The Dark Side of the Moon

The Dark Side of the Moon

Nadia Amin

Nadia Amin reports on the tragic life and death of movie legend Soad Husni,

Soad Husni was born in Cairo, on 26 January 1942. Nicknamed Egypt’s Cinderella she took her own life in London this summer solstice, 21 June, aged 59. One of the foremost Egyptian symbols of romance in the 1960s, 70s and early 1980s, Soad Husni started her career as a small child, before she could read or write. At the age of three she won the nation’s heart singing the song Sister of the Moon, subsequently earning herself that title as a childhood nickname. By her 17th birthday, she had starred in her first feature film.

The epitome of charm, beauty and seductive softness, combined with guts and energy, Soad Husni was passionate about her career. She was quick to acquire fame throughout the Arab world, and like her sister, the famous Egyptian singer Najat El Saghira, was blessed with a beautiful voice which lead to several of her screen songs becoming national pop hits. Take Care of Zouzou (1972), one of her most famous films, was the equivalent of an Egyptian Sound of Music which packed out cinema box offices for over a year.

She appeared in no less than 83 films, including roles in which she co-starred with the famous singer, Abdul Haleem Hafez and Omar El Sherif, a lifelong friend. Some of her films were screenplay adaptations of the novels of Egypt’s Nobel Prize winning author, Najib Mahfouz.

Soad Husni excelled in a variety of roles ranging from that of a naughty child (at the age of seven), to political upstart, feminist, superwoman, subdued housewife, rich girl, poor girl, revolutionary; and, of course, the tragic heroine.

She became the role model for a generation of actors throughout the Arab world, giving life to fragile emotions on screen to the extent that those attending the late show became used to seeing the tearful eyes of those emerging from the earlier one.

Her feistiness and passion on screen made her popular with feminists, while her vibrance and softness, together with a twinkle of innocence and mischief in her eye made her a hearthrob for the masses. Adel Sadiq said “she had a charisma no-one but Nasser and Um Kulthoum could match”. The famous actor Adel Imam called her “a magician” for the empathy which enabled her to bring life and depth to every role.

Soad symbolised the Egyptian woman in her heyday. She grasped the freedom offered by Nasser’s Egypt and combined the equality that period brought with her unerring femininity. The film industry was at its peak and unrivalled in the Arab world. She represented the free spirit of Egyptian cinematography, a woman with guts and outrageous cheek — yet also with huge sensitivity and femininity.

Expectations of femininity began to change with the rise of the Islamic movement. Soad’s spirit was perhaps too outrageous and daring — she represented the kind of woman the movement wanted to subdue.

Perhaps more influential than this switch in the political climate at home was the death of her spiritual mentor, the Egyptian colloquial poet Salah Jaheen, which heralded a marked slowdown in Soad’s career.

Jaheen was Soad’s guide, her emotional anchor, and unofficial advisor. She would take every script to him before deciding whether to take the part on offer. Her half sister, Jihan, recalled: “When he died she started screaming and crying saying `my father is dead’!”. While she brought joy, vitality and innocence into his life, he provided her with both an anchor and a compass in hers. His death left her alone on an uncharted ocean — where she eventually lost her direction — and at a time when changes in Egypt meant she needed him most.

Jaheen’s death may have led to the deep depression from which she suffered in the 1980s and never fully recovered; a depression which made her choose to live by night and spend her daylight hours submerged in dreams.

Her insecurity and the need for a mentor no doubt stemmed from her turbulent though artistic childhood. She was one of an extended family of 17 children. Her father, the prominent calligrapher Mohamed Husni married nine times in all. He already had eight children by his first wife before he met and married Soad’s mother and had another three. She was his 10th child. However, it was not long before her parents divorced leaving her to spend the rest of her childhood living in first one home with her mother and a new husband then with her father and his new wife, according to custody law. This undoubtedly contributed to a sense of insecurity about herself and her abilities which was to shadow Soad for the rest of her life.

Soad herself married several times. Her first husband was the cinematographer Salah Karim. Love blossomed in 1965 when she was working with him on the film The Three Adventurers. The marriage did not last long. Within a year they had separated.

Her second and perhaps most significant marriage was to the respected producer Ali Badrkhan. He was enchanted by her screen performances saying “she intuitively grasped the very heart of every role she played”. Soad found happiness with Badrkhan, during the 11 years they lived together she made some of her most beautiful and successsful films. Five of these were produced by him including Al Hub Al lathi kan (The Love that Was) and Al Rayi w’al Nisaa’ (The Shepherd and the Maiden).

Soad saw herself spending the rest of her life with Ali and dreamed of having a family with him — but that was not her destiny. Doctors told her that pregnancy terminations suffered during her previous, unfulfilling marriage had resulted in her no longer being able to conceive. She was devastated, her bitterness compounded by the fact her husband dearly wanted children and she was unable to fulfill his wish.

When they eventually divorced, Ali remarried and quickly started a family.

The birth of his first child — a boy named Ahmed, after his grandfather, hit Soad like a bolt of lightning, somehow deepening her sense of aloneness.

In her later years, with no strong emotional anchor, no family of her own, and no fulfilling career, a downturn in physical health provided her main focus.

She travelled to England for a course of medical treatment, with the financial support of the Egyptian government. In London she effectively went into hiding, shunning cameras, and seeing only close friends — hoping her decline would not be recorded and something would happen to help her get her life back on track. In a flat in central London, she spent time thinking of ways to re-invent herself. She read self-help and positive thinking books to give her the courage to make changes.

But her age and the considerable amount of weight she had gained through illness meant she could no longer play romantic roles, and she felt expectations of women in cinema had changed. She admired feisty roles like that of Julie Robert in Erin Brokovich — but felt these were in short supply in Egypt’s current artistic climate.

Ironically — though she wanted her slimmer body back — she had a disregard for formality and appearance, turning up to a London birthday party organised in her honour, in casual clothes — her hair in a ponytail — in stark contrast to the coiffured and glittering appearance of her guests. Perhaps she felt more pressure to live up to the expectations of her image at home in Egypt, gaining comfort from both the anonymity and `anything goes’ nature of London. “I can’t let people see me like this, or take photos of me when I’m in this state,” she told journalist Mithat El Sabaye. “It is impossible for me to return home when I’m like this.

When the finance for her treatment in London was withdrawn, she could not face returning to Egypt. Throughout the last months she maintained the magnetism and charisma that had made her a screen idol — often making her condition the brunt of her own wit. Though she made no secret of her distress at her physical state, her energy and passion, together with her sense of mischief and her sense of humour, often masked the depth of hopelessness she felt inside.

She took her life by jumping off the balcony of the sixth floor flat where she was staying on London’s Edgware Road, before the twinkle of the first star on the shortest night of the year. Shortly before her death she gave instructions that all her personal effects should be given to the poor and to charities.

Egyptian television interrupted all programmes to announce her death. Together with Omar El Sherif’s ex-wife Fatin Hamama she shares the role of leading female actress of her generation in the Arab world. Perhaps more than that, she stands as a symbol of the Egyptian or Arab woman at the height of her emancipation.

COPYRIGHT 2001 IC Publications Ltd.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning