He’s Egypt’s first action hero. She’s one of society’s favourite sweethearts. In this Enigma exclusive, Ahmed El Sakka and Maha Al Sagheer give Fashion Director Maissa Azab an exceptional all-access pass to their private desert stables for their first shoot as a couple. Meanwhile, Managing Editor Amy Mowafi gets an unprecedented behind-the-scenes peak into the love and life of this notoriously private and enigmatic duo.
A bit of rough. But in a good way. You know the type: brash and bullish, all sharp edges but mushy insides – which only the right girl can see, of course. A little frayed, a little mad, bad and dangerous to know. The brooding sort you ought never take home to dad. Except Maha Al Sagheer did. Take him home to Dad that is. Well, sort of… Dad got a phone call. Out of the blue. At four in the morning. From Ahmed El Sakka. Daddy was understandably confused… “Ahmed El Sakka? As in the actor?” Yes, as in the actor. Well actor is simplifying the matter somewhat. Try big screen action hero and all-round teen idol. “I’m marrying your daughter,” he says. Just like that. No introductory niceties.
That’s not his style. Ahmed was 24, Maha was 19… barely. She met Ahmed when she interviewed him for a university project. While studying mass communications at the American University in Cairo, Maha roped a journalist friend into getting her onto the set of his latest TV series. Lest the cynical assume the obvious, she wasn’t after Ahmed, she was after an ‘A’… which incidentally she received, but only after igniting (unwittingly) the passions of this hot-headed young actor. “We had the right chemistry,” says Ahmed. “It was immediate.” Yeah, ok, whatever, but what was it about Maha that hooked him? “Just chemistry,” he says, again. No, no. That’s not the point. That’s not what we need to know. What we just have to know is what it takes for a girl to snare her very own real life celebrity. “No really, just the right chemistry,” adds Maha. Chemistry it is then.
He asked her to go horse riding. Really. Right there in the middle of the interview, Ahmed El Sakka says to the 19 year -old student with the mass of auburn curls and big hazel eyes, “You want to go ride horses sometime?” Because as everyone knows Ahmed El Sakka loves his horses. He has his own stables out in Sakkara and everything. And Maha knew how to ride horses… so really, why not? Well, how about because when a big screen Egyptian movie star, a single guy from the wrong side of the tracks and the right side of charming asks you to go riding, alone, you ought to maybe think it through? “Of course I was a bit apprehensive,” says Maha. “But you know everyone has their limits. I set my own limits. And I mean it was just horse riding. So I thought I’d give it a shot.” It was one hell of a shot.
Four months later, in Ramadan of 1997, Ahmed proposed. What happens next? Who knows? Because, when it comes down to it, who really knows what goes on in a marriage… behind closed doors. Certainly not some journalist sitting in the sparse living room of their rented villa by the Pyramids, where they’re biding their time waiting for their dream home to be completed. But here’s what I do know: they’re about to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary, and for any couple in our love ‘em and leave ‘em generation, that’s no easy feat. Add a highly-strung actor (or “artist” as Maha likes to call him, one senses with a little tongue in the cheek) into the mix, and you’ve got to give them serious kudos. “I was speaking to Zeina Ashour [Amr Diab’s wife] the other day, and she was saying how challenging it is to be married to an artist,” says Maha, while we wait for Ahmed to awake from his afternoon slumber.
“People come up to women in our position and tell us how lucky we are, but the reality is hard.” Hard Maha? How so? How is being married to one of the coolest Egyptian actors of our generation hard? The man who – with his melodramatic tumbles and leap-out-of-the-way-of-spontaneously-combusting-cars moves – heralded the arrival of the action movie genre to Egyptian cinema screens. The star of Africano (2002), Mafia (2003), Tito (2004), Harb Italia (2005), El Gezirah (2007) and the upcoming summer blockbuster Ibrahim Labiad – a Gangs of New York-style hard-edged tale of Cairo’s underworld, directed by cinematic golden child Marwan Hamed. A movie in which Ahmed, ever insistent on doing his own stunts out of some fatal notion of integrity, sets himself alight and burns away on screen for a record seven minutes. Hollywood may have had its Last Action Hero, Egypt has its first, and it’s Ahmed. And Maha gets to share a bed with him. Hard? Well yeah, of course, because,this isn’t a movie is it? It’s real life, real marriage and real drama. And those actors, boy can they be a nightmare to live with, all sensitive dispositions and prickly egos. “He’s an artist, so he has a lot of mood swings,” says Maha. “Sometimes he’ll live in a certain state that is very hard to deal with.
At first it was almost impossible for me to deal with. There were times when he really got on my nerves. Look, everyone goes through moments in any marriage when they feel that they just can’t do this anymore. But when you love someone and you have a family with them and you want to keep that family intact, you have to think: ‘Right, what do I really want to do?’ If you want to keep things going… you keep things going. So yes, it’s been hard. But in the end it’s definitely been worth it.” And they’ve got three bouncy, beautiful, well-adjusted kids to show for their efforts. Eight year-old Yassin, two year-old Nadia – a little Madame with a big personality – and eight month-old baby boy Hamza. Maha, society darling and heiress to the famous Al Sagheer beauty empire, stopped working when she gave birth to Nadia and is currently a full-time mum, albeit a very young one. “You know, I was never one of those girls who’d go crazy over kids,” she says when Nadia unexpectedly marches in, determined to introduce me to the two oversized family dogs. “Even when Ahmed and I were engaged, I couldn’t bring myself to do that hilarious thing girls do: pretending to love babies in front of their boyfriend. I was terrified the kid would go mental on me or something. But you know, when you have your own children, that all changes. It just comes naturally.”
Still, one senses she’s decided her baby-making days are behind her and is eager to get back into the professional swing of things. Determined to lose the baby weight of recent years, she’s become a health and exercise junkie and wants to open a fitness-fashion facility. When she curls up on the sofa next to me in her tracksuit bottoms and baggy t-shirt, her gorgeously wild curls left loose, talking conspiratorially about her future plans, there’s still so much of the AUC girl about her; the outspoken, quick-witted, sorority-style babe who can’t help but be everyone’s best friend. Of course, I find all this out while Ahmed is still asleep; before Maha calmly, coolly and almost imperceptibly takes on the role of ‘celebrity wife’.
Before I switch on the recorder and she subtly, quietly gives Ahmed the spotlight. Before she reverts back to the Maha I met a few days earlier at our shoot, the one that double-checks with Ahmed that the outfits our Fashion Director has chosen for her are OK. Because she knows part of her job is to guard Ahmed’s image, to avoid any unnecessary tabloid controversy. One bared shoulder and all gossip-hell may unnecessarily break loose. And before she becomes the Maha that gives Ahmed first dibs on answering my questions, allowing him to set the agenda for their responses as a couple. He, after all, is the star. And suddenly you realise that yes, all good-natured ribbing aside, this business of being married to a celebrity must really be tough. So finally Ahmed awakes, still a little groggy and heavy-footed and nursing a badly bruised little finger. He got it caught between some weights at the gym and is eager for a little sympathy from his wife. “Look Maha,” he keeps repeating. “I’m sure it’s swollen.” “Maybe habibi, you should go to the doctor and get it checked out,” she replies in the practiced tones of a wife adept at humouring the typical male’s inability to negotiate the slightest pain… even if that man is an action hero. And then, he switches it on… that ‘star’ thing.
He focuses the full force of his charisma on me, and for a while I start to believe I’m the most interesting person to ever walk into their home. He’s joking with me, sharing hilarious anecdotes about people we both know, he’s good-naturedly goading his wife, and it’s just this fabulous fun production and you’ve got to get swept away. Bloody hell, he does this for a living. And Maha plays along. Because she’s used it by now, and hey, we might as well entertain the journalist. But if she had her way, there’s so much more she’d want you to see, to “get” about Ahmed. She’d want you to know that he really is “the kindest man in the whole world.” That when he loses his temper with someone, he’ll stay up all night riddled with guilt, and nine times out of 10, call that person up the next day to apologise… even when it’s clearly not his fault. She’d want you to understand he’s “unbelievably generous” and “a pillar of strength” and from the moment she met him, he’s always been “incredibly responsible.” Because those are the things that matter to her. Those are the real reasons she married him.
This other stuff, they’re just the bonus scenes. Eventually Ahmed acquiesces. Of course, you’ve first got to tear him away from baby Hamza, who like his dad has also just woken up from his afternoon nap and has attached himself to his father’s neck. And you’ve got to push and prod for a while, but then finally you get your not-for-the-regular-press answer: “Ok, you want to know the secret to this marriage and this family’s success? It’s that we’re self-made,” he says, deadly serious now. “My father didn’t help me with anything and neither did hers. We never allowed either of our families, despite their best intentions, to interfere in any of our issues. From day one we made the decision to be on our own. So of course, we’ve been through our ups and our downs, our good days and bad days. When we first got married we were living in a tiny apartment in the middle of nowhere. And then we moved to something a bit bigger and better. Sometimes we had money and sometimes we didn’t. We just kept going. We knuckled down, we tolerated each other’s circumstances, and eventually things worked themselves out. And here we are.”
There’s definitely a bit of the ‘Me Tarzan, You Maha’ about Ahmed, but nothing in life comes for free. And maybe that’s not such a hefty price to pay for the unwavering comfort that comes with knowing you’ve got a ‘real’ man at your side… one that will don his armour and step up to the fore when required. “In that sense, yes, I’m definitely a traditional Egyptian man,” says Ahmed. “I’m not some ‘Si Sayed’; it’s not a ‘yes sir’ situation. I’m not backward, but I am quite Eastern in my attitudes and by that I mean I respect the women in my life. I have a responsibility to take care of any woman in my presence. That’s just who I am.” A ‘traditional’ Egyptian man who’s also a movie star? Forgive the cynicism, but, hello double trouble on the womanising front! Right? Well, maybe not. Could Ahmed be the exception to the rule? “Believe it or not I’ve never had any problems with Ahmed when it comes to other women,” says Maha. “Look, I’m incredibly private,” adds Ahmed.” I’m not a partyer or a clubber. I’m either at work, at my stables or at home with Maha and the kids. That really is my life.” I’m not saying you’re the problem, Ahmed. It’s the girls one ought to be worried about. I mean the ridiculous lengths some women will go to, to get close to a movie star… Maha, that must scare the hell out of you?
“I am not saying that I don’t get jealous. But I just don’t ever get crazy jealous because Ahmed is a very smart guy. He knows how to deal with people and he’s always in control of the situation.” What about love scenes? How do you deal with seeing your husband get intimate with another woman? “When we first met, I used to get very jealous. But now, it’s not a problem at all. I completely understand that’s his job.” How about you, Ahmed? Where do you stand on the love scene dilemma? “I’ve never looked it at that way. I go to work, I do my job, and I come back and sleep at home. You have to understand, I’m not interested in the superficialities of life. I’m not into travelling, money, cars, women: those are not the things that make me happy. Life at home with Maha and the kids and my close friends and family is what makes me happy. That’s it.” But you got married so young!
Surely now that you have all this stellar success, there’s a tiny part of you that wishes you hadn’t tied yourself down so early? “On the contrary! Getting married young is what helped me make such a success out of my career. It gave me a support system. It was no longer just about me. I had this entity called a family to look out for. It made me focus.” So marriage made you successful? “Yes, to a great extent.” So you could say, that your success is due to Maha? “Are you trying to feed me words, Amy?” Yes, actually I am, Ahmed. I’d love that as a cover quote, ‘Without Maha I’d be nothing.’ “Look, no one can ‘make’ anyone. But marriage transforms two people into a single entity. And the responsibility for that entity naturally falls to the male. If the man is successful, the entire unit is successful. When you have that responsibility, you’ve got to rise up to it. And that’s what I did.”
With their intoxicating blend of celebrity and society, Ahmed and Maha may just be the real life realisation of the ultimate modern day fairytale. So does that result in happily ever after? Who knows? But they’re in this together. They’ve decided to fervently stick it out, through fame, fluctuating fortunes and bruised little fingers. And maybe, in real life, it doesn’t get any better than that.