Remembering Hanaa Abdel-Fattah: Egyptian theatre director, actor, cultural mediator

Ahram Online , Thursday 19 Oct 2017

Hanaa Abdel-Fattah passed away on on 19 October 2012 in Cairo

Hanaa Abdel Fattah
Hanaa Abdel Fattah in 2011 (Photo: courtesy of the family)

19 October marks the 5th anniversary of the death of Hanaa Abdel-Fattah, the prominent Egyptian theatre director, actor, translator, and critic. He passed away on 19 October 2012 in Cairo after a long battle with cancer.

Mohamed Hanaa Abdel-Fattah Metwaly was born in December 1944 to a family submerged in culture. He began acting at the age of 8, landing a number of roles in both radio and then film.

In fact, Abdel-Fattah's later career did not seem to be his initial calling. His father, a journalist working for the national radio, was the author of Shakhseyat La Tonsa (Unforgettable Personalities), a series of articles in which he explored the lives of largely forgotten and underappreciated artists. Fully aware of the hardships of the field, Abdel-Fattah's father did not welcome his son's interest in a career in theater or film.

Yet against his father's will, together with his sister Souheir, Abdel-Fattah decided to enter a competition for children organized by Baba Sharo (renowned radio figure Mohamed Mahmoud Shaaban). Souheir was accepted onto the radio show, but the eight-year-old Abdel Fattah was asked to improve his pronunciation before he could join. Determined to join his sister, he locked himself in a room for two weeks working on his pronunciation. He returned to Baba Sharo two weeks later proudly demonstrating a clear "s" instead of his previous "th."

Hanaa Abdel Fattah
Hanaa Abdel Fattah in one of his first movie appearances (left) and in Bab El-Hadid (Cairo Station), alongside Hind Rostom (right) by Youssef Chahine, 1958. (Photo: courtesy of the family)

"For years he had been a household name thanks to a long-running radio drama serial about the daily life of an ordinary middle-class Egyptian family in which he played the youngest son. The serial (The Family of Marzouq Effendi) was broadcast daily as part of a morning show targeting housewives and, indeed, non-working women of all ages, married or otherwise. "A regular radio actor from his tender years, with occasional appearances in films," wrote the late Egyptian theatre critic and friend of Abdel-Fattah, Nehad Selaiha, in her obituary titled "Exit Great Theatre Maker," published in Al-Ahram Weekly in October 2012.

Among many other radio roles, Abdel-Fattah was also voice of the 1960s Sindbad, a role which was particularily close to his heart and which he remembered for years to come.

From radio voice-overs he moved on to stage acting at the National Theatre, and then later to films. In 1958, at the age of 14, he played in Youssef Chahine's celebrated Bab Al-Hadid ("The Iron Gate").

"Hanaa was something of a star then, with plenty of acting experience as well as three years of professional training behind him; and yet, he was gentle, quiet, modest, and unassuming," Selaiha wrote.

The career of the "miraculous child," as described by one critic of that time, continued to grow, but directing began to call to him more than anything else. He entered the High Institute of Theatrical Arts in the theatre, acting and directing department. At the same time, he studied script-writing at the Egyptian Cinema Institute.

Hanaa Abdel Fattah
Hanaa Abdel Fattah with peasant amateur actors in Yusef Idris's 'Cotton King', 1969. (Photo: courtesy of the family)

Following his studies in Egypt, Abdel-Fattah left to continue his education in Poland. In the more than two decades he spent there, he studied at the directing department of Warsaw's State Institute of Theatrical Arts, to which he was the only foreign student ever accepted.

By the time he graduated from the State Theatre Academy with honors, he had become a well-known figure in Polish theatrical circles, gaining the love and respect of many Polish artists, theatre critics and directors. Many of the professors who used to teach him at the State Theatre Academy became his close friends. Renowned Polish actor and professor at the Academy, Zbigniew Zapasiewicz (1934 – 2009), was specially impressed with Abdel Fattah's unique perspective on the meanings and undertones of Polish dramas.

Abdel-Fattah went on to earn his PhD in theatre theory from Warsaw University. He was actively involved in Polish theatrical and intellectual circles, directing a number of plays in Warsaw and other European capitals. In 1986, his production of Carlo Goldoni's "The Servant of Two Masters" received the audience’s first prize.

As his artistic career flourished his family in Poland was also growing. A wife and three daughters became a passion equal to the theatre. His wife, Dorota Metwaly, "his life-long companion, closest friend and advisor and work-partner," as Selaiha puts has always suppoerted generously Abdel Fattah's work and helped in his translations. "Theirs was a marriage of true minds and kindred souls." 

Hanaa Abdel Fattah
During the break in rehearsals, Hanaa Abdel Fattah rests in one of the Polish theatres. (Photo: courtesy of the family)

He returned to Egypt in the 1990s, where he continued his work as a theatre director and began teaching at Cairo's Higher Institute of Theatrical Arts. In the early 2000s, he became head of the institute's acting and directing department. Meanwhile he continued to regularly direct theatre productions in both Egypt and Poland.

"The launching of the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFET) in 1988 marked the beginning of a new line of activity for Abdel-Fattah, adding to his many roles -- as experimental director, theatre promoter, critic and actor -- a new one as cultural mediator. From the first edition until the very last in 2010, he was indefatigable in promoting knowledge of the Polish theatre in Egypt, suggesting the invitation of prominent figures as well as translating and moderating their presentations when they arrived. He assisted at workshops conducted by visiting Polish artists, translated Polish plays and important critical and theoretical works on theatre, and wrote illuminating reviews of guest Polish performances," Selaiha recalled in her obituary.

Abdel-Fattah also directed on Egyptian stages a number of the theatrical works which he himself translated from Polish into Arabic. He also brought Egyptian theatre to Poland, where he frequently directed Polish actors. Metwaly was also among the principal promoters of Polish cultural activity in Egypt, overseeing numerous lectures, presentations and workshops.

Hanaa Abdel Fattah
Hanaa Abdel Fattah, in 1974 in Poland (left, photo: courtesy of the family) and during receipt of Gloria Artis, the Polish Medal for Merit to Culture, for his contributions to Polish culture, June 2012 (right, photo courtesy Polish Embassy in Cairo)

"When the issue of the Theatre Magazine dedicated to that year's CIFET appeared, it featured many translations, studies and portraits of Polish theatre artists by Hanaa Abdel-Fattah. From that time onward, the work of leading Polish writers and directors became one of the major sources of inspiration for young Egyptian theatre-makers who wanted to revitalize the craft, and guest shows from Poland invariably excited frantic interest and wild admiration, often causing furious rioting at the venues where they played. It is thanks to Hanaa Abdel-Fattah that CIFET audiences could enjoy over the years such stunning, breathtaking productions as the Centre of Theatrical Practices' Carmina Burana... For You the Way, Fin, and Caligula, also, all by the St. I. Witkiewicz Theatre." Selaiha wrote.

It was in the last decade of his life that Abdel-Fattah made his return to Egyptian cinemas. Among his numerous roles were those in films such as El-Sefara fi El-Omara (2005), El Shabah (2007), Cairo Time (2009), among others, as well as television series such as Ayza Atgawez (I want to get married) starring Hend Sabry. He played role of Professor Badawi in Fair Game (2010) a USA drama directed by Doug Liman.

While he enjoyed the exposure he received through his appearances in cinema and television series, his heart always belonged to theatre, whether in Egypt or in Poland. In 2009, his adaptation of a work by Egyptian playwright Alfred Farag at the Dramatic Theatre in Bialystok was received with acclaim.

The following year, he was awarded the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs Culture Award for his work "promoting Polish culture internationally." In recognition to his achievement, Abdel-Fattah was awarded honorary Polish nationality.

Hanaa Abdel Fattah
Hanaa Abdel Fattah greets the audience in one of Polish theatres (Photo: courtesy of the family)

His other awards from the Polish government include the Polish Literary Syndicate Prize and the International Theatre Institute award for promoting cross-cultural dialogue between Poland and the Arab world. In 2011, he was granted the Appreciation Award by the Egyptian government for his lifetime contribution to culture.

In June 2012, he was awarded the Gold Medal for Merit to Culture by the Polish Ministry of Culture, given to persons and organisations who make exceptional contributions to Polish culture and heritage.

Abdel-Fattah was among very few international artists to have received the medal and, as Selaiha recalled, the award boasts among its former recipients such distinguished figures as the Italian author and theatre director Eugenio Barba."

Selaiha concluded her obituary saying that "Hanaa will be remembered as a force of innovation and rejuvenation in the post-1960s Egyptian theatre, as a liberating energy that helped to revolutionize theatrical practices and concepts in Egypt and inspired many artists to cross boundaries, search for new routes and explore new horizons. He was a man that left the world, in his case the world of theatre and culture, better than he found it. Can anyone aspire to more?"

Hanaa Abdel Fattah
Hanaa Abdel Fattah returns to the Egyptian cinema in last decade of his life.

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