Art’s Nun: Remembering Egyptian actress Amina Rizk

Ashraf Gharib, Sunday 15 Apr 2018

Amina Rizk was born on 15 April 1910, leaving a legacy of hundreds of roles between theatre and cinema, and a unique focus on the 'mother roles' for which she was best known

Amina Rizk

When an actor or actress sticks to one type of role throughout most of their artistic life, only a powerful talent and dominating presence can save them from becoming redundant to audiences.

Perhaps the able actress Amina Rizk, born on 15 April 1910, was one of these actresses. Although her artistic beginnings saw her in the role of leading lady, many generations knew her as being bound to "the mother role", whether on the stage, the silver screen, or television.

Rizk was dubbed “Art’s Nun”, for she devoted her entire life to art and remained unmarried until her death on 24 August 2003.

Born in Tanta in the Nile Delta, she was attached to art since childhood. She was 13 when she moved to Cairo with her aunt, the actress and belly-dancer Amina Mohamed, who encouraged her to take up an acting career. Rizk’s artistic life spanned nearly 80 years, eclipsing that of her aunt, who retired early.

She came to Cairo several months after Youssef Wahbi founded the Ramses Theatre Company. The 13-year-old yearned to work with Wahbi, whose fame was widespread. In 1924, one year after Rizk’s arrival in Cairo, she got her wish.

Soon the little girl showed noticeable acting abilities, and Wahbi was enthusiastic about casting her as the company’s leading lady. However, the leading-lady roles were tied to his company’s existing female stars: Rose El-Youssef, Dawlat Abyad, Zeinab Sedky and Fardous Hassan.

How could this emerging actress outshine those established actresses? The first one to object was Rose El-Youssef, who resented Rizk landing the female lead in the 1924 play The Sacrifices, with El-Youssef forced to play second fiddle.

Rose El-Youssef retired from acting altogether and focused on publishing the weekly magazine that bore her name, leaving the little actress to take the spotlight.

From this moment onwards, Rizk became the permanent leading lady for the Ramses Theatre Company – the most famous theatrical company in Egypt, and one that is still running today.

Youssef Wahbi made her sign a monopoly contract, forbidding her from acting in films without his written approval, thereby ensuring that his company’s performances would not be harmed by her absence.

In this way, she may have lost out on several film-acting opportunties, the most prominent of which was the silent film Zeinab, directed by Mohamed Karim (1930). Although Youssef Wahbi was the film’s producer, he felt her participation would be at the expense of his company’s trip to Syria and Lebanon. So the role went to another actress, Bahiga Hafez.

Amina Rizk’s cinematic debut was in Souad the Gypsy (1928, Jack Schutz), the third film in the history of Egyptian narrative films.

Naturally, the film was silent, and Rizk played a supporting role, while Fardous Hassan was the leading lady. However, Rizk's performance was enough to open up new horizons for her, and she went on to act in about 250 films during a career spanning nearly eight decades. Only two cinematic giants beat her in terms of the number of films they appeared in: Mahmoud El-Meligy and Farid Shawqi.

The first big break in Rizk’s cinematic career came when she co-starred with Youssef Wahbi in the first Egyptian talkie, Sons of the Aristocrats (1932, Mohamed Karim).

Unsurprisingly, she became the common denominator in Youssef Wahbi’s early films, which he also directed, such as The Defence (1935).

Due to the absence of copies of her early films, modern audiences were first introduced to her acting skills through The Doctor (1939, Niazi Mostafa). Here she played a delicate, idealistic girl, a long way from her tragic roles on stage.

For several years, she continued to play lead roles, such as in Sons of the Poor (1942, Youssef Wahbi) and Les Misérables (1944, Kamal Selim).

However, her career then took another turn, with a series of roles as a mother, starting with The Mother (1945, Omar Gemei). Although at the time she wasn’t even 35 years old yet, she played the part of mother to grown-up characters played by adult actors.

She reprised the same role in Dearest of the Beloved Ones (1961, Youssef Maalouf). Since this point, Rizk, who never married or gave birth, never strayed from the role of mother in cinema, stage and television – a unique case in her profession.

Even as this actress continued to play this role, she did so with her own particular, versatile touch. She wasn’t stiff and aristocratic like Dawlat Abyad and Olwiyya Gamil, good-hearted and simple like Fardous Mohamed, sober like Zeinab Sedky and Nelly Mazloum, helpless like Aqeela Rateb, or even comedic like Marie Mounib.

She was all of these actresses, depending on the requirements of the role. She was the good-hearted mother in The Black Candles (1962, Ezz-Eldin Zulfikar), the aristocratic mother in Where is My Life (1956, Ahmed Diaa-Eldin), then the very stiff and tough mother in Shafiqa The Copt (1962, Hassan Al-Imam), the helpless rural mother in The Curlew’s Prayer (1959, Henri Barakat), the urban mother in A Beginning and an End (1960, Salah Abu-Seif) based on the novel by Egyptian Nobel Prize laureate Naguib Mahfouz, the weak and submissive mother in I Want a Solution (1975, Said Marzouk), and finally, the comic mother in His Sisters (1976, Henri Barakat) and on stage in It’s Really a Respectable Family (1979, Fouad Al-Mohandes).

Thus, even within such a narrow framework, Rizk was able to diversify her options, keeping them wide open due to her unlimited acting abilities, as well as her ability to change her voice from tough to kind – and the whole spectrum of emotional expressions in between.

This in addition to facial expressions and body movements resulting from an excellent understanding of fine differences between one mother's role and another.

Rizk was once asked how she could perform all the motherhood roles with such dexterity without being a real mother. She replied briefly – while fighting back tears – that it was probably due to not feeling these emotions in reality, which meant she wanted to make up for it on the silver screen.

This was especially the case, she said, since she considered the next generations of actors and actresses to be her sons and daughters.

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