Al-Ahram Weekly Online
28 June - 4 July 2001
Issue No.540
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Soad Hosni Soad Hosni Soad Hosni

Before the public gaze

By Mona Anis

Mona AnisThe cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the "spell of the personality," the phony spell of a commodity.
Walter Benjamin

Any obituary of a 20th century icon such as Soad Hosni, my colleagues tell me, should weave the bits of her life, scattered over the media ever since she became fair game for the public gaze, into a meaningful whole that might account for the final tragic act, the actress's suicide in London last week.

In a desperate attempt to take stock of a tumultuous life in a small space I pore over newspaper archives, recalling things I must have already known since the day I learned to read (which was probably around the same time Soad Hosni was making her screen debut in 1959) for I have been an avid reader of gossip.

Reading and rereading the material at hand, searching desperately for a solution to the apparent contradiction of placing the life of a person who spent the past ten years trying to escape public attention under a microscope, the idea of Soad's suicide as a means of escaping the public gaze suddenly hits me. I turn to Walter Benjamin, one of the 20th century's greatest culture critics, and read: "The feeling of strangeness that overcomes the actor before the camera is basically of the same kind as the estrangement felt before one's own image in the mirror. But now the reflected image has become separable, transportable. And where is it transported? Before the public."

So was the sense of estrangement from which many of those who knew Soad Hosni say she had always suffered enhanced by the double estrangement inherent in filmmaking?

There must be something of that, I tell myself. But then the majority of movie stars do adapt -- albeit with some bruises -- to this aspect of their profession without being pushed to the edge. So I turn again to her personal history to look for signs.

Mona Anis With Abdel Halim Hafez in Al-Banat wal-Sayf
Soad Hosni was born into an artistic family. Her father, one of the best calligraphers in modern Arabic, was quick to recognise the talents of his young children and pushed them onto the public stage when they were still very young. Nagat El-Saghira, Soad's sister, was a great success when, before she had reached the age of ten, she started singing in the early 1940s. The money Nagat made, it is rumoured, led to her father feeding her vinegar to maintain her childlike appearance.

Soad joined the Hosni troupe when she was three, though unlike Nagat, who by the 1950s had become a famous singer, she did not continue. As a young teenager Soad lived briefly with Nagat, but by the time Abdel-Rahman El-Khamisi discovered her at the age of 15 she was living with her mother, by then divorced from her father, and her stepfather.

El-Khamisi had originally wanted Soad to play Ophelia in a production of Hamlet for the theatrical troupe he directed. At the time of their meeting he was writing the script for a film, to be directed by Barakat, based on the folk story of the love of Hassan, a troubadour, and Na'ima, the daughter of a village notable who would rather kill his daughter than marry her to a maghannawati (singer). El-Khamisi persuaded Barakat to test Soad for the role of Na'ima. And the rest is history.

The film was released in 1959. By the end of 1961 she had starred in ten more films. Three decades later she had made a phenomenal 83 films and survived at least five marriages, but had no children. "How could I have children when I am myself a child," she was reported as saying in one of the rare interviews she gave in the early 1990s.

Following the success of Hassan wa Na'ima Soad was introduced to Abdel-Halim Hafez, who promised her the leading role opposite him in Al-Banat wa Al-Sayf (Girls and Summer). On the first day of shooting, however, roles were changed and she ended up playing Halim's sister -- she never played opposite him again. But off screen their relationship became a fixture of the gossip columns throughout most of the 1960s. At the time both denied rumours that they were married, though in 1993 Hosni gave an interview published in Sabbah El-Kheir in which she said she had been secretly married to Halim for six years. Halim, the dream of every teenager by the time Soad shot to stardom, was 15 years older than her. He died in 1977 at the age of 48. Soad, aged 58, committed suicide on 21 June, Halim's birthday, a decade after she had withdrawn from public life.

Watch out for Zouzou, released in 1972, is the biggest box- office hit in Egyptian cinema to date, and Soad Hosni's most famous role. Zouzou is a university student who helps her mother, a retired belly dancer, make ends meet by dancing at baladi weddings, something she is keen to hide from her fellow students. The backdrop to this melodrama is Cairo University campus in the early 1970s, split into two opposing camps, one liberal, the other composed of hotheaded zealots who rant about morality. Because of Zouzou's exuberance and excellence, the liberals love her and elect her Ideal Student, while mini skirts and hot pants earn her the enmity of the zealots. When the double life she is leading is exposed and her picture belly dancing is fly-posted around the campus the polarisation intensifies and is resolved by a public debate in which Zouzou gives a fiery speech about having committed no sin other than that of being a belly dancer's daughter.

Last week newspapers reported that the answering service on her cellular phone in London -- still operating immediately after her death -- replied: "This is Zouzou, leave your name and I will get back to you soon."

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