Friday,16 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1327, (12 - 18 January 2017)
Friday,16 November, 2018
Issue 1327, (12 - 18 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Sorrowful laughter

Between comedy and tragedy, the humorous often makes us weep, writes Samir Sobhi

Tearful laughter is the most genuine description of the true Egyptian. Over thousands of years, the Egyptian escorted his rulers, ancient princes and princesses to Lake Qaroun and left them there to dance and make merry. The Egyptians wrote on garden pillars their news and discussions without a signature, to reveal their actions.

The black humourist in Arabic literature is Al-Jahez who wrote all his jokes as spoken by “animals” in series of books titled Animals by Al-Jahez.
The poet Al-Mutanabbi was the eulogist of kings, but also criticised them.

In the 19th century in the press, we know of Abdullah Al-Nadim who wrote in newspapers such as Al-Taif and Al-Ustaz. There was also Abu Nadara and Selim Sarkis. In the 20th century, there was the picture magazine Al-Taif which published comic strips, humorous words, and the ironic cartoon.

Among the most famous characters that impacted our lives were Al-Masri Affandi (Mr Egyptian) by Saroukhan and Ibn Al-Balad (country folk) by Rakha and also Rafia Hanem.

There was also the journalist Fikri Abaza Pacha who laughed and wept on the pages of newspapers and magazines, as well as the character of Naguib Al-Rihani, the comedy actor who shed tears. They lived in the second quarter of the 20th century, never tiring of baiting a joke, a smile, a moral, or sorrowful tear at the same time.

How did Fikri Pacha make the Egyptian people laugh politically? He wept the day president Nasser banned him from writing once he prematurely suggested Egypt and Israel should meet. He laughed when he was once a football player for Al-Ahli Club; and laughed 1,000 times after composing some 200 melodies played on the flute and mandolin.

He smiled proudly when he was granted an honorary doctorate from the Arts Academy, because he was an activist in the Egyptian nationalist movement and orator of the 1919 Revolution. He was the writer of the Egyptian revolution at the time, and was elected chairman of the Press Syndicate in 1944 for four consecutive terms.

Among his most prominent political works is The Solution is Here, Not There, where he wrote: “The Egyptian press is publishing letters and messages from San Francisco as a warning and to raise the alarm. A warning about placing hope in this new world organisation, the United Nations and Security Council. It is a warning about placing hope in its moderation, integrity, boldness, courage and resolve in world affairs, miseries and crises. As well as sending out a warning, I also raise the alarm because all our Arab issues, most notably the Palestinian cause, will not meet the ambitions of optimists in terms of the justice, integrity and boldness of this organisation that has replaced the League of Nations – which after bitter experience has shown itself as identical, and the new is like the old.”

He adds: “Those who are hopeful the US will change its foolish policies must understand that it will never change these policies until after presidential elections. The US president needs the Jewish vote in his electoral race. Will the deceived optimists wait until the US returns to its senses, wisdom and long-sightedness? Arab countries will not wait for the US to regain its senses.”

Thus, the solution is “here”, not “there”.

They asked him once: Comparing your past and current articles, at first they were bold, strong and courageous, but now they are gentle, tender and courteous. Has your pen aged and your hair greyed? He responds: “My pen is still a sword with a delicate edge. It has not aged or sagged or frozen.

But where are the soldiers? Where are the battlefields? Where are the men?

“When I dropped a bomb with my pen, it resonated during the 1919 Revolution in Egypt when everyone was striving and struggling. My words conquered eyes, ears and hearts because the spirit was united, and the revolution of the soul was unanimous, and because the enemy was one — the British.

“After we were cursed with this thing known as “parliament”, the close-knit blocs disintegrated and fragmented. We replaced the singular enemy with Wafdist enemies, Constitutionalists, Unionists, Saadists. The struggle against the British was diverted into a struggle against each other. Who will listen to the word of truth and appreciate it in this sea of fallacies?

“In-fighting impacted the fluency of the fluent, eloquence of the eloquent, enthusiasm of the enthusiastic, and this ‘personal’ condition created other nationalisms unlike the grand patriotism that stood up to occupation, colonialism and the British.

“Now, there is the new social patriotism of principles, patriotism of price hikes, patriotism of fair rule, patriotism of constitutional traditions, Arab patriotism, religious patriotism, etc. Although these patriotisms are important, but they are not as valuable as the greater nationalism of true freedom and independence.

“This is the patriotism that mobilised the masses in the past. This variety of nationalisms divide not gather, and fragment not adhere. Out of this political party and moral chaos, ‘my pen’ cannot create a fire, a flame or spark.

“To this, I add what I told my friends Emille and Shoukri Zidan and senior figures in the press, namely that the modern era has taken steps backwards to the dark ages of unfair press laws and legislation. Any writer with a conscience can give himself the freedom to toss aside his responsibilities … for the sake of making a name for himself as an enthusiast, radical, daring and courageous. My pen has not changed; it is you who have changed it.”

NAGUIB AL-RIHANI: KESHKESH BEK: He is the most famous comedian of the Arabic stage, of incredible talent to make people laugh and weep at the same time. He has an amazing ability to combine the triggers of laughter and sorrow. His laughter are moments of transparent delicate sorrow that unveil all the negatives and mock the ills of society in a satirical way that remind us of noble human values that we should cherish in our life journey.

The character of the omda (village mayor), who lands in Cairo from his village looking for pleasure and leisure is Keshkesh Bek, the mayor of Kafr Al-Ballas. He is dressed in provincial garb, a beard and head gear, and becomes a wise-cracking jokester. He was a successful character because after the 1919 Revolution people wanted to hear the impact of everything that was happening to them.

Taha Hussein often frequented the Rihani Theatre and was a close friend. He admired him and every time he hosted world artists, he invited them to watch the Rihani Theatre. Renowned French writer André Gide was visiting at the end of World War II. Hussein invited him to watch Rihani and after the performance introduced Rihani and Gide to each other. Gide told Rihani he did not miss one meaning of the dialogue even though he does not understand Arabic because of Rihani’s acting, which did not include any slapstick, which he was accustomed to from even some French actors.

Rihani left a deep impression on Arab stage and cinema and was named “the boss of comedy theatre.” He linked comedy to Egyptian life at a time when theatre followed the European tradition. He once said, blending his Egyptian accent with eloquent Arabic: “We want Egyptian theatre. A country folk who smells of taamiya and molokhiya, not boiled potatoes and steak. A theatre that speaks in a language that the farmer understands, the worker, the man on the street. We want to perform what he likes to hear.” Rihani’s style left a great impression on the generations that followed, including Fouad Al-Mohandes who continued the journey of Rihani.

An important figure who influenced Rihani was Badie Khairi. One cannot speak of Rihani without mentioning the importance of Khairi’s role in Rihani’s success. Khairi was Rihani’s artistic twin. Together, they formed a rare artistic duet, whereby Khairi wrote and Rihani performed. This was in the 1930s and 1940s. Khairi became famous when he wrote the words to Al-Ashra Al-Tayyeba (The good ten) to which Sayyed Darwish composed the music, which was a musical adaptation of the French play Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard). The musical included songs such as Al-Helwa Di (This cutie), Khafif Al-Ruh (Easy spirit), Kokayeen (Cocaine), Om Ismail, Oum ya Masri (Stand up, Egyptian), Ala Al-Shabab ya Salam Sallem (Youth are great), Al-Saqqayeen (Water sellers), Ahsan Geyush fi Al-Omam Geyushana (Ours are the best armies), Ya Abu Al-Kashakesh and Ahu Dalli Sar (This is what happened).

He also wrote the lyrics for the song by Mohamed Fawzi Shahat Al-Gharam (Love beggar) and Layla Murad’s Aleik Salatullah wa Salamuh (God bless you) and Abgad Hawwaz (A,B,C). He also wrote Aziz Osman’s Battaluda Wismaudah (Stop that and listen to this), and the scripts of several films including Al-Azima (Willpower), Intisar Al-Shabab (Youth victory), Lahalibo (Hot stuff), Hassan, Morcos and Cohen, and Ghazal Al-Banat (Courting girls).

He wrote humorous poetry that Rihani said while performing his role in Salama fi Kheir (Salama is fine) to his neighbour Sharafantah, the sly miserable teacher:

“If it were not for me and time post-haste; Then you are no good and time is nonsense.”

Other famous lines include, “if you really want to serve Egypt, the mother of the world, and make progress, don’t tell me Christian or Muslim. Learn that those whose homeland brings together religion can never divide.”

Khairi’s son Adel became an actor of Rihani plays, and succeeded in becoming a comedian, but not a sorrowful comic.

After 23 July 1952, when satire in the press was rampant in word and cartoon about Al-Masri Affandi (Mr Egyptian) who is lost between occupation, poverty, ignorance and illness, there was also the “country folk” whose top concerns are the same as Al-Masri Affandi. There was also Homar Affandi (Mr donkey), the pernicious clever aspirant who also appeared in the press. On stage, there was Al-Mohandes, Abdel-Moneim Madbouli, Mohamed Al-Tabei (the elder from Al-Rahima in the south), Sayed Bedeir, Sayed Ramni, Mohamed Awad. There was also the idol Adel Imam at the top, and the troupe of George Sedhom, Samir Ghanem and Al-Deif Ahmed. We also know Samir Khafaga, Faisal Nada, Mohamed Sobhi with Lenin Al-Ramli, and many others who amount to about 60 comedy actors. We have also known writers presenting “weeping laughter”, including Al-Walad Al-Shaqi (Naughty boy), Mahmoud Al-Saadani and Fayez Halawa.

In print, there was Ihsan Abdel-Quddous, Anis Mansour (the philosopher who travelled the world), Ahmed Ragab with Mustafa Hussein who gave us the character Al-Simmawi and others. But it is Salah Jahin who is at the forefront of all artists; he journeyed through the human soul with drawings and expressive cartoons. Also, good folk Hegazi.

Writers of black comedy include journalism star Ahmed Al-Gammal, an author who has his provincial style of laughter while weeping. Also, the star Amr Abdel-Samie who draws on academic knowledge including an MA and PhD.

From the modern age, between cartoon drawings and political writings that shine a light on the dark corners of world politics, to political narratives in ancient books, and modern books in which thinkers and politicians used symbols and pseudonyms to reveal the skills of country folk who travelled the world.

I believe if a great director such as Samir Al-Asfouri picked this up, he would create new theatre that adds another weeping comedian from a new age society.

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