A Portrait Of Egyptian Cinema

The first showing of a film in Egypt took place on November 5, 1896 in one of the halls of Tusun Pasha in Alexandria. Later in the same month another was shown in Cairo, in the hall of Hamam Schindler near the old Shepheard’s Hotel. Not even a year had passed since the art was born in Paris on December 28, 1895.

In this, as in so much else in Egypt’s history, geography played its crucial part. Standing between East and West, Between Europe and Asia, and holding together the eastern and western flanks of the Arab world, Egypt at the end of the nineteenth century was a meeting place and a melting pot. Here the transplanted culture of a rapidly changing Europe met with the philosophies and cultures of the East. At the same time, eastern Arabs, from Palestine, Syria, and Mount Lebanon, settled in Egypt and founded newspapers, publishing companies, theater troupes, and commercial enterprises. The

result was a cultural renaissance, in which cinema, blending the language of modernity and the spirit of ancient Egyptian wall painting, was to thrive. Evidence of the early grip of cinema on the Egyptian psyche is provided by writer Yahya Haqqi, recalling his childhood in the first decade of the century:  I was raised in a family that was in love with cinema, young and old alike. Dinnertime conversation never left the subject of old films, current films, and films that were yet to come; the names of actors in Italy, Germany, and America, and comparisons between them. I was always waiting impatiently for Thursday because it was the only day I was permitted to go to the theater and watch films, and I would look forward to it all week, starting on Friday morning, counting the days and the hours, wanting a whole lifetime to pass in the blink of an eye.

Haqqi’s memories are of foreign films. Indigenous Egyptian cinema was still a dream-in the view of some, an impossible dream. In the early years, for all Egypt’s great love of cinema, importing the necessary equipment, building studies, and equipping theaters was well nigh impossible.

The first quarter of cinema’s life on the banks of the Nile yielded only shorts films on events like the funeral of the nationalist leader Mustafa Kamel ( August 8, 1909), or the official departure of the Hajj caravan to the Hijaz (October 1912), and even these were made by foreigners or naturalized foreigners.

The first Egyptian film actor was Mohammed Karim, who appeared in Sharaf al-Badawi (Honor of the Bedouin, 1918), then in al-Azhar al-Moumita (Deadly Flowers, 1918), which the censors refused to license for general public. Both films were made by an Italian production company, which then ceased operations and sold its equipment to Alfizi Orfanelli, also Italian and the cinematographer for Madame Loetta 1919, directed by Leonardo Larizzi. In Madame Loretta, Fawzi al-Gazairli, become the first Egyptian to take a leading role on the screen.

In 1920 a documentary was made of the funeral of nationalist leader Mohammed Farid, and then a short feature film. The American Aunt, inspired by the play Charley’s Aunt. The lead in this film was given to Ali al-Kassar, a famous theatrical star, who played the role of a man disguised as a woman.

Three years later Mohammed Bayumi returned from Germany, where he had been studying cinematography. Bayumi was the first Egyptian to produce and shoot a newsreel, Amun, which is the only cinematic record of the return from exil in 1923 of the nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul. Bayumi was also the first Egyptian to shoot a fiction film. Fi Ard Tutankhamun (In the Land of Tutankhamun, 1923), produced and directed by Victor Rossitto, a Cairene lawyer of Italian origin. Bayumi then become the first Egyptian to both direct and shoot two short fiction films Barsoum Looking for a Job in 1923 and, al-Bashkateb(The Head Clerk, 1924) which he mad for LE 100. Just thirty minutes long, the film revolved with a dancer, embezzles money, and ends up in prison, a theme to be repeated in many films over the next seventy years.

In 1927 Aziza Amir produced and acted in a long feature film she called Layla, the first of its kind to be financed by Egyptian capital. The film was first shown at the Metropole Theater in Cairo, and Aziza Amir was given a standing ovation. “I hope this crescent turns into a beautiful full moon,” said Ahmed Shawqi, the prince of poets. Talat Harb, founder of Banque Misr and a far-sighted builder of Egypt’s modern economy, expressed his admiration by telling Amir she had accomplished what men could not.

The influence of director Mohammed Karim was felt with his first film, Zaynab 

1930), adapted from a novel by Mohammed Husayn Haykal Pasha. Karim’s Awlad al-Zawat (Children of the Aristocracy, 1932) was the first Egyptian talkie or, more accurately, half-talkie. It was also the first film in which stage actors Yusef Wahbi and Amina Rizq appeared. In 1933 Karim directed the first musical, al-Warda al-Bayda’ (The white Rose), featuring Mohammed Abd al-Wahab.

Further important developments come with like Ibrahim and Badr Lama, Assia, Mary Queeni, Ahmed Galal, Naguib al-Rihani, Togo Mizrahi, Fatima Rushdi, and Bahiga Hafiz. Thsee names represent the end of a period in which Egyptian cinema was struggline to find a voice. The new age began with Widad 1936, the first long feature film made by Talat Harb’s Studio Misr, which over the next thirty years was to produce some of the best Egyptian films.

Widad marked a turning-point. A remarkable industry now began to grow in the face of some tremendous obstacles: an uncommon and persistent tendency to oversimplify, favoring quantity over quality; censorship with its three taboos-politics, religion, and sex; the nationalization of studios and theaters in the 1960s; and the decline of theaters when confronted with television, which the state supported. Nationalization and television together forced the submission of the moving image to the public sector, an ineffective, inefficient dinosaur marked by excess labor, accumulating debt, and the squandering of public funds.

In the face of all this, Egyptian cinema managed to resist annihilation, and indeed to thrive. It has spread the Cairene dialect throughout the Arabic-speaking world and made a sizeable contribution to world film production. If many films are derivative of other traditions, some, like Shadi Abd al-Salam’s al-Mummiya (The Mummy,1969), are truly original.

Egyptian cinema survives through the vitality of its best filmmakers, and because over the years it has won the hearts of the Egyptian people. And fed their dreams.

Pioneer of Egyptian cinema

Mohammed Karim (1896-1972)

Mohammed Karim was The first to act in a film; the first to direct a film adapted from an Egyptian novel; the first to make a talkie; director of all Mohammed abd al-Wahab’s films; and toward the end of his career, the first dean of the Cinema Institute. Plenty to earn him the title Sheikh of Director.

In the early 1920s, Karim traveled to Rome and Berlin, he watched German director Fritz Long making Metropolis at UFA Studios. Of this experience, he wrote:”I went to Fritz Long and asked permission to attend the whole production and enter the studio at any time. The man graciously gave me permission. When they learned at UFA Studios that I was studying film making, they gave me every assistance to learn first hand. Filming Metropolis required managing fifteen manually-operated cameras simultaneously; my friends allowed me to look through the lens from every angle. I was amazed at the precision of the work and took notes of everything as if I was at a great university. But could a university offer such an experience? When I say I am a graduate of Metropolis, I mean the year I spent among its workers at UFA Studios learning the art and craft of directing.”

Returning to Egypt in 1926, Karim directed a short documentary Hada’iq al-Hayawan (The Zoological Gardens, 1927) for Misr Acting & Cinema Company. With the financial backing of his close friend Yusef Wahbi, Karim directed his first silen feature film Zaynab 1930 and the first Egyptian talkie, Awlad al-Zawat (Children of the Aristocracy,1932). His repution was established.

A meeting was soon arranged between Karim and the great singer Mohammed Abd al-Wahab, at a part in the country home of prominent journalist Fikry Abaza. The film that emerged from that encounter, al-Warda al-Bayda’ (The White Rose,1933) marked the beginning of a long and exclusive relationship. Karim become known as Abd al-Wahab’s private director. From 1933 until 1944, he made only Abd al-Wahad films, and his attempts to break away by making films with other stars, briught scant success.

Yusef Wahbi (1897-1982)

Born the son of a pasha, Yousef Wahbi was expected to become an engineer like his father. But a passion for acting drove him along an unforeseen path. To his father’s astonishment and rage, Yousef joined the circus. In so doing he become a person whose testimony  was inadmissible in court, and a disgrace to the family. His father expelled him from the family home, then enrolled him in agricultural school in an attempt to reform him.

Wahbi fled to Italy, and plunged himself into theater, changing his name to Ramses. He only returned to Egypt when he heard of his father death. Even shared out between him and his four siblings, the basha’s legacy gave him personally some LE10,000 in gold. With this money, wahbi set out to extricate the theater from what he saw as the abyss created by the dancing whiskers of Naguib al-Rihani’s Kishkisk Bey and the jiggling eyebrows of Ali al-Kassar.

To this end, he formed a theater company, the Ramses Troupe. In this early stage of his career, he became known as the Messenger of Divine Mercy for the Salvation of Acting. Opining differed over the sobriquet’s creator, whether it was the publicity boys of the Ramses Troupe, or the boasting and self-aggrandizing Yusef Wahbi himself.

Wahbi’s entrance into cinema was delayed by an unexpected outcry in the press, and consequently the public, over his plan to portray the Prophet Mohammed on the screen. When the storm subsided, he agreed with his friend Mohammed Karim to make instead a long narrative film, Zaynab 1930, which he would finance and Karim would direct.

When characteristic self-confidence, Wahbi then asked Karim to direct the first Egyptian talkie. Wahbi wrote the script and played the leading role. When the film, Awlad al-Zawat (Children of the Aristocracy, 1932), achieved enormous success, Wahbi’s confidence grew further. He wrote the script to al-Difa’a (The Defense, 1935), his second film, and co-directed it with Niyazi Mustafa. For his third film, al-Majd al-Khalid (Immortal Glory, 1937), Wahbi was author, lead actor, and director, all in one.

On three fils-Layla Mumtara (A Rainy Night, 1939), Layla Bint al-Rif (Layla, Girl of the Country, 1941), and Layla Bint al-Madaris (Layla the Schoolgirl, 1941)- hecollaborated with Togo Mizrahi, submitting his own script and role to the other man’s direction. After the success of these three films, Wahbi directed Gharam wa Intiqam (Romance and Revenge,1944), in which, at the age of forty-six, he played a young lover, with singer Asmahan in her second and last film, shortly before her death by drowning. The film contained a song which glorified the Egyptian royal family, and as a token of appreciation fir this gesture he was awarded the title Bey. Later, after the revolution, he received the National Appreciation Prize and an honorary doctoral degree.

In al-Iskandariya layh? (Alexandria Why? 1979), he played an intellectual Jew who loved Egypt, the first actor to take such a role since the Free Officers’ Revolution. Wahbi was also responsible for building Ramses City, a cinematic town with a studio on more than two feddans.

Assia (1912- 1986), Ahmed Galal (1897-1947), & Matie Queenie (1916-  )

Assia, Mari Queenie, and Ahmed Galal were a moving force in Egyptian cinema from its very early days, and founders of a tradition carried on by blood and marriage. Assia Dagher came to Egypt from Lebanon in 1922, dreaming of the silver screen. She started as an extra in Layla (1927). Just two years later, she had produced and started in her own production, Ghadet al-Sahara (Flower of the Desert, 1929), the film which launched her seventeen-year career, ending in 1946 with al-Hanem (The Lady).

Flower of the Desert opened on May 1, 1929, featuring Assia, Ahmed Galal, ans Assia niece, Marie Queenie. This trio was to be pivotal in the film industry until 1940, competing all the while with another threesome, the Lama Brother (Ibrahim and Badr) and Badreya Rafat. Badr died at the age of thirty-nine and Ibrahim, after killing his wife, committed suicide.

From Ghadet al-Sahara until Fata Mutamarrida (Rebellious Girl, 1940), the trio participated in ever production of Assia’s company, Lotus Films, with the exception of Wakhz al-Dameer (Pangs of Conscience, 1931), directed by Ibrahim Lama, with Galal working on the script and helping with direction. For all the other films, Galal directed and the first leading role was taken by the producer-aunt. The parts, and the films, were tailored for women as indicated by the titles: Indama Tuhib al-Mar’a (When The Women Loves, 1933), Ayun Sahera (Bewitching Eyes, 1934), Shagaret al-Dur, 1935), Zawga bil-Nyaba (The Substitute Wife, 1936), and Fattish ‘an al-Mar’a (Search for the Woman, 1939).

Fata Mutamarrida was the first film Assia produced without appearing in it her-self. The lead part was of a mother, thus indicating she was past her prime. Even without her, the film was a resounding success. In its wake came the announcement of Queenie’s marriage to Ahmed Galal, despite the considerable age difference,

Assia and Galal continued to work together, producing two films without Queenie, who was busy producing her son Nader, who later become a director like his father and, indeed, his uncles, Husayn Fawzi (1904-1962) and Abbas Kamel (1911-1985).

Finlly, a dispute broke out between Assia on one side, and Galal and Queenie on the other. The partnership was dissolved and a new company formed, Galal Film (1942), then Galal Studios (1944). Galal died of a heart attack while vacationing with his family in Lebanon in 1947. Queenie, widowed at a young age, devoted herself to production and acting and raising her son, who was to carry on the family tradition.

Togo Mizrahi (1905- 1986)

Togo Mizrahi, with a Ph.D in economics, and fluent in several languages, was an immensely productive figure in Egypt’s early cinema. In sixteen years he made thirty-two films, as director, author, scriptwriter, set designer, and sometimes actor. Between 1930 and 1946 he worked with every new aspect of film, making social dramas, musicals, and historical and heritage films, with a particular penchant for themes from A Thousand and One Nights.

Mizahi’s first film, Kokayeen (Cocaine, 1930) was made at his private studio in Alexandria, where it was first shown under the title al-Haweya (The Abyss). It was not until 1938 that he moved to Cairo and rented Studio Wahbi as his headquqrters and production base.

In his early years, following the custom prevalent at the time for a Jewish actor to adopt a screen name that was common to the three main religions of Egypt, Mizrahi changed his name to Ahmed Mishriki. But the new identity was not to last long. In 1934 he released the first of four films that featured an unambiguously Jewish character, Shalom. Al-Mandouban (The Two Representatives, 1934) was followed by Shalom al-Dragoman (Shalom the Dragoman, 1935), Shalom al-Riyadi (Shalom The Athlete, 1937) and al-Ezz Bahdala (Prosperity is an Insult, 1937).

Mizrahi cast Ali al-Kassar, Egypt’s famous black actor, in the leading role of nine of his films, notably Alf Layla wa Layla (A Thousand and one Night, 1941), Ali Baba wal-Ara’een Harami (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, 1942), and Nur al-Din wal-Bahara al-Thalatha (Nur al-Din and the Three Sailors, 1944). Singer Layla Murad was also brought into cinema by Mizrahi, and appeared in five of his films, ending with Layla fil-Zalam (Layla in the Darkness, 1944).

In 1946 come Sallama, one of the most important films Mizrahi made before leaving Egypt. Inspired by Arab History, with lyric by Bairam al-Tonsy, music by Zakariya Ahmed, and a fact pace, the film was a major success and was Umm Kulthum’s best acting performance.

Soon after the relese of Sallama, Mizrahi was accused of Zionism and forced out of Egypt. He died in exile in Italy.

Naguib al-Rihani (1982-1949)

Nagib Elias al-Rihani was born in Cairo of an Iraqi father and an Egyptian Coptic mother. A fan of acting since his school days, he eventually took his baccalaureate and was employed at the Agricultural Bank. It was there that he met Syrian director Aziz Eid. He quit his job at the bank, and worked instead with Eid, as an extra at the Opera.

When Eid formed his first theater company, al_Rihani quickly joined. When in the summer of 1915, Eid formed the Arab Comedy Troupe, al-Rihani again joined. There he learned the art of directing and was introduced to the French farce that would be a major influence on his own brand of comic theater.

He did not remain long with the troupe as disputes out between him and Eid, especially on the subject of adaptation. Eid thought an adapted play should be completely faithful to the French original. Al-Rihani believed it should be compatible with Egyptian taste. “We want an Egyptian theater with the smell of ta’ameya and moloukheya not boiled potatoes and beefsteak!” said al-Rihani.

With this attitude, he created the most famous comic duo in Egyptian comedy, Kishkish Bey and his attendant Zorob. Kishkish Bey, the mayor of Kafr al-Balas, embodied the contradictions between village and city ethics.

Kishkish Bey also brought al-Rihani fame and wealth. He formed his own theater company, and produced his first play, Hamar wa Halawa (Red and Sweet) in 1917. Meanwhile, he met playwright Badie Khairi, who become his longtime collaborator. Their work together included the plays Talateen Yom Fil-Sign (Thirty Days in Jail) and Hassan wa Morcos wa Cohen (Hassan, Morcos, and Cohen).

Al-Rihani made his first cienema appearance in 1931, in a silent film entitled Saheb al-Sa’ada Kishkish Bey (His Excellency Kishkish Bey). His first talking film was Yacout Effendi 1934Salama Fi Kheir. (Salama in Prosperity, 1937) was the first of a series of six film that made him one of cinema’s immortals: Si Omer (Mr Omer, 1941); Li’bat al-Sit (The Woman’s Game, 1946); Ahmar Shafayef (Red Lipstick, 1946); Abu Halmous 1947; and Ghazal al-Banat (The Flirtation of Girls, 1949).Al-Rihani himself did not live to see The Flirtation of Girls, a musical featuring Layla Murad at her peak, but it has since become a cherished part of the cinematic heritage.

These last films show the influence of Charlie Chaplin, who helped al-Rihani to shed the mask of Kishkish Bey and create a new chaeacter. He now become the downtrodden but eloquent and talented man, always supporting the poor against the rich; at times brave, at others a coward; forever drawn to adventures that bring only trouble, but emerging victorious; always seeking the pleasures of life, and convinced that women are the greatest of those pleasures.

Amina Rizq

Amina Rizq’s acting career has seven decades. In 1924, she and her aunt Amina Mohammed, also an actress, left Tanta, their provincial hometown. Rizq settled in Cairo, joined Ramses Troupe and has since continued her acting career uninterrupted. Her first appearance in film was in the silent Feature Suad al-Gagariya (Suad The Gypsy1928). 

Rizq never married and says she has no regrets. As she tells it, she has devoted herself to an art that dazzled her from the beginning. She was, however, closely linked to Yousf Wahbi in the first two decades of her career. She describes him as a “great pioneer and teacher.” Because the two were together for so long, the public believed they were married, or at least lovers. They collaborated in many of Wahbi’s plays and his early films, starting in 1932 with Awlad al-Zawat (Children of the Aristocracy, 1932), the first Egyptian talkie and only Rizq’s second film, and ending with Sa’at- al-Sifr (Zero Hour 1938).With the exception of the first film, which was directed by Mohammed Karim, all their films were directed by Yusef Wahbi himself.

With the exceptions of Yusef Chahine and Tawfik Salih, Amina Rizq has work with all the great directors of Egyptian cinema. They saw in her face a strong peasant beauty which expressed the grace of Egyptian womanhood. She has a grasp of popular consciousness, imbued with an ennobling sadness that has only become richer over the years.

Even in her youth she played mothers, and did it so well that she become the standard for the role. One of the most important of these performances was in Ard al-Ahlam (Land of Dreams, 1933), where, as mother of Fatin Hamama, she outshines even that great star.