ART DIRECTION & STYLING MAISSA AZAB
PHOTOGRAPHY KHALED FADDA
The self-described “dude next door” has just had one of the most phenomenal years of her career. After years of being in the ranks of the rising Arab stars, Arwa is finally the ‘it’ star of the moment. And even with her busy schedule, Arwa found time to join Fashion Director Maissa Azab for a shoot that featured stunningy exoctic snakes. eniGma’s Hassan Hassan enjoys a little coffee and conversation with the hottest actress in town…
I’m not the girl next door. I’m more like the dude next door,” says Arwa Gouda as we settle in for coffee at Cilantro in Maadi. Fresh from a shower after a workout session, Arwa’s hair is wet and loose, drying as we speak. She has no makeup on and she’s wearing a tunic that hides her lithe body. She’s a flurry of energy and noise. We sit down and she says, “won’t it be weird, you interviewing me when we know each other?”
This isn’t the first time I have met Arwa. The first time was back when we were teenagers stuck in the suburbs of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I was squirming in my seat, forced to sit through a mediocre talent show at the British International School of Jeddah. Suddenly Arwa appears on the stage, all long limbs, big hair, playing the tabla, doing a Lebanese dabke, rounding it off with a belly dance. I remember it quite vividly, a young girl in a simple black dress, owning the stage.
When I first moved to Cairo in 2001, I spotted her again. This time on the cover of a new magazine named eniGma, complete with frizzy hair and bare midriff. By 2004 she had won ‘Model of the World’. “I fell into modeling,” she says. “My career growth and transitions have been very organic. It comes from wanting to do a lot of things. I get bored very easily and crave change. But I never actually planned on becoming an actress. When I was Model of the World I got asked to play a singer in a movie, because they basically wanted someone to coo at the camera; which wasn’t all that different from modeling. After that, all the roles I was offered were due to my looks. Nobody was giving me the chance to be a real actress. So I was stuck in the model thing for a long time. And when you’re a model, no one believes in your mind; nobody cares about your opinion.”
By August 2007, Arwa was back on our cover and her star was in the ascendance. She had just wrapped up filming a major role in Mafish Gheir Kida (There’s Nothing Else) with Nabila Ebeid and Khaled Naga and was being slated as the next big thing. The movie didn’t quite tank but it wasn’t the box office success hoped for either. When I mention it she cringes a little. She’s come a long way since. With starring roles in the critically acclaimed Zay El Naharda (A Day Like Today) (2008), Al Watar (The Chord) (2010) and El Alamy (The International) (2010), she has more than proved her acting chops. Yet it was this Ramadan that Arwa took Egypt by storm in El Mowaten X (Citizen X). The murder mystery television series became one of the season’s most talked about shows. And her role as the no-fuss, tough-talking yet irresistibly feminine motorbike store owner Layla was endlessly applauded.
“I waited for two years after El Watar,” says Arwa in between pulling faces and cracking jokes. “I was being asked to play a lot of one-dimensional roles. The damsel in distress or some variety of a slut, but I don’t see any women waiting around to be saved. I really want to play characters that remind us that being feminine is not about being weak. I want to show society that you can get up and dance and not be a whore or that you can ride a motorbike and not be a slut. And it’s not about being an angry feminist. It’s about balance.”
Citizen X offered her such an opportunity to push herself, mentally and physically. She even learned, rather aptly, to drive a Pitbull Chopper. “With Layla in Citizen X, it was hard for me to get that balance of being both feminine and very strong. But I did it and it was a lot of fun. Once you stop having fun; you’re not going to get anything out of acting.”
With a limited but impressive resume, Arwa has something most Egyptian actresses lack: subtlety. She doesn’t need to be screaming out yalahwy to express an emotion; she doesn’t need to go entirely over the top. She gets the nuances and so does the audience. She looks up to ‘do it all’ women such as Tahiya Karioka, famous Egyptian belly dancer; women who exude a quiet strength and do their job without apology. “I also really respect Nadine Labaky. She’s an amazing director, an amazing actress and an amazing woman. She can do it all! And that’s important. You need to try your hand at a whole bunch of things in order to grow. And at the end of the day, growing is what it’s all about.”
Despite being one of the hottest properties in the industry right now, Arwa shies away from the applause. Every time I say something that sounds remotely like a compliment, she draws away. Usually you compliment a celebrity and they puff up and give you more. She doesn’t. “I absolutely hate seeing myself in pictures or on screen,” she says. “I can’t take a compliment. It’s so weird when people come up to me and say nice things. I have no idea how to react. I get completely retarded and say things like, ‘No! But did you see how I screwed that up?’ I try to keep myself grounded so I don’t crash. This industry is very fickle. One day everyone loves you and the next everybody hates you. Or even worse, they forget you. So
if you don’t remind yourself that it’s all going to go away one day, and if you get completely carried away by the fame, you lose yourself. I don’t want to be one of those people.”
My two cups of coffee have been sucked dry by Arwa’s enthusiasm and seemingly unending energy. Her hair is almost dry and I have a deadline. She speaks about how excited she was to work with snakes and geckos in the eniGma shoot and shows me an entire reel of pictures featuring red spiked Louboutins. “I love shoes!” she squeals. A perfect segue for fashion talk, but I can’t bring myself to ask. It’s been such a refreshing change from a month of runway pictures and fashion obsessions, and I don’t want to ruin a morning with frivolous pretty things. So I wrap our interview up by asking her what’s next. “I’m working on building a life, fulfilling a few dreams for myself and my family. It’s not only about ‘look at me I’m so pretty’. It’s about doing something, being more. I’m trying to be human.”