In conversation: Aly Sobhy and Menna El-Laithy on becoming actors in Egypt
The performing arts couple talk family, career choices, social theater and hope
Courtesy: Nada Elissa

If they had given in to family or social pressures, it’s likely that neither Aly Sobhy nor Menna El-Laithy would have become actors. When Sobhy was a kid, acting in school plays and despondent over his stiff classroom education, his eldest brother told him he would end up a central security officer, a dull cog in an oppressive state-run machine. When Laithy earned a dual degree in theater and mass communication from AUC in 2012, her father asked her to officially graduate from the latter.

But in December, at 33, Sobhy was crowned best actor for his role in Sherif El Bendary’s Ali, The Goat and Ibrahim at the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF). His win, along with Mohamed Hammad’s for best director for his first feature Withered Green, were largely considered a triumph for Egypt’s beleaguered independent cinema community. At 28, Laithy has several film roles under her belt, helped found art house cinema Zawya and is now making her first short film.

A month after Sobhy’s win, I went to visit him and Laithy at their home in Nasr City, an upper-middle class neighborhood in eastern Cairo. Laithy, whom Sobhy met in 2007 when they were both cast in a performance by influential (now inactive) independent theater troupe Hala, told me about her upcoming short about a mother-daughter relationship, which she was shooting that week. She says her mother, a painter, was a key supporter of her early acting and directing pursuits.

“None of us wanted to work on politically driven projects and find ourselves out of a job. We had faith that we could change people through non-political street performances.”

It was Sobhy’s mother too who believed he was talented: “She’s the only one in my family likely to accept things that are different from what she believes in,” he says. “She would first make fun of me, but then she would sit and really listen.” His late father, a government employee at the national railway authority, would have preferred him to choose a traditional career path, but never forced anything upon him. “My father spent the last six years of his life hoping I would cut my hair. He was a kind man.”

The youngest of five siblings, Sobhy was the only one in his family interested in acting: “I never used to study, because I believed in a different method of education, so they mocked me a lot. They didn’t stand in my way but they weren’t on my side either.” I ask if things changed after he returned from Dubai in December. “Now they’re over the moon because they think this is it, that I’ve made it. But this prize is just a milestone, you know,” he says, shifting slightly in his seat.

Sobhy says he has quarreled with friends and lost a girlfriend over his decision to be an actor. People never take issue with going to a movie theater to watch a film, he believes, but most of them are convinced that what unfolds behind the screen, beyond the performance, is ugly or indecent.

“We’ve been through rough times, Aly and I,” says Laithy. In interviews, Sobhy has often cited her as the linchpin of his success. “This win felt like a universal apology, especially from my family,” Laithy says, recalling a recent phone call from a cousin on the conservative side of her family. “She congratulated Aly and then wished me the same success. Regardless of whether or not families show support at the beginning, when something like this happens and they finally come around, it matters a lot.”

On her graduation night, Laithy eventually walked alongside both her theater and mass communication classmates. She admits that despite this mild act of rebellion, she remains sensitive to people’s expectations of her. “I sometimes turn into a traditionalist,” she says, recounting her hesitation when Sobhy decided to wear a flashing red blazer in Dubai on the night the film premiered.

At the DIFF, Laithy says it felt as though they belonged to a subculture, particularly as fresh actors within a decidedly commercial festival, recalling how the film’s crew and the other independent filmmakers from Egypt “stuck together, like a gang.”

The idea for Ali, The Goat and Ibrahim, Bendary’s first feature, was conceived back in 2008, after Sobhy worked as a crew member on journalist-turned-filmmaker Ibrahim El Batout’s milestone indie film Ain Shams. Sobhy told Batout about a boy named Sayed who was rumored to have had a sexual encounter with a goat, prompting people to call him Sayed Meaza (“meaza” meaning “goat”). When Sobhy dug into the story, he discovered that Sayed’s father worked at a garbage dump inhabited by animals, so the boy had a goat as a pet — and because he limped when he walked, he was an easy target for unfounded ridicule.

Batout built a story around Sayed’s character, and in 2014 Bendary took on the project with scriptwriter Ahmed Amer, writing 17 drafts and multiple endings over two years. So Sobhy won best actor for playing a role inspired by the boy whose story he had found almost a decade before.

At the time, Bendary took the opportunity to salute “those who have been rejected by their society for being different … and everyone who has the courage to be different.” But when I ask him about it now, a month later, his reply is cautious: “It’s just a film.” He’s more comfortable referencing it as the motivation for making the film rather than its message or lesson, since too often artwork can be misconstrued as offering solutions to social problems.

Sobhy shares a similar sentiment. “I have a huge problem with performances or films that attempt to teach society by looking down upon its ills. It’s racist and classist,” he says. “I don’t think you can create change in society by constantly reprimanding someone for doing something that’s bad. I believe change can only happen when you hold up a mirror so that people can see what’s wrong for themselves.” Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim just drives home the fact that human beings love in diverse ways, he explains.

“It’s about humanizing the other,” adds Laithy, who believes the film challenges the practice in comedy of dismissing differences, which they both say has been endemic in Egypt’s cultural and entertainment landscape in recent years.

Through Hala, Sobhy was introduced to the independent cinema industry and non-conventional theater. He learnt how to fuse music and dance with acting, and participated in workshops that helped him hone his craft. In the turbulent political climate between 2001 and 2010, the troupe swiftly gained a solid viewership because its members were not afraid to tap into barbed territory. Their audience varied, but the politically active were among the regulars.

In reaction to the Beni Suef Cultural Palace fire of 2005, when 46 people died during the Amateur Theater Festival, Hala staged a play called Fire to a backdrop that resembled a cemetery. Sobhy said that after the tragedy, actors started to take a chance on street theater, worried that within closed doors they might meet the fate of those killed that day. New platforms were thus initiated through a growing distrust of state cultural institutions.

Aly Sobhy in Outa Hamra. Photo: Amir Makar. - Courtesy: Amir Makar

When Hala disintegrated in 2010, Sobhy was ready to move away from politics and, following an encounter with Clowns without Borders, he co-founded a clowning troupe at the end of that year with four other performers from Egypt and abroad. “There are distinct differences between Hala and Outa Hamra, but ultimately they both grew from the same seed: street theater,” he tells me about the troupe, in which Laithy also participated in various capacities between 2014 and 2015.

Outa Hamra (literally: Red Tomato) takes its spirited, interactive social commentary to schools, streets, correctional facilities and youth centers across the country. “On one level, it was a conscious shift. We wanted to keep doing what we were doing,” says Sobhy. “None of us wanted to work on politically driven projects and find ourselves out of a job. We had faith that we could change people through non-political street performances. Having people accept the existence of art on the street is in itself a political gain.”

Despite widespread concern about repression and restrictions among those whose work is tied to public space, Sobhy and Laithy are hopeful. “I admit that the police have somewhat controlled the streets, but even so, their forces will never be able to reach the narrow alleys of the impoverished neighborhoods where kids draw graffiti on walls,” Sobhy explains. “It’s exactly like what Youssef Chahine said: ‘Ideas have wings. No one can stop them from flying.’”

Sitting at home days after the sixth anniversary of 25 January, which came and went without a single protest, Sobhy says, “In the face of every person who gets scared, four people emerge in support. For example, now there are seven or eight groups whose ideas are inspired by what Atfal al-Shawarea [a satirical group that was arrested in 2016] do. It’s possible that Atfal al-Shawarea will decide to quit, will decide they don’t want to be imprisoned or tortured or end up dead, but their ideas will prevail. It’s the same thing that happened to Hala when it ended.”

Ali, The Goat and Ibrahim is released in cinemas on March 1 (watch the trailer here). This article was commissioned and edited by Rowan El Shimi.

Heba El-Sherif 

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