CAIRO — Ragaa el-Gedawy was rarely the leading lady of the movies she starred in, but that did little to diminish her standing as one of Egypt’s most beloved actors.
In a prolific career that spanned six decades, from the golden age of Egyptian cinema in the 1950s until a few months ago, el-Gedawy had roles in more than 300 plays, films and television series. Her combination of grace, naturalism and comic skill, honed by a relentless work ethic, made her a cherished favorite of successive generations.
“She was the quaint actress everyone loved,” said Joseph Fahim, an Egyptian film critic. “And she was super funny. She would steal the screen from other actors with her lightness.”
El-Gedawy died on July 5 at an isolation hospital in her hometown, Ismailia, on the Suez Canal, after a six-week battle with COVID-19, her daughter, Amira Mokhtar, said. She was 85.
Among those mourning her death was Belgian actor Jean-Claude Van Damme, who had met her a few months earlier. “She was so full of life, cheerful and majestic,” he wrote in a tribute on Instagram that circulated widely in the Arab world, where el-Gedawy was recognized as a stalwart of Egypt’s once-dominant
She was born Nagaat Aly Hassan el-Gedawy (she changed her first name when she began her acting career) on Sept. 6, 1934, the youngest of five, at a time when Egypt was under indirect British colonial rule. Her parents — Aly el-Gedawy, a lawyer, and Noon-Fatma el-Gamil — divorced when she was young, and she and her sister were sent to Cairo to live with their aunt, Tahia Carioca, one of the most celebrated belly dancers of the age.
El-Gedawy was educated by Franciscan nuns at a prestigious boarding school, where she learned English, Italian and French. To support her mother, she worked first at a public parking lot, then as a translator. In 1958, she entered a beauty pageant and was crowned Miss Cotton Egypt. Show business beckoned.
In 1959, she had a role in the movie “The Nightingale’s Prayer,” which Egypt nominated as its entry in the foreign-language category at the Academy Awards that year. She worked briefly as a model in France before returning home to star alongside Omar Sharif and Soad Hosny in the comedy “A Rumor of Love” (1960).