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Facing the final curtain
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 17 - 12 - 2009

Pantomime artist Ahmed Nabil talks to Rashda Ragab about breathing life into a dying Egyptian art form, and how, much more than this, he did it his way
A pantomime show was billed at the Small Hall at the Cairo Opera House, and so, eight-year-old daughter in tow, I was full of expectations when I arrived to join what I imagined would be a huge crowd, all just as enthusiastic as I was. There was only a handful in the audience when we entered the theatre, but we were early and I was convinced more people would show up. I was shocked, though, when I did a quick head count as the curtain went up and realised only 30 people were there to see Ahmed Nabil, the great performer of this traditional Egyptian theatre genre.
Afterwards I talked to Nabil and asked him how disappointed he was to see such a poor turnout in a capital city with a population larger than the size of a medium-sized nation.
He believes the average person no longer has any trust in art theatre. "They have no intention of driving on congested roads unless they are certain there's a wonderful show out there," he says. He also blames the Opera House for not doing enough advertising. In other words, you can put on the best show in the world but no one will come if they don't know about it.
"I'd still be proud to appear at the very respected venue of the Opera House even if there were only one person there to see me," he adds philosophically.
So was this an old or a new show? Nabil says he has not added any new gags. All the material he has is a basic 25 sketches, of which he chooses a handful for each show. A pantomime can be performed and seen time and again with a new stance. When he started out in pantomime 40 years ago, he managed to come up with only eight sketches in 10 years. Each one takes a lot of time and effort. "It's not a spur-of-the-moment thing," he says. "Each one is a dramatic story with beginning, a middle and an end."
According to Nabil, the pantomime artist is with neither stage sets nor props, and it is up to the audience to determine the time, place and features of the sketch in progress. In the sketch about the balloon seller, members of the audience imagine children buying colourful balloons. The light-as-air balloons, he says, help elevate the spirit and the soul.
As a secondary-school student Nabil used to watch the films of his idol Charlie Chaplin over and over again, and would give impressions of the great comedian. It was while he was giving a performance of his Chaplin impression in Alexandria that he met an American cultural counsellor who was himself a pantomime artiste, and he agreed to train Nabil for the year he remained in Egypt. Following this fortuitous start Nabil kept on with the training by himself for another nine years, and by 1970 he was doing pantomime slots on the television programme "6\6" with the eminent announcer Nagwa Ibrahim. In 1972 he won a scholarship for "Movements of the artist on stage" in the former USSR.
"When I got there I gave a pantomime performance, but I was surprised when they told me I was too good to need a scholarship and wanted to send me home. So I went on strike until I was sent to Azerbaijan to learn the technique of directing pantomime plays. I stayed there for a year," he chuckles.
Nabil returned to Egypt in 1973. As the only famous pantomime artist in Egypt he tried more than once to assemble a specialised company, but his efforts were in vain. He turned instead to training some theatre institute students, now famous actors -- Farouk El-Fishawi, Somaya El-Alfi, Magdi Imam, Ahmed Halawa and Fatma El-Tabei. Together they put on a show that was screened on TV. Training and rehearsals took four months, and each artist was paid only LE2 for the performance. The director Nour El-Demerdash saw El-Fishawi and Somaya and offered them parts in a TV night show for which they worked for a day and were paid LE40. Needless to say, the young artists abandoned their pantomime training and opted for TV and the cinema.
Nabil, however, refused to give up. In 1984 he trained some graduates of the theatre institute for a production of Ehna Fein?( Where Are We?), a programme that was screened on Egyptian TV during Ramadan. Since then Nabil has not been given any more TV time, and his latest pantomime company stopped performing because it was so exhausting and unprofitable.
"There are no new pantomime shows being produced. Egyptian TV doesn't pay enough money or attention to pantomime, and satellite channels want to put advertisements in the intervals," he says. Even household name Nabil was paid only LE5,000 for a show that took six months to prepare. A young actor, who might otherwise earn LE3,000 for a small role, would be paid even less. "Why ever would they choose pantomime?" Nabil asks sadly, answering his own question.
Which is why he believes that in future there will be no more pantomime artistes in Egypt, a country that may have invented the art form. The origin of the art, he asserts, can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians, or so some temple drawings would lead us to believe. A pantomime would be performed in front of the Pharaoh to demonstrate how he won his battles and took prisoners of war. A company of pantomime artistes was engaged to emphasise the demands of foreign visitors who spoke different languages.
In the 1970s and 1980s Nabil, one of the world's 20 best mime actors, taught a "Feelings" course at the American University in Cairo and Alexandria University. The Cairo Institute of Theatre Arts does not have a specific section for pantomime. According to Nabil the rules stipulate that a professor must have a PhD, so he is not invited to lecture there. "The theatre arts institute only acknowledges academic professors, which is why no famous directors teach there." Nabil calls it a wrong policy. "It deprives students of the experience of eminent stars," he laments. "To be a pantomime artiste abroad, one has to study psychiatry, philosophy, social studies, anatomy, yoga, and he has to practise various sports for three years."
The "Feelings'" course, he says, is the first essential step to teaching acting and pantomime performance. Nowadays actors who have not taken such a course recite the dialogue they have learnt by heart and have no sense of what they say.
Nabil believes the Innovation Centre, attached to the Cairo Opera House should have a pantomime section alongside the theatre and other arts. For the past five years, his dream has was to hold pantomime workshops at the centre. This dream, however, was killed off by lack of money and intention. The dream was minimised to only two workshops for children run last summer by the Cultural Development fund.
Nabil's idea of raising child innovation through pantomime, an idea he applied successfully in Germany, in which every child who saw a pantomime expressed what he or she thought of it in various artistic ways, was rejected in Egypt. "When we were young we used to read and imagine the characters. Our art teacher used to ask us to draw what we imagined when we listened to radio soap operas and traditional stories like Ali Baba and the 40 thieves and Alf Leila wa Leila (The Thousand and One Nights). Nowadays, children don't read or listen, they just sit in front of the computer and watch TV programmes to get all they want. They have no motivation."
Several years ago Nabil's son put on a pantomime that won first prize in an Egyptian schools contest. However, he refused to do any subsequent shows. "Dad, nobody appreciated your efforts, so why should I be a pantomime actor," he asked his father.
On the whole, though, Nabil is satisfied with his career as a comedy actor. He has been in dozens of soap operas and films, and appeared with the Tholathi Adwaa Al-Masrah company in almost every Ramadan during the 1960s and 1970s riddles with comedians Samir Ghanem, George Sidhom and El-Deif Ahmed.
"I have acted the way I like," he says. "What made me very happy was a comment by a man I saw in the street yesterday, that I am a respectable artiste."

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