Sultan, whose real name was Bahija Abd al-Al, died on Monday. She was born in 1925 to a peasant family in Tanta governorate, in Egypt’s Nile Delta. Her family was conservative and did not accept singing, dancing or acting in movies.
Sultan’s eldest brother, Muhammad Fawzi, challenged his father’s authority and went to Cairo to start a singing career. The family disowned its son.
It was not until Fawzi became a superstar in the late 1940s that the family acknowledged that they were wrong and re-embraced their son.
The acknowledgment paved the way for Sultan to do what she always wanted to do, perform.
The idea of a woman leaving her family’s house and going to live alone in the capital was hard to swallow, but the family could not challenge Fawzi’s support for the idea.
Egyptian radio took on Sultan as a singer. In 1950 she appeared in her first movie, alongside superstar Farid Shawqi, in Sit al-Husn (Master of Beauty).
Sabri al-Ramahi, an Iraqi director, said: “Her death is a great loss. She was an asset. I consider her an example of self-made actress.
“Despite her brother’s support for her in the beginning, her courage in challenging her family’s authority and the then-conservative society is something amazing.”
Troubled personal life
Her first husband, Muhamad Najib, a government official who did not agree to his wife’s new lifestyle as a celebrity, divorced her soon after her first movie.
Her second husband was a movie producer, but he fell prey to jealousy and divorced Sultan.
Sultan then married Syrian Prince Fowad al-Atrash but divorced him to marry Shawqi. Their marriage lasted 15 years.
Shawqi fathered her two daughters, one of them, Nahid Shawqi, is now a star Egyptian actress and movie producer.
Sultan performed in hundreds of movies in her 56-year career. She earned dozens of medals from Arab and international festivals. Her last award was in a Cairo singing conference in 2000.
Al-Ramahi said: “Sultan’s gift was unique – she was one of the very few who could successfuly combine the talent of acting and singing.
“I can say her experience had inspired several Arab actors and actresses.”