It all started one night in 1950 at a gathering with friends and family at her home. Accompanied by a violin and her mother singing, seven-year-old Perouz Artin Kalfayan began dancing.
Present at the party was her father’s friend Elias Moadab, an Egyptian-Syrian comic actor and singer. He was mesmerized and promised to compose a monologue to take the child on stage.
He kept his word: Perouz soon performed his monologue at a talent show for amateurs at Cairo’s famous Auberge des Pyramides nightclub. It received enthusiastic applause and among the audience was King Farouk, who gave the child her first financial reward: a LE50 note.
Before she knew it, showbiz players surrounded the young potential star, but only one managed to sign an exclusive contract — Anwar Wagdi. A Syrian-Egyptian director, producer, actor and all-round cinema enthusiast, Wagdi was at the peak of his career, directing and starring in iconic films like Albi Daleeli (My Heart is my Guide, 1947) and Ghazal al-Banat (The Flirtation of Girls, 1949).
After signing the contract at his office in downtown Cairo’s Immobila Building, Wagdi changed her Armenian name to Feyrouz and provided her with the trainers she needed to become a true child prodigy — in particular Lebanese choreographer Isaac Dickson.
As talented as Feyrouz was, making a film with a child as the star was not an adventure taken lightly. Musician Mohamed Abdel Wahab refused to co-produce a film starring a child, and Faten Hamama turned down the role of Feyrouz’s mother — a minor role in the film that was later played by Madiha Yosri — saying she couldn’t be a supporting actor to a child no one knew.
But Wagdi produced, directed and starred in the 1950 film Yasmine alongside Feyrouz anyway. The film, which was a major success, is about Yasmine (Feyrouz), who grew up in an orphanage after her father abandoned her on the street because she was not a boy. When Yasmine turns five she runs away and eventually befriends Waheed (Wagdi), a penniless saxophone player.
Feyrouz had proved a phenomenal actress, an expressive dancer and capable singer, with a sense of humor and maturity that didn’t take away from the innocence of her tender age. Her success continued in Abbas Kamal’s Feyrouz Hanem (Lady Feyrouz, 1951) and Wagdi’s Dahab (Gold, 1953), both produced by Wagdi’s United Film Company.
Her role in Dahab was perhaps her most memorable. In it, she joins forces with the poor but musically talented Alfonso (Wagdi), and on their road to fame they are found by her family, who had also abandoned her as a baby. In one of the best scenes, she pays homage to legendary belly dancers Samia Gamal, Tahiya Karioka and Badia Msabni. In a beautiful mise en scène, the 10-year-old, surrounded by an entourage of dancers, dresses as each belly dancer to give an almost identical copy of her dancing style.
“I owe it all to him. He was a genius,” Feyrouz said of Wagdi in a rare interview in the mid-2000s with Lebanese TV presenter Zahi Wahbe. “He knew he could make something out of this child he hardly knew.”
After Dahab (1953), Feyrouz’s father accused Wagdi of making a lot of money out of his daughter and terminated the contract, under which Feyrouz made LE1,000 per film. “I wished Anwar Wagdi would have always been around,” she said. “My life changed drastically without him. I missed him like a father.”
Her father founded the Feyrouz Production Company and hired Atef Salem to direct Al-Hirman (The Abandonment, 1953), starring Feyrouz and her younger sister Nelly. This was Nelly’s first role, but she would later make a name for herself as an actress, mainly with her fawazeer, Ramadan riddle shows.
The Abandonment met with modest success. Unlike Feyrouz’s films with Wagdi, which centered around magnificent performances that gave her the freedom to show off all her talents, it was weighed down by clichéd melodrama. “With all my love to my father, he was the reason why my steps stumbled in cinema later, because he was not well aware of how to manage my artistic affairs,” Feyrouz told Kuwaiti daily Al-Qabas in 2010.
And in 1954 Wagdi passed away at the age of 51 after an illness. “I was very young but I remember going to the hospital to visit him. He was too tired and I wasn’t allowed to see to him,” Feyrouz told Wahbe. “They were worried that if he saw me he would get emotional and that it was dangerous for him.”
After a failed attempt with her father’s company in Seif Eddin Shawkat’s Asafeer al-Ganna (Birds of Paradise, 1955), Feyrouz stepped out of the spotlight aged 13. She returned three years later in 1957 to play roles that she thought were “more suitable for a 16-year-old.” But people weren’t interested to see her play a normal girl. They wanted the miraculous singing and dancing child.
Feyrouz joined Ismail Yassin’s theater troupe, where she met her future husband, actor Badr Eddin Gamgoum. But she realized she would never replicate the fame she had as a child, and that she was better off preserving it intact. So in 1960 she quit. Her last film was Hossam Eddin Mostafa’s Bafakar fili Nasini (I’ll Not Forget You, 1959), starring Hend Rostom and Roshdi Abaza.
“People thinks the time stops, but time goes keep going,” she told Wahbe. “People want you to remain a young child and dance. They couldn’t accept me as a young lady falling in love.” Feyrouz said she watched the films of the young Feyrouz as if it was someone else. “It was like a dream,” she said.
Feyrouz, born on March 15, 1943, passed away on January 29, 2016, leaving behind a daughter, a son and 10 films from a 10-year career.