With Ramadan approaching, a sparkling new season of TV drama will soon begin. Five Arab stars unite to discuss their roles and aspirations for an unforgettable career in the limelight.
Every year, the majority of television series produced in the Arab world is created with the sole intention of being featured during Ramadan. Viewers are accustomed to seeing their screens flooded with shows during the Holy Month. For the first time, five stars of the small screen – Saba Mubarak, Haya Abdulsalam, Salma Abu Deif, Shereen Reda, and Amel Bouchoucha – come together in the village of Dahshur, Egypt, with its pharaonic monuments serving as their ultimate backdrop.
The Jordanian actor and producer Saba Mubarak, star of the upcoming drama Tayea, is a natural leader and jump-starts the conversation. Are Arab actors groomed for Ramadan, only? “I try to give my best performance regardless of the season,” she replies. “The networks’ long-established patterns of scheduling are no longer conceived as the most profitable. Viewers are free to choose when to watch a program, whether on Netflix, YouTube, or any other platform.” She considers that Ramadan dramas, which may consist of 30 episodes or more, will only succeed if directors, writers, and producers take into account that competition is “fierce and global.” She continues, “Arab viewers have quite a few choices. The world is no longer closed, nor programming locally based. The game must change. As an actor, I don’t confine myself to one locale. I work on projects that are produced in Egypt, Jordan, or outside the Arab world, such as Sweden and Spain. Geography doesn’t impede on my dreams.”
Kuwaiti actor Haya Abdulsalam has been noticeably absent from recent Ramadan seasons. She made the decision to avoid repeating her screen roles. However, the actor – who is very aware of her audience and sought out modest styling for her Vogue Arabia shoot – will soon debut on two television series during Ramadan. “In Rose Paris, my character features a human dimension; while in Al Khafy Azam (The Hidden Thing is More Serious), a love story set in the Seventies, I incarnate a reckless girl living a life influenced by old romantic movies.” She’s also noticed a disparity in the quality of television dramas. “Some productions are excellent; others are merely adequate. I look for the irreproachable ones. Besides, there is a growing tendency to broadcast a variety of series outside of Ramadan season, and they can receive a fair portion of attention.”
The young Egyptian actor Salma Abu Deif says that Ramadan gave her career a boost. She arrived at the Vogue Arabia shoot straight from filming overnight and never uttered one complaint as she posed for hours under the hot sun. The former model honed her acting skills over the past year with voice and phonetics workshops, as well as “maturing emotionally,” she says.
Abu Deif’s role in last Ramadan’s Halawat Al Dunia (Life is Beautiful) introduced her to the public and she was soon receiving more offers. “Ramadan is a season that ensures high viewing rates,” she says. Next up, audiences will see her playing an unexpected character in Ladayna Aqwal Ukhra. “I play a young, mature, and wise girl who works at the Foreign Ministry and cares about her family. Yousra plays my mother. She gave me advice as would a real mother during the shooting, and this special relationship between us will be obvious in the scenes.”
In the past, actors were eager to appear on the silver screen, says Egyptian star Shereen Reda, but Ramadan TV dramas are more important now. Her film experience is extensive – after starring in Photocopy with Mahmoud Hemeida (which was awarded best Arab feature narrative at the 2017 El-Gouna film festival), she appeared in Toraab Al Maas (Diamond Dust) and Al Daif (The Guest). She will soon begin shooting her first comedy, Al Kuwaiyseen (The Good People). “Viewers simultaneously understand and create the importance of Ramadan’s drama season by focusing on the details: the quality of acting, direction, production, and subjects,” she says. And yet, the number of series produced now are fewer than before.
“During the 30 days of Ramadan, we enter the homes and hearts of our viewers. They love us, hate us, and follow our lives in front of the cameras,” says Reda. She, too, will star in the series Ladayna Aqwal Ukhra. “I have been offered many roles this year, but I chose to join Ladayna Aqwal Ukhra’s cast to portray a special character. It is also very different compared to my previous drama experiences with Yousra, who, in this series, chases the truth and finds me along her way. Yousra is one of my closest friends, so the trust between us is reflected in this drama.” Reda – beautiful with fair hair and a free and fun-loving spirit – cares about the nature of roles more than its air time. “I’m an actor, not a star. The character I play is more important to me than appearing in every episode.” She’s known for her frankness, but have her bold views affected her relationship with the public? “People know my background and know that I don’t mean any offence,” she shrugs. “I don’t need to justify my opinions, and I don’t care about those who try to alter my words to criticize me. I appreciate and understand freedom. When I express my opinion, I don’t impose it on anyone or pretend that it is right. I don’t try to gain everyone’s love or make them agree with my point of view.”
Algerian actor and singer Amel Bouchoucha considers herself fortunate – she takes her time to make her own choices. “The doors are open to me and my steps are steady. I do not like to make random choices nor make an unjustified or weak appearance.” Bouchoucha will star in Abu Omar Al Masri with Ahmed Ezz. “For years, I have been offered special roles for Ramadan season in Egypt, but I was waiting for a good drama because success in this country – the Arab platform of drama and cinema – has a different taste and glamour,” she says. “It is a shortcut to success. However, the journey you take to prove your talent isn’t easy. Second or third chances are almost non-existent. Either you succeed, or you will be excluded.”
Mubarak considers an actor’s accomplishments to be a collective effort. “I evaluate the experiences of the writer, director, and production company, because good intentions aren’t enough in this field.” The team of Tayea has well-established talents: writer Muhammad Diab, who also directed the Cannes film festival movie Clash; director Amr Salama, who also directed Sheikh Jackson; and Egyptian star Amr Youssef, with whom she has previously worked. “The script is one of the most beautiful I have ever read,” she notes. “The most important thing for an actor is that her character be richly written, so that it can feature dimensions that aren’t superficial or lack serious thought.”
When asked about the development of dramatic roles in Kuwait, Abdulsalam is mindful that the field respects previous generations, especially the pioneers who laid the foundations of art in her country. Among them are Souad Al Abdullah and Hayat Al Fahd. She notes that many established actors will now work with young directors, when they previously only collaborated with established names. “We appreciate their experiences; however, our generation is changing drama by evolving a more natural manner of acting. Directors also now help actors to express themselves.” Abu Deif agrees. “We are still learning from previous generations and I hope mine succeeds in demonstrating our different ambitions, intellect, and vision for the future.” Her aspirations once included presenting political programs and working at the United Nations. “After the Egyptian revolution, I changed my goals. I began modeling during college and it opened doors for me. Modeling led to acting. I’m grateful for this bridge, which brought me here.”
The conversation turns to future plans. Reda offers, “I like cinema. Its charm is different and has a long-lasting impact.” Bouchoucha assesses her dramatic adventures with her familiar panache. “I’ll take the opportunity of being on this earth to write every letter of my name accurately and slowly.” Abdulsalam has found her passion in directing dramas. She has presided over three series in which she also played the leading roles. She is also keen to learn filmmaking. “With the opening of cinemas in Saudi Arabia, Gulf actors will flourish. We will have more independence and the box office will determine who the stars are. Producers who impose their conditions on actors will no longer hold all the cards,” she states. “I give the impression that I am a young and shy girl, but I have proven that there is nothing a woman can’t do. I dispelled suspicions and boosted hope. I am also so close to my audience due to my simple look – that of a normal girl who can be their neighbor or daughter. I know I’m a star, but I do not act like one.”
Originally printed in the May 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.