When I contemplate the life and times of the scintillating Egyptian actress Karima Mokhtar, I inevitably reminisce about an entire genre unique to North African, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures. Yes, we see her cast in female stereotypes. Mokhtar played roles reminiscent of an archetypal Indian or Egyptian woman who sacrifices her all for her beloved family. Radha, played by Nargis, the legendary Indian movie star, was the “Mother of the Village”. So what was Mokhtar’s aesthetic? Radha’s kangan (marriage bracelets) were stolen by close relatives, but her perseverance preserved the village’s peace. So Mokhtar was “Mother of Egypt”, “Mama Nona” as she was fondly called by her fans.
Mother India was set in 1957, and written, produced and directed by Mahboob Khan. Mokhtar, in much the same manner as Narjis, was the self-effacing Egyptian woman who reflected high moral values and the concept of what it means to be a mother to her society through self-sacrifice and resilience.
Propriety often courts disrespect, and familiarity breeds contempt. Yet, regardless of what sceptics presumed, that Mokhtar’s roles were a caricature of womanhood designed to entrench a patriarchal society, she forced her detractors to respect the role of the bestowing mother, whose endless supply of tenderness and magnanimity won the day. In short, Mokhtar won the allegiance of the masses.
Rearing children through hardship metamorphosed into the rubric of Oriental societies. Just as with Mother India, “Mama Nona” became a definitive cultural classic. Khan was inspired by American author Pearl Buck, who lived with her Christian missionary parents in China, between and just after the two World Wars. It was a time of social upheaval, and the women of substance kept the country going. Mokhar could have been a character from Buck’s The Good Earth (1931) or The Mother (1934). The quintessential self-sacrificial mother who denies her desires for the duty or for the good of her family and her community. It was hoped that “Mama Nona” would have a tremendous cultural knock-on effect. After all, she personified what images the word mother conjures up in a socially conservative country.
Self-defacing and the well-earned joy of femininity and motherhood, the debate about feminism versus the traditional female stereotype was enshrined in Mokhtar’s benevolence. “Mama Nona” was no fringe troll with a tonne of followers. Born in the provincial city of Assiut, Upper Egypt, on 16 January 1934, she starred in popular films, plays and TV dramas. She exuded magnanimity.
The national personification of motherhood as exquisitely delivered by Mama Nona depicts a selfless goddess since time immemorial in Egypt. Isis, to this day “Isset” or “The Lady”, was a goddess from the polytheistic pantheon of ancient Egypt, but the memory of her as mother and wife survives to this day. Isis was worshipped as the ideal mother and wife and her headgear was the throne. She was the patroness of the poor, the sinners and the downtrodden.
The popular motif of Isis suckling her son Horus, however, survived down the ages in a Christianised context as the popular image of the Virgin Mary suckling her infant son Jesus Christ.
Mokhtar in a monotheistic mindset was the very essence of Isis. Her career in entertainment kicked off in the 1950s on the popular Egyptian children’s radio show Baba Sharu, and soon metamorphosed into an iconic on-screen mother figure. This goes to the heart of the contemporary debate about feminism and women’s rights. Is irresponsible freedom now the mainstream?
Mokhtar’s debut on the big screen came in the film Thaman Al-Horeya (The Price of Freedom, 1963).
Her real name was Attiyat Mohamed Al-Badry and she earned a bachelor’s degree in theatre in 1963 from the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts.
Shock jocks such as her sister Neamat, regarded as the very nemesis of “Mama Nona”, represent a sharply contrasting concept of womanhood. Her sister Neamat Mokhtar was one of Egypt’s most illustrious professional dancers. She was more famous for being infamous.
“Mama Nona” would never dance before strangers. And, the classic play El-Eyal Kebret (The Kids Have Grown Up, 1979), presents something of a conundrum. After mother comes grandmother, equally magnanimous.
Her son Moataz Al-Demerdash is a media superstar, a popular television presenter and director. His siblings are professionals in fields as far apart as engineering and design. Her husband Nour Al-Demerdash (1925-1994) was a distinguished actor who starred with his wife in the film Zeinab. He watched her depict the role of a mother of seven, in the highly acclaimed and successful film Al-Hafeed (The Grandson, 1974).
Mokhtar was also a memorable permanent fixture in Egyptian classic soap operas such as Yetrraba Fi Ezzo (May He Grow Up Prosperous, 2007), a common Egyptian proverb that reinforces the stereotype of the male as the breadwinner and the female as the homemaker.
She carved a niche in Egyptian cinema at a time when Egypt was embroiled in wars with Israel and policymakers were desperately searching for a meaningful role for women to play in an era of social upheaval, turmoil and tragedy. “Mama Nona” created hard work as a recurring theme in soap operas and the theatre as the devoted mother and wife such as her performance in Al-Mustaheel (The Impossible).
At a certain age in life, one instinctively knows that time is fast running out. Wa Mada Qitar Al-Umr (The Train of Life Has Passed) is the very embodiment of such emotions, and Mokhtar played her part to perfection.
Mokhtar knew how to move with the times. When she could no longer play the role of the betrayed innocent young wife, she revelled in more mature mother roles and her interpretations were rich in nuance.
She refused to be cast in a tragedy and wear her doom like corsage. She had a tendency to be buxom, and her plump physique was an integral part of her charisma. On stage she performed the highly acclaimed Al-Ard (The Earth), and back to Pearl Buck.
She never pined in vain for the grand manners of an aristocratic lady. She was the tender and conscientious partner, but never humdrum or mundane. Television series such as Resalat Al-Samaa (The Message of the Heavens) was considered a masterpiece. Her hallmark was refining the relationship to the male gender or patriarchal social structures with feminine grace and finesse.
And Al-Shaytan Yaez (The Devil Preaches, 1981) was an entirely different saucy subject. Mokhtar was idealised by her compatriots as the chaste and innocent bride, the benevolent mother, and in a patriarchal society, the producer of sons. She was portrayed as the stoical and long-suffering “Mother Egypt”, the redemptive female who was conservatively wedded to the maintenance of the social status quo, and in particular at a time of unsettling social upheaval.
Karima Mokhtar is survived by three sons and one daughter, Ahmed, Sherif and Moataz as well as Heba Al-Demerdash.