Sudanese Diva of Film and a Risk-Taking Pioneer of Women’s Rights—Tahiya Zarroug
By John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
Tahiya Zarroug was a favorite star of Sudanese moviegoers in the 1970s; she was also a popular figure on stage, radio, and TV during that period. She was not only a brilliant actress, Tahiya was a trailblazer for women’s rights. In promoting the role of an actress as a legitimate profession, she pushed the envelope for other actresses and women in general. She ultimately paid the price, however, and felt compelled to emigrate to Canada. John Mason tells us Tahiya Zarroug’s story with the help of an interview with her ex-husband.
Breaking the Barriers of Gender and Sexual Expression in Traditional Sudan
Tahiya Zarroug is best known for her role in the 1976 classic film, The Wedding of Zein, (original title, Urs Al-Zayn), a Best Foreign Language Film shown at the 51st Academy Awards at the Cannes Film Festival in France in 1977. That was the first international venue for the presentation of the film. Tahiya played the lead female part in this drama centered on Sudanese village and family values, Islamic traditions, and emerging forces of modernization. The film, a Kuwaiti production by director Khalid al-Siddiq, achieved certain critical acclaim, though, in the end, it was not nominated at Cannes. However, when “The Wedding of Zein” was presented at the Arab Film Festival in Paris, it captured first prize. Besides acting in films, Tahiya performed innumerable dramatic roles on Sudanese radio, TV, and theater.
Tahiya Zarroug was no normal actress. In the traditional Islamic society of the Sudan, she had to overcome, according to critic al-Sir al-Sayyed, “being a woman, a citizen, and an actress.” In tradition-bound Sudan, she was able to communicate across class and cultural lines in portraying dramatic roles, including the need to express emotional, sentimental, and bodily language that was not comfortable for all viewers. Al-Sayyed commented further about Tahiya, that she had “the ability to charm the audience like a conjurer or soothsayer…to overcome what is impossible in the Sudanese culture and tradition,” namely issues of gender and religion.
It was specifically Tahiya’s role in exhibiting “suggestive bodily expressions” that was “a revolutionary, exceptional role for a Sudanese woman.” Recall, we are referring to Sudan in the mid-late 20th century, a still very closed society. She expressed to her audiences through “her body and soul”, and “defending our values, our past, our present, and our future. And, before that, she defended the Sudanese women.”
Defender of Sudanese Women’s Rights
Tahiya Zarroug mostly played roles involving some form of rebellion, as when in the play, Napata Habibati (Napata, My Love) she stands up to the myths of society and foretells of some new reality. In a famous radio serial, Dahabaya, Tahiya plays a part in which “love battles obsolete traditions”, including those built on ethnic differences and distinctions between town and village, where the town comes out on top. Other plays Tahiya acted in involve questions of a girl’s freedom to choose a future husband, an ancient struggle between the old and the new.
I interviewed Tahiya’s ex-husband, Frenchman Patrice Marie, as part of this story. He was in Khartoum in the 1970s to teach at the University of Sudan. He noted that Tahiya was from a highly respected family from near Khartoum. Her mother and father died when she was young, after which her older sister raised her. While there was a reputable theater school in Khartoum, the Khartoum National Theater, the profession of acting was not seen as acceptable for young women. As Marie noted, some actresses had come out of “bad circumstances” and were not acting because they were impassioned by it, but rather because they didn’t have other vocational choices.
Tahiya was first married to a Sudanese, but the marriage is better known for her divorce from him since she instigated it when the husband told her she could not be an actress. Normally, as we may know, it is the husband in countries such as Sudan who divorce the wife, rarely vice versa. Her career only excelled after that. She was becoming highly popular for the way she captured the character and personality of the Sudanese woman. Besides, she staunchly defended them. Tahiya was also becoming known as a feminist, in a country where this was a very new phenomenon.
The Emergence of an Islamist State and the Eclipse of a Brilliant Acting Career
As the Sudanese state began to close in on the freedom of its people, including the imposition of Sharia law, the future of popular theater waned. Even though the public respected and loved Tahiya, her time had come. As her French ex-husband put it, “she was too liberated.” He meant that Tahiya could no longer stay relevant in an oppressive, Islamist society. It was a sad ending to a brilliant career, though it was definitely over. Then still in Sudan, she had one child, by Marie, a daughter, Chiraz. Tahiya, at age 35, long before a successful acting career such as hers should have ended, found Canada open to receiving immigrants from oppressive states, and there she settled and still lives today.
In 2013, the Sudanese state invited Tahiya back to the country. Someone apparently woke up to the fact that she was a national treasure. She reveled in her welcome and loved the praise. But, then, it was back to Canada.
“Tahiya Zarroug: What An Actress!” Sudanow, 3/14/2017
“Sudanese Theater: Risks taken by pioneering actresses such as Tahia Zarroug,” in A History of Theatre in Africa, ed. by Martin Banham, Cambridge U Press, 2004
“What is my Movie, Wedding of Zein,” 1976
Personal Interview, Patrice Marie, by John Mason, 6/7/2020
John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.
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