Firstly, tell us about you, Mai Omar...
“Well, I’m 32 years old and I’d describe myself as emotional – I cry easily, and I’m very sensitive. I’m also determined, kind and passionate – particularly about acting, and art in general, from music to painting to culture... I also love travelling and horse-back riding.”
Tell us a bit about your background and your family...
“I was born in Egypt and I’m pure Egyptian through and through, and very proud of it. I grew up in Cairo with my three sisters and I’m the eldest. I had a very good relationship with my parents. Because we were all girls, I think my parents wanted to make sure we were strong, independent and responsible. When I was young, my dad wouldn’t often help me if I asked him to because he didn’t want to spoil us. He wanted to teach us to depend on ourselves, to make sure that we could survive in this world. He was very progressive. He respects women so much, and I don’t think he ever missed having a son. As for my mother, she did everything. She was the one who taught me to be grateful and how to be a good person.”
Top, Dhs2,460, Silvia Tcherassi. Earrings, Dior, stylist’s own
Did you fall in love with acting when you were quite young?
“Yes, when I was about 15. I had this growing passion for acting and I felt like I really belonged in this field, but I didn’t know how to pursue it. When I went to the American University of Cairo to study Mass Communication Broadcast, I took acting and joined the theatre, and it was then that I knew I wanted to be an actress. My first role was in theatre when I was 17, in a play called Segn El Nesa (Woman’s Jail). It was strange for someone as shy as me to get on stage and act, but I was so happy and excited.
Did your family have an opinion about your acting career then?
“I had to hide it from my parents, because I was worried they might make fun of me or not take me seriously. I was so passionate that I didn’t want them to reject the idea. In the Arab world, it would have been hard for them to accept that their daughter wants to be an actress – especially for a girl or a young woman, it’s not easy. So I didn’t mention it. Even when they came to watch my play at university, they thought it was just a hobby. I kept it inside me. But when I took a serious role in a TV series – my first role in a show called Hekayet Hayah – I decided to tell them, no matter the consequences.”
So from then, where did your career take you?
“Well, my big hit was three years ago in a TV show called El Ostora. In my role I played a woman called Shahd, and I think it was the turning point in my career. When I was acting in it, I felt like I had more experience, I was in love with the character and I played her with great passion. I was surprised by the success – it was a big, big hit for me.”
Your Ramadan TV show starts next month – what can you tell us?
“Yes, Weld El Ghalaba is out for Ramadan, and Egyptian actor Ahmed El Sakka takes the lead role. I can’t say much about the plot, but it’s a showcase of the hardship of life, and how difficult it is to transform someone’s mindset and change their ethics and values. I’m very excited about my role – it’s something very new for me.”
Top, Dhs19,500, Celine
What are you like as a wife, sister, mother?
“My sisters and I are very connected – we’re very close. Because I’m the big sister, they respect me and come to me for advice. And though I didn’t raise them, I do feel like a mother to them. As a wife, well, my husband and I have a very specific relationship. I’ve known him since college, so we have this kind of love story. We had to convince our families that we should be together and eventually we were. When I have fears, I talk to him; when I want to go out, I go with him... Mohamed is my best friend. And as a mother, I try to be very strict, but it’s hard. Since having kids, I’ve realised how hard it was for my family to raise me! It’s not easy to teach your kids to have values, it takes hard work and time. You have to say the same things over and over, and you feel like you’re failing, but then, suddenly, they get it; they understand values.”
Talking about values, what did you learn from your parents and what would you like to instil in your own children?
“I think I learnt from my parents to have respect for other people, no matter who they are or what they are. I also learnt to be grateful and independent. As for my children, I would love them to be kind to other people. It’s the most important value – to be kind, to feel connected and emotional towards other people. And I also want them to be grateful, generous and honest." Egyptians are very kind, helpful people, too, and that makes me proud.
Do you think it’s a difficult time to be a woman in the film industry?
“It’s not easy, no, because most of the lead roles are given to male celebrities. If you look back to the days of Arab cinema, and in the Eighties, women were extremely dominant, but I don’t know what happened, because it’s changed. It’s very hard now to find a movie with a female lead role – men are the stars, women are the supporting roles. But I’m optimistic. Recently we’ve been seeing more women leading in our field, like Nelly Karim and Hind Sabri. And it’s important to have balance, because the world cannot survive without women. Men and women compliment each other and we are equally as important as each other. I believe in equality and believe all people should be treated equally. It’s still a very tough world for women, and women aren’t treated equally. And so, until we are, I’ll call myself a feminist.”
Do you have a motto you live by?
“Yes... ‘Given the choice between being right or being kind, choose being kind.’ Sometimes you have to make difficult decisions and the right thing might not always be kind... but I would rather choose kind.”
Read the full interview in the April 2019 issue of Harper's BAZAAR Arabia.
Styling: Yasmine Eissa
Photography: Mohamad Seif
Assistant Stylist: Nada Khedr
Make-up: Mahmoud Rashad
Hair: Youssef Al Ashkar