Saturday , December 2 2023

Excelling in exile: Hiam Abbass’ road to success

DUBAI: For the first time in her life, the Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass found herself uncomfortable in front of a camera. She wasn’t being asked to act. She was being asked to be herself. And the person doing the asking was her own daughter, Lina Soualem.

Soualem wanted her mother to open up. To reflect on her chosen exile and the ways in which the women of her family had influenced her life. Without her honesty and emotion, the intimate family portrait that Soualem had in mind would not be possible.

“When we started filming, I thought, ‘Do I really want to say this?’ And ‘Do I want to suddenly be exposed to people in a way where it’s not a character that I’m playing but it’s myself?’” recalls Abbass, the central figure in Soualem’s “Bye Bye Tiberias.”


Hiam Abbass (seated, right) sits with her mother Um Ali and her daughter Lina Soualem in the 1990s. (Supplied)

“There were times — in the beginning specifically — when I wasn’t very comfortable, and Lina wasn’t feeling comfortable. When she was asking me questions that I was answering as if I was sitting in front of a journalist,” she continues. “I was very factual and very thoughtful and she was looking for something more authentic: She wanted feelings. So I decided to let go and to trust her.”

That trust has paid off. “Bye Bye Tiberias” had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival in September and has already picked up awards at the BFI London Film Festival and Festival Cinemed in Montpellier.

Speaking before the Israel-Hamas war began, Abbass is candid about her life growing up in the Palestinian village of Deir Hanna. Although she was born into a family that was full of love, she found it difficult to express her artistic side. For years she kept her acting at the Palestinian National Theatre in East Jerusalem a secret from her parents, and struggled to come to terms with the fact that decisions were being made for her.


Abbass with Ramy Youssef (C) and Amr Waked in “Ramy.” (Supplied)

“You suffocate,” she says. “You suffocate from everything that is imposed on you. And don’t forget the political conflict and all the wars that we had to go through. This whole double identity: Who do you belong to, knowing that you are Palestinian, but you are a Palestinian in Israel?” The Nakba scattered her family. Her maternal aunt, Hosnieh, became a refugee in Syria and was not allowed to return. The family of her paternal grandmother ended up in Lebanon. Others, too, were torn from Palestine.

“Because I was born in Israel, I couldn’t get to any of these people. My grandma died with no contact with anybody from her family. She was the only person from her family that stayed in Palestine. Being born in this context, and having to prove to people all the time that you are Palestinian… You’re not even allowed to use the word. You cannot say ‘Palestine.’ At seven years old, during the ’67 war, I didn’t understand anything — ‘Who is fighting who? What’s going on? Who do we belong to?’ All of these are such early questions in the mind of a kid, but they stay with you,” she says.

“Being in the middle of all these Arab countries — living in this country that is the enemy of all the countries around you — is a heavy thing. And I couldn’t stand it. At one stage, I really couldn’t stand it… I felt that my place had to be somewhere else, or at least the oxygen that I was supposed to breathe was supposed to be different. I needed a different oxygen… just to be able to build something for myself in my career, in my way of being, in what I wanted to do in my life, without having to give any justification to anybody.”


Abbass (L) in 2002’s “Satin Rouge.” (Supplied)

So, in her early twenties, Abbass left Deir Hanna to follow her dream of becoming an actress in Europe. She eventually settled in Paris, married the French actor Zinedine Soualem (they have since divorced), and had two daughters, Lina and Mouna. Both have followed her into the film industry.

“Everything really came in steps,” says Abbass. “I never rushed the system. I just wanted to savor every minute of the decision that I had made, because it was my own choice. I just was happy being abroad, not working for a while, then happy being a mother and not necessarily an actress. So it felt like I gave time to everything and I have no regrets whatsoever about all these decisions that I made. And my career just came with it. I wasn’t greedy about anything. It built itself up in a kind of very authentic, natural way.”

Her first films were Rashid Masharawi’s “Haifa” and Cédric Klapisch’s “When the Cat’s Away,” both released in 1996. However, it was Raja Amari’s “Satin Rouge” that proved to be a pivotal moment in her career. Released in 2002, Abbass’ portrayal of a Tunisian widow who becomes a cabaret dancer was a “decision with no return.”


Abbass (center) with her “Succession” castmates Sarah Snook (L) and J Smith-Cameron in 2017. (AFP)

“When I said yes [to ‘Satin Rouge’] I thought, ‘Am I doing the right thing? Is this really something I can hold on my shoulders after, because it’s not easy?’ And then I knew that I had to make a decision. It’s either I am an actress, or I am not. So, if I’m an actress, I go and I do it. And if I’m not, it means I stop now and I will never be one. So it was the turning point for me in that I knew by doing this there were people that would be hurt, people that wouldn’t like it, people that would think I’m not who I am — who would disrespect me. But it was the most important choice I made. That movie was a life- and a career-changer for me.”

She would go on to star in films including Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” and Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049,” as well as HBO’s “Succession” and Hulu’s “Ramy.” The latter two shows, in particular, have brought her international acclaim. And yet, despite her worldwide fame, much of Abbass’ work has centered on Arab cinema. She has played Syrians and Tunisians, appeared in Hany Abu-Assad’s Oscar-nominated “Paradise Now,” and starred in Arab and Tarzan Nasser’s “Dégradé,” which was set in a hair salon in Gaza.

“Every offer I’ve had from Palestine I said yes to, because it’s very important for me,” says Abbass, who is due to star in Annemarie Jacir’s upcoming film, “All Before You.” She was also artistic producer on “Egyptian Cigarettes,” the second episode in the third season of “Ramy,” which was directed by Jacir and set in Palestine.

Now that “Succession” has ended and “Ramy” is likely to end after its fourth season, Abbass is looking to the future, which she hopes will include Ramy Youssef, the Egyptian-American actor and creator of “Ramy,” who gave Abbass the opportunity to direct an episode of season three.

“I would love to develop stories with him and work with him again,” says Abbass of Youssef. “I have a feeling that the older I get, the more I want to do projects that connect the two cultures I’m involved in. We are who we are because we come from these places, with our culture, with whatever we carried, with whatever we inherited. And, at the same time, we’re living in Europe and we’re living in an influential Western world. Through cinema or TV, I would like these two worlds to meld together and to become one identity. Maybe there is this thing in me that is stronger than ever: To create this melting pot in cinema, where the two worlds can become one.”

And then there’s “Bye Bye Tiberias.” For Abbass, its importance lies in the documentation of a collective memory that is vanishing — something that she is grateful to her daughter for capturing. “I think it’s important to immortalize their struggle,” she says. “Someone like my grandma, she fed me her story, she fed me her beauty, she fed me her love for life, she fed me her smile… It’s nice to know that she’s eternal now.”

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