Remembering Faten Hamama: More than Egypt's 'Lady of the Silver Screen'

Ashraf Gharib, Friday 27 May 2022

Ahram Online remembers Faten Hamama on what would have been her 91th birthday.

Faten Hamama


Please contemplate with me this title, which everyone agrees describes her perfectly.

They didn’t call her “the star of the masses” or “a box office star” or any other common descriptors. Instead they call Faten Hamama, “the lady of the Arab silver screen.”

The iconic Egyptian actress was born on 27 May 1931, and passed away at the age of 84 on 17 January 2015.

After all, the masses change and the movie stars change with them. A box office star can’t be such at all artistic stages of his career. In addition, the commercial significance of the star doesn’t necessarily go in line with critics’ viewpoint.

But the title “lady of the Arab silver screen” is a permanent and durable title or description that isn’t linked to an artistic stage or a particular age, and is attributed neither to the audience alone nor exclusively to the critics.

It is also a title that can’t be withdrawn or stripped from the person to whom it belongs. It is a statement of recognition that all the audience, whether the masses or the critics, gave to this woman, who respected the moniker and bore the responsibilities of this special stature.

The lady of the silver screen is a title confined solely to Faten Hamama, whose right to hold this title was not disputed by any other actress, unlike some other titles which other stars, both men and women, have clashed over. She is therefore a unique case among all Arab film actresses.

“The lady of the Arab silver screen” means that Faten Hamama in the field of cinematic acting is like Oum Kulthoum, “the Arab lady singer” in the world of music.

Then what great stature equates Faten in cinema and Umm Kulthoum in singing?

The idea of “the lady” in Arabic means being a pioneer in leadership, not the temporal connotation, so Faten is like Umm Kulthum and few men and women were and will retain the honorable façade that preserved Egypt’s special status and its soft power in the Arab sphere.

Hence, she is a woman gifted with special characteristics, some of these may resemble that which other Egyptian actresses possess, but they aren’t combined except in Faten. These characteristics weren’t realised to this degree of distinction and excellence, apart from her.

Therefore, Faten is the only one who deserves the description of the “lady of the Arab silver screen.”

Everything in Faten Hamama’s face asserts that she is Egyptian through and through; black eyes, black hair, and a complexion that resembles that of most Egyptian women. But the most important thing is that she had an utterly Egyptian soul throughout her life.

She was a woman who showed both fiery spirit, as a girl in her first film A Happy Day (1940), and solemnity in her last film, The Land of Dreams (1993).

Her acting teacher, the late Zaki Tuleimat, described her eloquently when he said, “she is a small creature that grows in a calculated way and composes a piece of a handsome girl with a small face; very good-looking, like the face of precious dolls in which wide eyes move incessantly, and behind them lies a tension that pulsates and an uninterrupted curiosity.”

On another occasion, Tuleimat described her smile “as the state of sublime contentedness which only the fortunate enjoy.”

Faten Hamama
Faten Hamama (Photo: Al Ahram)

Thus, it wasn’t strange that Faten Hamama, who appeared before us as a little girl in A Happy Day on the screens of the Royal Cinema House in Cairo, with a totally Egyptian spirit – both on the inside and outside – possessed the potential for success.

When she tells the film's star Mohamed Abdel-Wahab in one scene “molokhaya is very delicious,” we realise that she not only possesses “Egyptianess,” but also a captivatingly innate and spontaneous talent, which, unlike the spontaneity of children, is instead the spontaneity of someone who is aware she is acting and calculating every step, no matter how young and inexperienced she is.

Faten Hamama’s career accordingly had great longevity, lasting for 60 years between A Happy Day and her final television series in 2001, The Face of the Moon.

Many other children appeared around the same time on cinema screens and had exceptional talent – the most prominent of them is Feyrouz – but they stopped completely afterwards or needed several years to reinvent themselves and reemerge with a different artistic image.

The reason for this is that those child actors’ talents were driven by the spontaneity of childhood, which they lost when they became more mature. Faten’s talent, however, was and remained motivated by a divine spontaneity that the passage of time could not change.

However, there is more to the success and longevity of the lady of the Arab silver screen than this spontaneity, because God endowed her with many gifts; besides beauty, she had an innate talent and an alertness, and a voice with a lovely tone that through its calmness and colour could reach the hearts of the audience.

Accordingly, Faten is probably the Arab, and maybe international, actress who benefitted most from the monologue.

This was true to such an extent that directors, especially Ezz El-Din Zulfikar and Henry Barakat, usually formulated the dramatic structure and the narration in her films via the flashback technique, and also portrayed the heroine’s inner conflict to benefit from this special talent in vocal performance.

I think that you will agree with me that the monologue in The Curlew Prayers by Barakat had an immense impact on the film's dramatic strength and its ability to create an air of mystery around Faten’s character Amna, and created the tense and suspenseful atmosphere that dominates this well-crafted film.

A number of directors contributed to Faten’s artistic greatness, leaving their mark on her artistic persona.

She absorbed all these contributions and extracted the essence of their cinematic thought, adding what she innately knew and what she acquired through awareness. Thus, she became an outstanding case among cinema actresses.

It can be said without reservation that Hassan El-Imam was the first director who outlined Faten Hamama's artistic persona when they worked together, at a time when melodrama was the most popular genre.

El-Imam was the prince of this genre and its standard bearer.

It is true that their first film together, Angels in Hell (1946), was her seventh film, and it is true that the female leading role wasn't played by her, but by Amina Rizk.
It is also true that she met in the same year another melodrama prince, Youssef Wahbi, in the first of their five films together, Angel of Mercy.

Faten Hamama
Faten Hamama (Photo: Al Ahram)

It is true that we feel there is a melodramatic shadow in her early films away from El-Imam, such as Dunia in 1946 by Mohamed Karim, and The White Angel by Ibrahim Emara the following year. All this is true.

However, the truest thing is that El-Imam was so intelligent that he grasped what this emerging actress could do to draw the audience's sympathy and tears.

In the 12 films that El-Imam directed which featured Faten, starting with Angels in Hell and ending with The Miracle (1962), the lady of the silver screen did not break from the mould of the good-natured, broken-hearted girl who suffers as a result of convoluted incidents and strange coincidences, as well as life’s oppression and the injustice of others – all except for the last film.

Due to the director’s insistence that all the variations of the character be presented, this model became the mould for guaranteed success when casting the emerging actress.

Despite the remarkable success that Faten achieved with this character type, she and the audience were altogether deprived for several years from the chance of discovering new potential within this great actress.

The director Ezz El-Din Zulfikar, who was Faten’s first husband, was the first director to give her leading roles, after 10 films where she played secondary or supporting roles.

This was in the historical film Abu-Zayd Al-Hilali with Serag Mounir.

However, in the eight films that Zulfikar directed which included her afterwards, El-Imam once again used this ready-made mould, although he was keen to provide a romantic and poetic frame.

This happened in Immortality (1948), An Appointment with Life (1953), and The Road of Hope (1957).

Even Among the Ruins (1959), which was adapted from Yousef El-Sibai’s novel and came at a time when Faten was fully responsible for her choices, is considered by critics to be one of Egyptian cinema’s most important romantic films – rightfully so – and isn’t free from obvious melodrama. We can still see Hassan El-Imam’s shadow.

In the film, the heroine falls in love with a famous writer, then marries someone else, and when her lover dies she brings up his daughter, while her husband deprives her from seeing her real son.

Then came the usual melodramatic coincidences that make the son fall in love with the writer’s daughter so that she discovers the whole truth.

In the same vein, the theme of the mother’s sacrifice of her son for the sake of her lover under oppressive circumstances, Faten made with Zulfikar their other important film, River of Love (1960), where the harsh husband Zaki Rostom deprives her from seeing her son because she chose to be beside the young officer she loved.

These films, directed by Zulfikar, helped push Faten to the top of the list of romantic actresses.

As for the late director Youssef Chahine, Faten appeared in six films he directed between the years 1950 and 1966, starting with Papa Amin and ending with Sands of Gold.

At first, he succumbed to the mould he found Faten in and presented her in his first three films, Papa Amin, Son of the Nile, and The Big Clown, in the same narrow frame of tragic events which the miserable heroine faces, while the environment or the heroine’s class may differ.

Faten Hamama
Faten Hamama (Photo: Al Ahram)

But when he rebelled against the prevalent cinema of the time, he soared with Faten Hamama to higher heights. This was clear in his films Conflict in the Valley (1954) and Conflict in the Harbour (1956).

In the first film, Faten portrayed the daughter of a pasha, a pampered girl spending her life staying up late at night, travelling and enjoying the luxuries of life. She falls in love with a poor young man, supports his cause and stands against the injustice and might of her class.

While she was the daughter of a pasha who believed in the just cause of her village’s inhabitants in Conflict in the Valley, Chahine turns the situation around in Conflict in the Harbour.

In this film, Faten becomes an ordinary girl who aspires to the aristocratic life through a relationship with the son of one of the harbour’s pashas.

Chahine was therefore able to extract acting potentialities from the actress that she didn’t know she possessed. It is true that both films had some melodramatic incidents, but Faten Hamama was different with Chahine.

Their last film together, Sands of Gold (1966), was a Lebanese-Moroccan joint production. It was a small film set between Spain and Morocco in the bull-fighting arenas, and added little to the cinematic experience of the big names associated with it.

In the cinematic world of Kamal Al-Sheikh, there is no place for the heroes. According to Al-Sheikh, the hero is the compact story that serves his preferred cinematic genre, ie thrillers.

Because he doesn’t tailor the roles according to his heroes’ abilities, he is always in need of actors with high capabilities who can perform what’s written in the script. In this context, Kamal Al-Sheikh needed an actress of Faten Hamama’s calibre.

Perhaps this explains why Faten gave a glowing performances in her six films with Al-Sheikh.

For example, in his first film, The House No.13 (1952), Faten plays a wife tensely observing her psychologically sick husband’s fate after he is recruited by his doctor to commit a murder; when she tries to save him she risks falling victim to a new crime.

This glowing performance continues clearly in her other films, such as I Won’t Confess, which belongs to the detective genre, and The Last Night, a psychological thriller.

Even in The Lady of the Palace from 1958, in which Al-Sheikh abandoned his favourite genre, Faten Hamama plays an ordinary girl who possesses the strength and will to purify her husband from the illnesses of the aristocratic class to which he belongs.

These examples clearly show that in most of Al-Sheikh’s cinematic milestones, Faten played the leading lady.

Faten was also the heroine in five of Salah Abu-Seif’s films, and through Abu-Seif, she became closer to life’s reality.

Their first film together was You Will Get What You Deserve (1951), which was also the big gesture towards realism in cinema made by the director.

In spite of this, he couldn’t get rid of the ready-made mould which Faten had been put in, for she played the role of a young wife whose husband’s friend covets, killing her husband and marrying her, subjecting her to all kinds of torment. The other four films, however, were different.

When Salah Abu-Seif wanted to speak about the changing country after the 1952 revolution, he had to convey the new woman’s image as seen by society at that time.

There was no better source than Ihsan Abdel-Quddous’ novels, and there was no better actress than Faten Hamama to express the new woman’s voice.

Faten Hamama
Faten Hamama (Photo: Al Ahram)

So the trio made films in 1957, 1958 and 1961 which had a positive impact on Faten’s career, namely I Can’t Sleep, The Blocked Road, and Don’t Put Out the Sun.

In the latter film she played the role of a middle-class girl who has neither the will nor the desire to form her own opinion, despite the surrounding oppressive circumstances that sometimes make her lose her way.

As for her last film with Salah Abu-Seif, No Time for Love (1963), which is based on a short story by Youssef Idris, this film comes under the previous categorisation, even if the patriotic aspect is also present.

The film’s heroine is active in an Egyptian fedayeen anti-occupation militant group before 1952. This points to the fact that Faten was really preoccupied with the new woman’s cause, both psychologically and socially.

Faten Hamama's name wasn't coupled with any director as it was with Henri Barakat, who directed 17 of her films between the years 1946 and 1984.

In two of these films, she played a supporting role, while in the other 15 she was the leading lady.

Suffice to say that Barakat was behind Faten Hamama's most memorable roles: Tryst, The Curlew's Prayer, The Open Door, The Sin, Mouths and Rabbits and The Night Fatma Was Arrested, which was their last film.

Because of their long path together and several experiences, Faten's roles in Barakat's films was an amalgam of her roles with other directors.

In melodrama, there are The Punishment (1946) and Have Pity on Me (1954), in romantic drama there are Tryst (1956), Until We Meet (1958) and My Love (1974), and in the social realist films there are The Sin (1965), Mouths and Rabbits (1977) and The Night Fatma was arrested (1984).

As for roles focused on the portrayal of female characters, there was The Curlew's Prayer (1959), The Open Door (1963) and No Paying Condolences to Women (1979).

What is most important about Faten Hamama's films with Barakat is that he was able to break through typecasting in Egyptian cinema.

She played a quite different kind of seductress in the The Curlew's Prayer, which was truly distant from the cartoonish performance of female peasants in both The Sin and Mouths and Rabbits.

In No Paying Condolences to Women, she did not play the role of the oppressed, weak, divorced woman.

All of these characters were forged by the spirit of Faten Hamama, and where therefore stamped with her distinctive stamp, rarely to be emulated.

Faten Hamama did not differ much when she worked with directors of subsequent generations.

She played the mature mother in Hussein Kamal’s The Empire of M (1972), and with Said Marzouk she portrayed a woman's suffering after she was failed by the personal status law in I want a Solution (1975).

She returned to melodramatic roles in A Bitter Day and a Sweet Day by Khairy Bishara (1988) in the style of Hassan Al-Imam's films. This time, however, she did not play the wretched girl, but a mother who suffers the harshness of life for the sake of her offspring.

As for her final film, The Land of Dreams by Daoud Abdel-Sayed (1993), she gave a special portrayal of a mother who experiences all kinds of strange incidents in an evening travel to the USA.

Faten Hamama
Faten Hamama (Photo: Al Ahram)

* This article was first published in 2017, on what would have been Faten Hamama's 86th birthday.

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