“Television, my great love, I will give you until the end of my days. It was with you I was born, and we grew together, you and I,” wrote Elweya Zaki in El Akhbar newspaper in March of 1988.
It’s a familiar story by now: the throwing into the shadows of the contributions of women towards the tenets of society we hold dearest. Our art, entertainment, culture would be profoundly different were it not for the often thankless jobs of women. It’s one of the more positive developments of modern society that people are increasingly willing to uncover hidden histories, and look into the faces of the women who built it.
Through and through, she was a feminist director. She focused on divorce, on the lack of women’s rights in the Arab world, on women’s empowerment.
One such industry is Egypt’s gigantic television industry, which year after year churns out more Ramadan shows than any one human can digest. And one such woman is Elweya Zaki, widely considered to be the first female director in Egyptian TV, an institution she herself helped establish in 1960.
Her career was older than Egyptian television itself: she started as a secretary to William Moore, the American expert that Egypt had commissioned to advise on the launch of the first national broadcast. She then assisted him in directing Egypt’s first ever TV special, El Sarkha El Maktouma (‘The Muffled Scream’).
Immediately after, she assisted pioneering directors Ibrahim El Sehn and Youssef Marzouk. Her first directorial credit came in 1965, with the dramatic TV special El Mozayyaf (‘The Phony’). From there, Zaki became prolific. From 1965 to 1996, hardly a year would go by without a series or film to her name. Socially resonant, feminist, and resolutely supportive of young talents, Zaki became a defining force in a nascent industry.
“She’s an icon of Egyptian television. There isn’t a book on the subject that doesn’t mention her,” says Amro El-Meligy, Zaki’s grandson who has been archiving her professional life in an online platform posthumously dedicated to her. “She paved the way for women to direct and work in the film industry. And she worked with every big name in the industry, she was one of those people that actors were clamouring to work with. They wanted it to be known that they were one of hers.”
Elweya Zaki with a young Mohamed Mounir, who says Zaki was the first to take real notice in him.
And what a repertoire it is. In the 30 years she was active, Zaki was responsible for the debuts of many of the people we now consider household names across the entire Arab world. Legendary singer Mohamed Mounir got his start recording theme songs for her biggest TV series, including Lesan El Morr (‘The Taste of Bitterness’). The 1976 series was also iconic actor Ahmed Zaki’s first ever starring role, after years of supporting roles and only three years after his run as the down-on-his-luck teenaged poet in the play Madrast El Moshaghbeen (‘The School of the Mischievous’).
A fresh-faced Amr Diab also made his TV debut with the director, in her special Mesh Ma’ool El Sanaweya El Amma (‘High School is Impossible’) in 1986, the same year the young singer graduated from the Cairo Academy of Arts. She also introduced the world to actor Said Abdelghany in Khareef April (‘Autumn in April), as well as Khaled El-Nabawy and Wafaa El-Hakim in El 7okm El Mo2aggal (‘The Suspended Sentence’).
She was pivotal in discovering men who would become household names across the Arab world, but her name is relegated to the second rung of Egyptian entertainment history.
Of the host of screenwriters she was the first to take scripts from, Osama Anwar Okasha — who would later pen masterpieces such as Layaly El Helmeya (‘Al Helmeya Nights)— is perhaps her most rewarding discovery, an ethos she held onto even after she stopped directing. “It’s time for drama to be infused with new blood, young writers both from Cairo and around Egypt,” she told Akher Sa’a magazine in 1999. “We need to diversify the viewpoint through their perspectives, their life experiences, alongside the big-name writers we know today.”
In the same interview, she also uncovers the secret behind her stellar career: the script comes first. “I’m always drawn first by the content of the script I get: that’s where the love story starts, before I start executing. And even in directing, my style revolves around not just adapting the script word-for-word, but really appreciating what’s between the lines. That’s where you get some kind of honest emotion. That’s how you get to the viewers’ heart.”
Though today, we might take for granted the depth of content in hard-hitting drama — for every mindless comedy in Ramadan, there’s a somber reality-check series — it wasn’t always so. When Elweya Zaki built a career out of socially resonant works, as a female director no less, it paved the way for the female filmmakers of today.
Her socially-informed drama started with the Naksa in 1967, when Israel attacked Egypt along with Palestine, Jordan, and Syria. In the aftermath, Zaki became one of the few filmmakers to tackle the ongoing war in her work, through short pieces meant to motivate people’s sense of responsibility towards a country in peril.
After the war, this continued to be the core of her work. 1978’s Ragol Esmo Abbas (‘A Man Named Abbas’) sees a city teacher stumble upon a decades-old blood feud between small towns in Upper Egypt. With the incredibly popular 1982 series El Nadeem, written by Youssry El Gendy and starring Ezzat El Alaily, Afaf Shoeib, and Mahmoud El Meligy, Zaki also forayed into historical fiction, adapting the life story of Abdallah El Nadeem — famed orator of the 1882 Orabi Revolution — to the small screen.
In 1983, her already-crystallised sensibility took a step forward in the absurdist, proto-science fiction series Nehayet El ‘Alam Laysat Ghadan. A philosophy teacher, played by Riad Abd Rabbo, faces an existential crisis when the realities of the world clash with the values he holds and teaches his students. He is led to the worldview of an apparent lunatic, played by Tawfik El Deken, who dies waiting for aliens to save the world from impending doom. The star-studded cast also includes household names Mahmoud El Gendy, Abdel Rahman Abou Zahra, Hassan Mostafa, and Aida Abdelaziz.
My style revolves around not just adapting the script word-for-word, but really appreciating what’s between the lines. That’s where you get some kind of honest emotion.
She also produced an adaptation of Albert Camus’ absurdist masterpiece The Plague, which depicted a plague ravaging through a town in French-controlled Algeria. The film was censored in Egypt for being ‘too dark’, though it ran in Gulf countries.
More than anything however, what is truly remarkable is the profoundly feminist thread that weaves through Zaki’s filmography, as ardently as it does through her own career. In 1972, she became the first woman to direct a feature-length television movie with Teyour El Shamal (‘Birds of the North’), which was later shown at the Prague Film Festival. Immediately after came a string of vehemently feminist works that both shed a light on women’s struggles, and featured female filmmakers behind the camera, alongside her.
In 1972’s El Shabaka (‘The Network’), a young Fayza returns to her village after becoming a widow, only to face first the village chief, who seeks to take advantage of her vulnerable status, and then her late husband’s brothers. Similarly, written by actor-screenwriter Nadia Rashad, 1987’s Al Qanoon La Ya’ref Aisha (‘The Law Does Not Recognize Aisha’) follows the story of a woman who sells her share of the house to save her husband from jail, only for him to marry a wealthy woman, leaving Aisha to fend for herself. The film is a scathing portrayal of Egypt’s family laws.
Tarweed El Ragol (‘The Taming of the Man’), a feminist Taming of the Shrew written by Sekeena Fouad, follows a misogynist writer (Karim Mottaweh) as he unexpectedly falls in love with a school principal who forces him to change course. The film, also starring a young Ragaa El Geddawy, was honoured by the Women in Film Festival in Los Angeles in 1989.
She’s an icon of Egyptian television. There isn’t a book on the subject that doesn’t mention her...She paved the way for women to direct and work in the film industry
“Through and through, she was a feminist director,” says Amro El-Meligy. “She focused on divorce, on the lack of women’s rights in the Arab world, on women’s empowerment. It was very important to her.”
In 1982, she was given an appreciation award for her collective drama work at the Egyptian Small Screen Artists Association, and was presented to her by Safwat El Sherif, and again in 1991 at the 30th anniversary of Egyptian TV. Her last award came at the Golden Jubilee of Egyptian television in 2010.
Though her name is well-known within the entertainment industry, most casual consumers of the media don’t know who she is. She was pivotal in not only discovering men who would become household names across the Arab world, but indeed building the very industry that has birthed conglomerates and masterpieces and goliaths, her name is relegated to the second rung of Egyptian entertainment history. Though it remains a frustrating story, it’s not a new one.
Grandson and archivist Amro El-Meligy points to her surviving legacy within the industry, most recently highlighted in a social media blunder by Mohamed Mounir, but even in casual social situations. He points to her funeral last August, where she was remembered fondly by the stars she had worked with and even those who never got the chance to, including Yousra, whose father would bring as a child to Zaki.
Her favourite quote by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, therefore, holds an even greater significance: “Time will pass, and we’ll be gone forever. People will forget us; they will forget our faces, our voices, and how many of our children came after us. Only those who really lived today shall be remembered with affection and kindness.”