by Nada Ramadan Elnahla
The pinnacle of fame! The scepter of art! The throne of the cinema! . . .
To her, life is art. To her, art is life. And between the two, she is the link, an unbreakable chain. . . . (Abd al-Salam al-Nabulsy describing Faten Hamama in 1967)
On the 17th of January, 2015, the Arab world lost the iconic Egyptian film star Faten Hamama, who died at the age of 83 after a short-term hospitalization. Known as the “Lady of the Arab Screen,” Hamama starred in almost 100 films, working with masters of Egypt’s massive film industry. The Egyptian presidency mourned her, issuing a statement: “Egypt and the Arab world have lost a creative and artistic talent who enriched Egyptian art with her sophisticated performances.”
Born in the Delta city of Mansoura to a father who worked as a lower middle class clerk in the Egyptian Ministry of Education and a mother who worked as a housewife, Faten Hamama graduated from acting school at the age of 16. Her career, however, began much earlier, at the age of seven, when a school talent contest “discovered” her. This resulted in a role alongside the legendary singer and composer Mohamed Abdel Wahab in “Youm Sa’eed” (“Happy Day,” 1940). After the success of the movie, Hamama became known as “Egypt’s own Shirley Temple.” Four years later, she appeared next to Abdel Wahab in “Rosasa fi al-Qalb” (Bullet in the Heart,” 1944). Following her third film, “Donya” (“Donya,” 1946), Hamama moved with her parents and siblings to Cairo, where she commenced her studies in the High Institute of Acting.
In the 1950s, Hamama played a major role in the golden age of the Egyptian cinema industry, beginning with her starring role in “Lak Yawm Ya Zalem” (“Your Day Will Come, Oppressor,” 1952), a film nominated in the Cannes Film Festival for the Prix International award. In a time renowned for its many major Egyptian cinema stars, her contemporaries included Magda, Shadia, Hind Rostom, Taheyya Kariokka, Samia Gamal, Najwa Fouad, Farid al-Atrash, and Abdel Halim Hafez, among others. Some of her most famous works on the silver screen include “Baba Ameen” (“Ameen, my Father,” 1950), directed by Youssef Chahine, and “La Waqt Lel Hob” (“No Time for Love,” 1963). Hamama also made it to Hollywood, where, in 1963, she took part in the crime film “Cairo” with George Sanders.
A political conservative, Hamama expressed dissatisfaction with Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s socialist changes, especially the nationalization of factories, the confiscation of land, the arrests, and what she believed to be the oppressiveness of the regime. The actress would later confess that the frequent attempts to recruit her into working with the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate, as well as her desire to avoid the harassment of its director, Salah Nasr, prompted her frequent travels to Lebanon and London in the period between 1966 and 1971. Although Abdel Nasser called her a “national treasure,” awarded her an honorary decoration in art in 1965, and asked leading artists and writers to convince her to return to Egypt, Hamama chose to remain abroad until after Nasser’s death.
Her conservative politics also influenced her artistic style. Hamama’s roles shied away from those favoured by seductive actresses like Hind Rostom, the woman known as the Marilyn Monroe of the East. Nor did Hamama depend upon her good looks for recognition, as in the cases of Layla Fawzi or Madiha Yousri. Rather, according to the Lebanese critic and poet Paul Shaoul, the actress’s petite posture, and the inner attraction manifest in her ambiguous and glowing eyes, became Hamama’s trademarks. She also shunned the limelight, rarely giving interviews and avoiding involvement in the usual controversies.
In addition to romantic movies, Hamama starred in melodramatic, political, crime, and comedy movies, as well as psychological thrillers. Moreover, she played many roles advocating women’s rights and condemning social injustices. Considered one of the best 10 films in the Egyptian cinema, “Al-Haram” (“The Sin,” 1965), written by the renowned novelist Youssef Idris and directed by the legendary director Henri Barakat, focused on the oppression of struggling peasants. Other films, including “Oridu Hallan” (“I Want a Solution,” 1975), criticized marriage and divorce laws in Egypt, encouraging the government to abrogate a law that forbade wives from divorcing their husbands. At the Moscow International Festival, Hamama received the Special Award for her pro-democratic role in “Imbratoriyat Meem” (“The Empire of M,” 1972). Other international accolades included: the Best Actress Award at the Jakarta Film Festival in 1963 for her role in “al-Bab al-Maftooh” (“The Open Door,” 1963), the Lebanese Order of Merit in 1984 for her role in “Laylat al-Qabd ‘ala Fatimah” (“The Night of Fatma's Arrest,” 1984), the Best Actress Award at the Carthage Film Festival in 1988 for her role in “Yawm Mur… Yawm Hilu” (“Bitter Days, Nice Days”, 1988), and lifetime achievement awards from the Montpellier Mediterranean Film Festival in 1993 and the Dubai International Film Festival in 2009. In 2000, the Egyptian Organization of Critics and Writers honored Hamama’s lifetime of achievements in the Egyptian cinema with the “Star of the Century” Award. “Ard al-Ahlam” (“The Land of Dreams”), directed by Dawoud Abdel-Sayed in 1993, would prove to be the star’s last film. Hamama married three times. After her first marriage to director Ezzel Dine Zulficar ended, the actress became entangled in one of the most famous love stories of the Arab world. Hamama met Michel Demitri Shalhoub, later known as Omar Sharif, in “Sira’ fi al-Wadi” (Struggle in the Valley,” 1954), the film in which she consented to her first ever on-screen kiss. The two also acted in more than 15 films together, including “Nahr al-Hub” (“River of Love,” 1960), an Egyptian production based on Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” directed by her first husband, Zulficar. Yet Hamama’s marriage to Sharif in 1955 did not survive his move to Hollywood, ending in divorce in 1974. Coincidentally, Omar Sharif passed away in a Cairo hospital seven months after Hamama’s death, on July 10, 2015.
Her third marriage to the intensely private Dr. Mohammad Abdel Wahab Mahmoud, who shied away from the cameras, proved successful. Hamama is survived by Dr. Mahmoud, as well as a son and a daughter from her first marriages.
A pillar of Middle Eastern cinema whose career spanned seven decades, Hamama provided a positive force for change in Egypt, not a small accomplishment considering the fact that acting was still considered a less-than-honorable profession at the beginning of her career. Her films parallel the progress of Egyptian women in public, cultural and political life during the 20th century. Moreover, in 1996, when, to celebrate Egyptian cinema’s 100th birthday, experts drew up a list of 150 of the best Egyptian films, they included 18 of Hamama’s films. With her well-researched roles and strong cultural background, the star undoubtedly helped to change the image of the Arab woman on screen from a marginal, defeated being to an empowered, strong, and responsible woman.
Although Hamama earned many accolades and titles, one best characterizes the star’s influence and impact. Acknowledging this title, the banner carried by some of Hamama’s fans on the day her body was laid to rest read, “Egypt says goodbye to the ‘lady of the screen.’”This essay appeared in Al Jadid Magazine (Vol. 19, No. 69, 2015)
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