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Egyptian comic navigates censorship

If Albert Brooks, the American comedian, was really "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World," as the title of his satirical movie said, all he had to do was go into a Cairo video shop and pick up one of two dozen uproarious films by Adel Imam.
Adel Imam at home in front of portraits of him from movie roles that have made him Egypt's and the Middle East's best known comic.
Adel Imam at home in front of portraits of him from movie roles that have made him Egypt's and the Middle East's best known comic.Daniel Williams / Washington Post
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If Albert Brooks, the American comedian, was really "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World," as the title of his satirical movie said, all he had to do was go into a Cairo video shop and pick up one of two dozen uproarious films by Adel Imam.

For four decades, Imam has been the most popular comic in Egypt and the Middle East. His movies and videotaped plays are shown morning, noon and night on TV, and his name tops theater marquees from the Persian Gulf emirates to Morocco. Traveling Egyptians say they are asked by hosts abroad to "say hello to Adel Imam" when they return home.

After a decade of starring as an overage Lothario in films that critics panned, Imam, at 65, is taking yet another potential star turn. He plays Zaki, the ruined seducer of women, in "The Yacoubian Building," the film version of the bitter, best-selling novel of Cairo life scheduled to debut here in June. The role of Zaki seems written for Imam. He will be playing his age -- he has long tried to maintain the screen persona of a young buck -- and gets caught up in conspiracies beyond his control, yet somehow emerges victorious and in the arms of a lover.

"Frankly, I was scared to play the role," he said at his apartment in Cairo's upscale Mohandessin neighborhood. "But the story is irresistible. I don't wait around for the role of a lifetime, but if this is it, okay."

With a demanding audience here for humor, being Egypt's top funny man is a challenge. Everybody's a comic; quips are to Egyptian conversation what beans are to its menu. At immigration booths at the airport, an agent informs a visitor that his comely wife may come in, but the husband must go back home. An impoverished peanut saleswoman in the old Hussein neighborhood promises a blessing to a customer if he makes a purchase and then rubs his bald head to pray for hair. A tourist on a crowded street asks her companion what time it is, and a vendor of fake Rolexes comes from behind and whispers, "It's time to buy a watch."

Professional comics must navigate the whims of Egyptian censorship, and in this, Imam is also a controversial figure. Does his comedy work solely on the fringes of Egyptian discontent and avoid the jugular of presidential misrule? Or is he the country's most subversive comic, taking on subjects few dare to raise?

In "The Yacoubian Building" film, an episode is left out that features The Big Man, a character whom readers of the novel consider a stand-in for President Hosni Mubarak or his son, Gamal. "Simply, we would not have been able to make the movie," Imam said.

Fifty years ago, Imam emerged as a new character on Egypt's stage and screen: the ugly matinee idol. "He was the first Egyptian superstar who was not handsome," said Samir Farid, a veteran film critic. Farid once likened Imam to E.T., Steven Spielberg's extraterrestrial, a comparison that grated on Imam. These days, he's at ease with such descriptions but adds, "Yes, I was not handsome, but I got a lot of girls."

‘Close to his audience’
He began acting at Cairo University's Agricultural College and soon starred in a play, "The Witness Who Saw Nothing." He created a stock character that he would return to through the 1970s and '80s: the Everyman who uses his wiles to survive the twists of everyday life. In "Witness," police burst into his home and unjustly accuse him of a crime, and he creates a series of unbelievable alibis and witness accounts.

"Adel Imam touched on social issues, and that kept him close to his audience," said Mohamed Maklouf, a consultant for the Dubai International Film Festival.

For anyone who has traveled in the Middle East, it is impossible not to recognize Imam the moment he emerges from the recesses of his apartment. Except for a thickening of his physique from the scrawny figure familiar from his early movies, he looks much the same as ever: hollow cheeks, bulging eyes and hair drawn tightly across the crown of his head.

He greets a visitor in the trappings of a movie star. He wears a fine, lightweight wool jacket with a movie star-appropriate silk handkerchief in the pocket. The apartment is decorated with 21 large photos of himself in various roles. Awards and plaques line bookshelves.

Arguably, Imam's most memorable movie was "Terrorism and the Kebab," from 1993, in which he played a citizen caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare in the halls of Mugamma, Cairo's central government office building, when he seeks documents to transfer his son from one school to another. A pious clerk is too busy praying to take care of Imam's business. A rifle falls into Imam's hands; he takes over the building and negotiates for a shipment of fresh roasted ground lamb to feed a band of followers. He and his comrades chant "Kebab, kebab, or your life will be hell," while police and ministers line up outside Mugamma for an assault.

Brooks's 2005 movie was less a parody of Muslims than of Americans who assume Muslims are all terrorist sympathizers, with the notion that making them laugh would be a daunting chore. Imam runs counter to the stereotype. He speaks out against terrorism. He played the lead in "The Terrorist," a film about a fugitive assassin who takes refuge with a family of well-off Muslims and has to hide his distaste for their lifestyle of unveiled women and Western music. The film was made under heavy police guard.

Imam was already the target of radical Islamic ire when, a decade before, he performed in the southern town of Assiut in protest against bombings and assassinations. "You could see the fanatics on the roofs with their rifles," he said. "But people came and they sold music on the street, something the fanatics had banned. The fanatics published pamphlets about me. They called me a homosexual, but I knew for a fact I was not," he said with a lusty laugh.

In 1998, he took the play "El-Zaim," a satire of dictatorship, to Algeria when the country was in a vicious civil war and artists and journalists were among those assassinated by Islamic rebels. "I wanted to take a stand on this. My wife once said to me, 'Stop, think of our children,' " he said. "Later, when a schoolgirl was killed by shrapnel in a terrorist attack, she said, 'Keep on. Do it for our children.' "

He also opposes the growing strain of political Islam that emphasizes religious restrictions. "When I went to university, the girls wore short skirts and were unveiled. I visited the Agricultural College not long ago, and almost all the girls had hair covers. It separated the Muslims from the Christians."

Less tolerant
Recent violence between Muslims and Coptic Christians, he said, shows that "we are not as tolerant as 40 years ago. Our religious discourse is bad. This is the greatest crisis Egypt faces."

Imam's father was a policeman and his mother an illiterate homemaker. As a youth, Imam was a communist activist, but during government crackdowns in the '50s, his father ripped up Maoist and Marxist literature he found in Imam's room.

Imam once rejected a screenwriter's remark that he is a political party unto himself, but he occasionally blurts out strong political opinions. He described Egyptians as "schizophrenic" about the United States. "We send lots of immigrants to America," he said, "but we dislike its bias to Israel."

He called Gamal Abdel Nasser, the army officer who overthrew Egypt's monarchy and became a hero throughout the Middle East, "Egypt's first true president." Asked whether he was Egypt's last true president, Imam was silent. No reference to The Big Man. A bit later, he said, "Egypt is not like Iraq under Saddam Hussein. People insult the president every day."

Like many of his generation, Imam longs for a Cairo of the past: cosmopolitan, smaller, orderly and easygoing. That memory is part of the appeal of his role as Zaki. "He lived through a beautiful time when Egypt was privileged with multiple ethnicities and religions," he said. "The city looked beautiful. Buildings were more beautiful than in Paris. Now they are filled with garbage."

The Zaki character is a resident of "The Yacoubian Building," a once-elegant but, by the '90s, decayed apartment in downtown Cairo. He wards off efforts by his sister to grab his property. The story also recounts the lives of Taha, a youth who turns to Islamic terrorism after being rejected by a police academy because his father was a humble doorman; Busayna, once Taha's girlfriend, a shopgirl who is buffeted by the humiliations of employers who hire her for sex; Malak the tailor, who plots to take over Zaki's apartment; Hatim, a gay newspaper editor who fails to disentangle himself from a doomed affair with a poor young conscript; and Azzam, a corrupt politician at odds with sponsors from the ruling party over percentage cuts of his businesses.

Imam sees "The Yacoubian Building" as reviving a political thrust in Egyptian movies after a decade in which comedy was limited to apolitical farce, including most of his own, because that was where the money was. "I believe in social context for movies," he said. "We need a new generation that will create such films. So far, it is mostly just for laughs."

He is already working on his next picture, which takes on the contemporary Egypt of cutthroat capitalism and corruption. He plays a businessman who bribes his way into everything -- into parliament, into a university to chase a woman, into an award for performing in a student play in which he only carried a spear, and into a blessing from a Muslim cleric who had hounded him for his dissolute lifestyle.

Fatigue is not in Imam's program. "My only fear is that at some point no one will offer me a role," he said, "and then I will have to drive a taxi for a living."