Faten Hamama, the Egyptian-born actress whose victory in a beauty contest when she was only 7 inspired a cinematic career that would span nearly 100 films and establish her as the unrivaled “Lady of the Arabic Screen,” died on Saturday in Cairo. She was 83.
She had been in a hospital with an undisclosed illness, the Egyptian state news agency said.
Ms. Hamama was best known to American audiences as the wife of Omar Sharif, her sometime co-star whose career she had helped start, and for a leading role in the 1963 English-language film “Cairo” with George Sanders.
For a half-century, she stayed current by taking topical roles in films dealing with social justice and women’s rights. As an idolized national figure, she not only galvanized support for those causes but also helped redefine the Arab woman.
In 2000, she was named “Star of the Century” by the Egyptian Writers and Critics organization for her performances in the movies and on television and for her work as a producer. In 2007, eight of her films were among the top 100 Egyptian motion pictures cited by the cinema committee of the Supreme Council of Culture in Cairo.
Ms. Hamama was born on May 27, 1931, in Mansoura, in the Nile Delta. She was 6 when she attended her first film, she recalled, and identified with the star so immediately that when the movie was over she assumed that the audience’s ovation was intended for her.
After she won the beauty contest, her father, a civil servant in the Ministry of Education and a frustrated actor, proudly sent her photo to a movie producer, who cast her in the film “A Happy Day.” She was paid about $1.40 in today’s dollars.
But she was soon in demand by directors for her combination of innocent looks and seductive charm and called “Egypt’s Shirley Temple.” She later starred in, among other films, “The Nightingale’s Prayer,” “The Night of Fatima’s Arrest” and “I Want a Solution,” a powerful feminist drama that contributed to legal reforms that allowed women in Egypt to divorce their husbands.
In 1947, Ms. Hamama married the director Ezzel Dine Zulficar. After they divorced, she married Michel Demitri Shalhoub, an unknown actor whom she had met while filming “Struggle in the Valley” and with whom she shared her first on-screen kiss.
In an off-screen fairy-tale love story that captivated her fans, her co-star, raised Roman Catholic, converted to Islam and changed his name to Omar Sharif.
Married in 1955, they later appeared together in a number of films, including “River of Love,” an Egyptian production based on Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.”
They divorced in 1974, and Mr. Sharif attributed the breakup to his frequent trips abroad after he was discovered by Hollywood and cast in a leading role in “Lawrence of Arabia.” Complaining about the political climate in Egypt, Ms. Hamama lived in Paris, London and Lebanon in the late 1960s, despite President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s invitation to return and his characterization of her as “a national treasure.”
After her second divorce, she married Dr. Mohamed Abdel Wahab Mahmoud, who survives her, along with two children from her earlier marriages, Nadia Zulficar and Tarek Sharif.
“Art is all that elevates and inspires the human feeling,” Ms. Hamama liked to say, “and all that fails by the feeling does not belong to art.”