Egypt’s two iconic wartime presidents, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Al-Sadat, look nothing alike.
With origins as far apart as Upper Egypt and the Delta respectively, and each with an air that is as memorable as it is distinct from the other’s, one might think that the stars of biographical films made about the two would be just as different.
However, the name on the posters for Nasser ‘56 (1996), and Ayyam Al-Sadat (The Days of Sadat, 2001) was one and the same: Ahmed Zaki.
Despite starting out as a dark horse, Zaki’s name became one of the most beloved household names on stage and screen in Egypt. His raw, authentic, and deeply studied performances led him not only to portray Nasser and Al-Sadat, but other Egyptian icons such as author Taha Hussein in the series Al-Ayyam (The Days, 1979) and Abdel Halim Hafez in Halim (2006), in which he starred alongside his son Haitham, who tragically passed away at the age of 35 in 2019.
Zaki’s death in 2005 due to complications from lung cancer was a heavy blow to the millions who loved his work, but despite the untimely nature of his passing at only 55 years old, Zaki left a legacy that is nigh on unmatched in the Arab world.
Born in Zagazig, Egypt in 1949 and raised by his grandfather after his father died and his mother remarried, the odds were not exactly stacked in Zaki’s favour. However, despite his lack of a high school education – a prerequisite for an elite education in acting – his outstanding talent landed him an exceptional spot at the Higher Institute of Cinema in Cairo.
His rise through the ranks of stardom had a slow start with appearances in plays such as Hello Shalaby (1969) along with Egyptian comedy legend Abdel Moneym Madbouly, and Al-Less Al-Sharif (The Honorable Thief, 1971).
Despite a stirring performance in the otherwise farcically comedic Madraset El Moshaghebeen (School of Mischief, 1973), which by all accounts should have catapulted Zaki to stardom, there was still an obstacle getting in the way of him competing with the likes of Hussein Fahmy and Nour El-Sherif.
Ahmed Zaki did not have the appearance that producers and directors believed would appeal to audiences. He was tall and lean, and his skin was dark. He bore a quintessentially Egyptian face, but one many filmmakers still chose to steer clear of.
In the monumental Egyptian political drama Al-Karnak (1975), Nour El-Sherif portrayed Ismail, a member of the trio of medical students leading the story. What few know is that Ahmed Zaki was considered for the role before producer Mahmoud El-Leithy refused his inclusion, asking how beloved actress and performer Soad Hosny, who portrayed the character Zainab, “could possibly love a boy like this.”
What El-Leithy could not have foreseen was that Zaki would go on to star alongside of Soad Hosny in a multitude of films, among them Shafiqa and Metwally (1979) – incidentally directed by Ali Badrakhan, who also directed Al-Karnak – and Maw’ed ‘Ala El ‘Ashaa’ (A Date Over Dinner, 1981) and Hekayat Howa wa Heya (The Stories of Him and Her, 1985), in both of which he appeared as her love interest.
As the style and tone of Egyptian cinema changed and realism became the genre of choice, filmmakers’ idea of leading men evolved, bringing more authentically Egyptian men to the fore. Zaki was a method actor who immersed himself profoundly in his roles, absorbing every aspect of the character he was portraying whether he was fictional or real in origin.
As his career advanced he portrayed characters in various professions and from various socio-economic backgrounds. He played roles of everything from a rebellious young Alexandrian in Eskendereya Leih? (Alexandria Why?, 1979), a clever, young intellectual in Al-Bidaya (The Beginning, 1986), a humble porter in El-Beih Bawab (The Gentle Porter, 1987), an undercover police officer with a licence to kill in Ard Al-Khouf (The Land of Fear 1999), a competitive boxer in Al-Nemr Al-Aswad (The Black Tiger, 1984), to presidents, authors, singers, and more.
Though the time Ahmed Zaki was given was short, his dazzling and prolific career left a deep mark in the hearts and minds of viewers across the region. Decades after his passing, he is remembered with great reverence and fondness within the film industry and outside it, his contributions seen as monumental by his contemporaries as well as the generations that followed.