For Almost 50 Years, Egyptian Star Yousra Keeps Reinventing Herself

She looks ageless. But what does the industry have to say about older actresses?

Rajaa Natour
Rajaa Natour
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Egyptian actress Yousra arrives for the 92nd Oscars at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, California on February 9, 2020.
Egyptian actress Yousra arrives for the 92nd Oscars at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, California on February 9, 2020. Credit: ROBYN BECK / AFP
Rajaa Natour
Rajaa Natour

The Egyptian actress Yousra is one of the most fascinating, interesting and controversial women around. The woman who has won an abundance of prizes over the course of a nearly 50-year movie career gracefully walked the red carpet at the Oscars last week in a pharaonic gown made by the Lebanese designer Zuhair Murad. She wasn’t there to show off Murad’s work. She came as a member of the judges’ panel – the first time an Arab actress was present as a judge at the whitest and most exclusive of ceremonies.

Yousra was born Civene Mohamed Hafez Nessim in Cairo in 1955. She started acting in the 1970s, but didn’t become a star until the late 1980s and early 1990s, the period considered the golden age of Egyptian cinema. Besides prominent film directors at the time – like Mohamed Khan, Khairy Beshara and Atef El-Tayeb – a new crop of actors and actresses emerged, one that was very different from the first generation of the 1960s: Adel Emam, Nour El-Sherif and Mahmoud Yassine, Soher El-Bably, Soad Hosny, Nadia Al-Gindi and Nabila Ebeid.

This generation studied acting, professionalized it and gained extensive experience onstage as well. It contrasts starkly with the post-2000 generation, many of whom are the children of actors who made a career without talent, knowledge, experience or professionalism. The latest generation currently leads, dictates and shapes the Egyptian cinema industry and is responsible for its decline.

Back to Yousra. The star said in one of her interviews that she credits her success and popularity mainly to her playing alongside Adel Emam, one of the superstars of Egyptian cinema in the 1980s. On this matter, I don’t agree with her. Sorry Mr. Emam, but it wasn’t you! Rather, it was the way Yousra intelligently, selectively and precisely chose not only her roles but also the issues they dealt with.

Indeed, Yousra has performed in some 70 films directed by the greats of the era, and has performed in plays, TV series and even songs. Her last one, a collaboration with the singer Abu called “Talat Dakkat,” got some 90 million views on YouTube. Her outstanding work and dedication have borne fruit, winning some 50 Arab and international prizes.

Her marriage to Khaled Selim, the son of legendary Al-Ahly soccer player Saleh Selim, was a secret for 15 years. Her husband is apparently the one who insisted on secrecy and decided they would never have children. She reportedly had a miserable childhood. She was an adult when her father slapped her on the cheek while on the set because of a kiss.

Egyptian film star Yousra after being appointed as U.N. Goodwill Ambassador in Middle East and North Africa during a ceremony in Cairo, January 31, 2016.
Egyptian film star Yousra after being appointed as U.N. Goodwill Ambassador in Middle East and North Africa during a ceremony in Cairo, January 31, 2016.Credit: Amr Nabil / AP

Above all else, she had the fortune to create, work and act during Egyptian cinema’s golden age. It’s difficult to cover the entirety of Yousra’s amazing artistic career, but one can certainly point to one of the important stations, which was also a landmark in Egyptian cinematic history: the film “Al-raii wa al Nesaa” (“The Shepherd and the Women”), which came out in 1991. It was directed by the brilliant Ali Badr Khan and started Yousra, Ahmed Zaki, and the Cinderella of the Arab screen, Soad Hosny. The story is about Hassan (Zaki), who visits a remote farm that is home to three women, including Aza (Yousra) and Wafa (Hosny). He presents himself as a good friend of Kamal, Wafa’s late husband who died in prison. At first the women think he is trying to deceive them but they are slowly won over. They allow him stay and even fall in love with him until the tragic end.

In this film, with her European looks, Yousra played the role of a village farmer and not an aristocrat. She went completely out of her comfort zone for this role, portraying a poor, lonely and divorced woman who is egotistical and gruff, lustful and scheming. In one of the stronger scenes, she lies in her bed, aroused, fondling her breasts, legs and stomach while looking straight at her reflection in the mirror. Such scenes were routine in Egyptian cinema, both visually and content-wise. It wasn’t a nude scene, but through it she and Badr Khan managed to give cinematic expression to the sexuality of Egyptian women.

The female characters in this film are not banal, traditional and obedient. They are comprised of an interesting puzzle that shifts between good, bad and complete self-centeredness. And above all, they are all honest, personal, weak, desirous and gutsy. Badr Khan shattered the image of legitimate femininity for Egyptians at the time. He showed that Yousra and Hosny have passion.

And how was it received? This was the film that ended Hosny’s career. In contrast, Yousra the panther recovered quickly and moved on.

Yousra looks beautiful in photographs of the Oscars ceremony. Her dress comes from Marad’s new Cleopatra collection. The looks are contemporary and precise, not only for the Arab world but also in the realm of international fashion. The ancient Egyptian-Pharaonic motifs and symbols that Marad uses are not from the copy-and-paste genre; rather, they blend perfectly with the materials. The dress makes Yousra looks ageless.

But two documentary films I recently watched – one about Taylor Swift and the other about Lady Gaga – reminded me that there is a price for working in this industry that only women pay. Swift says in “Miss Americana” that as a woman in the entertainment industry, you have to constantly reinvent yourself. And that goes for the Arab film industry as well. Yousra is one of hundreds of actresses who were forced to reinvent themselves. Perhaps not just reinvent but bend, surrender, stay young, thin and meet inhuman criteria of beauty – and, most importantly, not grow old! Only a few male actors are forced to reinvent themselves externally and artistically. Why? Because there is no such demand.

Instead of having female artists reinvent themselves in this cruel industry, the industry should reinvent itself: with new topics, content, genres and – more than anything – discourse. Women shouldn’t have to bear this burden alone.

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