A small, infant Afaf Ali Kamel was born in the city of Tanta, miles away from Cairo.
It is not known whether acting was her fantasy or her dream, but when the family moved to Cairo, while she was still in her teens, she was whisked away and was acting in front of a camera in 1949.
The picture was small, so were the roles that followed. Nonetheless, her presence was felt. The competition was great and the better roles were given to established stars. Still that fragile little girl kept working, non-stop.
Some thought she was not beautiful enough; others, she was not talented enough. Critics came down like horseflies, hindering the delicate young ingenue from moving ahead.
After almost a decade of performing, she started to discover marvellous things about herself. What would she do with them? She had caught the bug and acting became her life.
B pictures and bit roles were not good enough. She must take the next step up the ladder at whatever cost. That next step was a climb to the top of the ladder in one jump.
She rented offices at the most prestigious building in downtown Cairo, the Immobilia, and established “Magda Productions” using the beautiful stage name she had chosen for herself. You see, that fragile little helpless waif, had a sleeping monster within her and it had just woken up. Now she can select her roles, hire screen-writers, directors, photographers, and make the movies she craved for.
Her first production was nothing less than a masterpiece.
It was the mid-1950s, the time of the national struggle of Algeria from French occupation. Most prominent amongst the revolutionaries was another pretty, slight, feeble young girl called Jamilah Bouhreid. She was half Tunisian, half Algerian, but she attended school in Algiers and immediately made their resistance her own.
She was little and frail, but her voice was the loudest, her resistance the highest, her enthusiasts the most numerous, and no pain inflicted upon her by the French could break her.
Much was written about her courage and bravery against the torment and torture of the French occupiers. Books, plays, poems and songs made her a legend. She captured the world’s attention. Magda decided to present that pain and anguish on the big screen. It was a masterly stroke.
She knew that only the best in the business could handle such a mammoth task. Screen-writer Abdel-Rahman Al-Zarkawi, aided by novelist Naguib Mahfouz, wrote the script. Youssef Chahine, the ambitious young film director, was hired to direct, and the cameras started rolling.
It was an unexpected. Everything Magda did was a surprise, and the surprise was she succeeded.
Therein lay Magda’s power.
Once, they tried to contain her, as she performed for years with fair success, but little did they know that beneath that tiny surface there lay passion, determination and precision like no other. She fooled them all.
Besides producing her films, she started distributing them, a feat unheard of. She amassed a fortune, invested it well, purchased the rights to popular novels by prominent writers, starred in them, and everybody wanted to purchase and view them.
She was no longer a threat, she was unreachable, a star.
Her “virginal” modesty earned her the title of “Virgin of the Silver Screen”. She refused to be kissed on the screen, for many years, until one day Prince Charming came along.
Magda surprised the world by falling in love with a handsome, young pilot and entrepreneur and getting married. Our “virgin” super-star was blessed with a daughter Ghada, the light of her life.
The marriage came to an end, but “a daughter is a daughter for the rest of her life.”
Magda never remarried but continued her stellar film career sitting comfortably on top, uncontested and unchallenged. She moved from one success to another, year after year, leaving a legacy of 70 films, many of which are unforgettable, and will continue to enchant generations to come.
She possessed the art of disguising herself from public view. As was with her small frame, delicate voice and helpless demeanour, portraying the image of the victimised “girl next door”, she concealed the ability and acumen, the killing instinct, the cunning intelligence of a business woman.
There were previous women producers in the business, but Magda was the first Egyptian young woman, who, all alone, carried a heavy burden on her frail shoulders.
Her divorce from her only love was painful, and life alone as time goes by, is hard. Her daughter Ghada and grandchildren were a comfort and so were her friends, whom she selected carefully and who remained loyal to the end.
As for her critics, and they were many, her best defence was her success.
Ignoring the bad and highlighting the good were assets she developed to perfection. She wore a broad smile at all times for friend and foe alike, and hid the pain and hurt that tore her inside.
Esteemed by the public who saw through her lonely struggle only added to their respect and admiration.
None detected the fierce strength and the will of steel behind the dainty, fragile appearance. It was never meant to deceive. It was just so and she was the better for it. She had the last laugh and is smiling now from heaven.
We salute her. She was a winner.
“The greatest intellectual capacities are only found in connection with a vehement and passionate will.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.