Wahid Jalal On Being the Voice of Lebanon

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Jalal was born in Ras Beirut in 1940. Although his father, Abdul-Fattah Zantout, was an engineer, Jalal says he was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

By: Kamel Jaber

Published Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Abdul-Wahed Zantout, better known by his stage name, Wahid Jalal, which came from his success in the title role of the 1973 police drama "Inspector Wahid," says the greatest gift he received was his voice. Jalal got his first break in radio, where his impressive vocal range and distinctive voice made him a star, allowing him to break into television, cinema, and the world of animation, where his voice became familiar to an entire generation that grew up with the cartoons of the 1980s.

Al-Akhbar interviewed Jalal on his 72nd birthday at the Radio Liban station, where he gives all his interviews.

"This station is like my mother," he says affectionately.

Jalal was born in Ras Beirut in 1940. Although his father, Abdul-Fattah Zantout, was an engineer, Jalal says he was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father traveled a lot when Jalal was a child, seeking to make a better living to support his wife and four sons.

When Jalal was still young, his mother became concerned when she caught him standing in front of the mirror, speaking and moving strangely. She thought he was losing his mind, until she discovered that her son was passionate about cinema. Every time he came back from the movies, he would stand in front of the mirror for hours imitating what he had seen on screen.

Jalal obtained his elementary school certificate from Dar al-Hamra in 1953 and acted in high school productions at the al-Qantari School.

When the time came for Jalal to pursue a career, he enrolled at the civil communications school where he learned morse code and obtained a certificate as a ham radio operator.

"But the diploma did nothing for my life, considering that morse code fell out of use and was replaced with a modern system for coordinating flights and ships," Jalal says. "I had to return to my old dream: acting."

In 1959, his mother managed to wrangle him an introduction with the head of BBC Radio, Tawfiq Nammour. At first, Nammour did not take the young man seriously, but had a hard time dodging Jalal’s over-enthusiastic attempts to dazzle him with monologues and poetry. Nammour finally broke down when the aspiring thespian told him "I don't want to act to live, but I live to act."

Nammour was eventually convinced and took Jalal on as his student. Nammour taught Jalal everything he knew on the art of performance and acting from his teacher, George Abyad, in Cairo.

After six months of training, Jalal was allowed to say a single line on the airwaves, which he remembers to this day: "There is a man at the door, my lord."

"Now you can go to your country's radio because it needs you more,” Nammour told him.

"During the entrance exam for Radio Liban, Abu-Laban asked who can act out a poem, and I was the first one to shout out that I could," Jalal recalls. He explains that he had to endure another exhausting training session before director Shakib Khoury offered him a lead role in a 15-minute radio episode.

Still, the ambitious young man started to lose hope that he would never be the actor he dreamed of becoming.

Around this time, he happened to meet the late Elias Rizk, who advised him to be patient "because your time is definitely coming."

"I will always appreciate this wonderful man's faith in me,” Jalal said.

When television began to emerge as the most popular medium for news and entertainment, producers plucked talent from the radio. In 1962, Jalal started working as a television presenter and later as the host of the game show Your Luck, which achieved unrivaled success.

Hikmat Saba later chose him as the lead role in the series A Policeman's Diary (1963), followed by Night Stories.

His big break came when he was cast as a lawyer in the series The Court Has Ruled, which was directed by Elias Matta, written by Fadel Said Akl, and aired live from 1963 to 1968.

Jalal tells Al-Akhbar this TV series was the main turning point in his artistic life and pushed him into the limelight.

"The public was so convinced of my role as a lawyer that they would call to ask me to take on their legal cases," Jalal recalls. "A legal firm even offered me a job just to sit in its offices for two hours a day in return for a substantial salary to increase its clientele."

Meanwhile, he appeared in several Lebanese and Egyptian films. He acted in director Mohammad Salman’s Love Story (1962) and later worked with Hikmat Saba on Night Stories (1964) and Kari Karabetian on O Night.

Perhaps his most popular film was Mawwal (a traditional Levantine song form) with the Lebanese diva Sabah.

"When the film was screened in Dunya Cinema at al-Burj Square, the crowds disrupted the trams," Jalal says.

In 1968, he acted in Thief of Millions, directed by Niyazi Mustafa. In 1971, the series From Day to Day by the Rahbani brothers began airing, in which Jalal played the role of the thief Atef. In 1973, Fadel Said Akl and Elias Matta decided to produce a police series and chose Jalal as the lead role in "Inspector Wahid," which aired for 36 episodes. The series' success apparently contributed to youth joining the judicial police academy.

Not all of Jalal’s professional experiences were positive. In 1980, he participated in the British docu-drama Death of a Princess, which tells the story of the execution of Saudi Princess Mashail Bint Fahd Mohammad al-Saud and her lover, Khaled Muhalhal, the son of the Saudi ambassador in Lebanon.

Jalal says that he was deliberately deceived about the nature of the film by the director, Anthony Thomas, who, he says, gave him only part of the script to read. The film was condemned by Saudi Arabia, and all those involved were banned from entering the Kingdom.

“I discovered the deception when the film was put together, which is why I received a special royal pardon after they banned me for a period of time," he explains. “This was a harsh experience, but it taught me a lesson that I will never forget."

Jalal is also known for his work dubbing animated series. He lent his voice to the show the Adventures of Zeina and Nahhoul, which was a huge success with Lebanese and Arab children in the 1980s. He also lent his voice to the equally popular animated hits The Adventures of Sinbad, The Adventures of Sasuki, Treasure Island, Sandy Belle, and Maymouna and Masoud.

Today, after a long journey, Jalal returns home to radio.

While he has not made a decision to retire, he refuses to "be drawn into decadent productions," adding that he recently turned down eight television productions of this sort.

"But my voice will continue to ring in refined work," he concludes. "This voice allowed me to play distinct roles in a variety of artistic areas."

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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