Khalid Abdalla: the movie star revolutionary
The British-born actor found success in United 93 and The Kite Runner, but has spent much of the last three years camped out in Tahrir Square
When actor and political activist Khalid Abdalla was a young schoolboy, a teacher set his class the task of writing their own obituaries. It has become part of family lore that Abdalla wrote in his that he had been assassinated because he was doing important political work. If there are, as his wife jokes, delusions of grandeur in that anecdote, there is also an early sign of the onerous sense of responsibility that has since driven Abdalla in both his work and his life.
At 33, he doesn’t have a filmography so much as a geographical guide to the 21st century’s flashpoints. It goes like this: 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt. Or to put it in cinematic terms, United 93, The Kite Runner, Green Zone and In the Last Days of the City and The Square.
The first three films were major productions that seemed to place Abdalla on a Hollywood trajectory towards if not exactly stardom, then a certain kind of respected international status. But an actor only interprets the world. For Abdalla the point was to change it. In 2008 he went to Cairo to make In the Last Days of the City, a low-budget independent film, and ended up becoming a dedicated activist in the revolution that, three years on, finds Egypt under military control.
Abdalla is an unlikely revolutionary. A privately educated Cambridge graduate, he is faultlessly polite and deeply thoughtful, given to long and textured analyses of everything from dramaturgy to nation-building. With a high hairline and a square jaw, his looks are finely balanced between cinematic character actor and theatrical leading man. From either perspective, his near-black eyes provide a penetrating directness to an otherwise self-contained manner. As befits someone who feels equally at home in London and Cairo, his English accent is that of the educated middle class but he also speaks Arabic like a native Egyptian.
Last month I met him outside a small cafe in a beautifully dilapidated cul-de-sac a few minutes’ walk from Tahrir Square. Cairo was in a subdued but tense state, with the army maintaining a conspicuous presence on the streets. I walked out of my hotel one morning to be met by three tanks and about 50 armed soldiers. There was a curfew still in operation and Tahrir Square was blocked off with barbed wire and protected by soldiers at sentry points. Within its vast space several tanks sat as further discouragement to assembly. They were also reminders of the square’s symbolic importance. Whoever controls it is seen as having the upper hand in the struggle for power.
All revolutions require their focal point, for psychological as well as strategic reasons. The Bastille and the Winter Palace were never quite as significant as they have become in the mythologies of the French and Russian revolutions, but they possess an instrumental aura because in the chaos of social upheaval, a shared sense of a time and space is vital. Dates and places become emotionally charged and therefore politically useful.
The various revolts and rebellions that can be filed under the heading Arab Spring have produced only one location that has entered the global lexicon of popular resistance. Egypt may have come slightly late to the party, beaten to the streets by Tunisia, Algeria and Yemen, but it made up for lost time with a genuine revolutionary space. Although it’s traditionally been the scene of protests, Tahrir (which means “Liberation”) Square was largely unheard of outside the Arab world until 2011. Since then it’s become one of those names, like Tiananmen Square, that form part of history’s shorthand.
Abdalla estimates that altogether he’s spent about six months of the last three years living in Tahrir Square. His experience and that of several other protesters is recorded in The Square, an extraordinary documentary that won the Audience Award for best world cinema documentary at the Sundance film festival and has been tipped for an Oscar. Directed by Jehane Noujaim, it offers a visceral sense of what a revolution looks like on the inside – all chaos, fear, adrenaline and urgency – while tracing the events that have convulsed Egyptian society since 2011.
Time called it “a remarkable portrait of Egypt’s false dawns”. Not only is Abdalla one of the main protagonists, he also helped with the film-making, and his wife was one of the camerawomen. Yet when the protests in Tahrir Square first hit the international news on 25 January 2011, Abdalla had finished his work in Cairo and was living back in London, writing a script. “The following day on the front cover of the Guardian,” he recalls, “was the actress who played my ex-girlfriend in the film I’d just finished shooting. She was on the ground with her hand in the air facing a line of police.”
Suddenly he felt a need to show solidarity with his friends in Egypt. He sat up all night talking to his girlfriend (now wife) Cressida Trew about what to do. By morning he had decided he had to go.
Trew remembers the drama of that period: “Khalid was going as an Egyptian, but what I felt really profoundly was that he was going as his father’s son and as his grandfather’s grandson.” Both his father and grandfather were outspoken critics of Egyptian state tyranny. “I know it sounds melodramatic but I wasn’t sure if I’d ever see him again.”