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Sanaa Gamil: Egypt’s Cactus Flower


Sanaa Gamil was a legendary Egyptian actress, born to an aristocratic Egyptian family in the 1930s. Although she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, Sanaa’s life was a vicious cycle of pain and misery. Sanaa was born in a highly conservative Christian society in El Minya governorate, Upper Egypt. Smitten by the love of acting and art, Sanaa knew from the very beginning that her life wasn’t going to be a piece of cake. She did not only encounter domestic violence, loneliness, homelessness, but even bullying and extreme poverty, yet she converted her pain into power. So, here is a worth-telling story of a woman who went from riches to rags just to pursue her passion.

Sanaa, born as Soraya Youssef Atallah, moved with her family to Cairo before World War II to enrol in the French boarding school, Le Collège de la Mère de Dieu, at the age of 9 years and remained there until high school. Sanaa’s family paid for her all the fees and expenses she needn’t until her graduation and left her forever; she never saw them again until her death! Sanaa always wondered about the reason why her parents abandoned her in such a heart-wrenching way: Was she an illegitimate child or just a worthless one? She decided to put her broken heart into art and prepared herself to join The Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts. However, Sanaa’s elder brother responded by giving her a painful slap on the face, which led later to her hearing loss in one of her ears. After she clung to her desire, Sanaa was cast out by her brother, forced to fend for herself.

Sanaa’s ordeal coincided with the historic Cairo fire that occurred on January 26, 1952. Imagine how excruciating it was for a girl at her young age, who lived all her life in a boarding school and knew nothing about the world, to be expelled from her home and to grope the streets barefoot on such a catastrophic day! She was petrified in all senses of the word. Grasping at straws, Sanaa finally resorted to the renowned actor-director, Zaki Tulaimat, who sent her to live in a house for female students. She started working as a tailoress and earned an income of 12 pounds, so she searched for a private apartment to stay in. Afterwards, Tulaimat got Sanaa a position in his Modern Theater troupe that he founded in collaboration with his students at The Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in the 1950s.

When Sanaa got her private apartment, she realized that she didn’t have any money to buy furniture, so she used to glean all the clothes she had and turn them to a bed. Such an unhealthy way of sleeping resulted in Sanaa having degenerative disk disease. Sanaa once commented on her wretched life saying that she was truly thankful for such hardships because they made her what she was: “I sometimes reminisce on my previous life and think that I am like a cactus flower that endures lots and lots of thorns but buds and blossoms at the end.

Because of her life-long French education, Sanaa barely knew how to speak formal Arabic (Fosha) and knew that she got her work cut out for her. However, Sanaa no sooner became one of the most successful actresses who can speak refined formal Arabic. She vanquished all obstacles because she had a fanatical zeal for success. She received an honorary medal from President Abdel Nasser in 1969 and acquired another one from President Sadat in 1976. Sanaa engraved her name as one of the remarkable actresses of all time with a landmark career of thirty plays and twenty films, three of which are in the list of "The Best 100 Movies in the History of Egyptian Cinema.

What makes Sanaa Gamil such a great actress is her uncanny ability to act with exceeding normality. She makes you look around at the characters you see in real life and say I’m seeing people exactly for who they really are, owing to her breakthrough vision. For instance, in the tv series El Raya El Bayda (The White Flag), in which she was playing the role of a villainess, Sanaa came to the writer and said that she wanted to add some human depth to the character because she didn’t want to portray the role of a stereotypical villainess lacking complexity and sentiment.

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Working as a professor in The Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts, Sanaa inspired success to many uprising actors and actresses. Although she hit the jackpot and explored all the avenues of life under the spotlights, Sanaa’s deprivation of familial love and support never ceased to haunt her. Her miserable childhood was akin to an ominous cloud that lingered even in her old age. Whenever Sanaa showed up in an interview, she called upon her family members wherever they were to attempt reconciliation, saying that she had led a respectable career, totally devoid of scandals. She always reached out to them and expressed her forgiveness, yet they never responded!

Sanaa Gamil and the journalist Louis Grees tied the knot in 1961 after a breath-taking love story. Sanaa and Louis’ marriage was a match made in heaven; they stayed married for 41 years until Sanaa died of cancer on December, 22, 2002. Sanaa chose not to have children as she wasn’t a well-mothered child. Sanaa expressed how afraid she was to bring human beings to life and neglect them for the sake of her career. “When we thought about our economic situation and life’s hardships after marriage, my husband and I got cold feet and decided not to have any kids and to look after one another until we die. I also couldn’t imagine having a child and handing him over to a nanny to take care of him,” Sanaa mentioned.

After Sanaa’s death, Louis did not stop talking about her until he died in 2018. He worked day and night to immortalize his better half by shooting documentaries, writing articles, and holding interviews to speak about his deep-seated love to Sanaa. Louis’ heart-breaking obituary that he wrote right after Sanaa’s death never stopped to bring people to tears: “You left me alone though we agreed not to part … Till we meet again my one and only,” Louis wrote. Louis didn’t only reminisce on missing Sanaa’s tenderness and compassion but also her arguments and anger. He always craved those bygone moments when Sanaa fumed with anger and shouted at him for leaving his cup on the table or doing anything wrong. Sanaa stated once that her only legacy in life lies in Louis and her loving audience.


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