Imam’s artistic journey is one of a kind and his stardom involves so many stages and layers of success in cinema, theatre and even television that gave Egyptians and Arabs a new sense of humour not only in art but in life itself.
Imam was born on 17 May 1940 in the neighbourhood of Al-Sayeda Aisha to a family originally from Al-Mansoura. He studied at the Faculty of Agriculture, Cairo University where he first explored his talents at the university theatre. Benefiting from a unique talent, Imam’s career flourished for over 40 years before he began to step out of the limelight due to health issues, even though he was well when he joined a talk show by phone on his birthday.
He was a student when he played the memorable role of Dessouki in the famous stage hit Ana wi howa wi heya (Me and him and her, 1963), directed by Abdel-Moneim Madbouli, starring alongside Fouad Al-Mohandes and Shwikar. His cinematic career started with minor roles alongside Salah Zulfikar and Shadia in films directed by Fatin Abdel-Wahab such as Merati mudir aam (My wife is a general manager, 1966), Karamet zawgati (My wife’s dignity, 1967), and Afreit merati (My wife’s ghost, 1968).
Imam’s stardom did not take off until his unique role as Bahgat Al-Abasiri in the timeless classic Madraset Al-mushaghebin (The school of misfits, 1971), an epoch-making stage play with an ensemble in which he acted alongside Soheir Al-Babli, Hassan Mustafa, Ahmed Zaki, Said Saleh, Younis Shalabi and Hadi Al-Gayyar. The play was so inventive and hilarious it actually changed Egyptian Arabic, and Imam played no small part in this process.
His success redoubled with his one-star play Shahed mashafsh haga (Witness who saw nothing, 1976), another landmark directed by Hani Mutawei and Mohamed Fadel, in which Imam played Sarhan Abdel-Bassir, a simple, peaceful man unable to comprehend the reality of evil, who becomes involved in a murder trial when his neighbour, a belly dancer, is killed. The scene in which he appears in court as a witness, terrified, remains one of the most powerful, hilarious satires in the history of Egyptian comedy, managing to critique society and power in the most engaging way.
Imam’s films must be divided into stages. In the 1980s he played more serious and artistic roles in films telling a simple David and Goliath story, such as Raafat Al-Mihi’s Al-Avocado (The Advocate, 1984), in which he plays the cunning lawyer Hassan Sabanekh – married to a woman named Attiya (Youssra) and bickering with her sister Esmat (Esaad Younis) – who makes use of his month-long prison sentence for contempt of court to befriend the drug lord Hassouna (Hussein Al-Sherbini) and the totalitarian era mandarin Salim Abu Zeid (Salah Nazmi).
There is also Samir Seif’s Al-Halfout (The Tramp, 1985), in which he plays Arafa, a porter who suffers from poverty and sexual frustration until he manages to marry the neighbourhood belle Warda (Elham Shahine) and challenges and defeats the local strongman Arsan (Salah Kabil), a hitman. Also in 1985, he starred in Mohamed Khan’s Al-Hareef (The street player), co-written by Beshir Al-Deik, as Fares, a shoe factory worker whose only passion is football, which he plays to supplement his income, but soon his job and his marriage are in jeopardy. Nader Galal’s Salam ya sahbi (Goodbye my friend, 1987), starring Said Saleh, Sawsan Badr and Mustafa Metwalli as well as Imam, was a huge hit. So was Mohamed Abdel-Aziz’s Hanafi Al-Obaha (His highness Hanafi, 1988), co-starring Farouk Al-Fishawi, Hoda Ramzi and Ragaa Al-Geddawi.
The 1980s also involved some light comedies like Mohamed Abdel-Aziz’s Esabet Hamada wi Toto (The gang of Hamada and Toto, 1982), in which Imam plays Hamada Al-Zeftawi who with his wife Tawhida or Toto (Lebleba) takes revenge on the tourist company boss who rips him off. Nader Galal’s Wahda bi wahda (Tit for tat, 1984), starring Mervat Amin, Ahmed Rateb, Zizi Mustafa and Ali Al-Sherif was followed by Zoug taht Al-talab (Husband on demand, 1985), directed by Adel Sadek and starring the great comedian Fouad Al-Mohandes, Laila Elwi and Hala Sedki. Imam acted with Al-Mohandes again in Khalli balak min geranak (Watch out for your neighbours, 1979), directed by Mohamed Abdel-Aziz.
His acting partner Youssra had the lion’s share of collaborations with Imam, starring alongside him in countless films like Karakoun fil sharei (Station on the street, 1986), directed by Ahmed Yehia, Al-Ins wal jinn (Humans and djin, 1985), directed by Mohamed Radi and Al-Irhab wal kabab (Terrorism and kebab), directed by Sherif Arafa.
Developing his artistic persona through the years was one significant side of Imam’s brilliance. He styled and altered his sense of humour which signature facial expressions along with his physical movements spelling his witty one-liners to satirise classism and corruption, which earned him the sobriquet Al-Zaim (the leader or chief), also the title of a later play.
At the start of the play Al-wad Sayed Al-shaghal (Sayed the servant), this facial expression made the audience laugh before he had said a word. The story of a poor man who ends up marrying the lady of the house in which he has come to work as a servant, it ran for seven years in a row starting in 1985. Directed by Hussein Kamal, it starred Omar Al-Hariri, Ragaa Al-Geddawi, Mushira Ismail and Mustafa Metwalli.
Imam changed his pattern in 1990s and began to tackle various political issues especially when he started collaborating with the late screenwriter Wahid Hamed, producing the landmark Al-irhab wal kabab (Terrorism and kebab, 1992), which co-starred then rising comedians Alaa Walieddine and Ashraf Abdel-Baki alongside Youssra, Ahmed Rateb and Youssef Dawoud. Directed by Sherif Arafa, it was an enormous hit. This was followed by Nader Galal’s Al-Erhabi (The Terrorist, 1994), co-starring Madiha Youssri, Salah Zulfikar, Sherine and Hanan Shawki. But Imam changed tack in Bekheit wi Adila (Bekheit and Adila), opposite Sherine, grossing unexpected revenues. Once again it featured Walieddine alongside then rising comedians Mohamed Heneidi and Suleiman Eid.
In the 2000s Imam’s cinematic hits included Aris min geha amneya (Secret services suitor, 2004), starring Lebleba, Sherif Mounir and Hala Shiha and directed by Ali Edris, Al-Sefara fil omara (The embassy is in the building, 2005), starring Dalia Al-Beheiri, Ahmed Rateb and Khaled Sarhan and directed by Amr Arafa. His latest films were all before the 25 January Revolution: Bobbos (2009), directed by Wael Ihsan and Zahaymer (Alzheimer’s, 2010), directed by Amr Arafa. In that period he made many television contributions including Saheb Al-Saada (His Excellency, 2014), Maamoun wa shorakah (Maamoun and Co, 2016) and Awalem khafeya (Hidden worlds, 2018), all directed by his son Rami Imam.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly