Egypt’s Charlie Chaplin

18-06-2014 04:19 PM

Emad Yassa

Naguib al-Rihani, the Father of modern Egyptian Comedy, was born in 1889 and died 65 years ago, in June 1949. Watani commemorates the great man with an interview with his only daughter, Gina

Naguib al-Rihani (1889 – 1949), anointed ‘The Father of Egyptian Comedy’ by the Egyptian public and press, has often been compared to Charlie Chaplin. Insofar as they both led hard lives, the experiences of which they later turned into vivid comedy that daringly shed light on social evils and hypocrisy, the comparison holds true. 
Rihani was born in the Cairo middle-class district of Bab al-Sheariya in 1889 to Elias al-Rihani who was a member of the Chaldean Catholic Church, but historians differ over whether he was originally Iraqi or Lebanese.
Naguib studied at a Catholic school in Cairo known as the Frères until he was 15 when his father, a horse trader, died and he had to leave school to support his mother and two young brothers. He took jobs at the agricultural bank in Cairo and later at the Sugar Company in Nag Hamadi  in the south of Egypt, but his dream and ambition was to become an actor.
While Rihani was at the agricultural bank he met Aziz Eid, who persuaded him to join his theatre company. It is ironic that Rihani always wished to become a tragedian, never a comedian, but Eid, who was a great director and actor, spotted the young actor’s gift for comedy and attempted to steer him in that direction. Rihani, however, insisted on playing tragic roles. The beginning of the twentieth century in Egypt was a time when Hamlet, Othello, Pygmalion, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and other tragedies were performed to eager audiences as the translation movement into Arabic thrived at the hands of Levantines resident in Egypt. 
From 1908 to 1916, Rihani gained a good deal of experience working with various theatre groups and actors, and found out first hand that it was better for him to go into comedy. His acting career really took off in 1916 when he joined the famous actor Stephan Rosti to perform in the Casino De Rose. It was WWI, however, business was slow, and the manager was forced to close the casino down.
It was then that Rihani had the vision of ‘Kish Kish Bey’, a character he created and impersonated in a sketch he called Taalili ya Batta (Come Over Here, Ducky). Kish Kish Bey was the wealthy rural umda (village mayor) who comes to Cairo, is bewitched by its glamour and women, falls ready victim to people who take advantage of his gullibility and wealth, loses all his money, and returns home penniless and full of regrets.
Rihani then formed his own theatre company, which toured Syria and Lebanon and went as far as South America, where a substantial population of Levantines had taken up residence. 
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Comedy and musicals
Rihani can be said to have single-handedly established Egyptian comedy theatre. At a time when comedy consisted of drawing laughs out of silly words and movements, Rihani offered an ethical, aesthetic, valued vision of laughter. He paid great attention to detail, character, dialogue, and technique; the result being performances that captured audiences, especially since they interacted with the political and social changes and the national concepts sweeping through Egypt at the time.
In 1918 Rihani initiated musical theatre, dubbed ‘Operette’, in which he co-operated with the top musician of the time, Sayed Darwish, who acheived a revolutionary comeback of authentic Egyptian tunes and melodies following decades of dominance by Ottoman music. He also worked with the famous actor and writer Badie Khairi.
Later in his artistic life, Rihani wrote and starred in several films today considered to be among the greatest films in Egyptian cinema, standing before such luminaries as Laila Murad, Aziz Osman, Anwar Wagdy, Youssef Wahby and Tahiya Carioca. 
Rihani married twice. His first wife was the dancer Badia Massabni with whom he shared a tumultuous marriage that ultimately ended in divorce, while the second was the French performer Lucie de Vernay, the mother of his only daughter, Gina.
Theatre in Egypt
Even though theatre and theatrical arts in Egypt go back to as far as the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, they witnessed a steady decline after the Arab conquest in the seventh century. This is not surprising, given that Islam looks with suspicion at ##personification## as in plastic arts, sculpture and theatre. 
A revival came with Napoleon##s military campaign against Egypt in 1798. This was followed by the dynasty of Muhammad Ali, who became Ottoman viceroy in 1805 and is considered the founder of modern Egypt. Khedive Ismail, who ruled during the second half of the nineteenth century, established the Opera House, but the Egyptian theatre movement had to wait until the twentieth century before it took off.
This movement began with Levantine actors who found refuge and fertile soil for culture and theatre in Egypt. Among these immigrants were George Abyad and Aziz Eid. They established theatre groups and performed mainly in Arabic versions of world classics or French playwrights. It was at the hands of the great comedian Naguib al-Rihani in the 1920s and the equally great tragedian Youssef Wahby in the 1930s that the domestic theatre was thoroughly Egyptianised. Wahby formed his epic Ramsis theatre company and went on to become one of Egypt’s greatest actors of all times. 
Today Egypt boasts a thriving theatre movement that branches out to cover all areas of theatre activity, drawing audiences and spectators and mirroring the vitality and dynamics of cultural life in the country. This all underscores the immense efforts of the first pioneers in the field, Rihani being among the most prominent.
Watani International
18 June 2014
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