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Remembering Ismail Yassin, an iconic Egyptian actor

On the fortieth anniversary of comedian and actor Ismail Yassin's death, Ahram Online assesses his contribution to film, theatre and comedy in Egypt

Rowan El Shimi, Wednesday 23 May 2012
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Graffiti of Ismail Yassin's portrait in Cairo by artist Nasser (Photo: Rowan El Shimi)
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Thursday is not only a legendary day for Egypt due to the first post-revolutionary presidential elections. It also marks the 40-year anniversary of artist, actor and comedian Ismail Yassin's death.

Some grew up watching cartoons, musicals or children's programmes. For my part, the entertainment of my childhood was spent watching my father's video collections of Ismail Yassin's films. By the age of seven I could recite whole scenes from 'Ismail Yassin in the Army' and the ever-so-popular 'Ibn Hameedo'.

During his career, which started in 1935 and lasted until his death in 1972, Yassin acted in hundreds of films and around 60 plays, shaping the history of Egyptian comedy.

Born in 1915, Yassin's artistic path started in the 1930s at the age of 17 when he left his home town Suez – where his father had been put into prison due to outstanding debts – for Cairo, with only LE6  in his pocket. His plan was to study music, as people had told him he had a nice voice.

"If I had continued to sing I would have been begging today," Yassin told journalist Taher Abu Zeid in an interview for Garab Hazak radio programme in 1956.

He arrived in Cairo to find the music institute on a summer break, while the relatives he had in Cairo refused to support him as they believed that being an artist was not proper. He was left homeless, sleeping in mosques, a journey which eventually led him back to Suez when a sheikh in a mosque took pity on him and gave him 35 piastres to get home.

In 1934 Yassin returned to Cairo and moved into a small room on the roof of a building, and started performing comic monologues and taking small roles in films.

"Acting is about having a sense of humor and natural talent, not a degree," Yassin said on Garab Hazak.

Yassin never studied acting, or music for that matter, and his income during the start of his career barely made ends meet, forcing him to work many other jobs.

Yassin was known for his unique style of comic monologues where he would perform skits and funny songs. His first comic monologue featured an unhappy husband complaining about his wife, and other comic performances often tackled contemporary social issues such as relationships between men and women.

After his live performances he started doing his comic performance on radio, but stopped in 1949 to focus more on his film career.  

His first leading role in a film was in 1949 in the film 'El Naseh' (The Smart One) after performing in many supporting roles in films directed by Anwar Wagdy.

During the early 1950s, Yassin's acting career took off. He formed a trio with writer Abu El-Saoud El-Ebiary and director Fateen Abdel-Wahab, and the three made many iconic films together.

In this period he started to make many of the films that take his name, such as 'Ismail Yassin in the Army', 'Ismail Yassin in the Navy', 'Ismail Yassin in the Secret Police', 'Ismail Yassin in the Wax Museum', 'Ismail Yassin in the Mental Hospital', among many others.

These films followed a particular comedic format which made audiences laugh for decades. This format included actors Riad El-Asabgy (who usually played El-Shawish Atteya), along with Zeinat Sedky, Abdel-Fattah El-Kosary and Abdel-Salam El-Nabolsy.

Yassin was also involved in the theatre, acting in more than 60 plays.

"Theatre is a machine that is alive, whereas cinema is silent," Ismail said in his interview with Garab Hazak.

He put all his money into established a theatre company with writer El-Ebiary and spent the 1950s and 1960s supporting this company.

"I am very happy because I created something missing from the country - comedy theatre," he commented on Garab Hazak.

In spite of the actor's success, the end of his career in the late 1960s and early 1970s did not serve him well. Due to the nationalisation policies adopted by President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, which had an effect on the cinema and theatre industries, the actor's theatre company was forced to close in 1966. Yassin went bankrupt and fled to Lebanon, where he did some small roles that did not reflect the actor's legacy.

Yassin came back to Egypt and passed away from a heart attack in 1972 while filming 'Sadness in Laughter', which starred Nour El-Sherif. His films continue to this day to be aired on Egyptian as well as Arab television.

In 2009 a television series was made that dramatised his personal life. The script was written by Ahmed El-Ebiary and Yassin Ismail Yassin, the actor's only son. Comedian Ashraf Abdel-Baky played the role of Ismail Yassin, in spite of his lack of resemblance to him, after he was handpicked by Yassin's son for the role.

In September 2011, Google Egypt celebrated the artist's birthday by dedicating its homepage to him for the day.

Yassin, 40 years after his death, continues to get his audience laughing, while at the same time provoking reflection on morals and ethics.

In Cairo's Maadi district, the celebrated actor has become an icon of the street art movement, as graffiti artist Nazeer has painted his face on Cairo's walls. While graffiti is simply momentary art to be erased at some point by the state, Yassin's art will definitely survive.

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