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Authors of New Biographies of Famous Egyptians Take Their Craft Seriously

Biographies of two famous Egyptians from the last century, the actress Madiha Kamel and the writer Yusuf Idris, have appeared in recent months, both by journalists who carefully researched their subjects.

Biography is a genre that combines documentation, research, and literary narration. Biographers strive to present their subjects’ lives in harmony, highlighting the paradoxes between the rewards of stardom and the frustrations and challenges they encountered in daily life and in their careers.

Mohamed Sersawi, author of the new biography of Madiha Kamel, and Bishri Abdel-Mu’min, who explored the life of Yusuf Idris, talked to Al-Fanar Media about what attracted them to the figures they chose to write about, and how they went about their research.

‘Madiha Kamel: The Years of Appearance and Disappearance’

Sersawi’s book, “Madiha Kamel: The Years of Appearance and Disappearance”, was published this year by Al-Rewaq Publishing House.

He told Al-Fanar Media that writing about the late actress was always on his mind. “I wanted to explore her artistic and private world as someone who is looking for a magical door into her own portrait,” he said.

“Some writers resort to unprofessional methods in their writing, such considering gossip columns as documents, or using materials shared on social media and online forums without reviewing their validity.”

Mohamed Sersawi
Author of a new biography of Madiha Kamel

Born in 1946, Madiha Kamel had a career in acting that spanned three decades before her death in 1997. In his research, Sersawi visited the archives of national newspapers, the Egyptian Catholic Center for the Cinema, and the National Library and Archives of Egypt. He browsed news, articles, and documents to reflect on Kamel’s life in a book he intended to be a “rose on her grave.”

In his work, Sersawi sought to weave Kamel’s personal life into all stages of her artistic career.

“Since her childhood, she was a star in sports, playing music and writing her thoughts,” he said. “In middle school, she excelled in acting.”

The book traces her life, her marriage, and her relationship with her daughter, friends, and colleagues, besides the roles she played.

This chronological order was a decisive factor in making the book, said Sersawi. In eight chapters, Sersawi tried to capture and depict the world of the late star.

Madiha Kamel’s interviews with the press were especially revealing of new dimensions in her personality and artistic vision, Sersawi said. He describes those interviews as honest and sometimes funny when she talks about art, her roles, love, or her daughter, Mirhan.

He also noted that some conversations radiated sadness, especially those about her brother’s death, her mother’s illness, or other personal topics.

“Madiha Kamel’s journey was not easy,” he said. “It was rather difficult. She suffered a lot until she achieved what she knew she deserved and proved her place in art.”

‘I Am Yusuf Idris’

Abdel-Mu’min’s book, “I Am Yusuf Idris”, was published by Risha Publishing and Distribution in 2021.

Its subject, Yusuf Idris (1927–1991), is widely celebrated as a great playwright and genius of the Arabic short story.

On his experience in writing about Idris, Abdel-Mu’min told Al-Fanar Media: “Idris and I came from the same countryside. I loved his countryside writing style.”

Yusuf Idris is often compared with his contemporary, Naguib Mahfouz. Abdel-Mu’min said: “In my opinion, he was the opposite of Naguib Mahfouz, or the other side of the coin. Idris was obviously a farmer, throwing his seeds, and they sprouted by God’s will to produce a novel, a story, or an article. Mahfouz was a great builder; he built the greatest pyramid in the history of the Arabic novel.”

Another reason for writing about Idris, he said, “is not related to Idris personally, but rather to the pure source who taught him storytelling, his great-grandmother, Malka.”

The popularity of biographies is linked to the periods of change every nation goes through: “We need a guide to accompany us in times of change.”

Bishri Abdel-Mu’min
Author of a new biography of Yusuf Idris

Among the challenges Abdel-Mu’min faced in writing his book were the contradictory accounts of some events and details of Idris’s life. For example, Idris was jailed under both the British-supported King Farouk and President Gamal Abdel Nasser, but the exact dates of his imprisonment are unclear. Accounts also differ over the amount of a story award Idris won in the Nasser era, and how he spent the money.

Another challenge for Abdel-Mu’min was his desire not to let his own writing be influenced by the rich language of his subject, to avoid becoming Idris’s mere shadow or likeness.

The Popularity of Biographies

The popularity of biographies that revisit the lives of actors, writers, and other cultural figures from an earlier generation is related to the periods of change every nation goes through, Abdel-Mu’min thinks.  “We want a guide to accompany us in times of change,” he said.

Sersawi also commented on the popularity of biographies and the interest some publishing houses are showing in this genre.

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There is a “distinguished elite” among authors of biographies of actors who use the “correct techniques,” he said. He added: “These techniques include reviewing the archives and conducting interviews with persons related to the figure under research.”

However, Sersawi complains that “some writers resort to unprofessional methods in their writing, such as considering gossip columns as documents, or using materials shared on social media and online forums, without reviewing their validity.”

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