North Africa, West Asia

“Sometimes it’s worth the fight”

Actress and photographer Raneem Al Daoud on unpicking prejudice and chasing her ambition from Amman to Los Angeles and London.

Olivia Cuthbert
17 April 2019

This article is published in partnership with My Kali Magazine

Photographed by A.S.

Art Direction by Khalid Abdel-Hadi

Make-up by Bill Hazem

She should have been frightened but instead photographer Raneem Al Daoud felt defiant when groups of men started hurling insults. Crouching down to line up her next shot, she ignored their stares and jeers. “It was liberating, I felt like I was actually changing something,” Al Daoud recalls.

The shoot, for My Kali magazine, was being held in Irbid, a city in north Jordan where mindsets are more conservative than the capital. “They were saying really harassing phrases like esh ya gita – calling the model a cat – and other insults,” Al Daoud says.

As a photographer and actress growing up in Amman, she’s used to coming up against social and cultural barriers. “Being a female in Jordan is a struggle full stop,” she says.

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First, Al Daoud had to convince her family. In her father’s eyes, acting was a tainted profession and he worried she might be exposed to harassment at work. “The theatre scene in Jordan can be ugly,” she admits, sipping coffee in a quiet café opposite Victoria station in central London.

With her heavy dark curls, big brown eyes and smooth olive skin, the 27-year old beauty gets approached a lot in London, typically to play characters from southern Europe or the Middle East, she says.

She’s traveled from Wembley – 40 minutes away in north London - where she shares a flat with her Italian fiancé Pasquale surrounded by what she describes as a very diverse group of friends from Pakistan, Morocco, England, Italy and elsewhere. “It’s a huge mix which is what makes it so special. Back in Jordan my friends are all Jordanian.”

The couple are in the midst of planning their Italian wedding next year and in the meantime she’s trying to teach Pasquale Arabic. So far he’s picked up a few endearments, “habibi” (my darling), “hayati” (my life) and “albi” (my heart).

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Al Daoud may have decided that, for now at least, London is the best place to pursue film and photography but her Jordanian-Palestinian roots remain forefront in the roles she chooses. “It’s important to give the right messages to people who don’t understand what’s going on in the Arab world,” she says. “Art is the best way to do it.”

Before leaving Amman, she accepted a role in a 10-minute film for the campaign against Article 308. The production helped to overturn the notorious rape-marriage law, which was finally abolished in the summer of 2017, alongside similar loopholes in the penal codes of Lebanon and Morocco.

Raneem plays schoolgirl Marah, whose beauty draws the eye of a lascivious neighbour. After he follows her home and tries to assault her, Marah’s family invokes Article 308, which allowed rapists to escape a prison sentence if they agreed to marry their victims.

For Raneem, acting out the victim’s plight was the best way to elicit sympathy with the long-running campaign, which highlighted the damage done when women were forced to marry their rapists to ‘cleanse’ family honour. “To actually visualise it and see it on screen, that hurts more.”

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The film closes on Marah, pregnant and alone in a bare room while the man she was forced to marry pursues other women. It’s a story that resonates in countries across the region, where the female body is often viewed as a vessel for family honour. “It was very courageous of them to produce a film like this in an Arab country, the subject matter is very controversial,” says Al Daoud.

After finishing her studies at Cardiff University in Wales in 2012, she returned to Jordan and appeared in several plays, including The Bald Soprano, an adaptation of Eugène Ionesco’s classic re-imagined as a piece of silent theatre. She also won a role in a popular television comedy series called My American Neighbour, and established a name for herself playing Shaima, the daughter of the lead character.

Her defining role was in Degrade, a Palestinian-French production screened at the Cannes Film Festival in France. The feature film, which follows the experiences of 12 women trapped in a beauty salon while fighting rages outside in war-torn Gaza, was “a big hit” for Al Daoud, both personally and professionally.

She plays Mariam, a girl from a wealthy family who is accompanying her brother’s bride-to-be as she prepares for the wedding ceremony. The bride comes from a low-income background, which Maria’s parents disapprove of, and the plot plays on these class conflicts within Palestinian society.

“I’m half Palestinian so it meant a lot to me. I felt like I wasn’t even acting,” she says. This was Al Daoud’s first film and she was pleased that her entrée into cinema was a Palestinian production that made it to Cannes. “It was a huge thing. Arab cinema is still not that defined so this was a big push. It gave me hope that we can go somewhere.”

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But developing her acting career at home in Jordan proved difficult. “There was a barrier all the time,” she says, recalling one occasion when she felt forced to quit a production because of the way a male director was treating her. “I wanted to build and create myself in my homeland but I came to the realization that no matter how hard you try, you can’t change a place,” she says.

There have been positive developments in Jordan, where according to the Amman-based Royal Film Commission, 110 feature films have now been made, including The Martian, shot in Wadi Rum’s spectacular desert landscape, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, Prometheus and award-winning Bedouin drama Theeb.

Al Daoud got down to the last six candidates for a part in the upcoming production of Disney’s Aladdin, which was filmed in Jordan and hits cinemas this May. Just auditioning gave her confidence that “there’s hope for cinema in Jordan and for arab actors to make something out of their careers.”

But opportunities like this remain scarce in Jordan so she applied to do a masters degree in Journalism & Documentary Practice and moved to London to build her career.

It hasn’t been easy. There are a lot of opportunities but shunting from audition to audition can be “a real grind”. Some weeks she’ll go to four or five castings, racing across town to compete against hundreds of other aspiring actors for sought-after roles in everything from Malteaser adverts to films and popular TV series.

More opportunities are emerging for actors from the Arab world, but she finds herself typecast – as a refugee, victim of violence or, most often, as the rebellious Arab girl pushing back against conservative parents. When it comes to characters earmarked for Arab actors, “there is definitely a shortage of happy roles,” she says.

This is something she and co-producer Raneem Hannoush address in their MA documentary project, which chronicles the experiences of three successful Palestinian women who left during the Nakba - the day in 1948 when an estimated 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homeland.

The stories, which bring Palestine, women’s rights and refugees together in one film, “bucks the trend massively,” she says, by portraying these themes in a positive light through three women who built new lives in London.

Each of the women featured – an eminent journalist, a well-known artist and a successful chef, has influenced Raneem, who hopes the documentary will help to “Change to way the West sees Arabs” and break the stereotype surrounding refugees. The project received a distinction at Sussex University and she is now in talks with producers to turn it into a full-length series. “There are always complaints about refugees wherever they go; it’s good to see it from another perspective where they are doing something good for the country,” Al Daoud says.

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One of the women in the film, Laila Shawa, the daughter of a former mayor of Gaza, is an established artist exhibiting at some of London’s foremost galleries. She is one of several Palestinian women that have inspired Raneem and whose strength and perseverance she hopes to share with audiences as her documentary does the rounds at festivals across Europe.

“It’s a human story,” she says. “I wanted to re-explain the history of what happened in Palestine, viewing it more personally and less politically.”

Her photography also unpicks preconceptions about the Arab world, challenging reductive ideas about what it means to be Muslim in the Middle East. In one shoot she did for My Kali, a sheikh poses alongside a woman wearing a hijab, the sleeves of his dishdash rolled up to reveal tattooed forearms. The woman looks glamorous and there’s the hint of a love story between the two.

The subtext is that Islam does not conform to a single interpretation but comes in all forms, including young and fashionable. “You can’t put a border on Islam,” Al Daoud says.

The way she sees it there are two channels to get her message across; creating a platform for positive stories to showcase success – as she does in her documentary - and confronting challenging situations by fighting her way through, whether it’s shooting controversial subject matter in an unlikely location or calling out harassment on set. “If we stay silent and hide, nothing is going to change. You have to get out there and take action,” she says.

“It’s always going to be a fight but sometimes it’s worth it.”

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