Rushdy Abaza: remembering the prolific actor who played a starring role in Arab cinema

His legacy is stronger than ever on what would have been his 96th birthday

'Wife Number 13' is one of many films to cement his status among fans in the region. Photo: Public domain
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Rushdy Abaza is widely considered to be one of the greatest names in the history of Arab cinema.

For an actor who died at the relatively young age of 53, he left behind a prolific body of work. Abaza appeared in more than a 100 films from 1948 until the year of death in 1980, encompassing the influential golden age of Egyptian cinema.

Mirroring Hollywood, the 1940s, '50s and '60s marked a period in Arab film history where glamourous stars graced the screens playing roles in very genre-specific films. The tropes were predictable and the endings always happy — if not morally just. However, they were a beautiful fantasy, an aspirational escape, a world impossible to emulate.

Abaza was a key figure during this period, dubbed the Don Juan of Egypt due to one indisputable trait: charisma.

On and off the screen, Abaza oozed charisma in an almost overwhelming way. It defined his career and legacy. It also was a driving force in his personal life, for better or worse.

Although he was a phenomenal actor, like many remarkable talents, he was complex.

Abaza was born on August 3, 1926, to an Egyptian father who worked as a policeman and an Italian mother. The Abaza family were one of the country's best-known aristocratic families, deeply rooted in the upper classes of Egyptian society.

In his early twenties Abaza was handsome, tall, dapper and spoke four languages. He spent his time in the casinos of Emad El-Din Street in Cairo, playing pool, where he was spotted by a young director, Kamal Barakat, who offered him a role in the film The Small Millionaire.

Intrigued, Abaza accepted the offer in spite of his father’s adamant refusal to have an actor for a son. Abaza was cut off from the family — a fairly common practice in Egyptian high society at the time.

“In the Egyptian imagination, the Abaza name is synonymous with wealth, land and status,” writer and art critic Ahmed Naji told The National. “Rushdy Abaza was one of the first actors to come from such a family and to use the family name.”

Although the film wasn’t successful, Abaza had become determined to use everything at his disposal to make it as an actor.

The early 1950s saw Abaza take on a string of supporting roles and received a lukewarm reception. During this time, he met the Egyptian actress Camelia, the stage name of actress Lilian Victor Cohen, and became entangled in an intense romance with her. Camelia was frequently mentioned in the tabloids alongside some high profile lovers, including rumours of a relationship with King Farouk.

Sources at the time claimed Abaza and Camelia were planning to elope and leave Egypt, away from King Farouk’s control and influence. Whether fabricated or not, their relationship was cut short when Camelia was killed in a plane crash and Abaza subsequently suffered a nervous breakdown.

In his grief, the actor's fondness for drinking escalated; with consequences looming over the rest of his life.

After Camelia’s death, Abaza hustled for more film roles while attending high society and industry parties. He was an energetic man with a bold sense of humour.

At 25 years old, Abaza’s career still hadn’t taken off despite rubbing elbows with actors, directors and entertainers. However, he seemed to have no problems in his love life — falling for the famous belly dancer and actress Taheyya Kariokka, 18 years his senior. Despite his family’s protests, Abaza married her in 1951 — almost a year after Camelia’s death.

The marriage wasn’t conventional and three years later Kariokka demanded a divorce due to Abaza’s multiple infidelities. Reluctantly, Abaza agreed, though Kariokka remained fond of him in years to come.

Renowned Arab film critic Tarek El Shinnawi knew Kariokka personally and told The National how many of the women whom Abaza had relationships described him as the love of their lives.

“She had a framed photo of Rushdy Abaza in her living room,” says El Shinnawi. “She was married 14 times and of all her husbands whose photos she could have kept in her home, she kept Rushdy Abaza’s.”

Abaza’s film career finally took off in the late 1950s thanks to his performances in three notable films.

Tamr Hinnah directed by Husain Fawzi in 1957 and Emraa fil Tarik (A Woman on the Road) directed by Ezz El Dine Zulficar the next year were both received well by audiences and critics.

But it was the next film, El Rajul el Thani (The Second Man) in 1958, also directed by Zulficar, which made his career. Abaza starred as Esmat Kazem, a criminal running a smuggling operation between Egypt and Lebanon and using a Cairo cabaret as the front for his operations.

The role cemented Abaza's position in the minds of audiences as a man of passion and pleasure.

Over the course of his film career, Abaza took on a multitude of diverse roles.

“He was a spontaneous actor who didn’t need to prepare,” says El Shinnawi. “He was spontaneous in how he digested a role but knew exactly how much emotion to give in a scene.”

As his career took off, Abaza married the ex-wife of singer Bob Azzam. Known simply as "Barbara", she took on a managerial role in his career, organising Abaza’s schedule and giving birth to his only child, a daughter, Qesmat.

The marriage didn’t last long. Abaza’s excessive drinking, partying and flirting with other women led to marital strife, and the couple divorced in 1959. Barbara then married Abaza’s friend, actor Gamal Faris, walking away from their daughter in the process.

Abaza soon married again, this time to another belly dancer, Samia Gamal, in 1960.

This was Abaza’s most stable relationship. They were married for almost 18 years with Gamal taking a decade-long hiatus from acting, to run their household and care for Abaza and his daughter.

Abaza continued to work, starring in more classics like Al Zouga talattashar (Wife Number 13) in 1962, a comedy where he plays a man whose 13 wives join forces to teach him a lesson. The film demonstrated Abaza’s impeccable comedic timing, alongside his romantic charm.

In 1963 he starred in Arouss el Nil (Bride of the Nile). Abaza played an engineer, tasked with digging up ancient Egyptian sites in search of oil. He then meets Hames, a mythical Egyptian goddess who wreaks havoc to stop him from meddling with relics of the past.

While many of his peers took on edgier roles, Abaza continued to star in films that aimed to entertain the masses.

Abaza was also approached by the casting directors of Lawrence of Arabia. He was their first choice over Omar Sharif for the role of Sherif Ali, but was expected to audition. Abaza saw the request as an insult and asked them to watch his performance in the film Fee Baitouna Rajoul (A Man in Our Home), which he considered his best.

In 1967, Abaza met the Lebanese singer and actress Sabah on the set of Sheel Yeedak Min Marate (Stay AwayFrom My Wife). Although sources differ on whether Abaza and Sabah were romantically involved before the film, they eloped in Lebanon despite Abaza still being married to Gamal.

Their marriage only lasted a few tumultuous months, brought down by Abaza’s jealousy and drunken outbursts, alongside the tabloids framing Sabah as a home-wrecker.

In later years, when asked about the marriage, Sabah was coy, often stating with a wink: “Whoever hasn’t married Rushdy Abaza, has never married.”

Surprisingly, after Abaza's return to Egypt, he and Gamal remained married until 1978 when, in another drunken rage, Abaza decided to divorce her.

Following the divorce, Abaza’s life took a turn for the worse. As his health deteriorated, he married a cousin Nabeela Abaza, a doctor with the means to care for him. However, after collapsing on set, he was diagnosed with brain cancer.

Abaza divorced his wife shortly afterwards, allegedly saying: “I’ve lived my whole life free and I want to die free.”

He passed away shortly after on July 27, 1980.

Egyptian actress and singer Youssra, who starred alongside Abaza in two films, remembered him fondly when she spoke to The National. Aside from his charismatic presence on the set, she spoke of the last time they met.

“I knew it was going to be the last time,” she says. “He left the hospital to come see me. I was with a mutual friend of ours and when he arrived he said: ‘I’ve been watching you for half an hour.’ I was surprised. I think he knew he wasn’t going to make it.”

Abaza's name has become part of the Egyptian lexicon, used commonly to reference a "tough guy" or a charming, lovable rogue.

Bushra Rozza, Egyptian actress and singer, told The National Abaza remains revered to this day.

“I’m not exactly fond of the moustache to be honest,” she laughs. “But when it comes to him, he’s the exception. Because you can see beyond him, you can see beyond his looks. It’s the power of the personality that you feel on screen.”

In reality, Abaza was not as black and white as the movies that first propelled him to fame. While on the screen he embodied glamour, elegance and rugged masculinity, he was also a complex individual at odds with himself.

Despite many conflicting accounts, what’s clear is Abaza was a man of passion. He was passionate about life, about acting and about having fun.

Updated: May 09, 2023, 2:43 PM