Actor Ahmad Zaki died in a Cairo hospital on Sunday, March 27 after a long battle with lung cancer. He was 55. His Cairo funeral drew weeping thousands.
Zaki was Egypt's greatest character actor and one of the world's greatest actors. He didn't have the connections or cosmopolitan air of Omar al-Sherif, but if he'd had similar opportunities he would've held his own among the most capable actors in world cinema.
A predictable onslaught of obituaries is hailing Zaki's "greatness" for portraying two past presidents and being feted by the current president (here and here), and we can expect more drama and antics from Egypt's acting community over the next few days. That would be the worst possible tribute to Ahmad Zaki's work, so let this be an alternative eulogy, not from a movie critic or an establishment scribbler but a big fan.
Ahmad Zaki was born in Zaqaziq on November 18, 1949 and graduated from vocational school there. He moved to Cairo and enrolled in the Theater Arts Institute, graduating in 1973. He came to public attention with his role as the scrawny, serious student in the play Madrasat al-Mushaghbin (written by Ali Salem believe it or not) and a similar role as the level-headed son in the comedic play el-Eyyal Kibrit. He was slated to play the male lead opposite Soad Hosni in al-Karnak, but apparently the film's producers balked at Zaki's skin color and cast Nur al-Sherif instead. As news reports are pointing out, Zaki did break the color barrier in Egyptian cinema, but he also broke caste, class, and political barriers, working with socially-committed auteurs such as the late Atef al-Tayyeb and Muhammad Khan and portraying an enormous range of characters from wildly varying class backgrounds.
Zaki moved seamlessly between stage, television, and silver screen. He became a household name with his portrayal of Francophile intellectual Taha Hussein in the serial al-Ayyam (with a haunting score featuring Ali al-Haggar) and from there moved on to a series of memorable film roles. His portrayal of the powerful and famous were not his "greatest successes"; long before he tackled them, he had made a reputation for himself as an exceptionally versatile actor, with his uncanny embodiment skills and empathy and understanding for the characters he brought to life.
When I think of Ahmad Zaki, I think of him playing the tragic lead opposite Soad Hosni in the aesthetically stunning Shafiqa wa Metwalli; the struggling student in al-Hubb fawqa Hadabat al-Haram; the wily bawwab in al-Bey al-Bawwab; the life-hardened hustler in Ahlam Hind wa Kamiliya; the smooth-tongued lawyer in Didd al-Hukuma; the menacing, careerist amn al-dawla officer in Zawjat Rajul Muhim; the glamorous, mustachioed Saidi fugitive in al-Hurub; the elusive shepherd in the claustrophobic al-Rai wal Nisa'; and the angst-ridden police officer in Dawoud Abdel Sayed's Ard al-Khawf. Above all, I remember Zaki in his greatest role: the good-natured, rural, filial security forces recruit face-to-face with a crushing reality in al-Bari'. Remember how the brilliant Atef al-Tayyeb assembled an all-star cast (Gamil Rateb, Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, Ilham Shahin, Mamdouh Abdel Alim, Zaki) to portray torture in Egypt long before it became an epidemic making international headlines. Could such a film ever be made today? Who would direct the actors to realize their fullest potential? And who would give us such a transporting performance of an ordinary, illiterate Egyptian inducted into the brutal realities of state-sponsored violence?
By the time he portrayed Nasser and Sadat, Zaki's best work was behind him, yet he pulled off convincing, entertaining performances of both presidents because of his uncanny mimetic skills and perfectionist rendering of every project, which he also brought to his last film on Abdel Halim Hafez. The descent into hagiography mirrored Egyptian cinema's turn away from probing searing issues of class and power to a gauzy rendition of the past and comforting reflections on the present.
Still, till the very end, when his body was ravaged by illness, Zaki was the hardest working and most talented actor in Egyptian cinema, heads above his mentors and putative role models. Unlike Adel Imam, he never succumbed to the trappings of power and the adulation of the establishment (talk of him portraying Mubarak notwithstanding). Unlike Nur al-Sherif, Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, and Salah al-Sa'dani, he never lost his creative edge, physical discipline, or perfectionist impulse. Unlike Ezzat al-Alaily, he was capable of a far broader range of human emotions and complex characters. And unlike Yahya al-Fakharani, Zaki transcended his own affable persona to embody some positively revolting characters. In short, Zaki never became the shell of a former self that these actors sadly did.
Zaki's hailing by the Egyptian establishment and Arab press is bound to glorify his late work and neglect the old, so let's remember him for his exceptional gifts and his refusal to rest on his laurels. Miraculously, he evaded the ambient mediocrity, triviality, and instant gratificationism pervading most cultural output these days. He illuminated hidden, maligned, and poorly understood corners of the Egyptian condition, driven by an artist's empathy and a citizen's sense of basic dignity. Like all great artists, his legacy will continue to edify us.