Meet documentary filmmaker Jihan El-Tahri

Joseph Fahim
11 Min Read

Emmy award nominee, documentary filmmaker and secretary general of the Guild of African Filmmakers in the Diaspora, Jihan El-Tahri is best known for “The House of Saud, the bold probe into the turbulent history of the Saudi royal family and its relationship with the US, which took the world by storm when it was broadcasted in 2004.

El-Tahri flew in from France, where she currently resides, and sat down with The Daily Star Egypt for a long chat about her beginnings, her passion for politics, the dangers she faced in her career and how Egyptians still don’t who she is.

The Daily Star Egypt: You studied political science at the American University in Cairo (AUC) in the 80s, what was behind your interest in politics?

Jihan El-Tahri: I had to fight to get into AUC. My father rejected the idea because he felt that a university that sells certificates doesn’t give real education. But I was determined. I told him that it s either AUC or no university at all for me and stayed at home for a semester until my panicked father realized I was serious. I didn t want to end up at an Egyptian university and memorizing without understanding anything. I wanted to learn how to find answers for myself.

It s funny now how people accuse me of being anti-American when I was taught in their system, using their tools to ask the important questions that need to be asked.

As for my fascination with political sciences; well I ve always been fascinated by decision making and how the world is run. Early on, I realized that even a herd of sheep has a leader Politics is probably the only thing that makes me tick.

DSE: Your first job was as a reporter in Reuters.JT: Yes, and it was the best training anyone could ever get because they teach you to break down the information into the basic minimum and move on. My big break though came when I started working for the Sunday Times. I was based in Egypt and things were going well between me and the Times except that they wouldn t let me cover any of the big events which were reserved for the star reporter of the paper Marie Colvin. It was the mid-80s and the Intifada was in full swing, but they refused to allow me to cover the Algerian conference. So, I just went. Surprisingly, Colvin didn t show up. Yasser Arafat, who I had met several times before gave me an exclusive. I was very lucky.

But when they published my story with Colvin s byline, I resigned on the spot. It was a blessing in disguise because Patrick Tyler from the Washington Post offered me a job.

DSE: Why did Sunday Times do that?JT: At the end of the day, I m a female Arab Muslim working on their turf. I mean, I ve been asked many times to change my name.

DSE: So you left Cairo when the Post hired you?JT: The sent me to Tunisia when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had moved their headquarters there. During that period, I also covered the Lebanon War, the Iraq/Iran war and other events. I eventually got into trouble though.

Tunisia wasn t a pleasant experience. It was hard, and kept getting harder until I was arrested.

DSE: Why?JT: I never actually found out. They didn t let me sign my name in the register and that freaked me out. They didn t even interrogate me which was even worse. After three days, they opened the door and told me to forget I was ever in there. They wanted to intimidate me and they succeeded. Later, Abu Ayad, the head of Palestinian security, sent me a message that I had to get out of Tunisia within six hours, and that s when I went to France.

DSE: Have you considered coming back to Egypt?JT: Not really. I know that I m never going to find a place in Egypt because the context in which I developed is not typical.

When the first gulf war broke out I was in Paris and the US News and World Report asked me to cover it for them. By the end of the year, I received an international prize for diplomatic correspondents and then a major French TV company called Capa offered me a job as a producer.

The Gulf War in general was major turning point in my life. I went through identity crises because here I was, an Arab, reporting for the American press, covering all these briefings where everyone was accepting at face-value what the American troops were saying.

Every story I wrote was censored in a very indirect and insidious way. That s when I decided to quit journalism.

DSE: Was the transition between journalism to broadcasting difficult for you?JT: It wasn t initially because I started it off as TV reporter. The difficult transition was between reporting and making documentaries. They re two completely different frameworks. The research isn t the same, the perspective isn t the same and the investment isn t the same.

DSE: So you left the Middle East after the Gulf war?JT: The Gulf war was traumatizing for me and I decided that I m not going to cover anything about the Middle East and more. In the years that followed, I did a documentary about abortion in Ireland, another about human organ theft in Columbia and another about traveling music in the UK. It was a challenge for me because I knew nothing about these topics.

DSE: You co-wrote Israel and the Arabs: The Fifty Years War with Israeli writer Arhon Bregman based on the BBC documentary by the same name. Were you concerned about what Egyptians might think of you for working with an Israeli?JT: Not really. Working with Bregman wasn t easy because he s an academic. We got into lots of fights but it was a great learning experience. When you re growing up, you re fed with some “truths that you never question. During the course of the two years that took us to finish the book, we clashed about facts and events that we wouldn t put in the book unless we got the documentation to prove them. But we always had respect for each other’s intellectual integrity.

DSE: How did the idea for The House of Saud come about?JT: Immediately after 9/11, I was interviewed by many stations and publications to talk about terrorism and eventually, these stations kept on asking me to make a documentary about the subject.

I kept asking myself how did these people reach the point of becoming terrorists? Most of the 9/11 attackers were Saudis and I realized that I know nothing about the country or its history.

One of the biggest discoveries I made was that the Saudi family haven t been rich for that long. The oil boycott of 1973 was what skyrocketed oil prices and what triggered real boom in the Saudi economy. They simply didn t know how to channel the sudden wealth and that s why most of the money was sucked away in luxuries.

I was very surprised by the reaction I got. The BBC loved the three-hour version of the film but due to financial constraints on the production company s side, I had to cut it down and that s why I recently set up my own production company.

DSE: Did you expect the success the film garnered?JT: I didn t, actually. When the film was released on DVD, it gave ARTE (the famous Franco-German TV network) its third biggest sales ever.

DSE: What are your next projects?JT: I just finished a film called Requiem for Revolution about the Cuban revolution, Cuba’s support for the African revolution and the Cold war examined from a Cuban point of view.

DSE: Does it disappoint you that you remain unknown in Egypt?JT: Of course I am. But I guess part of the reason why I m still unknown is because I don t do films about Egypt and I don’t intent to at the moment. I have family who live here and I can t risk endangering their lives.

DSE: So you don t buy into the new democratic reforms?JT: No, I don t buy that. If they [the government] want to sell us American democracy, then I don t want it and if they re trying to implement Plato s democracy, then it has to be redefined.

The only encouragement I feel is because there s a civil society that s starting to grow and I thank God for the blogs; they re absolutely magnificent.

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