She wanted a simple phone interview, she wasn’t interested in Zoom. At first, I was disappointed, I wanted a minimum of visual interaction with the actress who’s been giving Arab cinema new meaning, new flavors and new substance for almost half a century. And then I heard her voice, one that stands out among thousands, a voice that has bewitched generations of moviegoers across almost a hundred movies and television series. Trust me, when Yousra says “Marhaba Ziyad, habibi”, you just instantly melt. Your heart skips a beat and your pen shakes, suddenly hundreds of interviews with stars, politicians, creatives of all sorts, mean almost nothing. It’s like this is your first time and you’ve found yourself on the phone with someone who surpasses all.

Iconic… The word is largely overused, but none describes Yousra so well. Born Seveen Mohamed Hafez Nessim: Today, she’s the only movie icon in the Arab world. “Acting is the most beautiful thing, but life doesn’t stop after cinema. The glamour doesn’t exist anymore unfortunately, today, people care more about money. But there is hope, and there are some very good Arab actresses. And my advice to younger generations is simple: don’t rush anything. Love your job so it can pay you back!” she says. Words of wisdom…

When I ask her to talk about elegance, this concept that no money can buy, no school can teach, Yousra sighs, smiling, “I have never clung to an achievement, never cared about the money, I only did things that I loved.  For example, I sang Abu’s 3 Daqat with all my heart because I liked it, never suspecting that we would get 1 billion views. You have to love and respect what you do, then it gets back to you, yes, this is the secret of elegance, doing everything decently, even when you’re disagreeing with someone,” she insists. Did your mother teach you this sense of elegance, something that so few people share? “Yes. My mother gave me and taught me everything. She always used to tell me that I have a long road, a lot to do and to offer.”

Faten Hamama, the “genius”

Before becoming the last of the Pharaohs, Yousra wanted, at seventeen, to be a diplomat, to change the world, solve conflicts and uphold serenity. But something else was written and there is no such thing as coincidence. “I was in the car with my father and I saw Soad Hosny shooting a movie. I was literally mesmerized. And I said to myself: Can I do this? Can I be like her? This is when I knew that acting was all I wanted to do. And one year later, I shot my first movie with Mustafa Fehmi for 1,000 guineas,” she remembers.

Soad Hosny was a beautiful, wonderful woman. She was a legend,” she adds. So Soad Hosny was your cinematic godmother? “No, Faten Hamama was. I knew her personally, she was very good friends with my parents. I was the only person she allowed on set. We talked about everything, I used to tell her about my life. She didn’t give me advice, she opened doors for me, telling me: ‘This is the road you need to follow’. She fed my attitude in life, she was a genius,” she recalls.

A mentor named Joe

Walking down memory lane with Yousra is not just thrilling, it’s a masterclass in Arab cinema. “At the beginning of my career, I kept on asking myself if this movie was appropriate or not, good or not. Choosing is the most important thing, Youssef Chahine taught me that. He used to tell me: ‘If you’re hungry, you want a sandwich, you come to me, I will kill you if you choose someone else’,” she laughs. One of the most acclaimed directors in the world, Youssef Chahine was undoubtedly Yousra’s most important professional supporter and mentor. “Youssef Chahine loved and respected actors like no one else. He used to tell me that I was the only one who performed and didn’t imitate, who did it the proper way. But every time I played in the theater, he was upset… And yes, I always called him Joe, and he kept on calling me Madame Yousra,” she smiled.

Chahine wrote Iskandaria Kaman especially for Yousra. He validated her own improvisations and her own dialogue, the way another giant movie director, Jean-Luc Godard, used to work. “Exactly! And Godard spent time with us on the set. I remember what he said, ‘I came a very long way to see a wonderful film, a great director and a great actress’,” says Yousra.

We also talked about Al Mohager. “It was the biggest production in the Arab world in 1993. I was three months pregnant and Youssef Chahine waited six months for me. ‘Nobody else would take her place’, he said. It was the first movie for which Nahed Nasrallah handled costume design, she studied in France, she was amazing, we used to do tryouts every week. And it was also my first encounter with Azza Fahmy,” she recalls.

Cleopatra, Hatshepsut and Nadine Labaki

There’s another man who held huge importance in Yousra’s professional life: Adel Emam. “He taught me the difference between good taste and bad taste. He taught me how to deal with the audience, how to take the audience exactly where we wanted. Adel starred in so many important and committed movies,” she says. “And then I learned to trust my own choices, to trust the director first. I managed to work with the right directors, who helped me to surprise myself and the audience, especially in the 90’s,” she adds. That’s why she didn’t hesitate before joining the cast of Aamaret Yacoubian in 2006, probably the highest-budget film in the history of Egyptian cinema. Yousra was the unforgettable Christine, and no one can indeed forget how poignant, how fascinating she was when she sang Edith Piaf’s La Vie En Rose. “It was a very special movie for me, and I took everything from my role,” she says.

“Is there a role, a character, you never had the chance to play and that you dream of embodying?” I ask. “Not one character in particular, but what saddens me is that we haven’t taken advantage of our amazing civilization and the lives of our pharaohs. There are so many stunning stories that can be told,” she says. Arab screenwriters and directors should begin working on that right now, especially as Yousra confesses that the two women she would’ve loved to have met were two pharaohs, Cleopatra and Hatshepsut. “Cleopatra was a pure magician, and Hatshepsut was a brilliant mind, she went to war like a man while raising the heir to the throne,” she says.

I ask her how she sees the Arab movie industry in 2022 and what directors she would say ‘Yes’ to without reading the script, “The Arab movie industry needs to be less obsessed with just what the audience requires. There are wonderful Arab movies, but we need to focus more on quality rather than quantity. There are very talented directors in the Arab world, and I like Nadine Labaki a lot, she is one of a kind, and her approach to feminism is extremely interesting,” she says.

About women, men and persistence

Speaking of which, “What does being an Arab woman mean in 2022? Why is feminism so important to you?” I ask, “Arab women are among the strongest in the world, because of all they’ve been through and witnessed. They have a capacity that no one has and the future is theirs, all over the world. I know that because I see how persistent they are and how men lack persistence,” says Yousra laughing deeply.

Yousra has long worked to build bridges between the Arab world and the West, and between the Arabs themselves. It must be challenging, to never cease in these endeavors, “We always need to build bridges between the Arab and Western worlds and to bring cultures together. We need to show our true colors, who we really are, us Arabs, to the Western public, it’s our job. It’s been 15 years I’ve been warning about a possible World War III, and we have no choice but to believe in people. We are humans and we need to preserve humanity, to take care of each other, to be merciful,” says Yousra, who was appointed as a UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador for the Middle East and North Africa at an event held in Cairo, Egypt, on 31 January 2016.

“It’s their problem”

Yousra’s love of fashion is clear to see, “Fashion is indeed a major art! And my relation to fashion is very simple: I don’t follow trends, I just want to look OK and if people don’t like what I am wearing, I respect that, but it’s their problem. What I care about is always wearing the right thing at the right time. I was the face of Dior for seven years on one condition: I wear what looks good on me, not what you want me to wear. You have to believe in yourself first and foremost.”

She tells me that her favorite color is red, and her favorite Arab designer is Elie Saab. “He’s an amazing human being and an amazing artist. I also like Zuhair Murad a lot, Georges Chakra, Georges Hobeika… Yes, they are all Lebanese, so what? Lebanese fashion designers have made a big impact,” she says.

“Of course, habibi!”

Ninety minutes later, it felt like only five, I asked Yousra if I could keep her ten more minutes to play a sort of ping-pong with me, using some questions from Sophie Calle and Grégoire Bouillier’s questionnaire. “Of course, habibi!” was the answer.

When was the last time you died? “When my mother died.”

What makes you get up in the morning? “Asking myself how I can be useful to people.”

What happened to your childhood dreams? “They have come true. But fortunately, some of them didn’t,” she said, that wonderful laugh reappearing.

What sets you apart from others? “You should answer this question.”

Are you missing something? “My mother.”

Can anyone be an artist? “No.”

Where do you come from? “From the past, the present and the future.”

Do you consider your lot to be enviable? “There are some people who envy me, yes.”

What do you do with your money? “I spend it, everyday!”

What housework frustrates you the most? “I love housework! I am doing my bed while answering your questions…”

What are your favorite pleasures? “Enjoying real peace of mind.”

What have you been able to do for love? “I am absolutely unable to do anything without love.”

Iconic. And that’s an understatement.