Egyptian Movie Stars: Our Friends for Dinner, by Gretchen McCullough

Historical markers for Ismail Yassine. They are both off of 26th of July Street. Photo courtesy of the author

Suffering news fatigue, a writer-translator walks Cairo’s streets searching for the homes of the stars of the old black-and-white Egyptian movies providing her comfort throughout the pandemic.

This plague feels absurd, a little like a B-grade movie, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And if it weren’t all true, it might be funny. We switch off CNN headlines of infections and death counts throughout the world, especially when we are eating—calamity unfathomable. On France 24: just the forlorn image of a man in Italy standing next to his mother’s coffin. I worry about my elderly parents who are far away at their home in central Texas situated on a bluff overlooking the Guadalupe River. But they reassure me and send photographs of fields of bluebonnets in bloom. When I called them, my father said he was awake at night, brooding, remembering his mother’s stories of the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918—how coffins lined the streets of her small town in North Carolina. Here in Cairo, almost a hundred years later, I cast my eye over the newspaper headlines in Arabic: a vaccine won’t be available for a year. Yesterday, a nurse at Maspero, the state television building, tested positive. This headline hits close to home since Mohamed Metwalli, my husband, works as a translator there. I fold the newspaper over and put it on the coffee table—how much more do we need to know?

Few creatures are out at 7 a.m. except sentries at embassies, pet owners, stray cats and dogs.

My occasional Friday stroll around the Zamalek island has become a daily necessity now, a chance for fresh air and a brief escape from confinement. The new blessing is the rare quiet in this rambunctious city. Why hadn’t I noticed the rich variety of trees before? Sago palms are companions to jasmine trees, yellow acacia, and hundred-year-old ficus trees. Few creatures are out at 7 a.m. except sentries at embassies, pet owners, stray cats and dogs. The occasional weasel skitters under a car. When I glance down at my new smartphone about to cross a deserted 26th of July Street this early morning, a briefing pops up on the screen: grocery workers in US die. How to balance the need to be informed with quietude? Despite my friends’ enthusiasm for my new phone, I pine for my Nokia with the cracked screen and regret the upgrade. I invent destinations around the island for myself with a new mission: to find the homes of dead Egyptian movie stars from the black-and-white movies.

Coincidentally, when I cross 26th of July I spot the historical plaque marking the home of the comedian Ismail Yassine, who reminds me of Abbott and Costello with his vaudevillian routines and goofy antics. Born in 1912, he would have been seven years old when Saad Zaghloul led the Egyptian revolution of 1919 against the British. I peer through the small gate, admiring the forest-green rococo door to the building. Originally from Suez out of a poor family, he made dozens of slapstick comedies and provided Egyptians with at least twenty-five or thirty years of entertainment. My favorite is his hilarious romantic comedy Shahr Asal Basal (1960; Honeymoon, onion-moon), about a couple whose idyllic honeymoon turns into a fiasco when the bride’s mother, played by Mary Munib, appears at the hotel in Alexandria. She is so protective of her daughter, starring Kariman, and interferes so much that they never do the deed! A sly dig at the role of mothers-in-law in Egyptian society.

Another day, meandering back home, I discovered Soad Hosny’s plaque on Yehia Ibrahim, a side street off of 26th of July. She died in 2001 in mysterious circumstances in London. Many Egyptians believe she was pushed off the balcony—it was rumored that she was writing a tell-all autobiography that would be scandalous for the mighty.

Unable to see our real friends, these Egyptian movie stars from the past are charming dinner companions—and they do cheer us up.

I am delighted again by Eshaet Hob (1960; A rumor of love) with Soad Hosny, Omar Sharif, Abdel Moneim Ibrahim, and Youssef Wahbi. Unable to see our real friends, these Egyptian movie stars from the past are charming dinner companions—and they do cheer us up. While we are savoring my husband’s pan-fried octopus tentacles one night for dinner, on our television screen, Youssef Wahbi, who plays an old womanizer, coaches his nephew, Hussein (Omar Sharif), how to make his daughter, Samiha (Soad Hosny), fall in love with him. The director, Fateen Abdel Wahab, had to work hard to make the handsome, twenty-eight-year-old Omar Sharif look unattractive. Sharif plays a clumsy accountant, with his penetrating brown eyes hidden behind severe, clunky glasses. The father wants to make his daughter jealous by insinuating that Hussein is having an affair with the “real” movie star, Hind Rostom, a voluptuous blonde often referred to as “The Marilyn Monroe of the East” but perhaps more talented.

Omar Sharif died in 2015. I saw him around five years before at his son’s Italian restaurant, Trattoria, in the neighborhood. Even as an elderly gentleman he was still dapper. A young Egyptian couple in their twenties rushed over to him, thrilled by their luck. A table or two over, I was struck by his patience and sweetness. He talked with them for a long time—and then took a picture with them.

On our street, Shagaret Ed-Dur, I pass the Zamalek Cinema, which used to be the Zamalek Theatre, home to many of Fouad el-Mohandes’s productions. For years the building was boarded up and empty, until it was transformed into a movie theater a few years ago. Originally a stage actor, el-Mohandes was inspired by the pioneer comedian Naguib El-Rihani and made countless movies, beginning in the 1950s. Aelit Zizi (1963; Zizi’s family) appeals to my love for the wacky. Zizi is seven or eight, the youngest child, played by Ikram Ezo, a precocious Shirley Temple, who offers sage advice to her much older brothers and sister. One of her unmarried brothers, Sab’awi (el-Mohandes), is a madcap inventor whose fiancée loses interest in his dry, scientific talk. The other brother, Samy, starring Ahmed Ramzy, is a skirt chaser. Sanaa, the older daughter, played by Soad Hosny, wants to be an actress, despite her parents’ disapproval. The funniest scene is when the daughter accepts an audition at a film studio—the two brothers barge onto the movie set, creating havoc.

I never found Faten Hamama’s plaque. A wonderful actress in her own right, she married Omar Sharif in 1955. In one of my little notebooks, I had scribbled down that Faten Hamama’s building was near the Aquarium Garden. Instead, I stumbled onto the Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez’s building. Two young Egyptian soldiers in fatigues were guarding the high-rise. The soldiers didn’t seem very menacing, despite their guns. They were eager to help when I asked them if they knew where the actress Faten Hamama lived. Isn’t it fitting that Tortina, a European sweet shop on the ground floor is now housed in Abdel Halim Hafez’s building? He’s famous for his sentimental love songs, like “El Hilw Hayati wi Rouhi Wa Olloh, eih, eih?” (The sweet one is my life and soul and what should I tell her?)

Historical markers for Youssef Chahine, the famous director. They are both off of 26th of July Street. Photo courtesy of the author

Farther down on 26th of July is the famous Egyptian director Youssef Chahine’s building. I have already taken a picture of the plaque one morning—it is early, too sunny, and I don’t know if his name is legible. A few purple blossoms of bougainvillea grow over the plaque. The natural world’s way of honoring the dead? Despite his fame, I haven’t seen all his movies. My husband recommended Bab El Hadid (1958; The train station), and I was not disappointed. It is a poignant movie with a tightly woven script and phenomenal performances by both director and actor Youssef Chahine and Hind Rostom. Unlike the lighthearted middle-class comedies I have been watching, this realistic movie focuses on the lives of poor Egyptians struggling to make their bread and butter at the train station. Youssef Chahine stars as Qinawy, a newspaper seller with a limp, who dreams of marriage to the coquettish soft-drink seller Hanouma (Hind Rostom). Hanouma is planning to marry the burly porter, Abu Serih (Farid Shawqi)—and teases the frustrated Qinawy mercilessly. When Madbouli, Qinawy’s boss, starts talking about a mysterious corpse found in a trunk that he read about in the newspaper, Qinawy gets the idea to stab Hanouma and hide her body in a trunk. Qinawy is so lonely that he even imagines the eyes of a small, lost kitten are Hanouma’s. Bab El Hadid underscores just how difficult life is for poor people in Egypt, without any support except for the close relationships they have with one another—just as relevant today as it was when produced in 1958.

Bab El Hadid underscores just how difficult life is for poor people in Egypt . . . just as relevant today as it was when produced in 1958.

On another day with my pals from the university, I ventured over to the Marriott overlooking the Nile to take a picture of the street sign honoring the Egyptian singer Mohamed Abdel Wahab. I snapped a photo of the street sign, but the plaque eluded us. A plaque had been pried loose from a nearby building—had a souvenir hunter snitched it? (The main part of the current Marriott Hotel was the Gezirah Palace built for the Khedive Ismail Pasha in 1869.) One of Abdel Wahab’s most famous songs features the Nile: “Al-Nahr Al-Khaled.” The everlasting river.

Only a few days before, I had watched Ghazal Al-Banat (1949; Flirtation of girls), a musical comedy, for the third time on Rotana Classic. A poor Arabic teacher, played by the comedian Naguib El-Rihani, has been hired to be the private tutor of a spoiled pasha’s daughter (Laila Mourad). The Arabic teacher is a lonely, middle-aged bachelor charmed by the attractive, flirtatious young woman. One night, she convinces him to chaperone her to a nightclub so she can see her boyfriend. In the movie, Youssef Wahbi and Mohamed Abdel Wahab play themselves.

(The talented and versatile Youssef Wahbi cannot escape without a tip of the hat. Besides his native Arabic, he was fluent in French, English, and Italian and studied theater in Italy in the 1920s. A stage and film actor, he also wrote, directed, produced, and managed studios. In the 1940s he founded the Nahas Studio and starred in over a hundred films.)

In the most touching scene of Ghazal Al-Banat, the Arabic teacher, with the help of an officer, played by Anwar Wagdi (Laila Mourad’s husband in real life), wrests the young woman away from the playboy. On the way back to the pasha’s house, they stop at Youssef Wahbi’s home. Wahbi invites them to listen to Mohamed Abdel Wahab, who plays “Asheq El-Ruh” (Lover of the soul) with a full orchestra. They cannot believe their astounding luck—meeting up with the famous Abdel Wahab. But as Abdel Wahab sings, “Da’heit hanaya fedaah, wi ha’eesh a’la zekraah, hayem ala’ donyaah, zayyed doha wel leil,” the Arabic teacher is overcome with emotion and his eyes fill with tears. (I sacrificed my pleasure for her and will abide by her memory. Hovering over her life, day and night. Oh night, oh night.) Impoverished and from a lower class, he knows he will never be considered a suitor for a pasha’s daughter.

Educated in French schools, Naguib El-Rihani is considered the father of comedy in Egypt. Only sixty, he died of typhoid fever while he was filming Ghazal Al-Banat.

Years before I became a fan of Egyptian movies, my husband, Mohamed, told me an anecdote about the famous actress Laila Mourad. Mohamed’s mother spotted her one morning in the early 1990s, bargaining fiercely over a quarter of a pound with a vegetable seller in Dokki.

Mohamed’s mother said, “Madame Laila, we love you very much. Where have you been?”

“I’m glad you still remember me, guys,” Laila replied.

Mourad, a Jewish Egyptian whose real name was Lillian Zaki Mourad Mordechai, retired from the movies when she was only thirty-eight. Because of the anti-Zionist sentiment in the 1950s, she found herself in a quagmire of controversies and intrigue. She insisted her loyalties were to Egypt, not to Israel.

She died in 1995. The same year, I was just learning the Arabic alphabet at the University of Alabama, preparing for a Fulbright in Syria.

Impossible to predict that I would live in Egypt for twenty years and marry an Egyptian poet—and that Laila Mourad, the Egyptian movie star, would come to dinner.


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