In a closely packed hall at the Goethe Institute in Downtown Cairo, the second screening of Nadia Kamel’s highly controversial directorial debut “Salata Baladi (Oriental Salad) was held last Wednesday.
In fact, this was the biggest turn-out for a documentary feature this reviewer has witnessed since the last screening of Tahani Rached hugely popular “El Banat Dool (Those Girls) at the Contemporary Image Collective earlier this year.
“Salad was first screened at the Middle-East Film Festival last month to a generally positive reaction despite the significant controversy circulating around its subject matter and several accusations of advocating normalization with Israel.
The hype surrounding the film was justified, not because of the thorny issues Kamel valiantly brings to the table, but due to the humanism, originality and quality of her filmmaking. Judging by the film s mass appeal, it’s safe now to call “Salata Baladi this year’s “El Banat Dool.
In the first scenes of the film, Kamel explains that her decision to direct a film about her family’s multi-ethnic/multi-religious background came after she accidentally heard a sermon that encouraged Muslims to fight against the enemies of Islam around the world.
“I couldn’t accept how this Imam reduced the world to Muslims on one hand and everyone else on another, she stressed via a voice-over.
Kamel is the product of a politically progressive household. Her father, Saad Kamel, is a prominent journalist who used to be affiliated with the communist party and remains a devotee of Karl Marx’s principles. Her mother, Mary, also a journalist, wrote extensively throughout her career about the Palestinian plight and Israel’s coercive, atrocious policies.
Mary is the daughter of an Italian Christian mother and a Turkish Jewish father. The family converted to Christianity after her parents were married. Mary would eventually convert to Islam after marrying her husband.
Mary’s 10-year-old grandson Nabil is a mix of Egyptian, Italian, Palestinian, and Lebanese with some Russian, Caucasian, Turkish and Spanish all from his Muslim, Christian and Jewish ancestors.
The picture Mary paints to her son is of a drastically different Egypt from the current one; a cosmopolitan country that embraced all ethnicities and all religions with arms wide open. The pre-1952 revolution Egypt was a melting pot of different cultures that reflected the heterogeneity of the Egyptian race and society.
“We’re all descendants of different races, one friend of Mary points out. “Copts of Upper-Egypt are conceivably the only pure Egyptians. That’s why they look like the pharoas, she jokes.
Nabil accompanies his grandma on a trip to visit a group of her relatives in Italy. Mary’s cousins explain how former president Gamal Abdel Nasser was the primary reason minorities and foreign groups were deported from Egypt. “He regarded us as the litter of the war, one of Mary’s relatives confesses. “We were happy in Egypt. We didn’t want to leave. We were forced to.
Memories of her past life and departed friends made Mary wonder about her Jewish family members whom she boycotted after the 1948 war when they immigrated to the newly-formed state of Israel.
With the support of her daughter, Mary decides to travel to Israel to visit her cousins. She hadn’t met them in over 55 years.
Amid extensive deliberations with friends, her husband, and her daughters, Mary s Palestinian friend encourages her to take that bold step.
The Palestinian friend reveals that her mother also has not seen her sisters who live in Israel for more than half a century. She says that the Egyptian and Arab campaign to boycott Israel contributed further to Palestine’s isolation, that turning their back against Israel wasn’t necessarily the best strategy adopted to support the Palestinian case.
Accompanied by her husband, daughter and a friend, Mary finally travels to Israel to meet her cousin Serena in one the most moving scenes of the film.
Serena fondly recalls her memories of Egypt. A friend of hers states that Jews from every corner of the earth didn’t find a more hospitable country than Egypt and that his love for Um Kulthoum, his favorite singer, hasn’t diminished a bit since the day he left Cairo.
“Salata Baladi is a film about a unique family that reflects a time and a place much more compassionate than the present. In one scene Mary admits that Egyptians have increasingly grown to be less tolerant and more discriminative; an extremely homogenous nation that doesn’t accept – or understand – any deviation from its rigid traditions and dogmas.
As serious as Kamel’s themes are, the colorful characters that populate her film add a strong entertaining value that drew big laughs and applause from the audiences. Saad emerges like the Egyptian incarnation of the grumpy, yet lovable Frank from the American sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond. Nabil, in his confusion about his complex family history, is cute and amusing.
“Salad is not a message-laden film and it’s difficult to regard it as pro-normalization picture. But it does stir a debate about the nature of the average citizen’s stance towards Israelis and Jews.
The Israelis shown in this film are ordinary human beings, not green men with horns like the media has constantly portrayed them. Their political position is irrelevant to the story and that is perhaps what Kamel attempt to demonstrate.
Behind daunting concepts like normalization, and the unbending politics Egyptians never challenge, are lives, people, and an entire spectrum of existence that lies far beyond the realm of politics, the film argues.
In one scene, the anti-normalization Saad expresses his fear that Nabil might change his conception of Israel “when he sees normal, kind people full of humanity. The underlying idea behind Kamel’s film is that people are people no matter who, or where, they are, that the only thing that defines the goodness inside us is through our capability to reach out to one another. And that’s possibly the main principle that made Egypt the great nation it once was.
“Salata Baladi is an emotionally charged, thought-provoking political picture. The first meeting between Mary and Serena would turn out be the last. Serena died shortly after the film’s release.
One question lingers long after the film’s end: Was it worth it for Mary to be separated from her friends and family for all those years? Did her position towards the Palestinian cause change anything?