3 - 9 October 2002
Issue No. 606
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Nashwa Mustafa:The glamour of the self-made
In 1992 a struggling Faculty of Commerce graduate from Shubra completed her degree course at the Theatre Institute. In the same year she was engaged to be married. The wedding took place in 1993; she was 26. An actress, finally vindicated; and an initially reluctant fiancé destined to be a more than happy wife. Nashwa Mustafa had been reborn.
At the Marriott Bakery in New Maadi -- her meeting venue of choice -- she makes no attempt to deny the existence of conflict between her two, simultaneously acquired roles:
"Emad -- my husband is called Emad -- is from Abdeen. He too, you understand, is from a traditional background. And so as an eastern man -- legitimately enough, I think -- he exercises all his influence in obstructing my acting. An eastern man likes to marry a woman, in the full, conventional sense of the word. He likes to have a traditional wife, not half a wife. Being an actress at the same time, I am only three quarters of a wife. He just happens to be kind enough to accept that fact, I think."
The two aspects of this rebirth entailed significant developments in Mustafa's life. Within a few years she undertook what she considers her most life- changing contribution to date, a major part in Damir Abla Hikmat (Abla Hikmat's Conscience), the televised drama featuring film star Faten Hamama. "Her presence generated so much attention it made everyone around her a hit -- it was really the perfect introduction for a young actress like myself," Mustafa confides, "which is why I still think it's my most important role." In 1994 she gave birth to Abdel- Rahman; in 1995 to Mariam.
Notwithstanding a number of abortive experiences in theatre and cinema -- the last of which was an already small part in Al-Limbi that was drastically cut in the editing: "Unless it is a part written specifically for Nashwa Mustafa, I will never again accept a part in a film," she insists -- since the early 1990s she has acquired the status of a television icon, achieving remarkable popularity and frequently reinventing her image.
She says she loves herself -- deeply.
Mustafa made her -- initially tragic -- mark in several Ramadan prime-time serials: Layali Al- Hilmeya (Hilmeya Nights), Bawabet Al-Halawani, A'elat Shalash (The Shalash Family) and Al- Khuroug minal Ma'zaq (Transcending the Crisis) being the best known.
Playing an Upper Egyptian girl whose overeagerness to get married generates an amusing dislike for formal education, Mustafa launched her career in comedy in Khalti Safiya wal-Dier (My Aunt Safiya and the Monastery), after which the late, venerable critic Ali El-Ra'i -- she remembers with grateful delight -- called her "the fragrant rose of comedy" without even knowing her name. Some of her best remembered roles fall into the same category: Al- Bahar Mondi (Sailor Mondi), with director Hani Lashin and Hamza wa Banatuh Al-Khamsa (Hamza and His Five Girls), with Hani Ismail are two examples.
"Comedy is close to my nature, I think," she says. "Because I like to take things as lightly as possible and in this way to defeat my failures. The greatest thing about my part in Khalti Safiya is that it let me out of the mould in which I was gradually, imperceptibly, being cast.
"Of course I've had my moments outside the comic genre. I benefited indirectly from many actors: Mahmoud El-Meligui, Ahmed Zaki, Ahmed Tawfik, Nabil El-Halafawi..." Mustafa seems to mention only male actors. "Yes, yes," she hastens, "I feel men are more capable of absorption; they have eyes that are more detachable, as it were; they are separated from themselves. I admire the school of complete absorption, like Mohsena Tawfik. Her eyes are always elsewhere, completely: they are the eyes of the character. In one scene in a serial called Al-Amira wal- Mamlouk -- launched on satellite channels, it has yet to be broadcast in Egypt -- my character was dying. I will never forget the way I felt after the scene was over. I could tell I was still alive but in some serious and convincing way I had also just been dead..."
Her next role -- in Zaman Emadeddin (Emadeddin Times), to be launched this Ramadan -- should represent yet another leap, with Mustafa playing a princess from the house of Mohamed Ali.
"Of course," Mustafa responds with childlike innocence, "acting remains my principal priority, all things considered. With the exception of my children, being an actress is definitely the most important part of my life. Emad is always trying to shatter that image before the children, and rightly so. For example I am not permitted to have a maid to help with the housework, because he feels that being an actress should not undermine my role as a mother and a wife. Acting, he tells them, is merely a job, like any other -- up to and including his own real-estate and transportation business.
"That said, they can no longer help noticing that there is a difference. Only now are they old enough to register the implications of being a public figure, though. Abdel-Rahman, for example, is said to show off before his friends and colleagues because his mum is more famous than theirs. Mariam, who is seven this year, came up to me a few weeks ago and said that, when she grew up, she was going to become an actress. 'Why? Do you like acting that much?' I asked her. 'I don't know,' she responded. 'I just want everyone to love me the way they love you.' In spite of the tensions these things inevitably bring, it is deeply heartening..."
Neither vocation came easily to Mustafa. And to this day her unpretentious social ease, her faith in her modest family background, her frequent assertion that she knows how to be proud of herself and her steadfast conviction in the power of determination to overcome even the most inscrutable obstacles testify to a hard and ongoing battle of the will.
Which explains, at least in part, the urgent tone in which she denigrates despair; angst is quite palpably beneath her:
"People complain about circumstances. Why live? etc. But hope, for me, is the very stuff of life. The meaning of joy. I know no such thing as frustration or depression. Of course a lot of the time I am frustrated or depressed; there were moments in my life when I felt utterly lost, distressed, abandoned. But with the exception of illness and death I also know that nothing can touch me so long as I want to keep going..."
Mustafa enrolled at the Faculty of Commerce because it was the college in which her secondary- school credentials placed her. And she insists that she learned nothing -- except acting. "Almost as soon as I began to attend university I joined the acting team. And I proved rather successful, so much so that when my mother and father came to see a performance of mine they changed their mind about acting -- I think it was then that they began to think to themselves, why not?
"My team won the national university theatre competition, you see, and the dean was so impressed with my performance he gave me a grant normally reserved for those who excel academically. It was a leisurely sojourn in Germany. After that same performance one of the professors involved in the acting team, Sami Abdel-Halim, walked up right to my father and pleaded with him, 'As soon as she graduates from college, that daughter of yours must come and study with us at the Institute.' ..."
But when she did graduate Mustafa's father -- a Military Industries driver who, on sustaining a serious injury in an accident had been given an administrative position which significantly reduced his income -- declared he could no longer support her. "I wasn't upset with him because it really was beyond his means to provide for four more years of college," she testifies, "but I was determined to find a way to join the Institute."
Mustafa had a friend whose parents were well off. On spending her monthly allowance and not being able to ask for more, that friend would sell grilled corn cobs out of the boot of her classy car -- a remarkably lucrative practice. "If she could do that, I thought," and her eyes twinkle, "so could I."
Mustafa's own little business involved making sandwiches and dispensing them to shopkeepers in Ataba; her net profit, per month, amounted to nearly as much as her father's monthly pay. In this way she was able to support herself through her Institute course.
Why did she not join the Institute in the first place?
Mustafa discovered acting on seeing Youssef Chahine's Bab Al-Hadid on television, at the age of 12. "I loved Qenawi [the lead, played by Chahine himself], his eyes. After the film," she recalls, "I sat down and cried. When my mother asked me what was wrong, I told her I felt sorry for Qenawi. And when, by way of calming me down, she insisted that it was acting, that none of it had happened in reality, my own eyes must have brightened. I told her I wanted to do acting too, to be like Qenawi.
"So I fell in love with acting through the eyes of Youssef Chahine."
From then on, Mustafa claims, she secretly wanted to be an actress. "Could I so much as utter the words in the presence of my parents, though? Not that they would have beat me up or anything. It just was not something I could have said with a straight face. Ironically the concept of a respectable actress -- a concept with which, I suppose, my parents were not familiar -- eventually found expression in their own daughter.
"My father is proud of me," she beams. "Not only does he accept my being an actress, he is positively proud. It's deeply satisfying," she adds with the same childlike innocence. "I hope I will never let him down.
"My parents -- far from cultured people -- had cultivated instincts," Mustafa goes on; "their intuition seldom failed them. We were rather poor, for example, and at one point, when I was very young, I developed this obsession with money: I wanted to have as much of it as I could.
"So my mother decided to teach me a lesson. She bought me a little tin piggybank and urged me to save as much of my allowance as I could -- so that, at the end of the month, I would have the money I coveted so much. In due course we emptied the piggybank and, from my perspective, there was indeed a lot of money there. She took me out and I bought all that I wanted, but some money remained. 'So,' she said, 'is there anything else you want?' I shook my head. 'You see that old man over there?' She pointed to a helpless beggar, drawing my attention to the fact that, though we were poor, there were still poorer people. 'Go and give him the rest of the money so he will have something to eat for supper.' I did. My obsession with money dissolved instantly. She had taught me to see things in perspective.
"Among other activities, my parents would take me to the puppet theatre and, almost every week, to see the morning cartoon show at Cinema Metro. They used to have a kind of lottery for the children, which was drawn at the end of the show. And I remember my greatest desire being to win that lottery, because it allowed me to walk up to the stage and receive a prize; I was thus the centre of attention and the object of applause.
"It really is only a job, ultimately. But a job that I really like. Because it's a game, it's a very entertaining and fulfilling game in which you leave your identity behind to become somebody else for a while, to play with a different person. And every day you play with somebody new. Besides, it is quite lucrative, compared to other jobs. It pays better than most, which is relevant. It's a particularly enjoyable job that pays particularly well."
Yet her role as wife and mother is equally, if not more, rewarding:
"My marriage was not the conclusion of a romantic love story. It was a good old traditional arranged marriage -- something I was completely, adamantly against. But my mother, a very simple woman, was extremely concerned about my being in my mid- twenties; my younger sister had been engaged and I was already almost an old-maid.
"Emad had spent 15 years in the US and he came here just to marry, in the traditional way, an Egyptian girl; initially with the intention of returning. My mother insisted that I at least meet him so I made a compromise: I would go to him myself rather than posing in my parents' house like a piece of merchandise they had to sell. So my sister arranged a fake birthday party and I went, in jeans and a T-shirt. As soon as I got there I felt compelled to charge at him, as it were, and scream, 'All this birthday stuff is nonsense. I am the girl they've brought for you to see.' He was taken aback but we talked.
"No sooner had I got home than the phone rang and he asked me out. I had told him that all my friends were men so he felt justified even despite the traditional atmosphere. He said he never thought he would meet an Egyptian girl who was quite so bold. And so it started. Initially, of course, I pretended I had absolutely no interest in him -- so as not to prove my mother right. But we continued to see each other and I found myself liking him -- a lot. She had been right again, after all. I think the fact that he had spent time in the West helped, even though he started out wanting somebody very conventional. He had rejected me as soon as he found out I was an actress. But that first conversation of ours changed his mind.
"Most women would disagree I think. Not me," Mustafa leans forward. "I love the experience of childbearing and birth -- physically. It is painful, but nothing is as rewarding as seeing a part of you come out of you. As far as I'm concerned this is the very definition of hope. Hope," she repeats.
Photos: Youssef Rakha
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