When Netflix announced this summer that they were releasing their first-ever Middle Eastern original series in Arabic, the excitement was palpable. But when Jinn made its on-screen debut on 13 June, it was welcomed with a mixed bag of reactions.
Hat, Dhs390; Jacket, Dhs1,195; Trousers, Dhs600; Bag, Dhs920, all Tommy X Zendaya. Top, Stylist’s own
Set in Petra, the English-dubbed coming-of-age series chose to tackle a convoy of controversial subjects, incorporate elements of the supernatural, and cast a whole new generation of fresh-faced talent.
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Enter Salma, or rather Mira; the series’ main protagonist and captivating heroine. Her character development stood clearly apart from the rest, marked by a well-rounded, thoughtful and comprehensive set of gestures which flowed together to form a deeply relatable lead. But this was no accident, nor was it something that can be credited to the script. Instead, it was the product of the heartfelt determination of a girl who bravely chose to live out her dream.
This is the story of how we discovered Salma Malhas: her engaging debut performance (even with the simplest of storylines) left us knowing that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, this was one actress who was destined for big things.
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Born and raised in Amman, Jordan, Salma’s life took a surprising turn when auditions were held in her high school for a new show on Netflix. “In the beginning I heard it was a story about Bedouins – and I remember thinking, I don’t know if I can do it, I don’t know if I can act it out as truthfully as it needs to be acted,” she told us. “I was kind of afraid. But then I went and did the audition and I got called back.”
And she kept getting called back. For two whole months; the entire duration of the audition period. According to her, it was a time filled with “chemistry tests” as many of the actors never had any previous experience.
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Although she was enrolled in theatre classes and participated in her high-school plays, that had been the full extent of Salma’s knowledge on the subject matter – for she, too, had no professional experience to call on. But the artistic free spirit confesses that she always knew in her heart that she was destined to become an actress. “It was always at the back of my mind because it was one of the things that I really enjoyed doing. Even at school, I was always cast for some reason. I’d always think ‘why me?’ I was so afraid and insecure because it wasn’t considered cool,” she reveals. “It was always something that seemed so far-fetched. People would think, ‘Oh you want to be an actress? Well, good luck!’ But when I got the show I was like, ‘You know what? I can do it’. I shouldn’t belittle my own ambition because I feel like other people won’t accept it. I always kind of knew – but being in Jinn gave me the confidence that I needed to apply for theatre and for school.”
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Her intuitively empowered nature led her right to New York, where she is currently enrolled at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and majoring in Theatre. At the tender age of 18, she finds herself already having a leg up on her classmates.
“I mean, what more can I ask for than what just happened to me? It’s such a unique story. I learnt so much from it. The experience, the acting, being on set with professionals… I learned so much from them and vice versa,” she says, realising the true value of her experience.
“On the first day, when I walked on set, I was so overwhelmed because there were so many people that knew what they were doing and I was the only actor on the call-sheet in touch-ups, by myself, at 17. A 17-year-old around accomplished artists, basically. And they were all helping me because they knew it was my first time. Now, at university, when I go to class and they say, ‘Oh, when you’re on set this and that happens,’ I finally understand!”
We join Salma in the big-dream city only two weeks into her first semester at NYU. We attend the Tommy X Zendaya show at fashion week. Explore the buzzing streets of Harlem. And take a stroll in some of our favourite looks.
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“I love how Tommy Hilfiger is so open to bringing in new people, and not just those who are necessarily accomplished. Even during the fashion show, the models were so diverse, there were so many different people, each model had their own energy, people were just dancing and having fun!” she recalls. “When I knew that I was invited to the show, I freaked out. I’d been watching Euphoria [starring Zendaya] just the week before, so I thought ‘Wow! This was meant to be.’"
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It’s exactly this – her openness to signs from the universe and a sheer embracing of what it brings – that makes Salma so unique. Her passion for acting and pursuing her dreams is apparent in every single sentence she utters and every decision she makes.
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Leaving Amman, the city she lived in her entire life, took a lot of courage. And now she hopes to be the source of inspiration for a new swathe of dreamers back home. “I was telling my friend the other day, ‘How weird is it that one of my essays for college was asking about a woman I look up to?’ I spoke about how there was minimal Arab female representation for me to aspire to as I was growing up – women who were my age, who went through the same thing. Now I have girls messaging me and telling me ‘You’re that woman for me,’” she tells us emotionally.
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“It’s important to me because, although I fell into it, now I have to maintain it. And those girls are in a whole other country and time zone. There’s a lot of pressure as well, because I also have to be able to keep it up along with my grades in school.”
As Salma settles into her new home town and faces fresh challenges, we can’t wait to see what the universe calls her onto next. We’re sure that by following her dreams she will find herself living an unforgettable adventure.
Styling by Felicia Jocus
Photography by Taylor Tupy