Mona Zaki arrives on set in Dubai for her cover shoot and the crew gasps. Exceptionally slender with chiseled features, she already appears pharaonic ahead of the hair and makeup and gowns by Maison Yeya and Zuhair Murad that will transform her into an Egyptian queen. Zaki is one of the Arab world’s most prominent actors. She is cherished by both old and new generations who have welcomed her via the silver and small screens ever since she appeared in the play Bel Arabi El Faseeh in 1991. Her multiple talents range from acting, singing, and dancing and her innate curiosity is fueled from collaborating with diverse cultures across Kuwait, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
The Egyptian actor started performing when she was just thirteen years old. Her first role on television was in the form of a video clip, in 1997, for the song “Ibn el Ousol” and was followed by advertisements for luxury soap and Pantene shampoo. Over the years, her range has evolved considerably. As for her early days, she reveals, “I was bolder because I did not count my steps nor did I fear my failure, or people’s reactions.” Over time, she noticed a change. “My fame held me responsible; I became afraid of my boldness and more careful with my decisions. I try to find what suits my experience, talent, and stardom.” Along with her artistic maturity, Zaki has evolved on a personal level, especially following the birth of her daughter, Lili, who is now 17. What she values most is to be a role model for her children—she is also mother to Salim and Youness—so that they will grow to be good people for their society. She teaches them to experience life, be adventurous, and always encourages them to try new experiences because even failed ones are a part of life.
The star refuses to be classified among the actors of the so-called “righteous cinema.” Today, she accepts roles that may be perceived as shocking, such as her role in the movie Ehky Ya Shahrazad (2009), which tells the stories of women who have suffered from psychological, sexual, or social oppression. Through this film, Zaki proved that art is a way for actors to broach the taboo themes that the Arab world still fears to discuss openly. “I am an actor who plays the roles I like and that suit my artistic identity and talent, regardless of its topics,” she states. Hand-in-hand with Zaki’s careful selection of roles, she always seeks to shed light on delicate topics through her work. She is currently concerned with autism, hoping it will be addressed in one of her films. She asserts that art is not all about delivering a message, it also has to entertain the viewers, adding that it is art’s mission to discuss taboos that are so pervasive in the Arab world – including female circumcision, early sexual education, child labor, child malnutrition, and poverty.
For decades, Zaki has perfected her craft with the acting coach Luke Lehner. Even following all her years of experience, she is still keen to collaborate with him, as she is on a constant quest to develop her skills. “Before starting any project, I sit down with Luke to find new ways to play the characters, so they vary from my previous roles,” she offers. “We are working together to show different aspects of my personality and add them to the roles I play.” It is no wonder that following her intense preparation for each role coupled with her long experience and transition from the “righteous art” to one that discusses taboos, Zaki has been honored with multiple awards. The most recent is the Faten Hamama Excellence Award, offered to her by the Cairo International Film Festival last year. “I was amazed to win this award,” she recalls. “It is granted to those who have outstanding works at an early age.” She adds, “Actors are often awarded after a long career, but I got it while I am still pursuing mine, and the road ahead is very long. I got married early (23) and I was busy with my family and children. I am very proud of this award and I do cherish it. ” Zaki, along with her husband, actor Ahmed Helmy, is also a recipient of a star at the “Dubai Stars” walk of fame. The power couple were honored by Emaar Properties in October, 2019. It was created to honor international celebrities and influencers on a walkway modeled after the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “It’s a special achievement in my career,” she nods.
Beyond the accolades, surprisingly, Zaki does not like watching herself perform because she believes that she will judge herself harshly, saying, “I punish the artist inside me if she makes any mistakes.” She strives for the perfection that she considers Soad Hosny, Faten Hamama, Sanaa Jamil, and many other [iconic] actors have achieved. She admits that Ehky ya Shahrazad (2009), a film exploring female support and community, is the favorite movie of her career. She admits that when she decides to choose a role or a project, she does not consider the public’s reactions. “My choice depends on my love for the role, the script, and my conviction,” she shares. “I don’t focus on what the viewers might think about my decision,” she explains. While her role as an artist always exposes her to criticism, she tries to manage it rationally, and sometimes deletes inappropriate comments on social media in an effort to maintain her mental health. “I have trained myself to ignore negativity, develop myself, and focus on the things I love.”
On the topic of criticism, she begins speaking of her actor husband, revealing, “I do not interfere with Ahmed’s artistic decisions and he does the same. We encourage each other. Even if he has a completely different opinion of a role that I am convinced of, I accept it because I do what I love.” Throughout their respective careers, they have only acted together on two occasions; once for Sahar El Layali (2003) and Leih Khalletny Ahebbak (2000).
The star loves movies more than series and plays. She chooses her roles carefully and sets many conditions for accepting or rejecting a project. “I’m very interested in the name of the author, the director, and the participating stars,” she confides. In other words, Zaki searches for names that benefit her career. She mentions the Egyptian directors Sherif Arafa, Mohammed Yassin, and Yousry Nasrallah; the writers Wahid Hamed and Menna Shalaby; and Hend Sabry and Jamila Awad from the new generation of actors. She pays tribute to the late actor Ahmed Zaki who greatly influenced her, both personally and professionally. “He taught me how to devote myself to art and to appreciate my talent. Ahmed Zaki believed in my talent at the time when I myself couldn’t admit that I had a real talent for acting.” She also thanks theater director Mohammed Sobhy, the first to cast her in a play.
However, the careful choice of roles would go in vain if not accompanied by her studious preparation, which to her, means to “search and search.” In Days of Al-Sadat (2001), Zaki played the role of Gihan Al-Sadat, the late president Anwar Al-Sadat’s wife. She also starred as the late actor Soad Hosny in the Cinderella series; the role she found exhausting to play as her own character differs greatly to Hosny’s. “Soad Hosny was so feminine both in appearance and substance, while I’m a tomboy,” she admits. “I could play Hosny’s character only after much searching. I built a new relationship with my femininity after this series,” she confesses.
Zaki also speaks extensively about the scarcity of leading roles for female stars. “Arab feminine artists are not short of experience or popularity. It is all about producers. We, as actors, are lacking nothing, but we do lack the producer that has enough courage to give a woman the leading role. Like any other successful artist, I consider this to be a pure injustice,” she remarks. “It is an honor to be a woman.” She believes that women should fight hyper masculinity in Arab societies and stresses that things will continue to change in the future. A Unicef ambassador since 2017, she has since launched an anti-bullying campaign after hearing from her daughter about an incident between two little girls at school.
Touching on the subject of harassment, the star refuses to hold women accountable. Signs of anger and sadness appear on her face when she rushes to speak about how to protect women and change society’s perception of them. She considers that the real problem lies in how men are raised, stressing they should be taught to show respect for women regardless of their appearance, education, or social status. She draws attention to a mother’s role saying that she should raise her children to respect her as a woman and respect all women in society, which will be positively reflected in all aspects of social life. On the topic of raising children, Zaki mentions that she did not adopt her mother’s style. “I took all the pillars I grew up with and updated them to be in line with the times Lili lives in. In the past, women were used to living in fear and under social constraints. Those days are gone now. I try to guide Lili to the path that suits her best and to what she wants and loves.”
2020 was a tough year for all the world, and Zaki is no exception. She felt pain, yet learned from the Covid-19 crisis and the two explosions that rocked Beirut and the resulting sufferings. During lockdown, she learned to appreciate the small blessings she has and the importance of practicing shared activities with family. She rested and took more care of herself, in order to continue doing all that she used to but more peacefully. She follows a specific diet, works out regularly with her coach Ali Ismail, practices meditation, and takes care of her skin and her femininity.
Her career did not come to a standstill however; she filmed the Crossroads series, which will be featured next Ramadan; the Black Box movie, which is now on big screens in the Middle East, and The Spider with Ahmed Al-Saquaa, which is not yet scheduled for release. She also co-stars with Lebanese director Nadine Labaki in a Wesam Samira Egyptian-Lebanese film based on the Italian film Perfect Strangers and exclusively reveals that she has a new film in the works, A3azz el Asshab. Zaki intends to begin this new year with persistence in order to deliver even better works, become closer to her family, make use of all the surroundings to become more inspired, and take care of her health and her parents.