Equal Partners
by Roland Ezri

Equal Partners by Roland Ezri

Equal Partners

By Roland Ezri

"Women are the backbone of all societies. They do a substantial part of the work, and play a major role in raising the future generation yet they are largely powerless. The decisions that count are made by men and foisted upon women."

Writings by Roland Ezri

The Second Exodus – Egypt – LXXXVIII. My Years at 12A Rue Khantaret Ghamra – Entertainment (14 of 30)

Naguib El Rihani

Naguib was a complex person; a controversial figure; a long- suffering soul framed by a difficult life; a comedian who made millions laugh; and a legend in his own time, and indeed decades after his passing. It is safe to surmise that his plays will be for the Arab world what Moliere’s plays are today for the worldwide Francophone community.

He was born in 1889 in Cairo, in the Bab El Shari’a district. His name was Naguib Ilyas Rihani. He was educated in Le College Des Freres. (Les Freres schools were run by Catholics monks, or as they were called brothers. We are all acquainted with schools run by nuns or sisters; schools run by brothers are the same: strict discipline and a demanding curriculum). Sadly, El Rihani had to quit school and seek employment at 15 when his father passed away. Les Freres was one of the French schools we had in Cairo. Naguib took to French literature like a fish to water. He was deeply influenced by such towering literary playwrights such as Moliere, Diderot, Corneille, and Voltaire. It would later influence his own plays, and ultimately had a profound impact on the Egyptian theater community.

He translated (or adapted) French plays. El Rihani first love was tragedies; it never came to pass, instead he would become famous as an unrivaled comedian.

Comic plays before him were insipid productions relying the use of meaningless words and slapsticks; he replaced it with comedies having social implications. His plays were built around situations intended to make people aware of the social issues surrounding them; you laughed, but was also forced to think. In this, I suspect, he espoused Moliere’s approach.

Later on, teaming with music composers, he introduced many operettas.

Naguib El Rihani became known as the “Charlie Chaplin Of The East.” According to several critics, El Rihani and Chaplin had several things in common among which is their difficult beginnings and the main themes they chose to express themselves. Both drew a parallel between the poor class conditions as against the aristocratic ones; as well, they made fun of the aristocracy in a sarcastic way.

Nothing came easy to El Rihani. After leaving school, he held insignificant clerical positions with the Agriculture Bank in Cairo and later on with the Sugar Company at Nagaa Hamady. However, since he was so preoccupied with acting, he lost both jobs.

His road to the summit was long and rocky. Part of his difficulties lay with the fact that he always wanted to reach for more. His career had its ups and downs both on the stage and for the stage (i.e. writing plays), and in the world of cinema. Despite these difficulties, he left us many unforgettable plays and classic movies.

He was deeply preoccupied with the differences between classes, and suffered because he could not redress all the inequities existing in Egyptian society. His plays and films consistently reflect that concern.

To relate in detail his professional career (which is divided into phases because of its complexity) would be too long and of little interest to Western readers. But, it would be unthinkable to talk of Naguib El Rihani and leave Keshkesh Bey out.

Keshkesh (which eventually became the nickname of Naguib El Rihani) Bey was his most successful character. Keshkesh was the umdah (mayor) of a small village named Kafr El-Ballas. Keshkesh, a cotton merchant, was “born” in 1916. Naguib developed a play around him and managed to persuade the owner of the Egyptiana Theater to stage it. It was an overnight sensation, so much so that El Rihani wrote and produced 23 plays revolving around the adventures and misadventures of Keshkesh Bey! Keshkesh became popular with children who were unable to accept the fact that he really didn’t exist.

I could not find even an estimate of the number of plays and movies he was involved into.

I was still too young to go to plays during my years in Egypt. Therefore I never saw Naguib on the stage. I did, however, listened with nonna Bida to the broadcast of one of his play. I also saw two of them on the screen: Ta’aleeli Ya Bata (Come To Me My Duckie), and Hassan, Morcos, Wou Cohen (The Adventures of A Muslim, A Christian, And A Jew).

My all-time favorite movie remains Ghazl El Banat. It was to be his last movie, he died before the feature was completed. Ghazl El Banat means Flirting With The Girls; there is also a play on words for it is the name of cotton candy!

Naguib married Badia Masabny, a famous actress-dancer, who eventually would become the owner of a legendary cabaret, Casino Badia. (More on her later). The marriage was long and tempestuous. Some of the reasons: Naguib, more often than not, had major financial problems. As well, she was jealous, and rightly so. El Rihani (as we say in this part of the world) had an eye for the ladies.

As a young man, he lusted after the wife of a butcher; his passion was apparently shared for they arranged to meet on the sly. But the butcher nipped this love affair in the bud and reminded all concerned that he had in his shop many sharp instruments!

He was involved in many love affairs with French actresses, but he refused to leave Egypt for France to join their theater companies.

He died in 1949 from typhoid. It was said that for the first time he made the Egyptian sha’ab (people) cry; he who made them laugh for so many decades.

Egyptians are very emotional. They openly express their grief at the funeral of a well-known personality. And their sorrow knew no limits at the funeral of Naguib El Rihani. Perhaps only two other icons merited such an eloquent goodbye: Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Om Kalsoum.

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