|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
8 - 14 March 2001
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The great escape
Getting away from it all is easier said than done
Profile by Nadia Abou El-Magd
Her latest TV series, shown last Ramadan, was titled Al-Farar min Al-Hobb, or Escaping from Love. Appropriate -- for that is more or less what Athar El-Hakim has been doing lately.
From top: Homebond and captive in the television serial Al-Firar min Al-Hobb (Fleeing Love), with Yahia El-Fakharani and Mamdouh Abdel-Alim; with Sameh El-Seriti in Hatta La Yakhtaniq Al-Hobb (So That Love WOn't Suffocate); Nahnu La Nazra' Al-Shawk (We Don't Plant Thorns); with Hanan Shawqi in Layali Al-Hilmiya
El-Hakim started acting more than 20 years ago. When she got married in 1987, she seemed to have it all -- at least, that is how endless articles and interviews summed up her happy marriage, three children, and successful career. However, the fairy tale ended in 1997. Since then, her career has become her private life: work, work and more work, it seems, is a refuge from shattered dreams and painful memories.
The slender woman was wearing a red sweater, black trousers and no make-up when we meet. Her smile is more beautiful in real life, but the sadness in her eyes is deeper than anything she could hide.
She chooses a dark corner of the restaurant. You escaped from love on TV; did you manage to do so in real life? I ask.
"Yes," is her abrupt answer. In the series, El-Hakim played the part of Siham, a single 30-something woman from Upper Egypt who obtains a PhD but is isolated socially and cannot marry the man she loves. Like most of the series in which El-Hakim has starred, Escaping from Love was a major success.
She has attended more seminars than she cares to remember to discuss the series. The most recent was organised during the last Book Fair. "I feel I'm acting in a play, repeating the same lines over and over," she says with a smile. When she is not at a seminar, she is shooting her latest film, Al-Nawras (The Seagull), about a divorced artist who helps her former sweetheart, a police officer, arrest a ring of drug dealers.
Most of El-Hakim's 40 movies and TV series have pulled audiences like honey does bees. "I believe the script writer comes first, second and third; then there's the director. The best actor in the world without a good script and a good director is nothing," she states coolly.
She never thought she would become a professional actress, but she does believe in destiny. She found success at the very beginning of her career, and considered that a sign from God that she should pursue acting. "It seems that when you are not desperate for something in life, it comes to you. I thought I would teach at university."
Acting was one of many trades she tried her hand at before graduating with a degree in English literature. In the summers, she would work as a model, a singer, a radio announcer on the European programme, a waitress or a cashier.
A year before she graduated, she heard that producer Riad El-Erian was looking for new faces, and thought acting could be another summer job, but never contemplated the possibility of a career in film. That was in 1979. "My father would sign the contracts for me. He was very strong, a difficult character, but he encouraged and supported me. He was full of contradictions."
Her lovely smile won her kudos from the audience on one of her first TV series, Abna'i Al-A'izaa, Shukran (Dear Children, Thank You), directed by Mohamed Fadel. "I was very lucky to start out with Fadel and In'am Mohamed Ali, who directed Love and Other Things. She never felt she needed training or study beyond working with these two giants, whom she describes as institutions. In Dear Children, Thank You, she played the role of the youngest daughter who falls in love with her cousin, although he is socially inferior to her family. In Love and Other Things, her character marries her music teacher, but the marriage collapses because he is also her social inferior.
She has made more than 20 movies, the most famous of which is Inni La Akdhib wa lakinni Atagammal (I Do Not Lie, I Embellish Myself), based on a story by the late writer Ihsan Abdel-Quddous. In real life, El-Hakim takes pride in her solidly middle-class origins, but here, again, she played an only daughter from an upper-class family; once again, her character falls in love with another student at the university (Ahmed Zaki), who lies about his background. She stands up to her family, but when she visits his home in the City of the Dead, the love story collapses. Mention El-Hakim's name to an average viewer, and chances are this is the film that will come to mind.
Another of her big hits was Al-Hobb Fawqa Hadabat Al-Haram (Love on Pyramids Plateau), based on a Naguib Mahfouz story about a poor employee and his wife who are imprisoned after they fail to find a place in which to consummate their marriage.
El-Hakim compares TV series to daily newspapers ("especially in the age of satellite dishes, when a new one is out every day"), while movies are more like books. Speaking of satellite dishes, she is very eager to tell me that she doesn't own one "and no doorbell either," she adds. What about a TV set? "Yes, and a stove," she grins. "The first three years after my marriage, I didn't have a telephone; that was very nice," she adds. She is against -- not technology, but "anything that takes me away from my life, from a human moment I would like to enjoy." So satellite dishes are a form of "cultural pollution that I'm putting off as much as possible."
El-Hakim has three sons: Omar 12, Ali, 10, and Abdel-Rahman, nine. She wanted to have five or six. How about a girl? I ventured. "Never. I wouldn't be fair to her. I would want her to veil the moment she was born." Isn't that a little extreme? On this note, El-Hakim started to open up about her personal life. She wasn't welcomed as the first-born in a family that wanted boys. She had to work very hard to prove herself, and "I feared men. Sometimes I think I hated them. I was a very difficult, rebellious daughter, maybe because I missed having a real man in my life since my childhood. My father was very strong, tough, revered by many people, but I missed him in my life as a protector and a friend. He only gave orders; I missed the company of a man of my flesh and blood. The discrimination in my family between girls and boys affected my relationship with men too. I thought I'd live without them my whole life."
When she met the man who is now her ex-husband, however, "nothing mattered anymore: not fame, glory, money or anything. It was the dream of my life: having a family. I did. I had everything. I discovered that real happiness in life is family..." Yet how happy was she? Her next words seem dissonant: "I lived in an illusion. One of the lessons I learned was never give in to pain. Nothing is worth it." The pain is evident on her face.
She once said that she had wanted to share her success with somebody, though. "I don't feel the same now," she interjects dryly. "I'm busy with work, the children, studying French, and attending seminars. I don't miss a man's company at this stage of my life. I have no time and no patience. I feel a burden has been lifted from my shoulders, and that allows me to do other things I like. I may feel different in a few years."
Asking about her divorce seems inevitable. "It is the biggest catastrophe and pain in my life. Marriage and stability were my dream: I had them, and then they were stolen from me." She is grave -- "life will never be the same" -- but seems strong: "I don't allow myself to suffer, not even when I'm ill."
Echoing some of her roles on screen, she remarried someone she had been engaged to before her first marriage. The second marriage lasted for five months only. "It sounds like an Indian movie, I know." She hasn't lost faith in marriage, but divorce is not all bad either. "One of the good things that have happened to me since my first divorce is crying. I couldn't cry before." She has channeled all the energy she used to dedicate to her husband (whose name she does not mention once, referring to him only as "the father of my children") into humanitarian causes.
She was one of many singers and movie stars to collaborate on a recent song titled "Jerusalem Will Be Ours Once More." Since when has she been interested in the Palestinian cause? "It is not the Palestinian cause itself, it is that I have more time now." She has given blood, boarded the first Egyptian plane to break the air embargo against Iraq last October, and visited Qana in south Lebanon last April, on the fourth anniversary of the massacre. "I had these feelings before I had my children, but I have more time now," she explains. Still, she does not feel art should be political.
Her dream now is to act in a movie based on a real story about a Palestinian woman who spent her childhood in Jaffa and Jerusalem and moved to Egypt as an adult: Al-Kharaz Al-Mulawwan (Coloured Beads), written by Mohamed Salmawy. "No movie in Arab cinema has tackled the Palestinian cause directly. This story is full of human feelings. It is a very deep and rich role, and it touched me personally." However, problems with the censor and funding are holding up the project at this point.
Does she think she will stop acting at some point? She doesn't like the question. "I see no contradiction between veiling and acting, or maybe directing." El-Hakim has been attending religious seminars for more than 10 years and when she reads she prefers religious books, because "most of us suffer from religious illiteracy." It should come as no surprise, therefore, that she does not favour roles that involve seductive scenes or revealing clothes. She has spoken out against the "nightgown Oscars." What has happened to the rebellious girl she was? Why has she become so conservative? "I'm still rebellious, but now it is a calculated rebellion. I refuse to give in to the seduction game."
Still, she does not believe that her ideas impose restrictions on her acting: "My roles stir up controversy, not desire." Directors, however, usually cast her in the most romantic roles -- as in Layali Al-Hilmiya, the series where she appeared as the daughter of a wealthy rural headman and an aristocratic woman, who left her to be raised by her stepmother. She once said that her TV tears were real in this case: "It reminded me of my mother, who didn't show me her emotions."
Most of her successful TV series have been Ramadan blockbusters, like Zizinia and We Don't Plant Thorns -- "the role that exhausted me the most, physically and psychologically." Perhaps she prefers her comic movies, like Paper Hero, and her roles with Egypt's leading funny man, Adel Imam, with whom she has acted in serious films too, like The Tiger and the Female, in which El-Hakim plays a former prostitute who helps the police arrest drug dealers (another recurring theme).
She also likes Searching for Sayed Marzouq and Karakib (Bits and Pieces), a black comedy about a poor wife who is torn between her mind and her heart.
For some reason, she reads her scripts in the kitchen, although she is a self-confessed failure as a cook. "I don't know how to boil an egg," she admits with a big smile, puffing on her umpteenth cigarette. "I asked a psychiatrist why I couldn't quit smoking, although my willpower is very strong in everything else. Maybe it's because I don't want to quit. He told me that because I've imposed so many restrictions on my life, I don't hurt anybody -- except myself, by smoking."
Isn't she afraid her habit will harm her looks? No -- age and sickness only scare her because of the weakness associated with them. "Beauty is no cure for the ageing of the soul," she shrugs. To ward that off, then, "I do everything with love: acting, studying French, yoga, music..."
She doesn't want to admit that she is lonely. Her children and her work are everything in her life now. Still, she avoids watching romantic movies as much as possible, in order not to remind herself of what she is missing.
"If it weren't for the thorns in my life, I wouldn't be who I am. Thorns make a real person. The greater the pain, the more numerous the benefits -- that's why it is important for me that my sons know deprivation. The earlier the better: it will make them strong and able to face the jungle of life."
She is also a strict mother who believes in hitting her children if they don't pray, as her father used to do to her. "He used to hit me for a lot of things. I used to say my father was harsh and difficult. Now I understand: he was right. Especially in adolescence, strictness, even a little bit of violence, is necessary. I hit them quite hard. I know they would prefer their father, who is the other extreme."
Besides admitting she has a short temper, though, she is very stubborn, so she is not about to change her beliefs with regard to her children, or to life. "I still love life. I have to -- I have to beat it and not let it destroy me."
She smiles -- again.
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