Remembering Youssef Wahbi: A man who lived a thousand years
Ashraf Gharib, Monday 16 Jul 2018
The dexterous creative Youssef Wahbi was born in this week in 1973, leaving a unforgettable influence on Egyptian cinema and theatre in many aspects


Throughout the history of Arab art, nobody has combined acting, writing, direction, production, management, and ownership of assets in the fields of both theatre and cinema -- except Youssef Wahbi.

There is no artistic field that Wahbi has left without his mark, even composing music and performing comedic monologues, film-editing, and dabbling in set decoration and publicity.

When you add to this his rich personal life, including three marriages, numerous affairs and tangled relationships with prominent figures of his era in the fields of politics, art and literature: the title 'I lived for a Thousand Years' is an understandable choice for his three volume memoir published in 1973.

Youssef Wahbi was born in the Fayoum governorate of Upper Egypt on 14 July 1898 to an aristocratic father, who was the governorate’s chief irrigation inspector. He was schooled in Fayoum, then moving to a secondary school in Giza and finally enrolling in the High School of Agriculture.

He was however wholeheartedly attracted to the arts, following theatrical performances by the George Abbayad company at the time, and finally joining the Hassan Fayek and Aziz Eid companies. where he used to recite monologues in the play's intermissions.

His father was furious upon discovering that he was working in the theatre, and obliged him to leave his family's house.

He decided to travel to Italy in 1919 to study theatre and the nascent art of cinema, becoming familiar with its rules and participating in a number of films, as well as plays.

He married an Italian actress, Elena Lunda, which contributed to give him more opportunities in Italian cinema where he was known as Ramses in allusion to the Egyptian Pharaonic civilisation.

Aziz Eid visited Wahbi in 1922 and urged him to return to Egypt, especially since the death of his father. On his return, he set up a theatre company which he called the Ramses Company.

On the evening of 10 March 1923, the Ramses Company began its performances. Not only had a new era in Wahbi’s career just begun, but a new stage in the history of Arab theatre as a whole was launched.

This company remained the most famous and most influential in the Arab theatre movement by performing more than 300 plays, both translated and adapted or originally written in Arabic. It was a generating force behind the talents of tens of actors and actresses, including Hussein Riad, Amina Rizk, Ahmed Allam, Rose El-Youssef and many others.

In 1926, Youssef Wahbi faced a momentous crisis that could have blown apart his artistic career.

A Turkish adventurer, named Wedad Orfi, came to Egypt as a representative of a film production company based in France in order to produce a film about the Prophet Mohamed called Love of the Prince.

The French company cast Wahbi in the role of the Prophet Muhammad contrary to Islamic principles that prohibit any artistic representation of the prophet.

A scandal ensued in which Youssef Wahbi came in for the majority of the criticism and Al-Azhar, the royal palace and contemporary seat of intellectual Islam entered the fray.

Contention didn't cease until Youssef Whabi announced that he would turn down the offer to star in the film, which the French company decided to withdraw in order to evade the anger of Egyptian society.

This incident contributed to a four year setback in Youssef Wahbi’s cinematic career, during which he was largely preoccupied with founding Ramses Art Complex in Zamalek; including theatres, cinema, an amusement park, parks and outdoor filming locations.

Here, Youssef Wahbi made his production debut Zeinab (1930), a silent film directed by his friend Mohammed Karim, based on an adaptation of Mohamed Husein Heikal’s eponymous novel.

Youssef Wahbi is credited with bringing sound to film in Egypt via Sons of the Aristocrats (1932) which he produced, and was his acting debut.

He followed it with The Defence (1935), the first film in which he starred, produced and directed, and which was filmed in the Wahbi Studio in Giza and screened in Wahbi Cinema.

In the 40s he entered into a partnership with the Nahas Brothers with the aim of founding Nahas Studio; one of Egypt's most important studios.

Thus during a brief period, Youssef Wahbi combined the many aspects of cinema and theatre as both industry and art, playing a unique role among his peers.

Wahbi’s contribution to the stage continued until the mid-60’s when he refounded the Ramses Company in order to enable Egyptian television, which began broadcasting in 1960, to record his stage masterpieces such as Rasputin, The Confessional and The Imaginary Invalid.

As for the cinema, he kept on acting until his death in 17th December 1982 after appearing in about one hundred films, the last of which was The Slaughterhouse (1982, Ahmed El-Sabawy).

His output as a director comprised thirty films ending with The Old Days (1963). They included The Execution Hour (1938), Hell’s Ambassador (1945), The Advocate Madiha (1950) and Life or Death (1954).

Although Youssef Wahbi was known for his melodramatic performance and heartbreaking tragedies on both stage and screen, he suddenly changed tack later in his career, beginning to act in comedy films under Fateen Abdel-Wahab's direction.

His comedic spate began in Rumour of Love (1960) along with Omar Al-Sharif and Soad Hosny in which he displayed an astonishing capability in this film genre.

It was followed by a number of films, among which the most prominent were A Husband’s Confession (1960), Shanabo in the Trap (1968) and Searching for a Scandal (1973) made by various directors.

Youssef Wahbi received recognition and appreciation in various forms. In addition to acting awards, King Farouk conferred him the title of 'Bey' in 1944, after the monarch watched Passion and Revenge (1944).

He received a first class Order of Merit in 1960, a state appreciation award in 1970 and an honorary doctorate in arts in 1975. He was appointed director of the National Theatre many times.

During his eventful life, Youssef Wahbi was married to Aisha Fahmi, the owner of the famous palace in Zamalek, and later married her friend Saeeda Mansour with whom he remained until his death.

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