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‘Lady of Arab Screen’ combined femininity with strength: critics

The Egyptian presidency expressed its ‘deep sorrow’ over the death of Hamama, who died on Sunday at the age of 83 after suffering from a health condition

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The mayor of Cairo ended a conference on Sunday about women’s political participation by calling on the audience to join mourners headed to the funeral of iconic Egyptian film star Faten Hamama, who passed away over the weekend.

The Egyptian presidency expressed its “deep sorrow” over the death of Hamama, who died on Sunday at the age of 83 after suffering from a health condition. It praised Hamama, describing her as a “valued creative figure” whose “classy work” influenced many in Egypt and the Arab world.

While the former wife of internationally acclaimed actor Omar al-Sharif is remembered as one of Arab cinema’s most feminine and classy stars, many are dubbing Hamama as a symbol of women’s strength and describing her more than 100 film career as reflecting her advocacy for women’s rights.

“Faten Hamama was not given the title ‘The Lady of Arab Screen’ out of thin air as her work had always symbolized and expressed the plight of women,” the Arabic-language monthly magazine Hia, Arabic for she, said in online article as a tribute to the artist.

“Her work always illuminated on issues that have affected Egyptian and Arab women … at the time when nobody dared to touch these sensitive and thorny subjects,” it added.

One famed actress, who goes by the moniker Sharihan, wrote on her Facebook page that Hamama would remain “the greatest example for women and symbol for Egyptian women,” while Palestinian newspaper Al-Watan Voice described her as “the first who pursued women’s issues.”

Women’s issues in her movies

In the 1975 movie “Uredo Halan,” or “I Want a Solution,” about a married woman who wants a divorce because of an abusive relationship, Hamama showed the suffering of Egyptian women going through the country’s then complicated divorce process.

The movie is ranked 21st among Egypt’s best 100 movies. At the time, it screened for a period of 16 weeks at the theaters.

In 1977, she starred as Nima in “Afwah wa Aranib,” or “Mouths and Rabbits,” which was about the rights of women and birth control.

In her 1959 “Duaa Al-Karawan,” or “The Nightingale’s Prayer,” she played a rural girl named Amina who rebels against tradition in an Upper Egypt setting. The movie is considered to be one of the best by the Egyptian film industry.

In another classic, the 1965 “Al-Haram,” or “The Forbidden,” Hamama starred as Aziza, a woman having to cope with the ordeal of rape.

Mohammed Rouda, a cinema critic for the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat, said Hamama “never accepted a role that would give a woman a bad image; she was always very careful on what to choose and she knew what she was doing.”

While she embodied traits of the “girl-next-door,” “she had a very strong character, which helped even when she played ‘Al-Haram’ by director Henry Barakat, which was his best movie,” Rouda said.

“Even when she was raped [on screen], she had strength in her character,” he said, adding that Hamama was able to elicit “all the sympathy the audience could offer.”

The film critic also believes that no one could have done a better job in “I Want a Solution.”

“She was a very good actress by the time; I believe she was around 47 or 50 years old. She convincingly played the role of a woman who was a wife of a brutal man and wanted a divorce. If a younger woman had played that [character], it would have been more a generic melodrama,” he said.

The strength she portrayed on screen springs possibly from her pride as an actress with a message.

In a tribute to the actress, Ahram Online wrote that “40 years ago Hamama spoke proudly about her job as an actress in spite of obstacles that she faced from a society that looked down on her career.”

It added: “She was advocating the liberation of women and advised young girls to stand up against their parents and struggle for their freedom.”

No explicit sexuality

While Hamama expressed women’s’ sorrow and pain in her movies, she rarely projected their sexuality.
However, in the 1954 “Sira fi Al-Wadi” or “Struggle in the Valley,” Hamama consented to her first ever kiss in a feature film. The receiver of the now famous kiss was Michel Demitri Shalhoub, her future husband, better known today as Omar Sharif.

“My memory of her doesn’t have of her any racy scenes all throughout,” Rouda said, noting that the actress had sought to “preserve” her image.

“She knew that Arabs of the 1950s and 1960s were still very conservative but not like now where there are some with extreme understandings or conceptions of Islam.”

As well as portraying femininity, courage, class, Hamama also represented strength.

“What made her unique is the strength that she expressed throughout her acting career. Even when she starred with Omar Sharif in ‘Struggle in the Valley,’ she was not just standing by him because they loved each other but also to represent the fight against the pre-1952 social environment.”