7 - 13 November 2002
Issue No. 611
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Mona Abdel-Ghani:Returning in different directions
In camera, and out
Securing an appointment with any public figure can turn into a long process. But just why did it take so long to meet a retired singer and actress?
Click to view caption
Mona Abdel-Ghani before the veil in the TV children series Farfasha; and back to acting after veiling in the Ramadan series Ibn Maga
Mona Abdel-Ghani smiles. "I didn't mean to seem important, believe me, but I do have many responsibilities," she says.
Four and a half years after Abdel-Ghani donned the hijab, abandoning her burgeoning career as a singer and actress; she is back to leading a fully active, albeit different, life. Suddenly she is everywhere, on TV and behind the microphone, regaining the media attention she once took for granted. Her activities are as diversified as ever -- the difference is, though, that this time round she believes they all conform to the teachings of Islam.
I first meet Abdel-Ghani in her apartment in Mohandessin, and unveiled she is unmistakable as the Abdel-Ghani we used to see on stage and on screen many years ago. Yet the veiled Abdel- Ghani has clearly pushed the once-ambitious singer aside.
"The main adjustment I've made to my life, for the most part, is in the intention," she says. "In the past, everything I did was meant to bring me more fame and money; today, whatever I do is intended to please God."
It was, she says, with such thoughts in mind that she agreed to participate in two collective songs, one to bring in funds for cancer patients and the other in solidarity with the Intifada. She also co-stars, alongside retired cinema star Hassan Youssef, in the Ramadan TV series Ibn Maga, a serialised bip-pic of a Sira writer. It was a project through which, Abdel-Ghani thinks, "she might be able to teach people something valuable".
Not that Abdel-Ghani's newly rediscovered affection for the camera stops there. Currently she is working as a TV anchor on the basically Islamic satellite channel Iqra', the only one in Egypt hiring veiled announcers. Her programme, "Mona wa Akhawatha" (Mona and Her Sisters), scheduled this Ramadan, will feature casual discussions of social problems, basically through the lens of religion. And beyond the camera Abdel-Ghani's soft, slightly husky voice can be heard once again echoing in the halls of the Music Institute where she is back at her earlier post as an instructor of phonetics. And it was simply a matter of coincidence that saw Abdel-Ghani become an instructor of tajweed (Qur'anic recital), which she studied intensively for four years.
Nor has Abdel-Ghani's busy schedule taken her away from religious classes and night prayers, in which she "exults in a direct communion with God, the pleasure of which exceeds any of that I felt on stage and in night concerts," or even from her household duties, which now occupy the largest, most-cherished, slot in Abdel-Ghani's list of priorities, for "my family is my prime concern", Abdel-Ghani insists. "It is the first thing we will be asked about before God."
She is the mother of Reem, 13, and Karim, seven and a half, both of whom are enrolled in the British Modern School. Abdel-Ghani says, it is with the children that she spends most of her time. She likes to cook herself, and any household help is restricted to twice a week. Her children, however, are being taught to lend a hand around the house. This, says Abdel-Ghani, is to prepare them to be good spouses in the future, to teach them the importance of sharing and responsibility.
"My mother taught me how to cook, but now I read books to provide my children with the proper diet. Cooking is an art in itself and..." Abdel- Ghani pauses and laughs.
"But of course we are not here to discuss food. Let me fix you a cup of coffee first."
When Abdel-Ghani returns she finds me examining a photograph of her that sits atop the side-table.
"This a recent photo, but even when I first veiled I never shied away from cameras," she offers as she reclines back in her seat. "I was really over the moon when I veiled and I always have a great time selecting my scarves."
Abdel-Ghani's decision to veil came in the wake of the traumatic death of her 30-something brother, Mamdouh. The loss, she says, seemed to impact on her far more than the death of her parents.
"It was so sudden and unexpected. My brother was young and healthy. He was in Paris when he died and instead of going to pick him up at the airport, as I always did, I went to receive his corpse."
She pauses to collect herself.
"I feel a shiver at even the thought of the memory. And once I saw his body coming life was diminished in my eyes. I realised that no matter how famous or beautiful I was, I could be suddenly reduced to a lifeless thing. I realised how weak man is."
"He always asked me to quit singing and veil but I never listened. My ambition was too strong to listen. All I wanted was to be a star. Not that veiling had never crossed my mind -- I used to pray and was already conservative in my dress and attitudes. But to quit and veil was a remote possibility."
It certainly never occurred to Abdel-Ghani as she was performing on stage with Mohamed Heneidi in Alabanda (Hurly Burly) that retirement was a curtain drop away, nor when she stood next to Ahmed Zaki in Al-Basha (the Pasha), or Nour El-Sherif in Kalam fil-Mamnou' (Speaking Taboos). Indeed, she had already signed contracts for two new movies when the decision was made.
Nor was it likely to have crossed her mind when she joined first the Music Institute and then the Higher Music Institute, with a career in singing very definitely in mind.
Back then Abdel-Ghani's father, an officer, had encouraged his daughter in her chosen career. And although Abdel-Ghani was brought up in the relatively conservative environment of Shubra, her father "was very happy" she was a singer. Her mother, however, "did not like it very much".
"Not that she was religious," Abdel-Ghani explains. "My mother just wanted to protect me. My parents were not religious in the strict sense of the word, but they taught us the morals that now, I realise, are the true essence of religion."
Abdel-Ghani already had two solo albums on the market before she retired. Her unpretentious, joyful singing style won her many fans, not least her husband.
Businessman Sherif Salama, a qualified pilot, was studying in the Cinema Institute when Abdel- Ghani's voice stirred his own musical endeavours. And it was a common interest in music that bounded the two in matrimony.
Which is, perhaps, why Abdel-Ghani's decision to retire and veil upset Salama.
"He was shocked, of course," she says, half- laughing. "I put on hijab when still receiving condolences for my brother, before even my husband knew about it. He did not like it but is gradually accepting it. I understand his position, though. I mean, I would be equally shocked if my husband suddenly becomes a different person."
And it is a different person that Abdel-Ghani clearly believes she became. She shut herself away, dividing her time between religious studies and housework. It is a process that, two years on, has seen her confidently re-enter the career world.
"I found nothing wrong with a woman working as long as it does not contradict with her household duties or Islamic teachings. As a developing country we have a long way to go in terms of development and women should do their bit. I, for one, feel I do a lot more for my community, and even for my religion, when I go out to mix in society than when I stay home."
It was when Abdel-Ghani's children joined demonstrations in solidarity with Palestine that "as a public figure" she began to feel she could "do more than rallying in streets".
"But I did not know exactly what to do," Abdel- Ghani goes on. "And as I was thinking, the phone rang with the answer: it was Hisham Abbas asking me to take part in a collective song for Al-Aqsa mosque. It was a surprise but I accepted immediately."
"I wanted," she says, "to brush away the widespread misconception that the female voice is awra (taboo). It is the way a woman uses her voice, not the voice itself, that is the issue. It is only forbidden for a woman to be too complaisant in her speech. It is the wording of a song that decides whether it is haram (forbidden)."
So is Abdel-Ghani considering resuming her singing career?
"I only do whatever is useful for people; and for me cancer and Aqsa songs and the series of Ibn Maga fit with that rule."
As does her TV anchoring role, which, Abdel- Ghani is taking very seriously. She reads a lot, in different fields, and is honing her computer skills to be able to communicate with her audience.
"I'm also getting a fashion expert to help me design elegant Islamic outfits suitable for my new position as an announcer," she adds. "And I exercise for an hour everyday to keep in shape and release stress."
"The veil is an act of obedience to God, but is also a symbol of a higher degree of commitment to the teachings of Islam," Abdel-Ghani explains. "That is, you can't be veiled, for instance, and mistreat people in the street, for in that case, you would be sending a very wrong image of Islam."
It is perhaps inevitable that so much veil-talk should bring up the oft-asked question: Why is it, does she think, so many young actresses have retired and veiled? Is it a matter of peer-pressure, or as some rumours have it, a prosletysing method funded by petrol-dollars?
"No body can press an artist to quit her job and get veiled," Abdel-Ghani snaps. "Many of the already veiled artists, for instance, cannot convince their daughters to follow suit. It's all a matter of religious awareness. Now you don't have to go to the mosque to know about Islam: religion is everywhere, on tapes, TV programmes, satellite channels, the Internet, and CDs. And that also explains the recent wave of veiling among school students."
"Everybody must choose for themselves," she insists. "I try to bring up my children to be religious, to pray, study Quran and be well-behaved, but when they grow up they will choose the life they want to live."
Letter from the Editor
|WEEKLY ONLINE: weekly.ahram.org.eg
Updated every Thursday at 20.00 GMT, 10 pm local time