Egyptian filmmaker Alain Zaloum is to resurrect the memory of his father Karim Shukry Zaloum, the singer of the smash hit Take Me Back to Cairo, in a new film.
by Sherif Awad
In 1956, leading composer, singer and actor Mohamed Fawzy was sitting with a group of friends when he heard the voice of a young man covering an American song by Frankie Laine. The young man’s name was Karim Shukry and he was performing a Franco-Arab rendition of a well-loved song. Unlike many Egyptian singers of the day, Shukry sang in Arabic mixed with English in hopes of reaching an international audience.
Little did Shukry know that he was on the verge of popularity and that Fawzy would be his ticket to fame. The talented Fawzy composed the song Take Me Back to Cairo for Shukry, and it quickly became a popular hit, especially among Egyptian diaspora longing for their homeland. Shukry’s soulful voice was so poignant that when the minister of culture heard Take Me Back to Cairo, he asked Shukry to shoot an accompanying video with ancient Egyptian monuments in the background to be used as an anthem to attract tourists.
The song was followed by many in its style like Meshmesh Beih (Mr. Apricot), Samara and Inshallah and the popularity of Shukry’s music paved the way for other recording artists from the Middle East to find international success. Years later, the same song was covered by Egyptian singer Samir El-Eskandarany, who became an icon in the Franco-Arab genre.
Unbeknownst to many, Shukry’s full name was Jean Shukry Zaloum. He grew up in Heliopolis, where he attended Saint Georges School. While attempting to carve out a career in singing, Shukry used to work as regional manager at the Cairo offices of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. “Starting from 1961, Shukry used to finance his music recordings using his own money,” says his son Alain Zaloum. “To cut the production budget, Shukry recorded at dubbing studios in mono quality and in one take. His MGM boss often called him at the studio to make him come back to the office.”
A steady job by day and singing career by night both promised a good future for Shukry and his family, but in 1964, things went downhill when Zaloum lost his MGM job after rumors flew about him being of Jewish origins. Shukry, who was counting on his singing career, discovered that it was also affected by the same rumor. That year, he decided to leave Egypt with his wife and two sons, heading for Quebec where his wife’s Italian family lived.
“During my early childhood, I did not understand what it is my father used to do for a living,” remembers Alain Zaloum. “Bit by bit, I started to understand that he used to sing when his Egyptian records were pulled up on several occasions. In Quebec, he continued his movie-related work by making advertisement and posters for local cinemas.”
Shukry, who took on the professional name of Jean Zaloum, later ventured into movie production, distribution and even constructed a small Quebec theater complete with 320 seats. While growing up, Alain used to visit his father’s set and became interested in photography, and started to shoot home movies with his friends on super 8 film. Years later, Alain traveled to the US to study filmmaking at USC School of Cinematic Arts in California. “It was a terrific period because I got to know many of the symbols who created the new American pop culture,” he says. Our lecturers were the likes of great filmmakers Orson Wells and Sam Peckinpah.”
After obtaining his degree, Alain discovered that most of his colleagues went separate ways and that he did not have much of a network anymore. “I stayed one year to work behind the scenes in Hollywood as crew member helping in lighting or catering,” he recounts. One year later, Alain went back to Montreal. “I got the same jobs there but the rent was cheaper. I then started to write my own scripts to work with other producers until I ended up working with my father in the 1990s.”
Gary Busey, one of Hollywood’s character actors, often plays eccentric villains. Among his starring roles were in two films directed by Alain Zaloum: Canvas and Suspicious Minds. “In real life, Gary is a very nice guy and very dramatic,” Alain says with laugh. “We bumped into each other when I was living in LA. Also, my father and I collaborated with Billy Zane who then became the villain in Titanic. I made use, like many filmmakers or nonfilmmakers, of a tax reduction law that encouraged people to invest in cinema during the 1980s. Many Canadian greats launched their career during this period, including renowned sci-fi horror writer-director David Cronenberg and comic writer-director Ivan Reitman.
Today, Alain Zaloum continues to work on shooting, editing and streaming on digital medium. “It is a big challenge because my early start was in independent cinema then moved as well to cable television in order to stay in the business,” he says. “I worked in cinema when it was so expensive and technologically challenging to shoot a film. Right now, the digital medium opens up to wider creativity. However, those changes had their influences on some veteran producers who find it too hard to raise money for their new films from the new services like Netflix or Amazon,” says Zaloum who is also facing similar challenges in assembling the budget for his new film that he would like to shoot in Egypt. “An Egyptian producer told me that it is difficult to get cash from Egypt and so it will be only services on location.”
Jean Zaloum finally did make it back to Cairo in 1997, where he was given a tribute award at the Cairo International Film Festival as an Egyptian who excelled abroad in filmmaking. Sadly, he died four years ago, but his memory, his films and his music still inspire his son Alain. “When we came to Canada, my father stopped singing and so his songs are the most enduring legacy that brings up strong emotions every time they are played.”
Zaloum’s new film will be shot between Egypt and Canada, and brings the story of their family back to life.