The Unknowns

Are you as addicted to the printed word as I am? If it’s there, I’ll read it. Or, if I don’t speak the language, try to read it. 

There are plaques are on either side of a building in the Zarmalek area of Cairo. The low-level brass caught my eye, as did the fact the signs were bilingual, Arabic and English.

Apparently two famous Egyptians had lived in the building at one point. I had no idea who these two men were. Being naturally curious, I wanted to know more. So I looked them up online.

Youssef Chahine, spelled as Youssef Shaheen on the plaque, was an Egyptian film director. He was a pretty big deal in the cinema world, receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997. 

Looking at his biography, I don’t think I have ever seen any of his work. That may be because I am unfamiliar with Egyptian cinema, and have watched very few Arabic-language movies.

One thing that did impress me was that he was instrumental in launching the career of actor Omar Sharif. Him I remember.

Sharif starred in Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, to name his first two big English-language films that made him a household word.  He was a heartthrob – but he could act also; he wasn’t just another pretty face.

The other person I hadn’t heard of was Gamal Salam. My first search came up blank – so I played with the name a little. I figured that if Shaheen’s name hadn’t been an accurate transliteration on the plaque, maybe this one was also a little different. I was right.

Gamal Salama was a well-known Egyptian composer who died last year of COVID. He was best known for his film scores – many of them for films directed by Youssef Shaheen. Which of course leaves me with unanswered questions.

Obviously the two men worked together and knew each other. Did Salama move into the building after Shaheen died? Perhaps he inherited the apartment.

If my Arabic was at a better level than its current non-existent, I might try and find out. I’m sure there is more story to be told here.

For now though, I think I’ll leave it at a mystery partially solved. I know who the plaques are honoring, which is more than I knew when I started this post.

And now you know too. Do you feel any wiser?

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