Ahmed Zaki

'Black Tiger' of Egyptian film
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The Independent Online

Ahmed Zaki, actor: born Zaqaziq, Egypt 18 November 1949; married Hala Fuad (deceased; one son); died Cairo 27 March 2005.

Ahmed Zaki's portrayal of the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was the pinnacle of an acting career that spanned three decades. The blockbuster Ayam el-Sadat (Days of Sadat, 2001), depicting 40 years of the late leader's life, left audiences mesmerised.

Preparing for the role, Zaki had persuaded Sadat's widow to lend him one of Sadat's immaculately tailored suits and his pipe. Shaving his hairline, thickening his eyebrows and waxing his moustache, Zaki brought Sadat to life before his subjects. The anti-Sadat camp who still control the Egyptian media accused Zaki of a "sympathetic character interpretation", leading the public to rediscover Sadat as a national hero.

"I'm an actor, my job is to present different personalities," reacted Zaki angrily, to critics who applauded his 1996 portrayal of the late Colonel Gamal-Abdel Nasser in Nasser 56. Getting involved in disputes between political tribes was the last thing on Zaki's mind. He said that both leaders had made history, the interpretation of which was for historians, not for actors.

Zaki breathed life into his characters in some 60 films and two dozen plays. Following Stanislavsky's method, Zaki would step into a character only after fully studying all its dimensions in order to interpret it visually, emotionally and psychologically.

Making viewers understand the role's motive was more important to Zaki than loving or hating it, especially in the case of historic personalities. One such was his 1974 portrayal of the "doyen of Arabic literature" Taha Hussein, who was blinded as a child and became a celebrated philosopher; a demanding role that won Zaki several awards.

Born in 1949 to a poor family from Zaqaziq, 50 miles north-east of Cairo, Ahmed Zaki attended a local primary school and studied mechanical engineering at the Zaqaziq Crafts' School. He moved to Cairo in 1965 and worked in comedy shows to support his studies at Egypt's Higher Institute for Dramatic Studies.

Many of his films written by Wahid Hamed had a subtle socio-political message - exposing government corruption or championing the poor - and gained him popularity in the Arabic-speaking sphere beyond Egypt.

Dark-skinned actors traditionally played comic or supporting roles, but Zaki, nicknamed "Black Tiger" and "Bronze Star", broke the colour barrier in playing leading roles usually reserved for light-skinned Egyptians. With his big cheeky smile and subtle facial expressions, Zaki's characters were visually impressive, but lovable.

In the 1978 epic film Iskanderija . . . lih? (Alexandria . . . Why?) set during the Second World War and directed by Youssef Chahine, Zaki excelled in the supporting role of a patriot behind bars, whose only solace comes in the impotent, hopeless words of his lawyer, an ageing alcoholic.

Zaki's last dream was to complete Halim, a film about the life of the legendary singer Abdel-Halim Hafez. "Halim and I were orphans who grew up in the same town, suffering immense hardships," Zaki told me in 1986.

When he was diagnosed with lung cancer in January 2004 Zaki began a race against time. "He would leave his hospital bed to shoot as many scenes as possible," Halim's producer, Emad Adeeb, said. "My pleas that the scenery was not ready fell on deaf ears."

Zaki finished nearly 70 per cent of the scenes. A week before his death and shortly before slipping into his final coma, he instructed Adeeb to shoot his funeral "to edit it into the film".

Adel Darwish