Galal al-Sharqawy’s Childhood

12 Jun

This passage is take from Galal al-Sharqawi’s 4-book !! memoirs. It is about his childhood and his early artistic influences. If you make it to the end, the best bit is a description of a 5 kilometre procession in honour of Youssef Wahby.

The First Scene… what I still remember from my childhood and it’s as if I was seeing it before me right now … A tent in the desert … I can’t remember which desert perhaps it was just the bit of desert next to the Abbaseyya district of Cairo. In the tent there were two small beds. I slept on the first, to the left of the door and my mother slept on the other. When I stood at the door and looked out across the wide desert I saw many other tents just like the one I was staying in. I was six years old and I had Typhoid. It was a contagious disease so they had put me in this prison or “quarantine”. There was no-one with me but my mother who was exposing herself to the possibility of infection… God bless her… In the 1940s this disease was deadly since they had not yet found any cure for it.

I was the third of my siblings: Fatima, Helmy, me, then Abdel Moneim. But in the ten years between me and Helmy my mother had a son or daughter every year. None of them lived past their second or third year when God took them to his side. Then came Said, directly before me, and he lived until he was 10 years old. They said he was a brilliant boy because he finished primary school at that young age. Then a number of days before the results he unexpectedly passed away, without any reason anyone could see at the time. I came and at the age of 6 or 7 I caught this deadly disease. Everyone thought I would have the same fate as my siblings but God wanted something else for me.

The Second Scene … In a long ward beds closely packed along both sides of it… I slept in one of them and my mother was in the one next to me. God had saved me from this deadly disease … I was now spending my recovery period with the other patients to whom God had granted a new life.

The Third Scene … A Horse cart that I am riding with my mother crosses the streets of Cairo to get to the Sayeda Zeinab district. It goes down Qadry Pasha Street and enters Madhun Alley. Then it continues to the end until house number 1.1. My mother carries me up the stairs to the third floor and knocks on the door. My sister opens the door and I see across the room my father and two brothers, Helmy and Abdel Moneim, sitting at the dining table eating lunch. My sister lets out an ululation of joy and love as tears pour from her eyes and my father gets up to hug and kiss me. Then he prays.

Assorted Other Scenes


Perhaps because of the life-threatening illness that I caught as a child, my family swaddled me with extra care, concern and attention… without doubt it was more than my brothers or sisters enjoyed. I had to spend a long period of recovery at home. For almost a year I couldn’t go to primary school. My sister began to take care of me and began to teach me the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic. My sister was my first teacher and she was like my mother when it came to my intellectual and emotional guardianship. She worked as a teacher in the Hassan Pasha Taher school in Helmeyya. After the period of nearly a year finished my sister took me to her school and she was able to convince them to enrol me in one of the classes with a good recommendation. I don’t remember much about my life in that school (I was only there for three or four months) except for the drawing teacher, Ablah Gamal. She was tall and dark skinned like and ebony Oud. She has harsh feature and always carried a stick in her hand but she was very kind hearted and liked me especially and took more care of me.

The schools announced a round of entrance exams including the Mohammed Ali primary school in Marasinah Street in Sayeda Zeinab… There were exams to go into in the second year of primary school. If you passed you went straight in and if you failed you took the first year exam. If you had no success there you waited until next year. I took the exam and to the great surprise of my family and mine too I got into the second year. I was nine years old at the time.

I should stop here for a bit before I throw my gaze upon primary school and mention two important players who I think had a great effect on my personal and artistic formation.

The first player is my bigger brother Helmy

He was a student in the school of applied engineering and an amateur actor. He was president of the school’s acting troupe. During the first performances of the end of academic year I went with my mother and siblings to a performance… I still remember the performance well. The play was called Professor Badawi and in the same troupe was the skilled artist Mohammed Rida. I learned afterwards that it was an adaptation of the famous play “If I Were A King”. Naguib al-Rihany’s masterpiece “Puppet Government” was also a versions of the same play. The female lead was a very famous actress in school and university theatre of the time. She was Fawzia Higazy who later opened a shop that rented clothes and accessories. I still remember the line that she said at the end of the play to the Professor Badawi, whose part my brother was playing “The cage is empty Professor Badawi” and this was her proposition for love and marriage…

Helmy wasn’t just the president of the acting troupe of the school of applied engineering but he was also a member of Fawzy al-Jazayerly’s troupe which was famous for the play Professor Bahbah. This troupe produced many plays at the Isis theatre in Qadry Pasha Street, where the Cinema Isis is now. My father was very angry that my brother was involved with art and working with al-Jazayerly’s troupe. He warned him frequently and urged him to leave the profession but it seems that my brother was unable to comply with his father’s request. He feigned obedience but he kept acting in the troupe without the knowledge of my father (God rest his soul). Once my brother needed to borrow some of my father’s clothes. So I was the “little bird” who brought the costume from home to the theatre and back, with the help of my mother.

Helmy also enrolled in the acting school which the great pioneer Zaky Talimat but he graduated from college of applied engineering and was appointed as textile engineer in the town of Mahalla so he left acting school. Later he got a Baccalaureate in engineering in the civil department of Ain Shams University. So he followed this path, leaving behind acting forever but he had planted within me the first seeds of art and love of art.

The second player was the Isis Theatre itself


In the house next to ours in Madhun Alley lived the late Hagg Mustapha Hafny who set up the Isis Theatre and owned the Britannia Theatre in Amad al-Din street before then. He had a son about the same age as me or technically his wife’s son whom he called Mukhtar. This was a nickname since his real name was Ahmed Abduh Saleh. Because of our age Mukhtar and I were friends and he went with me to the theatre any chance we got. Thus I can say that I opened my childhood eyes on the stage of the Isis Theatre. In this theatre I saw the troupes of Youssef Wahby, Fatima Rushdy, Mohammed al-Kahlawy, Ali Kassar, and Fawzy al-Jazayerly.

In that period I saw Youssef Wahby’s procession when he was on his way to the Isis Theatre. People were in two rows from Lazhogly Square along Khairet Street to Sayeda Zeinab Square and then Qadry Pasha Street… The distance was at least 5 kilometres and people were in two rows at 8 in the evening cheering and clapping for Youssef Wahby sitting in the back seat of black Cadillac Cabriolet. He was cheering the spectators all the way to the stage door. When the production finished the crowd, or at least a large part of them, were waiting to cheer Youssef Wahby’s return.


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