Eye of the Tigress

By Amy Mowafi

A string of explosively controversial blockbusters have ensured that Hend Sabry is a thespian force to be reckoned with. Enigma’s Managing Editor Amy Mowafi, uncovers a daring, determined and fiercely intelligent actress with a mind all her own.

Hend Sabry, Styled and directed by Maissa Azab, Photographed by Khaled Fadda for Enigma Magazine

Hend Sabry would like to know the number of the nearest hospital. Lisa the tiger cub, and her soon to be modelling partner, is more than a little irritated. While most girls would feel fabulous with a diamond-studded belt wrapped around their lithe bodies, this baby tiger is evidently not too pleased. Perhaps she senses the belt is a fake, which is rather unfair as Hend Sabry has a whole row of couture pieces to choose from. Lisa eyes Sabry suspiciously and lets out a low terrifying growl.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” says Sabry. “How about I do the shoot from here?” she asks as she peers round from behind the bathroom door. But there’s a definite lack of conviction in her reluctance. This is all simply the tentativeness before the storm. Pretty soon, Hend will have composed herself; her steely determination will have reasserted itself, and she will make it her business to understand the tiger. A lengthy and intense conversation with Lisa’s handler follows. Less than 30 minutes later Lisa is happily sprawled over Sabry’s lap.

This calculated fearlessness is typical Hend Sabry.  She is, after all, the girl who has willingly embraced some of the riskiest and most controversial female roles in the recent history of Arab cinema. There was her role as Gameela and her sexual exploits in 2001’s Mozakarat Morahka (Teenage Diaries); the maid Hayat in Mowaten we Mokhber we Haramy, a tale of tangled and emotional physical relationships replete with risqué love scenes; and of course The Yacoubian Building’s Bothayna, an impoverished woman who endures sexual exploitation to support her family. When the explosive script, brimming with Arab taboos landed at Sabry’s feet, her first reaction was, “Wow! Where do I sign?” And the role has catapulted her to superstar status.

In her film choices Sabry has a habit of leaving conservative Arabia positively panic stricken. After nearly each one of her silver screen outings the age-old media debate is resurrected – are modern Arab movies destroying traditional cultural boundaries or are they merely reflective of society?  Well, Sabry has a thing or two to say about that. “If we don’t portray these things in the movies then what we’re saying is we live in some sort of utopia where there are no emotions or where sex does not exist.” Sabry attacks the topic – like most subjects – with intellectual vigour. Beneath the beautiful-actress exterior, the tough-talking, resolute and exceptionally eloquent lawyer inside of her simmers constantly, ready to pounce at the smallest hint of a point of view; always primed for a debate, a discussion, an argument, a counter-argument and a beautifully though-out conclusion. Sabry’s multitudes of conclusions on a multitude of topics are so forthcoming only because they have been privately and intensely poured over.  But then having a lawyer father, who wakes you in the middle of the night to watch Fellini movies, will do that to you. This only child of liberal highly-educated parents with a passion for cinema, grew up to become a famous actress with a Masters in Law and an insistence that one day her big-screen success will be matched in the courtroom.

“Hollywood movies speak without boundaries,” she continues. “And yet we don’t dare. I don’t think there is any conflict between holding onto our traditions and being open to what is happening in society. Look at America; they don’t have any traditions, yet they hold onto their ideals much tighter than we do. They don’t copy us; we copy them in a million ways. But they’re open and that’s why they have fewer problems.  Just because you’re breaking a taboo doesn’t mean you’re letting go of your culture or traditions. Quite the opposite, it means you’re curing your problems. You’re not going to turn into someone non-Arab or non-Muslim. I think the problem is we’ve started to grab onto the wrong things. When you switch on the TV and you see the old films of Fouad El Mohandis and Shuikar, of Soad Hosni, Nadia Lotfy and Hind Rostom, you can immediately see that they were much more open than we are now, and people were accepting of that. And because of that, cinema was good.” Verdict delivered.

The first time we meet, Sabry is comfortably ensconced in her sleek and sophisticated Zamalek apartment. An open plan kitchen overlooks a living room of showroom sensibilities; beiges and browns and fashionable candles.  When you’ve only ever seen a person on the big screen, it’s strangely fascinating to watch them do mundane activities: to watch her give directions in French over the phone, the handset balancing between her tilted head and her shoulder as she absently stirs sugar into her oversized coffee mug; to watch her curl up on the sofa wearing loose jeans and a colourful short-sleeved knitted top. Her straightened reddish-brown hair falls loose, and her face, with her famously bee-stung lips and big brown eyes is confidently devoid of a single scrap of make-up. She is the embodiment of an actress in down-time.

Beyond the red carpet, TV appearances and photo shoots, Sabry admits to caring little for the world of fashion. “It’s part of my job,” she says. “It’s part of the glamour of it, but I’m definitely no fashionista. I’m always surprised when Egyptian actresses say they only dress in Dolce & Gabanna or Cavailli or whatever, how do they even afford that?” In fact, Hend Sabry is slightly uncomfortable with the “glamorous” side of the industry. It leaves her vulnerable to the public’s judgement on matters that are mostly out of her control. It’s not the public’s reaction itself that worries her; rather the media’s handling of the Hend Sabry brand. “It can be fun, but it’s also dangerous,” she says. “Your image is in other people’s hands. I sometimes underestimate how much these things get seen, and the public can misunderstand your intentions, and then things get blown completely out of proportion. I underestimate the power of the media and sometimes I do something, then regret I did it in public.” So what does she regret doing in public? “No nothing serious, I just mean generally.”

She is naturally cautious, but when you’re a fiercely intelligent young woman moving in circles renowned for their superficiality and operating in an industry that continues to be viewed with moral suspicion, you have reason to be. She tackles the misperceptions with typical conscientiousness. “Sure, at the beginning I was just this pretty girl from Tunis,” she says. “But with time and interviews people get to see how I talk and how I think. And people start to see how I choose my films. I don’t choose superficial films, even if they fail commercially; I have to really believe it’s the right film. So they can see I’m not in the industry for the glamour, fame or the lifestyle.” Her 2002 film Banat West El Balad (Downtown Girls) might have been critically panned, and she might have been unhappy with her role “as the follower”, but it gave her the chance to work with legendary director Mohammed Khan. “After a while people are not as judgmental, they start to separate between who just wants to get famous and who sees this as a real job.”

She’s had plenty of time to state her case. Her film career began a life-time ago when she was just 14. “I never decided to become an actress,” she says. “At that age you don’t decide anything.” She was with her parents at a dinner – “being an only child I was always stuck to my parents at that age” – when a director informed Mr. Sabry that his daughter had a face made for the silver screen. He put Sabry in touch with Tunisian director Moufida Tlatli who was looking for a young girl to play the lead role in the film Samt El Qusur (The Silence of Palaces). Her father was enthusiastic, but she was reluctant. Her mother told her to never pass up a new experience or an opportunity to learn and grow. So Sabry calmly and effortlessly stepped into the role of Alia, a beautiful servant’s daughter who grows up in the King’s Palace at the end of the French colonial rule in Tunisia, and learns hers is a world shaped by secrecy, sexual favours and hidden identities.

The girl with no acting experience and little desire to act, won the ‘Best Actress’ award at the Valencia international Film Festival for her portrayal of Alia. What does she do next? Gets back to her homework, excels at the thanaweya ‘ama (General Secondary School Certificate), and lands herself a place at law school in Tunisia. Yet the film scripts kept flooding in, eventually coaxing her away from her homeland and taking her to Egypt.  Still, when the Tunisian Union of Lawyers refused her membership (because of her silver screen status), the claws came out; she sued and fought vehemently for what was her “absolute right.”

“All my life, cinema has come by chance,” she says. “Now I am an actress and I am happy, tomorrow I don’t know. I still have other directions in my life. My mum always told me that life does not just move in one direction, there is something called recycling. And we’re in the 21st century, everyone recycles.”

Yet she’s not quite ready to recycle yet. Her first romantic comedy Le’abet El Hob (The Game of Love), in which she stars alongside close friend Khaled Abou El Naga, is released this month. “Hend is such a special person,” says Abou El Naga. “She’s such a strong personality and I love working with her. I really love her…as a friend of course!”

She’s just wrapped up filming on two soon-to-be-blockbuster movies: Yousri Nasrallat’s Genenat El Asmak (Fish Garden) in which she plays “a lonely working girl,” and Ahmad Medhat’s  El Turbini – a story of autism, or as Sabry describes it, “the Arabic version of  Rain Man.” In researching her role as doctor to an autistic boy (played by Ahmed Rezk), she read voraciously about the disease and regularly visited a centre for autistic children. Sabry’s own cousin is autistic, so it’s a topic that’s close to her heart and she hopes the film will increase understanding of the disease in the Arab world.

The next project sees her jetting off to Iran to star in a French / Iraqi movie, “It’s a really wonderful script about the Iran-Iraq war,” she says excitedly.

One would assume Hollywood is next on the agenda. Many of her young cohorts have already enjoyed moments in the international spotlight, most notably Amr Waked in Syriana and Khaled El Nabawi in Kingdom of Heaven.  And one senses that the tri-lingual westernised Hend, with her wonderfully subtle character portrayals, would fare better – a female Omar Sherif for the new millennium? Of course Hend admires Hollywood’s big money sensibilities. She’s an avid believer in the stratospheric sums her LA counterparts receive and wishes Arab producers would spend more on marketing their movies. The lavish lengths gone to by Good News Production, the company behind the Yacoubian Building to promote the movie at the Cannes Film Festival might have made Sabry proud, but left the always twisted Arab press reeling as they always reminded readers the film was not “officially” in the festival. “It’s ridiculous and demeaning,” says Sabry. “Half the budget of any film goes towards marketing, millions and millions of dollars. What is the problem with being willing to spend that type of money?”  And yet Hend is surprisingly adamant that the Hollywood Hills are not for her, “If you want to go to Hollywood you have to compromise, you have to play parts that are not good for the Arab world, there is too much to sacrifice by going to LA, especially after 9/11. That is their world, not ours.”

So until the courtroom or the “next direction” comes calling, she belongs to us. In an industry dominated by frivolous pretty faces wantonly seeking the limelight, Hend Sabry – daring, determined and devilishly smart – is not just a breath of fresh air, she’s a revelation.


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