Nadra in Song of the Heart
Song of the Heart
George Elias Abyad was born in Beirut, Lebanon, to a religious family. His childhood and early manhood predicted the great actor he was to become. He used to recite Omar el Khayyam’s poetry, and at his graduation party he played the main part in The Red Pennies in French, which was being performed at the same time in Paris. Jean Freige, the French actor who played that same part in Paris, congratulated Abyad and encouraged him to study acting in France.
Abyad’s ambition was to travel to Alexandria, to which his uncle had immigrated earlier. One day while he was with a friend he excused himself to say goodbye to someone who was travelling to Alexandria. Abyad offered to accompany this friend, as the word Alexandria in itself acted like a charm upon him. Once on board the ship, he was so exhilarated that he decided not to leave, and not even his friend could convince him to return. At this moment, “he thought of Alexandria as a huge stage lasting forever” (Abyad, p. 33). On the ship, he befriended its captain and managed to arrive safely. In Alexandria, he stayed with his uncle’s family and worked at the train station, his original job before coming to Alexandria. At the same time, he used to accompany his uncle to Sheikh Salama Hegazi’s theatre.
One day, as he was at work, two clergymen from St. Catherine’s College asked him to play the same role in The Red Pennies which he had played earlier in Lebanon. After the play, the Consul of France, who was in the audience, congratulated him and added, “Your real place is there … In the Conservatoire in Paris” (Abyad p. 45). From then onward, Abyad started his theatrical activity with amateur troupes in Alexandria.
One day he decided to write to Khedive Abbas (whom he had met more than once in the station) that theatre was a school in itself and that Egypt was badly in need of an acting institute. When he got no reply, he sent a longer letter and waited for two years, and again received no answer. Then he got yet another original idea, to invite the Khedive himself to a play. Several weeks later, he was summoned to Ras el Tin Palace and received the following message: “To Mr. George Abyad, Master of Sidi Gaber Station …We have the pleasure to inform you that we have condescended and accepted your invitation to the play to be performed in Zizinia Theatre on 11 June 1904”.
Abyad immediately printed the tickets, and added “Under the auspices of His Majesty the Khedive”. On the big day, between the third and fourth acts, a royal official told him, “Now you can prepare yourself to travel”. On 29 July 1904, when he was 24 years old, he left for France.
In France, Abyad tried to make use of his stay as much as possible. He joined the Conservatoire, and regularly attended Sarah Bernhardt’s salon and Sylvain’s sessions. He returned to Egypt in 1910 with a French troupe that performed plays such as Louis XVII and Tartuffe in Cairo and Alexandria. In 1912, he formed his own troupe, which performed King Oedipus, Othello, The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew and The Enemy of the People among others. Like the rest of his generation, he stopped the activity of his troupe during the 1919 revolution so that they could all participate in the demonstrations.
In June 1931, the owners of Nahas Film, Edmund and Gabriel Nahas met Abyad and signed the contract of Song of the Heart (Onshoudat el fou’âd), co-starring Nadera and the French actress Liane Dorvil, and directed by the Italian Mario Volpi. All the actors spent 3 months in Paris to record sound in Gaumont Studios. The film, which was the first Arab musical film, was released in Cinema Rialto in Alexandria on 3 April 1932 and in Cinema Diana in Cairo on the following day.
Abyad got an invitation in September 1932 from Tunisia to supervise its theatrical group Gam‘eyet el Tamthîl el ‘Arabi which he had launched 11 years earlier. He was once asked if he would like to continue working in the cinema forever. His answer was “I would like to work in the cinema but in our country it is still a baby. When we produce great films like my plays then I will work in both, side by side, because I believe that the theatre is the origin as it addresses people directly” (Abyad p. 198-9).
In 1942, Abyad was elected as the first director of the Actors’ Syndicate, and when the Acting Institute was launched in 1944, he taught there until his death. He married Dawlat Habib in 1923 who eventually became Dawlat Abyad. He was granted the title of Bey in 1945.
1932: Song of the Heart (Onshoudat el Fou’âd)
1946: Land of the Nile (Ard el Nîl)
1958: I am the East (Anâ el Charq)
- Abyad, Soad. Ayâm Lam Yousdal ‘Lyhah el Sitâr. Cairo: el Hay’ah el Misreyah el ‘Amah lil Ketâb, 1991.
- Kassem, Mahmoud. Mawsou‘at el Momathel fi-l-Cinema el ‘Arabiya. Cairo: Maktabet Madbouli, 2004.
- (ed.) Wassef, Magda. Egypte: 100 ans de Cinéma. Paris: Institut du Monde Arabe, 1995.