Sunday,24 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)
Sunday,24 February, 2019
Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

‘The lady vanishes’

We still refuse to believe that the “Lady” is no more.  “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.”

That lovely vision has graced our lives for — it seems —forever.  She was an integral part of the history of Egyptian cinema and of Egypt for over 7 decades, how can she be no more?

Though frail and ailing, the gasp that was heard throughout the land at the announcement of her passing left the air breathless.  The bright sun tried to hide in shame, the dreary cold winter suddenly got colder the pale, blue sky grew paler and the dry bare trees seemed barer.  Everything lost its luster.  Our little grey dove had vanished.

Since early childhood in 1938, she lit up the screen with her radiant smile and immense talent.  Appearing with the mega-star of the art world, singer/composer/actor Mohamed Abdel-Wahab in his film Youm Said (Happy Day) directed by the prominent film pioneer Mohamed Karim, she stole every scene she appeared in and stole our hearts as well.

Faten Hamama was her name.  She never disappointed us, never let us down, and never abandoned her public or her art.  Faten was not unique in looks, manners or performance.  It is hard to decipher the secret of the public’s adoration for her.  There were others—many others. Some were more prolific, more beautiful, more versatile, but they lacked that special gift, that special ’je ne sais quoi’, that magic spell that was hers alone.  It was a gift she gave us…. a gift we cherished and returned with love, loyalty and reverence for the dearest face on the Egyptian screen, the darling of the Arab world.

Just a simple Egyptian girl of a lower-middle class family from Al-Mansoura, she grew up before our very eyes, from child to teenager to young woman to enlightened maturity.  Seven decades is a long time to become attached and devoted to one so dear and near.  Could she really be gone? “The stars are not wanted now, put out everyone. Pick up the moon and dismantle the sun.”

Even as a child, the best in show-business sought the sylphlike progeny. Youssef Wahbi, ‘Dean of the Theatre’ featured her in many of his films, so did the Prince Charming of the era Anwar Wagdi.  Bright and astute she learned her craft but never imitated them. Instead she gathered all their assets and formed her own screen-persona and stuck to her successful formula throughout her long- almost-100 film- career.  Whenever she tried to deviate, her public let her know it.

Whether she portrayed a helpless, penniless girl, an independent, emancipated woman or an in innocent, ignorant peasant Faten Hamama was penetrable.  The costume, the dialects, the locations may change but she remained true to herself and true to her public.

Her movies chronicled the development of modern Egypt, reflecting the social and political mood of the country.  Her choice of subject-matter was impeccable as was her choice of directors. Though she may have worked with almost every director, she had her favourites.  It was in a Youssef Chahine film, “Sera’a fil Nil” (Struggle on the Nile), 1954 that she met and fell in love with new-comer Omar Sharif.  They were married a year later and became a popular romantic couple on and off screen for many years.  When Omar pursued an international career, during the 60s, their separation took its toll.  They were divorced in 1974. Her third husband was prominent physician Mohammed Abdel Wahab who outlives her.

Her favourite directors were her first husband, the sentimental Ezzeddin Zulficar and the worldly Henri Barakat.  Barakat brought out the best in her. A perfect duo, they mirrored our dreams and the dreams of Egypt.

As she matured she chose to fight fiercely for women’s rights, so shattered by a dominant male. Though modest and kind she could stand firmly against hostile forces as she did in several films. Together with screen-writer Hosn Shah she was substantially effective in changing the country’s divorce laws of women trapped in a bad marriage, through their screen presentation of Oreedo Hallan (I need a solution). 

Her public esteem was well-earned as she maintained an almost virginal modesty and shameless decency. While others wallowed in brazen vulgarity, she strongly resisted it, continuing to select vehicles that reflected a pure and tasteful artistic sense.

Though absent from the screen for decades, she made her voice heard during the years of Egypt’s turmoil and torment during the MB rule.

An aura of gentility dominated her screen persona.  She understood and relayed the tragic nature of middle-class life.  With eyes always mournful she expressed the melancholy of a nation and a people who love to laugh as tears roll down their cheeks.

Showered with tributes and honours from the Arab world and beyond, you would be hard-pressed to find any one of any age who is not aware of the significance of her contributions.

To wake up in Egypt and learn that Faten Hamama is no longer with us is akin to discovering that the Pyramids have vanished.

 But the pyramids are still there so is the gentle smile, the tears, the laughter and the faultless portrayals of Mother Egypt by the inimitable Faten Hamama, preserved forever on film, to radiate the lives of Egyptians for generations to come.

“Silence the pianos and with muffled drum, Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come”

W.H. Auden   ( 1907-1973)              


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