Khaled El Nabawy is one of the biggest stars of the Egyptian cinema firmament and yet he’s also one of the easiest men to talk to about the Middle East, the West, humanity and the politics of the region. The first thing one notices when introduced to Nabawy is his golden, flawless skin. It’s as if he glows, magically, from the inside out. His light amber complexion then sultrily reveals his intense, glistening dark eyes and just the perfectly chiseled bone structure. But beyond his magnetic good looks, Nabawy is also wonderfully warm and insightfully smart, which is the best combination to make him the ideal interviewee. And the perfect spokesperson for Egypt to the world.
These days, Nabawy’s native country is experiencing a transition. That’s the understatement of the year, of course! Aside from the headlines, the media frenzy over rumors and misdirected information (like the headline that Islamists plan to destroy the Pyramids, a pretty arduous task), Egyptians are finally finding their collective voice, and using the streets — and the square, Tahrir Square to be precise — to express their God-given right to use it. But don’t be confused by the news, there is one main thing that Egyptians want today, mentioned over and over again in film after film, protest after protest and blog after blog: Their constitution.
Nabawy confirms this over Twitter and Facebook with updates like this one, from 29th October: “We have the right to protest don’t u in Hyde park don’t u in France and still we visit u. Come to Egypt don’t listen to the media.” In fact, Nabawy’s mantra, since his now famous, touching speech at the Cinema for Peace Gala in Berlin in 2011, is “Come to Egypt”. Simple, from the heart and so very to the point.
I meet Nabawy during the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, where his latest film The Citizen is premiering. It’s the first time Nabawy plays the lead in an English language film and quite a momentous move for him. I sense much greatness ahead for this actor with great principles. He has notoriously refused to play terrorists and the garden variety of stereotypical Arab bad guys throughout his career. A move that has left Hollywood a bit baffled. And what Hollywood doesn’t understand at first, Hollywood may temporarily overlook. But if the last few years have been any indication of how what Hollywood may pass on can then become the biggest hit or the brightest star then Nabawy, as Ibrahim in Sam Kadi’s The Citizen, is slated for great things ahead.
We sit near an open window, inside the Etoiles bar at the Emirates Palace. The afternoon light of the Gulf seems almost like a visual effect, it so perfectly brings out Nabawy’s features and warmth. It’s unclear what shines brighter, the sun or this actor/activist, who, though young, already possesses an outstanding cinematic pedigree. He was discovered by Egyptian master filmmaker Youssef Chahine, who also discovered Omar Sharif many years before. Chahine strategically filmed Nabawy in a “Hollywood” way, allowing the camera to uncover and bring out the sultry charisma of this superstar. In their first collaboration, The Emigrant (Al-Mohager), a twenty-something Nabawy worked alongside veteran French actor Michel Piccoli and, he says of the meeting, “this was a great experience, to learn from a guy who has another way of thinking.” In The Citizen, his most intense scenes are opposite American actor William Atherton and they continue to have only wonderful things to say about each other.
Throughout the interview, there is a constant clicking of cameras, as photographers race to capture the perfect moment for this superstar, in this perfect lighting, to post under their newspaper’s headlines the next day. Nabawy’s presence at any event in the Middle East is the stuff of legends and even a casual sit-down gets frantic attention. At first, Nabawy has his signature sunglasses on, but as the conversation gets more interesting, and the photographers ease up a bit, the glasses come off, to reveal an unexpected vulnerability in his eyes. At that exact moment, as he talks about his role in his latest film, Nabawy discloses “I thought at first I would have notes for the filmmaker, because in other movies, this kind of story has been taken to be sentimental.” He continues, “But Arabs, they are not… They are kind but they are not weak, they are strong. And this was a very thin line to deliver, that he has done nothing, he’s in jail, but he doesn’t feel he’s guilty. But he will not beg for justice. This was very important.” Nabawy confirms, with those words a hypothesis that the strongest people are those who never need to prove their strength.
When asked how much of him is in the character of Ibrahim, a Lebanese Muslim who comes to America on the eve of 9/11 to pursue the American dream, only to get sidetracked by the American nightmare of the time, Nabawy answers “Much. But the big difference between me and him is that I love America to go and visit, not to live.” He continues, “Maybe I’m not in his shoes, I’m a guy who was lucky, who has a beautiful career and who walks in the street and finds no barrier between him and people.”
And his people, his fellow Egyptians are never far from his thoughts. He explains the true human impact of the Egyptian revolution, beyond its political implications and ideological theories:
“Egyptians are good citizens and I believe they will be much better.” He continues, “Why they are good, because I believe they “revoluted [sic]” against the bad thing inside themselves, the bad stuff they accepted from such a bad government. From such a dictator. They stood against themselves first, they stood to make themselves better and they paid a huge price, with their blood. This is why they are good for me, because when you pay with your blood, it means I believe you. Egyptians were, every one of the 90 million people, were an island, an island to themselves. We were extremely separated, we weren’t listening to each other, we weren’t talking to each other, but starting on the 25th of January, the very beginning of the morning of Jan. 25th, people were talking to each other in the street, they felt they were going to do something together.”
He also enlightens on the place of Egyptian cinema in the great scheme of things: “This is very important for me, always I say we know about the West more than they know about us,” he stresses.
Nabawy also does not mince his words when it comes to cultural incomprehension, the main issue between the West and the Arab world these days. “Don’t ask why they hate us or do they hate our freedom?”, rather think love, because “love has a magic key. If you’re looking for love, love first. Love first and you will be loved. In 2001 a journalist from the Washington Post she came to Egypt to search about this, to ask many this question, why all of this hate? I said guys, we don’t hate you at all but you want me to love you, show me love first. It is as simple as that.”
Finally, a very personal insight on the true nature of Khaled El Nabawy. When hurricane Sandy ravaged NYC last month, Nabawy sent me an email to find out how we were doing in the Big Apple. A few days later, emerging from the blackout that left all of downtown incommunicado, I found the concerned message, one that despite all I’d been through made me believe in the power of humanity. A simple gesture and one that proved to me Nabawy lives by his credo.
That’s why when Nabawy utters his favorite words — as he did at the Cinema for Peace Gala — in his soft-spoken, beautifully accented voice, we all should listen: “Come to Egypt”. Yes, come to Egypt indeed.