Remembering legendary Egyptian actor Ahmed Zaki

Ashraf Gharib, Friday 30 Mar 2018

Ahmed Zaki
Ahmed Zaki (Photo: Al Ahram)

Everything in the childhood of this dark-skinned young man, who was born on 18 November 1949, confirmed that his life path would not be easy.

After his father’s premature death and his mother’s marriage to another man, Ahmed Zaki was brought up in El-Zagazig, Sharqiya governorate under difficult familial circumstances. These circumstances were disheartening to the extent that he only received the Intermediate Technical Industrial Education Certificate.

This did not bother Zaki, however, for his first and foremost interest was acting. His desire to enrol in the Higher Institute for Cinema was far stronger than the obstacle that was the lack of a high school certificate, which was and still is a prerequisite for enrolling in Egypt’s Academy of Arts. However, his noticeable talent allowed for an exception and he graduated in 1970.

After graduation, Zaki took parts in a number of plays, the most notable of which were ‘Hello Shalaby’ and ‘The Honourable Thief,’ before participating in his most important play, ‘School of the Rowdies.’ This play redrew the map of acting stars at the start of the 1970s.

At the time, Egyptian cinema witnessed the emergence of a new generation of actors, the most prominent of which were Nour El-Sherif, Mahmoud Yassin and Hussein Fahmy. They started their careers at the end of the 1960s, and the audience were starting to recognise their faces in starring roles.

Thus, it was not easy for Egyptian cinema to introduce more new faces before these young actors gained artistic maturity. This explains why the cinematic beginnings of Zaki were modest and humble, even slow, in the films ‘My Son’ directed by Nader Galal and ‘Sons of Silence’ by Mohamed Radi (both in 1972). However, the young actor showed good skills indicating that a new star was in the making.

The nature of Egyptian cinema at the time was not the only obstacle to stardom for Zaki. The stereotypical image of a cinema star was built either on handsomeness, as was the case with Hussein Fahmy, or on the romantic performance as with Mahmoud Yassin.

Zaki did not possess any of these characteristics, which would have catapulted him towards first-rate stardom. Perhaps this might explain why Zaki’s stardom was delayed, or why film producers and distributers did not use Zaki’s image in the forefront of any film posters or trailers.

This was exemplified by the refusal of Mamdouh El-Leithy, a renowned film producer and screenwriter, to have Zaki as the star of ‘Al-Karnak’ (1975) at the suggestion of its director Ali Badrakhan, over fears that the distributer would not buy a film starring this lean dark young man. El-Leithy famously asked: “How could Soad Hosny love such a boy?”

The role was instead played by the stereotypically handsome Nour El-Sherif.

Consequently, Zaki spent several years playing dozens of minor roles before moving on to major ones. Among his most significant roles at this time were ‘Budour’ (1974) directed by Nader Galal, ‘Star Maker’ (1976) by Mohamed Radi, ‘Life is a Moment’ and ‘Behind the Sun’ (both in 1978) by Mohamed Radi, and ‘Alexandria Why?’ (1979) by Youssef Chahine.

Following this stage, Zaki played three roles from which he emerged as an acknowledged actor with a special presence on the acting map in Egypt.

The first of these was a starring role in ‘Shafiqa and Metwalli’ (1978) directed by Ali Badrakhan. The second was his role in the hit play ‘The Kids have grown up’ (1979), which was considered an extension of his previous play ‘School of the Rowdies.’ The third was the role of Dr Taha Hussein, "the Dean of Arabic Literature," in the television series ‘The Days’ (1979) directed by Yahia El-Alamy.

Following his big successes in cinema, theatre and television, Zaki became qualified to occupy the forefront of cinema in the 1980s and beyond.

Perhaps Zaki was lucky, because the early 80s witnessed the emergence of an entire generation of directors who changed the face of modern Egyptian cinema. This generation was known as the Neo-Realist wave, for they portrayed Egyptian society with all its characters, marginalised people, transformations and interests and were more truthful in portraying the image of this society on the silver screen.

Naturally, Zaki, with his wholly Egyptian features and social and economic background, was one of the most prominent protagonists presented by these directors.

His very facial features, which were an obstacle in the beginning, became his point of distinction from his colleagues. This explains Zaki being the common denominator in many of this period’s films: ‘The Bloody Fates’ (1982), ‘Houseboat no. 70’ (1982) and ‘Kaboria’ (Crabs, 1990) directed by Khairy Bishara; ‘The Holding Cell’ (1984), ‘The Innocent’ (1986), ‘The Escape’ (1991), ‘Against the Government’ (1992) by Atef El-Tayyeb; ‘An Appointment at Dinner’ (1981), ‘A Bird on the Road’ (1981), ‘A Wife of an Important Man’ (1988), ‘Dreams of Hind and Camilia’ (1988), ‘Mr. Karate’ by Mohamed Khan; ‘Sleepless Eyes’ (1981) by Raafat El-Meehy; ‘The Land of Fear’ (2000) by Daoud Abdel-Sayed; and ‘The Third Class’ (1988) by Sherif Arafa to name but a few.

Although Zaki received formal training, this did not rob him of his natural style of performance or leave its stamp on his outstanding capability to get into the skin of characters.

He became known for a specially honed style that qualified him to present a set of real characters with superb adroitness, such as the role of Dr. Taha Hussein, in ‘The Days’ TV series, and the two presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser in ‘Nasser 56’ (1996) directed by Mohamed Fadel, and Anwar El-Sadat in ‘The Sadat Days’ (2001) by Mohamed Khan.

Zaki also played music legend Abdel-Halim Hafez in ‘Halim’ by Sherif Arafa, which was screened in 2006, one year after Ahmed Zaki’s death on 27 March 2005 following a severe battle with cancer that struck him suddenly in his final year.

Even over a decade after his death, Zaki is still considered by many to be the best actor in the history of Egyptian cinema.

A considerable number of his films are considered some of the most important in Egypt, especially ‘The Innocent’ (1986) directed by Atef El-Tayyeb, to the extent that film’s title a nickname for Zaki himself.

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