Faten Hamama: A critical mourning

Faten Hamama: A critical mourning
The lady of the Arab screen represented the qualities of a bygone era of modernist elegance and Cairene cosmopolitanism. She was at once determined and steely while exuding a certain style.
4 min read
18 January, 2015
Faten Hamama and Omar Sharif: Two legends whose fates are intertwined (Getty)

In his magisterial last work – which was published posthumously – Edward Said writes about artistic sublimeness through the concept of 'late style'. This, the Palestinian intellectual argued, "has the power to render disenchantment and pleasure without resolving the contradiction between them".

This is how Egyptian actress Faten Hamama, the 'Lady of the Arab screen' and adored starlet of the masses should be remembered - somewhat.

     If you live your life away from the limelight, you rest more.

- Faten Hamama

Hamama who died yesterday aged 83, represented the qualities of a bygone era of modernist elegance and Cairene cosmopolitanism. She was at once determined and steely while exuding a certain style, a late style.

Jean Said Makdisi, Edward Said's sister, in her depiction of Hamama, wrote: "she is the ideal embodiment on the screen not only of Egyptian and Arab womanhood, but also of Egypt’s view of itself and of the Arab world".

Hamama started acting as a seven-year-old after her parents entered her into a beauty pageant where a director recognised her talent. She eventually starred opposite music legend Mohamed Abdel Wahab in A Happy Day (1939). Since then she went to act in over a hundred films in a career that lasted over sixty years.

One her most widely recognised and seminal roles is as Amna in The Nightingale’s Prayer (1959) based on Egyptian author Taha Hussein’s eponymous novel. Her performance is mesmerising, portraying the life of a young woman from a village who struggles to restore the family’s honour after her sister was killed by her uncle for being seduced by a young engineer, played by screen legend Ahmed Mazhar.

In a 1963 interview with “An evening with an actor” (below), Hamama emphatically but playfully declared “I hate melodrama”. She was speaking of her role in Among the Ruins (1960). She tells the presenter Amany Nashed that her most favourite character was in The Nightingale’s Prayer instead.

In the same conversation, she distinguished between theatre and film. The former, she said, is solely art that thrives on interaction with the audience. The latter involves an artistic endeavour but also a craft. “I must conjure up the same feelings, the same tone in between scenes that are not in sequence,” she said.

This allegorical explanation mirrors Said’s conception that an artist’s works do not suddenly mature as they age in a neat and final oeuvre. Rather, Hamama’s craft matured because it went against the grain and social conventions. Said elucidates, paraphrasing the words of German critical theorist Theodor Adorno, that  "in the history of art, late works are the catastrophes".

Her legend is also interwoven with the actor Omar Sharif, with whom she was married for twenty years and had a son, Tarik, who broke the news yesterday of his mother’s death. Appearing in several films together, Hamama and Sharif’s star power grew in a region that simultaneously was experiencing the political upheavals of decolonisation and independence during the 1950s and 1960s.

Their enduring performances together in films such as Struggle in the Valley (1954), Our best Days (1955) – alongside the affectionately dubbed dark nightingale Abdel Halim Hafez – the political film tackling the Palestinian question Land of Peace (1957) and the Egyptian adaptation of Anna Karenina The River of Love (1960) heralded a renaissance in Egyptian cinema unafraid to debate social mores on the screen.

Faten Hamama also had a topsy-turvy relationship with the various Egyptian rulers. She rejected being recruited as a spy and resented orders to act in the patriotic film, God is with us, after Abdel Nasser's Egyptian military coup of 1952. She also adoringly praised the current Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

Such contradictions also manifested themselves in the interview with Nashed, where she questioned being an adored star in the public eye where she is expected to always perform. Anticipating the presenter’s question of whether she would like her children to become actors, Hamama interrupts saying "I want them to live their lives. If you live your life away from the limelight, you rest more."

As the tributes from politicians to actors to her millions of fans spanning many generations pour in from across the Arab world, maybe her death can be seen not simply as a mournful occasion but also as a restful respite from the limelight.