In Egypt, Revival of Political Farce
Monday, April 24, 2006
CAIRO -- If Albert Brooks, the American comedian, was really "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World," as the title of his satirical movie said, all he had to do was go into a Cairo video shop and pick up one of two dozen uproarious films by Adel Imam.
For four decades, Imam has been the most popular comic in Egypt and the Middle East. His movies and videotaped plays are shown morning, noon and night on TV, and his name tops theater marquees from the Persian Gulf emirates to Morocco. Traveling Egyptians say they are asked by hosts abroad to "say hello to Adel Imam" when they return home.
After a decade of starring as an overage Lothario in films that critics panned, Imam, at 65, is taking yet another potential star turn. He plays Zaki, the ruined seducer of women, in "The Yacoubian Building," the film version of the bitter, best-selling novel of Cairo life scheduled to debut here in June. The role of Zaki seems written for Imam. He will be playing his age -- he has long tried to maintain the screen persona of a young buck -- and gets caught up in conspiracies beyond his control, yet somehow emerges victorious and in the arms of a lover.
"Frankly, I was scared to play the role," he said at his apartment in Cairo's upscale Mohandessin neighborhood. "But the story is irresistible. I don't wait around for the role of a lifetime, but if this is it, okay."
With a demanding audience here for humor, being Egypt's top funny man is a challenge. Everybody's a comic; quips are to Egyptian conversation what beans are to its menu. At immigration booths at the airport, an agent informs a visitor that his comely wife may come in, but the husband must go back home. An impoverished peanut saleswoman in the old Hussein neighborhood promises a blessing to a customer if he makes a purchase and then rubs his bald head to pray for hair. A tourist on a crowded street asks her companion what time it is, and a vendor of fake Rolexes comes from behind and whispers, "It's time to buy a watch."
Professional comics must navigate the whims of Egyptian censorship, and in this, Imam is also a controversial figure. Does his comedy work solely on the fringes of Egyptian discontent and avoid the jugular of presidential misrule? Or is he the country's most subversive comic, taking on subjects few dare to raise?
In "The Yacoubian Building" film, an episode is left out that features The Big Man, a character whom readers of the novel consider a stand-in for President Hosni Mubarak or his son, Gamal. "Simply, we would not have been able to make the movie," Imam said.
Fifty years ago, Imam emerged as a new character on Egypt's stage and screen: the ugly matinee idol. "He was the first Egyptian superstar who was not handsome," said Samir Farid, a veteran film critic. Farid once likened Imam to E.T., Steven Spielberg's extraterrestrial, a comparison that grated on Imam. These days, he's at ease with such descriptions but adds, "Yes, I was not handsome, but I got a lot of girls."
He began acting at Cairo University's Agricultural College and soon starred in a play, "The Witness Who Saw Nothing." He created a stock character that he would return to through the 1970s and '80s: the Everyman who uses his wiles to survive the twists of everyday life. In "Witness," police burst into his home and unjustly accuse him of a crime, and he creates a series of unbelievable alibis and witness accounts.
"Adel Imam touched on social issues, and that kept him close to his audience," said Mohamed Maklouf, a consultant for the Dubai International Film Festival.
For anyone who has traveled in the Middle East, it is impossible not to recognize Imam the moment he emerges from the recesses of his apartment. Except for a thickening of his physique from the scrawny figure familiar from his early movies, he looks much the same as ever: hollow cheeks, bulging eyes and hair drawn tightly across the crown of his head.
He greets a visitor in the trappings of a movie star. He wears a fine, lightweight wool jacket with a movie star-appropriate silk handkerchief in the pocket. The apartment is decorated with 21 large photos of himself in various roles. Awards and plaques line bookshelves.