Remembering Hanaa Abdel-Fattah: Egyptian theatre director, actor, cultural mediator

Ati Metwaly , Tuesday 19 Oct 2021

Mohamed Hanaa Abdel-Fattah Metwaly (known as Hanaa Abdel-Fattah) was born on 13 December 1944 in Cairo to a family submerged in the arts. In fact, his voice-over career started when he was just eight years old, after he was accepted by Baba Sharo (renowned radio figure Mohamed Mahmoud Shaaban) for a radio show.

Hanaa Abdel Fattah
Hanaa Abdel Fattah

He began acting at the age of eight, landing a number of roles in both radio and then film. In his early years, he worked with a number of renowned Egyptian directors, appearing in films such as Bab El-Hadid (Cairo Station, 1958) by Youssef Chahine, El-Fetewa (1957) by Salah Abu Seif, and a few other roles, topping them with his voice-over in a popular Egyptian radio series. 

Within a few short years, Abdel-Fattah became among the most sought-after child actors in the country.

"Hanaa was something of a star then, with plenty of acting experience as well as three years of professional training behind him; and yet, he was gentle, quiet, modest, and unassuming," wrote the late Egyptian theatre critic and friend of Abdel-Fattah, Nehad Selaiha, in an obituary titled ‘Exit Great Theatre Maker,’ published in Al-Ahram Weekly in October 2012.

Referring to his radio roles, Selaiha also added: "For years he had been a household name thanks to a long-running radio drama serial about the daily life of an ordinary middle-class Egyptian family in which he played the youngest son. The serial (The Family of Marzouq Effendi) was broadcast daily as part of a morning show targeting housewives and, indeed, non-working women of all ages, married or otherwise."

Among many other radio roles, Abdel-Fattah was also the voice of the 1960s Sindbad, a role which was particularly close to his heart and which he remembered for years to come.

Hanaa Abdel-Fattah was the son of journalist Abdel-Fattah Metwaly Ghabn, who worked for the national radio and authored Shakhseyat La Tonsa (Unforgettable Personalities), a series of articles in which he explored the lives of largely forgotten and underappreciated artists.

Abdel-Fattah found great support in his father, who nevertheless was worried about the young man's meanders in the artistic field, pointing to the many hardships that characterise it. The father's worries were partially calmed by the fact that Abdel-Fattah developed a very close relationship with Amina Rizk (1910-2003), renowned late Egyptian actress, who, as Abdel-Fattah often put it, was his "second mother in the world of arts," and who accompanied or supported the young man in his many radio, film and theatre works. 

The career of the "miraculous child," as described by one critic of that time, continued to grow, but directing began to call to him more than anything else. He entered the High Institute of Theatrical Arts in the theatre, acting and directing department. At the same time, he studied script-writing at the Egyptian Cinema Institute.

Among his first significant works as theatre director was a highly experimental work titled 'Dunshuwai', a play that recalled the British execution of the villagers in Dunshuwai in 1906 and in which Abdel-Fattah cast peasants from the Upper Egypt's village. The play was very well received, bringing the work onto the stages of Cairo's National Theatre.

Following his studies in Egypt in the early 1970s, Metwaly left to continue his education in Poland. In more than two decades he spent there, he studied at the directing department of Warsaw's State Institute of Theatrical Arts, where he was the only foreign student to ever be accepted by the institute.

By the time he graduated from the State Theatre Academy with honours, he had become a well-known figure in Polish theatrical circles, gaining the love and respect of many Polish artists, theatre critics and directors. Many of the professors who used to teach him at the State Theatre Academy became his close friends. Renowned Polish actor and professor at the Academy Zbigniew Zapasiewicz (1934 – 2009) was especially impressed with Abdel-Fattah's unique perspective on the meanings and undertones of Polish dramas.

Abdel-Fattah went on to earn his PhD in theatre theory from Warsaw University. He was actively involved in Polish theatrical and intellectual circles, directing a number of plays in Warsaw and other European capitals. In 1986, his production of Carlo Goldoni's ‘The Servant of Two Masters’ received the Polish audience’s first prize.

While still in Poland, Abdel-Fattah began translating numerous works by Polish writers to Arabic, making many theatre-related gems available to the Arab world. A number of his translations continue to be part of the basic curriculum at the Arab theatre institutes; they include The Aesthetics of Theatre Directing by Zygmunt Hubner (1930-1989), one of the leading Polish actors, directors and academics; and Lessons from the Grotowski Theatre (Jerzy Grotowski, 1933-1999), a Polish director, theatre researcher and educator, referred to as the founder of the new acting style. Abdel-Fattah also published a translation of Grotowski's book The Poor Theatre. Apart from his theatre-related translations, Abdel-Fattah also translated a number of theatre plays and short stories by renowned Polish writers, playwrights and poets. Poets such as Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska, winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, in addition to the many poets introduced to the Arab world through Abdel-Fattah's translations and were presented in the Cultural Program in the radio series Poets and Their Poems from 1995 to 1999.

Abdel-Fattah received numerous awards from Polish and Egyptian governments and independent institutions. From the Polish government his awards include the Polish Literary Syndicate Prize and the International Theatre Institute award for promoting cross-cultural dialogue between Poland and the Arab world. In 2011, he was granted the Appreciation Award by the Egyptian government for his lifetime contribution to culture. 

In June 2012, he was awarded the Gold Medal for Merit to Culture by the Polish Ministry of Culture, given to persons and organisations who make exceptional contributions to Polish culture and heritage. 

Abdel-Fattah was among very few international artists to have received the Gloria Artis medal by the Polish Ministry of Culture and, as Selaiha recalled, the award boasts among its former recipients distinguished figures such as the Italian author and theatre director Eugenio Barba.

It was in the last decade of his life that Abdel-Fattah made his return to Egyptian cinemas. Among his numerous roles were those in films such as El-Sefara fi El-Omara (2005), El-Shabah (2007), Cairo Time (2009), among others, as well as television series such as Ayza Atgawez (I Want to Get Married) starring Hend Sabry. He played the role of Professor Badawi in Fair Game (2010), a USA drama directed by Doug Liman.

Abdel-Fattah died in Cairo on 19 October 2012 after a long battle with cancer. He left behind his Polish wife, Dorota Metwaly, who dedicated her life to supporting Abdel-Fattah in life, career and numerous translation works; and three daughters.

For more arts and culture news and updates, follow Ahram Online Arts and Culture on Twitter at @AhramOnlineArts  and on Facebook at Ahram Online: Arts & Culture


Short link: