learns about their personal concerns and political orientations," Abdel-Baqi discloses. Like "Man and Six Women", the ritual of masculine enactment is reinforced, albeit with much wit and humour.
photo: Sherif Sonbol