My father, the comedian

18-06-2014 04:15 PM

Mervat Ayad

To begin with, would you tell us how your mother Lucie de Vernay and your father Naguib al-Rihani met and got to know each other?

My mother was a French dancer who came to Egypt in 1917 at the age of 17 to take part in one of Rihani’s masterpiece plays, Kish Kish Bey. Days went by, and my mother was attracted to him and lived with him for some three years. Then she found out that he wasn’t faithful to her, so she left Cairo and went back to Paris. About 16 years later Rihani arrived in Paris to shoot the film Yaqout fi Paris (Yaqout in Paris), and he again met my mother by pure chance. They got married, and I was born in 1937. But my father could only live with us for short intervals, sometimes no more than two months a year.
Why has no one in Egypt heard anything of you for 70 years? Where have you been all this time?
I was married to an Egyptian man from Upper Egypt who guarded our privacy jealously and disapproved of disclosing my identity as Rihani’s daughter. He persuaded me that this was best for our family, and especially the children. But when he passed away and the children were already grown up, I decided to disclose my identity.
When did you first meet your father?
I was nine years old when I first met him. I was impassive when my mother told me that this old, uncomely man was my father. I was not interested or happy to meet him. But he worked hard at earning my love; he used to give me gifts and spend time with me and my mother in pleasant outings, and I became attached to him. Later I would even hold on to his clothes so he wouldn’t leave us and go to Cairo. 
Was your father ever unkind to you?
The only situation I can remember was when I went out without telling anyone. He looked for me everywhere for half a day, until he found me at an old house where we used to live earlier on. He was really angry with me, but he soon hugged me and showered me with kisses.
Was your love for your father the reason why you married an Egyptian and came to live in Egypt?
That’s right. I always loved living in Egypt; besides, my father’s grave is here. I had the chance to live in Egypt when the German company I worked for decided to station me there where I met the man I later married. I loved him very much and stayed here with him.
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Everyone knows Rihani the actor, but what was he like as a man?
My father had a hilarious sense of humour whether in front of or behind the camera. He always made me laugh; he never shouted at me and he used to discuss matters with me to explain where I went wrong. He had a very kind and tender heart, but unfortunately I only lived with him for three years. If anyone wants to know my father closely, I invite him or her to watch the film Leabet al-Sitt, in which he acted with the Egyptian actress Tahiya Carioca. 
Why haven’t you followed in the footsteps of your father as an actor?
I studied acting in Germany. I really wanted to be an actress but my mother rejected the idea, and after I got married this became practically impossible.
Among your father’s films, which are your favourites?
Leabet al-Sitt, as I already mentioned, because it is the closest to my father’s real character, and also the film Yaqout in Paris which depicts the troubles between him and my mother. 
Are any of Rihani’s works autobiographical?
There is actually a play with the title of Hekayet kul Youm (A Story of Everyday); its scenario is mostly typical of his lifetime.
Whatever belonged to Naguib al-Rihani should be a great artistic legacy, but where is that now?
Following his death, almost all his belongings were sold at auction by his cousin so as to pay off the taxes he owed. Whatever remained with my mother was lost during World War I, except for the chair he used to sit on to apply his theatre make-up. 
Do you think your father has been properly honoured?
Of course not, the State has not honoured him as much as he deserved. 
What do you think the correct honour should be?
The six films in which he played the leading role and which were translated into foreign languages must be repaired, and four lost films must be found. I want to see a statue of him in a public place like al-Azhar Park. The State should publish his biography in a book to be translated in both English and French. The artist Hamdy al-Kayyal painted as many as 90 portraits of him, inspired by stories of him related by his best friend and co-worker in the theatre Badie Khairi. Such paintings should be exhibited everywhere all over the world. 
Are you doing anything to revive the Rihani theatre?   
I am preparing a project to revive his plays by forming a theatre company that would act the texts he wrote with his lifelong friend Badie Khairi. 
You have announced an award in the name of Rihani for best comedian. Have you found a financier? And what is aim of this award?
No, I have not found a sponsor yet. I thought of the award so that Rihani’s name would remain in the light, and this award would also work towards reducing the degradation of comedy that is today widespread in Egyptian cinema. 
Will you tell us about the film Fi Siteen Alf Salama (60,000 Goodbyes)? 
This is a documentary which was recently screened at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. It shows the hidden side of Rihani’s life, and his relationship with my mother and my life with him which only lasted for three years. This film used a number of documents, photographs and memorabilia of Rihani that I keep in my home. 
We have heard many stories about your father’s death, but what is the truth? 
My father had typhoid fever, and after a period of treatment and rest he improved. But some penicillin tablets were brought from the United States and administered to him for the first time, and when the doctors were on a break a nurse gave him two tablets of the drug instead of one. He had a reaction to the medication and died from the overdose.
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WATANI International
18 June 2014
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