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AlRawabi School for Girls Actors on Changing the Narratives on Validation and Social Taboos

Welcome the AlRawabi School for Girls, class of 2024. The hit show’s characters, like the actors behind them, are ready to change the narratives on validation and social taboos

AlRawabi School for Girls Actors

From top, left to right: Tara Atalla, Raneem Haitham, Kira Yaghnam, Sarah Yousef, Thalia Alansari, Tara Abboud, all wear Valentino. Photo: Mazen Abusrour

When AlRawabi School for Girls exploded onto screens in 2021, Arab viewers weren’t quite ready for what hit them. Created by Tima Shomali and Shirin Kamal for Netflix, the Jordanian coming-of-age teen drama focused on a diverse group of girls navigating life’s turmoil in their elite private school in Amman. The six-episode limited series starred Noor Taher, Andria Tayeh, Rakeen Saad, Joanna Arida, Yara Mustafa, Salsabiela, and veteran actresses Nadera Emra, and Reem Saadeh. It followed Mariam and her motley crew of outcast friends as they plotted their revenge on school bully Layan and her venomous sidekicks with dire consequences. Streaming in 190 countries, in 32 languages, season one was an immediate success. The show drew comparisons to American counterparts such as 13 Reasons Why and Mean Girls, boldly exploring regionally taboo themes of sexual assault, physical and mental abuse, corruption, and honor killings that depicted the darker side of patriarchy. Social media feeds were instantly set ablaze in a rabid frenzy of adoration and aversion of the show in equal measure.

AlRawabi School for Girls Actors

From top, left to right: Raneem Haitham, Kira Yaghnam, Tara Abboud, Sarah Yousef, Tara Atalla, Thalia Alansari, all wear Lama Jouni. Photo: Mazen Abusrour

After a year of writing and two continuous months of shooting, the long-awaited season two is ready to take screens by storm once again with a slew of fresh faces gracing Rawabi’s powder pink corridors. In the early scenes of the follow-up, viewers meet Sarah, played by Tara Abboud. As an awkwardly quiet introvert, she dreams of her 15 minutes of fame. Sarah’s desperation and longing for the recognition of her peers immediately pull at viewers’ heart strings. She is being rooted for from the get-go. “Sarah is a complicated character,” says Abboud. “She changes drastically from one episode to the next. I felt like I related to her in a lot of ways. I tried to find her motivation. Tima’s guidance was very important for me to understand her internal dialogues. Sarah is vulnerable and very much wanting to fit in. Her sense of who she is only through the validation of others and her self love is very limited.”  Social comparison and its detrimental effects on self-esteem, self-image, and mental wellbeing is a running thread throughout the new season. “This is something that a lot of teenagers struggle with, especially now when they compare themselves with others on social media and the perfect lives that they see. I think a lot of teens will relate to that and learn from her mistakes,” reveals Abboud.

AlRawabi School for Girls Actors

From top, left to right: Raneem Haitham wears dress, Loewe; earrings, Valentino. Tara Abboud wears dress, Loewe; earrings, bracelet, ring, Fendi. Thalia Alansari wears top, pants, Loewe. Tara Atalla wears T-shirt, skirt, Loewe; earrings, Fendi. Photo: Mazen Abusrour

While Rawabi may be her first regionally high-profile work, the Palestinian-Jordanian actor started her career in 2008 working with Shomali in her short film, Log In, and Amjad Al Rasheed’s Princess of the Mountains in 2009. In 2019, she landed her first TV role in the Ramadan series Obour starring fellow Jordanian Saba Mubarak, soon followed by her first lead in a feature film Amira, which premiered at the 78th Venice film festival and led to her winning the Screen International’s Arab Stars of Tomorrow award at the Cairo International Film Festival 2020. “I think with any piece of art, it’s really important to push the boundaries and change the narrative,” says Tara Atalla who plays the role of Nadine, Sarah’s fiercely overprotective and outspoken best friend. Having grown up in Dubai, one of the Middle East’s most cosmopolitan cities, Atalla is a firm believer in the need to expose all generations to the more uncomfortable aspects of life for Arab teens.  “All art needs to raise awareness about taboos and talk about controversial issues, to get people to talk and have conversations that may be uncomfortable but are important and needed. In my opinion, that’s the whole point of creating art, and that’s exactly what Rawabi has done. Even if it’s not always a positive conversation at times and that’s what’s amazing about it.”

Left to right: Sarah Yousef, Kira Yaghnam, Thalia Alansari, Raneem Haitham, all wear 12 Storeez. Photo: Mazen Abusrour

As with any real high school, the diversity of characters results in a clash of personalities. This season’s popular girls we love to hate come in the form of perfect princess Tasneem, played by Sarah Youssef, and spikey bombshell Hiba, played by Kira Yaghnam. With a special interest in amplifying marginalized voices, and using the stage as a vessel for good, Youssef finds acting to be one of the most cathartic ways of expressing herself. Her passion for acting and performing came to light at the age of 11, and throughout her school years, she found herself most comfortable in front of an audience, developing her talents by mirroring the people around her. “Tasneem is every high school girl’s dream,” says Youssef. “But as the show goes on, we discover that what lies beneath this perfect image is a lot of imperfect reality. As I was preparing to play her, I remembered certain girls who went to my school who were pretty, popular, and talented and later, I found out that they’re not as perfect or as happy as they seemed to be.”

Sarah Yousef, Thalia Alansari, Kira Yaghnam, all wear Loro Piana. Photo: Mazen Abusrour

“Personally, I would have never wanted to get on Hiba’s bad side if she was with me in school because she would make your life a living hell,” laughs Yaghnam. “She is every high schooler’s and teacher’s worst nightmare. But her weaknesses and more human side are revealed later on.” Having grown up around acting—Yaghnam’s mother is Palestinian-Jordanian actor Dina Raad-Yaghnam, a well-established thespian in her own right—she was familiar with the industry from a young age. “When I landed this role, my mother practiced scenes with me and gave me advice on how to approach certain elements of the character. On a personal level, it really brought us closer together.” She is currently studying psychology to deepen her understanding of human nature and the inner workings of the human mind, which she believes are integral to being a skilled actor. “I tried to tap into what makes Hiba tick, building her rebellious character, even creating childhood traumas for her that led to this hard outer shell that she formed that were not really seen on screen. At first glance, Hiba is a confident, dark, and intimidating character but we learn that there’s so much more than meets the eye.”

Kira Yaghnam, Sarah Yousef, both wear Loewe. Photo: Mazen Abusrour

Much of the popularity of the series may be in part due to the large cast of characters and their ability to serve as mirrors for viewers, an idea that continues in season two. In stark contrast to the severity of the more aggressively vocal leads, Tasneem’s adoring cousin, Farah, is a refreshing source of bright positivity in a sea of teenage angst. “Farah was a challenging character to play,” says newcomer Raneem Haithem who earned the role. “On the outside she’s happy and bubbly, always wants to fit in, but deep down she’s extremely sensitive, she’s faking happiness and being ok just to seek validation and approval from others, which is a key theme in Rawabi this season. She’s someone that everyone can relate to at some point in their lives.”

Photo: Mazen Abusrour

In real life, Thalia Elansari who plays the role of moody class photographer, Shams, is no stranger to social media fame. With an impressive 45K + followers to her name, Elansari’s route to acting came via TikTok, her own experience mirroring that of the Rawabi characters. “Before I started TikTok, I was a loner, I didn’t have many friends, I was quite insecure and had built up a wall of shyness. So, to see people validating me online was a very big thing for me. For the first time ever, people were seeing me in a way that I’d never seen myself before,” she says. But with this validation, came some negativity. “I learned to put the hateful comments aside,” says the first-time actor. “Once you gain confidence and are sure of who you are, the discouraging comments don’t affect you as much. When I started working on Rawabi, I began to focus on it more and I realized that I was watching my own experience play out in real life. I can’t wait for the message of the show to get out.”

While it can be argued that the show is overdramatized and exaggerated at times, at its core, the characters are a broad reflection of teens across both the Arab and wider world. What often gets brushed off as over-the-top and frivolous teenage melodrama in both real life and on our screens, could instead be viewed as an unadulterated passion for new experiences and an untold future. What’s certain is that the new Rawabi crew knows how to offer up the raw beating hearts of teenage girls filled with everything they care about, demanding that the world stands up and pays attention. Unlike race, gender, or class, which have the power to control and divide, one thing that the Rawabi School for Girls proves is that the rollercoaster of youth is undeniably universal.

Originally published in the February 2024 issue of Vogue Arabia

Style: Amine Jreissati
Makeup: Laura Madar
Hair: Fawzi Nabil Fawzi Ghzail
Photography assistants: Kareem Goussous, Abdullah Khair
Style assistant: Layan Shraideh
Makeup assistant: Liana Qawasmi
Hair assistant: Hamzeh Al Zamer
Producer: Sam Allison
Production coordinator: Dyala Younis

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