By Myriam Ghattas
The Fourth Panorama of the European Film concluded recently. Taking place in Cairo it featured a number of documentaries that explored certain facets of Egypt which may have been little known to local audiences though they are highly fascinating and instructive.
From “The Alexandrians” to “Sira: Songs of the Crescent Moon,” we travel from the North to the South of Egypt in a mind-boggling examination of two worlds so far apart that it is at times hard to believe that the stories they tell are set in the same country.
These examples and so many more like them serve as a reminder that Egypt has always been a meeting point of various historical currents and cultures and that this very diversity is at the core of the land and of the soul of its people.
“Aleksandrinke” (The Alexandrians; 2011) by Metod Pevec tells the saga of the Slovenian girls and women from the Goriška region and Vipaya Valley who, starting in the late nineteenth century, flocked to Egypt’s Alexandria looking for work to supply their families with much needed earnings, and often ended up becoming household members serving as wet nurses, nannies, maids and governesses. This mass migration phenomenon was so common that the women came to be known in their hometown as The Alexandrians.
Pevec’s documentary sheds light on a perhaps somewhat forgotten international current that affected an entire region in Slovenia as well as the inhabitants of the Egyptian northern coastal city and contributed to the upbringing and formation of numerous generations of Alexandrian children.
“The Alexandrians” paints a compelling double-sided image of the children who were raised by the Slovenian women in Alexandria in opposition to those who were in fact their real children but were left behind in Slovenia while their mothers looked after the strangers’ babies. The contrast between the elation of the first and the bitterness of the second is deeply unsettling.
The complexity of the issue goes even deeper. The children who were raised by the Alexandrians were themselves experiencing mixed emotions as they felt rather estranged from their own biological parents while their nannies almost entirely took over the role of parenting.
The last facet of the Alexandrians phenomenon is the Slovenian women themselves, who were, predictably, torn in time between the double lives they were living. While the children in Alexandria were not their own, they were the ones who were familiar to them and with whom they spent the better part of the year.
The Alexandrians’ own children and their husbands who awaited them back in Slovenia rarely, if ever, got to see their mothers and wives again. As a result, when Nasser’s nationalization efforts caused foreign presence to dwindle in Egypt and it came time for The Alexandrians to leave, they had no home to return to.
“The Alexandrians” showcases a fascinating subject in a regrettably messy fashion that makes it oftentimes hard to follow. Although the filmmaker’s coverage exhibits multiple facets of the topic in question, the pacing is uneven and the distribution in the final presentation lacks a unifying vision.
That said, the individual interviews, if considered as self-contained stories, are touching and compelling. A few of the surviving Alexandrians, hovering around their centennial years, share some of their memories from the time they worked in Egypt. The children whom they helped look after, now middle-aged or older, recall endearing memories for the most part. Some confess a deep sense of confusion and unease when attempting to sort out their feelings and memories toward their nannies in relation to those that should have naturally flowed toward their own parents. As for the Slovenian children, they display a unanimous range of sadness, resentment and frustration despite their awareness of their mothers’ sacrifice.
Pevec’s “Aleksandrinke” pays these women their dues, which real life has robbed from them. For better or worse, their story has now found its place and will be preserved in the annals of cinema.
“Sira: Wenn Der Halbmond Spricht” (“Sira: Songs of the Crescent Moon”; 2011) is a Swiss production, the result of a collaboration between Aswan native Ahmed Abdel Mohsen and Swiss-born Sandra Gysi who spent many years in Egypt studying Arabic.
The documentary captures a slice of time in the life of Sayyed El-Dawwy, the aging interpreter in a long-standing line of the tradition of Sira storytelling and possibly its very last one.
The documentary modestly opens and closes in a neighboring village of Qus, a rural town of southern Egypt, where 80-year-old El-Dawwy lives and exercises his craft of Sira storytelling accompanied by his troupe of back up singers and musicians. We sense the excitement mounting as the locals of the town gather in front of the stage at night, reclining in their chairs and sipping their teas, while listening to stories full of heroic feats, tragedies, loss and occasionally love.
They laugh, they cry, they applaud. El-Dawwy knows how to keep the flow of his recitation going and rarely misses a beat, an essential quality of the Sira interpreter.
Sira is the Arabian world’s most significant epic poem, narrating the story of the desert people of Bani Hilal and of their hero Abu Zaid. It is comprised of a staggering five million verses, the entirety of which now solely and exclusively reside in El-Dawwy’s mind. For Sira is more than just a classic tale of epic proportions. Its tradition involves its transmission by word of mouth down the family tree, from father to son. Thus El-Dawwy, who has never learned to read or write a word in his life, becomes the human vehicle that lives and breathes this poem and can improvise the stories whilst performing at a moment’s notice. The interpreter’s existence revolves around his travels between the towns of southern Egypt, night after night enthralling dedicated and appreciative audiences.
In contrast to the elder El-Dawwy, meet his 27-year-old grandson, Ramadan El-Dawwy, who feels the pressure of his heritage for having to carry on the tradition that was handed down to him from his ancestors. The film highlights the growing tension between old and new as we sense Ramadan’s desire to be involved in more modern activities or at least more contemporary singing forms like pop singer Mounir’s upbeat rendition of a modernized version of the Sira.
Upon Ramadan’s shoulders rests the future and survival of the ancient epic, a responsibility that he struggles with in the documentary. The Egyptian poet Abdel Rahman El-Abnoudy, realizing some time ago that the Sira was bordering extinction and would forever be lost with El-Dawwy’s passing, has vowed to write down the verses from the elder’s song but fears he may never be able to get them all on record in time.
“Sira” offers more than a mere documentation of a traditional phenomenon. It opens a contemporary dialogue exploring the concept of the Hero in modern days and poses the question of who the heroes are of today. In a move that raised more than a few eyebrows at the screening, former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser is pushed forward in the documentary as the hero of this age. When asked about this inclination in the film, Gysi had this to say, “It was Al-Dawwy who was pushing Nasser always. We have been very happy about putting the question of who is the hero today in a political way.”
Abdel Mohsen adds, “We finished the film in October 2010 and we did not expect Egypt to surprise us as it did, which is why we were afraid of the idea of the awaited hero.” Rather than have no heroes at all at the time of completion, the filmmakers opted to go along with Al-Dawwy’s choice. A few months later, Egypt showed to the whole world that heroes abound in its midst, unafraid as ever to die for their country and their freedom.
An interesting element sensed in the documentary, counter-intuitively in the form of a marked absence, was the explicit exclusion of women from the Sira tradition.
While some women and little girls may stand in their balconies listening to the recitation of the Sira, none mingle or sit with the men making up the audience of El-Dawwy. More importantly, it is a matter of absurd suggestion that a woman may one day recite the Sira as it must be handed down from man to man according to custom.
While the common explanation given during the Q&A was that Al-Dawwy focuses a lot on war stories rather than on romantic ones, holding hence little interest to the ladies, Abdel Mohsen expressed his wish to see this aspect of the tradition evolve and shared his excitement about two female actresses who are now in the process of learning the Sira.
Ramon Orza, a composer, was given the tricky task of scoring this film. When asked about the reason behind the choice of an electro-pop acoustic soundtrack, Abdel Mohsen elaborated on the process, “The most difficult thing about a film that contains music is to add a soundtrack to it. Our solution was that we hired a composer from the very beginning, from the start of research. The composer was Swiss-Spanish and lived with Al-Dawwy and his troupe for three years listening to them and doing research to try and maintain an oriental theme. But to make an oriental soundtrack to accompany the music of the Sira would have caused them to compete and (the two musical trends) were not going together. It was necessary for the soundtrack to be different from the traditional music.”
According to the film’s official website, the UNESCO, which declared the Sira as an Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), explained its patronage of the project thus: “Finally, the Hilali epic is still considered to be the most important epic in the Arabian world – the only epic still performed in its integral musical form – even though it has disappeared from everywhere except Egypt. By presenting an important tradition of the Arabian cultural history, this documentary contributes to promoting intercultural understanding and international cultural cooperation.”
“Sira: Songs of the Crescent Moon” is a beautifully shot documentary that allows El-Dawwy’s lifestyle to dictate its pace. It combines in its form a soothing simplicity of living with a moving complexity of poetic storytelling. The views discussed in it may not be to everyone’s liking, yet the fact remains that Abdel Mohsen and Gysi have shared with audiences an exquisitely soulful story about a unique and dying tradition.
/* Style Definitions */
mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;
font-family:”Times New Roman”;
El Sayyed El Dawwy is the star protagonist of a documentary highlighting the art of the narration of the Sira, an art almost extinct. (Photos courtesy of the film festival.)