|photo: Youssef Rakha
The day Ahmed Zaki’s body finally gave in, there were several, simultaneous demonstrations downtown. For the entire morning and much of the afternoon, Central Security forces besieged the city centre.
It seemed peculiarly fortuitous that an actor’s funeral should be preceded by so much political angst, yet it was equally peculiarly apt. His phenomenal talent notwithstanding, a significant portion of the media and popular attention paid to Ahmed Zaki’s illness — and the ubiquitously sentimental anticipation of his death — was due to the place he occupied in the collective imagination, a place reinforced all the more by his decision to die playing the singing legend Abdel-Halim Hafez in the incomplete film biography Al- Andalib.
Abdel-Halim’s own funeral was an event of immense national import. The mouthpiece of both post-revolutionary middle-class romanticism and the nationalist-cum-socialist Nasser regime, he embodied qualities with which the vast majority of ordinary people could identify — dispossessed background, spontaneous warmth, personal dignity and, most importantly, a newfound sense of self worth.
And Ahmed Zaki’s had been a similar story, his most celebrated accomplishment being the ability to attain stellar status without possessing the looks (or incumbent associations of wealth and class) on which it tended to depend. Nor was he a comedian like Adel Imam, whose ability to induce laughter made up for lack of sophistication. He was rather an intuitive genius, and like both Abdel-Halim and Souad Hosni, his social-cultural identity (much as his dark skin, rough hair, Negroid lips and large, intimately melancholy eyes) made him a figure of speech — the irrevocably broken Arab dream of freedom and justice, by turns streetwise and dignified, powerful and scared to death, delightful and intimidating, but always attractive, heroic, frustrated — an image ordinary people could hold up to both lofty and quotidian oppressions.
Too bad that Central Security made it impossible for the said ordinary people to participate in bidding him a last farewell. If not for their intervention, perhaps the funeral would have been reminiscent of Nasser’s own — a swooping, all-encompassing multitude moving through the city as one body. (In the 1990s Ahmed Zaki had chosen to play his favourite president — a belated and partial embodiment of an identification that had perhaps been subliminally made — one confirmed, if also subverted, by both his subsequent performance of the role of Anwar Sadat and President Mubarak‘s personal interest in his cancer treatment).
Sadly political angst — or else the Ministry of Interior‘s typically terrified response to it — would have things otherwise. Once again, the sight of olive-green armoured vehicles and the interlocking arms of countless guards imbued the event with unsuspected irony. Rather than the loving expression of grief one would have expected, an angry stampede. Rather than a civil, star-studded march, a demonstration. And worst of all, no funereal procession whatever.
Throughout the area surrounding the Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque — with every street blocked, guards venting sadism, officers by turns frenzied and in a stupor — it was individual gestures that gave the event form. True, people cried out in unison, initially demanding that they should be allowed to perform funereal prayers (a request that, out of fear for the safety and comfort of officials and film stars alike, fell on deaf ears).
They would later chant the ritual statement of the faith that always accompanies processions dispatching the dead, La Ilaha illa Allah, in a tone too furious, too determined to suggest grief. Some even took off their footwear and started hurling it at the guards, who had been shooing them away from the flower-wreathed vehicle bearing the body with fists and belts.
But one remembers, rather, the old, balding man in a worn striped suit, silver hair slicked down with Vaseline, importantly bearing a small, patched-up poster with pictures of both Ahmed Zaki and Abdel-Halim.
Likewise the irreverent old woman who, in response to the statement “The people want to pray” — made an innumerable number of times in the course of arguments with the guards — commented, “The people want aspirin.” Or else the renegade guard who vowed to his colleague, even as he stood sentinel, that he would let everyone pass, the quiet-looking girl who suddenly burst out crying, the small female voices that could be heard yelping as the car passed, speaking as though to a loved one, with genuine, precisely dramatised emotion, oblivious to everything: Ma’a esalama ya’Hmad (farewell, Ahmed).
The feeling was one of having been cheated out of a lifetime’s opportunity as the crowd changed direction, following the vehicle down Al-Batal Ahmed Abdel-Aziz Street, Mohandessin, and fast turning into a stampede.
Body parts and faces in close up, constantly changing. All you could do was look up, to the sky, the colour of which was kept changing as people gathered and dispersed, sweat mixing with dust, Central Security quickly regrouping, their job done. Not to sound too lyrical, the sky seemed to hold all the secrets, only the sky.
Yet it was with a heavy heart that one noted, much later in the day, how the people had again been dispossessed of one of their basic rights — to say goodbye to a symbol of their very dispossession.