A Daring Actress Just Caused a Social Media Uproar and Political Turmoil in Egypt

Egyptian actress Elham Shaheen’s decision to play a prostitute in a play by Sartre aroused harsh reactions and calls for censorship by members of parliament. So she brought up Simone de Beauvoir and the Koran

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Elham Shaheen winning Best Actress at the Cairo Film Festival in 2020.
Elham Shaheen winning Best Actress at the Cairo Film Festival in 2020.
Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab

“Egypt is the mother of the world,” declared Egyptian actress Elham Shaheen when asked about the recent political uproar. The expression is used to symbolize the strength and growth in the Egyptian film and drama industry. “I don’t want us to lose what we’ve built as artists,” she said. For Shaheen, it has been a formative period, both culturally and personally as one of Egypt’s most prominent performers.

Scandal ensued after Shaheen issued a press release to the Egyptian media about her next role. She will be starring in a theatrical production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “The Respectful Prostitute.” The Arabic word for prostitute used in the title, translates more directly to “wanton woman,” and a lively debate ensued on social media. Criticism revolved around the question: How can Shaheen embody a woman who is both wanton and respectful?

Many decried her decision to take the role. Members of the Egyptian parliament in Cairo joined the fray, some of whom were vehemently opposed to Shaheen’s decision. MP Ayman Mohaseb turned to Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly and Minister of Culture Ines Abdel-Dayem, demanding that they prevent Shaheen from acting in the play. He reasoned that the word “prostitute” arouses negative sexual connotations and offends the values of Egyptian society.

Shaheen fought back. In response to the condemnations – which exemplify parliament’s close supervision of artists and actors in Egypt and the limits on their freedom of expression – Shaheen posted a photograph on Instagram from a 1960s production of the same play in Cairo that starred actress Samiha Ayoub. Her critics were ignorant and misinformed, she implied.

Shaheen's post showing Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser

“Does the Egyptian intellectual elite of the 1960s differ from today’s? Is the elite only now interested in preserving morality and tradition? Weren’t they moral enough in the past?” She didn’t leave the question unanswered. “The truth is that Egyptian art flourished in the 1960s thanks to that same intellectual elite that supported art, cinema and theater.”

Shaheen was not content to hint at her disdain for the conservative streams that are flourishing within the Egyptian elite. She posted photos of Sartre and his partner, feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir, standing next to then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, taken during his visit to Europe in the 1960s. She went even further, saying, “The word ‘prostitute’ arouses unease in the MPs, so I feel that it is important to remind them that it appears in the Koran and even in the ‘Sahih al Bukhari’ [an important book in Islamic law]. If the MPs haven’t read Jean-Paul Sartre and don’t know who he is, that shouldn’t prevent me from acting in his play.”

Marginal figures

Shaheen has a unique talent for embodying controversial figures on the margins of Egyptian society. She had her first big break in the 1980s, after performing a play by veteran director Kamal Yassin. In that work, as in the films and drama series that came later, she stood out for her ability to arouse profound empathy in the audience, allowing them to identify with her characters, and convincingly transitioning between opposing emotions – from sadness and anger to joy and love.

Elham Shaheen compares current Egypt to the 1960s, 'the golden age of art and culture'

“I don’t use a specific acting technique. I simply live the character in all its large and small details, I make it real. When the scenes are being shot I stop being Elham – I devote myself to the character with my body, emotions and thoughts,” she said in an interview with journalist Hala Sarhan.

In one of her first and best-known films, “El Ar” (“The Shame’’), she plays Layla, a woman from a rough neighborhood, who does business with black market dealers, smokes a hookah and seduces men. In her later roles, she continued to choose roles that represent the cultural and psychological diversity of Egyptian women and brought the darker elements of human nature to the forefront.

The Arab Spring in Egypt exposed Shaheen’s daring in airing controversial political issues. After the revolution, which brought Mohammed Morsi to power, she didn’t hesitate to express her opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood. Her clash with the government peaked amid reports that she had been receiving death threats and that the Muslim Brotherhood intended to murder her and deport her family.

Her inner circle, including her brother, artist Amir Shaheen, asked her to stop making political statements. She refused, saying in an interview with Lebanon’s MTV channel, “I have opinions as a citizen, and it’s important to me to make my voice heard. Cinema alone cannot suffice when you have a determined political opinion to express. Certainly not nowadays.”

Jean-Paul Sartre in 1974.

Shaheen is one of the few to actively oppose the censorship and silencing facing Egyptian artists over the last decade. She grew up under the rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and is familiar with the cultural price artists were asked to pay after the revolution. “The Muslim Brotherhood persecuted me, tried to murder me. There were days when I didn’t leave the house and had to be under 24-hour security, but I wasn’t afraid because I had nothing to lose anymore,” she said.

In his biography “The Rebel,” director and journalist Gamal Abdel Nasser (no relation to the former Egyptian president) describes Shaheen’s battle against influential cleric Sheikh Abdullah Badr , who attacked her on social media and sullied her reputation. At the height of the battle, Shaheen filed a lawsuit against Badr and won. “The Muslim Brotherhood planned to block our continued involvement in film, acting and drama,” she is cited as saying in the book. “It’s no secret – it’s one of the conservative streams that came to power who are doing this. I represent values that are diametrically opposed to their own. I felt the need to defend myself and Egyptian culture.”

Shaheen has spoken of the problems with judging works of art through an unprofessional lens, leveling her criticism as the conservative MPS. “It’s hard to separate an actor’s role in a film or the character he plays, on one hand, from who he really is, on the other. That happens time and time again,” she said. “If I play a heretical woman in a film, am I a heretic in real life?” Shaheen repeatedly expresses concern for the future of her homeland: “We don’t only want a revolution, but a substantial change for us as Egyptian citizens.”

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