Mona tells a story

Feature She is one half of Egypt's cinematic power couple, but Mona Zaki tries to shy away from the spotlight.

Mona Zaki wants her acting to deliver a message: "It is fine to entertain people but I also want to make them think."
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She is one half of Egypt's cinematic power couple, but Mona Zaki tries to shy away from the spotlight. Helena Frith Powell sits down for a rare interview with the national film star. For a woman who has become famous this year for being beaten by her husband, Mona Zaki seems incredibly calm. She invites me into her mother's home in central Cairo, sits me down on a plush red sofa and offers me sweets and tea. Her six-year-old daughter Lily joins us. She is wearing a pretty white dress and her hair is tied up. Mona is wearing jeans and a purple T-shirt, and little make-up. Her long dark hair hangs loosely around her face.

Of course it is only Hassan el Raddad, her on-screen husband in her latest film Scheherazade Tell Me A Story, who beats her. Her real husband, the actor Ahmed Helmy, would never do such a thing. He is almost as much of a national icon in Egypt as she is. Some describe them as the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of the Middle East. She laughs. "It's a nice idea," she says, "and I am flattered, but there's a big difference between us."

When Zaki laughs, her nose wrinkles in a most charming fashion. No wonder the whole of the Arab world is mad about her. She is one of the most attractive women one is likely to meet, a smaller, younger version of Julia Roberts, with an almost childlike exuberance and charm. But it is not just her looks that her fans admire. This is a woman who has a message to get across. "God gifted me this incredible talent and I am going to use it the right way," she says. "I am not going to just work to become famous, but I am going to do work that I really love and that I feel gets my message across. It is fine to entertain people but I also want to make them think."

One of the messages Mona wants to get across to the world is that Muslims do not generally live in tents and are not all terrorists. "I find that even now people in the West equate Islam with terrorism and I am very offended by that," she says. "I think it is very ignorant. When I was in the US studying at the Stella Adler acting school they were so shocked that I was first an Arab, second a Muslim and third an actress with such a comprehensive CV. They just couldn't understand it; they would ask me things like, 'If you live in tents, do you even have TV?'"

Zaki has been offered several roles in foreign films but she is waiting for the right one. "I will not just go for something that is an easy way to be part of foreign movies I want to show how I believe in my religion and in my culture." All of her work is dominated by the desire to communicate. In Scheherazade Tell Me A Story, which she is bringing to this month's Middle East International Film Festival, Zaki plays a TV host who publicises the plight of women suffering at the hands of men on her show. Finally she herself becomes part of her own show when her husband beats her up. The film is unapologetic in its criticism of male attitudes towards women and has caused a furore in Zaki's native Egypt. The film caused such a stir for two reasons. One, according to Mona, was the trailer. "People saw someone kissing on the trailer and assumed as I was the star of the show that it was me," she laughs. "But what really broke the hearts of the people who want to make scandal was that when they went to see the movie there was nothing extraordinary at all."

Zaki has been hailed by cinemagoers in Egypt as the leading star of clean cinema. But she claims there is no such thing. "The maker of this slogan is a distributor who said it a long time ago, it got stuck to me because I am one of the first of my generation to make movies," she says. But despite this, after the trailer was shown in Egypt, Mona's husband had to go public denying rumours that they were going to spilt up because of the film.

The film has also courted controversy because of its subject matter. It tells the story of a successful Middle Eastern couple who are both trying to get ahead in their careers. Hebba, played by Zaki, is urged by her husband to steer clear of certain controversial topics so that he can further his career. He has been told that he is in line for a top job if his wife tones down her provocative TV show. His wife doesn't and she ends up as bruised and battered as one of the women she features on her show. In a country where domestic abuse is rife but an estimated 90 per cent do not report it, this has hit a nerve. As Mona Zaki says, the men behind this kind of treatment are worried that women seeing this film will rise up and say "'why not all of us?' The point is that there are people who want to go back to the dark ages. They are becoming more and more visible in our world. And me being an actress - and a well-known actress - I might affect a lot of women who will see it."

But as she points out domestic abuse and male chauvinism are by no means limited to the Middle East. "Women are being beaten and suppressed all over the world," she says. "The film received an eight-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival, people were crying, and saying you are talking about something that touches women globally." Zaki has just finished working on a film that has been brewing for over five years with one of her favourite directors, Tarek Aryan. It is called Walls Of The Moon and is about a woman who loses her eyesight in an accident, but conversely becomes more perceptive than she was when she could see.

"I am attracted to complex roles that are intelligent and have a message," she tells me. "And roles that portray strong women." One of Zaki's most critically acclaimed roles was as Jehan al Sadat, the widow of the Egyptian president Anwar al Sadat, who was assassinated in 1981. Days Of Sadat was her second film alongside the Egyptian actor Ahmad Zaki (no relation). "It was a great challenge for me because I don't look anything like her," she says. "Also, there were three actresses playing her at different stages of her life so it was very important to keep the homogeny between us. I had to dig deep to find the 'face' for that role. I believe that we humans have so many different faces in us. For each role I play I search for that particular face and try to maximise it from inside me."

Zaki is only 32 years old and looks even younger in person but has already been making films for more than 10 years. Her acting career began when she went to an audition held by the Egyptian actor and director Mohamed Sohbi. "I just wanted to know what he was like because I admired him," she laughs. "Next thing I know he auditioned me and told me that if I concentrated I could be really good." She worked in theatre and a number of popular TV shows before landing her first cinematic hit in 1998 with the film Smile.

She is surprised by how quickly she became successful. "I wasn't sure at the beginning that it would really be my career because I thought it would be too difficult. I didn't have a network and I am not a very sociable person, added to which I don't have that very friendly manner Middle Eastern people have because I was brought up in the US and UK. So I was this weirdo here who was seen as the stuck-up girl who doesn't want to be friendly."

Zaki retains her slightly antisocial side. Despite being, along with her husband, one of Egypt's most famous and sought-after couples, they rarely go out. This is in part due to her desire to be a good mother to Lily. "Motherhood is tiring," she says. "It is hard to give it everything it deserves, and I definitely want to be around her most of the time, so I just don't socialise. I work and then try to take care of my family and my baby. I think that's quite enough."

She tells me that she never planned to marry an actor. She met Ahmed when he was a TV presenter and a producer asked her if he would be any good for a show he was working on. "I told him he would be great, and that I used to watch a kids' TV programme he did. I never missed an episode. It was really outstanding, and he was very funny. We became friends for two or three years and then it just took another turn - it became love."

Zaki laughs and is visibly happy remembering. "I guess maybe he planned it from the start and I used to wonder if he was in love with me and then I'd say to myself, 'Don't be silly, we're just friends.' But the truth is I never planned to marry an actor because then the media will not just concentrate on one person; they will concentrate on the whole family. You become the property of the media. It is very difficult so we have had to create a lot of boundaries."

One of these boundaries is hardly ever to give interviews. "I have given maybe a total of three interviews over the past three years," she explains. "And yet every week you will find an interview with me in a magazine. They just make it up, they create whole conversations. But you need to stop working if you want to start suing and life is too short for that. So you just decide to ignore it." She has been particularly protective of her daughter and has never posed for photographs with her. And although she doesn't mind being recognised in the street, when she is with Lily she prefers to be left alone.

"I feel very awkward and want to end it very quickly," she says. "Lily knows I am an actress but I feel that the attention that is going from me to her is taken away from her. When I am with her I just want to be her mother." Zaki is incredibly down to earth and obviously has her priorities straight. She laughs and tells me the red carpet at Cannes is "very glamorous", but her ideal evening is one spent looking after Lily, finding out what she did at school.

"She goes to the German School here in Cairo," she says. "The students there come out to be really strong characters and since she is a girl, I want her to be that." Are girls at a disadvantage in Egypt? Do they have to be strong to get ahead? Zaki sighs and lights a cigarette. "Things are happening - we have a female judge, for example - but it is slow. As I said, I think we are moving backwards and the reason for this is that people who were looking for work went to places like Saudi Arabia and they came back with a culture that is not really ours. I think Egypt is part of the Arab world but we have the Pharaonic culture and history, which is not in any way related to the Arab world. So things got mixed up with the more conservative influences from other parts of the Middle East. I can see how much it has changed since I came back in 1993 from the US. There is a lack of acceptance; a woman who is veiled will not accept a woman who is not, and the poor will not accept the rich, and the rich will not accept the poor."

Zaki herself would never consider wearing the veil. "I don't think having a veil is one of the most necessary things in our religion. You don't judge people on how they are dressed but rather on what they are inside. My religion is part of me. It is there and the feeling that God is watching me all the time is a great support for me." She hopes to help stem the tide of conservatism sweeping through Egypt with more films that make people think and "open their minds" in the same way that she wants to make the West see her view of Islam and the Arab world.

She will begin by setting a good example to her daughter. "I try to teach her not to judge people and to accept others the way they are," she says. "I want her to be an open-minded good Muslim who sets a good example for women and people in the Middle East."