Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
25 Nov. - 1 Dec. 1999
Issue No. 457
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Philosophy of laughter

By Youssef Rakha
Naguib El-Rihani and friends

In honouring the king of Egyptian comedy, this year's Film Festival has opted to close the millennium on a funny, serious note.
El-Rihani (holding a cigarette), pictured here with Abdel-Fattah El-Qusari (to his left) and Estefan Rosti (to his right), died 50 years ago, but his masterpieces of bittersweet misfortune continue to enjoy unparalleled popularity

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Never mind the tragic history of the millennium. "Laughter", the guiding principle of the 23rd round of the Cairo International Film Festival, which opened on Tuesday with a suitable degree of aplomb, supplies an equally valid conclusion to this turbulent and whimsical century.

Opening with Harold Ramis's 1999 Analyse This - a psychological comedy that deals with end-of-the-century anxiety in a hilarious way -- the last round of the festival to occur before 2000 will host a wide variety of films both in and out of the official competition, as well as a whole range of special programmes and supplementary film screenings: Brazilian cinema of the 1990s, a tribute to Fabienne Vonier on the 10th anniversary of Pyramide, three films by Spanish filmmaker Montxo Armendariz, Russian film screenings on the 75th anniversary of Mosfilm...

Arab participation in the official competition (two Egyptian films and one Algerian-Vietnamese co-production) is rightly thought to be deficient. Nonetheless, the screening of four Arab films that won the grand prix at the Institut du Monde Arabe's Film Biennale (1992 through 1998), including Lebanese filmmaker Ziyad Doueiri's West Beirut, as well as a "panorama" of contemporary Egyptian cinema, will provide an adequate counterpoint.

With a total of 20 comic features from Europe, India, Russia and the US, however, the emphasis on laughter is unmistakable. It is true that the guests of honour (Alain Delon, Catherine Deneuve, Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, among others) are not all comedians. Yet the festival has paid tribute to the pillars of Egyptian comedy too, including actor Fouad El-Mohandes. Moreover, the fact that it coincides with the 50th anniversary of the death of actor and director Naguib El-Rihani, Egypt's foremost "philosopher of comedy", gives the comic aspect of the event an exciting and meaningful edge.

El-Rihani, after all, managed to utilise the comic potential of Egyptian 20th-century life to astoundingly profound effect, so much so that in his films he is still capable of making people weep and laugh in the same scene. Together with his collaborator, the dramatist, script-writer and lyricist Badi' Khayri, he is honoured as much for his comic gift as for his professional and personal integrity, his intellectual and artistic contribution to Egyptian society and politics.

Ministers and stars ACTING UP: ministers and stars at the opening ceremony
Beset by controversies as to whether he was born in 1887 or 1892, in Cairo or Alexandria, and whether the Christian family into which he was born (his father was a horse trader) was of Kurdish or Syro-Lebanese extraction, El-Rihani's life -- the prickly path he trod to eventual fame and fortune -- is as tragic, funny and inexplicable as his most remarkable dramas. After his father's economic demise, followed shortly by his death, a barely adult Rihani left the Collège de la Salle, where he excelled both academically and as the animator and star of school productions, to support his family. At the bank where he worked as a clerk, though, he met another theatre enthusiast and future star who spoke French, Aziz Eid, with whom he soon abandoned his newly acquired position to devote himself to theatre. Interestingly, the first troupe he attempted to join -- George Abiad's -- specialised in tragedy. El-Rihani was dismissed almost immediately, and told that he couldn't act to save his life. Fortunately, he did not give up.

In 1916, he wrote his first play, in which he invented the immensely popular character of Kishkish Bey, a turn-of-the-century feudal village mayor dealing hilariously with city life.

In 1919, his newly formed troupe staged the operetta Al-Ashara Al-Tayeba (composed by Sayed Darwish and written by Badi' Khayri), a beautifully moving work openly oppositional to the British occupation. Soon he was touring the Arab world where he met his wife, Badia Masabni, later the proprietress of the landmark Casino Badia, and in 1935 acquired the Emadeddin Theatre, on whose stage he performed until the end of his life.

His plays, a number of which were later made into films, dealt with misfortune -- the hapless provincial in a hostile and precarious metropolis, the pauper-turned-king, the middle-aged teacher who falls desperately in love with his teenage student. And in all this he was boisterously witty and amusing without giving up the depth, the pathos, the human dimension of his tales.

Upon his death on 8 June 1949, the literary pioneer Taha Hussein wrote: "However much Egyptians mourn this great man... they will not have given him even a small part of what he deserves."

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