When I went to see the play Sanei Al-Bahga (The Joy Maker) at the state-supported Al-Ghad Theatre in Agouza, I realised that I’d never paid enough attention to the late writer-director-producer and comedian Naguib Al-Rihani (1889-1949), its principal subject. This was perhaps because, unlike other major figures in Egyptian comedy, none of the plays in which he appeared were recorded. His performance survives in a small number of films made in the early 1930s and 1940s. I could vaguely recall his famous role as Ustaz Hammam in Ghazal Al-Banat (1949), opposite Laila Mourad, which he never had a chance to see because he died prior to its screening.
Once you enter the theatre to attend Sanei Al-Bahga, you can see the actors on stage casually sitting around chatting while waiting for the play to start – exactly like the audience – and, as it does start, one actor from the side of the theatre can be heard talking loudly on the phone. You realise then that this is a play within the play in which the actor is playing a stage director meeting with the cast to discuss how to make a performance about Naguib Al-Rihani. Discussions of Al-Rihani quickly emerge, during which the actors call each other by their real-life names: Sayed Al-Roumi, Mahmoud Al-Zayyat, Samia Atef, Reem Ahmed, Mohamed Hasib and Haidi Barakat.
“I chose the play-within-the-play format,” the creator and director of Sanei Al-Bahga, the prominent theatre maker Nasser Abdel-Moneim, “because it would offer a lot of smooth transitions between the scenes as there are many layers to the play. There is documentation: recorded scenes in which simple people give their impressions of Al-Rihani.” This, he felt, was the more meaningful tribute, since “stardom is created by simple, random people, people you can randomly meet on the streets”, and not by critics or researchers. “There are the rehearsals,” he goes on: “the sketches and some significant information about Al-Rihani offered in a direct way to the audience. This form makes the audience more familiar with what’s happening, with the sets altered right in front of them. An actor might be finishing up his makeup or putting on a hat in front of the audience too. The actor playing the director would be giving the actors instructions and so on. All this harmony comes from this simple form, and it’s like a theatrical game led by the director on stage. If it was done in a classical way it would look strange and face all kinds of obstacles.”
Abdel-Moneim’s vision is obvious even in the costumes – by Samah Nabil – with all the actors wearing black, white and grey colours and only the director in something brighter. But what inspired him to tackle Al-Rihani in the first place?
“On the level of the job, the Ministry of Culture was organising a conference to celebrate the 1920s, which witnessed a renaissance on the cultural and artistic front, its main symbols being Naguib Al-Rihani’s collaboration with Badie Khairi and Sayed Darwish, who collaborated with that famous duo on a number of ‘operettas’ [as musicals were called at the time].
On the personal level I’ve always found Naguib Al-Rihani to be a rich character that requires research and I tried to explore his artistic world and his journey. I regard him as a remarkable comedian who managed to carve a very special place for himself in the memory of many generations and this in itself has raised many questions: his strong presence for all those years, how he and his partner Badie Khairi reached such a level of professional comedy writing, situational comedy so long before the sitcom, producing not only tight plot lines but also memorable characters that could make the audience explode with laughter.
“Nowadays, when comedy has taken a cheap form that relies on the actor’s superficial sense of humour and silly jokes, I for one yearn for Al-Rihani’s brand of comedy which, though it didn’t pretend to be anything more, had unprecedented depth, so much so that he was called ‘the laughing philosopher’. The prejudice against comedians as light and simple characters doesn’t apply to him at all. I feel it’s my role to take a closer look at this remarkable genre of professional comedy which, despite the passage of time, can still generate laughter. I was intrigued to do a play about Al-Rihani because I’m keen on highlighting artistic symbols of the past for the benefit of younger generations, which I regard as significant and crucial work.
“The major challenge was to make a play within the limited time span of 80-90 minutes, and still include the most significant stops on Al-Rihani’s journey, which is a rich, long one that went through various stages. I wanted to emphasise the major artistic stops on Al-Rihani’s journey, his three or four collaborations with Sayed Darwish, in whose talent Al-Rihani believed, like Al-Ashra Al-Tayeba (The Ten of Diamonds). I wanted to show how he started small and sought the right path. In his early days he joined some itinerant troupes and worked as a nightclub entertainer – a kind of standup comedian, which the actor Stephan Rosti, another major collaborator, did too – before he became the figure we know.
“Al-Rihani wasn’t satisfied until, through his work in the Agricultural Bank, he was introduced to director Aziz Eid, then the number one director in Egypt and the first practitioner of the concept of a professional theatre director in the real sense. Before Eid there had been experiments in the field of stage directing but not a real director, so he was a leader in this field. He adapted famous world classics for the Egyptian audience. At the same time, however, Al-Rihani was drawn to another form of theatre practised by Amin Sedki later followed by Badei Khairi. Al-Rihani said of that latter kind of theatre that it comprised plays that taste of foul and taamiya, meaning it was like Egyptian street food. He and Aziz Eid soon parted ways as he went on seeking his passion.
“Later, Al-Rihani would create the character of Keshkesh Beh, an archetypal figure with which most Egyptians could empathise, because he expressed their own reality in the wake of the 1919 Revolution during the search for national identity after long periods of occupation under the Ottomans and the British Empire, all the way through the 1923 Constitution. Al-Rihani had begun to pay attention to the lower classes who wanted to find a place for themselves, so in time that character started to develop: the kind person who fights for a living but suffers all manner of bad luck despite making huge efforts in education in the hope of securing a bright future. He doesn’t stand a chance against those born into wealth and social standing even though they made no such efforts, but he doesn’t give up – he persists till he manages to tip the scales in his favour – and so the Egyptian people, suffering from injustice and poverty and illiteracy, are eventually vindicated.”
Regarding the various sketches that portray Al-Rihani, Abdel-Moneim comments, “I was very keen to keep out any material from the films, and the parts that people might relate to from films like Ghazal Al-Banat. It is originally taken from plays as they invested its success in recreating some scenes based on the plays to fit the film format. So the famous scene of the lost bracelet that people will know from the film is, however, originally from the play Estanna Bakhtak (Wait for Your Luck), and others from Keshkesh Beh there were also based on. The scene of radeh (as working-class women’s verbal squabbles, often involving rhyming litanies of insults, are called), was mentioned in a paper by Ali Al-Raaei, who was researching popular comedy and how Al-Rihani and Khairi included it in their work. The rest of the sketches are from plays like Genan fi Genan (Crazy Crazy), Ganayen and Keshkesh Beh. Al-Rihani made some 40 plays and nine films, five or six of which are well-known.”
Nasser Abdel-Moneim is an Egyptian playwright and stage director born in 1958. His passion for theatre began during his university years. His best-known plays include Leil Al-Ganoub (Night of the South), Sayed Al-Waqt (The Master of Time), Hekayat Nass Al-Nahr (The Tales of People of the River), Massaa Al-Kheir Ya Masr (Good Afternoon Egypt), and Al-Touq wal Eswera (The Collar and the Bracelet), which won the best Theatrical Directing Award at the first Cairo International Festival of Contemporary Theatre in 1999. He has won numerous Egyptian and Arab awards.
The play will resume on the second day of Eid Al-Adha.