From the land of pyramids, pharaohs, and papyrus, we bring you a look at Egyptian culture past and present. Grab a cup of mint tea, fire up the hookah, crack open a novel by Naguib Mahfouz, play some songs by Abdel Halim Hafez, or put on a movie starring Omar Sharif and join us while we share recipes, music, jokes, videos, and current events from Egypt.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Thursday Thirteen: Famous Egyptians

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Today's Scribes: Carleen and Iman

When we think of famous Egyptians, our minds typically travel back in time to the days of the pharaohs. It doesn't take long to conjur up a few famous names from the days of old: King Tut, Cleopatra, Nefertiti. It's as if science, culture, and the arts in Egypt ended with the last pharaoh. Not so! Egypt has produced some internationally famous people, so our list this week will highlight some of them. And if these thirteen are just enough to pique your interest, you'll find more famous Egyptians here.

Famous Egyptians

Omar Sharif (b. 1932)

Before he became known in the West, Omar Sharif was already a big star in his native Egypt. He married Egypt's version of Sandra Dee, a beautiful startlet named Faten Hamama. They divorced in 1974, and Sharif never remarried, saying that he married only once because he loved only once.

Umm Kalthoum (1904-1975)

No Egyptian celebrity is as much beloved as Kawkab el-Sharq, the Star of the East. When Umm Kalthoum died in 1975, more than 4 million Egyptians took to the streets to join in her funeral procession; it remains one of the largest gatherings in history. Upon her death, biographer Virginia Danielson, in an attempt to help Americans understand the depth of the mourning that Egyptians specifically and Arabs in general felt, wrote in Harvard Magazine, "Imagine a singer with the virtuosity of Joan Sutherland or Ella Fitzgerald, the public persona of Eleanor Roosevelt and the audience of Elvis and you have Umm Kulthum, the most accomplished singer of her century in the Arab world."

Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006)

Nobel Laureate for Literature in 1988, Naguib Mahfouz was born and grew up in the same district of Cairo as The Amazing Egyptian Dude. His early novels were made into films starring some of Egypt's most popular actors, among them Omar Sharif and his wife, Faten Hamama. He is one of my (Carleen) favorite authors.

Asaad Kelada

You might not recognize his name or his face, but if you were watching television in the 80's, you know Asaad Kelada. His long term directing credits include: Rhoda, WKRP in Cincinnati, Facts of Life, Who's the Boss?, In the House, Sister Sister, Dharma & Greg. He also directed the pilot episode of Family Ties, the show that catapulted Michael J. Fox to fame. His resume is quite long! More of his credits are available here.

Raya and Sakina

The subject of countless films, plays and miniseries, the brutal and gruesome murders carried out by a group of Egyptian thieves headed by two sisters — Raya and Sakina — in British-ruled Egypt during the years following World War I, has enthralled generations of Egyptians and Arabs. Egypt's first reported serial killers were also the first women in Egypt to receive a death sentence.

Abdel Halim Hafez (1929-1977)

One of the four "greats" of Egyptian and Arabic music, Abdel Halim Hafez rose to fame in the Fifties. Called el-Andaleeb el-Asmar, the Dark Nightingale, Abdel Halim's life story is as haunting and tragic as his music. His mother died after giving birth to him, and his father died five months later leaving four orphaned children to be cared for by an aunt. Abdel Halim never married because, after fighting for four years to win her parents' approval and her hand in marriage and finally winning, his Juliet died of a chronic illness shortly before the wedding. He mourned her loss for the remainder of his life and dedicated many of his saddest songs to the memory of her that he held onto until his own death at the age of 47 from complications of Bilharzia (Schistosomiasis). When he died, the number of mourners at his funeral was surpassed in number only by the funerals of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Umm Kalthoum.

Isaac Mizrahi (b. 1961)

Although he was born in Brooklyn, New York, Isaac Mizrahi is of Egyptian Jewish heritage.


This singing and dancing sensation was the Shirley Temple of Egyptian film. Like many child stars, fame eluded her once she became a teenager. She gave up the whole movie scene in her early 20s by marrying the actor Badr Eddin Gamgom and became a happy housewife.

Dr. Ahmed Zewail (b. 1946)

In 1999, Dr. Zewail was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his pioneering
developments in femtoscience, which made it possible to observe atoms in motion, the transition states of molecular transformations. Dr. Zewail has been nominated and will participate in President Barack Obama's Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). The council will talk about education, science, defense, energy, the economy, and technology.

Anwar Sadat (1918-1981)

Americans know Sadat as the "Abraham Lincoln of Egypt," but most Egyptians have a very different view of this highly controversial leader. While Westerners blame his assassination on the 1978 Camp David Accords that brought peace between Egypt and Israel, the average Egyptian will tell you that it was Sadat's oppressive regime, corruption, and domestic policies that led to his death.

Taha Hussein

Nicknamed the "Dean of Arabic Literature," Taha Hussein was blinded at the age of three after a botched treatment for a simple eye infection. With hard work and a little help from friends and family, he went on to become a writer, philosopher, sociologist, and reformer. His quest to bring about social and intellectual reform in Egypt was met with a great deal of resistance from conservatives, but Gamal Abdel Nasser bestowed on him the highest Egyptian decoration, normally, reserved for heads of the states.

Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970)

Nasser was a pivotal figure in the recent history of the Middle East and played a highly prominent role in the 1956 Suez Crisis. Nasser has been described as the first leader of an Arab nation who challenged what was perceived as the western dominance of the Middle East. Nasser remains a highly revered figure in both Egypt and the Arab world. His funeral remains the largest gathering in history. Said K. Aburish writes that
the world is unlikely to see anything like it again. … Five million mourners followed his cortege, and, like participants in an Irish wake, they told his life story in improvised, memorable chants. … Covering the story for CBS from Cairo, the greatest American broadcaster of the time, Walter Cronkite, was infected by the sense of the occasion, and for a moment he faltered. King Hussein of Jordan sobbed like a baby. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya fainted twice. Arafat shed silent tears while his trembling lips prayed.



  1. I remember Anwar Sadat in the news when I was a kid. I can't help noticing his years of birth and death: 18 and 81. My favorite among them would be Moses. He's a very prominent character in the Bible.

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