Sunday,24 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)
Sunday,24 February, 2019
Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Legend of a diva

Obituary: Shadia (1931-2017)

Al-Ahram Weekly

With great sorrow Egypt has been mourning the iconic actress and singer Shadia since she passed away on Tuesday evening in Cairo. Her real name was Fatma Ahmed Kamal Shaker, but she is known by the stage name filmmaker Helmy Rafla gave her. “I have always loved my work. I worked day and night for 40 years. If I was not shooting a film I was recording or singing for the radio, and in the end I stood on stage. Those were the best years of my life.” So she had told journalist and TV presenter Hala Sarhan during an interview published in Al-Ahram Weekly in November 1994.

Shadia made her first appearance in the film Al-Aql fi Agaza (The Mind is on Vacation), and her days of glory were in the 1950s and 1960s. She worked with a huge number of film directors and acted in different genres of cinema during which she also shone as a delightful singer, often performing songs in the course of her film roles on screen. She perfomed opposite Kamal Al-Shinawi, Farid Al-Atrash, Abdel-Halim Hafez and – in the unforgettable comedy Al-Zoga Raqam 13 (Wife Number 13), directed by Fatin Abdel-Wahab in 1962 – Roushdy Abaza.


Among her most popular roles was that of Fouada, an Upper Egyptian girl who is forced against her will to marry the village strongman in Shaie Min Al-Khawf (A Taste of Fear, 1969), based on Tharwat Abaza’s political allegory, adapted for the screen by screenwriter Sabry Ezzat. Banned by the censors, the film was screened after a direct order from President Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

A Taste of Fear

Shadia’s song Ya Habibti Ya Masr (Egypt, My Love) has had a place in all Egyptian football matches for decades. The song was written by Mohamed Hamza and composed by Baligh Hamdi in 1970; it was a gesture of rebellion against the atmosphere of despair reigning since the 1967 defeat. The next day it was recorded by the Egyptian Radio and, almost 40 years on, it became the mantra of the January Revolution, played over and over during the 18 day sit-in at Tahrir Square as it made a strong impact on all who called for an end to Mubarak’s corrupt regime.

“At that time my father accompanied me to the studio. If he was busy my mother would go with me, a pattern that continued until I got married. I had always loved acting and singing. I adored Laila Mourad and would listen to her songs for hours on end, then try to imitate her,” Shadia told Al-Ahram Weekly.

From the very beginning of her career she was perceived as a role model. The flirtatious, happy-go-lucky girl, full of life, and the delicate, starry-eyed, self-sacrificing romantics she played attracted a generation of Egyptian and Arab girls. She has a kind face and the most radiant of smiles. In short, she was the perfect girl-next-door. No matter what role she portrayed, no matter how frivolous her characters appeared, the abiding image she projected was of a person you could trust.

Raya and Sakina

She appeared with Faten Hamama in the film Maweed Maa Al-Haya (An Appointment with Life, 1954) directed by Ezzedine Zulfaqar and later in Maaboudet Al-Gamaher (People’s Idol, 1967), directed by Helmi Rafla. And she played a range of characters besides, starring in comedy films especially. At the beginning of her career there were attempts to stereotype her, to cast her in the same frivolous roles over and over. But she rebelled. She knew her own mind, and it was set on becoming a serious actress. The result was a series of seminal performances in films that have become landmarks.

Not only were most of these films blockbusters, many also had a progressive message hidden within their story lines. In Fatin Abdel-Wahab’s social comedy Merati Mudir Aam (My Wife Is a General Manager, 1966), Shadia played the role of a decent wife who by coincidence was appointed general manager at the construction company in which her husband headed the architecture department. The irony this situation generates could be interpreted as sexist, but the film ends on a very progressive note as the husband bows to his wife’s ability to lead a company.

My Wife Is a General Manager

“I adore Naguib Mahfouz. When I was acting, I read far more than I do now. I had to. Miramar, Al-Tariq (The Path) and Zuqaq Al-Midaq (Midaq Alley). His stories make me feel, I exist. When I was acting in them I felt I was doing something significant for my country. I am pleased with these films. There is also Al-Mar’a Al-Maghoula (The Unknown Woman). It was an important step in my career. Also the films I made with Kamal Al-Shennawi. We worked together for a long time, and the films have become a vehicle for many people to relive their own memories. I also liked my last picture, La Tas’alni Man Ana (Ask Not Who I Am), perhaps because it was my finale,” Shadia said.

In the melodrama Al-Maraa Al-Maghoula (The Unknown Woman, 1959), directed by Mahmoud Zulficar, she played the role of Fatma, who faces a series of tragedies and injustices, commits murder, and is defended in court by her estranged son. She also played the good-hearted seductress who takes in a fugitive in The Thief and the Dogs (Kamal E1-Sheikh, 1962).

Midaq Alley

In 1983 Shadia made an unforgettable appearance on stage for the first and the last time in Raya wi Sakina (Raya and Sakina) starring opposite the theatre icon Abdel-Moneim Madbouli and Soheir Al-Bably. Although a real-life horror story, this theatrical adaptation of the tale of the two woman murderers was a comedy; and the contradiction between the two genres, the outstanding performance of Shadia with the other superstars and the stage direction by Hussein Kamal made it one of the classics.

Shadia performed in more than 100 films before her retirement in the early 1980s. She was one of the most popular and remarkable actresses and singers in the Golden Age of Egyptian cinema, known for her humour and spontaneity.

Ask Not Who I Am

She was one of a very few artists who supported young talents in the fields of cinema and song, encouraging young composers to connect with her; the only criteria she applied to her choice of songs was quality, novelty and her own connection to the words and tune.

But the decision to abandon her career came in seconds. “It must have been inherent inside me from childhood. This is why I believe children should practise religion when they are young, because these things stay with them. After I recorded my last song Khod Be’idi (Take My Hand) I felt I could continue with this genre [of religious songs]. We gathered several songs and recorded the music but I discovered I couldn’t memorise anything. I consulted Sheikh Al-Shaarawi, and he told me that I had sought God in my song and that He had answered my call. So I donned the hijab and now feel a happiness and sanctuary I cannot describe. But I respect my art. I love its memories, and the films I watch now. Some films are nice, others I don’t remember. I thank God that I spent my life doing useful things, films that offer people advice and pleasure. It is enough to hear them say ‘Allah’ in admiration. I like to think that I never annoyed or irritated anyone. And when I am in the street people  run up to me and make me feel like I was their relative. I swear to God the Egyptian street is like home to me. Art is not haram. Life abounds with different forms of work. Everyone works. And work is a form of worship.”

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