The passing of a queen
It is now time for this pen to mourn the passing of a queen. The undertaking of this task is more painful than mortal words can muster. It is nonetheless the duty owed to a noble queen who was at once a legend, a star, a mentor and a friend -- known to us as Sanaa Gamil.
While Egypt was doing away with its monarchy half a century ago, a young and budding actress was taking her first steps in securing a crown of sorts, which she was to wear for many years during her reign as queen of the dramatic arts in every medium she graced with her talent. Both tender and mild, her presence comforting and intimidating, she was a beauty evoking all the softness and fierceness in her adoring subjects.
Defiance was to be an essential element in the life of Soraya Youssef Atallah, born to a modest Coptic family in Southern Egypt. She soon learnt to defy their ultra-conservative views and follow her calling. To them, "acting" was unspeakable, unthinkable, unpardonable, but Soraya harboured such forbidden dreams. She eventually escaped to Cairo, changed her name to Sanaa Gamil, and enrolled in the newly founded School of Acting. On discovering her shameful act, her family disowned her and for the next 50 years her only family were her fans, her friends her puppies, and her Louis.
Bit parts in B pictures soon grew, and her presence in any film left its mark on a growing public. She joined the National Theatre in 1955, and quickly became its shining star. She seized TVs little screen in a variety of roles and made it her own. She moved easily with the grace of a gazelle and the strength of an eagle from medium to medium, from stage to big screen to little screen and back again. No role was too small, no part insignificant. Even minor productions were raised to major status by her presence. Her body magnetism, her spiritual power, her dogged determination pulled you to her, and your eyes remained on her for as long as she willed it. On a recent television interview she reflected on what she believed to be her only asset -- her sincerity. It was indeed her greatest virtue. The Muses had endowed her with the greatest gift of all. She was an artist without artifice. Her elixir was not bottled, not studied, not scripted. Every move, every look, every sigh was instant and instantaneous. There was no exaggeration, no sham, no polish of skill. It was only the naked truth with a touch of genius that pierced our hearts. Amongst the wreckage of life, of treachery and tomfoolery, it is a comfort to know there was one Sanaa Gamil, simple and unadorned, hearty and honest, cultivating wisely and well her generous gifts, her spirited humour, her tilting rhythm, her graceful manner and her gallant nature. John Dryden said of Shakespeare "he was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacle of books to read Nature, he looked inwards and found her there." Had Dryden met Sanaa Gamil he would have said the same of her.
She came into my life only a few short years ago. Having been away from the homeland for decades, I had missed much of the glorious splendour of this great talent. We were introduced by her husband, writer/journalist Louis Greiss, an old chum since our green college days. Her impact on me was immediate, electric and compelling. It was a deep love at first sight, laced with not a small measure of homage and reverence. She became my mother, my daughter, my sister, my mentor my friend. From that moment on my one mission was to seek her works on TV, video, and any recording I could lay my hands on. I laughed till I cried, and then I cried some more. So wide was her range, so grand her presence, so poignant her persona. Like an able pianist she masterfully played every note on the scales. As the haughty aristocrat directing her driver in the hilarious comedy The Lady's Chauffeur, or the ferociously domineering mother sick with revenge in The Unknown. Her pitch was perfect. I chuckled, cheered and clapped, cringed and crouched. There was no emotion she could not evoke in me. Watching her as Nefissa in Bedaya Wa Nehaya (A Beginning and an End) with Omar Sharif (dir. Salah Abu-Seif), I sobbed uncontrollably. No wonder author Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz cried, this was the Nefissa he created now come to life. No wonder the International Jury at the Moscow Film Festival handed her the coveted Best Actress prize in 1961. Then I saw Al-Zawga Al-Thaniya (The Second Wife), also directed by Salah Abu-Seif (1967). The superb Sanaa Gamil as Hafeeza, the infertile, slighted, jealous first wife, whose husband chooses a younger woman, was every woman scorned since Adam met Eve, and "hell hath no fury" as Sanaa Gamil scorned. Like burning coals, the fire in her eyes seared her very soul, destroying her inch by inch. Every woman saw something of herself in Hafeeza. Once and for all The Second Wife established Sanaa Gamil as queen of the silver screen.
She was now queen of every media she chose to reign over. But it was television that reserved for her an iconic tenure as Fadda El-Maadawi in Osama Anwar Okasha's TV serial The White Banner (1998), and "Fadda" and Sanaa became one. Everyone called her Fadda (silver). What she was made of was pure gold.
Her love for her husband Louis never faltered, never failed, neither did his love for her. She was his "North", his "South", his "East and West". But, like a thief in the night, death crept in and snuffed his "Moon", his "Midnight", his "talk", his "song". We "thought that love would last forever"; we were wrong. But "Death be not proud", you have not taken her away! Her blazing flame shines on as brightly in death as it has in life.
The last time I saw her socially was at a large gathering, where she sat quietly, almost subdued, in one of her reflective moods. But when most of the guests had departed, and in the intimacy of a small adoring group, the star began to shine. She seemed to possess powers that surely were supernatural. She proceeded to describe a water puddle and how she had to negotiate its crossing. Twisting and turning, writhing and reeling, she left us totally confounded by the measure of her presence. Some stumbled to the floor unable to control laughter's bodily pain, others trembled with hearty guffaws, holding their sides as tears ran down their faces. All were astounded and amazed at this living, breathing masterpiece of Nature -- for that is what she was!
The last time I saw her privately, she sat in the pale twilight of her hospital room. Her night was approaching, her eyes full of pain and disbelief. I gave her the "thumbs up" sign, urging her to fight and "......rage against the dying of the light". But too soon, she was "struck down by Death's feather". Nature has now taken her child home: Earth receive an honoured guest, Egypt's greatest actress was laid to rest.
Legends however, do not die. Her immeasurable contribution to the arts lives on. Her every role, big or small, was a major piece in her beautiful mosaic of perfection.
A devout Christian, she loved her fellow man. She was neither cynical nor hypocritical, nor could she bear a grudge. Her flaming temper subsided as fast as it had risen. She never fanned the flame. Outrageously honest, she only offended those unaware of the golden heart that beat within her breast. Thinking it better to wear out than rust out, she worked until the very last days of her feeble frailty.
Exceeding sorrow consumes our hearts, which shall grieve on long after the grief is gone. In our grief, we have freely borrowed from the poignant rhymes of English poet W H Auden, who himself mourned so many loved ones. His grief speaks for us all as we call on him again in a final farewell to our departed majesty:
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one:
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods:
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
-- W H Auden