Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Madiha Youssri

Madiha Youssri:

The power of a gaze

Profile by Soheir Sami

Sometimes just one look becomes your passport to fame


 
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Images, and eyes: these are the two pivots around which Madiha Youssri's life has revolved, for as long as she can remember. Her sensibility -- perhaps her very being -- is trapped (pinned, like a moth immobilised beneath the microscope) in the dynamic, ever-shifting distance between them. The emotional and intellectual messages they communicate to each other, their ceaseless give and take, and the crystallisation of experience that only images and eyes can achieve: these are the script, the lens, the screen, the star.

But the motion pictures are not only about acting, and likewise eyes are not simply passive receptors; at least not Youssri's eyes. As a teenager she saved her daily allowance in order to be able to afford a weekly outing (that is, a weekly movie, since the two were synonymous -- where else would she have gone but to a darkened cinema, to dream and weep for a precious hour or two?). Fortunately there was a cinema right next to where she lived in Shubra, and on Thursday evenings when she returned home, she would spend hours gazing at her reflection in the mirror, imagining herself in the place of the lead actress every time. "But it wasn't until I enrolled in a girls' embroidery school," strangely enough, "that I placed my foot on the first step of the ladder." Admittedly, these were simple little playlets staged only once a year, but they were enough for her to realise what it was like to interact with an audience -- "the active power you exert over people as they look at you." Still, it was the perfectly passive power of her own eyes that, only a few years later, made her first major breakthrough possible.

"All the girls had tram passes," she remembers. "My father didn't want me to walk to school in case young men tried to stop me, flirting and all that. Anyway, on weekends we went out in a group to the city centre by tram, a group of young women full of dreams, all of us alike and each one very different. While the other girls were content to sit comfortably in the women's coach, looking out the windows, I would edge my way towards the driver's little compartment, where the broad windscreen offered a better view."

It is likely that, in looking out through the windscreen of the tram, so much like the silver screen on which she riveted her star-crossed pupils once a week, Youssri's eyes were doing more than investigating views of a city with which the young woman wholeheartedly identified (even now she calls herself "Cairene through and through"). Surely they must also have been envisioning the bright lights of that same big city, as they converged more and more on the young woman who possessed them. But how could she embark on an acting career to make that happen? "We got off in Fouad Street, and sat in the garden of Groppi's on Adli Street, chatting, eating cake and drinking tea." It was on one such occasion, in a downtown café, that the answer suddenly came, much sooner than expected.

One day (and this could have been happening in a fairy tale, of course), a man came up to Youssri and told her that her eyes were beautiful. He had not yet introduced himself, but when he did, the door to fame and fortune finally opened, revealing the glittering wealth of all Youssri had foreseen -- and all she had failed to imagine. The mysterious admirer was Mohamed Karim, the distinguished filmmaker and director of the 1930s and 1940s, who was the first to introduce the great composer and singer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab to the silver screen with Al-Warda Al-Baydaa (The White Rose, 1933). This success was followed by half a dozen of Abdel-Wahab's best-known pieces, ending with Russassa Fil-Qalb (Bullet through the Heart, 1944), all films through which Karim showcased the immensely popular lyrics of Abdel-Wahab.

"I knew Karim's name because I'd seen all of Abdel-Wahab's films, of course. As soon as I'd thanked him for the compliment, though, he said he wanted me to appear as an extra in one of his films opposite Abdel-Wahab while singing his popular song 'Don't Kiss My Eyes', and so it all began." Youssri was successful; so successful, in fact, that she was offered a supporting role in Intisar Al-Shabab (Youth's Victory, 1941), the next film to be made for the equally popular composer and singer, the invincible Farid El-Atrash, playing opposite his legendary sister Asmahan. Though the protagonist of the fairy tale cannot be said to have lived happily ever after, it is probably safe to say that she was firmly on her way to becoming the famous actress and public figure that she is now.

Only one problem remained to be resolved. Her family objected to a career in acting, and she couldn't go ahead with Intisar Al-Shabab without their approval since she was too young to sign the contract herself. "So I decided to ask my aunt, my mother's sister, who was very close to me, to come and sign the contract instead. That way I wouldn't be giving my parents the possibility of interfering and preventing me from going ahead with what I'd started." The aunt got so excited, in fact, that she got to act in the film herself, playing a minor role (Youssri's mother) opposite her gifted niece. On that same day, Youssri took the contract to show her parents, and with a great deal of persuasion managed to solicit her mother's approval. Her conventional father would take longer to come around, but eventually he too accepted his daughter's newly acquired profession, on condition that "I play only respectable roles in meaningful movies that promote the good of society and the family". It is a promise, she says, that she has kept diligently.

Intisar Al-Shabab was the first of many films (90 at the last count) through which Madiha Youssri became a household name. The years she would have spent at university were thus spent at "an alternative university" comprising the studio of artist Salah Taher (who discovered in Youssri a talent for art that she would never have time to develop), the salon of Abbas El-Aqqad and many other artistic and cultural gatherings. She acted opposite the theatre pioneer Youssef Wahbi, "my greatest mentor", and by 1950 was already in a position to produce her own films, starting with Avocato Madiha (Madiha the Lawyer), based on Wahbi's play of the same title and directed by him. Avocato Madiha was an investigation of the then contentious issue of women who wanted to work as lawyers: "Here as elsewhere, as a producer, my goal was to tackle relevant issues in a way that would serve society and the family, to reinforce the traditional values of Egyptian culture." Ard Al-Ahlam (Land of Dreams, 1957), the first movie to be filmed in colour in Upper Egypt, for example, presented a positive view of the country, which was later spread throughout the world since "it was screened by our embassies all over, a fact that made me very, very proud".

She also produced and starred in a series of romantic films based on writer Youssef El-Seba'i's novels, the most popular of which is Inni Rahila (I Shall Depart, 1955), based on El-Seba'i's popular novel of the same title. In it, she played opposite Emad Hamdi the role of a woman in love who sacrifices everything for the sake of her lover -- including her life, as she decides, upon his sudden death, to set fire to the wooden shack where they were living following their elopement. Melodrama? No, precisely because Youssri believes in it so totally, even today. Such a spirit of tragic self-sacrifice, which dominates not only Youssri's work but also the way she thinks, was here set against a charming backdrop -- a desolate stretch of beach near Alexandria. This intensifies and romanticises the idea so effectively that one can think of neither the more secluded areas of the Egyptian Mediterranean coast nor of Youssri herself without the final scene of Inni Rahila persistently reasserting itself in memory.

with Mohamed Amin
with Muhamed Fawzi
with Faten and Magda
with Karioca and Amina Rizk
at the Shura Council

From top: with first husband Mohamed Amin; with Mohamed Fawzi; with Faten Hamama and Magda; at an international event with Karioca and Amina Rizq; at the Shura Council


Only one problem remained to be resolved. Her family objected to a career in acting, and she couldn't go ahead with Intisar Al-Shabab without their approval since she was too young to sign the contract herself. "So I decided to ask my aunt, my mother's sister, who was very close to me, to come and sign the contract instead. That way I wouldn't be giving my parents the possibility of interfering and preventing me from going ahead with what I'd started." The aunt got so excited, in fact, that she got to act in the film herself, playing a minor role (Youssri's mother) opposite her gifted niece. On that same day, Youssri took the contract to show her parents, and with a great deal of persuasion managed to solicit her mother's approval. Her conventional father would take longer to come around, but eventually he too accepted his daughter's newly acquired profession, on condition that "I play only respectable roles in meaningful movies that promote the good of society and the family". It is a promise, she says, that she has kept diligently.

Intisar Al-Shabab was the first of many films (90 at the last count) through which Madiha Youssri became a household name. The years she would have spent at university were thus spent at "an alternative university" comprising the studio of artist Salah Taher (who discovered in Youssri a talent for art that she would never have time to develop), the salon of Abbas El-Aqqad and many other artistic and cultural gatherings. She acted opposite the theatre pioneer Youssef Wahbi, "my greatest mentor", and by 1950 was already in a position to produce her own films, starting with Avocato Madiha (Madiha the Lawyer), based on Wahbi's play of the same title and directed by him. Avocato Madiha was an investigation of the then contentious issue of women who wanted to work as lawyers: "Here as elsewhere, as a producer, my goal was to tackle relevant issues in a way that would serve society and the family, to reinforce the traditional values of Egyptian culture." Ard Al-Ahlam (Land of Dreams, 1957), the first movie to be filmed in colour in Upper Egypt, for example, presented a positive view of the country, which was later spread throughout the world since "it was screened by our embassies all over, a fact that made me very, very proud".

She also produced and starred in a series of romantic films based on writer Youssef El-Seba'i's novels, the most popular of which is Inni Rahila (I Shall Depart, 1955), based on El-Seba'i's popular novel of the same title. In it, she played opposite Emad Hamdi the role of a woman in love who sacrifices everything for the sake of her lover -- including her life, as she decides, upon his sudden death, to set fire to the wooden shack where they were living following their elopement. Melodrama? No, precisely because Youssri believes in it so totally, even today. Such a spirit of tragic self-sacrifice, which dominates not only Youssri's work but also the way she thinks, was here set against a charming backdrop -- a desolate stretch of beach near Alexandria. This intensifies and romanticises the idea so effectively that one can think of neither the more secluded areas of the Egyptian Mediterranean coast nor of Youssri herself without the final scene of Inni Rahila persistently reasserting itself in memory.

In the early 1950s, and during the "splendid experience" of being a star and producer, she married the much loved singer and actor Mohamed Fawzi, her collaborator for many years to come. Youssri had been married previously to singer Mohamed Amin, a decision inspired principally by the desire to free herself from the restrictions imposed by her family. This, she explains, is why the marriage soon broke up. With Fawzi, on the other hand, it was a love story and a dream come true. It was with Fawzi that she had her only son, who died young in a tragic car accident. Amr's pictures occupy every corner of Youssri's house. "I believe in destiny and I feel that, had we known the unknowable, we would have understood why such terribly painful things take place. But I'm also convinced that God tests our faith and it's up to us to pass the test."

Youssri is reluctant to discuss her breakup with Fawzi in any detail, but it can be seen from the way she talks about her troubles with him, "which kept getting worse and worse", that it was probably because she was too independent a woman for the rather traditional man's taste. It is easy to see a paradox in this best of resolutely good girls with an irresistible penchant for doing things her way; yet her third and last marriage to Sheikh Ibrahim Salama El-Radi, head of the Hamidiya Shaziliya Sufi tariqa, a deeply religious man who nonetheless respected and valued Youssri's work, would suggest otherwise. "I like to dedicate myself wholeheartedly to the man with whom I live," she says with a sweet smile. She gave up acting for the marriage's four-year duration, after which she returned to the silver screen, as a rather more mature woman, the aristocratic wife and mother, the patron who was no less charming, cultured or attractive for having gained in years.

Her performance in the popular television series, Hawanim Garden City (The Ladies of Garden City), which was aired last Ramadan, testifies to her continuing vitality and power to move audiences. This was the last of 15 television appearances, and she has just finished filming Ta'ir fil-'Unuq (A Bird in the Neck), a period drama dealing with such characters as the statesman Saad Zaghlul and the twin media magnates Mustafa and Ali Amin, the groundbreaking and immensely influential journalists who established the Akhbar Al-Youm organisation. This is yet another climax in an ongoing and exciting story that has lasted almost six decades -- and made up a large part of the history of Egyptian cinema. It is a story, too, in which the main protagonists have been, as always, images and eyes.

Now, she says, she is happy with her quieter life. "It allows me to pay attention to the Madiha whom I love, and who was abandoned for a long time because of my dedication to my husbands." Besides devoting more time to religion (she visits Mecca at least twice a year), she travels widely, participates in charity work, listens to music and paints in her free time. She is also a member of the Egyptian Shura Council (the upper chamber of the Egyptian Parliament), an honour she regards as "the greatest in my life".

What could be a more heartening reconciliation than Youssri's memory of her father's death, an event that involved visual perception again, in a final, complex and moving gesture of moral and emotional peace-making? "When I looked in the pockets of his jacket, I found 12 stills from my films, which he had kept hidden. This filled me with serenity, knowing that he had approved of me before he died. It was incredibly comforting. And until this day, I know that I too have kept my promise."

photo: Randa Shaath

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