What has Egypt done with its soft power and what has Egyptian TV done with its archives? These are the two key questions that would inevitably come to mind upon reading the memoires of Samir Sabry, 84, one of the countries most famous TV anchor, actor, and entertainer.
The book came out in the last few weeks of 2020 and it is already in its second edition.
One good reason, perhaps, is the clever work of journalist Fatehiyah El-Dakhakheni, the editor — maybe actually writer — of Sabry’s series of accounts of the top figures of cinema, music, and politics that Sabry came across during his career.
Sabry’s career took him from reporting at the frontline of the October War for Egyptian TV in 1973 to the dancing floor of Egypt’s upscale weddings in the 1990s, with a lot of interesting in-betweens.
Sabry is known to different generations in different capacities. For those above 50 years of age, he is perhaps best known for his once very successful TV programme Al-Nadi Al-Dawli (the International Club) that aired for 9 successive years in the 1970s and featured a wide range of interviews with art, culture, and political figures.
The list is long and quite impressive, including Faten Hamama, Tawfik Al-Hakim, Dalida, Warda, Chares Aznavour, Layla Mourad, Fouad Serag El-Din, the Amin Brothers, and many others.
The one recurring theme that comes across every single chapter of the book is that Sabry has no idea of the fate of the recordings that he did with all these divas of art, journalism, and politics. He is almost actually begging to be given a chance to dig out the TV archives in the hope of maybe finding his lost treasures.
The other recurring theme in the book relates to the equally significant and perplexing question of the fate of the entirety of Egypt’s “soft power”.
Stories of my entire life
In the many accounts he shares of what could be easily called ‘a life with the divas’, Sabry is again and again referring to the ‘incredible power’ that Egyptian art and culture meant for the overall profile of Egypt. Sabry tells lots of accounts about the glory that Umm Kalthoum, Abdel-Halim Hafez, Faten Hamama, and many others brought to Egypt.
When Umm Kalthoum went to perform in Tunis, the Tunisian president at the time, Al-Habib Bourgiba, had the entire stage covered with Jasmines because he knew Umm Kalthoum loved their smell. Umm Kalthoum later said that her best performance ever of her legendary Al-Atlal was during the Tunis performance.
Once, at the hospitality of an Arab Emir, Sabry was stunned to hear a full recording of the full Majnoun Layla of Mohamed Abdel-Wahab and Asmahan, which was partially included in one of Abdel-Wahhab’s early films. The Emir considered the recording the most precious gift ever.
The book is also full of cleverly dozed stories on the thin-line between politics and art and others and how it affects palace intrigues.
Sabry quotes Fouad Serag El-Din, a leading Wafd figure, who told the full story of the jealousy that Queen Nazli, the mother of King Farouq, held against Asmahan, the stunningly beautiful diva of Arab singing, who was thought to have an affair with Farouk’s chief chamberlain whom Nazli loved passionately.
Asmahan, according to the Serag El-Din account, had heard a word on Nazli’s scheme to murder her. She escaped to Jerusalem in fear for her life.
Youssef Wahbi, whose film Love and Revenge — staring Asmahan — was on the line, appealed to Serag El-Din to help. Serag El-Din decided to run a false story about Nazli’s plan to visit Jerusalem. Shortly afterwards, Asmahan was in Cairo, only to die in a suspicious car accident.
Mostafa and Ali Amin, the founders of Akhbar Al-Youm, are quoted by Sabry criticising the intelligence authorities of Gamal Abdel-Nasser for trying to control him through “fabricated” accounts of threats against his life and his regime.
“They are the birds of darkness,” Moustafa Amin tells Sabry in an interview after his release from jail, where he was kept for 10 years.
Abdel-Hakim Amer, Nasser’s defense minister, had to personally intervene with Shams Badran, his bureau chief, to fix the vicious feud between Umm Kalthoum and Abdel-Halim Hafez.
Actor Kamal El-Shennawy tells Sabry that one of his movies was not allowed for screening on Egyptian TV because it had a scene showing Hosni Mubarak teaching air force students.
On the anecdotal side, the book is certainly rich. Sabry recalls the visit of Dalida to Egypt in the 1970s and her joy to find the house where she lived in Shoubra still standing. He recalls another visit of Charles Aznavour to Cairo where he dined at the house of Warda and Baligh Hamdi and asked Hamdi, the prominent composer, to work on a song that both Warda and Aznavour could perform together.
The book’s weakest point is the selection of photos, which falls far short of matching the interesting tales that Sabry offered his reader, including those of his childhood in Alexandria, his secret marriage with an English lady in Cairo, his son and brother who live in England, his acting and singing career, and his successful entertainment business.