3 - 9 February 2000
Issue No. 467
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Celebrities tend to stop at milestones,
turning points in their oh-so-public lives -- and Umm Kulthoum
could well be the biggest milestone of them all
""There's certainly not going to be another Umm Kulthoum.
I'm a million per cent sure," asserts Sabrine,
the woman who just played the role in the wildly popular TV series "
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Stars in her eyesProfile by Tarek Atia
She's still fresh from the success of what may be the most talked-about TV series in Egyptian history. Not the best, mind you, or even the most dramatic or memorable; just the most talked about -- because it was about Umm Kulthoum.
Ahmed Zaki's turning point came when he played another culture giant, Taha Hussein, in a TV series called Al-Ayyam. He went on to become a big film star. Now, it's Sabrine's turn. Perhaps...
The anonymous advice columnist in Kalam Al-Nas magazine addresses her directly this week: "Don't rush into a new role," he warns Sabrine, "so you don't fall headlong from the pinnacle you were placed on by Umm Kulthoum."
The comment doesn't bother her, or at least she doesn't show it if it does. She's very calm and collected. We are sitting in the main salon of her 11th-floor Manial apartment. The colour scheme is purple and green. A nearly life-size stuffed toy tiger greets you at the front door. There are purple chairs and poufs with golden horse-shaped handles. Chinese vases of varying sizes, and plastic flowers, crowd every nook and cranny.
Main photo: Sabrine during a break in filming; below: scenesfrom the series; above: the real thing.
"All my life I've
looked for this..."
Just as Umm Kulthoum is an inspiration to everyone, and to singers and artists in particular, she is also the ultimate intimidator.
Her sheer talent and the total adoration she received made her the archetype for anyone else in the business, the omnipresent pedestal nobody will ever attain again.
Perhaps this is a reflex, for one often hears it said, and not just about Umm Kulthoum, nor only in the music industry. In every industry, in every art -- in cinema, for instance -- we always lament that "there will never be another Soad Hosni," all the while measuring every new starlet against her, and hoping -- or perhaps dreading -- that she'll live up to the ultimate paragon.
Every female lead actress working today has felt this heat. Some have encouraged it, positing themselves (whether consciously or not) as this decade's reincarnation of Soad Hosni, emulating the innocent friskiness, her poise, grace and frail beauty.
Sabrine was in that position once, though by virtue of her current chubby look she no longer qualifies as a starlet. Instead, she's now poised for superstardom, thanks to her portrayal of the biggest star of all, the Star of the East, Umm Kulthoum.
Again, and again, the question arises: what next?
"If I don't do anything else in my life after this, this has been enough for me," Sabrine says.
"A lady called me from the United States. She was having trouble teaching her 14-year-old son Arabic. He always refused to go to lessons, and he would listen to the Spice Girls and things like that. But then, suddenly, after the series, everything changed. 'In 37 days,' she said, 'you taught my son what I wasn't able to teach him in 14 years...'
The boy was now the one who asked his mother, 'Why didn't you tell me about Umm Kulthoum and her songs? These are the best songs I've ever heard, better than anything else in the world...' And he was constantly asking her 'What does this line mean?' and 'What does this word mean?' and 'Tell me about this song...' So, I mean, imagine, even in America... What greater success could I have hoped for?"
Sabrine is not dressed up. She is wearing very little makeup, and has her glasses on. She looks nothing like the pre-Umm Kulthoum flighty blonde a lot of people used to see her as. Her face is pretty and expressive, like a baby's. Still, she refuses to have her photograph taken, insisting she must do her hair first. After the phenomenal success of the Umm Kulthoum series, she is overly worried about the way she looks. She says things like "These days I have to be careful," and "everything has to be studied..." She even quotes the dreaded cliché about how "developing a star is very important".
That's right, Sabrine has become very serious about things. A little too serious for her own good, one might think. And she has an answer for people like that fellow from Kalam Al-Nas: "What I want to say is that Umm Kulthoum didn't take me by the hand and say 'Here, sit up here, I like you, I want you to be at the top'. How did I get up there? It wasn't by luck that I had the talent to carry 37 episodes... because everybody had their machine guns pointed at us... we were attacked from the first day in the studio..."
In any case, it wasn't easy getting here, to this pinnacle, this uncertain starting point to an unknown destination. Sabrine started in show business young, at the age of five. Her father was a trapeze artist with the National Circus. When Sabrine was four, her father was sent to Italy to teach there. "So my mother and I went with him, and we were supposed to live there, but he had a terrible accident, and his spinal cord was damaged, so we came back to Egypt."
Her relationship with her father was similar, in many respects, to that shared by Umm Kulthoum and her father, Sheikh Ibrahim. "Especially after the accident, he wanted to transfer everything he had in him to his daughter." Sabrine even costarred with him in a children's programme called "Sabrine and 'Amm Yassin."
Her mother's cousin was Na'ima Akef, the famous song-and-dance artist of the '40s and '50s. In the '90s, Sabrine wanted to be a reincarnation of Akef, Egypt's star of the musical revue. Those dreams are gone now. "With this weight, you think I could do big shows?" she jokes.
The issue of her weight has always been of prime concern to her audience, especially with Umm Kulthoum, when most people felt she looked heavier than the real Sitt. In person, Sabrine actually doesn't look as large as she does on TV. Remember, the camera adds five kilos, give or take a few.
In a 1993 interview, Sabrine spoke on behalf of her generation of female actresses, saying the tendency to gain weight is normal for Eastern women. In those days the papers were filled with news of her latest attempts to diet.
Those must have been strange days indeed. She was once engaged to singer Mohamed Fouad. And the story of how she met her husband, businessman Yasser Abdel-Latif, is straight out of the theatre. Literally.
Abdel-Latif would reserve the entire first two rows of the theatre where Sabrine was performing, and sit in one seat in the middle by himself, with his chin in his palm, gazing at her. He used to follow her home, and send her massive bouquets of flowers. It was all very annoying. But then, the first time he actually got the chance to meet her, he immediately proposed.
They got to know each other. His father was a big businessman who had involved his son in his work from a very young age. So they had a lot in common. Now they have a five-year-old son named Nour. Wall-sized photographs of their wedding line the apartment.
At the time, she was starring in Hamri Gamri, a typical song and dance revue. It ran for a very long four years, and was quite a success. In fact, other than some rather poor film roles and a misguided attempt to release a pop tape (appropriately called "Bye Bye"), most of Sabrine's repertoire has been decent. Her big break in TV was with Mohamed Fadel (director of the maligned film version of the Umm Kulthoum story) in Leilat Al-Qabd 'ala Fatma (The Night Fatma Was Arrested), and Rihlat Abul-Ela El-Bishri (The Voyage of Abul-Ela El-Bishri). She also played a journalist in the legendary Layali Al-Hilmiya. She even did Ramadan Riddles, the famous Fawazir, back when the word didn't immediately elicit a snigger. All are respectable, but nothing compared to where fate has suddenly taken her now. Straight to the top, which has even made her contemplate bowing out.
"Perhaps I won't ever work again... I've got it in my mind that I may never work again, because as long as I don't find the work I'm thinking about, I won't work... after all, what comes next is very important. There won't be anything like 'oh, too bad, I miss acting'..."
Could she wait five years?
"Definitely... I have been placed in a very difficult situation, and I may become just a memory connected to Umm Kulthoum. Every time they show the series, people will say, 'Oh, there was this nice actress'..."
But wouldn't that be such a waste, especially after everything she's learned?
Three quick lessons, courtesy of Sabrine and Umm Kulthoum:
1) The more you respect yourself the more people will respect you.
"I respected myself because I worked very hard for two years, at the expense of my home, my health, my husband, my family, and my private habits, because I was the only one who always had to be there, at any time. Even if I was traveling, I had to come back, or if my son had a fever, because we're talking about 250 actors... so of course it required an astounding amount of energy on my part to do this..."
She says this last with extreme pride, sitting up straight and smiling with satisfaction.
"To be honest, at the time, I really fell in love with Umm Kulthoum, to the extent that people who came to see me would say [with exasperation] 'You've become like her...' For instance, Madame In'am would sometimes say 'Okay, that's a wrap,' and I would say 'No, I'm not satisfied,' and they'd say, 'Oh she's gone overboard too...' But I had reached a point where I'd say to myself, 'No, I'm not letting this go... Since I'm here for the long haul, I had better do this right.' You know what I mean?
2) Things are different now...
"There was a director who had values and traditions, and who protected them very well. She spoon-fed them to us... Yes, at one point we all were fed up, and since we weren't used to this, we said, 'What do you mean, two years working on something?' and when my friends saw me, they'd say, 'Too bad, we feel sorry for you...' It occurred to me that I was the only one in the Arab world who was going to be a victim, so suddenly I also felt choked, and I asked myself, 'Why would I spend this much time on one project?' I realised afterwards that I was right, and everyone around me was wrong. I understood later that Madame In'am Mohamed Ali was the right one and everything else was wrong... Now later on, if I go into a project and say to them, 'No, no, no, this carpet isn't clean, change it, the curtains are dirty, clean them...' they'll say 'Oh, look at her, the star now, just because she was Umm Kulthoum...'
3) Young people need to know there is something to hope for.
"Even though someone starts out with nothing, they can become internationally famous. We're not all on drugs... Yes, unfortunately, there are a lot of things that are not so good, it's true, but it's enough that youngsters see that in front of them everyday. You don't have to fill TV and cinema, which are supposed to be like dreams, with the same thing... You watch and say 'I want to be like that actor or actress,' so they should make them role models. The evidence is that in the past, in any movie, the heroes either get married, or get back together, which means there's hope... Today, either she murders him, or he puts her in jail. What is this, what's going on? After all, why do you think this series was even more popular than was expected? Because people couldn't believe they'd finally found something positive, so they grabbed on to it, and released everything they had pent up, everything they'd wanted to see, and they attributed it to us. Maybe we didn't even have all that, but they still attributed it to us. I mean, when I watched the stories, there were parts where I wasn't pleased with my acting, and there were entire episodes that I didn't do too well, but then I'd get telephone calls saying, 'That was brilliant!' Why? Because people need this... Let's say, you want a glass of water, you're dying of thirst. If you aren't really thirsty, you're going to make sure the water is good, you're going to check if it's mineral water or not, or the right temperature... but if you're thirsty, even if the water is hot, you'll drink it, because you need it... so that's what happened..."