Loubna Abidar, Moroccan Actress, Finds Fame Tinged With Fury

4:36 PM Aida Alami 0 Comments

PARIS — The first indication the actress Loubna Abidar had that her life was about to change was on the flight home to Morocco after the premiere of the movie “Much Loved,” in which she plays a prostitute. She was shocked when a flight attendant told her she was “a disgrace for Morocco and Moroccan women.”

Ten months later, Ms. Abidar, 30, is still a celebrity in her homeland, albeit an infamous one who is now in exile. She has received hundreds of hate messages and threats on social media. She is also poised to earn France’s top honor in film — a César — this month.

“People are scared of the truth,” she said, referring to the angry reactions in Morocco to “Much Loved,” which depicts the crude realities of prostitution there. “We shouldn’t be a country that is scared of art. I want the Moroccan woman to wake up.”

Ms. Abidar’s troubles began in May when “Much Loved,” directed by Nabil Ayouch, had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Until then, Ms. Abidar had appeared only in small theater roles, television programs and a couple of unremarkable feature films. By the time she boarded that flight home to Morocco, a trailer had gained traction on the Internet.
The trailer and other video excerpts, which generated hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, showed Ms. Abidar and three other actors portraying prostitutes partying, cursing and behaving lewdly with clients in Marrakesh. Many accused the movie of perpetuating a cliche that hurts the image of Moroccan women in general.

But those clips gave viewers entirely the wrong message, Ms. Abidar said. “This film isn’t just about prostitution,” she said. “It’s a portrait of four women, and it talks about many of the ills of our country, like corruption and the fact that tourists sexually exploit our women and children.”

The Communication Ministry of Morocco was swift to react after the movie’s premiere. It banned the film, saying that it undermined “the moral values and dignity of Moroccan women as well as the image of Morocco.”

Ms. Abidar said she thought the anger would pass. She stayed in Morocco despite the threats, wearing a niqab — a head scarf that covers the face and leaves an opening for the eyes — in an effort to avoid being recognized. In November, though, she let her guard down. Thinking she would be safe after winning prizes for best actress at film festivals in Namur, Belgium, and in Angoulême, France, she ventured out uncovered. Three drunk men brutally attacked her, she said, and she backed up the claim by posting a video showing heavy bruising on her face.

“All I did wrong was star in a movie you haven’t even seen,” she says in the video.
Ms. Abidar is trying to leave the bad memories behind. She has moved to France, where she says she feels safe, and she will be joined by her 6-year-old daughter after the school year ends in Marrakesh.

When a friend called with the news that she had been nominated for a César — along with Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert and other French celebrities — she thought it was a prank. No Moroccan woman had ever received even a nomination for the prize.

“This nomination gave me energy and made me self-confident,” Ms. Abidar said during a recent interview at the Pavillon de la Reine bar in the Marais neighborhood of Paris.
Born into a modest family in the Kasbah, a working-class neighborhood in the old city of Marrakesh, Ms. Abidar moved to Paris at the age of 17 after marrying an older French man. She divorced a few years later, then married a Brazilian and moved near the coastal city of Recife, Brazil. She had a daughter, Luna Estrella, before splitting with her second husband and moving back to Morocco, where she began classes in acting.

Ms. Abidar describes herself as a feminist. Being a star in a controversial sex-themed film is not easy in a conservative Muslim society like Morocco’s. She says she has always been engaged in defending women’s rights, and traces some of that to her early experiences with the prostitutes she so expertly portrays in the movie.

Ms. Abidar said that the women were a part of the society she grew up in, and that she mixed with them at the hammams, or bathhouses, where Moroccan women relax, or at hair salons.

“I grew up in a poor neighborhood, and these women were always so nice and generous,” she said.

When she heard that Mr. Ayouch was working on “Much Loved,” she wanted to be a part of it. Knowing that the director always cast nonprofessional actors in the leading roles, she tried to pass herself off as a prostitute but eventually came clean and admitted she had some experience as an actress. Mr. Ayouch first refused to let her be in the film, so he hired her as a consultant, using her knowledge of the streets to coach the women he chose and to help with the dialogue to make it sound authentic.

“Nabil doesn’t know the street talk, the crude language,” she says. “So he consulted me a lot. I had like five or six jobs at the same time on the set.”

For eight months, she helped out. But as filming was about to get started, the director still had not found someone to play Noha, the main character. Eventually, he gave in and assigned her the part.

“Loubna has an exceptional strength of character,” Mr. Ayouch said in an interview. “She’s a fighter, a combatant. With her, I felt that I could lead the character of Noha where I wanted to. In areas of truth and crude naturalism, without any concession.”

As Noha, Ms. Abidar, who is quite small and slender, plays a strong, confident woman who looks after her friends. In reality, she looks a lot younger and appears almost fragile.
She has received a lot of support in France from journalists and those in the film industry. But some worry that with the rise of Islamophobia in the country, some might try to capitalize on her plight to further stigmatize Muslims.

“Right now, it is the perfect time for her to be in France,” said Zakia Salime, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University and the author of “Between Feminism and Islam: Human Rights and Sharia Law in Morocco.”

“She will speak on behalf of all Muslim women, and she’s going to become the symbol of women who have been saved by the West from patriarchy,” she added, with some sarcasm.

For a while, Ms. Abidar and Mr. Ayouch were facing criminal charges in Morocco for “inciting to debauchery,” but a judge recently dismissed the case. As strong-minded as ever, Ms. Abidar remains determined to continue living freely and not to make concessions to please other Moroccans. She is releasing a book about her experience in France in May that she hopes will inspire women to take on similar fights against attempts to suppress art and speech.

“They wanted to shut me up,” she said. “They wanted to scare me. But I will never keep quiet.”

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