In the history of Egyptian film there are actors that should be judged not on the number of films in which they starred, but on the value of what they left behind, or the controversy they caused, whether during their lifetime or after their death.
The actor, producer and director Ahmed Salem, who died on 10 September 1949, shortly before his fortieth birthday, belongs in this category.
Despite his premature death, Salem made many achievements and his life was full of twists and turns that pushed him beyond the scope of Arab cinema.
Salem was born in Abu Kebir in Sharqiya governorate in 1910 to a political family. He challenged family tradition and decided to pursue an artistic career, against the wishes of his father, Ali Bey Salem.
The elder Salem was prominent in education in Egypt, and Ahmed’s brother, El-Nagdy Salem, was a member of the Egyptian senate in 1924. A third brother, Abdel-Aziz Salem, became minister of agriculture after the 1952 revolution.
In 1926, Salem received top high school grades, after which he studied engineering in Cambridge and learned to be a pilot, even flying the plane that carried him back to Egypt.
However, the field of aviation in Egypt at the time could not satisfy his ambitions, so he accepted an offer from one of the most famous Egyptian entrepreneurs, Ahmed Aboud Pasha, to work in one of his companies.
After a year and a half, Salem left his job to work as an assistant director of the Arabic Section on Egyptian state radio, when it was founded in 1934. Soon he was promoted to director of the Arabic Section.
As a result, Salem’s was the first voice to be heard uttering the words “Cairo calling” on Egyptian radio.
In May 1935, major Egyptian industrialist and founder of Banque Misr Talaat Pasha Harb asked Salem to administer the Misr Company for Acting and Cinema and supervise the construction of Misr Studio, which to this day stands as Egypt’s most important cinematic monument.
The studio was built on Haram Street in Giza.
Salem accomplished the mission by drawing on a number of foreign experts and Egyptian pioneers who studied cinema in Europe.
Salem was the first manager of the studio, whose debut film, Widad, was released in February 1936 and starred Oum Kulthoum and was directed by the German Fritz Kramp.
Salem supervised the production of a number of important films, including Something Out of Nothing, The Final Solution, and Salama is Alright, all of which were produced in 1937.
The film Lasheen was directed by Kramp the following year.
It was the first political film in the history of Egyptian cinema, and the studio faced a big crisis when the palace objected to it and deemed it as a revolutionary film that incited against the king. The palace demanded that its ending be changed before allowing it to be shown.
Salem refused and decided to leave the studio and all Banque Misr companies.
From this moment onwards, Salem decided to begin acting, directing and also enter the field of production.
He leased from a studio in Giza from Youssef Wahbi and made his debut film Desert Wings in 1939.
He starred in the film along with Raqia Ibrahim and the film focused on his former interest, flying.
Salem would go on to act in eight more films, some of which he directed and others which he didn’t, such as The Avenger (1947) directed by Salah Abu-Seif.
However, his best known film is The Unknown Past (1946) which he directed, produced and starred in alongside the actress and singer Leila Mourad.
He died while shooting his final film, Tears of Joy, and his assistant Fateen Abdel-Wahab completed the picture.
While Salem had shown good directing capabilities in The Unknown Past, he didn’t deliver a convincing performance as an actor in Tears of Joy, or in other films which he directed.
In contrast, his performance in the film directed by Salah Abu-Seif and in Dunia (1946), directed by Mohammed Karim, was better.
It seems that undergoing many adventures had weakened his focus on his art, especially as he had spent some time in jail after being accused of supplying fake helmets to the Allied armies during World War II.
He was sentenced to death for the crime, but the sentence was commuted to a prison sentence. It was said at the time that it was a fabricated case concocted by King Farouk because of a rivalry over women.
This belief was backed up when he was later acquitted. Following his release, he resumed his cinematic career in 1946.
In the context of his rivalry with the king, the most famous adventure of Salem was his relationship with the Jewish actress Camelia, whom Salem discovered and wanted to put in a film he would produce.
However, King Farouk battled him over her and put hurdles in his way until he snatched her from Salem and made her one of his concubines.
This wasn’t Salem’s only womanising adventure; he married the singer Asmahan during his journey to Palestine, accompanied by his other wife, the famous belly-dancer Taheyya Carioca.
Being his wife, Asmahan was able to enter Egypt with him although the authorities had previously banned her from returning to Egyptian territory.
Quarrels between the famous couple began because of Asmahan’s relationship with Ahmed Hassanein Pasha, chief of the Royal Diwan.
In one incident, Ahmed Salem took out his pistol and threatened Asmahan, in an attempt to prevent her from leaving the house. The police were called and a clash occurred between Salem and the police officer, with Salem getting shot.
His life was saved miraculously and it was said that this stray bullet was the reason behind his death, which followed a failed surgery.
Salem didn’t only marry Asmahan and Taheyya Carioca; in total he was married five times.
His first wife was Khairyya El-Bakri, the mother of his only daughter, Nihad.
He then married Amina El-Baroudy, who worked for some time for British intelligence under the code-name Black Hare; she was responsible for recruiting his other wife Asmahan to work for the British during World War II.
He also married actress Madiha Youssri, who witnessed his death in September 1949.
Salem led a bohemian life with many twists and turns, as well as a great deal of trouble. If he had devoted his life to cinema, he may have attained a higher stature and wider scope in audiences’ memories.
However, Ahmed Salem remains an important name in the history of Egyptian cinema, due to his pioneering contributions in a number of fields.
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