Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Mourning the child prodigy

Hani Mustafa and Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian remember the Armenian-Egyptian child actress Fayrouz, who passed away this week

Al-Ahram Weekly

The passing away of Fayrouz marks the loss of another daughter of black and white. For viewers she had remained for decades the little seven-year-old girl who dances and sings on screen with the director-producer-actor Anwar Wagdi, who discovered and cast her in Yasmine, her debut, in 1950. Written by Wagdi with the then major comedy screenwriter Abul-Seoud Al-Ibyari, the film was directed, produced and starred in by Wagdi. The celebrated cinematic figure had seen Fayrouz at a private party of the actor Elias Muaddab’s, and he decided to contract her, giving her the then hefty sum of LE1,000 for her role in the film.

Cinema in the 1940s consisted of variations on melodrama, and Wagdi’s winning recipe included a little — simple—tragedy with some comedy and a lot of musical spectacle. The film tells the story of a girl born to a rich family. The father, however, is a misogynist, and he snatches away the baby and leaves it by the door of an orphanage, later to die. The baby grows into a little girl who is employed singing at a nightclub, but she runs away from the nightclub, in the process of which she joins forces with a fugitive trumpeter (Wagdi), who is being chased by the police. The story develops until the child is reunited with her grandfather (Zaki Rostom) and mother (Madiha Youssri). Yasmine was a huge popular success thanks to Fayrouz — the Child Prodigy’s skill as well as the combination of elements and the high-profile cast.

Building on the success of the film, several more, equally successful films were made starring Fayrouz. In the 1951 Fayrouz Hanim, Wagdi participated only as a producer, with Abbas Kamel writing and directing and acting by Tahiya Karioka, Hassan Fayek and Abdel-Fattah Al-Qussari.

It was an entirely different story, with the child being the owner of a huge estate on which numerous poor people depend. Her uncle and guardian wants to kick those people out, and together with the beneficiaries the child hanim manages to prevent him. The film contains one of Fayrouz’s best musical spectacles.

Today it is arguably for her third film, Dahab (1953), a variation on Yasmine also written by Wagdi with Al-Ibyari, starring and directed by Wagdi, that she is best known. Dahab is the story of how the penniless musician Wahid Alfonso finds the child Dahab, who was abandoned by her father Munir Bek (Serag Mounir) after he secretly marries his servant. Wahid adopts Dahab and teaches her to perform alongside him on the street, until they are found and employed by a nightclub owner (Ismail Yassin) — with the consequence that they become a huge hit and Dahab a major star.

Fayrouz’s three first films are still routinely broadcast on television and have contributed to the popular culture and emotional makeup of generations. They also set a standard never subsequently surpassed. In 1952, Fayrouz starred in a new film, Ahmed Diaeddin’s Sourat Zifaf (Wedding Picture), and in 1953 she starred in Atef Salem’s rather more successful Al-Herman (Want), but perhaps because there was rather more tragedy in the recipe neither came near the level of success her previous three had achieved.

In 1955 Anwar Wagdi died in Sweden following a long struggle with illness, and Fayrouz produced her own film, Asafir Al-Gannah (Birds of Paradise), trying to reproduce Wagdi’s successful recipe, and she brought her two sisters, Mervat and Nelly, to act alongside her. After the owner of the soft drinks company where their father (Mahmoud Zulfiqar) works, manages to marry and brainwash him into hating his own children, the three girls run away from home and engage in a vendetta to destroy the reputation of the company’s product and bring their father back home.

Asafir Al-Gannah too did not prove successful.

Fayrouz was too old to be the funny dancing girl, and as a young adult she acted opposite Ismail Yassin in Hossameddin Mustafa’s Ismail Yassine for Sale (1957), Niyazi Mustafa’s Ismail Yassin Tarzan (1958). In 1958 she also appeared in Ahmed Diaeddin’s Ayami Al-Saidah (My Happy Days) and in 1959 — her last ever appearance — in Hossameddin Mustafa’s Bafakkar felli Nassini (Thinking of him who forgets me), acting alongside such stars as Roushdi Abaza, Hind Rustom and Shoukri Sarhan.


Each time a Golden Age star dies the feeling is that the Egyptian film industry has died a little. The angelic smile of Egypt’s best celebrated — and littlest — star Fayrouz faded away forever early on Saturday morning at the age of 72. On the Egyptian silver screen, there was never another child star before or since who was as popular or demonstrated such extraordinary talents as a singer, dancer and actress. Known in Egypt and the Arab world as the Child Prodigy, Fayrouz was born a star. Her film appearances, her sparkling eyes and sidelong coquetry and her chirpy singing and dancing has brought joy to Egyptians and Arabs for decades.

Armenians are talented people, if I say so myself. They are industrious, artistic and multilingual, and they usually find their place in a diaspora.

There isn’t any particular skill set that is preferred by Armenians, they are just competitive people and they like to  be the best at what they do.

Members of the Armenian diaspora contributed a lot to the countries into which they were born. And the charming little Perouz Artin Kalfayan, better known as Fayrouz, was no exception. She was born in the Al-Daher neighbourhood in Cairo on 15 March, 1943. Her father Artin Kalfayan had a shoe repair shop, and her mother Shaké Kalfayan was a housewife. The Egyptian film industry was at its peak and never spared the chance to make use of any talent.  

The Egyptian comedian and “monologue” singer Elias Muaddab saw nascent talent in the six-year-old Perouz. And as he was a friend of the Kalfayan family’s, during one of his visits he noticed the way Perouz could dance. Perouz’s father permitted his friend to take his daughter to his private performances. Muaddab also enrolled Fayrouz in a talent competition at the L’Auberge Casino where King Farouk used to indulge his passion for art and artists. The charming little girl amazed the king, who rewarded her with LE50 in appreciation to her performance. It was around this time that Anwar Wagdi, having spotted the little girl at one of Muaddab’s performances, changed her name from Perouz to Fayrouz, the Arabic version of her name, meaning “turquoise”. She made a phenomenal impression with the first film, Yasmine.

Fayrouz’s career was short — nine-10 years in which she acted in 10 films, with her peak occurring in 1950-55 — but in the course of it she made a huge impression and gifted millions of people with beautiful memories. Since cosmopolitan Egypt used to embrace different cultures, ethnicities and religions, different communities lived in close proximity as a single community. For this reason, Fayrouz’s marriage to the Egyptian actor Badreddin Gamgoum was accepted simply. She left acting and dedicated her time to looking after her family and raising her two children, Ayman and Iman. Gamgoum, whom she always praised as a father and husband, never interfered in Fayrouz’s religious beliefs. They used to celebrate both Islamic and Christian feasts in family gatherings, in a spirit of tolerance. Gamgoum passed away in 1992.    

According to Fayrouz herself, by the time she was a teenager her film career had already ended and she retired from the screen. She believed she wouldn’t be as successful as an adult. “The audience wish to watch that naughty little star, Fayrouz,” she once said in a television interview, several years ago. Besides, the chemistry between Fayrouz and Anwar Wagdi brought out the best in her. “Actually, my acting career changed after the death of Anwar Wagdi.” Fayrouz loved her childhood. “I miss those golden days. Every time I watch myself I feel I am dreaming, a beautiful dream. I can’t believe I acted with such greats,” she said in the interview.

Fayrouz was an optimistic woman. She always believed that on her retirement God put Nelly, her sister — whom she also considered a daughter — onto the path to continue a career she had stopped at an early age. The sibling love bonding the three sisters, Sirvart (Mervat), Fayrouz and Nelly was so strong that neither of her sisters was informed immediately of her death, for fear of their health. The Child Prodigy was buried and the funeral service held on the same day at the Armenian Orthodox Cemetery in Heliopolis. Her children Ayman and Iman preferred to let their mother go quickly and peacefully rather than in the presence of a huge crowd of farewell bidders. Iman couldn’t stand seeing her mother in a coffin. She almost fainted.

Armenians have a tradition of burying precious items belonging to the deceased along with the body, inside the coffin. The moment I saw the coffin of the atouta’s (or “the kitten”, as she was called in one of her films), I wondered what might be so dear to Fayrouz that it would be lying beside her. The black top hat; the the magician’s wand or the red fez? She wore them all during performances in her films. Or maybe the 20 piasters or famous riyal she was so happy to earn in the film Dahab — which is the subject of her most famous sketch, with Anwar Wagdi — so overwhelmed by the amount she didn’t know what clothes or food to buy.


Present at the funeral was her cousin, the renowned actress Ninutchka (Nunia) Manoug Kupelian, better known as Lebleba. “Fayrouz was that rare thing: she was born a wonder and went to heaven a wonder. She was a unique personality the like of which you will never find. Fayrouz was the closest person to me after my mother, now they both went to heaven,” a grieving Lebleba told me as the tears ran down her cheeks.

Fayrouz was honoured at the Egyptian Catholic Cinema Centre’s 57th festival in 2009, and the festival director, Father Boutros Daniel, attended the funeral. “The Child Prodigy Fayrouz, as she is known in the Arab world, was so happy to receive the award. She silently suffered her illness for a couple of years. May God bless her soul. I wish all Egyptian actors and actresses resembled Fayrouz in her great value as an actress and as a human being,” Daniel told the Weekly.

Egyptian radio and TV presenter Osama Mounir said he was raised on Fayrouz’s films which brought joy to his childhood and youth. “I see in her a beautiful module. No one can replace Fayrouz. The love she had in her heart towards her children and everybody around her was immense and reciprocated. We pray to God to give patience to her family and loved ones.”

When I tried to approach Fayrouz’s son, a banker, who bears a strong resemblence to his  father, he said, “Please pray for my mother first, I just want you to pray for her soul. We will see how we can commemorate her work later.” Ayman’s voice was very similar to that of his father, Gamgoum. According to him, his mother was hospitalised when she contracted pneumonia.

Both Ayman and Iman took part in one of Nelly’s Fawazeer episodes when they were children.

Also present at the funeral were actress Samira Ahmed and her husband, film producer Safwat Ghattas. The family received condolences at the St Therese Armenian Church on Tuesday. Condolences were also received yesterday, Thursday, at Al-Hamidiya Al-Shazliya Mosque in Mohandessin.

Fayrouz was survived by two grandchildren, Nour and Seif.

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