Ismail Yassin (1912-1972) remains one of the most phenomenal comedians in the modern history of Egypt. Also remembered as one of Egypt's most productive artists – leaving more than 300 films, 50 theatrical pieces and uncountable musical monologues – Yassin's combination of creative talents made him a top comic star between 1954 and 1960.
Throughout a difficult life that ended tragically, Yassin loved singing more than any of his other talents, dreaming of passing through the golden gate of fame as a prominent singer like Mohamed Abdel Wahab and Abdel Halim Hafez. In the Egyptian TV archives, Hafez stands amazed by Yassin's uniquely touching performance of his own sad ode "Fi youm men al-ayam" (One of these Days).
Lacking the required leading man looks deprived Yassin of that dream. He sang comic monologues (1935-1945) in the Badiaa Masabny and Ali al-Kassar theatrical troupes, the biggest comic theater presenters of the time. With gifted poet Aboul Seoud al-Ebiary he formed a duet that rediscovered the art of musical monologues and established a hub for the genre, in which wisdom, comedy, social critique and sarcasm integrate beautifully. Many of their monologues, such as “Happiness” and “Life is a Theater”, are recalled as examples that many others have failed to replicate or transcend. Yassin’s authentic style – oscillating between cynicism and blues – has endured in the popular imagination.
Though he debuted in the cinema with supporting roles in 1939, his big break was in 1954 with “Al-anisa Hanafy" (Miss Hanafy) directed by Fateen Abdel Wahab, who was to became the most famous comic director in the history of Egyptian cinema. With Abdel Wahab and his lifetime partner Ebiary as screenwriter, Yassin provided one of the earliest examples of a male comedian embodying a female character in Egyptian cinema. Its huge success marked the beginning of his radiant cinematic career. Critics pick “Al-anisa Hanafy” as one of his most distinguished films. It's a funny yet honest social account, centered around his brilliant portrayal of the agonies of a pregnant woman facing an aggressive partner and a conservative society that underestimates her emotions and needs.
Yassin produced a series of 15 films with his name in the title (Ismail Yassin in the military, in the navy, in the police, and so on). They brought him success, fame and wealth. His trademark expressions – his large mouth trembling and his wobbling knees coming together before running – make Egyptian children laugh and prefer Yassin’s black and white films above others of his generation.
Struggling with cardiac disease since 1960, Yassin gradually lost his fame and wealth. However, he kept his high spirits: “I am not afraid of death, I prepared hundreds of jokes for it, and I’ll die like I ever survived: laughing.”
The search engine Google animates its home page today with a clickable illustration of Yassin, which links to descriptions of his works and life story.