Al-Ahram Weekly Online
11 - 17 April 2002
Issue No.581
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Mary Ghadban:

Screen legends

Far more than a pastime, more than a career: she approaches her passion with a missionary's zeal

Profile by Fayza Hassan

She grew up in the years when cinema captured everyone's imagination. It was not the beginning, of course, but a time nonetheless when every release was an event and when acting, not special effects, was of the essence. For her, however, cinema was more than a passing interest -- indeed, it soon became an all-encompassing passion. She took it very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that she made it her career; and at international film festivals today, few fail to recognise the tiny silhouette and gravelly voice of cinema critic Mary Ghadban.

She could have followed in the footsteps of her parents and grandparents and applied her skills to scholarly writing: her father, Elias Rizkallah Ghadban, a Syrian businessman, achieved a measure of fame by publishing two scientific opuses in Arabic, The History of Man and The Laws of Marriage, as well as prefacing an ancestor's memoirs titled Elias Ghadban's Pilgrimage to the Holy Sites of Palestine on 3 April 1755. The manuscript had been discovered in the library of the Jesuit fathers in Beirut and the pages written by his adventurous forebear enthralled her father. Another book followed: Fortunate Choices in Marriage. Elias Rizkallah Ghadban must have heeded his own advice, because he chose a young poetess for a bride, someone who could appreciate his erudite mind, the daughter of Costaki bey Homsi, a famous academic from Aleppo, renowned literary critic and founder of the Arab Academy of Damascus as well as a member of the Arab Academy of Cairo. At his death, one of Aleppo's large avenues received his name, while a bronze bust of Costaki Bey adorns the famous Azizieh Square in his native city.

"My mother met [famous French Orientalist] Pierre Beno”t, who was very appreciative of her culture and talent and autographed two of her collections of poems, Rêves d'un jour (Dreams of a Day) and Pages oubliées (Forgotten Pages). The two volumes earned Zo‘ Costaki Homsi the title of Knight of the Order of Arts et Letters and the Academic Palms, awarded to her in 1981 by Fernand Rouillon, French ambassador to Syria.

Having come of age in an atmosphere where art, literature and poetry reigned supreme, young Mary could have been expected to try her hand in any of the genres promoted by her parents. Instead, she enrolled at the American University in Cairo to study sociology after graduating with high honours from the Pensionnat du Sacré Coeur.

"My parents did not buy into the ideal of the Pensionnat," says Ghadban. "They did not believe in the traditional role of women and encouraged me to seek a real career. It was most unusual in those years to see a woman of the haute bourgeoisie looking forward to a good job instead of dreaming about a wedding dress followed by a life of cooking recipes and immaculate diapers." But there she was, just after her graduation from school, determinedly following Farid El-Mezawi, founder of the Centrale Catholique du Cinéma, into the basement of St Joseph's Church to watch 16mm black and white Egyptian films. She used to watch two or three films a day, never satiated, always wanting to see more. European films enchanted her too, especially those she calls "intimistes," which took place behind closed doors and with little dialogue, showcasing the artistic skill of the director in holding the spectator's interest despite an austere economy of means. She also fell in love with the opposite kind of performance: flamboyant musicals featuring modern dance, uplifting music and vibrant costumes

'When you really love something, you take difficulties in your stride. Besides, I knew Arabic well enough not to feel handicapped. Finally, writing in one language or another is a matter of habit'
So far, Ghadban had been a wide- eyed little pixie lost in the enchanted world of the silver screen, but never imagining that this passion could lead to a bright future and a brilliant career.

The breakthrough came with El- Mezawi's suggestion that she attend the Venice Film Festival. At first she did not believe that he meant it, but when he assured her that he was dead serious and wanted her to report on the event she could not contain her joy. As we speak in her cozy living room overlooking the Nile in Zamalek, the happiness she experienced back in 1955 still vibrates in her deep voice. "You can't imagine what this meant to me," she says, her whole face lighting up. "It was the year Roger Vadim's famous film Et Dieu Créa La Femme was presented at the festival. Its star, Brigitte Bardot, attended. What an experience! The elegance, the luxury, the sheer magnificence of the event were never equalled, not even in Cannes!" Since then, as well as the Venice and Cannes festivals, which she never misses, Ghadban has attended those of Berlin, Moscow, Tashkent, San Sebastian, Karlovey Vary, Tehran, Manila, Mamaia, Salonica, Bergamo, Carthage, Beirut, Taormina, Locarno, Montreal, and more. She has been a member of the jury at the International Cinematographic Press Federation and the Office Catholique International du Cinéma. Much later, in 1976, she was to become a founding member of the Cairo International Film Festival.

But Venice 1955 still stands out. It was so much more than a beautiful moment in Ghadban's life: it was a first glimpse of the magic world through the looking glass, and the launching pad of a stellar career. Upon her return, her work in Venice opened a door and she was asked to act as censor at the Centrale Catholique Egyptienne du Cinéma, watching Egyptian films and allocating moral suitability ratings. It was not yet the limelight, but she was getting there fast.

In 1958, Al-Hilal publishing house hired her, and she began writing in French for Images. She had found her purpose in life. Going to the movies was no longer a pleasure to be indulged; it had become a professional obligation. She was never paid much for her cultural and film reviews, but Ghadban had already reconciled herself with the fact that she could not have it all and working in a field she was passionate about seemed sufficient reward for her efforts. In that, she belongs to a generation of journalists who did not choose this career for wealth, but rather to enrich the public with honest and insightful reporting.

Given absolute freedom to use her critical faculties, Ghadban was very happy at Images. She was never interested in office politics, and generally kept to herself, her real life starting when the lights went out and the curtain went up on yet another film to which she had to devote all her attention. She seems to have weathered the momentous political changes that occurred after the Revolution with great ease, moving to Al-Mussawar when Images finally closed down in 1970, for lack of a Francophone readership. In her new position, she was in charge of the diplomatic and cultural pages. Did she have any problem changing from French to Arabic? "Well, you know," she says with her contagious smile, "when you really love something, you take difficulties in your stride. Besides, I knew Arabic well enough not to feel handicapped. Finally, writing in one language or another is a matter of habit." In fact, Ghadban, who considers both French and Arabic her mother tongues, also speaks English, Spanish, Italian and German.

In 1977, she transferred to the magazine Kawakeb, becoming its assistant chief editor in 1986. This year, Ghadban will be celebrating 38 years with Dar Al- Hilal. A landmark? She does not seem to care much about the passing of time. More films await her.

As we chat about members of her family who happen to have been related to my late husband, I am awe-struck by this tiny woman, who is rather shy and nervous about being photographed and who looks quite like my relatives by marriage. From similar families, educated in the same religious institutions (which specialised in producing perfect housewives), they followed very different paths. Tante Nozha and Tante Berthe never dreamed of sallying forth, having a career or believing in their own worth outside the kitchen. Being good mothers and wives was their ultimate -- their only -- goal. Yet there was Mary Ghadban, almost their contemporary, travelling around the world alone, unimpressed by the stars and famous directors who peopled her life, eying them with the unforgiving eye of the critic and rating their performances. She had made a frivolous pastime into a subject of extreme erudition.

She lives alone in her tidy, airy flat, gently chiding an unreasonably fat maid whom she keeps attempting to put on a diet. "She won't listen," she says, gazing with mild disapproval at the heavy-set woman who is trying unsuccessfully to bustle about efficiently. "I tell her it is bad for her heart, but she never listens, she likes her food too much." Doesn't Ghadban regret not having a home with a husband and a couple of children? She shrugs. "I had many marriage proposals in my day," she admits, "but I believe that marriage is not an easy affair. First of all, the husband and wife should be suited to each other, share the same interests, the same culture. Love is not important; it never lasts. Do you think I could have indulged my passion for cinema if I had married and had children? Husbands don't care about their wives' aspirations. They want their dinner cooked when they come home and their children well cared for. Anything else just annoys them."

By marrying, she would have been deprived of a marvelous adventure: the travels, the exciting atmosphere of festivals, the feeling that she had sound artistic taste and judgement and could apply these gifts profitably. But what of children? She must be lonely sometimes. Again, she shrugs: everyone is lonely sometimes. "Children don't remain with you forever. I have my books, music and I go to the movies, of course." It seems to beat knitting bootees for grandchildren. She does not have to live vicariously through her children; she has a life of her own. She has become a celebrity. Serious Egyptian moviegoers all know her name. Besides her articles in the papers and magazines, she has published several anthologies of Egyptian cinema in French with analyses of new releases. She knows the scene inside out, but refuses to be drawn into recounting the intimate details of the actors' lives, although she has certainly had a chance to observe them. An exception of sorts is made for Omar Sharif (Michel Shalhoub), whose talent she admires. He should not have married Faten Hamama, she says. "They were not made for each other." She shakes her head and looks away, probably remembering scenes from Sera' fil Wadi, which launched the young and incredibly handsome actor on his international career. Could she possibly be thinking that Faten Hamama should have subordinated her own talents to her husband's? Detecting the trap at once, she snaps: "Of course not, that is not what I meant. I only wanted to say that they were not compatible."

Her ironic smile inform me better than any words that she intends to go no further. Ghadban does not gossip, and this confirms the impression that she considers what she does not only as a serious career but also as missionary work. She wants to improve the quality of the films being made, and instruct the public in the seventh art, pointing out tirelessly that there is more to a film than sensual moments or the glamorous outfits of the female protagonists. Thanks to her efforts, the Egyptian public has become familiar with good films as well as their writers, directors, producers and actors. She is a founding member of the Egyptian Association of Cinema Writers and Critics, but her influence reaches further than our shores. She is a correspondent for the Los Angeles Hollywood Reporter and the New York World Press Review; she also continues to write for the Progrès Egyptien.

Her talent and honesty are recognised internationally. She was decorated several times: in 1987 she was made Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters; the following year, she received the gold medal of the Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia, and in 1989 became Knight of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic. It is expected that the Egyptian government will honour her in a similar manner this September.

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