“Mama Noona has passed away,” was the sad news circulating among Egyptians last week. With a heavy heart they mourned the loss of the mother they adored: veteran actress Karima Mukhtar, famous as Mama Noona. Mukhtar died on 12 January 2017, at age 82. Among the hundreds who attended her funeral in Cairo was Culture Minister Helmy al-Namnam, as well as a large number of public figures and figures from the cinema and theatre fields.
Karima Mukhtar was born Attiyat Muhammad al-Badry, the daughter of a middle class family that hailed from the Upper Egyptian capital city of Assiut, 350km south of Cairo. The family had moved to Cairo where Attiyat was born on 16 January 1934 and got her schooling.
Mukhtar possessed a mellow, warm voice that in the early 1950s recommended her for radio programmes. She joined the widely loved “Children’s Corner”, known as the Baba Sharo show, on Radio Cairo and achieved resounding success. This made her aspire for a career in acting, and indeed she was offered the opportunity to act in films, but her conservative family refused that she should make public appearances.
Marriage made in Heaven
In 1958, Mukhtar married the well-known actor and director Nour al-Demerdash (1925 – 1994). It was a marriage made in Heaven; they had four children: Muataz, a TV host; Ahmed, a film director; Sherif, an engineer; and a daughter, Heba.
“I was lucky to know Demerdash, who was a great man,” Mukhtar once said in an interview. “Our thoughts and attitudes were the same; we were both fond of art and culture and our life was based on love and understanding. When he proposed to me, my family approved since he was not only an actor, but had a degree in Political Science.”
Himself a film director, Demerdash helped Mukhtar get into acting. In 1963, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in theatre from the Higher Institute of Drama Arts in Cairo. Her first film role came in the 1964 film Thaman al-Hurriya (Price of Freedom), after which she played in many films, plays and TV dramas. She adopted the stage name of Karima Mukhtar. “The name change was not easy,” she said. “I was being called by a name that was not mine; it sort of made me separated from my real self. My ardent love for acting, however, helped me accept that ‘unreal’ name.” She often thought of how her parents would have accepted her as an actress. She later said: “If my parents were alive, I’m sure they would have been proud of me and of the appreciation and honour I have earned.”
The mother figure
Mukhtar captured Egyptians’ hearts with her spontaneous acting which made her the down-to-earth figure one would expect to meet as a neighbour or round a street corner. Her role as Zeinab, a mother of seven, in the highly successful 1974 film al-Hafeed (The Grandson), earned her popular acclaim. She was mainly tied to motherly characters since her early career and was unable to sway away from that niche despite her skill.
Mukhtr was the kindly mother in the 1974 Amira Hubbi Ana (Amira, My Love); the 1975 Wa Madha Quittaar al-Umr (The Train of Lifetime Has Passed) which earned her the Critics’ Award; the 1981 al-Shaytanu Yaez (The Devil Preaches); and many others. More recently, her role in the 2009 al-Farah (The Wedding) was described by critics as memorable.
Among the several theatre plays Mukhtar featured in was the 1979 comedy al-Eyal Kebret (The Kids Have Grown Up) in which she played the wife who had to deal with a cheating husband while coping with four troublesome children. It cemented her reputation as the ultimate mother character on the Egyptian scene.
On TV, Mukhtar starred in many TV dramas among which was Bardees (1985); al-Bakheel wa Ana (The Miser and I) 1991; and Yetrubba Fi Ezzo (May He Grow Up In His Father’s Fortune), 2007. This last drama warmly endeared her to Egyptians’ hearts as Mama Noona, the typical Egyptian doting mother who continues to spoil her son even when he reaches his fifties. When she dies in the drama, her son Hamada—masterfully played by Yehia al-Fakharani—goes through a poignant phase of denial that simply could not imagine life without her. Egyptians old and young united with Hamada in his grief; Mama Noona was mourned nationwide. And since that day Mukhtar was no longer ‘Karima Mukhtar’ but ‘Mama Noona’.
Persuasive health advocate
Because Mukhtar was forever in Egyptians’ eyes the kind-hearted mother, she was the perfectly choice to play the lead in advertisements that aimed at spreading health awareness. Her demeanour and legendary mellow voice were extremely persuasive and convincing. In the 1980s she was the motherly nurse who advised mothers to directly administer mahloul al-gafaaf, a saline solution, to their little children once they got diarrhoea. This summer disease was rampant in Egypt and harvested many lives, and the little advertisement with Mukhtar’s gentle but urgent advice worked to save thousands of children, according to the Health Ministry. In 2008, Mukhtar received an honorary award from the Health Ministry and UNICEF for her role in an educational documentary on bird-flu.
In 2007, Mukhtar was awarded the best actress award by the 13th Cairo Festival for Arabic Media for her role in Yetrubba Fi Ezzo. That same year, she was given an honorary medal from the Oscar Festival of Egyptian Cinema. She also received an honours award for lifetime achievement during the closing ceremony of the National Theatre Festival in 2010.
Hours after her death, as the clock struck midnight in Cairo, a hashtag was created in her name on Twitter. One tweet: “A real mother has died … Mama Noona.”