Egyptian screen siren Hind Rostom was an accidental feminist

The 'Marilyn Monroe of Arabia', who died a year ago next month, broke the stereotype of weak, meek leading ladies in Egyptian cinema.

The actress in a scene from 1958's Youssef Chahine's Bab Al Hadid.
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What do you do when you are about to meet a screen goddess from the golden era of Egyptian cinema, one whose talent and presence shone through in both black-and-white and glorious Technicolor?

Well, if your name is Mahmoud Saad, you become giddy with excitement, grabbing and kissing her hand upon meeting her, breaking almost every accepted professional and cultural convention when your big moment arrives.

A respected journalist with Egypt's Al Masriya television channel, Saad secured a rare interview with Hind Rostom, the so-called Marilyn Monroe of Arabia, in 2010.

Saad says he couldn't help himself and "would have done anything to meet Madame Rostom", even agreeing to not film her face during the interview and, instead, use clips from her movies projected over her spoken words.

But Rostom would surprise Saad and the Arab world - she had retired from acting in 1979 - by actually appearing on screen again in what would be her last public outing before her death from a heart attack in Cairo, on August 8, 2011.

Taped inside her apartment, the footage of the interview is nothing short of mesmeric.

We see, in its opening frames, the broadcaster knocking on the door of the film star's apartment in Cairo's upscale Zamalik area and we hear the movie star's unmistakable husky laugh as she opens the door.

The octogenarian beams as she welcomes Saad like an old friend, even though the two had never previously met.

Vivacious and healthy, ageing impossibly gracefully, Rostom sits comfortably on a red sofa in her living room.

She is dressed in a chic white shirt with geometric designs, brown trousers and her long, blonde hair is held in place with two clips, one on each side of her face.

"I have no regrets," she says of her choices in life, and particularly her choice to retire.

"I did it for the love of my life, my prince, Dr Fayad," referring to her second husband Dr Mohamed Fayad, to whom she was married to for more than 50 years and who died shortly before her. Her apartment is filled with pictures of the couple and photographs of her only daughter, Passant, from her first husband, the director Hassan Reda.

The poster girl of the Arab film world, in her glory years Rostom was presented as an intoxicating mix of Rita Hayworth, Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe.

With her striking facial features, her sultry smile and trademark blonde locks, fans flocked to copy her latest look. But it wasn't just her looks that helped her rise to prominence, she also broke the stereotypical gender role of weak, meek female leading ladies that had previously prevailed in Egyptian cinema.

According to Joseph Fahim, an Egyptian film critic, "she might have been an accidental feminist. She is my favourite Arab actress of all time. I love what she represented."

Despite being tagged as the Arab Monroe, Rostom was a screen siren who did not resort to nudity, nor did she indulge in any affairs.

"She was respectable," he says.

And she has not been forgotten by the youth of Egypt. Her image reappeared in public on street art during last year's uprisings. In one highly circulated picture, Rostom is painted in black with "We'll bring you from Sharm" written in Arabic under her image, referring to Hosni Mubarak taking refuge in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh after he was ousted from Cairo.

Supporting the uprisings, Rostom had told a news channel that there are "hidden hands" controlling the revolution, even though it is the youth, "like fresh roses", who launched it.

Once a defiant youth herself, Rostom's journey to stardom was a turbulent one - she went against her father's wishes to pursue a career in acting.

"He didn't speak to me until after I was married," said Rostom of her policeman father. "He was strict and tough. He looked down at my profession, unlike my mother, who supported me whatever I did."

Nariman Hussein Murad (only later would she adopt her screen name) was born in Alexandria on November 11, 1929, to a father from Turkey and an Egyptian mother.

Her "discovery" was completely down to chance. It is said that she went with a friend to take a screen test at Al Aflam Al Motaheda Company, just for fun and in the hope of meeting some stars. While there, she caught the attention of technicians and directors alike and was asked to play a small part in Azhar wa achwak (Flowers and Thorns). And so her journey began.

Her name was credited on screen for the first time in 1949 in the film Ghazal El Banat (The Flirtations of the Girls) as a background actress during a scene that lasted for little more than two minutes. But there was something about her, and the offers started to roll in and she quickly rose to become one of Egyptian cinema's most sought-after talents.

She is most remembered for her role in Youssef Chahine's 1958 classic Bab Al Hadid (Cairo Station), a film that won international acclaim when shown in Hollywood in 1990. Throughout her career, she worked with Arab cinematic giants such as Chahine, Farid Shawqi and Omar Sharif.

She also received many accolades including the Best Actress award from the Association of Egyptian Cinema Writers and Critics for her part in el Gabân wal houbb(The Coward and Love) in 1975. She received a special mention at the Venice Film Festival for Fatin Abdel Wahab's Nessa' fi hayati (Women in My Life) in 1957 as well as a lifetime achievement award from the Arab World Institute in Paris.

Finally, she would turn down an offer of more than one million Egyptian pounds (Dh600,000) in 2002 for her life story to be turned into a drama series. "My life is not for sale," she famously said. Her films have received some special attention posthumously as discussion of censorship heated up with the rise of the Islamists. Indeed, her more provocative scenes could well end up on the cutting-room floor in the near future.

This turn of events would, I suspect, horrify Rostom, who told Saad that she didn't care about being rich but did care about "being respected and appreciated".

She would fall prey to her own laissez-faire sentiment towards wealth after her husband's death, when his surviving relatives took legal action against her, demanding a chunk of his estate. Of the five cases they filed, the verdict for two of them fell in Rostom's favour. Three more were still ongoing at the time of her death.

Her significance remained undimmed by the passing years. Maximillien De Lafayette, the Hollywood and cinema historian, described Rostom as "an international star and an unmatched diva of the golden years of cinema, both Egyptian and foreign" in his 2011 book Hind Rostom: The World's Greatest Actress.

Perhaps, though, the final words should be left to the star herself. When asked by Saad why she decided to show her face in the interview after initially insisting on just her voice being taped, she said it was "for my fans".

"Salam and kisses to you all," she added, looking directly at the camera, offering a fitting farewell to those who adored her.

Rym Ghazal is a senior features writer for The National.