With unforgettable films such as Rabi’a Al Adawiyya and Al Raqesa Wal Seyasi, Egyptian actress Nabila Ebeed became one of the iconic faces of 20th-century Arab cinema. Here, she shares the story of her legendary rise to fame, and why she sacrificed it all for her art.
For nearly six decades, Egyptian actress Nabila Ebeed, who turns 78 this month, has graced silver screens across the Arab world, with vast and varied roles ranging from the religious and the historical to the compelling feminist, and socio-political. The eccentric strength she imbued her characters with earned her the titles of “Egypt’s Premier Actress” and “Arab Cinema Icon,” her name becoming a brand unto itself.
Ebeed’s obsession with cinema began at an early age, when she would run errands with her family’s housekeeper in the middle-class area of Shobra in her hometown of Cairo. Every day, the young girl would make a detour to a neighboring movie theater, where she would stand at the door in hope of catching a glimpse of the latest releases glowing on the screen. “My only focus was the cinema. I’d stay up at night thinking about the stars on the big screen. How could I be one? What did I need to do?” reminisces Ebeed. While acting was her primary goal, Ebeed adored dancing and would copy every graceful sway and energetic reverberation in front of her bedroom mirror, and it was this skill that was to become one of her on-screen signatures in the years to come.
“On Fridays I’d go and buy a ticket for the film that I’d been catching snippets of all week. I’d watch the entire film again, but this time, I’d think back and critique what I’d seen. If I didn’t like something an actor had done or I wasn’t convinced of a scene, I’d think what I would have done differently.” Little did she know at the time, this instinctive analysis and internalization of acting styles and techniques was to be the beginning of her own autodidactic cinematic training. “Even as a child, I would only accept and believe what I considered to be a truthful representation, and I would reject what seemed fake or exaggerated.”
At the age of 16, Ebeed was attending a fashion show when she was introduced to Atef Salem, an established film director who already had several successful films under his belt. Shortly after this chance meeting, she spotted Salem again, driving his car, as she was walking near her high school. “I stopped him and tried to make conversation. I told him that my mother knew his mother and his sisters in Shobra. I even befriended my mother’s friends and took every chance I could to tell them how I wanted to meet Atef Salem again.” Eventually, he called Ebeed and offered her a part in the 1960s comedy Mafish Tafahum starring Soad Hosny. It was a non-speaking role as the neighbor’s daughter dancing in front of the mirror. “My family didn’t know anything about it,” laughs Ebeed. “They assumed that I was going to school or to see a friend. And when I came in with makeup all over my face my mother would ask, and I’d say, ‘Oh it’s nothing, my friend and I were just practicing.’ However, her newfound profession did not stay secret for long, and her mother was quick to object, begging her to finish her schooling first. But Ebeed had already been bitten by the movie bug and there was no going back.
Opportunity soon came knocking at her door when producer and film magnate Helmy Rafla gave her a short test script for an upcoming film, which she performed with ease. Much to her surprise, she was given the lead role of eighth-century Islamic ascetic, poet, and writer Rabi’a Al Adawiyya. Classical Arabic teachers and religious scholars were brought on set to coach and instruct Ebeed and help her understand the crucial details of this demanding role. “The entire production team of this film was made up of cinematic greats,” she remembers. “Neyazi Mostafa was directing, Farid Shawky was the leading man, and Shady Abdel Salam designed the costumes. So, I felt like I was being ushered into the world of cinema from its very highest peak. Even now, I look back and wonder how I was able to do that role. I had no life experiences; I only had my love of cinema driving me. From that moment I gave it everything, I dedicated my entire life to it.” Rabi’a Al Adawiyya was an unprecedented box-office smash, catapulting Ebeed into the limelight. To this day, the film remains a cultural classic, etched into Arab cinematic history.
Thanks to her successful debut, Ebeed signed a lucrative three-film deal with Rafla, but her family remained an obstacle in her path to fame. “At the time, Atef Salem started visiting our mutual family friends frequently and he told them that he wanted to marry me. I knew my mother was completely against it because I was so young, she wanted me to continue my studies, but I knew it was the only way for me to act and be free.” At the tender age of 16, Ebeed married Salem. He was 42 years old.
Just as she had hoped, the movie offers began rolling in. Her next big success would also be a historical film, El mamalik with Omar Sharif, who had just found worldwide fame with his first Hollywood feature, Lawrence of Arabia. But her rapid success, her husband’s controlling and abusive behavior, and the huge age gap between them caused the deterioration of her relationship with Salem. The man who had introduced her to the glitz and glamour of the limelight was overcome with jealousy and wanted her to forgo her budding stardom to stay at home. “I assumed he’d be my support in the film industry. But he didn’t want me to shine, he wanted me to be just his wife. When I refused, he tried to sabotage my career.” After five tumultuous years, the marriage was over.
Following a stint in Lebanon and Syria, Ebeed returned to Egypt with a plan to step away from lighthearted fare. She was ready to dive headfirst into rich, gritty subject matter. She was introduced to Ihsan Abdel Quddous, who had already solidified his position as one of Egypt’s literary greats. “The subjects that Ihsan Abdel Quddous chose for me were a complete shift, they were deep and multi-faceted,” the actress recalls. Ebeed soon discovered that if she bought the rights to the stories and produced the films herself, she could have complete creative freedom.
Throughout the Seventies, she starred in artistic endeavors in cinema, television, and radio that captured the hearts and minds of audiences and critics alike. But it was the suspense drama Wa La Yazal Al Tahqiq Mostameran that she considers to be the true launchpad of the golden period of her career. She won a Best Actress award at the Alexandria Film Festival for her role as Zeinab, an overly ambitious and somewhat ruthless wife who stops at nothing to attain her dreams of wealth and an affluent life. “It was my first award and remains the dearest to my heart because it was a very difficult role. I got my first true taste of success when they called my name in that ceremony. I couldn’t believe what was happening. There was a standing ovation, and a press conference was held the next day in my honor.”
The Eighties and Nineties saw Ebeed take on roles in blockbuster after blockbuster, starring alongside the crème de la crème of leading men of the time, from Ahmed Zaki and Salah Qabeel to Nour El Sherif and Youssef Shaaban. Never one to shy away from the social and political in her films, Ebeed tackled hard-hitting issues like gender inequality, poverty, abuse, and corruption. In addition to her numerous acting accolades over the years, she was also awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Wales in 2013 for her acting achievements and services to cinema and her community.
In stark contrast to her stratospheric success in the film industry, Ebeed’s personal life was less stable. After Atef Salem, the veteran actress went on to marry three more times, her longest and most notable relationship being with Ossama El Baz, an Egyptian diplomat and chief advisor to then President Hosny Mubarak. “I think the reason we lasted so long is that I never discussed politics and he never got involved in cinema,” she explains. “I never wanted to be a housewife and I always made it very clear that my priority was work. As soon as they [her husbands] got in the way of that, I would make a swift exit from the marriage.”
Motherhood, too, was never in the cards. Even though the actress delivered some of the most memorable representations of selfless motherhood in Egyptian cinema, namely Al Athraa’ Wal Sha’r Al Abyad where she played the role of Dawlat, an infertile woman who adopts a young girl, Ebeed made a conscious decision to never have children. “I don’t know what true motherhood feels like, but in order to succeed in these roles, I channeled my mother’s love for me. Her concern for my well being, her constant care, her checking on me at night, even as an adult. I took all that and stored it internally and when I played a mother, I poured all these emotions and memories into that character.” Despite her mother’s longing for a grandchild, Ebeed has no regrets. “It was my choice. My mother did her utmost to convince me otherwise and now, in hindsight, I wish I’d fulfilled her dream and given her what she wanted but I just couldn’t. My love for the cinema was stronger than everything. It was my priority above all else.”
Now, after an illustrious career, the veteran actress has chosen to slow down and enjoy her hiatus from the silver screen, ensuring her public appearances are few and far between. “I think it surprises people to learn that I’m an uncomplicated person, I’ve always been an open book. I don’t smoke, drink, eat too much, or stay up too late. For me, it’s all about finding joy in the simple things in life, meeting genuine friends, and taking care of myself.” What does the future hold for a cinematic icon that’s done it all? An autobiographical series detailing her inimitable life and career, starring Nabila Ebeed. Naturally.
Originally published in the January 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia
Fashion director: Amine Jreissaty
Hair: Wissam Steve
Makeup: Sam Tsan with Charlotte Tilbury
Junior fashion editor: Mohammad Hazem Rezq
Lighting: Kishanth Srikanth
Floral: The Flower Society
Producer: Sam Allison