Emirati teen Mashael Al Shehhi overcomes barriers on the way to TV career

A chance encounter with famous Bahraini actress Haifa Hussain led the young Emirati to the role of her dreams.

Mashael Al Shehhi sent Bahraini actress Haifa Hussain one of her videos and she is now an actress on TV. ‘I want to become an ambassador of the UAE TV industry,’ she says.   Pawan Singh / The National
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During Ramadan, millions of people in the Arab world will tune into TV dramas and soaps. To star in one of these programmes is the aspiration of many actors, but for one Emirati teenager, the dream has become a reality.

Mashael Al Shehhi is an 18-year-old student from Fujairah, and against the odds, is well on the way to becoming an established TV actress. “I’ve always wanted to be an actress and represent my country in the best possible way,” she says.

Since she was 10, Al Shehhi acted in school plays, but it was a chance meeting in Dubai with Bahraini actress, Haifa Hussain, that was to have a huge impact on her life.

“I invited her to one of my stage performances.”

Unfortunately, the 35-year-old actress couldn’t make it, but, unperturbed, Al Shehhi sent Hussain a video of her performance – and what happened next was almost unbelievable.

“Haifa nominated me to take part in this year’s Ramadan TV drama along with her. I agreed immediately,” she says.

Signing the contract was one of the most memorable moments of her life. She was awestruck when a famous actress chose her to star along with her in the serial, If Only I Knew My Destiny, which is on Abu Dhabi TV now. “I play the role of Suaad,” she says. The rest she is reluctant to talk about – for now. “It’s all a surprise. I won’t reveal much about my role now. You will know it yourself.”

She is also starring in another drama this Ramadan, called Signs and Lessons, which is being aired on Al Sharqiya Kalba TV now.

The young Emirati has achieved in just a few months what others try to do in decades.

Al Shehhi also is studying hard, and in her spare time enjoys playing the piano, photography and drawing. But acting is top of the list.

“The first time I appeared on the set. I was extremely nervous and shivering. But I challenged myself and I was grateful to be surrounded by well-known directors and actors,” she says, referring to Hussain and the director, Ahmed Yaqoub Al Muqla.

As soon as she got acquainted with everyone on the set, however, this nervousness faded away.

“People I worked with were very gentle and lenient. They would take the time to explain to me my mistakes in a beautiful manner until I got it right.”

However, one of the struggles she has faced is the reaction from some in Fujairah to her choice of career.

“In my community [Marbah], people expect a woman in a hijab to be cloistered from the world. They expect you to go with the flow and become copies of others.”

Being part of Al Shehhi tribe, she says, it is something peculiar for a woman to appear on TV. “So I don’t have a strong community support, but my family and friends have been my greatest source of support.”

Embarking on the new journey has had its portion of hurdles and challenges too for the young Emirati.

A few months after her debut, Al Shehhi lost some of her friends. “Some of my friends began to backstab me and said things that weren’t true,” she says.

Even on her Instagram account, where she has 22,000 followers, there are those criticising her choice of career.

“Sometimes, people give me really rude comments about my appearance on TV. They ask me how can I appear on TV. I try to avoid it as much as I can,” she says. “Some people’s comments really hit you where it hurts. But if I repel rudeness with rudeness, then there is no difference between me and those people, right?

“I just avoid everything people throw at me. Society wants me to be what they want.” At the end, Al Shehhi has a sense of direction; she knows what she wants from her life. Her motto is to constantly try to improve herself and do something “remarkable”.

“I want to do something incredible, something no one has ever done before,” she says with a laugh. “I want to become an ambassador of [the] UAE TV industry.”

Asmaa Al Hameli is a features writer at The National.