This is an age of hyperbole. We dub our celebrities superstars at the first hint of a blockbuster, and icons are made in the blink of a number one hit. But beyond the frenzy, few real legends exist. Hussein Fahmy, an actor and a gentleman, is one of those exceptional and enduring idols.
He first sashayed onto the big screen over three decades ago, a blue-eyed boy with fair hair and a megawatt smile that left a generation of girls weak at their mini-skirted knees. Fahmy is the ultimate smooth operator; a suave sophisticate who heralds from a long line of parliamentarians. He studied film directing at California’s UCLA, back when the American University in Cairo seemed exotic. Today, over 200 films, 20 TV series and countless plays later, he’s lost none of his legendary charm and he has a lifetime’s worth of star-studded stories to tell. The king of his country-side castle, far from Cairo’s madding crowds, he’s happy to share his adventures in stardom as we survey the countless framed pictures on the mantlepiece above his fireplace.
There he is, taking a stroll with Kofi Annan, from his days as a Goodwill Ambassador with the United Nations. Another photo shows him sharing a joke with Sophia Loren during those heady years in the early noughties when he was President of the Cairo Film Festival; a period when the event briefly exuded the sparkly cachet it deserves. Others see him in Hollywood with Steven Spielberg and Sean Connery, and there he is, again and again, with President Hosni Mubarak. And of course there are plenty of pictures of his three grown-up children, including his daughter from his hugely high-profile seven-year marriage to that other icon of the silver screen, legendary beauty Mervat Amin.
Back in the late seventies, long before the era of Brangelina, that twosome was whipping the media into a fairytale frenzy. Big band classics play in the background, with Sinatra and Barry Manilow encouraging a little swaying action in the middle of his living room on this bright Friday afternoon. His gregarious four year old stepdaughter Jumana tears through the airy expanse of his home as he genially expounds on the pros and cons of whiskey drunk straight, à la his days in Scotland, or on the rocks New York style. And upstairs, his wife of just over a year, actress and singer, Leqaa Swidan, prepares for our shoot. The blonde beauty is thirty-some years his junior and the unexpected pairing gave the tabloids plenty of frivolous fodder.
This is, after all, the fifth marriage for a man who has something of a reputation for being a womaniser. Indeed, Fahmy was once quoted in Al Ahram as saying, “I think women like it. Not my wives though. Understandably they have been a little intolerant.” Of course, these lovers could care less. For one, Leqaa is a far smarter and stronger woman than the media give her credit for. On the surface, this might seem like a sugar daddy meets plaything scenario, but the reality is a meeting of minds.
Fahmy, a famed intellectual, has met his match in the highly educated, cultured and politically excitable Leqaa; who comes to life when the issue of Gaza is brought up, and is eager to express her passionate philosophies on international relations. And if the two of them share one defining motto, it is this: Life is too short to worry about the fickleness of society’s expectations. They’re in love, they love life and they’re intent on enjoying every moment of it.
Your marriage has had the media buzzing! It’s an unlikely pairing, so tell us, exactly how did the two of you meet?
Hussein: Do you want my version or her version?
Let’s start with your version, and then we can get the real version from her!
Hussein: It was my first day of rehearsals for a new play I was starring in. The moment I walked into the theatre I saw a woman standing at the other end of the hall with her back to me. Suddenly, I just felt something was going to happen between us. It was a strong feeling that came out of nowhere. I was absolutely convinced. As it turned out, that woman was playing the female lead. I immediately took a keen interest in her. Despite all my attention, she just didn’t seem to care! Of course, at the time I was still married, as was she. A few months later, we met, by chance, at my brother Mustafa’s wedding to the actress Rania Farid Shawky and Leqaa happened to be one of Rania’s closest friends. We started talking and discovered that we’d both recently been divorced. So it was simply a case of “You too? Ok great, let’s just do this then!”
Leqaa: From that moment onwards we’ve never left each other’s sides. The reason our relationship works so well is because we started out as really good friends.
Hussein: And also…
Leqaa: No, wait, you’ve got to hear my version now!
Absolutely, go for it…
Leqaa: I really had no idea whatsoever that Hussein was interested in me. He was just a superstar that I was very lucky to work with. So I was dealing with him on a purely professional basis. At the time I was also doing my post-graduate studies in musical direction and my daughter Jumana was just a few months old, so I really wasn’t paying any attention to anyone or anything else. But over time, I started to notice what a great person he is. He really caught my attention as a human being. He’s an incredibly kind person. People go to him when they’re in trouble because they know he’s sympathetic and will always lend a helping hand. And yet he’s such a modest person; he does so much charity work without ever boasting about it. He really is wonderful. But still, I never imagined in a million years that one day I’d be married to him.
Leqaa, you say when you first met him, you couldn’t see past the fact he’s a ‘superstar’. Now that you’re married, are there moments when you look at him and think, “Oh my God, I’m married to Hussein Fahmy! What is he doing here?”
Hussein: What is he doing here? Shouldn’t it be more like what is she doing here!?
Leqaa: Hussein is very down to earth, so you never feel he’s a ‘superstar’. He likes to do everything himself. He drives himself, he’ll go to the bank himself and stand in the queue just like everyone else. He does a lot around the house. He’s not pretentious at all. So the only time I ever really feel he’s a ‘superstar’ is when we go out together and suddenly he’s surrounded by a mob of people eager to get close to him. People love him so much; it’s incredible. It’s those moments, in an airport or a supermarket, when he’s surrounded by fans that I look at him and think “Okay, wow!”
Well, it can’t have escaped your attention that Hussein has a reputation for being something of a ladies’ man. The media love to portray him as a seriously smooth operator. So how did you snare the irrepressible Hussein Fahmy?
Leqaa: No man can be held down against his will. Commitment has to come from a man’s heart and there’s nothing a woman can do to change that. If your man is tempted to stray, you shouldn’t stay together. If I ever suspect that Hussein is no longer attracted to me, or that he’s paying attention to someone else, I’ll remove myself from this situation.
So is there any truth to his womanising persona?
Leqaa: I know that’s how people perceive him, but it’s actually quite the opposite. Women are the ones who flirt with him and throw themselves at him. I’ve never seen him initiate anything with any woman. You can’t begin to imagine how easily he gets embarrassed. I always know something is up when he starts to blush furiously!
Hussein: That’s absolutely true! I really don’t know how to flirt. Women have always come on to me. Even when I was a teenager, long before I became an actor, I was very popular with the girls. They were the ones chasing me, so contrary to popular perception, I’m not a flirt!
Leqaa: Seriously, All it takes is for a woman to glance at him in a provocative way, and he goes all red-faced!
Thanks to the iconic musical movie ‘Khali Balak Min Zouzou’ (‘Take Care of Zouzou’) Hussein will forever be known as ‘Wad El Te’eel’ (the man who plays hard-to-get). After 37 years, are you not bored to death of people still calling you that?
Hussein: No! Never! I’ll always be thrilled by it because Soad Hosny sang that song and she’s an enduring legend. The two of us will forever be related in the public’s consciousness, and to me, that’s a wonderful thing.
So tell us Leqaa, is Hussein really the ‘Wad El Te’eel’?
Leqaa: He always used to say it’s very hard for a woman to deal with him because he’s so set in his ways. Personally, I don’t think that’s a big problem because he is so respectful. He respects himself and the person he is with. And he has such an amazing sense of humour. He’s so funny!
Hussein, what was it about Leqaa that you fell in love with?
Hussein: Her intelligence! I love intelligent women, and I can’t stand stupid ones. She’s incredibly cultured as well, which I really respect. And of course she’s very creative, has a great voice and is a wonderful actress. She reads a lot and we’ve read a lot of the same books. We love to discuss and debate the things we’ve read. She’s also just a really sweet person; it’s so easy to get on with her. We’re very similar in a lot of ways. It’s so unusual for a successful Arab man to find intelligence and independence in a woman attractive. Arab men are usually just after a bit of arm candy! Men who chase after bimbos are insecure. They have no real confidence in themselves. High profile men who can’t handle strong, smart women might appear successful on the outside, but it’s a very superficial success. On the inside, they’re failures as human beings. If you’re comfortable with yourself, and you’re satisfied and content on the inside, you want a woman who is your equal, not less.
Leqaa: That’s so true. Hussein is the most encouraging man I’ve ever known. He always pushes me to fulfil my potential. He really encouraged me to kick-start my singing career. He is my backbone.
Ok, enough of the mushy stuff! If you could change one thing about each other, what would it be?
Hussein: It’s too late for that now!
Leqaa: I really wouldn’t change a thing. Hussein has a very strong personality, and yes, it’s absolutely impossible to convince him of something unless he wants to do it. But at the same time he has the strength of personality to admit when he’s wrong. And that takes courage. A lot of people make mistakes and don’t have the courage to admit they are wrong. I think you’ll find that applies to Egypt in its entirety!
Hussein: Yes, well, when I’m wrong, I own up to it and I fix it. Things would be a little better for all of us if people understood that it doesn’t demean you as a person to admit to your faults. Let’s hope the men out there are reading this! And the women!
Was there anything surprising you discovered about each other after marriage?
Leqaa: Yes, just how alike we really are. We’re very much in sync, I’ll think something and he’ll say it, and vice versa. Sometimes it feels like we’ve been together all our lives.
Hussein: It all feels so familiar that I’ve started to think seriously about reincarnation. Maybe we’d known each other in a previous life.
You’ve both been married previously. Hussein, this, of course, is your fifth time! Is it true that marriage becomes easier with experience?
Hussein: Absolutely not. Because no two people are the same, so you can’t take the lessons you learn from one relationship into the next. I go into every marriage as a virgin. When people ask me about Leqaa, I say, “This is my first marriage.” We shape our future together and past experiences just don’t come into it.
And what about the age difference? The media has had a field day with the fact Leqaa was able to play your daughter in the play ‘Zaki Fil Wizara’…
Hussein: You know what? We find the fuss hilarious. I don’t believe in age at all and neither does she. I still feel like I’m 18 years-old. You’re born and you die, and everything in between is fair game. Hours, days, years, those are just human concepts. The only real truth is ‘life’ and you’ve got to make the most of it. I’ve never felt time was against me. It’s on my side, and how I use it is my prerogative. And I intend to exploit it to the fullest.
Leqaa: It’s like Hussein always tells me, “It’s never too late.” What is age but a stamp on a birth certificate? What does it actually mean? It’s about how you feel in your soul, your spirit. Our spirits connect, and somehow it works. We have an understanding and that’s all that matters.
And finally, how will you be celebrating Valentine’s Day?
Hussein: Well I have a really great group of friends from around the world. So each year we use Valentine’s Day as an excuse to meet up in one country and spend some fun time together. A group Valentine’s date? That doesn’t sound very romantic!
Leqaa: Yes, well, that’s what he thinks we’re doing!