Ragaa Al Geddawy, one of Egypt’s greatest character actors, dies aged 81

The screen and stage stalwart passed away from complications related to the coronavirus

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - DECEMBER 10:  Ragaa el Gedawy attends the Dubai International Film Festival and IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Award Gala Dinner and Ceremony at the One and Only Mirage Hotel on December 10, 2012 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for DIFF)
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Egyptian actress Ragaa Al Geddawy died on Sunday, aged 81, due to complications from Covid-19.

The news was confirmed on social media by her daughter, Amira Mokhtar, after the actress died in hospital in the Egyptian city of Ismailia. Mokhtar added that the star was set to be buried in Egypt.

It had been previously reported that Al Geddawy was on the mend after being diagnosed with Covid-19 on May 24. The situation, however, took a turn on June 2, with Al Geddawy falling unconscious.

The Ramadan drama Le'bet El Nesyan, in which Al Geddawy starred in her last television role alongside stars Dina Al Sherbiny, Ahmed Dawoud and Ali Kassem, wrapped up production two days before she tested positive for the virus.

Sensing the gravity of the situation, co-star Kassem posted a tweet on May 24 urging fellow cast members to immediately isolate themselves as a health precaution. At present, there have been no reported positive cases arising from the production.

A witness to Egypt’s golden era of screen and stage

In addition to the yet-to-be-released film Tawam Rouhy (delayed due to Covid-19), Le'bet Al Nesyan caps off a majestic six-decade career for Al Geddawy.

Working diligently into her early 80s, she was considered – alongside the recently deceased 88-year-old Hassan Hosny – as one of the oldest working actors in the business.

Such longevity allowed her to experience key periods in the Egyptian entertainment industry, including the golden age of Egyptian cinema (from the 1940s to the 1960s), the hallowed era of the country's stage scene (from the 1970s to the 1990s) and the decade from the mid-1980s, when a slew of seminal Egyptian television dramas were produced.

Al Geddawy was there for all of them, portraying various characters encompassing the myriad strata of Egyptian society, ranging from the glitterati to the working class.

From beauty queen to key supporting actor

Al Geddawy was born on December 6, 1938, in Ismailia, north-eastern Egypt. The divorce of her parents resulted in her moving to Cairo as a child and being enrolled in a Franciscan boarding school where she learnt French and Italian.

Those skills led to her finding work as a translator in a Cairo advertising agency in the mid-1950s. Any plans for a career in marketing, however, were quashed after she won the Miss Egypt beauty pageant in 1958, which at the time, was a natural precursor to a career on the silver screen.

Al Geddawy made her debut in 1959's Dua Al Karawan (The Nightingale's Prayer).

Considered a classic of Egyptian cinema, the Henry Barakat-directed film is a tumultuous romance set in the Egyptian countryside, and stars the renowned Faten Hamama and Ahmed Mazhar.

It was in this movie, among these titans of cinema, that the 21-year-old Al Geddawy learnt the craft.

“There was a scene in the film where I was reading an emotional passage from a book to Hamama,” Al Geddawy recalled in a 2015 interview with Egyptian broadcaster CBC.

“After I read it, Hamama asked me why my voice lacked tears? I replied that tears come from the eyes and she said, no, they can be found in your throat. She then took the book and read the same passage to me with so much feeling that I cried.”

It was a lesson Al Geddawy took to heart, as she built a dynamic career as an influential supporting actor.

Her pensive performances elevated the films Letani Ma Araft Al Hob (1976) and Fi Alhayat Hob Akhar (1997), while her whimsical persona made her an ideal comic foil in two of Adel Imam's classic plays Al Wad Sayed Al Shaghal (1985) and 1993's Al Zaeem.

Al Geddawy continued to earn plaudits late into her career, with acclaimed roles in 2016 Ramadan dramas Al Ustura and Grand Hotel.

A private life filled with love

Al Geddawy, who was married to footballer Hassan Al Mukhtar, credited her enduring career to a stable family life.

When the Egyptian national team goalkeeper died in 2016, Al Geddawy reportedly said she buried “a part of her heart with him”.

In a 2018 interview with Al Nahar, Al Geddawy said she never stopped mourning Al Mukhtar and recalled their last exchange in the hospital.

"Shortly before he left me, he said, 'By the way, Ragaa, God will bless you so much, so don't be afraid' and he kept patting me on the shoulder," Al Geddawy said. "I didn't know what he meant ... He then asked me to help him sleep on his right side and he suddenly just left."

Al Geddawy now joins him, leaving behind daughter Amira, granddaughter Rawda and generations of mourning fans.