With Her Eyes on Egypt: Amira El-Sayed

Amira El-Sayed
by Sherif Awad
For talented actors around the world, the dream of becoming
a famous star has no borders. In Egypt, many actors who have made it in the
regional cinema also tried to make a career on the international scene. On the
other hand, other Egyptian actors who were born abroad are also longing to make
a career in their homeland, given the popularity of Egyptian cinema and TV
series and its impact on the Pan Arab audience.

The Austrian-born Amira El-Sayed is one of those young talented
actresses. She has neither cut her ties with the city of Alexandria where her
father was born nor with the recent sociopolitical changes in her country Egypt.
Although her acting career in Austria and Germany is starting to shape, Amira
is also dreaming of being cast in an Egyptian film or TV series.
Born in 1991, Amira fell in love with acting since her early
childhood even before she knew it is a real job through which one can make a
living. “I was acting at the theatre of my school then with the Youth Theatre
in Innsbruck”, remembers Amira. “At the age of sixteen, I decided to go to
Vienna and stay with my aunt to study acting and pursue a professional career. After
I joined the First Film Academy where I studied for one year, the famous
Austrian actor Heribert Sasse accidentally visited this academy and picked me
up to join his acting seminars for two years. Once finished, I could call
myself as one of his students, which helps very much in Vienna’s casting calls”.
Sasse was so convinced by Amirs’s talent to the point to urging her to join Max
Reinhardt Seminar in 2010 to strengthen her skills. “I started to get film and
theatre offer during the first year at Max Reinhardt but I couldn’t accept
because the school wouldn’t allow its student to work in the first three years”,
she says.
Amira kept her connection with Egypt due to frequent visits
with her parents. Her father Adel El-Sayed told her about how he was driven to
leave Egypt due his involvement in politics. “While being a sociology student
in Alexandria University, he was arrested and thrown into jail along with some
of his socialists and activists friends and colleagues after being part of a
demonstration against Sadat’s regime in the late seventies”, explains Amira. “After
a month in jail, an officer came and met them to propose a deal: they can be freed
and allowed to continue their studies if they sign on a document in which they swear
not to be involved in politics again”. Most of those who signed ultimately left
Egypt including Amira’s father who travelled to Austria to complete his higher
studies and became a professor of Political Science at Innsbruck University. It
was in the city of Innsbruck where he also made many friends and met Amira’s
During her childhood, Amira used to frequently visit Egypt with
her parents during holidays and even went to the kindergarten in Alexandria for
two years. “My father kept on writing about Egypt while we were in Austria. In
other words, he was still an activist on paper, which put him again into
trouble with the Egyptian authorities that went to arrest him again up in front
of my kindergarten in Alexandria.  Although
my mother didn’t have a clue about how things go in Egypt, she went to many police
stations and threatened to go to the international media if they don’t free him.
My father returned home after a week only to reveal that he was interrogated by
the late Omar Suleiman, the former head of Egyptian Intelligence) because of
his doctorate thesis Palästina in der Mandatszeit, Palestine in the
While studying in Max Reinhardt, Amira could not resist
accepting the female role in the Austrian stage adaptation of Paul Schrader’s
play The Cleopatra Club and was exceptionally permitted to go on stage. Schrader
is famous for his film career being the screenwriter of classics like Taxi
and Raging Bull, that both starred Robert de Niro and both
directed by Martin Scorsese. He is also the writer-director of other film classics
like Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, The Comfort of Strangers
and Light Sleeper. The play that debuted in 2004 on Broadway was based
on Schrader’s own experience when he was invited as jury member in Cairo Film
Festival back in the 1990s. It revolves around a filmmaker and a film critic
who were among the invitees of Cairo Film Festival only to be outraged when the
festival bans a film depicting a love story between a Palestinian man and a
Jewish woman. When they both try to speak to the press, they are apprehended by
an Egyptian police officer who resumes it all for the two of them: “A film
festival is not about movies, it’s about culture, and culture is politics, and
politics is religion”. So in the Austrian version, Amira was offered the role
of Esmet the festival’s interpreter who accompanies the two invitees. “It was
important for me to join this production because it revealed the hidden face of
the Egyptian regime and a side not as exotic as seen by many tourists and
because it was also reminiscent of what happened to my father during his
university years and again when he returned to Egypt several years later”, says
Amira who continued her performance in The Cleopatra Club for several
months. During an interview on the Austrian radio station Ö1, Amira spoke about
the play and the story of her father. She was accidentally heard by an Australian
publishing house “Letter P” who contacted her to write down her story in a
book. So ultimately, Amira followed the footstep of her academic father and
became the book author of Klang der Freiheit (Sound of Freedom), named
after songs enchanted in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution. “In this
book, I was trying to retell the story of my Alexandrian family as an example
of one Egyptian family and particularly my father Adel El-Sayed. I found it
impossible not to connect it to all the recent happenings in Egypt, until the
months that preceded the revolution of January 25. Sound of Freedom also
tries to answer questions of some of my European friends who didn’t understand
why this revolution was (and is still) necessary”, explains Amira.
Following the advice of her new agent Divina, Amira El-Sayed
just made a move to Berlin where she plans to continue her studies in The Ernst
Busch Academy of Dramatic Art while trying to work in German film and TV. She
is in talks to star in the next film by Fatih Akin, the internationally
renowned Turkish-German filmmaker who got international awards for his past
films like Head-on and Edge of Heaven. She will soon be seen in
the Austrian film Schleier (Veil) where she plays a second-generation
Egyptian-Austrian housewife who tries to help her husband to overcome an
identity crisis.

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Sherif M. Awad
Sherif M. Awad
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