How teenage actress Yasmina El-Abd is looking to change the face of Arab entertainment
What were you doing when you were 15-years-old? On set for Netflix and HBO? Racking up millions of videos on YouTube with your music?
That’s the reality for Yasmina El-Abd, the Swiss-born and raised Egyptian actress, whose latest releases include comedy-drama Finding Ola on Netflix and Theodosia, a family action series, on HBO Max.
Following on from 2010’s Ayza Atgawez (I Want To Get Married), Finding Ola sees actress Hind Sabri reprise her role as the titular character, shaken by divorce. Yasmina plays Zeina, Ola’s daughter’s best friend, whose mother passed away when she was young. “That created a complicated relationship with her father because he’s a doctor,” she explains.
“Zeina wants to know why he didn’t save her mum, how could he let her die? There’s weird energy there and she spends most of her time not dealing with her issues. She’s very sarcastic, funny and outgoing,” she tells The New Arab.
As for Theodosia, Yasmina is the only Egyptian cast member on the show. She plays teenage Princess Safiya, who befriends the titular Theodosia and her brother Henry, the children of Egyptologists, as they battle ancient forces and save the world.
“Safiya isn’t stereotypical: she’s well-educated, witty, elegant and eloquent. I do think Arab entertainment is becoming more daring and representing my generation more – before Finding Ola, I struggled to find a character that’s my age.”
Yasmina also thinks that the Western world has a job to do in educating themselves out of stereotypes, accepting more nuanced MENA characters and appreciating the quality of Arab entertainment. “I think negative opinions come out of ignorance and fear. With global streaming services, we have the chance to show what we can do.”
Yasmina has an impressive CV that already includes an award-nominated short film (The Shadow of Cairo) and an award-winning movie (2021’s Daughters of Abdul-Rahman).
She started out early in the industry after it was clear she loved being on camera. “When I was little, my sister and I would direct music videos of me where I would lip-sync to Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus songs,” Yasmina says, smiling.
“My parents put me into choir and ballet, and when I was a kid I actually wanted to open up my own dance studio and be an instructor.”
But it was a move to Dubai that cemented Yasmina’s career trajectory. “A lot of people around me were doing commercials, and I wanted to try that.”
Like any parent, Yasmina’s mum was hesitant to throw her daughter into this difficult industry. Now, however, Yasmina says that she’s her biggest fan: “My family is more open-minded than the average Arab family, so I managed to convince my mum after a while. As soon as I did my first commercial, I was like, ‘this is what I want to do.’”
Yasmina soon progressed to short films, in 2019 taking the lead in The Shadow of Cairo. Playing Maya, a 12-year-old girl who became a superhero to avenge the death of her mother.
She credits Hind Sabri for the advice that has really stuck with her: “She told me that I have the luxury of time and that I can calm down and live my life as a normal teenage kid, I don’t have to take myself so seriously"
Yasmina says she’s learned a lot from starring alongside “kind, down-to-earth” people who have wanted to actually get to know her.
She credits Hind Sabri for the advice that has really stuck with her: “She told me that I have the luxury of time and that I can calm down and live my life as a normal teenage kid, I don’t have to take myself so seriously. I tend to do that a lot.”
Yasmina is on social media, but tap through to @yasminaelabd_ and among the behind the scenes shots and selfies you’ll find a political voice.
“I want to talk about things that matter to me, like early marriage, sexual harassment, refugees, immigration… I reshare a lot on social media because people need to educate themselves and broaden their perspectives. A lot of people just listen to their parents but don’t have their own informed opinions. Ask them why they hate something and they don’t make sense. You have to back what you think – I’ll respect you if you have a different opinion, but read about it and have a proper perspective, not just what you heard from someone else.”
As for criticism of TV series being too ‘woke’ these days, Yasmina disagrees.
“Some audiences think we’re trying to and change the way they think, but we’re just presenting a different point of view. Film is meant to spark conversation and push boundaries.”
Does she worry that politicising her platforms could affect future opportunities? “It depends. Some casting directors are more reserved, but I don’t say I hate certain groups or tell people what to do. I just state facts. I've been blessed with a platform, so I need to talk about things that matter, or else what am I doing? I’d much rather be respected than liked.”
"We have a feeling that Yasmina is going to make her country proud for a long time to come"
Spreading positivity is something Yasmina does through her music, too. Having sung since she was 12, her self-love anthem 24 Karat has surpassed 2.7m views on YouTube.
It’s a soaring message of positivity, advocating that “no one chooses their life and circumstances / no one chooses their features” but despite everything, "God will always give back to you."
When I ask her if the song, which sees people judged for their looks or background, is rooted in real experiences, she says yes. “When I was in Switzerland, I faced racism and ignorance in school. When I started working, people also changed their behaviour around me. They felt more power when they tried to take my power away, and maybe that comes from insecurity.”
As for the future, Yasmina has her sights set on, well, everything. “I would love to direct, produce, write… all of it! It would be great to win an Oscar or work with Meryl Streep, too.”
Yet with global ambitions, Yasmina’s heart never strays far from her roots.
Speaking of Finding Ola, she reflects that “to have my breakthrough character be from my home country is incredible. To know that your own people are happy with your work is amazing.”
We have a feeling that Yasmina is going to make her country proud for a long time to come.
Isabella Silvers is a multi-award-winning Integrated Associate Editor in Hearst STUDIO, working across titles including Cosmopolitan, ELLE and Harper's Bazaar. She was named one of PPA’s 30 Under 30 in 2018 and as a Rising Star in the creative industries by We Are The City.
Follow her on Twitter: @izzymks