Remembering Egyptian actor Elias Moadeb

Ashraf Gharib, Thursday 13 Jun 2019

A star of the early phase of Egyptian cinema, Elias Moadeb died prematurely, but nonetheless is not forgotten

Elias Moadeb
Egyptian actor Elias Moadeb (Photo: Al-Ahram)

There is no authenticated information about the origins of the Egyptian Jewish actor Elias Moadeb, who died 28 May 1952. Some sources say that his father was of Syrian nationality, while others say Lebanese nationality, and who immigrated to Egypt in the early 20th century and got Egyptian citizenship when the Egyptian Nationality Law was issued.

However, all sources confirm that Elias's mother was an Egyptian Jewess born in a village nearby Tanta, in Al-Gharbia governorate.

Elias's mother's name was Aisha, which is absolutely uncommon among Jews, but the offspring of Moadeb's grandmother died so she gave her daughter a Muslim name, going along with Egyptian tradition.

His name was Eli Mohazeb Sassoon and he was born in Al-Gharbia governorate in 1916. He was brought up in Cairo’s Jewish neighbourhood. His father opened a shop for making eyeglasses in the city centre in which Eli has worked for some time as well as going to the Lycée school until graduation. He then decided to work in the field of entertainment.

He formed with his brother and cousins a singing band inwhich he used to sing monologues in Arabic and French or both (Franco-Arabe). He became famous for singing in the Levantine accent to the extent that many thought him a native Levantine, although he was a native Egyptian who was bring up in the Cairene streets and alleys.

In 1944, Eli decided to work professionally and the first thing he did was to change his name into Elias and his surname into Moadeb instead of Mohazib as native Egyptians used to call him. He tried to work in nightclubs in Emad El-Din Street and Al-Haram Street. He signed a contract with Auberge nightclub for six months where his monologues were successful, especially among foreigners and Egyptianised foreigners whose presence was quite evident following the end of World War II. He started his cinematic career in 1947 in two films: Women are Fairies (Hassan Al-Imam) and Lifelong Lover (Henri Barakat).

Since Moadeb was known for his Levantine accent, some sought to drive a wedge between him and Bishara Wakim, who usually used the same accent in his films. Elias went straight away and introduced himself to Wakim, who told him to dismiss all this talk and that he appreciated his talent. He even introduced him to the belly dancer Beba Ezz-Eddine and Ismail Yassin, who both opened the way for him to success and fame, especially after Bishara Wakim’s death in 1949.

It was rumoured that Ismail Yassin used to give Moadeb his jokes and one-liners so as to say them during his monologues. He was also introduced to the cinema star, director and producer Anwar Wagdi, who cast him in the film Ember (1948, Anwar Wagdi) and made him participate in the show “Who would win my heart”. This show remains the most memorable part he performed. From this time onwards, film offers poured in while Moadeb continued to work in nightclubs. Until his sudden death in 1952, he had participated in 25 films in five years only; approximately five films per year. The most important of these are: Feast Night (1949, Helmy Rafla), Bahlawan Street (1949, Salah Abu-Seif), The Hero (1950, Helmy Rafla) and It’s All Yours for Free (1952, Essa Karama).

Having made a good fortune from the entertainment business, amounting to 20,000 Egyptian pounds in the 1940s, Elias decided to change his father’s shop into a big workshop for manufacturing eyeglasses after his father’s death. His close friends said he was very attached to his mother and was always lavishing affection on her. She was his counsellor on everything in life, to the extent that every monologue he would perform he used to recite first before her.

He suffered from chronic headaches in the final eight years of his life. He died during surgery to remove a brain tumour before his 36th birthday. Thus, the life of one of the most prominent comedians of the time ended.

Throughout his career, Moadeb was known for his good manners and good relations with his Muslim and Christian colleagues and at the same time he was keen to perform his religious rites as a Jew. After the 1948 Catastrophe and the establishment of Israel, Jewish Agency elements tried to persuade him to immigrate to occupied Palestine. But he stood firm stating that he was born and brought up in Egypt and he didn’t know another homeland except it, and he would be buried in it.

Police investigations cleared Moadeb after interrogating him among a group of Jews who were involved in subversive operations executed in Cairo. Perhaps these routine investigations drove some to write incorrectly that he was connected with Israel’s espionage activities and that he immigrated to Israel and was buried there. He was buried in Cairo and with a gravestone bearing his name. None of his family members has immigrated to Israel except his niece, who mentions to all her visitors that her Egyptian uncle has been a partner of Ismail Yassin in most of his films. 

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