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“I just always wanted to be impressive” — Why Yousra Needs Only One Name and No Introduction

There’s a reason why Egypt’s screen idol Yousra needs only one name, and no introduction…

VOGUE ARABIA COVER MARCH 2020 Yousra. Photography: Hassan Hajjaj

Yousra wears blouse, Pucci; shirt, Maison Rabih Kayrouz; pants, socks, Andy Wahloo Super-Lux; shoes, photographer’s own; earrings, rings, Yousra’s own

It’s a warm spring day in Marrakech and Egyptian superstar Yousra is in a purple tuk tuk that’s rattling along old, narrow streets through a vibrant medina. Music from a local band playing on classical sintirs and castanets fills the air with its traditional rhythms. The carriage might not be classically regal, yet the moment feels very much like a royal parade – her majesty, the queen of Middle Eastern cinema, has arrived.

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When Yousra enters the riad belonging to artist and photographer Hassan Hajjaj for this anniversary cover shoot, the atmosphere drips with excitement. “We are in the presence of a legend,” says an awestruck assistant. The comment is no overstatement. A bona fide superstar, Yousra goes by one name. She’s starred in more than 80 movies, has received more than 60 awards, and this year was chosen to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes on the Oscars. She has helped define Arab cinema and shine a light on the industry, which overwise might have been overshadowed by the West.

VOGUE ARABIA COVER MARCH 2020 Yousra. Photography: Hassan Hajjaj

Yousra wears blanket, Hajjaj’s Own, hat, Andy Wahloo Super-Lux; shoes, Givenchy; sunglasses, Andy Wahloo Super-Lux X Poppy Lissiman. Photographed by Hassan Hajjaj for Vogue Arabia March 2020

“It is a great honor for me to be on the Oscars academy,” says Yousra in her typically husky tone. The actor, who was one of three Egyptian celebrities (along with producer Mohamed Hefzy and director Amr Salama) invited to join the academy, is humble about the role. “I believe the academy is one of the most prestigious in the world, and being part of it means so much to me.”

In Hajjaj’s studio, typically a kaleidoscope of color and buzzing with organized chaos, Yousra is laughing, her genuine warmth settling any nerves the team members might have. She’s flying to Los Angeles for the awards ceremony in the morning, so there’s a time crunch to be dealt with. Unsurprisingly, she whizzes through each look without complaint – she may be a legend, but she is no diva.

Yousra credits her husband, Khaled Selim, for her grounded attitude. “I respect the way he can handle my life as an actor and the way he is patient. He is proud of me when I take a new step and it is a successful one,” she reveals in a rare quiet moment. The actor is not usually comfortable talking about her relationship – she “doesn’t want to jinx it.” Not that she runs from the notion of it, of course. When asked what makes them such a successful duo, she replies, “Please can you say, ‘God bless your relationship’ instead of asking such a question,” adding, “Khaled and I have known each other since we were children. Without him, I don’t think I could manage to do all this.”

VOGUE ARABIA COVER MARCH 2020 Yousra. Photography: Hassan Hajjaj

Yousra wears dress, shoes Balenciaga; hat, Andy Wahloo Super-Lux; glasses, Andy Wahloo Super-Lux X Poppy Lissiman. Photographed by Hassan Hajjaj for Vogue Arabia March 2020

Yousra was 17 when she realized she wanted to become an actor – before that, she wanted to be a diplomat. Her onscreen history dates back to the late 70s, with her debut in Abdel Halim Nasr’s Castle in the Air, and her breakthrough roles in Ebtesama Wahida Takfy and Azkiaa Laken Aghbyaa. She went on to work with prominent Egyptian directors – most notably Youssef Chahine – and rapidly established her position as one of the highest paid stars in the industry, as well as one of the Arab world’s most powerful women.

“I just always wanted to be impressive”

“I just always wanted to be impressive,” says Yousra of her career and work ethic, which has contributed to her lauded status. “If people don’t appreciate your work and don’t see you as a legend, you will never be a legend. You have to understand that you are working for people and that you have to be working to their expectations.”

“Being a legend, you must have something. You are not free as you were when you were unknown. You are always under a special kind of pressure, and expectations of people toward you. But without those people, you will never be a legend,” she explains, adding for future stars, “Be humble as much as you can but at the same time, don’t expose too much of your private life.”

VOGUE ARABIA COVER MARCH 2020 Yousra. Photography: Hassan Hajjaj

Yousra wears coat, Dolce & Gabbana; jumper, Pucci; glasses, Andy Wahloo Super-Lux X Poppy Lissiman. Photographed by Hassan Hajjaj for Vogue Arabia March 2020

While she prefers to maintain a guarded privacy, her “sad childhood” is something she does offer some insight into. “I had a tough life when my father took me from my mother,” she says emotionally about the separation following a bitter divorce. “From their divorce I learned that things can still go on and you just need to handle your children with care, love, and honesty. Give them the chance to express themselves. I have to give it to my mother as she was my friend, my mom, and my backbone. She gave me all this. She made me who I am today.”

And who is that person? “A feminist” who believes in equality at work and in personal life. It’s this belief that has seen her purposefully tackle powerful characters and taboo topics. “I choose to play strong roles for women because we have a lot of stories of different women in our society who can be legends but we don’t use them enough. I’m trying to put these legends in the episodes I make,” she shares.

“We changed laws – you can change life through cinema.”

While she hasn’t pursued a political path, she has used her status to help push boundaries and even change laws. “When I made the rape episodes for the Ramadan series Fawk Mustawa Al Shobohat, everyone was against it, but in the end, everyone was clapping and it received the biggest viewership ever.” The show led to Egyptian laws toward rapists being changed. “Before, the law said that a rapist should go to prison for only one or two months. Now, he is very much punished. We changed laws – you can change life through cinema.”

VOGUE ARABIA COVER MARCH 2020 Yousra. Photography: Hassan Hajjaj

Yousra wears hat, Andy Wahloo Super-Lux; glasses, Andy Wahloo Super-Lux X Poppy Lissiman; blanket, photographer’s own. Photographed by Hassan Hajjaj for Vogue Arabia March 2020

Outside of the film industry, Yousra works tirelessly as a UN Goodwill ambassador for the Middle East and Africa to change the lives of those less fortunate. “Before being an ambassador, I also did humanitarian work, but being an ambassador offers much more responsibility,” she says. “I’m honored because being a Goodwill ambassador is trying to put the good in everything you do, not only in the mission you have.”

Her reach and engagement with her audience and fans is incredible, especially for someone who shuns social media – she simply will have no part in it. In fact, it’s the only time during the interview when her behavior shifts. “Before, we were stars without social media. Now I feel like anyone can be a star,” she says. “People listen to me because they know I’m not a hypocrite. I talk when I believe, and when I believe it comes from the heart.”

Not chasing likes has had little effect on her career – if anything, fans respect and idolize her more. When it comes to her own role models, she is quick to cite actors Faten Hamama and Nadia Lotfy, as well as her mother. “I had a lot to learn from these ladies, in all aspects of my life, and was lucky to have them,” she explains. “I’m proud that my mother was truly proud of me. She gave me the best love, care, and the best example in my life.”

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Her father was somewhat more critical of her career, infamously slapping her across the face following her first onscreen kiss. “It’s something called الدنيا†علمتني†(what life taught me),” shares Yousra of the memory. “It didn’t make me ashamed at all that I did it. On the contrary, I’m proud of each and every scene I have made in the cinema.”

Despite her personal hardships, the superstar espouses positive thinking and mindfulness. Her ability to swat away bad vibes is admirable, especially in a job that comes with public scrutiny. “When you want to forget the bad or to dismiss someone from your life, just leave them to God,” she says calmly.

“Never take revenge into your own hands.” Yousra’s unflappable confidence comes to the fore throughout the cover shoot. She is completely comfortable in her own skin – and that skin is glowing and dewy, her smile infectious, her style that of a 1950s screen siren. She is the epitome of elegance and won’t bow down to pressures from the film industry. “I simply don’t care about aging,” she says with Oprah-style conviction, which makes everyone immediately want to jump in the air with applause. If she was on Instagram, she’d be the ultimate self-love guru. But for now, she’ll be taking over screens this coming Ramadan in the series Dahab Eira (Fake Gold). “I achieved in my 40 years of work whatever I wanted to achieve and whatever I wanted to dream of,” she says. “I love my age and I love my looks. I’m proud of who I am and how I look, and how I present things – Hamdoullilah.”

Originally published in the March 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia

Photography Hassan Hajjaj 
Style Katie Trotter & Lisa Jarvis
Creative producer Laura Prior  
Art accomplice Ebon Heath 
Second assistant Tariq Hajjaj
Local producer Marie Courtin 
Hair Sadek Lardjane 
Makeup Jo Frost
Photography assistants Hasnae El Quarga and Meriem Yin
Style assistant Alexandria Lefevre 
Runner Yazid Bezaz, Abdelali Boukrimi, Mohammed Ajib
Studio Riad Yima, Marrakech
With special thanks to Four Seasons Resort Marrakech

Read Next: 8 of Yousra’s Milestone Moments Illustrating Her Icon Status

November Cover Star Lily Collins Shares Her 5 Favorite Fashion Moments

Lily Collins, Emily in paris, Vogue Arabia November 2020

Lily Collins photographed by Thomas Whiteside for Vogue Arabia November 2020

With her enviable natural eyebrows and breathtaking red-carpet looks, Lily Collins always makes it to the best-dressed lists with ease. However, if the star had to choose her favorite fashion moments, she would go all the way back to when she was two years old. While on the set of her first-ever Vogue cover shoot, for Vogue Arabia’s November 2020 issue, the Emily in Paris actor sat down to talk about her most loved ensembles.

Read on, and watch the video below to find out what she had to say.

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1. It’s a Match

Lily Collins

Lily Collins aged 2, wearing a matching red polka dot set. Photo: Instagram/ @lilyjcollins

“I was always about wearing loud, bright, and slightly obvious clothing,” says Collins. It seems even at two years of age, the actor was quite the fashionista, having already perfect the co-ord outfit. “I loved matching,” she says. “So my little red and white polka dot outfit with a matching headband was always one of my favorites.”

2. Obama’s Inauguration

Lily Collins

Lily Collins aged 19, working as a reporter for Nickelodeon at Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration in 2009. Photo: Supplied

“I was reporting live from Obama’s inauguration,” explained the actor-producer. “I was about 19-years-old and it was freezing,” she added, noting that she was working as a reporter for Nickelodeon for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration in January 2009. “I remember having so many layers on under that outfit and like three pairs of socks, but it was such a huge honor to be there and I remember feeling really proud. It was my first time voting and something I’ll never forget.”

3. Cannes Film Festival

Lily Collins aged 28 at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017, for the Netflix film Okja. Photo: Getty

Collins’ first and only trip to Cannes is one to remember. She attended the 2017 film festival for the Netflix film Okja, alongside castmates Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal. “It was such a magical experience, I always wanted to be able to walk those steps and go up that red carpet with my cast,” says Collins, who wore a Ralph & Russo gown for her Cannes debut. “That fashion moment for me, that white dress with the train, that was one for the memory books.”

4. Elegant in Elie Saab

Lily Collins

Lily Collins wearing a gown by Lebanese couturier Elie Saab at the Rome Film Festival in 2014. Photo: Getty

While promoting the romantic comedy film Love, Rosie, Collins looked breathtaking in a gown by Lebanese couturier Elie Saab at the Rome Film Festival in 2014. “It was a dress I’ll never forget because the wind picked up so intensely as we got out of the car and thank goodness it was a dress that could handle the wind,” stated the star. “In fact, I think the wind made it even more beautiful, so almost every photo had the dress had it kind of billowing in the wind and all the ombre colors really looked beautiful,” she added.

5. Enchanting Emily

Lily Collins Emily in Paris

Lily Collins as Emily for the Netflix series Emily in Paris. Photo: Instagram/ @emilyinparis

Playing Emily Cooper in the divisive Netflix hit, Emily in Paris, Collins got to wear many stylish outfits. However, she identified this bold green number as her personal favorite. “Emily’s character is bright, bold, and a little bit obvious and we tried to incorporate that into Emily’s clothing because it was the extension of her personality,” she explained. “This bright outfit was worn to one of the episodes where I go to an influencer’s luncheon. I just always smiled when I saw Emily’s outfits and this one was one of the ones I smiled at the most,” she added.

Read Next: November Cover Story: How Criticism and Quarantine Empowered Lily Collins

Vogue September Cover: Hend Sabri On The Importance Of Women’s Rights In The Arab World

Award-winning Tunisian actor Hend Sabri believes in the freedom of Arab women and strives to defend their rights.

Hend Sabri, Vogue Arabia September 2020

Hend Sabri wears coat, Maison Rabih Kayrouz; shoes, Ramla; jewelry, Azza Fahmy. Photographed by Ämr Ezzeldinn for Vogue Arabia September 2020

Hend Sabri is full of enthusiasm when she arrives at Nazlet Al-Samman in Egypt, a popular area near the Great Pyramids characterized by its simplicity. Her optimism increases when calligrapher Hend Riad arrives holding a large roll-out hand-painted with the words “break the silence,” which she wrote in collaboration with the star. Sabri considers it the best expression of her aspirations. She believes that only hope revives people, illuminates our present and our future, and urges us to move forward. “Hope is my daughters Alia and Leila,” she says, adding that the sheer act of giving birth requires a promise for tomorrow.

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Yet, Sabri speaks with pain when conversing about hope, the theme of this September issue. “2020 is really the year of ‘enough is enough.’ I pray that I will be able to erase it from my memory.” She believes that the world is experiencing a long rebirth and is certain that good will prevail. Sabri talks about human values and their roles in society. “True religion is the real deterrent and belief in the essence is what we need. Faith means that we stop hurting, backbiting, stealing, and disrespecting others. Religion is the appreciation of men in general and women in particular. Respect the rights it grants her and stop making judgments based on appearance. Religion exists in everyday practices.”

Hend Sabri, Vogue Arabia September 2020

Hend Sabri wears dress, Donia Ashry; shoes, Bottega Veneta. Photographed by Ämr Ezzeldinn for Vogue Arabia September 2020

Sabri’s words shed light on her philanthropic activities, particularly those that concern women and the environment. She is known for playing meaningful characters that convey a social message because she truly believes that art can make a difference. “Society listens to artists and is influenced by them,” she says. “I am not saying that my job as an actor is more important than that of a scientist whose work is not widely recognized. Honesty is what is most important; no matter what role an individual plays in society.”

Currently the star is resuming filming the Hajma Mortada series under director Ahmed Alaa and with her friend Ahmed Ezz. She is also working on Kira and the Jinn, a film by Marwan Hamed, written by Ahmed Murad, and starring Ezz and Kareem Abdel Aziz. In October, she will start filming an Algerian-French movie. It’s a busy agenda for an artist who seeks to use her fame to champion values and have her voice heard. Sabri made her acting debut at the age of 14 in the critically acclaimed Tunisian production The Silences of the Palace (Samt al Qosoor) by director Moufida Tlatli in 1994, which was screened as part of that year’s Cannes film festival Directors’ Fortnight. It has also subsequently been listed as one of the Dubai international film festival’s 100 most important Arab films. Following this, she starred in several Tunisian productions until she drew the attention of director Inas El- Degheidy, who introduced her to Egyptian cinema with A Teenager’s Diary (Muzakirat Murahiqua) in 2002. In a short time, she became one of the most prominent Tunisian actors in Egypt and the Arab world.

Hend Sabri, Vogue Arabia September 2020

Hend Sabri wears dress, Donia Ashry; shoes, Bottega Veneta. Photographed by Ämr Ezzeldinn for Vogue Arabia September 2020

Sabri recently joined streaming giant Netflix. “I’m so proud and excited to be the first Arab artist to sign with this network as an executive producer and starring in a show,” she expresses. “Going global is achieved through immersion in what is local. It is a matter of choices.” She’s also been chosen as a jury member at major international festivals, including Venice in 2019 – where she was the first Arab woman to join the jury – and Rotterdam in 2016. “They found an authentic expression of Arab women in my work,” she says. “I have frequently participated over the years where I introduced so many ideas,” she recalls, adding that she hopes the festival circuit will resume next year.

Also Read: Vogue.me Investigates: Why Does Egypt Have A Problem With Rape?

The star has recently used her social media platform to raise awareness about harassment, because she felt that women needed empowerment in this regard and that someone should open a dialogue to encourage victims to talk in public about their experiences. “I am against this heinous offense. Harassment is a crime,” she asserts. “It is necessary to educate young people and encourage girls to break the barrier of fear and expose the perpetrators. In law, to describe an incident as a crime, there must be a victim. When she is silent, the misconduct cannot be legally documented and will remain a social problem. Women must contribute to the documentation of delinquency in order to build a system that legally protects them. This requires courage, which in turn calls for a healthy society and the support of others, whether family or community, and this is what is lacking. Women are afraid of men, which paves the way for harassment and makes it permissible for men whose mistakes are forgiven by the people.” Sabri is well-versed on the subject of justice as she received her license from the University of Tunis in 2001 and earned a master’s degree in intellectual property law and copyright in 2004.

Hend Sabri, Vogue Arabia September 2020

Hend Sabri wears shirt, Donia Ashry; Skirt, stylist’s own; belt, Okhtein; scarf, Rebel; jewelry, Azza Fahmy. Photographed by Ämr Ezzeldinn for Vogue Arabia September 2020

According to a 2013 study by UN Women in Egypt, 99.3% of the women surveyed had experienced some sort of harassment, ranging from being touched to verbal abuse, rape, stalking. The report also noted that 30% of the men surveyed gave their reason for pestering a female as “the girl feels happy when harassed.” “Years ago, I thought that it was still too early to address this issue,” says Sabri. “Today it seems to me that the time has come for victims to speak up. The more women there are who are willing to talk about their experiences, the stronger the issue becomes. At the same time, we must organize things to unify our words and stances.” The Ana Zada platform meaning “me too,” has since been created on Instagram. It aims to gather various opinions to form a pressure force to change laws. The star acts as liaison between women and the concerned parties interested in this issue. She provided a video to support them and was keen to promote them on various occasions. “I cannot say that I have achieved anything,” she notes. “This issue cannot be solved by one person, it requires community, legal, and political cooperation. Individual action in this field is like fighting windmills,” she says. “The only thing that can change the system is social awareness and spreading the slogan ‘No means no’ to everyone, which requires raising your voice without hesitation. It does not help to remain silent while urging others to speak about their experiences. It is enough for one to speak bravely so that other women do the same.”

Hend Sabri, Vogue Arabia September 2020

Hend Sabri wears shirt, Hend’s own; skirt, scarf, stylist’s own; belt, Okhtein; jewelry, Azza Fahmy. Photographed by Ämr Ezzeldinn for Vogue Arabia September 2020

Accountability starts with enacting and enforcing laws that protect women and describe the crime. “It’s not acceptable that bothering girls on the streets goes unnoticed, because it is a form of harassment. We must not overlook any vulgar form of pestering or touching, which could hurt women,” states Sabri. The star has adopted several approaches to communicate her thoughts, including in the 2010 sitcom Ayza Atgawez (I Want to Get Married), which candidly addressed the issue of young girls getting married. She also starred in Halawet Eldonia (The Sweetness of Life) as a cancer patient – one of her most beloved characters to date, she notes.

Also Read: Vogue.me Investigates: The Surge In Domestic Violence Cases During Covid-19

Sabri is one of a handful of public women who promoted the uprising in the Arab world. “I wasn’t afraid to lose my fan base – particularly males – for promoting women uprising. I’m defending their rights here. I’m not calling for usurping those of others. I have a dream of realizing equality between men and women in Arab societies. I hope that we can enjoy the highest levels of equality like women in Scandinavian societies,” she says, acknowledging that there is still much work to be done to achieve this. As a mother and wife, she is focused on her family and credits her choice of partner for contributing to its strength. “He is a very respectable man who values women,” she says of her husband, a businessman who is not part of the entertainment industry, preferring to stay out of the limelight. “The man who appreciates and respects his mother will respect any other woman.”

Hend Sabri, Vogue Arabia September 2020

Hend Sabri wears shirt, Hend’s own; skirt, scarf, stylist’s own; belt, Okhtein; shoes, Bottega Veneta; jewelry, Azza Fahmy. Photographed by Ämr Ezzeldinn for Vogue Arabia September 2020

Their relationship is based on mutual esteem and commitment to rules, including respecting her work and her responsibilities. As for her children, she instills within them important values like independence, self-confidence, and valuing the customs and traditions with which she was raised. She is keen to teach her daughters to empathize with others, to be kind, to love, to learn, and to contribute. From her point of view, such values bridge gaps and help build a sound society where people do not judge one another based on appearance or religion. She also hopes to continue to introduce the Arab woman with all her fears, pains, troubles, and joys through her art. She aspires to serve the Arab world and to raise her daughters in a manner that will secure them a better future.

Read Next: Hend Sabri on Being Discovered as a Teenager and the Perception of Arab Cinema with Manuel Arnaut

Originally published in the September 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia 

 

Photography: Ämr Ezzeldinn 
Styling: Yasmine Eissa 
Hair: Ahmed Mounir 
Makeup: Aya Abdalhamid
Video: Muhammad Gamaleldin  
Video Edit: Hue Studios  
Stylist Assistant: Habiba Rahoum 
Set Designer: Noor Satea 
Calligrapher: Negmedine 
Fabrics: Yara Ismail 
Sustainable Textile Designer: Kiliim 
Location: The Cheops Observatory by Studio Malka Architecture
Production: Snap14 Productions Production agency 

Waad Al-Kateab Speaks From The Heart About Her Hope For Syria

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She documented human history in For Sama, but for Oscar-nominated Waad Al-Kateab, the fight continues until Syria is free and justice is served.

Waad Al-Kateab for Vogue Arabia

Waad Al-Kateab wears Jumpsuit, Emilia Wickstead; earrings, Cleopatra’s Bling. Photography: Sebastian Böttcher

Waad Al-Kateab is sitting in the Channel 4 news offices in London. Her hair cut in a neat, long bob, she’s wearing a floral summer dress while the bright morning sun shines through the floor-to-ceiling windows behind her. She looks like any ordinary 29-year-old woman. Yet she’s anything but. In 2011, Al-Kateab was an activist with a camera who went on to film one of the most important documentaries of the 21st century: For Sama. The film spans five years in Syria, starting with the peaceful protests against president Bashar Hafez al-Assad, through the Arab Spring and, ultimately, Al-Kateab being forced to flee the country of her birth in 2016. Unlike some war documentaries, For Sama reveals the full spectrum of humanity beyond the frontlines. While it provides a raw, inside perspective of the horror and systematic attacks on civilians, it also underscores moments of joy. We see Al-Kateab marry Hamza, a doctor who built the hospital in Aleppo where most of the footage is filmed; we witness baby Sama enter the world, and we watch friends and strangers become one community amid darkness and despair.

Al-Kateab, a young filmmaker and citizen journalist who moved to Aleppo to study in 2009, always kept her Sony camcorder rolling, filming approximately 500 hours of footage. It took two years for her and co-director Edward Watts – who she met through her work as journalist for Channel 4 – to cut it down to a 95-minute documentary. For Sama went on to achieve global acclaim, receiving an Academy Award nomination for best documentary feature and winning best documentary at this year’s Bafta awards (where it also set a record for most nominated documentary), as well as four British Independent Film awards. The recognition is testament to Al-Kateab’s talent for showing the human story that so many governments still choose to ignore. Yet, a year after the release For Sama, there is a look of pain and sadness in her eyes. “Nothing has changed in Syria. It’s still happening,” she says. While news coverage of the civil war has decreased and the fanfare surrounding the film has slowed down, the crisis hasn’t ended. “There are still people in Aleppo being shelled and bombed.”

Waad Al-Kateab for Vogue Arabia

Waad Al-Kateab wears Dress, pants, Simone Rocha; earrings, Cleopatra’s Bling. Photography: Sebastian Böttcher

Does she feel guilty for leaving? Her body closes in on itself; she folds her arms and her eyes well up. “If we were there, we could help a little,” she says, her voice faltering. “One day I risked my life and went to Aleppo. I felt it was the right thing to do. Now, I know it’s the right thing to do but I feel I’m not able to do this. I’m not the same person who left the city in 2016. It’s confusing and the guilt is something I don’t expect I will get away from.” Of course, if she hadn’t left Aleppo, fleeing after Russia threatened to bomb the last hospital where they were working, For Sama may never have reached the big screen. “Sometimes I feel that was right, but there are times when I think, maybe I’m just saying this because I want to make it easier for myself,” she considers. “When I’m talking to someone who is still in Aleppo, I feel so much shame. I’m trying to help but I’m not there. It’s hard.”

Witnessing so much tragedy has left Al-Kateab battling with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. “My main problem is the nightmares. It’s still very real for me – I’ve never been able to ignore what happened,” she shares. She even feels guilty for having nightmares. “I know that whatever I feel now is nothing compared to what is still going on in Syria. What happened to me is just a little compared to other people. I would love one day to feel some healing, but the only thing that will help me do that is feeling justice for Syria and its people.”

Waad Al-Kateab for Vogue Arabia

Waad Al-Kateab wears Dress, Worme; shoes, Manolo Blahnik; earrings, Ara Vartanian; ring, Waad Al-Kateab’s own.
Photography: Sebastian Böttcher

After fleeing Aleppo, Al-Kateab and her family lived briefly in Turkey before seeking asylum in the UK. That’s the abridged version – the full tale is one full of bureaucracy failings and political injustice.

Her family arrived in London in 2018, after the 2016 Brexit referendum, the result of which was in large part prompted by voters’ issues with border control around an influx of migrants and refugees. “I mean, oh my God,” she says, half laughing about the difficult timing. Yet, ever the pragmatist, Al-Kateab decided to not only be a voice for Syrians, but refugees, too. “I feel that I can affect people in their thinking about what it means to be a refugee, and why it’s important for us to not close ourselves. At the Baftas, I was the only refugee nominated. I felt that I was in a position where I could fight for different issues.”

“The most important thing is to maintain the conversation about Syria… it’s never too late for accountability and justice”

While she feels accepted in the UK, Al-Kateab struggles with displacement. She and her family never intended to leave Aleppo. They risked their lives and the lives of their children – she was pregnant with their second child – to stay in Syria. “When I watch the film I’m able to accept everything that happened to us, but the displacement I can’t feel OK about – when we were saying goodbye to the city…” She trails off briefly. “We were fighting so hard to stay.”

Al-Kateab’s daughters, Sama, who is now four-and-a-half, and Taima, who is three, have settled into life in England. Like her mother, Sama initially experienced nightmares. “We had doctors help her and she is much better. She rarely wakes up at night crying or screaming now,” Al-Kateab shares. The girls have adapted so well that they even have London accents, which Al-Kateab half-facetiously seems less than keen on – not so much for the actual dialect than for their heritage. “They are happy,” she says, smiling. “They speak a mix of English and Arabic. We are trying to keep the Arabic level good, but it’s difficult.”

Waad Al-Kateab for Vogue Arabia

Waad Al-Kateab wears Dress, Roksanda; shoes, Jimmy Choo; earrings, rings, bracelets, Bar Jewellery; ring, Alighieri. Photography: Sebastian Böttcher

While Sama is too young to remember what she witnessed in Aleppo, her mother aims to keep the girls connected to their roots. Al-Kateab is hopeful. “As Sama grows older, she will be able to understand more. We try to keep the conversation about Aleppo and Syria and I’m trying to tell them stories before bed. I want to keep part of that culture that Hamza and I believe in, and we feel that they should know where they come from, including all the elements like Ramadan and Eid.” One way to understand is to watch her searing documentary. “I don’t know if I will show them the film,” says Al-Kateab. “We need to see when they are ready. Sama has seen the trailer – she loves to watch it.” Naya al Altrash, the daughter of a family friend, Afraa Hashem – both of whom feature in For Sama – was shown the documentary when she was six. “The film answered so many questions for her,” explains Al-Kateab. “She was three-and-half when she left. Now, she is able to see the story as someone from the inside and the outside.”

Since moving to London – the family was granted leave to remain shortly after arriving – Hamza is no longer practicing as a doctor but is working towards a master’s degree in public health. Al-Kateab continues to work as a journalist for Channel 4, producing stories on justice, Syria, and Covid-19. She is also dedicated to three major ventures: a fiction project related to Syria, a new documentary, and Action for Sama, an ongoing campaign to end the targeting of healthcare facilities in Syria. It’s currently building a case against the Syrian regime and Russia for alleged war crimes – For Sama footage will be used as evidence. “The most important thing is to maintain the conversation about Syria,” Al-Kateab says. “If it’s too late for governments to intervene and stop it, it’s never too late for accountability and justice.”

While Al-Kateab may feel guilt for not being in Syria, she continues to fight for Aleppo from afar. “My main hope is to see something changed in Syria soon. I hope we can return to the place we fought for,” she says. Her dream is for citizens to feel empowered. “That’s why this whole Syrian revolution started. If we felt that we were being respected, or empowered, I think the situation wouldn’t have come to this.” After her years staring death in the eye, her words are poignant. “When I was in Aleppo, I was forced to live as if every moment was my last. Until today, I feel that this is the best thing to do. There is not a lot of time in the future so everything you want to do, do now. Tell everyone you love that you love them, right now. Don’t hide any of these feelings because when you have lost them, there is no more time.” 

Read more: Meet The Beirut Fashion Designers Refusing To Give Up Hope

11 Black Creatives Open Up About Representation in the Middle East

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Black creatives based in the Middle East speak about big breaks, career highlights, and the work that still needs to be done to level the playing field.

The Middle East has always been a melting pot of cultures and religions. Many choose to live in the UAE in particular as it is internationally regarded as a safe haven and a place of tolerance. But as in all places in the world, there is racism. While growing up in Dubai, I witnessed diversity every day, yet it’s always been rare to see people who look like me – a black woman – on TV, in films, or in magazines. When they did appear, black women were never featured as the hero. As time went on, it became common to see token black actors or models, but there seemed to only be room for one. It was hard to shake the feeling that they had been offered a platform for any reason other than to tick a box.

Over the years, in the region, equality among people of different races has progressed. Diversity and inclusion have become buzzwords used by brands, publications, and CEOs across various fields. Challenges arise when those conversations and social media posts need to be converted into action. As with everything, it starts with people. The power of the creative and artistic community to raise awareness, educate, and affect change cannot be underestimated. Here, we highlight black creatives who are trailblazers, and, importantly, stand as leaders within their respective fields.

Wafa Tajdin

Kenyan producer/partner at The Factory Production Studio in the UAE and Seven Thirty Films in Kenya

Wafa Tajdin

Wafa Tajdin (left) wears coat, skirt, Loewe; top, Stella Jean at Etoile La Boutique; shoes, Christian Dior. Amirah Tajdin jacket, dress, Osman; boots, Toga. Photographed by Mann for Vogue Arabia

A film producer with commercial, editorial, narrative, and documentary work under her belt, Wafa Tajdin, who is of Swahili/Kenyan descent, grew up in Nairobi, Dubai, and Muscat. In 2009, her first short film was funded by Twofour54 in Abu Dhabi. On working in the region as a narrative film producer, she shares that though it’s still a white and male-dominated world, “I consider myself lucky to be living in a time when we get to see an actual hegemonic shift in these old power structures that are rooted in white elitism.” Reflecting on her career so far, she says that as a black woman with her background, it’s a slow process but it can happen. She believes that this latest so-called awakening might just be the change we’ve been waiting for.

Amirah Tajdin

Kenyan film and TV commercial director at The Factory Production Studio in the UAE and Seven Thirty Films in Kenya

Being Afro-Omani, Amirah Tajdin’s family has always had ancestral ties to the region. A film and tv commercial director whose short film was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016, Tajdin says that being based in the region has given her the opportunity to helm campaigns that would have taken her much longer to land as a female director of color anywhere else in the world at her age. Regardless, she recognizes there’s work to be done. “It’s getting slowly better via platforms like free the work that fight for marginalized viability in the industry, but I know I’m still paid less than white male directors.” Last year, she was the only woman – and the only woman of color – nominated in the shorts category at the Tribeca x Awards.

Dina Sheikhaddin Yassin

Eritrean-American founder and creative director at East African streetwear brand Efro & Co, stylist, and art director

Dina Sheikhaddin Yassin

Dina Sheikhaddin Yassin wears dress, Stella Jean at Etoile La Boutique; sunglasses, Gucci. Photographed by Mann for Vogue Arabia

Having lived in the Middle East on and off for 27 years, Dina Sheikhaddin Yassin – a creative who wears many hats, including designer, stylist, art director, writer, and consultant – got her break while assisting stylist Suzette Lavalle in New York. Work with Diane Von Furstenberg (who personally interviewed her) and Vera Wang followed, as did success with her own brand, Efro & Co, in the form of collaborations with Levi’s and the Idris foundation. Yassin confirms that she’s always had to work twice as hard to earn what she deserves because of the color of her skin. She feels that things are getting better in terms of inclusivity but there’s still a long way to go. “Our cultures are being adapted by people who don’t know much about them; they should just allow us to do what we know best.”

Chanel Ayan

Somali-American model

Chanel Ayan wears top, pants, hat, belt, Dior. Photographed by Mann for Vogue Arabia

Recognized as the first black model in the Middle East, Chanel Ayan moved to Dubai in 2005 and considers the UAE her second home. When she arrived from New York, it was an eye-opening experience – the industry in Dubai had never worked with a black fashion model before. After struggling to break though, her first runway show was for Maison Valentino at Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi. She was selected by Kevin Oliver, a choreographer known for his diverse approach to hiring. Other career highlights include the Chanel Dubai cruise campaign, working alongside Naomi Campbell at the Burj Al Arab, and being selected to represent Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty brand. Ayan says, “I try to stay positive, relevant, and leave long-lasting good impressions so that I can help open more doors for black and darker-skinned models in the region and globally.”

Celia-Jane Ukwenya

British fashion stylist and creative director

Celia-Jane Ukwenya, Black creatives, Middle East

Celia-Jane Ukwenya wears jumpsuit, ring, Givenchy and Hugo wears top, Om Baby. Photographed by Mann for Vogue Arabia

A move to Dubai from her native UK eight years ago wasn’t part of Celia-Jane Ukwenya’s plan. While on holiday, she was offered a job as a fashion and beauty editor at a regional magazine and decided to take the plunge. Now a freelance stylist and creative director, her packed portfolio includes work with Chanel, Dior, and Gucci, as well as Lady Gaga, Jessie J, and Scissor sisters. Though Ukwenya doesn’t feel that her skin color has negatively impacted her career, in terms of allyship, she says, “In the fashion industry, more qualified people of color, who are designers, creatives, and decision-makers need to be included and not just in a token manner.” Ukwenya also feels that people in positions of power need to open doors for the next generation.

Saufeeya Goodson

American content creator

Saufeeya Goodson wears dress, Greta Constantine at Etoile La Boutique; headpiece, Incognid’Or. Photographed by Mann for Vogue Arabia

Saufeeya Goodson is grateful to have had the opportunity to rise and grow with Dubai for the past 15 years. A content creator, Goodson’s first photoshoot was with Alexi Lubomirski for his book Diverse Beauty. She has worked with Beyoncé’s makeup artist Sir John on a project for Teen Vogue. Today, Goodson is proud to have built a platform and engaged a community that fosters thought-provoking conversations in a safe space. She is aware that her look doesn’t always fit the Eurocentric beauty standards that many brands uphold in their campaigns, yet she is positive about the progress within her industry. “I hope women like myself continue to break down doors for others to come up and have better opportunities in the future.”

Blessing John Asiko

Nigerian model

Blessing John Asiko

Blessing John Asiko wears jumpsuit, Chanel. Photographed by Mann for Vogue Arabia

Recognizing that there were opportunities for her in the region, Blessing John Asiko decided to move to Dubai from Nigeria to pursue her modeling career. In the past two years, she has worked with Gucci, Valentino, and Roland Mouret, although she remarks that she is still looking forward to her big break. Asiko admits that at times she still struggles to book jobs and almost gave up on her modeling career due to the discrimination she faced. “Being black in this industry is still a problem,” she shares. “We are supposed to be judged for our professionalism, not our color.” Yet having worked with fellow creative and inspiring people in the industry, Asiko looks forward to what the future holds.

Selina Adéjokè Dixon

Nigerian-British PR and communications professional

Selina Dixon, Black creatives, Middle East

Selina Dixon wears jumpsuit, Elisabetta Franchi. Photographed by Mann for Vogue Arabia

A sense of adventure brought Selina Adéjokè Dixon to Dubai 11 years ago when she decided to leave a job in London at an e-commerce site to take up a position at Boutique 1. She has since worked with several high-profile brands on projects, including the Chanel 2014/15 cruise event and the opening of the Dubai Mall flagship Under Armour store with Michael Phelps. Dixon remarks that because of her “white-sounding” name (when she doesn’t use her middle name), there have been times when she could see the shock on the faces of people interviewing her. She adds that racism is not just an American or British problem, it definitely exists here in this region. “Being an ally for people of color in this industry goes beyond posting a black box on your social media for a day and going about your business. It is a long-term commitment.”

Also Read: Vogue.me Investigates: Why Fashion’s Biggest Brands are Getting it Wrong When it Comes to Minorities

Izu Ani

British chef patron and entrepreneur

Izu Ani, Black creatives, Middle East

Izu Ani wears shirt, pants, Prada. Photographed by Mann for Vogue Arabia

Izu Ani came to Dubai from London 10 years ago to open LPM, at a time when the region didn’t have mature brands and there was a lack of good eateries. According to the Nigerian-born, British chef patron, being based in the Middle East allows anyone who has the work ethic, ambition, and drive to get somewhere quickly, as opposed to Europe, where you have to wait a long time for an opportunity, even if you’re very good. Cognizant of his status and ability to change what has been – and, in some cases, continues to be – the norm, he says, “in my restaurants, no matter what color or nationality you are, if you do the same job, you earn the same pay.” An entrepreneur with several successful restaurant concepts, Ani considers the highlight of his career the chance to encourage others to strive for more within themselves.

Also Read: Halima Aden to Join Team Vogue Arabia as Diversity Editor-at-Large

Monbelle

British CEO, Those Guys Events

Monbelle

Monbelle wears jacket, pants, Iris & Ink. Photographed by Mann for Vogue Arabia

A British national of Caribbean and Ivorian heritage, Monbelle moved to Dubai from Cheltenham in the UK to work at a big hotel and didn’t get out much to see the city. She left to work at a smaller events and entertainment company and it was there that she started to grow and build her own network of creatives. As well as executing events all over the world, Monbelle launched a clubbing brand, Afrocentric. The monthly afro house and afrobeat night is 100% black-owned and features international and local DJs. Despite her success, Monbelle says that being a woman of color in a male-oriented industry and region is hard. “I don’t see us represented at awards ceremonies and we’re barely in the press getting the recognition we deserve. Things are not changing.”

Augusta Quaynor

British fashion film director

Augusta Quaynor

Augusta Quaynor wears dress, Louis Vuitton. Photographed by Mann for Vogue Arabia

Augusta Quaynor moved to Abu Dhabi from London with her family in 2009, at 16. After gaining a degree in television production in the UK, she returned to the UAE in 2014, to pursue her filmmaking career. Being based in Dubai has allowed her to work and collaborate with and learn from talent from all over the world. Her big break was an editorial film for Tod’s, which was shortlisted at Istanbul’s fashion film festival. To this day, she still feels a sense of achievement when she sees her work on public display, including a film for Vogue Arabia x Samsung, which premiered on screens at Vogue Arabia’s second-anniversary party. Speaking about how people in positions of privilege can support black creatives, she comments, “A true ally must be able to adapt and rework what they believe to be correct and become comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Originally published in the July/August 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia

Photography Mann
Creative director Celia-Jane Ukwenya
Hair Olive Jeanne
Makeup Toni Malt
Producer Laura Prior
Set Designer Sam Francis
Photography Assistant Aaliya Bekova
Style Assistants Nebal El Assaad, Fabiana Lolli
Makeup Assistants Diana Tinean, Anastasia Yakshina, Adriana Nuno
Location Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumeirah Beach

Video:
Videography Mann
Creative director Celia-Jane Ukwenya
Film edit Aaliya Bekova
Retouch Daemon Rafe

Read Next: Vogue.me Investigates Racism in the Middle East

Celebrating Enduring Couture That Continues to Thrive in an Era Rocked By a Pandemic

Just like a century ago, when haute couture persisted through world wars, it continues to thrive today in an era rocked by a pandemic – albeit forever changed.

Malika El Maslouhi wears dress, shoes, Iris Van Herpen; headpiece, Iris Van Herpen X Casey Curran; nail artwork, Iris Van Herpen X Eichi Matsunaga. Photographed by Thibault-Theodore for Vogue Arabia

If haute couture had a patron goddess, she would have to be Demeter’s daughter Persephone, who cyclically died only to be reborn. As long ago as 1965, when what Diana Vreeland termed the “youthquake” was rattling the planet, the New York Times noted that “every 10 years the doctors assemble at the bedside of French haute couture and announce that death is imminent.” Around the same time, French actor Brigitte Bardot rejected Coco Chanel’s offer to dress her because haute couture – the bombshell complained – “was for grannies.”

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Bardot’s snub was understandable. Haute couture had been predicated on “older, outdated ideas,” Schiaparelli’s creative director Daniel Roseberry says. Chanel was a hoary 82 and haute couture itself – a government-controlled appellation – was more than a hundred years old. Though the antecedents of the haute couturier go back to Louis XIV in the 17th century, the French profession’s true founding father was Charles Frederick Worth, who in the 1800s introduced such novelties as the designer label and seasonal live presentations.

Malika El Maslouhi wears dress, Alexandre Vauthier. Photographed by Thibault-Theodore for Vogue Arabia

Though, like a fairytale enchantment, the maison Worth lasted one century, it was the venerable master’s spawn – the fantasist Paul Poiret, the functionalist Chanel, the purist Madeleine Vionnet – who ushered haute couture into the modern age. Persevering through the first world war, the Spanish flu, and the Great Depression, the French couturiers not only dressed “tout-Paris,” but also exported hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of their coveted handsewn confections. “History teaches us,” Dior creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri observes, “that couture is extremely resilient and, above all, adaptable.” The second world war and the Nazi occupation of Paris, however, posed a nearly terminal threat to the industry. Vionnet’s vast operations closed permanently in 1939. Chanel shuttered her doors. Her rival, the avant garde Elsa Schiaparelli, escaped to the US. But the enterprising Lucien Lelong stayed open, defiantly thwarting Hitler’s grandiose scheme to transplant all of Paris fashion to Berlin or Vienna. So miraculous was the Lelong-orchestrated wartime survival of haute couture that in 1945, Diana Vreeland exhorted an assistant to return from Paris with a single fabric rose as evidence of the rarefied institution’s continued existence.

Malika El Maslouhi wears dress, Fendi Haute Couture. Photographed by Thibault-Theodore for Vogue Arabia

More than Vreeland’s handmade rose (probably from the fournisseur Guillet), what bloomed from the ashes of the second world war was a fecund garden of “women- flowers,” wrote Christian Dior, who founded his maison in 1946, all wearing sumptuous “skirts like petals.” Before long, the Dior empire accounted for three-fifths of all haute couture sales. The remainder came from the other fabled houses of haute couture’s post-war golden age – Fath, Dessès, Heim, Balmain, Griffe, Rochas, Balenciaga – whose workrooms were as intricately structured as their lavish dresses, and whose formidable directrices were as lofty as a ballgown’s price.

Malika El Maslouhi wears dress, Ashi Couture. Photographed by Thibault-Theodore for Vogue Arabia

Haughty personnel and intimidating invoices were just two elements of the old-school haute couture culture that drove legions of women in the 60s and 70s out of the storied salons and into brand- new, funky boutiques selling ready-to-wear. Yves Saint Laurent had initiated the pret-a-porter movement in 1966 with the opening of the first Rive Gauche store, on Rue de Tournon. Trendsetting shops, some as far afield as London and New York, soon usurped haute couture’s function as (in Viktor & Rolf’s words) “a laboratory of ideas and experimentation.” Predictably, by 1973, the doomsayers of Time magazine were reporting that the enterprise of haute couture was “breathing very hard.”

Malika El Maslouhi wears dress, Guo Pei Couture. Photographed by Thibault-Theodore for Vogue Arabia

As before, the rumors of haute couture’s extinction were greatly exaggerated. During the bullish decade of the 80s, Karl Lagerfeld revived the ailing Chanel empire with his cheeky reinterpretations of the house’s hallowed codes. And with a heady eleven francs to the dollar, nouveau riche Americans flocked to Paris on the Concorde, frenetically buying up whole collections and fervently embracing newcomer Christian Lacroix. Haute couture reclaimed its magical ability to serve – to invoke Roseberry’s metaphor – as a “love language” spoken between designer and client.

Malika El Maslouhi wears dress, Viktor & Rolf Haute Couture; earrings, Hugo Kreit. Photographed by Thibault-Theodore for Vogue Arabia

In the 90s, after a market crash, recession, and Gulf war had yet again incapacitated the industry, LVMH chairman and CEO Bernard Arnault played Prince Charming to haute couture’s Sleeping Beauty. Arnault’s ingenuity lay in transforming haute couture from an entity that served not just private customers, but a brand. A demographic even larger than Arnault might have calculated began participating in haute couture’s previously esoteric rites – viewing collections, judging them, sharing them, and buying spin-off, logo-emblazoned status items, via the proliferating digital platforms that propelled fashion into the 21st century.

Malika El Maslouhi wears dress, Viktor & Rolf Haute Couture; earrings, Hugo Kreit. Photographed by Thibault-Theodore for Vogue Arabia

Responding to the rapidly changing environment, the antiquated trade organization Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture morphed into the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode and safeguarded its future by modernizing its rules of admission, essentially unchanged since the time of Lucien Lelong. As a result, its roster of haute couturiers expanded from about 15 members in the early 2000s to 100 today. This updating of the bylaws has allowed many esteemed out-of-towners, such as Iris van Herpen, Elie Saab, Fendi (under Kim Jones’s direction), and Victor & Rolf to become “correspondent members,” and Guo Pei, with her new studio in Paris, and Christophe de Vilmorin, fresh out of design school, to become “guest members.” Rallying in the face of the pandemic and lockdowns this past January, 28 of the Fédération’s houses resourcefully presented collections during the three-day SS21 haute couture showings (albeit virtually).

Malika El Maslouhi wears Lion Vénitien Necklace, earrings in 18ct white gold set with diamonds, Chanel High jewelry. Photographed by Thibault-Theodore for Vogue Arabia

Paradoxically, rather than hamper designers, the limitations imposed by Covid-19 freed them to explore new formats and engage with artists in other media. “Covid forced us to break through traditional barriers and explore new ways of presenting our conceptual ideas,” say Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren from Viktor & Rolf, whose creations addressed sustainability as well as the need for a “lighthearted escape into fantasy.” And, just as Elsa Schiaparelli, in the 1930s, enriched her own work by collaborating with Leonor Fini, Jean Cocteau, and Christian Bérard, so the present-day couturiers overcame Covid-induced constraints by merging their imaginations with the aesthetic worlds of filmmakers Anton Corbijn (Chanel), Nick Knight (Valentino), Matteo Garrone (Dior), and Christophe Tiphaine (Schiaparelli). “Fashion has always been the realm of the imagination,” Chiuri explains, “So it is natural for me to turn to a film format to express my project through visual stories.” For Roseberry, whose sensual collection was cleverly compressed into an Instagram-friendly three minute, 52 second video, the goal was “to create a format and a way of showing the collection that really lets the viewer experience it.”

Malika El Maslouhi wears dress, headband, earrings, rings, Dior Haute Couture. Photographed by Thibault-Theodore for Vogue Arabia

The pandemic may have simply accelerated an inevitable evolution. Viktor & Rolf plans to “become more digitally focused, creating content that caters to each platform.” Elie Saab foresees a “mix between smaller, less hectic, live fashion shows and digital content.” Twenty-four-year-old Vilmorin, who gave birth to his brand during lockdown, doesn’t even see a need for “all that mise-en-scène and spectacle” of a runway event. Says Roseberry, “It’s a total reset.”

Malika El Maslouhi wears dress, shoes, Jean Paul Gaultier Haute Couture. Photographed by Thibault-Theodore for Vogue Arabia

No longer a resource-draining marketing exercise, haute couture – the ultimate “slow fashion” – now has the capacity to turn a substantial profit, as robust economies around the globe generate new clients, whose fittings might even take place through Zoom. “Covid has made people rush less and appreciate more the value of things,” Saab reflects. Among the freshly minted devotees of the most extravagant finery on earth are the very young, and – in a development that the sybaritic Sun King himself would surely appreciate – men. Fendi, Valentino, and Vilmorin all showcased their offerings on male and female models. As Ralph Toledano, president of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, stated, “It seems that there are no longer any boundaries to couture.”

Read Next: Editor’s Letter: Why Our May Issue is Dedicated to the Highest Artistries and Haute Couture

Originally published in the May 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia

DOP and video editing Cheyne Tillier-Daly
Photographer Thibault-Théodore
Style Lisa Jarvis
Fashion director Katie Trotter
Creative and set direction Nicola Scarlino

Hair Charlie Le Mindu
Makeup Annabelle Petit at Wise & Talented
Nails Lora de Sousa
Creative producer Laura Prior
Production Weird Fishes Studio
Producer Réda Ait
Retouching Curro Verdugo
Analog operator Maëlle Joigne
Painter Damien Caccia
Studio assistant Tom Kleinberg
Style assistant Francesca Riccardi
Set assistants Antoine Dugrand Castaignede, Amin Bidar, Thomas Jardin
Production assistant Adélina Bichet Elzey
Model Malika El Maslouhi at Viva Model

March 10, 2020

“I just always wanted to be impressive” — Why Yousra Needs Only One Name and No Introduction

There’s a reason why Egypt’s screen idol Yousra needs only one name, and no introduction…

VOGUE ARABIA COVER MARCH 2020 Yousra. Photography: Hassan Hajjaj

Yousra wears blouse, Pucci; shirt, Maison Rabih Kayrouz; pants, socks, Andy Wahloo Super-Lux; shoes, photographer’s own; earrings, rings, Yousra’s own

It’s a warm spring day in Marrakech and Egyptian superstar Yousra is in a purple tuk tuk that’s rattling along old, narrow streets through a vibrant medina. Music from a local band playing on classical sintirs and castanets fills the air with its traditional rhythms. The carriage might not be classically regal, yet the moment feels very much like a royal parade – her majesty, the queen of Middle Eastern cinema, has arrived.

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When Yousra enters the riad belonging to artist and photographer Hassan Hajjaj for this anniversary cover shoot, the atmosphere drips with excitement. “We are in the presence of a legend,” says an awestruck assistant. The comment is no overstatement. A bona fide superstar, Yousra goes by one name. She’s starred in more than 80 movies, has received more than 60 awards, and this year was chosen to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes on the Oscars. She has helped define Arab cinema and shine a light on the industry, which overwise might have been overshadowed by the West.

VOGUE ARABIA COVER MARCH 2020 Yousra. Photography: Hassan Hajjaj

Yousra wears blanket, Hajjaj’s Own, hat, Andy Wahloo Super-Lux; shoes, Givenchy; sunglasses, Andy Wahloo Super-Lux X Poppy Lissiman. Photographed by Hassan Hajjaj for Vogue Arabia March 2020

“It is a great honor for me to be on the Oscars academy,” says Yousra in her typically husky tone. The actor, who was one of three Egyptian celebrities (along with producer Mohamed Hefzy and director Amr Salama) invited to join the academy, is humble about the role. “I believe the academy is one of the most prestigious in the world, and being part of it means so much to me.”

In Hajjaj’s studio, typically a kaleidoscope of color and buzzing with organized chaos, Yousra is laughing, her genuine warmth settling any nerves the team members might have. She’s flying to Los Angeles for the awards ceremony in the morning, so there’s a time crunch to be dealt with. Unsurprisingly, she whizzes through each look without complaint – she may be a legend, but she is no diva.

Yousra credits her husband, Khaled Selim, for her grounded attitude. “I respect the way he can handle my life as an actor and the way he is patient. He is proud of me when I take a new step and it is a successful one,” she reveals in a rare quiet moment. The actor is not usually comfortable talking about her relationship – she “doesn’t want to jinx it.” Not that she runs from the notion of it, of course. When asked what makes them such a successful duo, she replies, “Please can you say, ‘God bless your relationship’ instead of asking such a question,” adding, “Khaled and I have known each other since we were children. Without him, I don’t think I could manage to do all this.”

VOGUE ARABIA COVER MARCH 2020 Yousra. Photography: Hassan Hajjaj

Yousra wears dress, shoes Balenciaga; hat, Andy Wahloo Super-Lux; glasses, Andy Wahloo Super-Lux X Poppy Lissiman. Photographed by Hassan Hajjaj for Vogue Arabia March 2020

Yousra was 17 when she realized she wanted to become an actor – before that, she wanted to be a diplomat. Her onscreen history dates back to the late 70s, with her debut in Abdel Halim Nasr’s Castle in the Air, and her breakthrough roles in Ebtesama Wahida Takfy and Azkiaa Laken Aghbyaa. She went on to work with prominent Egyptian directors – most notably Youssef Chahine – and rapidly established her position as one of the highest paid stars in the industry, as well as one of the Arab world’s most powerful women.

“I just always wanted to be impressive”

“I just always wanted to be impressive,” says Yousra of her career and work ethic, which has contributed to her lauded status. “If people don’t appreciate your work and don’t see you as a legend, you will never be a legend. You have to understand that you are working for people and that you have to be working to their expectations.”

“Being a legend, you must have something. You are not free as you were when you were unknown. You are always under a special kind of pressure, and expectations of people toward you. But without those people, you will never be a legend,” she explains, adding for future stars, “Be humble as much as you can but at the same time, don’t expose too much of your private life.”

VOGUE ARABIA COVER MARCH 2020 Yousra. Photography: Hassan Hajjaj

Yousra wears coat, Dolce & Gabbana; jumper, Pucci; glasses, Andy Wahloo Super-Lux X Poppy Lissiman. Photographed by Hassan Hajjaj for Vogue Arabia March 2020

While she prefers to maintain a guarded privacy, her “sad childhood” is something she does offer some insight into. “I had a tough life when my father took me from my mother,” she says emotionally about the separation following a bitter divorce. “From their divorce I learned that things can still go on and you just need to handle your children with care, love, and honesty. Give them the chance to express themselves. I have to give it to my mother as she was my friend, my mom, and my backbone. She gave me all this. She made me who I am today.”

And who is that person? “A feminist” who believes in equality at work and in personal life. It’s this belief that has seen her purposefully tackle powerful characters and taboo topics. “I choose to play strong roles for women because we have a lot of stories of different women in our society who can be legends but we don’t use them enough. I’m trying to put these legends in the episodes I make,” she shares.

“We changed laws – you can change life through cinema.”

While she hasn’t pursued a political path, she has used her status to help push boundaries and even change laws. “When I made the rape episodes for the Ramadan series Fawk Mustawa Al Shobohat, everyone was against it, but in the end, everyone was clapping and it received the biggest viewership ever.” The show led to Egyptian laws toward rapists being changed. “Before, the law said that a rapist should go to prison for only one or two months. Now, he is very much punished. We changed laws – you can change life through cinema.”

VOGUE ARABIA COVER MARCH 2020 Yousra. Photography: Hassan Hajjaj

Yousra wears hat, Andy Wahloo Super-Lux; glasses, Andy Wahloo Super-Lux X Poppy Lissiman; blanket, photographer’s own. Photographed by Hassan Hajjaj for Vogue Arabia March 2020

Outside of the film industry, Yousra works tirelessly as a UN Goodwill ambassador for the Middle East and Africa to change the lives of those less fortunate. “Before being an ambassador, I also did humanitarian work, but being an ambassador offers much more responsibility,” she says. “I’m honored because being a Goodwill ambassador is trying to put the good in everything you do, not only in the mission you have.”

Her reach and engagement with her audience and fans is incredible, especially for someone who shuns social media – she simply will have no part in it. In fact, it’s the only time during the interview when her behavior shifts. “Before, we were stars without social media. Now I feel like anyone can be a star,” she says. “People listen to me because they know I’m not a hypocrite. I talk when I believe, and when I believe it comes from the heart.”

Not chasing likes has had little effect on her career – if anything, fans respect and idolize her more. When it comes to her own role models, she is quick to cite actors Faten Hamama and Nadia Lotfy, as well as her mother. “I had a lot to learn from these ladies, in all aspects of my life, and was lucky to have them,” she explains. “I’m proud that my mother was truly proud of me. She gave me the best love, care, and the best example in my life.”

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Her father was somewhat more critical of her career, infamously slapping her across the face following her first onscreen kiss. “It’s something called الدنيا†علمتني†(what life taught me),” shares Yousra of the memory. “It didn’t make me ashamed at all that I did it. On the contrary, I’m proud of each and every scene I have made in the cinema.”

Despite her personal hardships, the superstar espouses positive thinking and mindfulness. Her ability to swat away bad vibes is admirable, especially in a job that comes with public scrutiny. “When you want to forget the bad or to dismiss someone from your life, just leave them to God,” she says calmly.

“Never take revenge into your own hands.” Yousra’s unflappable confidence comes to the fore throughout the cover shoot. She is completely comfortable in her own skin – and that skin is glowing and dewy, her smile infectious, her style that of a 1950s screen siren. She is the epitome of elegance and won’t bow down to pressures from the film industry. “I simply don’t care about aging,” she says with Oprah-style conviction, which makes everyone immediately want to jump in the air with applause. If she was on Instagram, she’d be the ultimate self-love guru. But for now, she’ll be taking over screens this coming Ramadan in the series Dahab Eira (Fake Gold). “I achieved in my 40 years of work whatever I wanted to achieve and whatever I wanted to dream of,” she says. “I love my age and I love my looks. I’m proud of who I am and how I look, and how I present things – Hamdoullilah.”

Originally published in the March 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia

Photography Hassan Hajjaj 
Style Katie Trotter & Lisa Jarvis
Creative producer Laura Prior  
Art accomplice Ebon Heath 
Second assistant Tariq Hajjaj
Local producer Marie Courtin 
Hair Sadek Lardjane 
Makeup Jo Frost
Photography assistants Hasnae El Quarga and Meriem Yin
Style assistant Alexandria Lefevre 
Runner Yazid Bezaz, Abdelali Boukrimi, Mohammed Ajib
Studio Riad Yima, Marrakech
With special thanks to Four Seasons Resort Marrakech

Read Next: 8 of Yousra’s Milestone Moments Illustrating Her Icon Status

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