First Lady of Arab Cinema, Faten Hamama, RIP

They don’t make them like that anymore.

The First Lady of Arab cinema and its Golden Age, legend Faten Hamama, is gone, leaving a rich heritage that helped turn her country, Egypt, into a Hollywood on the Nile.

“Audrey Hepburn of Arabia. RIP Faten Hamama,” tweeted Youssef El Deeb, CEO of Picture Pond Media and founder of Fatafeat TV.

My reaction on hearing of Hamama’s passing Saturday morning was to dig up pictures I shot when I interviewed her in 1985 and notes of the indelible impression this epitome of a lady left on me.

First Lady of Arab cinema Faten Hamama (Abu-Fadil)

I was visiting Cairo and a mutual friend arranged the meeting at Hamama’s tastefully decorated penthouse apartment overlooking the Nile on the island of Zamalek.

She was getting ready for an evening out with her third husband, radiologist Mohamed Abdel Wahab, and film director Henri Barakat.

Film director Henri Barakat (Abu-Fadil)

Recalling her start in cinema, she told me early actors came from well-to-do families and took part in all aspects of movie making – acting, directing, and producing.

“They were driven by the passion of it,” almost to the point of being disowned by their families, who viewed movies with disdain, she said.

Hamama’s family, on the other hand, sought a career for her, and her teacher father, who had suppressed his own stage ambitions because of the stigma attached to it, transmitted his hopes to his daughter who appeared on film at age seven and was paid 10 Egyptian pounds ($1.40 in today’s currency) for her first role.

Screen shot of Faten Hamama whose career began at age seven

Part of the octogenarian’s longevity in a career that included some television in later years and a bit of radio was that her on-screen portrayals mirrored contemporary societal concerns.

She had evolved from light Cinderella-type characters to more substantive roles in the 1950s, broaching controversial themes of conscience and social obligation like rape, workers’ rights, and society’s treatment of divorced women.

“Women then were invariably portrayed as passive, controlled by their fathers or husbands,” Hamama told me.

Her on-screen metamorphosis coincided with the change in the scope of women’s activities in society at large. Film roles began to assume some depth when women were seen, for the first time, as multi-dimensional characters.

But this new activism had its price and Hamama admitted to receiving hate mail from men who accused her of agitating their wives to the point that men lost control of their households.

Screen shot of a 1964 French TV interview at a Beirut film festival

The highly disciplined actress was noted for carefully picking her roles and demanding the highest professional standards from her co-workers. Punctuality was almost an obsession in a country where staying on schedule was impossible.

After living for a while in the mid-1960s in Paris and London, she returned to Egypt in 1970 and acted…

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