TBS contributing editor
Are Ruby's critics
an obstacle to her stardom, or does the controversy over her
secular style eclipse the star herself? The music videos that
established Ruby's fame feature pelvic-thrust dance moves and
revealing costumes, which infuriate a growing number of Middle
Easterners. But compared to the gyrations and attire of Western
hip-hop performers, whose videos air on the same international
satellite channels, Ruby is downright wholesome. Arguably, her
style has an eye-catching edge in her conservative society.
According to studies by the London-based daily Al-Hayat,
Ruby is considered to be more popular than any political or
intellectual figure in Egypt. A Cairo newspaper survey found
that Egyptian youth think Ruby and soccer star Khaled Beebo
are the most interesting people in Egypt.
Ruby was offered 5 million Egyptian pounds to star in Dal'
al Banat (Spoiled Girls), directed by Tarik Salama; Ruby
was forcibly removed from Cairo University where she was studying
law, because she violated the dress code; Ruby was being sued
by composer Ahmad al-Jabali, for breaking a previous contract
with him, and by the Musician's Syndicate, for "singing
without a license." Ruby is trying to prevent her sister
Kooky from having a singing career. Ruby's videos were banned
by Egyptian TV for being too sexy.
Rania Hussein on Oct. 8, 1981, in a working class Cairo neighborhood,
it never occurred to her to become a singer, because her parents
disapproved of the performing arts as a career, and wanted her
to be a doctor. As a child, she sang and danced in front of
the mirror. At 16, she defied her parents, and became a model.
"I wasn't really looking for a career in entertainment
then," she notes. "I wasn't sure what I wanted to
be. I just knew I didn't want to be a doctor."
Ruby -- then still
known as Rania -- made TV commercials, auditioned for movie
roles, and played a small role in the critically noted Film
Thaqafi ("Culture Movie"). Yousef Chahine gave
her a role in his film Sukut! Hansawwar! ("Silence!
Action!") and he also gave her the name Ruby. "She
had star quality," Chahine recalls. But she didn't become
a full-fledged star until she met Sherif Sabri.
Sabri is a former
civil engineer, but he considers his real career to have begun
when he was a teenaged guitarist in the Cairo R&B band Honeypot.
"We were very famous," he says firmly. Later, he would
earn a doctorate and go abroad to build nuclear reactors, but
he never forgot the power a performer wields onstage, the transformative
magic of a darkened venue, the heart-thumping adrenalin of applause.
He re-entered show
business as a commercial producer, and met Ruby when he was
casting his first feature, Saba' Waraqat Kutshina (Seven
Playing Cards). Always the artiste, he took the film on location
to Prague "to give the film some geographic vibrance."
Kutshina was intended to be a model for young artists, "to
show them that you could make a creative independent movie outside
of the movie mafia," says Sabri, who dislikes mainstream
Arab films. "The medium is stagnant. It allows no room
for fresh ideas and kills creativity. Naturally my film was
attacked. It was different." According to the Jordanian
daily al-Ghad, a poll taken by MSNA.com found Saba'
Waraqat Kutshina to be the worst film of 2004, receiving
1,783 of the 3,420 votes. Yousef Chahine's Alexandria/New
York came in second.
But video clips,
not feature films, made Ruby a star. And Sabri's background,
his own love affair with stardom, and his ability to sell a
concept, or at least a CD, in 30 seconds of airtime, were integral
parts of the stardom machine. With Sabri, Ruby had a savvy manager
who understood music, money, and the market.
got the part in Sabri's film not because of her voice, but because
he liked her look, and her determination. "Between rehearsals,
I heard her sing for the first time," he remembers. "I
got an idea, and I didn't know if I was doing the right thing
or the wrong thing, but I changed the script, rewrote half of
it, and had her sing and dance. Then I shot her first video,
You Know Why, in Prague."
The video, which
featured Ruby's bare midriff in public, accomplished two things
at once. It raised the ire of vocal, conservative Egyptians
and made Ruby a star. "I told her, after this video comes
out, you won't be able to walk on the street," Sabri recalls.
Ruby didn't believe him.
Not all the attention
is positive: Islamist politician Hamdi Hassan, of Egypt's Muslim
Brotherhood, complained to Egypt's Parliament that Ruby's performance,
and the gyrations of other pop stars, went against the morals
of Muslim society. "I realize Egypt is a conservative society,"
says Ruby, "but I believe in what I'm doing."
Ruby's mother and
sister (contrary to rumor) have always been close to her and
supported her career. But other family members stopped speaking
to her when the video came out. "They were angry, but some
of them are starting to come around."
Were Ruby's videos
really banned by Egyptian TV for being too sexy? Sabri claims
he never presented them to Egyptian TV. "But who knows?"
he shrugs. "If I did present them, they might be banned."
Sabri likens Ruby's
career to his own, putting her controversial body motions into
the context of his great love, R&B. He also believes that
she, like him, is victimized for expressing, literally and figuratively,
her soul. "What she's revealing is her individuality, not
her sexuality," Sabri explains. Not that the two are mutually
exclusive. "This culture doesn't tolerate people who are
different," Sabri argues. "If you don't fit a mold,
you get criticized. Ruby has a natural rhythm, and people claim
that she is overtly seductive. But the truth is, she has a deep
level of confidence and this is frightening. It's threatening,
to be so confident, happy, successful. It is much harder to
control confident people."
A WITH RUBY
TBS: Did you
always want to be a performer?
Ruby: I didn't
know what I wanted to do. But I loved to sing and dance.
TBS: You became
a model at age 16; didn't your parents object?
but I found that the older I got, the louder my voice got, the
greater my own desire to choose my destiny became. I had the
ability to stand up for what I believed in, even if it went
against my parents' wishes.
TBS: What was it like to work with Yousef Chahine, arguably
Egypt's best known director in the international film world?
Ruby: I was
so happy when I got the chance to work with Mr. Chahine. I'd
seen his films, and I had great respect for his genius. As a
newcomer to the film business, it was very exciting for me.
are the best and worst things about being famous?
best part is I can sing and dance all the time. There is nothing
that bad about it, except that I can't walk down the street
without people -- usually girls -- stopping me and asking me
for my autograph, or how to do a dance move. Sometimes mothers
push their daughters up to me and say, "Look! She can do
it just like you!" Or people want to know where I get my
haircut. A lot of Cairo hairdressers get requests for "the
TBS: How did
you become a singer?
Ruby: By accident.
I was making Seven Playing Cards with Sherif Sabri, but
he didn't know I could sing. I was too shy to even think of
myself as a singer, let alone tell people that I sang. He heard
me singing and he made my video clip, You Know Why,right
there in Prague, where we were filming the movie.
on that one music video, for You Know Why, you became
a star? How did that one clip draw so much attention?
Ruby: In the
video for You Know Why, I appear on a street in a belly
dance costume, which some people felt was haram (religiously
forbidden). But belly dancing is part of the Egyptian tradition.
In the old movies, you always saw women in those costumes. Some
people watched the video because it was haram, so they
could criticize it, but most people watched it because they
liked the music, the singing and dancing.
TBS: How do
you respond to the criticism you get for being too sexy?
Ruby: I don't
read the things the critics write. I don't care what they think.
I don't need their validation. I feel very confident in what
is it about your music that gives it a different sound than
most Arab performers?
Ruby: I let
the bass line inform my music. Most Arab musicians ignore the
bass line, which is what most R&B is based on. But I respond
to it, so my music and my whole rhythm has a different feel.
Maybe it seems sexier to some people. But it's what soul musicians,
R&B performers, have been doing for years in the West.
instrument would you most like to play?
love to learn to play the harmonica.
been famous for a while now. You can do anything you want, go
to any exotic part of the world. What is it you would most like
Ruby: It depends
on my mood. I might just hang out with my friends -- none of
whom are artists, they're all friends from school. Or I might
stay home and sing and dance, in front of my mirror.
TBS: Who are
your favorite international stars?
Lopez and Al Pacino.
TBS: If you
went to Hollywood, who would you like to meet?
Ruby: I think
maybe they'd like to meet me!
is a freelance correspondent and short story writer whose work
has appeared in the Massachusetts Literary Review, Davos Global
Report, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Egypt Today, Playboy,
Hollywood Reporter, Book Forum, Good Housekeeping, National
Public Radio, Glamour, and other publications. She divides her
time between Cairo and Santa Barbara.
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