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Celebrating the Life of Naima Akef, Egypt’s Iconic Dancer and Film Star

October 7, 2023
Photo credit: The Raqs Sharqo Museum.

A star of impeccable talents, Naima Akef was a dancer, singer, and actress from Egypt’s golden age of cinema. Her skillset made her one of the most entertaining vaudevillian performers of her time. She lived a full life and had her fair share of ups and downs throughout. Ninety-one years later, she stands tall as a cultural icon; her legacy remains alive and well.

Akef was born on October 7, 1929, in Tanta, Egypt. Her journey started in a nurturing environment that eventually propelled her to global recognition. Hailing from a family of performers, Akef showed promise from a young age. Her father, the owner of the then-renowned Akef Circus, quickly recognized her abilities.

Photo credit: Ciné Le Caire.

The Akef Circus was an extravagant entertainment venue akin to an Egyptian version of Cirque du Soleil in the 1930s. This circus featured elaborate acrobatic acts and captivating dance performances, providing a vibrant backdrop for Akef’s burgeoning talent. At the age of four, her acrobatic act became a fan favorite, attracting audiences from all over Egypt.

When Akef was ten years old, her family relocated to Cairo due to financial and family difficulties. They settled on Mohamed Ali Street, a renowned neighborhood known for housing artists and performers.

At the age of fourteen, Akef began her career as a belly dancer by joining the esteemed Badia Masabni Company, which was the most celebrated belly dancing group during that period. Later on, she started performing as a belly dancer at the Kit Kat Casino, a venue frequented by Cairo’s social elite, including movie stars and directors.

During her tenure at the infamous nightclub, director Ahmed Kamil Marsa discovered her and introduced her to the silver screen in 1949 as a dancer in Set Al Bait (The Lady of the House, 1949). Then, director Hussein Fawzi cast her in the film Aish W Malh (Breaking Bread, 1949). In the same year, she took on her first cinematic leading role, starring in the musical ‘Lahalebo’ (1949).

After Fawzi signed an exclusive contract with her, he married her, and they worked together in 15 films. Their last collaboration before their separation was the film Ohebok Ya Hasan (I Love You, Hassan, 1958).

Photo credit: Ciné Le Caire.

Akef was a true polymath of the arts, to the extent that her renown transcended borders and achieved international acclaim. She traveled with the Egyptian delegation to China in September 1956 to perform an operetta titled Ya Leil Ya Ein (Oh Night, Oh Eye). The following year, she went to Moscow as part of the sixth World Festival of Youth and Students to perform three choreographic pieces: The Citadel’s Massacre, Andalusian Dance, and The Life of Dawn. The judging panel of the festival gave her the title of the World’s Best Dancer, surpassing participants from over a dozen countries.

Over her 15-year career, Akef dazzled audiences with her performances in 26 films, some of which remain classics from Egypt’s golden age of cinema.

Photo credit: Rotana Classic.

Her final movie, and perhaps one of her finest performances, Amir Al Dahaa (Prince of Cunning, 1964), was a remake of Henry Barakat’s earlier work, Prince of Vengeance, based on Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

In her last years, Akef remarried her accountant, Salaheldeen Abdel Aleem. The birth of her only child was a turning point in her career, as she chose to quit the spotlight and dedicate most of her time and effort to her son.

A few years later, she fell seriously ill with stomach cancer and tragically passed away on 23 April 1966, at the young age of 36.

Despite her untimely death, Akef was one of Egypt’s most innovative dancers who has left an enduring legacy that stands the test of time.

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