Arab film icon Faten Hamama dies aged 83

The Egyptian actress Faten Hamama, an Arab film icon and Omar Sharif’s former wife, died on Saturday at the age of 83. We look at her stellar career.

The Egyptian actress Faten Hamama acted in more than 100 films in a career that began when she was a child. Douglas Miller / Keystone / Getty Images
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The Egyptian actress Faten Hamama, an Arab film icon and the actor Omar Sharif’s former wife, died on Saturday, January 17 at the age of 83, their son Tarek Sharif said.

Hamama, who made her screen debut before she turned 8, appeared in almost 100 films and worked with masters of Egyptian cinema. She is best remembered for her roles alongside Sharif.

A staunch feminist, Hamama took on a number of films that trained the spotlight on the role of women in Egyptian society, including 1975's Oridu Hallan (I Want a Solution), where her character rails against the Egyptian government's marriage edicts of the time. As a result, the laws were subsequently changed to grant women the right to divorce their husbands. The film was Egypt's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 48th Academy Awards.

Born in Mansoura in 1931, Hamama was the second of four siblings in a middle-class family; her father was a civil servant and mother a housewife. Hamama’s passion for the big screen was ignited by the late Lebanese actress Assia Dagher, who worked in Egypt during Hamama’s childhood years.

In a 2002 interview with the Saudi newspaper Al-Jazirah, Hamama said that as a star-struck young girl who identified with Dagher, each time the audience clapped during a film starring the veteran actress, she felt that the applause was actually for her.

Hamama's first role came in 1939 after she won a children's pageant – she was given a small role alongside the legendary Egyptian singer Mohammed Abdel Wahab in Mohammed Karim's Youm Saeed (Happy Day).

Her performance was immediately hailed by the local press who dubbed her "Egypt's Shirley Temple". She also made fans of Abdel Wahab and Karim who signed her up for two more films, 1944's Rossassa Fel Qalb (Bullet in the Heart) and 1946's Dunya (World). Perhaps acknowledging the uncertain careers of child stars, Hamama moved with her parents to Cairo to enrol in an acting course.

While studying, she embarked on another successful collaboration, this time with the actor and director Youssef Wahbi, who recognised that the young Hamama had more to offer and cast her in her first lead part in the 1946 drama Malak Al Rahma (Angel of Mercy). The film's success led to three other big-selling films including the 1949 melodrama Al-Yateematain (The Two Orphans).

Hamama’s completion of her acting studies dovetailed neatly with the dawn of the golden age in Egyptian cinema, which began in early 1950s.

It was the most fruitful period of Hamama's career. She went on to star in films such as Lak Yawm Ya Zalem (Your Day Will Come; 1950) and Sira' Fi Al-Wadi (Struggle in the Valley; 1954). The former got her a nomination for the Cannes Film Festival's Prix International award.

But it was her role in Struggle in the Valley that changed her life. Hamama not only consented to her first on-screen kiss, but also eventually fell in love with her co-star Omar Sharif. She subsequently divorced her husband, the Egyptian film director Ezzel Dine Zul­ficar, and Sharif converted to Islam so he could marry her.

The wedding made headlines throughout the Arab world – the couple easily were the Arab world’s equivalent of Brangelina.

Hamama and Sharif went on to star together in nearly 10 films. Their chemistry shone in the romantic dramas Struggle in the Valley and the 1959 melodrama La Anam (I Don't Sleep).

They last acted together in Nahr El Hub (River of Love), a 1961 Arabic remake of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

In a 2003 interview with a newspaper, Sharif blamed his constant travelling for his role in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia for their eventual break-up in 1974.

“It separated me from my wife, from my family,” he said. “We didn’t see each other anymore and that was it, the end of our marriage. I might have been happier having stayed an Egyptian film star.”

Hamama went on to marry again – this time to the Egyptian physician Mohamed Abdel Wahab Mahmoud – and chose to do fewer films.

Her last role was in the acclaimed 2001 Ramadan drama Wajh Al-Qamar (Faces of the Moon), which won the Best Series award in the Egyptian Radio and Television Festival that year.

Hamama’s death on Saturday was announced in a statement on the Egypt’s official news agency Mena. Her son, Tarek Sharif, did not give a cause of death, while according to Mena she had been hospitalised weeks earlier for an undisclosed illness.

Hamama is survived by her husband and her children Nadia Zulficar and Tarek Sharif.

* With additional reporting by AFP