In an Egypt dominated by political developments, news and debates, one video caught all eyes and went viral in 2013: an interview with an eloquent, elegant and charming as ever Faten Hamama.
Conducted in the 1960s, the video triggered a bittersweet nostalgia that reminded many people of where we stand today: sexual harassment, illiteracy, poverty, and the bare existence of anything that can be called beautiful.
Forty 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. She was advocating the liberation of women, and advised young girls to stand up against their parents and struggle for their freedom.
Watching that interview, one would be less surprised if one had studied Hamama’s choice of characters: strong-willed, freedom-hungry women who continuously push for more rights.
Faten Hamama as Layla, leading a protest in the Open Door 1964
In the wake of the January 25 revolution, many young women saw themselves in her as she played Layla, The Open Door (1964), a young woman who tries to join the fight for Egypt’s liberation and herself, culminating with her joining the political resistance during the Suez Crisis in 1956.
In her 1975 film, I Want a Solution, she was the first to speak up against laws governing marriage and divorce in Egypt, which were mostly biased to the man, and demand women’s right to divorce.
The 84-year-old passed away on Saturday evening. The late actress had reportedly been suffering from deteriorating health and was recently briefly hospitalised.
Ahmed Abdullah, director of Décor—released two weeks ago—mourned the late actress via Twitter. Abdullah’s film told the story of a woman who is obsessed with old films—ones starring Hamama. Footage and references to Hamama’s classic films are shown throughout the film.
“At least in our own way we got to say goodbye to Faten Hamama before she leaves. We had a dream of showing her Décor but it was too late. We love you,” Abdullah wrote.
For their part, the Egyptian presidency issued a statement mourning the late actress.
“Egypt and the Arab world has lost a creative and valuable figure which for long has enriched Egyptian arts with her sophisticated work,” read the statement.
Hamama’s passion for cinema resulted in a career that spanned over 60 years and more than 100 films. She stood in front of the camera for the first time aged seven in 1935 to film Happy Day, alongside music legend Mohamed Abdel-Wahab.
Hamama’s talent continued to grow and by the early 60s she had become one of the most important actresses in Egypt.
She came to be known as the ‘Lady of the Arabic Screen’.
Faten Hamama, Youssef Chahine, Jacques Pascal, at Cannes Film Festival 1952
Hamama’s career was highlighted by numerous collaborations with the most prominent filmmakers in the history of Egyptian cinema, including international acclaimed director Youssef Chahine, Kamal El-Sheikh and Salah Abou Seif.
However, it was with Henry Barakat that she worked the most. Working together for almost 30 years Barakat and Hamama produced many memorable classics that remain pillars of cinema in Egypt.
Their masterpiece The Sin (1965) was recently screened as part of the Cairo International Film Festival's celebration of Barakat's 100th anniversary.
Based on a novel by Youssef Idris, the film and the novel show the oppression that peasants, especially landless ones, faced before the 1952 revolution, which brought in radical agricultural reforms that allowed farmers to own their land. It was nominated for the Prix International award at Cannes.
Hamama also starred in several films with her ex-husband and prominent actor Omar Sharif, including Struggle in the Valley (1954), The River of Love (1960), based on Tolstoy’s Anna Karanina, and the Lady of the Palace (1958). The two remained Egypt’s favorite romantic couple in spite of their separation in the 1970s.
For many people in younger generations who dreamed and still dream of a better Egypt, Faten Hamama was more than just a brilliantly talented actress.
She represented a more beautiful time, a political will—even if fictional, the realisation of a progressive cultural and social dream that now 40 years later is still being yearned for and can only be lived and experienced inside a black box and a screen.
Today people are saddened by Hamama's departure, and among these crowds many also feel sorry for themselves as they continue to drift alone as far as can be from a time that held the last traces of beauty.
(Below is the above mentioned interview)