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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Late Egyptian actress and singer Shadia's road from stardom to spirituality

Star appeared in over 100 films and sang songs that inspired generations of Egyptians

Popular Egyptian singer and actress Shadia in the early 1950s. AFP
Popular Egyptian singer and actress Shadia in the early 1950s. AFP

The iconic Egytian actress and singer Shadia has passed away in a Cairo hospital aged 86.

Born Fatma Ahmed Kamal Shaker, she was hospitalised following a stroke last month. Egypt's president Abdel Fattah El Sisi visited Shadia in hospital on November 10 following reports that her condition had deteriorated.

Figures from the regional industry were quick to pay tribute to the late icon.

Journalist Joseph Fahim tweeted: "Shadia was one of the Arab World's most eclectic performers: a comedienne par excellence; an atypical femme-fatale; and the unrivaled queen of melodramas. She was a chameleon; a daring superstar who continues to captivate all Arabs. RIP."

Lebanese singer Elyssa said: "We lost an icon. Rest in peace Shadia! I remember singing your songs back in the days when I was still a young contestant in a talent show and I will always perform your songs as a tribute to you"

While Egyptian pop star and actress Sherine Abdelwahab tweeted "goodbye you darling of Egyptian cinema Shadia. May God grant you mercy."

Shadia found fame quite by accident. In 1947, at the age of 16, her father signed her up for a talent competition organised by Egypt’s Union of Artists. She would star in her first feature film, Azhar w Ashwak (Flowers and Thorns), that same year, and go on to appear in more than 100 movies before her retirement from stage and screen in 1987 to pursue a more spiritual life – her final film was 1984’s La tas2alny man ana (Don't Ask Me Who I Am).

Shadia rose to prominence during the golden age of Egyptian cinema, spanning roughly three decades from the forties to the sixties, when competition for star billing was fierce. The actress stood out for her eclectic roles, from the 1962 drama El less wal kilab (Chased by Dogs) to the classic comedy Alzouga talattasha (The Thirteenth Wife), and her refusal to be typecast.

When she feared she was becoming pigeonholed she began producing her own movies, such as 1959's Al Mar'a Al Majwhula (The Anonymous Woman), which were marked by a social consciousness and allowed her to demonstrate an increasingly nuanced acting range.

But it was her talent as a singer that really gave her the edge over the competition with a string of songs which remain staples in Egyptian households. She explained her dual role as actress and singer in an early 1980's interview with Kuwaiti TV.

“The stage has always been a goal of mine but it always scared me,” she explained. “Being a singer is also like an actor in that you are singing songs that are stories. But the stage is such a responsibility because it needs a total commitment. I needed to ask myself if I was able to do this and once I was satisfied I went ahead. I am so glad I did as the stage opened in a new road for me on my artistic journey. Yes, it is tiring, but it gave me a new and amazing kind of joy.”

While Shadia was renowned for her love songs and patriotic odes to her Egyptian homeland, the star saw the two as inseparable. In an Egyptian TV interview in the early eighties she said: “I also view my patriotic songs as love songs because I am singing for my country and my people. It is actually more honest and straight from the heart.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Shadia’s most popular song, 1970's Yahibibti Yas Masr (My Darling O’Egypt) combined these two elements.

“I was about to return to the stage for the first time in years," she said in the same television interview. "I was rehearsing this song called Aali and we were talking about Masr (Egypt) and how can we express it in a song. And then I just said 'Ya habibti ya Masr.' The next day we performed it on television and on the third day we recorded it in the studio.”

It has been reported that Shadia’s retirement from film and subsequently donning of the hijab came on the back of meeting the famed Egyptian cleric Sheikh Muhammad Metwali Alsharawi in 1987.

In his biography of the spiritual figure Urfat Alsharawi author Mahmoud Jameh said the two first met in Mecca where Shadia was undertaking Umrah. That brief encounter and Shadia’s spiritual awakening led her to seek Alsharawi’s counsel when returning to Cairo before she announced her retirement in 1987.

While remaining away from the entertainment spotlight, Shadia dedicated the next phase of her life to humanitarian causes.

Her funeral is planned for Wednesday.

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