Theatre paved the way for cinema in Alexandria, introducing the generations of actors and actresses who would eventually become movie stars. At first, however, there were no actresses – or actors, for that matter. Acting was frowned upon even in Alexandria (or Le Petit Paris, as it was called) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was only towards the end of the nineteenth century that the upper classes began to bring in foreign theatrical groups for their private parties. Selim Naqash came from Bar el Sham (as Greater Syria, which included Syria and Lebanon, was called) to start a theatrical group of 12 actors and 4 actresses who gave their first performance in 1876. Obviously, in the early years of cinema, most actors came from a theatrical background. George Abyad, Fawzi el Gazayerly, Hassan Fayeq, Zeinat Sedki, Stéphane Rosti and Fatma Rushdi are good examples.
The cosmopolitan spirit cannot pass unnoticed at this particular point of history. Names ranging from typical Egyptian (Bahiga Hafez, Aziza Amir, Hassan Fayeq) to foreign ones (Stéphane Rosti, Michel Dimitri Chalhoub – better known as Omar Sharif – and Badr Lama – elsewhere Pedro Lamas) bear witness to the tolerance and pluralism of the city. Whether they were from Chile or Bar el Sham or Italy, they all had equal opportunities. It was not a case of Egyptians versus foreigners: they were all “Alexandrians”. The names also indicate the diversity of religious backgrounds. In those early days, Mahmoud, George and Shalom would have lived happily in perfect coexistence, echoing the title of the film Hassan, Morcos and Cohen (1954).
Their educational background is a dimension of this cosmopolitan spirit. The variety of their schools alone may reflect this. Omar Sharif went to an English school (Victoria College), Rushdi Abaza and Hind Rustom went to French ones (St. Marc and St. Vincent de Paul respectively) and Mahmoud Morsi went to the Italian school Don Bosco. As typical Alexandrians of the time, they spoke a couple of languages fluently. Some even had difficulty with Arabic. The scenarios of Badr Lama’s film were written in French and then translated into Arabic to make it easier for him.
Male actors continued to play female roles until Jewish Egyptian actresses or Christian Shawam were gradually introduced. The Alexandrian born Mounira el Mahdeya was proclaimed the first Muslim Egyptian actress to appear on stage. It was this daring spirit that urged the Alexandrian females Bahiga Hafez, Fatma Rushdi and Aziza Amir to conquer the field.
Men and women, those Alexandrians were pioneers in the full sense of the word. They were not chasing fame, personal glory or wealth, but worked only for art’s sake. No wonder many of them faced difficulty and hardship. Zeinat Sedki had to run away from home and change her family name. Bahiga Hafez was proclaimed dead by her aristocratic family who mourned her. Choosing an artistic career was not even to be considered at that time, especially by women. These actors and actresses took “the road not taken… and that has made all the difference”. They shaped the history of cinema not only in Egypt but in the whole region.