She made headlines for her appearance in 2018’s Collateral as the first Saudi actor to star in a Netflix series, and her films have been lauded at festivals around the world. However, Ahd Kamel‘s rise to success certainly wasn’t forged overnight; instead, it was painstakingly crafted over years of self-discovery and endless effort. And it is that story that the Saudi actor is now sharing with the world in a bid to inspire others to embrace their own journeys in life.
Kamel last week delivered a stirring address at The Conference, a two-day event held in Malmo, Sweden, that brings together speakers from all over the world. The non-profit conference explores “complexity and trends in the digital world,” with guests speaking from a range of backgrounds and disciplines. Kamel first attended the event last year with her partner, technology entrepreneur and expert Yousef Tuqan. “We had a blast, and the organizers were so taken by my story that they invited me back as a speaker,” the actor tells Vogue.me.
Tasked with delivering an address, Kamel deliberated over the subject matter before deciding on opening up about her story. “Odd Camel From a Magic Kingdom” charts the star’s childhood in Riyadh through to her studies in the US and her modern-day life as an actor and filmmaker based in London. “I kept reflecting on how I had gotten to this point of my career and my life, and the journey I had been on. Everything along my path – the successes, the failures, the lessons learned – were all building blocks,” she says.
The result was an insightful, moving speech that touched on her experience growing up as a woman in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. “When I was born, women were not allowed to drive, let alone study, work, or travel without the consent of their male guardian,” she told a rapt audience. “Men and women were segregated in public, cinemas were forbidden, music was banned, and we even had religious police. Notice that I’ve been using the past tense, because in 2017 magic struck the kingdom and the spell was lifted. Women were discovered. We’re allowed to drive. Segregation laws were relaxed. The ban on cinema and entertainment was lifted. I never thought I’d see the day, but it came. One royal decree, one swipe of the King’s pen, and everything changed overnight.”
Kamel found her passion outside the Kingdom, however, first enrolling in animation at New York’s Parsons School of Design, before going to to study filmmaking and acting. “I was not ready to go back to Saudi Arabia, it was too hard and painful,” says the actor, whose mother and father both passed from cancer while she was in her teens. “I had lost my parents and they’d sold the family home. I applied to film school, and what started off as a ploy to buy more time in America turned into a calling. I fell head over heels for filmmaking and acting.”
A subsequent divorce, in addition to the 2008 financial crisis, left Kamel feeling “bleak”, but a story written by her brother inspired her to make her first film, at a time she had been contemplating letting go of her dream. 2009’s The Shoemaker was a success on the festival circuit, and Kamel went on to star in Sanctity and Wadjda, the 2012 hit directed by Saudi filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour. She is next appearing in Being, an American horror movie set to be released later this year.
“I’m also working on the development of a film – I can’t say much about it yet but it’s a powerful story that grabbed me the moment I first heard about it,” Kamel tells Vogue.me, also adding that she’s working on a one-woman show based on her talk at The Conference. “Giving this speech was a deeply personal experience, and I was touched by how many people came up to me and thanked me for sharing my story. Some were even moved to tears. It was truly a cathartic and empowering moment for me.” Being on stage in London has “always been a dream of mine”, Kamel added – and, as a woman who has turned many of her dreams into reality, it’s likely only a matter of time until this one bears fruit.
Photography: Philip Sinden
Stylist: David Nolan
Hair: Mike O’Gorman
Makeup: Michelle Dacillo
Location: The Chess Clu, London