Egyptian Movie Icon Faten Hamama’s Extraordinary Life and Career

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A handout picture taken in 1966 and made available by the Middle East News Agency (MENA) on January 18, 2015 showsEgyptian actress Faten Hamama (R) and her husband Egyptian born actor Omar Sharif in Cairo, Egypt. Hamama passed away on January 17, 2015 at the age of 83. AFP/MENA

By: Alaa al-Shafii

Published Monday, January 19, 2015

News of Egyptian movie star Faten Hamama’s death (May 27, 1931 - January 17, 2015) shocked the public as though a strand of rare pearls broke before our very eyes. She was an icon of femininity, beauty and romance in Egyptian and Arabic cinema. Her death fell like a thunderbolt upon members of the art community who had just gathered on Saturday to offer their condolences for the passing of the famous producer Muhammad Hassan Ramzy.

Cairo — As news of Hamama’s passing began to filter in, the mourning scene looked as if from a movie. Some were in denial, others were on their cell phones trying to confirm the news, especially that the acclaimed actress was getting ready to take part in the silver jubilee of her favorite author, Ihsan Abdel Quddous, organized yesterday at the Rose al-Youssef Foundation. The celebration included an exhibit of posters for films she had starred in that were based on the late author’s novels.

Faten Hamama, or “lady of the Arab screen” or “face of the moon,” as she was endearingly known passed away quietly and calmly. She had been carrying on with her life normally. On Saturday, after having lunch, she told her husband Mohammed Abdel Wahhab: “I am going in to rest for a little bit,” according to her niece Nadine Hamama. Alas, she never woke up.

Her unexpected death was upsetting to all those who knew her. Her daughter Nadia from her first marriage to director Izzedine Zulficar and her son Tarek from her second marriage to film star Omar Sharif were in Europe. They arranged to return quickly to attend the funeral.

Eighty-three-year-old Hamama, who had made her screen debut as a delightful seven-year-old, quietly bid her final farewell. She had told loved ones not to have a wake for her because she did not want to inconvenience anyone.

The career of that innocent child with the enchanting smile and distinctive laugh spanned several decades. It all began when she won a children’s beauty pageant in Egypt. A liberal man, her father sent her picture to director Mohammed Karim who was looking for a child to act alongside actor and legendary musician Mohammed Abdel Wahab in a movie called “Yawm Said” (Happy Day) in 1940. Faten, who played the role of a little girl named Anisa, dazzled everyone on the set — not least of all the “musician of the generations” Abdel Wahab himself — stealing the show from established stars.

The director quickly signed a contract with Hamama’s father to ensure her participation in future projects. After four years, he hired her again to act in another movie with Abdel Wahab called “Rasasa fil Qalb” (A Bullet to the Heart) in 1944. With her third film “Dunya” (World) in 1946 she was able to establish a foothold in Egyptian cinema. Believing in her talent and in an attempt to encourage the rising star, her family moved from the city of Mansoura in the Dakahlia governorate (in the heart of Egypt’s Nile Delta) to Cairo where Faten Hamama attended the High Institute of Acting.

After several movies, actor and director Youssef Wahbi, who realized that a major talent lies behind her innocent face, hired her to play the role of his daughter in a movie called “Malak al-Rahma” (Angel of Mercy) in 1946. This movie ushered her career into a new phase characterized by melodrama. She was only 15 years old at the time and critics and directors began to take note. She acted again with Wahbi in “Kursi al-Itiraf” (The Confession Chair) in 1949. That same year, she starred in “al-Yatimatain” (The Two Orphans) and “Sitt al-Bayt” (Lady of the House). Both were box-office hits, turning her into one of Egypt’s leading actresses. Nevertheless, directors and producers type-cast her in the role of the innocent and gentle girl, always downtrodden and victimized.

Hamama’s star shone even more brightly in the 1950s, the Egyptian cinema’s golden age. This era witnessed new cinematic waves characterized by realism. The realist genre became dominant and one of its leading figures was director Salah Abu Seif. Hamama was smart enough to notice this transformation. She realized that she needed to evolve as an actress and diversify her roles. This was made possible by her relationships and friendship with the major cultural figures of the time, writers, thinkers and so on. She was an avid reader and a lover of literature. She recognized the changes that Egypt was going through politically and therefore artistically. That is why she worked with Abu Seif and starred in “Lak Youm Ya Zalem” (Your Day will Come) in 1952, considered one of the first films in the realist genre. It was screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

Afterwards Hamama worked with director Youssef Chahine (1926 - 2008) who was starting out at the time. She was not intimidated by the fact that the film “Baba Amin” (Amin, my Father) — which received a lot of critical acclaim — was his first feature film. She worked with him again in the film “Siraa fil Wadi” (Struggle in the Valley) in 1954 which was a strong contender at the Cannes Film Festival. Hamama also starred in Kamal al-Sheikh’s first movie, “Manzel Raqam 13” (House Number 13) in 1952, considered one of the very first Egyptian thrillers. She received the best actress award from the Ministry of National Guidance for her role in the political movie “La Waqt lil Hob” (No Time for Love) in 1963.

The dramatic shift in her career came when she played Nadia, the protagonist in the novel “La Anam” (Sleepless) in 1957 written by Ihsan Abdel Quddous. Nadia was a girl driven by conflicting feelings and overcome by a frantic desire to harm everyone around her. The actress was preparing her audience for this transformation which she had been working diligently for in her career. She believed literature was her main resource in presenting a different kind of cinema. She acted in many films based on Abdel Quddous’ novels such “La Totfi’ al Shams” (Don’t Turn off the Sun) directed by Abu Seif, “Imbratoriat Mim” (M’s Empire), “Sleepless”, “al-Tariq al-Masdoud” (Blocked Road), “al-Khait al-Rafi” (The Thin Line) and others. Abdel Quddous said about Hamama that “she is one the actresses who excelled at playing the characters in my stories. She was able to embody my imagination when she played Nadia in the film ‘Sleepless’ and Faiza in the film the ‘Blocked Road.’ I remember I went one day with Youssef al-Sibai to the studio during the filming of ‘Sleepless.’ We stood there stunned as we watched Faten Hamama. She looked like the real protagonist of the story I wrote.”

With her success and her rebellion in terms of the characters she portrayed, she wanted to leave behind the themes and the stereotypical characters she played early on in her career with directors like Karim, Hassan Imam and Zulfacar. The romantic genre that made her one of the most prominent icons of beauty and romance in Egyptian and Arab cinema and turned her into a role model representing the image of the idealized woman with her slender body, gentle features and clear eyes. But she had enough artistic and social intelligence to recognize the changes that Egyptian society was going through, changes that would be reflected in the public itself. That is why she played characteristic roles that stood out in her career.

She continued her rebellion in other films such as Taha Hussein’s masterpiece “Duaa al-Karawan” (The Nightingale’s Prayer) in 1959 through the complex character of Amna who is both innocent and seductive and who wants to avenge her sister Hanadi’s killing. The role marked another milestone for Hamama who surprised her audience when she played an unforgettable tantalizing scene where she stands in the male protagonist's (the engineer) room. He is trying to pull her towards him but she resists and replies coquettishly “no no sir, no no sir” and runs away from him. It is one of the few sultry scenes that the legendary actress played in her career. She did so, however, feeling confident about the result and her confidence stemmed from her trust in the creative director Henri Barakat.

Hamama did not only play Amna, the dramatically complex country girl, she also played Aziza in the film “al-Haram” (The Sin) in 1965 based on a novel by Yusuf Idriss. Aziza is an oppressed peasant suffering injustices on so many levels with an impotent husband incapacitated by illness. A destitute wife, she commits a “sin” and bears a child but she does not have the luxury of keeping the baby, so she kills him and throws him in one of the farms. Again, Hamama excelled at playing one of the hardest scenes in the film, giving birth to her baby. She portrayed the suffering of a woman who has committed “sin” without screaming out of fear of exposing her secret and scandalizing herself.

Nemat in “Afwah wa Araneb” (Mouths and Rabbits) in 1977 directed by Barakat is another character played by Hamama that subverted stereotypical and traditional images. She gave a brilliant performance working with the director whom she considered her life-long companion and whose work she trusted completely.

In addition to the political and social films she starred in, she did not hesitate early on in her career to star in comedies with director Fatin Abdel Wahab in for example, “Mrs. Fatima” in 1952. But the most controversial role was in the “Fine Line” in 1971, directed also by Barakat and starring Mahmoud Yassin. In this movie, she plays the role of Mouna, a woman who goes out with the man who offers her more, until she meets a young engineer. She falls in love with him and leaves everything for his sake. She helps him in his career until he succeeds professionally. However, when he thinks about settling down like most eastern men, he will choose a wife that society accepts. She yells at him and calls him a bastard as she tears his clothes after he leaves her and marries another.

Hamama continued to make great artistic choices and give brilliant performances with new directors, including the late Said Marzouk who directed her in one of her most beautiful roles in the film “Urid Hallan” (I Want a Solution) in 1975. It led to an amendment of some personal status laws, specifically ones related to women who do not have children. When divorced by their husbands, they do not have the right to keep the house. She also played fearlessly the role of a widow raising her children on her own despite her difficult circumstances in “Youm Mur wa Youm Hilw” (Sweet Day, Bitter Day) in 1988. This film was directed by Khairy Beshara, a young director who was a prominent figure in the new realist movement. She also starred with Yehia al-Fakhrani in the film “Ard al-Ahlam” (Land of Dreams) in 1993 directed by Daoud Abdel Sayed.

Faten Hamama was not just a star in the world of art and an icon of beauty and femininity. She was a unique and unparalleled woman in the history of cinema who was able to change the image of the Arab woman and her stereotypical portrayal.

Omar Sharif did not get to see the “only love of his life”

Faten did not give Omar Sharif a chance to see the woman he considered the only love of his life despite their divorce. The international star who decided to settle down in Cairo, pointed out that his only wish after his return to the Egyptian capital was to see Faten Hamama. “I wish I could talk to her and see her. I still love her and we are on friendly terms. We have a cordial relationship and a long-time companionship. We made so many movies together and I always say, everything is in the hands of fate.”

Their love story was like a romantic fairytale. Hamama was the reason Sharif became an actor. After she refused to star with Shukri Serhan in the film “Struggle in the Valley,” the director offered the role to his colleague Sharif who agreed. It was known that Hamama refused to kiss on screen. However, she broke the rule for the first time with Sharif. They fell in love and got married in 1955. Their marriage lasted until 1974 and they had a son named Tarek.

Together they starred in many films that became classics of the Egyptian cinema, films that have lived on. Their films together are considered some of the best and most romantic movies in the history of Egyptian cinema, the Hollywood of the Middle East. Perhaps their most famous films are “Nahr al-Hob” (River of Love), based on Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”, “Sayidat al-Qasr” (Lady of the Palace) and “Ayyamna al-Holwa” (Our Beautiful Days).

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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