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Reconciled to strengthProfile by Fatemah Farag
Her eyes are dark, encircled with a thick black line of kohl; heavy eyelids give her look a sultry quality. They are eyes you will find it difficult to turn away from: within their depth is intelligence, sadness and humour, a warning not to come to close and a beckoning seduction. But then, they are the windows to the soul of an exceptional woman
Soheir El-Murshidi refuses to tell me the year she was born, agreeing only to say it was a 21 March. As she sits in her dressing room at the National Theatre, preparing once again to become Salome, she sifts through makeup and bangles, the hairdresser taming her thick locks of black hair. Her eyes grow wistful as she remembers her family. "I was one of the eldest in a family of seven brothers and sisters. My mother was an Arabic teacher who became a full-time mother and my father worked in the government." It was a conservative family, but nonetheless one that instilled a love of art in its daughter. "Even though I was the first artist ever in the family, my childhood was full of artistic things, like the summer visits to the village of Bana Abu Seir near Samannoud, where my paternal grandfather lived. The men of the village would flirt with the women in poetry. Also my grandfather had a great library, with magical books such as A Thousand and One Nights. As for my mother and her family, especially her mother, well, they were very religious and their house was separated from the mosque by a wall. The background music of my life there was that of the Qur'an. It was all melody. It was in that house that I learned to respect the Arabic language and hear its music. I think my childhood was very rich, and the least I could have become was an artist."
The deep religious conviction has come to dominate a great part of El-Murshidi's perception of life. "I believe that if you want to learn, you must start with religion -- there you will find the answers, it deciphers the world for you. The Qur'an was my first teacher, it was my road to science." Is there any contradiction between art and religion? She is emphatic. "Never! Only God can make an artist, only God could have made me an artist. Nothing else could have made an artist out of a girl who came from my kind of background. Also, my best work I have done when praying regularly."
The stage that launched the actress was her high school years in Hilmiya Al-Gadida. "The chance came when I was in my final year at high school -- very strange, the timing, it was the crossroads of my life." The conjuncture is one El-Murshidi remembers in great detail. "Our principal, Mama Rashida, was inspecting the school grounds when a chair fell out of the window of our classroom on the third floor," she recounts, chuckling, as the makeup artist spreads a fine film of powder across her cheeks. "For some reason, the girls were dancing around the classroom and I was not there at the time. The principal walked in and asked for the student responsible for discipline. The girls pointed at me and she started to talk to me very roughly and walked off, telling me to come to her office the next day with one of my parents." At home, Soheir found little sympathy for her plight. "My father told me he would not come until I had explained to the principal that I was not responsible. When I told him she had not given me the chance to explain, he said to me" -- here she turns in her chair and flashes those dark eyes, her voice intensifying: "You must grab the opportunity for yourself." El-Murshidi turns back to her mirror. "I remember those words well." The next day was a pleasant surprise for the scared schoolgirl. "When I walked in she was talking to a man, and said to him: "There she is! She was created to express. Look at those eyes. When I was screaming at her yesterday she did not answer, but her eyes said everything." The man turned out to be the person responsible for school theatre, and Mama Rashida wanted El-Murshidi as the lead actress in the school play, The Blind Princess, written by Rashida herself. "Rashida had no children -- see my luck -- and she adopted my cause because my father was opposed to the idea. Also because it was her play, everyone was concerned. My mother and uncle played a role in convincing him."
As Samasim in Layali Al-Hilmiya;
in Al-Sayed Al-Bolti with Mohamed Nouh
caught in a candid shot;
Their efforts were well rewarded. "I did well. My colleagues and teachers all had their handkerchiefs out." The success was confirmed by a gold medal for the lead actress and the State Cup for the school.
"When I saw the way people reacted, I was hooked. In the area where we lived, I was used to the normal flirtation. But after the performance, there was a new element: added respect and appreciation."
The experience was to change El-Murshidi's life for ever. "I said I must learn the arts." The decision did not go down well with her father. "I was expected to go on and be a doctor. I told him if you want me to be a doctor I will get the title for you -- but I will get it in the arts."
She sits back and evaluates her makeup -- the shadows and subtle tints have enhanced the contours of her face. After moments of reflection, she adds: "You know, although he was the one who strongly opposed, he was also the one who most strongly believed in me. Later on, when I was successful, he would make my appointments for me and he bought a TV set so that the family could watch me. He would be the first one seated when I was on stage, and he was my greatest admirer. In my last year at school, he came up to me and said, 'You were made to be on stage'." She takes a deep breath and tears well up in her eyes. "He is the most important man in my life."
As Soheir prepares herself every evening for her role of Salome in Mohamed Salmawy's The Last Dance of Salome, she can look back on a full and impressive career. She has never economised her effort when working on a role. "You know, this play is very complicated and it is a lot of work. I love it and I always do every scene like it is going to be my last. I have set a standard for myself. It is a high one which I cannot go below." She can also say that she has never, in spirit, left her roots. "I can never leave Cairo. I am a daughter of Hilmiya, and every grain of sand in this country is my home." The road that has brought her to where she stands today, however, has been a long, and one she followed with diligence.
"I started with the Free Theatre, which included great artists such as Abdel-Moneim Madbouli and Zakariya Soliman. They were also my teachers at the Academy." It was around 1966, when they were doing Naguib Mahfouz's Zuqaq Al-Madaq (Madaq Alley), that Birlanti Abdel-Hamid, who was playing the lead role of Hamida, stopped acting to get married. "Within 24 hours, I was on stage. I was lucky as they decided to record the play for television. The famous television director, Hussein Kamal, was in charge. This is when it became known that there is someone out there called Soheir." Her next major role after Hamida came in Maarouf Al-Eskafi (Maarouf the Cobbler) at the National, and then in cinema with Gaffat Al-Amtar (The Rain Dried), produced by the Cinema Authority and featuring actor Shukri Sarhan. "I found myself being drawn into theatre and cinema in parallel. At that time, there was also Ya Tali' Al-Shagara (You, Who Are Climbing the Tree) directed by Saad Ardash at the experimental Pocket Theatre, with famous actress Nigma Ibrahim. The role I played was a 60-year-old woman and I was just barely over 16. It was a very good experience." There was also plays by Chekov and others. Soheir's career is evidence not only of her talent, but of the vibrancy of the theatre in those days, a fact she acknowledges freely.
The young actress, however, was dissatisfied with her cinema record. "In theatre I had said, 'Here I am', but I believe cinema is the artist's true archive. I felt theatre was flourishing, but cinema needed more. But I had to learn. I chose to accept small roles that would give me the opportunity to follow the whole process of filmmaking." She worked with Soad Hosni and Sanaa Gamil in Salah Abu Seif's Al-Zoga Al-Thaniya (The Second Wife), then with Soad Hosni again in Al-Qahira Thalathin (Cairo 1930). Then came what she describes as one of her most important roles. "I did the gypsy in Hussein Kamal's Al-Bustagi (The Postman). In the early '70s I played a pious woman in a television serial and found myself comparing both roles and thinking, if they are so diverse then there must be 99 other roles just within my reach."
She felt prepared to take on production as well. With the assistance of Takfour Antonian -- an Armenian businessman described by Soheir as "one of the most important people to me" -- she was to produce four movies starting with Banat Fil-Gamaa (Girls at University), directed by Atef Salem, then Hikayet Bint Ismaha Marmar (The Story of a Girl Called Marmar) in cooperation with the Cinema Authority and directed by Henri Barakat. "I wanted to do more, however, and I remembered that Ali El-Ra'i told me that I must preserve my standard and talent, and that Egyptians love melodrama. So I chose Youssef Wahbi's play Awlad Al-Fuqara (Children of the Poor), and turned it into a movie entitled Ya Rabb Toba (I Repent, O God). This was one of my best movies, and it was directed by Ali Reda and starred Rushdi Abaza."
With the mention of the dashing actor's name, a mischievous smile plays on her face. "Rushdi was the one who got me into trouble for the first time with my father over art. I was a child and went to see the movie Tamr Henna and was totally taken by Rushdi. I bought a poster of him and hung it in my wardrobe, and I would go from time to time and stare at his picture. My father saw the picture one day and exclaimed, 'What is this? A man! And not from the family?' My mother saved me from his wrath. She told him she had taken me to the see the movie and that he was only an actor."
But back to producing. "As I was saying, Ya Rabb Toba was a great success and was shown at Ramses Cinema for 25 weeks. One of my most memorable moments was sitting on the stairs during the viewing with Ali Reda next to me and hearing people clap."
It was a climax followed by catastrophe. "In 1973, my older brother Salah died in the war. We were very close. I could not understand how a young man could die, why one could die and another live. I remember in those days Farida and Ali Fahmi and Takfour took great care of me. I got married and people said she should have a baby to fill the gap left in her life. So I did." The period of emotional turmoil resulted in professional calm, but Soheir had growing up to do as well. "Family life and sorrow made me mature personally. I realised the meaning of a lot of things, including that of the nation. I also became very dissatisfied with everything happening on the art scene. For it to be acceptable to me, art had to be more vicious and intense than the reality of my life. During that time, poetry was more alluring." Those were the days when she eventually did the play Gawaz Ala Waraqet Talaq (Marriage on Divorce Papers) and then Youssef Shahin's classic, Awdat Al-Ibn Al-Dall (Return of the Prodigal Son).
"These works restored my balance, but still I had to take my revenge. I thought of a work that would bring all the Arabs together. Karam [Mutawe, her late husband] and I did a two-year tour of Arab countries in preparation for a movie, Wa Oroubatah, but it never materialised."
Speaking of Mutawe, how does she feel about their history -- both artistic and private -- especially in light of Mutawe's much-publicised divorce and re-marriage shortly before his death? "Our relationship was a braid that can never be undone. I was the sun of his life and he was the moon of mine," is all she will say.
Soheir's major return to the limelight was to come in 1986. Again coincidence played its role in propelling her onto the stage. "Around 1985, I was with Salah Jahin at the hospital and decided to visit Tawfik El-Hakim, who had been hospitalised for some time. El-Hakim said to me, 'You must do something big. You, with your devastating femininity and abilities, must play Isis." El-Hakim's idea was to turn his play into a musical. Mutawe was to direct it for the opening of the National after renovation. "That year, as we were preparing, I learned from El-Hakim what dedication and perseverance meant. As I watched him leave the hospital and take care of himself at home, my mind and heart bloomed again. I saw him turn our dream into reality. That year was one of the greatest in my life."
El-Murshidi, however, laments that the art scene, and particularly the theatre, is not what it used to be. "Great theatre directors and authors are becoming extinct," she comments. Hence her recent bout with television. "I found Osama Anwar Okasha and played Samasim in Layali Al-Hilmiya (Hilmiya Nights) as well as Addoula in Arabesque [two very popular television serials]."
It took a lot of contemplation and effort to finally accept the role of Salome she is currently playing. "I ran away from Salome at first because she has so much hatred. So I went and did Atshan Ya Sabaya (I Am Thirsty, Girls) for television. In that serial I play the role of Awatef. I melted into Awatef, who faces the worst circumstances and is oppressed by everybody. After playing that role, I was ready for Salome. After being Awatef you would have to become Salome. It is what is between the lines, and people who watch cannot see it but I know. I am balanced now and that is important."
Soheir is talented, but she is also a driven and persistent woman. She has a purpose. "I want art to change society, to move everyone towards a better life. I believe that God is beautiful and loves what is beautiful." And there is the challenge, like that posed to her one day by her father. "He was just looking at me, watching what I was doing. And I am a strong and proud woman."