Remembering Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz, Egypt's cinema icon

Adham Youssef, Tuesday 15 Nov 2016

Abdel-Aziz died on Saturday, leaving behind a rich artistic repertoire

Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz

Beloved Egyptian actor Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz died on Saturday at the age of 70. Abdel-Aziz starred in three films by Egyptian director Ali Abdel-Khalek, playing a strikingly different role in each of these productions. Together, these three films encapsulate Abdel-Aziz’s talent and passion, which culminated in a generous filmography of more than 90 works.

In Abdel-Khalek’s 1982 film Al-Aar (“Shame”), Abdel-Aziz played the role of an upper-class addiction specialist, tormented by the fact that his pious father was actually a drug lord.  

In Gari Al-Wohosh (“Monsters Run”, 1987), Abdel-Aziz transformed into a poor, desperate alpha male who gets involved in selling one of his organs, and ends up losing his sanity and his macho sexuality.

Finally, in Al-Keif (“The High”, 1985), he plays a well-to-do spoiled bohemian son who mingles with the impoverished proletariat in local cafes and dens populated by petrifying drug dealers.

Written by Mahmoud Abu Zaid, all three films tackled the moral decay that resulted from Sadat's “open door” economic policy in the 1970s.

Gary Al-Wohosh (Monsters Run, 1987)
(Photo: still from Gary Al-Wohosh (Monsters Run, 1987))

Abdel-Aziz was a spearhead in all three films. His ability to master radical shifts as he moved from one role to the other, and his marvelous way of capturing the weaknesses and strengths embedded in each, explain why he has over the years become one of Egyptian modern cinema’s gems.

The Alexandria-born actor studied agriculture at university and embarked on several theatre activities until he landed his debut role in the 1973 television series Al-Dawama, which was followed the next year by his film debut, Al-Hafeed (“The Grandson”), directed by Atef Salem, in which Abdel-Aziz marries a girl from an Egyptian middle class family in 1970s Cairo.

To his credit, Abdel-Aziz managed to surpass the “night club” themed-films that dominated Egyptian cinema in the 1980s, which were produced by Gulf-affiliated individuals and featured divas in bikinis and lingerie, belly dancers, shaabi or popular-style songs, and cheesy plots.

Instead, Abdel-Aziz focused on playing eye-catching roles and choosing interesting scripts, the 1980s thus becoming a high point for his career. It was in this decade that he took on the role of Egyptian spy Rafaat El-Hagan in a very popular TV production.

The trilogy garnered major success in Egypt and the Arab world, with a plot centering on the story of the El-Hagan, an Egyptian spy operating in Israel. The series glorified Abdel-Aziz, giving him the space to improvise, and asserting his Don Juan attitude, something that he continued to be known for.

Rafaat Al-Hagan
(Photo: still from Rafaat Al-Hagan)

Directed by Yahia El-Alamy, the series aired from 1987 to 1992, for the most part adopting a highly nationalistic narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict, all the while humanising El-Hagan.

The series continues to be broadcasted on both private and state-owned TV channels, and its plot has moulded the Egyptian spy/war narrative, to the extent that documentaries about Egypt's General Intelligence Directorate use footage from the fictional series.

Tall and well-built, Abdel-Aziz was known for his quick movement in front of the camera, whether acting in a romance, action, or drama.

In the beginning he was a poster boy for romance films, and post-war productions of war heroes coming back to their sweethearts. To his luck, he soon got the chance to work with some of Egypt’s most brilliant directors, who themselves came from different schools of art: from the realist, to the nationalist, to the feminist, to those who experimented with fantasy to tackle with society’s macro problems. The list includes filmmakers Mohamed Khan, Radwan El-Kashef, Samir Seif, Mohamed Kamel El-Qaliouby, Mohamed Haseeb, and Omar Abdel-Aziz.

Al-Keif (The High, 1985)
(Photo: still from Al-Keif (The High, 1985))

He joined forces with Atef El-Tayeb in the Al-Bari (“The Innocent”, 1986), where he played the role of Colonel Sharkas, a schizophrenic officer who tortures political prisoners in detention centres. Sharkas didn't have to move much in the film, owing to his position as a high-ranking officer in this detention camp, so we can see him coldly questioning communist writers under the scorching sun, with no remorse or mercy.

But when journalists, legal representatives, and members of human rights groups come to inspect a murder that took place in the prison, he is warm, gentle and caring.

Abdel-Aziz’s favorite collaboration was with fantasy director Raafat El-Meehy, in which they tackled feminist issues and highlighted them it in the context of society’s problems. In El-Sada El-Regal (“Misters”, 1987), a social comedy, Abdel-Aziz emerges as a patriarchal husband demanding a lot from his wife, played by Maali Zayed, who in an attempt to resist against his domination and secure more rights, transforms into a man.

He went on to act in another film by El-Meehy, Sayedati Anisati (“Ladies and Lasses,” 1989) which tackled the Egyptian population crisis, widowhood, unemployment, and the misery experienced by housewives, all in a comic manner.

In Sayedati Anisati, Abdel-Aziz plays the role of Mahmoud, an office boy who claims to have a PhD and to have given lectures about the ideas of Friedrich Engels. He marries four women, and gives each the right to divorce him.

E’dam Mayyet (Execution of a Dead Man)
(Photo: still from E’dam Mayyet (Execution of a Dead Man))

The film centres on the institution of marriage but adopts a matriarchal point of view. The wives control the marriage, own the house, have the right to divorce, and manage the household finances. They return from work to their husband who has spent his afternoon preparing lunch.

In 1991, the brilliant director Daoud Abd El-Sayyed chose Abdel-Aziz to star in his masterpiece El-Kitkat (“Kitkat”), adapted from a novel by Egyptian writer Ibrahim Aslan. In El-Kitkat, Abdel-Aziz plays the role of the blind life-loving Sheikh Hosni, who refuses to give in to the harsh economic conditions.

In order to master his role, Abdel-Aziz reportedly spent time with visually impaired individuals to study their body language and facial expressions.
In one scene, Sheikh Hosni shares a long-held dream—in which he rides on a motorcycle and flies-- with his frustrated young son Youssef (played by Sherif Mounir).

El-Kitkat (Kitkat)
(Photo: still from El-Kitkat (Kitkat))

Youssef takes his father on a ride and they both end up in the Nile. “Don’t blame me,” Sheikh Hosni tells Youssef. “The other driver is stupid. For your information, I got his number plates.”

Laughing, the son replies, “Father why don’t you believe that you’re blind?”

“Are you calling me blind you idiot? I can see better than you do, and in the dark,” replies Sheikh Hosni, as the two burst into hysterical laughs. 

It was this scene along with other scenes from the film that turned Sheikh Hosni into one of Egypt’s most beloved characters. 

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