Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 December 2008
Issue No. 925
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Sum of all her parts

Rania Khallaf listens in awe to Samiha Ayoub, Arab theatre's leading lady

Click to view caption
One of Ayoub's plays on the NT: "The National Theatre is like my own home..."

The fire that two months ago caused major damage to the National Theatre's (NT) auditorium was enough excuse for me to collect my courage and decide to contact Samiha Ayoub and ask for an interview. My admiration was too much to hide, however: I have always wondered what questions I would ask her given that she has been interviewed hundreds of times. I overcame my fears, and armed with a close reading of her archive as well as the recently published autobiography, My Memoirs, I headed to her two-floor flat in Zamalek. She was ready for the interview on time. When she crossed the reception to shake hands I felt I should clap instead. Her charisma projects beyond the limited space of the stage. She looks elegant, confident and friendly. Unfortunately the questions I prepared were meaningless next to her eloquent speech. Clearly, in Ayoub's company it is better to listen than ask.

I mention the fire at the NT, on whose stage she was a regular feature after graduating from the Higher Institute of Theatre in the 1950s, and which she chaired for 14 years, starting from the mid-1970s.

Born in 1938, Ayoub first stood on the same stage when she was 14. She also spent two years as the director of the Modern Theatre, beginning in 1973.

"The 1960s, the period before I became a director, was vivid. There was a cultural renaissance on almost all levels, in theatre, cinema, literature and criticism. The theatre was then headed by Ahmed Hamroush and under his supervision artists worked with great energy to develop the artistic scene.

"It was at the beginning of the Open Door policy that I assumed responsibility for the theatre and it was a mess. It was a hard time for the arts in Egypt. New studios had opened in the Gulf and they were attracting most of the best artists who were seeking greater financial security. Given the limited budget of the NT it was hard strike a balance. On one hand actors have every right to work for the private sector to earn more money but on the other I was in no position to bargain with the levels of excellence that had marked the NT. My answer was to allow actors more time to work for the private sector once they had finished their work on the National stage.

"I was also conscious that actors, indeed all the staff, should be treated equally, and on a performance- related basis. Friendship was out of my calculations. I left casting to directors and never made nominations. It was essential in order to establish the necessary confidence and trust, between carpenters as much as actors. Eventually I came to be viewed as a kind of big sister figure who took good care of all staff members."

She is particularly proud of the NT Troupe's appearance at the Opéra Comique in Paris, with performances of Isis and Phaedra, fondly remembering how the political commentator Mohamed Ouda lauded her success as the latter. She also recalls her performance in Brecht's The Good Person of Szechwan, applauded by many critics and intellectuals, including the Algerian Al-Akhdar Al-Ibrahimi -- "the actress must play both the good and evil roles. Most actresses tend to be better at one. The manager of the Berlin Ensemble said my performance was unique" -- and in Anthony and Cleopatra.

With few, if any, regrets over the rolls she has chosen, she particularly remembers the personification of Rabaa El-Adawiya and Salma in Al-Fatta Mahran by Abdel-Rahman El-Sharqawi.

"I still remember Sartre when he came with Simone De Bouvoir to watch The Flies in the 1970s. There was a buzz about the play. People used to attend rehearsals, can you imagine? Now people are out for money, not enjoyment.

"Back in the 1960s we did not have money. But we had hope. There was much less corruption than now. It is the pervasiveness of corruption that has created a general feeling of depression among Egyptians. Losing hope is the most dangerous symptom.

"Now, when I feel hopeless over the state of the theatre I stretch my arm and get out a video cassette of one of my plays just to calm down. It never crossed my mind that theatre could deteriorate this way."

Ayoub was 14 when she first stepped onto the stage, under the supervision of Zaki Tulimat. It was at the Modern Theatre, which served as the nascent NT.

"The NT is like my own home. I spent most of my life playing on its stage. It is part of me. I know its every corner by heart so you can imagine how I had felt when I heard about the fire. I was in Hurghada at the time. Friends in Egypt and other Arab countries called on the day of the fire to console me. It felt as if someone very close had died. I shut my door and for five days I grieved, trying to console myself, but close to collapse. The theatre was not just a place where I worked, it was my own land. I did not do that when my mother died, or even when my dear husband, Saadeddin Wahba, passed away. On both occasions I had to receive people who come to console me.

"The day before fire I had been discussing a production of The Visit by Durrenmatt with director Shaker Abdel-Latif. The idea has now been postponed until further notification. I hope I still be alive by the time it is reprieved.

"The audience in the 1960s was different; well-dressed, interactive, art-loving. The 1960s was the golden era for arts. I am a product of that decade and have never doubted my good fortune in living through the period. I took part in unique debates, over politics, over human conflicts. Everything changed in the 1970s, when commercial theatre began to gain ground. The audience changed, began to comprise people who had gone to the Gulf and made money. The price of commercial theatre tickets soared, and their productions mimicked cabarets'. Censorship, too, reared its ugly head. Only the most mediocre plays were allowed."

But was Ayoub never tempted by the rival attractions of cinema? Was she always determined to remain faithful to the stage?

"I have had some good roles in film, including A man and Two Women, Do Not Switch off the Sun and The Dawn of Islam (1971). I have not worked in the cinema since then for various reasons. I wasn't really offered tempting roles, and so decided to save my efforts for the theatre and television serials. Then, in the 1970s, my husband was appointed the chairman of Flimintage, one of the two main production companies. We decided that I should keep distant from the cinema as long as Wahba continued in the job."

Ayoub turns 70 this year, though she hardly looks it. Her face is free of wrinkles. Her zodiac sign is Pisces.

"What's yours?" she asked in a friendly tone.

"I'm Taurus," I replied. "I thought, you would have been Taurus too, for you are a workaholic, dedicated, and strong woman."

"Everybody says I am a strong woman though I never know why. I think it might have something to do with the pitch of my voice which can seem commanding. It is one of the things I inherited from my mother. But I have played all sorts of roles, have been kind and loving, wicked, evil.

"I am the daughter of a very modest family, though a strict and conservative one. My family strongly resisted my studying theatre. It was my uncle who stood by my side and encouraged me to join the Higher Institute for Theatrical Arts. I am self-educated, in as much as the influence of my family was limited to the first 14 years of my life. The real development of my character came through personal effort."

Ayoub's contribution to the Egyptian Cultural Channel of the Egyptian Radio has been enormous, including recordings of many plays for the Second Programme.

"It was a joy to manipulate with my voice though it was always very hard work. We would rehearse for 10 hours or more a day, something which never happens now. Actors for Radio barely know how to read Arabic."

Ayoub places the blame for the state of the contemporary theatre largely on the shoulders of playwrights.

"The problem is with the writers, not with the concept of state-owned theatres. The failures are those of producers, not of the government which supports its theatres with sizeable sums. Theatre cannot be upgraded without developing the skills of its practitioners. Sadly, the best writers prefer to work for television, where they earn much more. But theatre has never ceased to reflect life, there are good things and bad things about it."

She cites the growth of independent theatre troupes and the Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre as redeeming features of the current landscape, though she insists a distinct line demarcates traditional theatre from the experimental, citing, among the latter, her own work in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Mahagonny and The Good Person of Szechwan.

"Experimentation has become the norm wherever I go, especially in Syria, Algeria and Tunisia. I consider it a serious infection. More dangerous is the fact that in many cases you cannot understand the language of the plays, especially in Morocco and Algeria. The language of theatre should be unified somehow if we are to develop a viable Arab theatre."

In 1964 Ayoub received the State Merit Award, awarded by late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

"It was one of the happiest moments in my life, though it was followed by one of the most disturbing, a kind of wholesale carnage among writers. It all started when Helmi Sallam was appointed chairman of Al-Gomhuriya newspaper in May 1964. The first decision he made was to move 39 of Egypt's leading writers and intellectuals, among them Youssef Idris, Saadeddin Wahba and Taha Hussein, to other publications. It was very humiliating for the writers who were displaced without prior notification and without knowing whether the new publications to which they had been allocated would accept them."

The incident, however, did not temper her enthusiasm for Nasser.

"I kept asking myself how and why Nasser had allowed it to happen. We all got annoyed and felt the pain but it did not change our loyalty to the regime."

She is a great fan of Nasser, perceiving him as "a character who comes out of a tragedy" and identifying his resignation speech following the defeat of 1967 as "the truest moment in Egypt's contemporary history".

"From the balcony of my flat I watched women in their dressing gowns walking aimlessly in the streets. Although we all felt lost, hope never wholly departed our hearts and minds. Subsequently Wahba wrote one of his most beautiful plays, The Nails, in which I played the leading role. It dealt with defeat as a crisis we should all endeavour to surpass."

It was only in 2007 that Ayoub won the State Recognition Award.

"It was a long time coming, a result of the prize's regulations that categorise actors as being somehow uncreative."

In the citation accompanying the award it was Ayoub's case work as a director, and author of her memoirs, that was singled out.

"Memoirs. This is very unfair. Why are actors excluded from the prize? In developed countries, such as Britain, many prizes and titles are given to actors, such as Lawrence Olivier.

What preoccupies her most nowadays is the spread of the phenomena of street children and shantytowns around Cairo, something her performance in Street Children, a drama serial broadcast last Ramadan, highlighted. She does not participate in voluntary organisations though she undertakes charitable work privately. "It is between me and God," she insists.

Should she ever feel lonely she takes a video tape from the shelf and watches her late husband. "Even his funeral is there. Sometimes I watch it, when I really miss him."

She has lived in Zamalek since marrying Wahba.

"First we had a small flat in Abul-Feda Street. That was when we were young, when we were first married. Our neighbour was then the legendary actress and belly dancer Tahiya Karioka, and she made life easier for us. Then we moved to this flat. It was just the two of us but we felt we needed something bigger. "I am annoyed most by the speed of life today. There is so little time to meet with friends or to ponder," she says. She does, however, find time to read.

"I am greatly interested in the present wave of feminist writings, and was very impressed by Ahlam Mustaghanmy's The Memory of Body. It says everything about women feelings, and about rebellion."

But then Ayoub herself was always a rebel.

"My family did not like my work as an actress, nor did they approve of my early marriage to actor Mohsen Sarhan. But I insisted on marrying him. I was so stubborn. And still I am."

She was 15 when she decided to marry Sarhan, infatuated by his charisma as a cinema actor, though now the marriage constitutes one of her greatest regrets. Her second marriage was to actor Mahmoud Mursi, though it floundered, as Ayoub says in her memoir, because of her dedication to work. It was her third marriage, to Wahba, that has been a source of abiding solace.

"We were the best friends ever, both before and after marriage. Friendship between a man and his wife is what counts. It is what remains after years of marriage."

Wahba first saw Ayoub performing in The Confused Sultan by Tawfiq El-Hakim, later saying he fell in love with her before the first scene was over. Later he would write Al-Sebensa, his most celebrated play, for his future wife.

"It was a short part, but a very rich one."

Last month marked the 11th anniversary of his death. "He still lives in my veins, though," says Ayoub. Then she quotes him: "After I fell in love with Samiha, I started to write more concrete and interesting parts for women."

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