The loss of a great actor
Zahi Hawass remembers Egyptian actor Nour Al-Sherif, a great actor and a distinguished thinker
Nour al-Sherif, who died in August last year, was a great actor and a very good friend of mine. He was also extremely knowledgeable because he spent most of his time reading. We used to meet in a café in Mohandessin in Cairo, and usually the first thing he did each time we met was either to recommend a book to me or to talk about the last book he had read. The knowledge that he acquired from reading shaped his personality and gave him great depth.
Nour al-Sherif used to enter deeply into the roles that he played and never talked about them before the film in question was finished. There is always a message in his films. I used to be amazed whenever we talked about archaeology or ancient Egypt. One of the greatest pieces that he directed was "The Struggle for Thebes," a film based on one of the early novels of Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz. The novel tells the story of the conflict between the Hyksos, who ruled Egypt for about 150 years, and the family of the great pharaoh Seqenen-Re who began the country's struggle for independence. The Hyksos capital was in the Delta and was called "Avaris" or "Het-wert" by the ancient Egyptians.
Though Seqenen-Re lived in Thebes 600 km from Avaris, the Hyksos king sent a letter to him saying that the noise of the hippopotamuses in the Theban Lake was disturbing him and he could not sleep. The letter is considered to be a warning from the Hyksos to the Theban pharaohs. Nour produced this story as a stunning musical with unforgettable scenes. His wife, the actress Poussy, played the role of a Hyksos princess who fell in love with Ahmose, the son and successor of Seqenen-Re, who drove the Hyksos from Egypt and became the founder of the 18th Dynasty.
Nour later played the role of an ancient Egyptian priest in another film and recited with passion Akhenaten's famous hymn to the sun. I explained that there were historical mistakes in the film, but he argued that the film was a drama and that such mistakes could be overlooked. We talked a lot about the lack of films about ancient Egypt made in Egypt, and he said it was very expensive to produce such films, opening up a role for the state. We also discussed the funds of the ministry of culture that were spent on festivals, even when no one thought of producing a single film about the ancient Egyptians. Hollywood produces at least one film a year featuring ancient Egypt, but in Egypt we have never thought of doing so.
When I became head of antiquities in Egypt, I decided to start a group of friends of the country's museums. I chose the Cairo Museum, the Islamic Museum, the Manial Palace Museum, and the Coptic Museum in Cairo as the core group of museums. Since Nour was very interested in the history of ancient Egypt, he became head of the group of friends of the Egyptian Museum. He had wonderful ideas about protecting monuments and raising awareness among Egyptians regarding their heritage.
One day he told me he would like to make more films based on ancient Egyptian themes because he thought Egyptian history was a rich source of stories and these could help the country in other ways. He once called me because he wanted to direct a play called "The Judgment of a Priest" on the sound and light stage in front of the Great Sphinx at Giza. The play tells the story of a priest of Amun judging another priest loyal to Akhenaton.
I always admired Nour's superb acting gift and have seen all his films. I never saw a film in which he was not good. He chose all his film roles carefully, which is partly why he was admired by all Egyptians. Some of my favourites from among his many films are "Al-Aar," "The Brothers Karamazov," "Streets of Fire," "The Circle of Revenge" and of course the most romantic of all, "Habibi Daeman." The latter is one of the most beautiful films he ever made and at the end of it you find yourself in tears.
I will always remember the time I invited US golfer Greg Norman and tennis player Chris Evert for dinner in the Golden Hall at the Manial Palace in Cairo. I invited Nour's wife Poussy to join us, and I joked with Chris, saying "you and Greg will get divorced because you have touched the Sphinx today." Chris said "that will never happen because I'm in love with Greg," and Poussy said "I don't believe in the curse." Three months later they got divorced. When I told Poussy what had happened she laughed and couldn't believe it.
I first met Nour in 1968 when we both graduated from university. Nour graduated from the Institute of Acting at the Academy of Arts, and I graduated from the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alexandria. We both attended a three-month training course arranged by the ministry of culture at the Press Syndicate building in Cairo. Nour was famous at that time because he was appearing in a television series called "Cairo and the People" and had also just finished a film version of the Mahfouz's novel "Palace of Desire."
After we finished the course, Nour continued with his acting career and eventually became Egypt's most famous actor, while I pursued mine as an archaeologist. We met again 20 years later when he, Poussy, and I were part of the Egyptian delegation to a week-long cultural festival in Syria. I didn't mention our previous meeting, but we became firm friends. He showed his romantic film "Habibi Daeman" at the festival, and this was well received by the Syrian audience.
When we returned to Cairo, we began to meet regularly, either at his house or at a restaurant or café. We would sit for hours and discuss topics of mutual interest, such as politics or culture. I found Nour to be a very intellectual and modest thinker, indeed an exceptional man, and his wife Poussy to be a delightful and intelligent lady. When we made a television special at the Pyramids in Giza we sent a robot into a shaft of the Great Pyramid. Poussy came to see the live broadcast at the Mena House Hotel, and to my delight she was so fascinated that she stayed until 7 pm that night. Poussy and Nour told me that they had also dreamt of visiting the Temple of Abu Simbel to observe the sun entering the Temple, which takes place every February and October, but unfortunately we never went there together.
Nour later played the role of Haj Metwali in the TV series "The Family of Haj Metwali." This is about a man who has married four wives and tries as much as he can to treat them equally, but is never able to accomplish this. The series made every Muslim wonder if such a thing was possible for any ordinary man. I venture to say that Nour will be forever remembered for his memorable portrayal of Haj Metwali in this series, even though his inspiration from ancient Egypt also took him to great heights of success.
He will be remembered as a great and intellectual actor.