Remembering Shadia: 'The People's Idol' singer and actress

Ashraf Gharib , Monday 8 Feb 2021

8 February marks what would have been the 90th birthday of the legendary Egyptian golden age singer and cinema star


On 28 November 2017, Egypt has lost one of its most important soft power symbols and an original part of its artistic history, songstress and actress Shadia.

Her presence marked the 20th century despite the fact that she has retired 31 years prior to her passing, wore the veil and chose to step out of the limelight.

What increases Shadia’s unique stature is that she never trade in her religiosity after donning the veil, unlike some, and did not abandon it either, as some did. Nor did she ever state that art is religiously forbidden. She was always very proud of her output, of what she gave to her art and her fans.

If Shadia did not have this sparkling history, her firm standpoint towards art and religion would not have this strong impact. Spanning four decades of  uninterrupted successes both among audiences and critics, her career provided her a firm footing and a tall artistic stature. She combined the talents of singing and acting to a degree that wasn’t attained by another songstress except Leila Mourad and actress Souad Hosni.

(Photo: Al Ahram)

Born on 8 February 1931, Shadia entered the world of acting through her soft voice that was discovered first within her family who had artistic interests, then in school concerts.

Shadia’s voice entered cinema before her face was seen. It was when the director Mohamed Abdel-Gawad at the end of 1946 and beginning of 1947 chose her to sing in both Flowers and Thorns and The Tramp, replacing another star, Hekmat Fahmy, a famous bellydancer at the time.

While Mohamed Abdel-Gawad gave the voice of Shadia – when she used her real name, Fatma Kamal Shaker – the chance to emerge, in order to complete the commercial formula, another director, Ahmed Badrakhan, saw in that young girl a successful cinematic model.

Badrakhan intended to cast her in Cairo-Baghdad in 1947 but there was no suitable role for her. So he decided to present her to his friends; the director Helmy Rafla and the singer Mohamed Fawzi who were in preparation for the film The Mind on Vacation produced by Fawzi. Fawzi saw in this emerging songstress and actress his long lost aim, for he wanted his production debut to be a musical, which wouldn’t have been feasible if he relied only on the film’s leading lady, Leila Fawzi.

(Photo: Al Ahram)

With an expert eye, Mohamed Fawzi realised that there was a good raw artistic talent before him that can be easily molded. Thus, he chose for Shadia the part of a pampered, delicate girl who was dreaming of love even under the harshest of circumstances.

Since then Shadia became well known for this formula and directors insisted upon presenting her within it until the end of the 1950s. This was when Mohamed Fawzi had completed Shadia’s cinematic image with a type of singing that suited her age, voice and artistic character. Hence, he composed several of her first songs, such as Laqeitu wa Haweitu (I Met Him and Loved Him) and Ana bint helwa (I Am a Pretty Girl).

This type of composition stuck with her even when other composers collaborated with Shadia, such as Mahmoud El-Sharif in Habeina Ba’dena (We Loved Each Other), Ahmed Sedki in Al-Shams Banit (The Sun Has Glowed), Mounir Mourad in Wahid Itnein (One Two), Ya Deblet El-Khutuba (The Engagement Ring), and Maksoufa (I Am Shy), Mohamed Abdel-Wahab in Ahbek wa Adahi fi Hobbek (I Love You and Sacrifice in My Loving You) and Mohamed El-Mougy in Meen qallek tuskun fi Haratna (Who Told You to Live in Our Neighbourhood).

(Photo: Al Ahram)

Shadia and Kamal El-Shennawi

The Mind in Vacation and Dove of Peace, both directed by Helmy Rafla, were noticeable successes that made Shadia a star for the next 10 years. During this decade, Shadia acted in 73 films of her total of 117 films that marked her 30-year-long career. She even starred in 48 films within four years only (early 1951 until the end of the 1954), an obvious sign of her sweeping success during the 1950s.

This overwhelming number of films wasn’t just a sign of Shadia’s unprecedented success, but also relied on the most successful cinema couple at the time: Shadia and Kamal El-Shennawi. Between 1947 and 1974, this couple made 25 films, setting a record not only in the Egyptian cinema but maybe in world cinema. Those films included Dove of Peace, Unlucky, Farewell at Dawn, Together Forever, Unknown Woman, The Thief and the Dogs, and finally The Fugitive, after which they didn’t meet until Shadia’s retirement in 1984.

The beginnings of Shadia and Kamal El-Shennawi were simultaneous in 1947, albeit he preceded her in being a cinematic lead. On the other hand, Shadia was in need of asserting her independent artistic character and getting out of the commercial formula in which Mohamed Fawzi had put her. That was because the formula of the delicate girl, whether helpless or frivolous, along with a gallant young man suited the films at the time, which were either melodramas or light musical comedies. This drove scriptwriters to write tailor-made scripts for the couple.

In spite of this, Mahmoud Zulfikar attempted in 1959 to break this mould in The Unknown Woman where he turned Shadia into a good woman facing the injustice of others and removed the gallant aspect Kamal El-Shennawi, turning him into a symbol of villainy and a reason for the leading lady’s misery. As for The Thief and the Dogs (1963). directed by Kamal El-Sheikh, it was an exceptional case of the couple’s collaboration. Although they were co-leading actors with Shoukry Sarhan, they didn’t meet in a single scene.

(Photo: Al Ahram)

Shadia through the 1950s and 1960s

The July 1952 Revolution caused radical and rapid changes in Egyptian society, the most prominent of which were the low classes aspiring to a better life through education. Shadia’s roles satisfied those aspirations among the girls of her generation, while Shadia, who was about 20 years old, with her calm beauty and sweet voice, was the dream girl for the young men of that period.

On the artistic level, the retirement of songstress and actress Nour El-Huda in 1953, then Leila Mourad in 1955 confined the demand to Shadia and Sabah, with an obvious inclination towards Shadia because of her Egyptian features and her closeness to the simple girl of 1950s society. Despite the predominance of stereotypical performances of Shadia as the pampered, light-hearted girl in the 1950s, we can glimpse some serious roles, signalling an artistic maturity waiting to materialise in the following decade.

Of those films, there were The Bread Seller (1953) directed by Hassan Al-Imam, An Appointment With Life (1953) by Ezz-Eldin Zulfikar, A Night in My Life (1954) by Atef Salem, Farewell at Dawn (1956) by Hassan Al-Imam as well as both her films with Abdel-Halim Hafez: The Melody of Loyalty (1955) by Ibrahim Emara and Delilah (1956) by Mohamed Karim.

(Photo: Al Ahram)

When Shadia played her memorable role in The Unknown Woman (1959) directed by Mahmoud Zulfikar, everything confirmed that this actress had reached artistic maturity that qualified her to play the most difficult and most complex roles. This was reflected in the 1960s, when she acted in 32 films until the beginning of 1970.

The status of artistic maturity she reached and coincided with her choosing melodramatic roles, starting with The Unknown Woman followed by Forever Together (1960) directed by Hassan Ramzy, The Student (1961) by Hassan Al-Imam and A Woman in a Whirlwind (1962) by Mahmoud Zulfikar.

Shadia acted in a number of films that can be classified as romantic, such as Love’s Anguish (1960), along with Omar Sharif and directed by Salah Abu-Seif, More Precious than My Life (1965) with Salah Zulfikar and directed by Mahmoud Zulfikar, and The People's Idol (1967) with Abdel-Halim Hafiz and directed by Helmy Rafla.

Shadia also acted in a number of film adaptations of novels, that were among her best films and most famous, such as The Thief and the Dogs, Midaq Alley, The Road, and Miramar written by Naguib Mahfouz, A Touch of Fear by Tharwat Abaza, My Wife’s Dignity by Ihsan Abdel-Quddous, and My Wife a General Manager by Abdel-Hameed Gouda El-Sahar.

Not wanting to lose the fans of the first years in her cinematic career, Shadia decided to act from time to time in comedy films such as The Thirteenth Wife, My Wife’s Obsession, and Half an Hour Marriage, all directed by Fateen Abdel-Wahab.

(Photo: Al Ahram)

Shadia formed another successful couple with Salah Zulfikar, which resulted in four films: More Precious than My Life, My Wife’s Dignity, My Wife a General Manager, and My Wife’s Obsession. It is true that this couple’s success wasn’t on the same scale of the Shadia and Kamal El-Shennawi combination, but their presence was quite tangible, especially that the audience automatically linked between the real marital life of Shadia and Salah Zulfikar and what they saw on the screen.

Due to Shadia’s extreme confidence in herself and her acting capabilities, she abandoned her well-known asset of being a singer in some of the 1960s’ films and began to present a refined level of performance that removed any differences between her and other renowned actresses.

Naturally, Shadia’s song output in the 1960s was affected due to the reduction of her contribution in films songs. In spite of this, we can’t ignore the most successful songs of Shadia in the 1960s were the ones which she sang in films: Suuna Ya Sunsun (Suuna, Oh Sunsun), Faris Ahlami (Prince Charming) and Wehyat ’Eneik (Swearing by Your Eyes).

It seems that Shadia has entered the 1970s with the intention of compensating her song output at the expense of her cinematic career. Hence she made between 1970 and 1984 12 films only, starting with We Don’t Sow Thorns. It was an adaptation of Yusuf El-Sibai’s eponymous novel and directed by Hussein Kamal, while she ended her career with Don’t Ask me Who I Am, which was an adaptation of Ihsan Abdel-Quddous's eponymous novel and directed by Ashraf Fahmy.

Between the two films were The Woman with Two Faces by Hossam Eddine Mostafa, Waves Without Shores by Ashraf Fahmy, The Fugitive by Kamal El-Sheikh and The Doubt My Love by Barakat. Although Shadia didn’t enjoy a stable and happy marital life and never had children, she performed the role of wife/mother sure-footedly in all its forms.

On 10 November 1984, cinema-goers saw Shadia for the last time in Don’t Ask Me Who I Am, which was the pinnacle of her melodramatic performances.

*This article was originally published in 2017, following Shadia's death.

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