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DUBAI: You learn a lot about yourself when you leave everything behind. Amr Waked — Egypt’s most famous living actor and biggest crossover star — left his country four years ago and is now unable to return, having been sentenced to eight years in military prison for “publishing fake news and insulting state institutions.”

Away from his home, in a place where no one knows his face, Waked has embraced a simpler life and, in the process, is becoming the man and the actor that he always hoped he could.

“The best thing that happened since I left Egypt is that I worked on myself for the first time in a long time. I tried to do this before, but this time I did it with depth and tranquility,” Waked tells Arab News. “I asked myself, ‘Who are you today? What have you done? What is shaping you? And what do you want to be tomorrow?’ It really changed me. After all that, I’m calmer, wiser, and a lot more grateful.”

One director he’s particularly grateful to is Luc Besson, the famed French director who gave him a starring role opposite Scarlett Johansson in 2014’s “Lucy,” a thrilling action feature that reframed Waked for a global audience. (Supplied)

Waked lives in Barcelona now, and it’s a life he adores. He’s made friends with the locals, he wanders the streets every night finding a new spot to eat, and he’s continued a mission he’s had for the last 20 years; to work with some of the most talented people across the world of film and television.

While his personal life may have gotten much humbler, you’d never know it from the caliber of work he’s been turning out. On screen, he’s starred in blockbusters such as DC’s “Wonder Woman 1984,” worked with legendary Oscar-nominated director Terrence Malick on an upcoming film, and starred in the Golden Globe-winning hit series “Ramy” as the titular character’s father, a role for which he is as indispensable as he is unrecognizable, shaving his head and growing a mustache for each season, the third of which he begins filming at the end of the year.

“I met Ramy Youssef at the El Gouna Film Festival, the first and last El Gouna I could attend, and we talked briefly about it. A few months later he sent me some good scripts, and I was in. I’m very grateful to be part of this Arab-American original show. It’s so original. It’s so truthful. I think it’s the kind of truth that just spills out of the second-generation Arabs in the West in general,” says Waked.

Waked lives in Barcelona now. (Supplied)

It’s a subject Waked has considered a lot—after all, he’s raising one. His son, now 14, lives with his mother just over the French border, and his son matters more to him than anything else in his life.

“The first and foremost reason why I left Egypt is because I want to be able to see my son any time I want. And I’m very grateful that fate has put me here, so close to him,” says Waked.

Waked is finding that 14 is an age at which he can bond with his son in a new way as he approaches maturity, his son coming to him for constant advice on all his different classes, giving Waked — an autodidact — the opportunity to share the diverse array of knowledge that he’s picked up over the years.

“For Spanish, he always comes to me. And then geography and history, here and there, but mostly in mathematics. I’m a math whiz, truth be told,” says Waked.

Waked met Ramy Youssef at the El Gouna Film Festival. (Supplied)

Waked has found a professional outlet for his curiosity as well, a show called “Dahaleez,” premiering on Al Jazeera in the near future. The series follows both unsolved mysteries and curious facts, with Waked presenting. Each episode is inspired by his own interests. On the show, Waked brings both his child-like wonder and wizened knowledge base to the table, presenting a Waked on screen closest to the man you may meet in private over tapas on the streets of Barcelona.

“It was a very rewarding experience for me as a producer, and as a filmmaker in general, because it’s a concept that came out of nothing,” he says. “We want to do something truly new. It’s all about real questions I have and how I think personally about certain topics. You know, I’m very into everything. I read a lot about many, many different things. I have an extreme passion for astronomy. That’s why I called my company Great Year. Do you know what a Great Year is?”

We do not.

“It’s the time it takes the equinoxes to make a cycle around the ecliptic (the plane of earth’s orbit around the sun), about 25,800 years. I’m still waiting to meet the first person that gets that reference.”

Waked is a firm believer that if you can dream it, you can do it. (Supplied)

Waked has proven himself to be one of the most versatile actors working today, able to handle basically any material, proving himself every time that a new filmmaker sees something new in him.

One director he’s particularly grateful to is Luc Besson, the famed French director who gave him a starring role opposite Scarlett Johansson in 2014’s “Lucy,” a thrilling action feature that reframed Waked for a global audience.

“It gave me credit in the world of action. I may not be an action hero, but I can do action now in a way that I couldn’t before,” says Waked, promising that it’s going to lead to some big things he can’t yet reveal.

Waked is a firm believer that if you can dream it, you can do it. He always has been. The only thing that’s changed now is the dreams themselves. He may not be able to make films in Egypt anymore, but he can still bring Egyptian culture, and Arab culture at large, to the world, showing them the best of what the region has to offer and potentially opening up new audiences to the world of Arab cinema.

“I’m something of a dreamy person—though I don’t know if that’s the right way to say it. I live for my dreams. I don’t even consider my dreams to be dreams. I consider them part of my life. I go after them. And somewhere in my dream, I felt that I needed to expand. I need to be the bridge now. The bridge between the West and the East. I was born and raised in the heart of the Middle East — in Cairo, Egypt. That is my heart too, and it’s a heart I can share all over,” says Waked.

“It was painful to leave Egpyt. But I didn’t have to leave behind the most important thing in my life, my son, so I didn’t really lose much at all. I love Egypt, but this love is inside me; I don’t have to live in Egypt to love Egypt. I can love it the way I love it, and give it much more my way,” says Waked.

Of all the lessons that Waked has learned recently though, the most important is that giving is more satisfying than receiving. What he cares most about now, he says, is what he can pay forward.

“I am about others; I’m not about me. If I’m making people happy, I’m very happy,” he says. “That is what I want to do with my life, with my work, with my voice, and that is what I will continue to do, across the world, any way I can.”

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