- A major Egyptian film star in mostly comedies and action thrillers, Ahmed Zaki was best known for his portrayals of a couple of prominent political figures in nationalist historical dramas.
Egyptian movie star Ahmed Zaki best known for bringing to screen life a couple of prominent political figures
Egyptian movie star and sometime producer Ahmed Zaki, renowned in Arabic-speaking countries for his portrayals of Egyptian presidents Gamal Abdul Nasser and Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat, died at age 55 on March 27 in Cairo.
Although never a “global” star like fellow Egyptian Omar Sharif (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago), for more than two decades Zaki was a major North African box office draw not only in flag-waving historical dramas but also in mainstream action and comedy features.
From Egypt’s downtrodden to powerful men
A graduate of the Cairo Higher Institute for Drama Studies and supposedly the first dark-skinned Egyptian actor to be given leading roles, Ahmed Zaki (born Ahmed Abdullrahman Zaki on Nov. 18, 1949, in the Nile Delta city of Zagazig) often played characters representing the aspirations of “average” Egyptians, while exposing systemic government and police corruption.
Yet he would make his mark through his incarnations of powerful Egyptian men in a couple of nationalist political/historical dramas: Mohamed Fadel’s Nasser 56 (1996) and Mohammed Khan’s Days of Sadat (2001).
In that regard, Zaki was reminiscent of Hollywood old-timers like George Arliss (Benjamin Disraeli, Alexander Hamilton, Cardinal Richelieu, etc.), Paul Muni (Louis Pasteur, Emile Zola, Benito Juarez, etc.), and Charlton Heston (Moses, El Cid, Michelangelo, etc.), in addition to the Ben Kingsley of Gandhi and the Anthony Hopkins of Nixon.
Just add to that a touch of action stars Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson. (An aside: if online sources are to be believed, Zaki was known for – quite literally – pulling no punches in his action movies’ fight scenes.)
Nasser 56 revolves around second Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser’s decision to nationalize the Suez Canal and the subsequent Suez Crisis in the fall of 1956, when Egypt’s Sinai peninsula was invaded by Israel, followed by the United Kingdom and France.
Inspired by Sadat’s book In Search of an Identity, Days of Sadat reputedly offers a glowing portrayal of the third Egyptian president, a Nobel Peace Prize winner (alongside Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin) who was murdered by fundamentalist Muslim members of his country’s army in October 1981.
Besides Nasser and Sadat, Zaki played real-life figures in several other productions.
In 1979, he was cast as blind poet Taha Hussein in the television drama Al Ayam (“The Days”), a significant personal hit.
That same year, he was a thinly disguised version of Youssef Chahine – Ibrahim, a budding actor who dreams of honing his craft in the United States – in the filmmaker’s semi-autobiographical, pre-World War II-set Alexandria… Why? (1979), winner of the Berlin Film Festival Special Jury Prize and Egypt’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.
Before falling ill, Zaki intended to portray current Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak on film.
Guilt-ridden power-hungry minister
Most recently, Ahmed Zaki was seen in His Excellency the Minister (2003), playing a corrupt, power-hungry – and guilt-ridden, nightmare-prone – government official.
Based on Tunisian author Hussein al-Wad’s comic novel, His Excellency the Minister chronicles the emotional travails of a teacher who unexpectedly ascends to the position of government minister – an office he’s loath to let go. Zaki’s performance earned him the Best Actor Award at the Cairo Film Festival.
Wahid Hamid penned the big-screen adaptation, his fourth and final screenplay for a socially conscious Ahmed Zaki star vehicle.
Haitham Ahmed Zaki to finish Halim
Zaki’s son, Haitham Ahmed Zaki, is set to finish Sharif Arafah’s Halim, featuring his father as the late Egyptian singer Abdul Halim Hafez. The younger Zaki, whose mother was actress Hala Fouad, will play Halim Hafez in his early years.
A previous Arafah-Ahmed Zaki collaboration, Edhak el soura tetlaa helwa (“Smile, the Photo Will Look Nicer,” 1999), written by Wahid Hamid, earned Zaki the Best Actor Award at the Shanghai Film Festival.
Update: Halim was released in 2006. Haitham Ahmed Zaki died at age 35 in November 2019.
“Ahmed Zaki: Egyptian Movie Star” endnotes
“Ahmed Zaki: Egyptian Movie Star Portrayed Nasser & Sadat” last updated in September 2021.