A star is born in Cairo

When leading Egyptian stage actress Soheir el Babli announced last month that she was quitting showbiz for good to adopt the Islamic veil, it looked like curtains for “Attiya, the Terrorist Woman,” the hit Cairo play in which she starred.

But instead of closing the show, el Babli’s born-again bow-out has given birth to a new Egyptian star: the producer’s daughter, brought in as a last-minute replacement. What looked like desperation turned out to be “a triumph for art,” according to one Cairo critic — even though 22-year-old Abeer Sharkawi’s previous stage experience had been limited to student theatricals.

It’s too early to tell if the absence of el Babli in the title role will affect the play’s box office in the long run. But critics were almost universally favorable.

El Babli was set to begin a second season in the title role in early July at the 700-seat Misr Art Theater, and producer-director Galal Sharkawi — who also owns the theater — was confidently looking forward to sellout performances.

El Babli was a proven draw, first-year receipts were good, and the play was ever-timely, especially in the wake of recent terrorist bombings in Cairo. During a two-month break, the script had been re-worked and updated to include dialogue references to some of the recent terrorist attacks.

But then came el Babli’s about-face, with only two weeks to go before the play’s reopening.

“It was the shock of my life,” Sharkawi told Variety.

El Babli is reportedly in seclusion at her vacation home in Alexandria and unavailable for comment.

Faced with his star’s vanishing act and the prospect of a dark theater, Sharkawi turned to his daughter, 22, a student at Cairo’s American University.

At the play’s reopening night, a who’s who of Egyptian entertainment turned up, including Adol Imam, the Arab world’s leading stage and screen comedian. The celebrity turnout was meant to criticize the religiously motivated retirement of some actresses and attacks on showbiz by religious zealots.

El Babli joins about 20 other Egyptian femme entertainers who have quit the biz over the last couple of years and opted for the veil, or hejab — a nunlike scarf that covers the hair and neck and is a symbol of Islamic piety.

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