Born in Wana, Egypt, and raised near the Khan El Khalil bazaar in Cairo, this world-renowned belly dancer began her performance career in a 1940s Cairo nightclub owned by Badia Masabni, a highly influential Syrian-born dancer, who also discovered Tahiyya Carioca. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Gamal met and began co-starring with Syrian— Lebanese singer—composer Farid al-Atrache (who became her lover) in several Egyptian musicals, in which she played the love interest. These included: The Genie Lady (Henri Barakat, 1949), the acknowledged inspiration for the orientalist U.S. television shows I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched; It’s You I Love (Ahmed Badrakhan, 1949); Last Lie (Badrakhan, 1950); Come and Say Hello (Helmi Rafla, 1951); Don’t Tell Anyone (Barakat, 1952); and A Glass and a Cigarette (Niazi Mustafa, 1955).
Like her contemporary and rival, Tahiyya Carioca, Gamal’s belly dancing combined Western forms, including ballet and flamenco, but Gamal’s innovation was a modern improvisational style that involved freer movement and seemed less formal; she was also the first belly dancer to wear high-heeled shoes while performing. In 1949, King Farouk proclaimed her the National Dancer of Egypt. Thus did she garner international attention, soon enjoying a nightclub run in New York City’s Latin Quarter, becoming the subject of a series of Gjon Mili photographs that appeared in the 24 March 1952 issue of Life magazine, and featuring in the French cinematic production of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (Jacques Becker, 1954). After a failed marriage to a Texas businessman claiming bogus oil wealth, she returned to Egypt, where she married actor Rushdi Abaza, and in 1959, was cast alongside Omar Sharif as a benevolent government spy posing as a belly dancer in Rendezvous with a Stranger (Atef Salem). Gamal continued performing with relative consistency well into her seventies, almost until her death from cancer.