Actors often dream of fully inhabiting a role. For Mari Malek, starring in the gripping political thriller The Nile Hilton Incident is about as close to the bone as it gets. She plays an undocumented South Sudanese refugee in a Cairo neighbourhood filled with displaced persons, which is pretty much an exact mirror of her own tumultuous life.
“I became Salwa, and Salwa became me,” she says. Set in Egypt in 2011, during the days leading up to the protests in Tahrir Square, which helped oust the president, the movie was helmed by Swedish-Egyptian director Tarik Saleh, and won the grand jury prize for dramatic film at this year’s Sundance Festival. Mari plays the only witness to a political murder that takes place in the hotel where she cleans. Realising she is in danger, she tries to hide, while a police officer (played by Fares Fares) traverses the chaotic city to try and find her. Her performance conveys the kind of fortitude only required in the direst of situations; knowing her real-life background, it’s hard to know where Mari’s quiet resilience ends and Salwa’s begins.
It is, quite simply, a miracle that Mari is sitting in front of me in an airy Brooklyn coffee shop on a quiet summer’s day. Like many refugees of the modern era, of which there are tens of millions (the number of displaced people globally is higher even than post-World War II), her life, heard straight, is a complicated, precarious history. Now a model, DJ and actress, she was born in what has become South Sudan, a region of Africa that has been plagued by civil war, famine and disease. The story of her escape from the country – which she made at eight years old, after a bout of malaria almost killed her – is a harrowing one, involving stays in a refugee settlement in Cairo, before asylum allowed her family to move to a housing project in Newark, New Jersey, which wasn’t much better.
Mari, wearing a white lace two-piece outfit that shows off her midriff, long braids hitting the seat of her chair, is quiet and seems almost shy when we first meet, but energises the moment she begins to discuss the rights of refugees. She is resolute when talking about what can be done to overcome the struggles of her country, and her determinedness in conversation suggests how she has been able to forge a strong enough career to help lift her and her family out of hardship.
With her striking good looks, she was approached often by modelling agents as a teenager and, eventually, worked her way into the music video for Kanye West’s Power, and an advertisement for Lanvin, shot by Steven Meisel. More than fashion or celebrity, though, she is interested in talking about the nonprofit she has started, called Stand For Education, which supports schooling and arts in South Sudan. “I believe my sole mission is to give back,” she says. “The modelling and acting and DJing is all icing on the cake. I use that platform, instead of letting the platform use me.”
The film takes place, in part, in a South Sudanese refugee area of Cairo. You also lived in a refugee camp in Cairo. Was the character Salwa’s experience similar to yours?
We were living in a refugee area, Arba’a wa Nuss, that is the place highlighted in the movie. There are so many refugees there. It’s sad and dark. You just feel the heavy, heavy energy. After about a year, our mum got us out, put us in school.
We were supposed to be filming in Cairo, then everything was cancelled. There are huge problems ongoing in Cairo. The Egyptian government didn’t want us to put this out. So everything changed to plan B: filming in Casablanca, Morocco.
How did you first get to Egypt after fleeing South Sudan?
I was in South Sudan on my deathbed with malaria. I was eight years old. I remember it like yesterday. My body was done: I couldn’t eat, I hadn’t eaten for weeks. Nothing could stay in my system. My mum is a nurse, and was out in the country. My brother let her know: “You need to come back home because Mari is dying.” My mum came home and force-fed me. She healed me somehow. And that’s when she told me that we were leaving to escape the country. We went on a boat and took the Nile into Egypt. It was a big ship with a bunch of refugees. It was an underground thing; we weren’t legally entering the country. We were on the ship for probably two weeks. It was horrible, we were sick the whole time in these tiny little rooms.
Your mum sounds like a force to be reckoned with.
She’s fierce. I believe she gets it from where we come from. It’s in our bloodline that we persevere and are resilient. My country has been going through war for over four decades: I was born during the war; my parents were born during the war. That’s all we’ve known, so it is instilled in us to have defence and survival tactics. In South Sudan, most of the girls get married in their teenage years. My mother was married at 15; she had to grow up very fast. And so did we. She taught us that you are not a victim, no matter what. Just watching her strength made me strong. And that’s where we get our strength from: having to constantly fight.
You’ve started your own charity in South Sudan. How does it differ from the types of charities started by outsiders who are not from Africa?
Many of the organisations and charities working there are foreigners, or people who don’t understand our needs or our culture. I understand exactly what our needs are. I’m tired of seeing people give us temporary help; it doesn’t empower us. What empowers us is education. I’m not talking about PhDs – I’m talking about the simplicity of reading. Reading your ABCs, counting your 123s. And also arts. Art is therapeutic. We’ve gone through so much, and most [of us] haven’t had a childhood, so bringing education and arts is really needed.
Fifty per cent of [people in] my country are under the age of 18, and apparently 64 per cent are women. I don’t want anyone doing charity work for South Sudan to feel sorry for us: we just need resources and investment.
”I think I’m a universal child. Everywhere is my home. But I want to have my own land in South Sudan, and build my home from scratch.”
I hear from a lot of people that it’s frustrating how the media only focuses on negative images and portrayals of Africa. What do you remember that was great about your childhood in South Sudan, before things became unlivable?
I remember a lot of positive things. I had a huge family, almost 20 sisters and brothers. We had a good life. We had mango trees. We had a beautiful life. We had farms. We grew our food. We swam in the Nile. We have amazing fertile soil. There are beautiful islands. Jungles. Animals.
I want to highlight the beauty that exists in South Sudan, and throughout Africa. We are not just these poor people constantly going through war and corruption with no future. And now we are independent – the youngest country in the world. We have so much potential.
Still, it has got severely worse, and people are scattered because of bombing. Villages are being burnt, and rape is a huge tactic used in the war. There’s no place where children or women can feel safe.
It’s time for us to be empowered. To build more schools, and get rid of refugee camps. There’s no reason to have a camp piled up with people, infested with disease and hunger, when there is so much land. We should build more schools and communities, and create safer spaces.
My mum moved back after South Sudan’s independence [in 2011]. She went back to claim our land, and she started a farm. The farm is for the community, and everyone comes and eats from our home. We have a water well in the back of the home, so everybody can access it. She grows corn, avocados, tamarinds, mangoes, lemon, lettuce, okra, tomatoes. She loves being there, but it is tough because of the war. We’re facing famine. South Sudan and Somalia alone, two countries that are facing famine, could feed the whole of Africa. The famine is caused by war and drought – it’s manmade. It’s because men are being greedy. It’s overwhelming for me to see babies, young children, starving, hungry, working like they’re adults, just to get a small sip of water or piece of bread.
Once you left Egypt and were granted asylum in America, how did you become a model?
When we got to America, every day, I heard, “Are you a model?” So I was like, what is this model stuff? [Laughs] A woman scouted me and said, “Do you know [South Sudanese supermodel] Alek Wek? You can be like her!” We didn’t have TV or magazines in South Sudan, so I didn’t know of her until I came to America. When I saw her, I was so inspired. I’m following in her footsteps. Just seeing her being seen as beautiful – that was a huge message, especially to a black, dark-skinned girl like me. We’ve been made to feel horrible about our colour. I saw her once on the street and went up to her, and said, “Alek! I’m from South Sudan, too!” She was very nice.
”I read the script and I felt goose-bumps. I cried. I saw myself in it. It was like my story.”
The Nile Hilton Incident is your first film. How did you find your way into acting?
The casting director found me on Facebook. I had avoided acting, because I’m a quiet and shy person. I was raised in a community of chaos, so I learned to always be scared. I didn’t think I could do this. Acting? No way. Little by little, the modelling helped me get out of my stage fright, though it’s still there today.
I read the script and I felt goosebumps. I cried. I saw myself in it. It was like my story. The director, Tarik, is half Egyptian, and he said he saw the condition of how the South Sudanese are being treated, and was appalled. He was moved by the youth taking down the dictatorship in Tahrir Square. He wanted to tell that story.
What was it like living in America during last year’s election, when the subject of refugees became such a hot button issue?
I believe what’s happening right now is insane, but it’s necessary, because it brought an awareness of refugees and immigrants, brought people together, to stand in solidarity, to say, enough is enough. That is my positive outlook on that election – it made people become activists. It made people dig deeper, to become advocates of change. And I think we should focus on that, on our awareness together, our strength, and educating ourselves more.
You’ve got into DJing, too. Do you play African music?
I love to play deep house and Afrobeat. I love Wizkid, but I also love the old-school people. I love all types of African music, really, as long as I can dance.
As someone who has moved and been moved all over the world, where do you consider home?
I think I’m a universal child. Everywhere is my home. But I definitely want to have my own land in South Sudan, and build my home from scratch – maybe when I get a little bit older.
You’ve gone through so much, yet you are relentlessly positive. How do you maintain optimism?
I don’t feel sorry for myself. I decided to take all the things that I went through to empower myself. To take all those difficulties and transform them into something positive. What else can we do?