Remembering Egyptian actress Maali Zayed

Ashraf Gharib, Wednesday 13 Nov 2019

Maali Zayed was born on 5 November 1953 and died on 10 November 2014

Maali Zayed
Maali Zayed (Photo: Al Ahram)

In the late 1970s and early 80s, Egyptian cinema realised that it needed to furnish its constellation of female stars with new faces after the older stars reached the post-vedette stage. Thus, the artistic scene was prepared to usher in a new generation of actresses, who shone in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

These included stars like Youssra, Laila Elwi, Elham Shahin, Athar El-Hakim, Raghda, Maali El-Manibbawi and Maali Zayed.

Zayed was born on 5 November 1953 on Champollion Street in downtown Cairo. She was born into a family that had a long history in acting, scriptwriting and singing.

Her mother, Amal Zayed, had a history in acting, often portraying the tender, helpless mother, and her best role was that of Amina, El-Sayed Ahmed Abdel-Gawwad's wife in the films based on Naguib Mafouz's Cairo trilogy and directed by Hassan Al-Imam.

Zayed's maternal aunt was Gamalat Zayed, who played the role of the maid in numerous films.

Initially, Maali preferred to learn painting, graduating from the Faculty of Art before stepping into the world of acting. She remained loyal to her first hobby and held several art galleries after becoming a professional actress.

Maali, who took her mother's surname, was one of a group of actresses trying to make their way to leading roles, such as Youssra, Laila Elwi and Raghda. Naglaa Fathi and Mervat Amin in particular were getting all the leading lady roles, and faced some resistance from the generation that preceded them.

Maali was the only dark-skinned actress among many with fair complexions, like Laila Elwi, who was half-Greek, and Raghda, who was Syrian. Maali's face was truly Egyptian, as if lifted off an ancient temple wall.

So, filmmakers insisted – at least in her early days – on casting her as the quintessential Egyptian girl as a contrast to counterparts with fair complexions.

She played the compassionate wife opposite the blonde Moshira Ismail’s Gogo in the TV espionage series Tears in Impertinent Eyes (1980, Yehia Al-Alami); the helpless Egyptian wife opposite the immoral aristocratic lady portrayed by Lebanese actress Iman in Nobody Saw, Nobody Heard (1983, Mohamed Abdel-Aziz); the sincere and loyal Egyptian girl opposite the exploitative Safia El-Emary in I am the One who killed the Viper (1984, Ahmed El-Sabawi); the strong domineering woman in contrast to the delicate Hala Fouad in The Gentlemen (1987, Raafat El-Meehy); and the low-class mistress opposite the delicate Raghda in Abu El-Dahab (1996, Karim Diaa Eddine).

Maali continued this trend in film and TV roles such as in The Apartment is the Wife’s Right (1985, Omar Abdel-Aziz), Uncle Ahmed’s Case (1985, Ali Reda) and The Execution Unit (1989, Atef Al-Tayeb), to name but a few. She also performed in a number of TV series including Between the Palaces (1987, Youssef Marzouq) and Palace Walk (1988, Iman Mostafa), which are the first and second parts of Naguib Mafouz's Cairo trilogy, The Upper Egyptian’s Dream (1997, Gamal Abdel-Hamid) and A Heat Wave (2013, Mohamed Yasin), which was her last role.

It is worth mentioning the significant collaboration with director Raafat El-Meehy and actor Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz, which was the main reason behind her popularity. She went along with this big director’s flights of imagination by acting in a number of films in the fantasy mould, with which the Arab viewer was unfamiliar, in The Gentlemen, Hotchpotch (1988) and Ladies and Misses (1989). There is also El-Meehy’s important film Love’s Last Story (1986), because of which she, along with Yehia El-Fakharany, faced imprisonment for incitement to vice because of one of the film's scenes.  

El-Meehy was the director who best fostered Maali's versatile talent in playing characters the likes of which had never before been portrayed on the Egyptian silver screen. Perhaps the most prominent of these was her role in The Gentlemen, in which she played a woman who decides to undergo a sex-change operation due to social and familial pressures, in a candid indictment of a patriarchal society that strips women of their rights.

However, Maali’s tragic weakness was her inability to manage her talent in a more fruitful way, especially in her final years. She squandered her health by chain-smoking, and so was afflicted with lung cancer. She passed away on 10 November 2014 at the age of sixty-one; depriving us of one of the most talented female stars in the last three decades.

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