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Mahmoud Morsi


Mahmoud Morsi


A Woman in Love

Mahmoud Morsi was born in Alexandria – “the Alexandria of Lawrence Durrell” as he called it. He went to different language schools: English, French and Italian, then moved to Egyptian state schools. He felt much more comfortable there in spite of the difficulty he encountered in learning Arabic.

I never thought of becoming an actor and never wanted to become one. However I was destined to become an actor, as if acting was my inevitable fate. Whenever I tried to escape from it, I would find it before me once again. Throughout, acting for me has been like a ball that I wanted to get rid of. Whenever I kicked it with all my strength, it hit a wall and bounced back, stronger. (Ramzi, p. 11)

He remembers well the year 1938 when he was a high school student studying Louis XVII. When the teacher asked the students who would be the best candidate for the main role, “for some reason and without any hesitation they all replied “Mahmoud Morsi”. And I was forced to act”, (Ramzi, p. 11). What he finds significant about his first acting experience is having the opportunity to watch George Abyad play the same role. The supervisor of the acting team decided to organize a trip to Cairo to visit the Opera House and attend the performance of the play starring Abyad:

It was such a beautiful and exciting night that I still remember its greatness until this very day ... George Abyad was in full control of his breathless audience … A performance that can rival any other international performance … Of course Abyad’s performance was not realistic but it was “a case” full of light that takes the audience to distant horizons. The night I watched George Abyad, I clapped as I clapped to no one before or after until my hands hurt. In my performance of Louis XVII, I was not just inspired by George Abyad, but I imitated him and adopted his style as much as I could. (Ramzi, p. 12)

Morsi’s relationship with Abyad did not end there. When he later joined the Faculty of Arts, the supervisor of the acting team was Dr. Mustafa Zewar, one of the pioneers of psychoanalysis, who chose Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex for performance. Again, “for some reason”, he chose Morsi to play Oedipus. However, another surprise was waiting for Morsi: George Abyad was to direct the play. “In the rehearsals, we saw the human side of Abyad’s character: a kind, sensitive and tranquil man”, (Ramzi, p. 13). The night of the performance came. They brought costumes from the Opera House and the make-up artist was Helmi Rafla, who later became a famous director. Dr. Taha Hussein, who translated the script, attended the performance and shook hand with each of the participants.

Before his graduation, Dr. Zewar suggested that Morsi should work in the field of art. These words “asserted my hopes and expressed my wishes. But which kind of art? And how? I did not want to be an actor. I preferred to be a director. During the five years [1946-1951] that I worked as a teacher, I never stopped dreaming about directing”, (Ramzi, p. 13). He recalls:

The performance that had the greatest influence on me at the time was Othello, played by George Abyad in the Opera House. What affected me was not the tragedy of Shakespeare, but the cruelty of the tragedy of life. George Abyad, who was full of life and action, seemed weak and feeble. … Everything that glittered became dull. My heart broke when I saw the audience uninterested in Abyad’s performance. … It was then that I realized that there is an end to everything. (Ramzi, p. 14)

This was eventually paralleled by a turning point in his life:
In 1951, I took my decision. I sold the house that I inherited from my father and travelled to France to study directing in The Institute of Post-Graduate Cinematic Studies in Paris (EIDIC). While I was working on my graduation project, a film of several minutes, my supervisors commented that I was more of an actor than anything else. (Ramzi, p. 14)

After he finished his studies, he stayed on in Paris. He provided summaries and commentaries of Egyptian films for the Radio. However, during 1954-1955, hatred and discrimination against Egyptians made him leave. “I realized that my days in Paris were over”, he said. He moved to London where he worked at the BBC. However, the 1956 Triple Aggression eventually took place and he returned to Egypt, refusing to stay in the country that was attacking his homeland.

He worked in the Egyptian Radio as a director. He directed some programs about Egypt’s great artists such as Mahmoud Mokhtar, in addition to some international plays written by Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Ibsen. This allowed him several chances:

As I later knew, in 1958 Abdel Ghani Qamar told Youssef Chahine that there was a good actor in the Radio who had lost his way and become a director. He was not just expressing his own personal opinion but the belief of most of the actors who worked with me. I was supposed to play the role played by Farid Shawki in Cairo Station (Bab el Hadid).

When the Egyptian Television was launched in 1960, Morsi went on a scholarship to Rome to study television directing for several months and he worked in television for some time after his return. One day the producer Ramsis Naguib called him and he thought that this was his chance to move to directing in the cinema. “I went on time and as I entered the room I found the director Niazi Mustafa. So I realized that I was called for acting not directing. And they actually gave me a role in I am the Runaway (Ana el hârib). It was then that I believed that acting was my fate” (Ramzi, p. 8).

He considers that his real beginning was with Kamal el Sheikh in The Last Night (el Laylah el akhîrah), and that Faten Hamama’s consent that he play the role was in itself a reward. She gave him another reward when she watched him in a master scene, confessing his actions. “When I finished, there was total silence. It was she who ended it with clapping and saying “Bravo… Mr. Morsi” and everyone followed her. This was the first and last time I received any clapping in the studio” (Ramzi, p. 20). He received the first acting award in 1964 for that film and the same award in 1969 for A Touch of Fear (Chay’ min el khawf). Morsi also worked in the Television as an actor in several serials, such as The Man and the Horse (el Ragol wa el hosân), The Sparrow of Hell (‘Osfour el Nâr), Abou Elela el Beshrî, Zeinab and the Throne (Zeinab wa el ‘arsh), The Family (el ‘A’ela) and finally Child of my Thoughts (Banât afkarî).

Although he taught at the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts and the Higher Institute for Cinema, Morsi confesses that when he acts, he does not follow any of the theories he teaches:

When I act, whether in the cinema or television, I forget all the theories and methods that I know and I work on understanding the role I am playing … I tend more towards realism and I try to avoid total integration so that I do not get carried away by the character’s reactions. I must be mentally aware of actions and reactions. I also avoid getting inspired by an actor or a certain person that I might have met in real life. In addition, I try to avoid clichés as I realize there are small internal differences between different characters. (Ramzi, p. 24)

Reflecting on his career, he says:

Now, when I look back on my artistic career, I feel happy because I refused without hesitation to participate in many bad films that were not up to standard. I respected my fans and never underestimated any colleague. I may be dissatisfied with some of my work, but there is nothing that I am ashamed of. I am very satisfied with the love and respect the audience has for me. (Ramzi, p. 28)

Several of his roles became studies for reflection. Ramzi remembers Morsi as a teacher who allowed his students room for discussion and self expression. Ramzi also observes that several actors gave their best performance when acting before Morsi: Tewfik el Dekn in Night and Rods (Layl wa qodbân) is an example. Amina Rizq once said that Morsi falls under the category of actors who feel and understand the whole scene and the character before them, thus allowing the other actors a better chance to complete the picture in a perfect way.

Ramzi also believes that Morsi affected the course of cinematic criticism as far as acting is concerned. Morsi’s complex roles make critics give more attention to the actor’s performance and defy the traditional rating of Excellent, Good, Can Do Better, Not Convincing, and so on.


1962: I am the Runaway (Anâ el hârib)
1963: The Last Night (el Laylah el akhîrah)
1963: The Open Door (al Bâb el maftouh)
1963: The Rebel (el Moutamarridah)
1964: The Prince of Cunning (Amîr el dahâ̓’)
1964: The Price of Freedom (Thaman el hourriyyah)
1965:  Bitter Grapes (el ‘Inab el mourr)
1965: The Adulteress (el Khâ̓’inah)
1966: The Knight of Hamadan (Fâris banî Hamdân)
1967: Autumn and the Quails (el Simân wa-l-kharîf)
1967: The Long Nights (el Layâlî el tawîlah)
1969: A Touch of Fear (Chay̓ min el khawf)

1969: A Touch of Fear (Chay̓ min el khawf)

1971: My Wife and the Dog (Zawgatî wa-l-kalb)
1971: The Dawn of Islam (Fagr el Islâm)
1972: A Song on the Pathway (Oughniyah ‘alâ el mamarr)
1973: The Beggar (el Chahhât)
1974: Sons of Silence (Abnâ̓’ el samt)
1974: A Woman in Love (Imra̓ah ‘âchiqah)
1976: Waves without a Beach (Amwâg bilâ châti̓)
1976: Viva Zalata
1977: The Encounter (el Talâqî)
1977: The Nightingale (Tâ̓’r el layl el hazîn)
1977: Sun of the Hyenas (Chams el dibâ’)  (Tunisia and Holland)
1985: Saad the Orphan (Sa’d el yatîm)
1986: The Edge of the Sword (Hadd el sayf)
1986: Who Will Pay the Price (Man yadfa’ el thaman)