Her name, Shadia, is literal for ‘Singing sweetly’. And sing sweetly she did! Her voice was melodious, engaging, lively and vivacious yet fully capable of tragic, earnest overtones. Her voice lent itself smoothly to expressions that ranged from the playful and romantic to the tragic or patriotic.
Yes, Shadia was an iconic, vibrant, charming figure! She carved for herself a distinct niche in the singing and acting fields during Egypt’s golden age of song and film in the 1950s to the 1980s. Throughout a 40-year career, her good looks and sweet voice endeared her to the public, even as her spontaneity and openness made one feel she was that beautiful girl next door.
Pretty young woman
Shadia was born Fatma Ahmed Shaker in February 1934, daughter of an irrigation engineer whose work took to the rural area of Inshass, east of the Nile Delta, but who finally settled down with his family in the Cairo middle class district of Shubra. As she grew up, a friend of the family quickly spotted Fatma’s warm, sweet voice and advised Mr Shaker to educate her on music and singing. The father promptly followed that advice. Fatma’s older sister Afaf Shaker was then an actress, and Mr Shaker had good connections to the circles of film and show business in Cairo.
In 1949, when Fatma was not yet 16, an advertisement for a contest to choose new faces to act in films caught Mr Shaker’s attention, The advertisement had been published by a company that belonged to producer Helmy Rafla and cameraman Abdel-Halim Nasr. The father realised his daughter had good potential, and he took her and went to meet the advertisers. Mr Rafla and director Ahmed Badrakhan were taken with the young beauty and her melodious voice; they immediately employed her, giving her the screen name ‘Shadia’.
Shadia began her career in film with light-hearted social comedy productions in which she played the cheerful, pretty young woman who captivated hearts. Her films were peppered with bright songs that showed off her voice at its best. Her songs became instant hits, and the public came to adore her.
During the 1950s Shadia co-starred with Faten Hamama, the beautiful, smart, able actress who was then the leading female figure in Egyptian cinema. Shadia and Faten formed a charming duet, unbeatable to this day. Perhaps their best-loved film is earnestly romantic Maweid maal-Hayat (A Date with Life).
In the 1960s, Shadia matured to more serious roles. She played women caught in life’s conflicts, sometimes with drastic consequences. In al-Mar’a al-Maghoula (The Unknown Woman) she is the mother forced to remain in the dark, unknown to her only son, on account of a crime she was cornered into committing and for which she spent time in prison. To spare him the shame of having a criminal mother she stays away but poignantly watches from afar as he grows up. She sees him a successful young man courting a beautiful young lady, and cannot resist standing, incognito, in the dark of the night, at the hedge of the garden where his wedding is taking place, to have a glimpse of him and his bride. Egyptian audiences to this day weep with heartbreak at the scene.
In 1965, Shadia played the lead role in Aghla min Hayati (More Precious than My Life), the role of the woman forced by unseen circumstances to separate from the man she loves, only to meet him years later as a successful career man with a family, but hungry for the love he never met since he left her. They marry, but she has to live in the shadow till he dies. The man who played the leading role before her was Salah Zulfiqar; the filming was in some of Egypt’s most serenely beautiful spots: the turquoise waters and white sands of Marsa Matrouh and the Botanical Gardens in Aswan. The romance turned into reality; Shadia and Zulfiqar fell madly in love and married once filming was over. Sadly, however, the marriage broke in 1973 with Shadia falling into depression after having miscarried three babies. Her dream of motherhood was dashed; she lived and died childless.
Marriages … and films
Throughout Shadia’s marriage with Zulfiqar they co-starred in a number of films which remain landmarks in Egyptian cinema. In addition, Zulfiqar produced a film in which Shadia played the leading role, Shai’un min al-Khouf (A Bit of Fear), which depicts the conflict between the down-trodden working peasant class and the powerful, tyrannical ‘masters’ class, and how women were caught in, and exploited, in that conflict. The film was, and still is, hailed as an all-time masterpiece.
Her marriage to Zulfiqar was her third and last. Early on she had married Aziz Fathy who was an engineer but they divorced. In 1953 she married the film star and heartthrob Emad Hamdy; the marriage lasted three years. Together, they starred in a number of memorable films including La Tathkureeni (Do not Remember Me) and Aqwa min al-Hubb (Stronger than Love). Even after they were no longer man and wife they starred together as in the 1969 Miramar, a film adapted from a novel by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz.
All in all, Shadia starred in 117 films, 10 radio serial dramas, and one theatre play in which she personified one of the notorious serial killer duo, Raya and Skeena, who lived in Alexandria in the 1920s and whose names brought shivers down spines.
Shadia is equally well-remembered for her songs. Besides the songs she sang in film, she released hundreds of singles that live on to this day. During the early years in her career she sang romantic playful lyrics to loveable tunes. Her Ya Diblet al-Khutouba (Engagement Ring) continues to be played and dreamily danced to during engagement parties and events; its “we’ll build our love nest bit by bit” resonates with the romance of love that promises to go on to marriage.
That same voice later sang Ya Habibti ya Masr (Egypt my beloved) in which she sings: “He never saw the Nile gently embraced by the trees … Neither did he hear ballads on moonlit nights … Because he never passed by Egypt”. The widely loved song is routinely broadcast on radio and TV today on national occasions.
At the age of 50, after playing in Raya w Skeena on stage, Shadia was diagnosed with breast cancer. She went to the US for a mastectomy and treatment, returned to star in her final film La Tas’aluni Man Ana (Don’t Ask Me Who I Am), then abruptly announced she was ‘retiring’. Many believe it was because of her illness; she later donated her lavish flat for cancer research. Shadia made the Hajj pilgrimage, donned the higab, and graciously walked away from public life.
During her recent last illness, she was visited in hospital by President and Mrs Sisi.
Shadia died on 28 November 2017.
Mourned by Egyptians
Shadia was feelingly mourned by Egyptians of all ages. Young and old remembered her with love and sang her praises, insisting she was one a kind who would never find an equal.
Words of tribute to Shadia were splashed over social media, especially recalling the credit she was given by the topmost diva of all times in the Arab World, the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthoum (1898 – 1975) who said: “Shadia has a beautiful, bright, well-balanced voice that overflows with tenderness.”
Naguib Mahfouz (1911 – 2006), whose fictional characters Shadia had more than once portrayed, said: “Shadia is a top-quality actress who managed to give the prose of my novels body, blood and a distinctive form.” Two of Shadia’s memorable roles were that of a prostitute in Al-Liss wal-Kilaab (The Thief and the Dogs), 1962; and the rebellious Hameeda in Zuqaq al-Midaq (Midaq Alley), 1963.
A recent photo of a smiling, white-haired Shadia went viral on social media. It brought on criticism from many bloggers who believed that her privacy should have been respected and it was a disgrace to post her as an old woman with lines on her face and uncovered hair [since she had publicly been in higab]. But many others disagreed and endearingly insisted she had lost none of her legendary beauty and that her face radiated peace and tenderness.
“She is as beautiful in her old age as she was when young,” was a common comment.
“Her smile is spontaneous and genuine; it makes you smile,” a young man remarked. “Beautiful and strong till her last day. May God rest her soul in peace”.
6 December 2017