Lady of the Screen fades into eternity
She was the dream woman of every Egyptian man and the inspiration of every Egyptian woman. She was the soft, tender beauty who exuded kindness, gentleness and good humour; but who also displayed the integrity and strength of character that could pull through difficult times. Labelled the ‘Lady of the Arab Screen’, Faten Hamama was a lady in the full sense of the word.
Hamama died last week after a brief spell of ill health. She was 83 and her appearances on the screen had been sporadic and too far apart during her late years, yet Egyptians in their entirety mourned her loss.
“Angel of mercy”
Faten Hamama was born in 1931 to a family that lived in the Delta town of Mansoura. Her father worked with the Egyptian Ministry of Education and her mother was a homemaker. The second of six siblings, her interest in acting started at the early age of six when, for the first time in her life, she was taken by her father to a cinema theatre to see a film.
When she was eight, she won a child beauty pageant in Cairo. Her father, seeing her fascination with acting, sent her picture to film director Muhammad Karim who was incidentally looking for a young girl to play a role in a film he was then directing. So it was that Hamama was initiated into the world of the silver screen; her first role was against the iconic film star and music composer Muhammad Abdel-Wahab in Youm Saeed (Happy Day).
Four years later, she was chosen by Karim for another role with Abdel-Wahab in the film Russassa Fil-Qalb (Bullet in the Heart). Her third film, Dunia (A World) (1946), secured her reputation as a film actress to be reckoned with. The family moved to Cairo in 1946 and she enrolled in the High Institute of Acting.
That same year, Youssef Wahbi, the leading star of the 1930s and 1940s and one of the most prominent Arab theatre and film actors, recognised the young actress’s talent and offered her the role of his daughter in the film Malaak al-Rahma (Angel of Mercy). She starred in three other films with Wahbi, all of which were huge successes.
The 1950s saw Hamama bloom into a young woman in her own right. She outgrew the roles of the sweet, gentle girl and stepped into roles of women of substance. In the 1952 production Ustaza Fatma (Lawyer Fatma) she played the young female lawyer who, despite her show of strength, falls desperately in love with her rival male lawyer and marries him. The film depicted the then raging social conflict of whether women should have successful careers or stick to their eternal role as homemakers.
But the widely held view is that Hamama reached full artistic maturity with her epic role in the 1959 production Duaa’ al-Karawan (The Nightingale’s Prayer). Based on a novel by the writer and figurehead of the modern Egyptian Renaissance enlightenment movement Taha Hussein, the film broached the thorny issue of honour killings. Hamama played the village girl Amna from Upper Egypt, and her quest to avenge her only sister who had lost her life to an honour killing. The interplay of grief, hate, bitterness and pain, persistence to see justice served, and the unannounced and unexpected emergence of love in Amna’s life make for a complex tragedy which unfolds with Hamama’s masterful, passionate acting.
After this film, Hamama is said to have picked her roles very carefully. In 1960, she starred in Nahr al-Hob (River of Love) which was based on Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. And in 1961, she played the lead role in the film La Tutfi’ al-Shams (Don’t Turn Off the Sun), based on a novel by Ihsan Abdel-Quddous, another prominent Egyptian novelist and writer.
Hamama grew to play more memorable roles in Egyptian cinema, many of them reflecting controversial social issues. In Imbraturiyat Meem (The ‘M’ Empire) she plays the widowed, doting mother of six teenage and pre-teenage sons and daughters, all of whose names begin with the letter M, and her struggle to come to an understanding with each of them.
Hamama’s 1975 Uridu Hallan (I Demand a Solution) had a bombshell effect on the Egyptian community. To a novel by the feminist Husn Shah, Hamama played a woman who sustained a miserable marriage till her children were grown, and then demands a divorce. But her husband refuses. In Islamic sharia, divorce can only be through the husband’s unilateral decision; the woman has to comply to his wish even if by force. The film depicts the woman literally fleeing the police who were called upon to implement the law and lead her to her husband’s home. So powerfully did she play the leading role that years later the law was made to include the Islamic principle of khula, the right of a wife to have a divorce provided she gives up all her legal and financial rights.
In 1988, Hamama played another widow, this time alone struggling uncomplainingly with heavy burdens and controversial issues yet never losing hope that good days lie ahead. The name of the film: Youm Hilw…Youm Murr (Sweet Day…Bitter Day), directed by Khairy Bishara.
It took till 1992 for Hamama to act in TV drama, when her role as the principled headmistress Abla Hikmat in the mini series Dhameer Abla Hikmat (Miss Hikmat’s Conscience) earned her wide public acclaim. These were times when Egypt made the full circle from a socialist to a free economy and many of the firmly established Egyptian social norms were shaken. Consumerism rose to alarming levels, and social climbers rose to new heights. Abla Hikmat was the woman who, because of her uncompromising effort to guard her school against unethical practices and compassionately guide her students through a path of honour and integrity, is cruelly targeted by those who wish the school to use another compromising path.
Another TV mini series, Wagh al-Qamar (Face of the Moon), saw Hamama’s last screen appearance in 2000. The mini series criticised many social ills in Egypt and the Middle East, and won the Best TV Series Award in the Egyptian Radio and TV Festival that year. Hamama was awarded the Best TV Actor of the Year.
Honours well earned
During her long career on the screen, Hamama won numerous prizes and awards. She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the American University in Cairo in 1999, and in 2001 was decorated with the al-Arz Medal (Lebanon Cedar) in Lebanon. That same year she was also awarded the Decoration of Competence and Creativity in Morocco.
Hamama was chosen the Star of the Century in the 2001 Alexandria International Film Festival, honouring her lifetime achievement in Egyptian cinema.
The cinema committee of the Supreme Council for Culture chose 18 of Hamama’s 106 films to be among the best 150 films in the history of Egyptian Cinema.
Last May, during a gathering which President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi held with Egypt’s cultural and artistic figureheads, the President left the podium and headed to the table where Hamama sat to greet her. It was one of Hamama’s last public appearances, and the President’s gesture reflected the respect and honour that all Egyptians held for the beloved star.
The last interview Hamama gave to the media was printed in Al-Ahram al-Massa’i the day she died, 17 January 2015. She expressed optimism for the future of Egypt, saying that she cannot conceal the fact that the last few years had given rise to a lot of worry on her part and on the part of most Egyptians on that score. “But now,” Hamama said, “I feel happy about what Egypt has achieved and look forward to a good future. Such great projects as the one taking place in the Suez Canal are very promising.” She said she wished she could visit the site but laughed gently as she added: “It is so cold and my health is not so good”.
Hamama married three times. Her first marriage in 1947 was to director Ezzedin Zulfiqar with whom she had her daughter Nadia. The marriage lasted seven years and ended in divorce.
In 1955, Hamama married Omar al-Sharif with whom she had made several films. He was then a local star, but he later rose to international stardom. They had a son, Tarek. The couple divorced in 1974, but Sharif described her as the only love in his life.
Hamama later married the Egyptian physician Muhammad Abdel-Wahab Mahmoud who survives her together with Nadia Zulfiqar and Tarek Sharif.
Egyptian Culture Minister mourned Hamama, describing her as “an artist who wrote in light an important part of the history of Egyptian cinema”. He declared a two-day halt in all artistic activity and shows in mourning for the Lady of the Arab Screen. She will be forever remembered by the Egyptians whose typical lives she so truthfully depicted.
21 January 2015