|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line|
16 - 22 November 2000
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
photo: Randa Shaath
Soft as steelThe icon of on-screen romance admits the awful truth: she is a realist, among other things
Profile by Nadia Abou El-Magd
I was five minutes late for the appointment, but she wasn't upset. She greeted me with hugs and kisses. She is stunning -- yes, much more than I expected. Should I call her Mrs Fathi, or just Naglaa? "Call me Zahra," she answered swiftly. "It's my favourite name." Naglaa Fathi's real name is Fatma Al-Zahraa Hussein Fathi. That is the first surprise.
She starts by rewinding her career. "Both my first and my most recent films were shot in Lebanon." Between the first, Afrah (Joys) and her latest, Aziz Aini, (Apple of My Eye), 33 years and more than 80 films have passed.
She was very young when she started out: 15, to be exact. It was producer Adli El-Muwalid who saw her playing with her friends on the beach in Alexandria. He asked her if she would be interested in acting. She doesn't remember if acting was one of her dreams, but she does remember that her heart almost stopped beating from happiness while she was running home to tell her mother.
Fathi's rise to fame was almost immediate. She was soon making around 15 films a year, playing the love interest in almost every one. Many cinema buffs estimate that Fathi comes second only to Faten Hamama, the greatest Egyptian movie star, in the number of romantic movies each has made. The '70s was the decade for romantic Cinderella-like tales, but since the '80s, Fathi has been more interested in movies dealing with social issues, and played more sophisticated, complex roles.
Aziz Aini is about a Coptic woman who is vacationing with her husband and their two-year-old son in Lebanon. The year is 1975, the civil war breaks out, and she loses her son. Her husband loses hope, but she does not. After 15 years, she finds her son, who has joined the Lebanese resistance movement meanwhile. "There are a lot of surprises, and I won't ruin it for you," she says with her beautiful smile and sparkling eyes. "This movie has everything I love: romance, emotions... At the same time, it shows the development in my character and career."
After a short pause, she adds seriously, as if she is about to reveal a secret: "The movie says that there is an evil power, namely Israel, which is behind much of what is going wrong in the Arab region." In that case, Aziz Aini could be counted as Fathi's first explicitly political movie.
She feels very passionate about the Palestinian cause. The first time I met her she was wearing a traditional black and red Palestinian dress. "I'm wearing it as a political statement, to express my support for the Palestinians," she explained.
The filming of Aziz Aini was completed before the Al-Aqsa uprising, but because it is so topical she was hoping to show it at the film festival. "It is very timely, terribly timely, but we couldn't make it. Hopefully we'll show it in January, during the Eid."
ROMANCE RETURNS: from top, with Youssef Chahine and Ahmed Zaki on the set of Alexandria Why?; Remember Me; The Garage; My Blood, Tears and Smile; with Culture Minister Farouk Hosni, Hussein Fahmi and Mahmoud Yassin, receiving a special tribute at this year's film festival; The Stray
Since romance is the theme of this year's festival, the decision to pay tribute to Fathi -- described as "the lady of romance" and "the address of love" to mention just few of the epithets flung at her -- was only natural. She has been honoured more than once at local and international film festivals and received over 20 awards, but this year's tribute is special, "because it's for my whole career, not just a role in one movie. I have made at least 50 romantic movies," she says with a chuckle.
Her happiness, however, is not complete. "My happiness has been shattered by the events [in the Palestinian territories]. I don't know how to be happy 100 per cent, really. Something inside me has grown dark. Something inside me was broken when I saw Mohamed Al-Dorra being killed. I know he is not the first and he won't be the last, but he has become a symbol." Her husky voice is now laden with sadness.
Fathi participated in the demonstration that protested Gamal Abdel-Nasser's decision to resign after the 1967 defeat. The same year, she quit school to become a professional actress. She attributes her success to "luck, and the late producer Ramses Naguib, who saw my potential as a romantic icon," despite opposition from director Ali Badrakhan, who protested: "She is very naughty and playful, look at her eyes." She repeats this last with a loud, and very mischievous, laugh. She recounts happily that the late director Henry Barakat used to chide her: "You are a real joker; the audience thinks you are an angel but you are a first-rate devil."
So who is the real Naglaa?
"I'm not as romantic as you might think, watching me on-screen. I'm kind, but not as dreamy as my roles. I've mastered that character because I like it." Such was one of her first confessions to me. "I don't know how to spend the night on the phone with the one I love. I tried that, but I soon gave up. If we have time, we should see each other. If it's late, we should get some sleep." To her, there's nothing shocking about such a pragmatic admission -- this, she states, is simply realism. Still, Fathi believes that romance will never go out of style. "I cried when I watched Titanic," is the proof she supplies.
Of her own films, she likes and remembers "the landmarks" in her career: Okhti (My Sister), Hubb wa Kibriyaa (Love and Pride), Dami wa Dumou'i wa Ibtisamti (My Blood, Tears and Smile) Al-Maraya (The Mirrors), Sonia wal-Magnoun ( Sonia and the Madman), Iskindiriya Leih (Alexandria, Why?), or Rihlat Al-Nisyan (The Journey of Forgetting).
What about Al-Sharida (The Stray)? "That is terrific," she says at once. But The Stray is not a romantic movie. Based on a novel by Naguib Mahfouz and directed by Ashraf Fahmi, it follows a poor but ambitious woman who marries, against her will, a rich and ignorant man. He helps her finish her education and become a famous lawyer, but a very arrogant and vindictive wife. Fathi portrayed the role of the victim/aggressive wife marvellously. Al-Sharida marked a turning point in her career, and the beginning of the realist movies she preferred in the 1980s.
Fathi is given to apparent non sequiturs, and she blurts suddenly: "I don't regret anything I have done, not even the things that have failed. I like them, because the failure was beautiful." Like what? The question seems inevitable after such a statement. "Like my marriage to and divorce from my first husband, Ahmed," she answers swiftly. She was 18 when they married, and he was still a student, so they didn't tell their families. "My mother cried when she found out." This seems to signal that it is time to talk about her life away from the camera's all-seeing eye. "I married my second husband, Seif, to create balance in my life. I was 21, good-looking [she chuckles], young and reckless, I had my own home, fame, money, everything. I was like an untamed horse. I needed somebody to protect me from myself. I was scared of the unlimited freedom."
She continues: "When Seif proposed, I didn't tell him I loved him. I told him I wanted to have a family. I come from a large family: we were six children, and I wanted to have 10." However, the marriage broke down when their daughter was one. "I dedicated my life to Yasmine. I spent a lot of time with her, told her and taught her a lot of things." After Yasmine was born, Fathi became more selective when it came to accepting roles.
She is now married to veteran TV broadcaster Hamdi Qandil "He is the first man who has fascinated me. It is not easy to bewitch me, but he did. I feel like a student when I'm with him: I discover new qualities in him every day." Fathi seems both very happy and proud. "One day I told him: 'I've decided to marry you.' He accepted." She admits: "He says he needed my sense of humour to distract him a bit from his serious life."
While her husband likes all her movies, her daughter is more critical, and prefers the ones dealing with social issues. The Garage, for instance, is about a poor woman who works and lives in a garage after her husband deserted her and her five children. Unable to support them, she starts distributing her children among other families. "It was based on a true story and it is the most difficult and painful movie I've ever made."
Another film that received both critical and popular acclaim was Ahlam Hind wa Kamilia (Dreams of Hind and Kamilia). Fathi played Kamilia, an independent-minded maid who helps her friend raise her daughter. Then there was The Supermarket, which Fathi also produced, about a divorced mother dedicating her life to her daughter, who leaves her to go and live with her wealthy father. The late Al-Ahram columnist, Ahmed Bahaaeddin, commented at the time: "I know that the heroine looks like a French woman or a doll, but was surprised by an actress of international calibre who can make you forget about her good looks."
Speaking of looks, the first time I met her she was in full make-up. The following morning, I met her at her place: she was in her dressing-gown and her face was bare. She was still very pretty. I once read that she said she did not fear ageing. Could that be true? "The worst thing is to be afraid to admit to yourself that you are getting old," she interrupts. "I'm 48, what's wrong with that? It is good to be my age and still good-looking, instead of pretending you are younger." She will undergo plastic surgery when she feels she needs it, but insists: "The most important thing is to love and accept yourself, then people around you will do the same."
She was six when she overheard a friend of her mother saying: "That girl is very beautiful, but her voice is very ugly." She grins. "I didn't change anything about myself, not even my voice."
Fathi is very spontaneous. She moves around a lot, and makes faces. She must not have changed much since her childhood; it is as if she has never been through problems or experienced difficult times. "I managed to keep my feelings fresh, by being always myself. I express my feelings, I enjoy beauty and life." After she started acting, snobbery crept in, but "a slap" from her strong mother brought her back to her senses. Fathi admits that she doesn't like weak women, and that her social movies are basically an appeal to women, especially poor women, against ignorance and weakness. "I played Al-Mar'a Al-Hadidiya (The Iron Woman) to warn women about rape after reading about a few incidents." She considers it "a romantic movie" nevertheless.
When she receives a script for consideration, she does two things. First, she asks Yasmine what she thinks; if both of them like it, she goes away for three or four days, until she has assimilated the part completely.
Fathi admits that she still gets worried on the first day of shooting, until she sees "the satisfaction in the director's eyes." One of the movies she will never forget is Rawaat Al-Hubb (The Marvel of Love), because the hero was the late Rushdi Abaza, "my ideal in acting and the man of my dreams. He was a great man and a great actor."
On second thought, Fathi regrets two things: that she started smoking when she was 13 and was never able to quit, and that she never finished school. "I would have loved to have a PhD in something related to the performing arts -- directing for instance." Spoken like a true iron woman...
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