“Happy birthday!” a genteel old Italian man in an impeccable suit wishes Yousra, leaning over our small group as we sit having dinner at a tiny trattoria in the centre of Rome. She smiles, a twinkle in her eye, and raises a glass to him as he walks out. For a panicked second, I’m playing serious catch up. We’ve been here, chatting over small plates of burrata and antipasti for two hours now, and not once has anyone mentioned that we’re celebrating anything at all.
Mortified, I ask the grande dame of Egyptian cinema if I’ve made a massive blunder. “No, no, my dear!” she laughs, shrugging off the exchange as if it were nothing unusual. “It’s not my birthday!” And then it hit me. They talk about star power, but until you sit with someone who possesses it in such vast, undeniable quantities, you can’t help but wonder whether it really exists. Haven’t we repeatedly been told, “Celebs. They’re just like you and me,” for years? Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s nonsense. Yousra is not like you and me – sorry. She’s an icon. A real one. The last of the untouchables, with a veil still unpenetrated by the democratising effects of social media (which she loathes, by the way), and an x-factor so spellbinding that strangers at the next table are drawn to her and don’t even understand why, the poor things. It’s not her birthday – but there’s definitely something special about her, and whatever it is, it resonates right across the room.
“Love, faith and respect are what makes a true star,” she later tells me with absolute conviction. Timeless beauty can’t hurt either, I think, but daren’t interrupt. I just wait for the next morsel of wisdom to tumble out – of which there are many. Most I want to print out and stick on my fridge as daily reminders. “Failure is the beginning of your success,” being one in particular. Who needs Instagram when you have Yousra cheerfully administering motivational quotes in front of you? But then that’s what you get when you’ve rubbed shoulders with the cream of the silver screen for so long – everyone from Youssef Chahine to Sherif Arafa, or “the great giants,” as she calls them, still a bit in awe. Inevitably, their talent, insight and gravitas rubs off.
“You have to believe in what you do. That’s the standard for a true legend,” she explains. “If there were legends today, they would definitely come in a different form. Now we see people on social media that are by no means legendary. Their fame isn’t the outcome of their efforts, but rather the efforts given to them by others. I remember when Abdel Halim Nasr gave me my first role; he sat me down, walked all around me and said, ‘You will be number one. But don’t you dare be a snob,’” she shakes her head, laughing at the memory. “He taught me to be cautious of arrogance. But most importantly, to be honest in what I do. You can’t fool your audience and fans. Time will eventually reveal if you’ve been faking all along.”
Yousra, the actress, singer and philanthropist who has kept the Arab world in her thrall for over 40 years, is unwittingly unpicking the secrets of her success for us. And not to sound glib, but all that advice she’s been given has helped make her one of the most adored cinematic figureheads of all time. With nearly 60 films and 20 TV shows under her belt – not to mention her most recent runaway success with Abu, 3 Daqat – she has embedded herself in our hearts; her art a constant, beloved backdrop to the chapters of our lives. Yousra has not only defined beauty, glamour and the halcyon days of Egyptian cinema, she has also achieved something far more valuable than that. She has meant something to people. Quite the accomplishment – and an honour that no doubt comes with a mountain of responsibility attached.
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“Before I became famous, I was reckless, but fame changed that. Before, I would go on vacation for three months with nothing but two dresses and one swimsuit that I had to wait to dry before wearing again. I used to be able to go anywhere and no one would invade my privacy… I could climb to the top of a pyramid by myself at 3am, scream at the top of my lungs and no one would judge me,” she says, eyes wide, remembering her bohemian youth. “Fame is a double-edged sword. It either changes you for the better or worse, but it’s intelligence that allows you to use it for the common good.” She half smiles and adds, “Being an idol can sometimes feel like having children and trying to guide them in the right way.”
It may no longer be broadcasted from atop pyramids, but her love of mischief is still very much in tact. “I like goofiness. I like laughter. There’s no point being too serious or stuck up in life,” she asserts. And with her candid sense of humour; “Whenever I wear heels, I hold on to whoever’s beside me to make me look important… but, really, it’s just for balance,” to her tales of recent adventure; “So I did this thing where I slid down a wire like Rambo…” she charms our entire crew, hugging them, swapping numbers and whispering, “Come to my house and I’ll cook for you,” on her way out. “They don’t make them like they used to,” someone says on set. And it’s true. She is magnetic, but most of all, she is warm, humble and authentic; practising exactly what she preaches. For a superstar of her calibre, that’s some feat.
“My mother taught me that,” she tells me weeks later. Her mum – who she had been showing beautiful old black and white photos of at dinner – has sadly passed away since our last meeting. “She was always so proud and had such high expectations of me. That’s why I’ve worked so hard trying to meet them. I want to leave a good reputation; to have my work speak for me and for it to show that I’ve been through tough times but still achieved it all. Each one of us has our own legacy to leave behind; the story of our lives creates it for us.”
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Speaking of stories, she has acted out so many over the years. Are there any that she feels still need to be told? “All stories have been narrated already,” she says. “What matters now is how we tell them.” Just another effortless slice of wisdom from the face of Egypt herself. All in a day’s work.
Saba Mubarak is on a mission. The Jordanian actress and producer is an absolute force to be reckoned with; a triple threat of beauty, talent and whip-smart intelligence that – we’ll be honest – caught us a little off-guard.
What we did know, however, was that Saba was one of the most exciting names to watch in the region, moving seamlessly from ingénue to fully fledged star since she burst onto the scene in 1998 – quite by accident, as it turns out.
“I was a freshman in college studying fine art and went with a friend of mine to her audition. The director insisted that I went for the role even though I told him I couldn’t act. The next thing I knew, he chose me for the part and, without my knowledge, changed my major for the next semester to acting! He forced my hand.”
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He might have been on to something. Saba ended up touring in a stage show with him globally, eventually winning a raft of international awards for her performance. Fast forward to 2019, and she has a prolific hit list of Egyptian, Jordanian and Swedish films and shows on her CV – now behind the camera as well as in front of it, having launched her own production house, Pan East Media, in 2011.
What stands out the most, however, is her resolute dedication to using her voice for good and fearlessly speaking out about what she believes in. Our kind of woman. She also had absolutely no qualms in telling us she doesn’t ‘do’ small talk. All in all, an interviewer’s dream. Not that we’re surprised – you don’t spend your career creating heartbreaking, sucker-punch projects about refugees and then only want to chit-chat about the weather.
Saba’s roles have each been underscored with a powerful message, be that a humanitarian one in the award-winning The Guest: Aleppo to Istanbul, where the entire cast were real Syrian refugees acting for the first time, or a socio-cultural one in Bentein Men Misr, which tackled questions of shame around spinsterhood and unemployment in Egypt.
“I’m desperate to leave a mark,” she tells us intently. “Not this, ‘Ahh, here’s the Marilyn Monroe of the Middle East’ stuff.” It’s a fair point. After all, as a serious artist, it’s more than a bit patronising to be reduced down to nothing more than the sum of your body parts. But we suppose in an industry still so overwhelmingly misogynistic and superficial despite the craft at its core, feminism is a few steps behind. We might be living in a post-Weinstein world, but the Time’s Up movement still has its work cut out to nix inequality once and for all.
It raises the question; how does one go about leaving said mark against a backdrop of, not only female challenges, but in Saba’s case, geographical ones too? Is just choosing specific roles enough?
“I have all the arguments,” she laughs. “It’s as simple as that. I won’t let you put me down simply because of my gender. If you run, I run. If you work 18 hours, I’ll work 20. In my country, they never had a woman as a director or a producer. You’d only find something called a ‘script girl’. Can you believe that?!” she asks incredulously. “Now we have around 16 female producers and I’m one of them. I’ve been consistent, authentic and put huge effort into proving to myself that I’m absolutely no different to any successful man.”
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We’re about to verbally high-five her when she adds, “You know, we consume our lives trying to prove ourselves to other people rather than to ourselves… or rather than trying to improve who we are and working on our own development.” It’s quite confronting in its truth and, to be frank, we find ourselves thinking that there not only needs to be more stars like her (“Don’t call me a celebrity,” she says), but just more women like her in general.
“I want to do things that will push the industry forward, empower women… projects that address topics that no one else wants to. For me, it’s all about how much I impact the things that I really care about. I want to be a voice for someone who could not feel the encouragement from the world.”
Inevitably, that means pulling no punches in the subject matter, as hard as that may be. “Listen,” she says, matter-of-factly, “sometimes people are against you simply because they don’t want you to do something they don’t do. They don’t want you to remind them that they need to put some effort into being a true human. Sometimes people just want to be entertained. And I get it. I’m not against it at all – the industry needs to have that variety – but I just think everyone with privilege needs to do something with it and dedicate some time to shedding light on the things that no one wants to talk about.”
Thankfully, it’s a growing trend. A slow but steady altruistic commitment across the industry to create stories with meaning, that will help someone, somewhere, or at the very least, raise awareness. Dare we say it – even change the world?
“I don’t think cinema needs to change the world,” she counters. “It just needs to be true to itself and open up different perspectives in the eyes of people watching.” Does that not amount to the same thing? “Maybe, slowly. But I mean, it’s not like a major change. Not like Malala!” she laughs. “It’s more like tiny little changes that accumulate over time and create something in the future. But regardless, there’s something very genuine happening at the centre of Arab cinema right now and it’s beautiful. I’m so proud that the media is shining a light on individuals who are trying to do important films in the region. Nowadays, the thing that amazes me most about it is that regardless of all difficulties and restrictions, it can still overcome these obstacles and really prosper.”
That it is, and with Arab film festivals such as Cairo and El Gouna later this month, it will only continue to do so, getting the global recognition it truly deserves.
“I don’t think of cinema in terms of ‘this is international’ and ‘this is Arabic’,” Saba says of the world’s tendency to ghettoise the industry. “But when you think of the Oscars, there’s only five shortlisted foreign films compared to 120 American ones. The internet changed our lives with being able to communicate to people from all over the world – I don’t see why cinema can’t have that kind of diversity, too.” We really hope the Academy are listening.
“For ages we were trapped with the idea of getting the west to recognise us and to acknowledge that we have talent. It’s only now that we’ve started to realise that if you want to be international, you have to start by being local. It doesn’t have to be a $100 million film, just as long as it represents your culture and your identity. I think it’s sad that some of us consume our time and waste years trying to be someone or something else and imitating things. It’s much easier and more profound if you take a long, hard look at yourself and just be true to that.”
That can be said for most things, if we’re honest. And while we can’t claim to have never heard it before, somehow, when Saba says it, it seems far less of a cliché. There’s a sense of urgency; more like a manifesto or a call to arms. It feels important. And the best thing about it? It’s something we can all do – right now.
Editor in chief: Salma Awwad
Interview: Olivia Phillips
All jewellery: Bvlgari
Photography: Ram Shergill
Stylist: Yasmine Eissa
Art Director: Jolie Wernette-Horn
Photography Assistant: Andrew Hiles
Hair: Cosimo Bellomo
Make-up: Mariangela Palatini
Manicurist: Sara Betti
Seamstress: Gisa Rinaldi
Stylist Assistant: Tabitha Jane Glaysher
Producer: Laura Prior
Local Producer: Cecile Leroy