Remembering Mahmoud Shokoko: An Egyptian star actor and extraordinary man

Ashraf Gharib, Monday 30 Apr 2018

Mahmoud Shokoko was born 1 May 1913 and died 12 February 1985, between which dates he reached stardom and left an indelible mark on Egyptian popular culture

Mahmoud Shokoko
Mahmoud Shokoko

Mahmoud Shokoko didn’t taste in his childhood the school life. Life was his school, as well as his father’s carpentry workshop.

Regardless, Shokoko learned how to win over people’s love and achieve sweeping fame unattained by others. He was the only actor whose candy statues were sold on streets for empty bottles, his picture printed on matchboxes and a tramway station in Alexandria named after him.

Mahmoud Shokoko was born in El-Darb El-Ahmar, one of Cairo’s low-class quarters, on 1 May 1913. Many a time, Shokoko boasted that the whole world celebrated his birthday which coincides with May Day (International Workers' Day). His name was Mahmoud Shokoko Ibrahim Ismail Mousa, hence Shokoko was an original part of his real name and not a pseudonym.

Shokoko was the perfect example of a star made by cinemagoers of the post-World War II period, where low-classes tastes were predominant since purchasing power was concentrated in their hands due to socio-economic changes brought by the war. Naturally, this audience was searching for a real representative of their class in films. They wanted a low-class hero not in the good-natured and passive mould of Ismail Yassin, the naivety of Hassan Fayeq and Said Abu-Bakr or a foreman like Abdel-Fattah El-Kasri or even Zaki Rostom.

Their kind of hero was a simple man characterised with virility and gallantry and natural acumen, a hero who could be an ironer, café attendant or carpenter. Was there anyone more suitable than Mahmoud Shokoko for this mission?

Indeed, filmmakers found their hero. Unlike many comedy actors preceding or following him, Shokoko didn’t need a genius like Naguib Al-Rihani or Badie’ Khairy in order to bring out his character. Cineastes wanted Shokoko to be his real self.

His cinematic debut was in two consecutive films: Hassan and Hassan and Mohamed Ali Street directed by Niazi Mostafa in 1944. He followed them with another six films in the subsequent year, which pointed to the rising demand on Shokoko and the beginning of comedy films’ golden age, especially ones targeting low-class quarters. Have Patience, Horseshoe, and Dark Skinned and Beautiful speak, in their titles, to the simple concerns of this class.

Shokoko remained loyal to the ordinary man and didn’t play anything else, whether as the star or a supporting actor. He was the low-class young man in My Beloved’s Window (1951, Abbas Kamel) or the protagonist’s loyal friend in Foreman Hassan (1952, Salah Abu-Seif). He didn’t shed this mould even in his successful comedic duets with Ismail Yassin, as for instance in Anbar and Feast Night.

It wasn’t long before Shokoko reached film stardom, beginning with The Return of the Concealment Cap (1946, Mohamed Abdel-Gawad). His final starring role was his most important film, Shamshon and Lebeleb (1952, Seif-Eddine Shawkat). Badie’ Khairy, the scriptwriter, loaded the film with political implications which enhanced its significance due to the timing of the film’s release at the height of the Egyptians’ struggle against British occupation. It obviously had a message: arrogance and force can be defeated by the use of the mind and wiles since right is on one’s side.

Shokoko filmmakers succeeded in presenting us with entertaining films that sometimes carried deep meaning presented with simplicity. Shokoko was able to maintain his popular appeal until the mid-1950s when Ismail Yassin was ascending the ladder of fame in his stead. Cinemagoers changed and started to be attracted to family comedies by the end of the 1950s and early 1960s, at the hands of director Fateen Abdel-Wahab.

Shokoko acted in very few films after this time. Between his role in The Thief and the Dogs (1963, Kamal El-Sheikh) until his death in 1985 (22 years) he acted in five films only, the last one being The Fun Gang (1976, Yehia El-Alamy). Although he played in more than one hundred films in his first 20 years of fame, cineastes turned their backs on his exceptional talent.

Shokoko didn’t appear except in two plays: The Visit has Ended and Midaq Alley. Shokoko’s artistic intelligence was evident and until his last days he kept performing monologues on a wide scale, with the great composer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab setting music to one of them. He, personally, was instrumental in increasing interest in the puppet character “Aragouz,” which was diminishing as a popular art in low-classes quarters and the Egyptian countryside. This simple artist transformed it into a popular mascot which children used to play with everywhere. 

Mahmoud Shokoko’s died 12 February 1985 at the age of 72.

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