Nadia Kamel's controversial documentary uses her family story to examine Egyptian identity. Ursula Lindsey meets the contrarian director.
The documentary Salata Baladi (An Egyptian Salad) has not yet received the approval of Egypt's censors, nor has it had a commercial release. But it's won several awards at film festivals, and its director, Nadia Kamel, has screened it 20 times at private, improvised venues in Cairo and Alexandria. The film is structured around the story of Kamel's own multicultural family, which she uses to mount a critique of Egyptian nationalism and what she sees as a rising tide of close-mindedness and intolerance in Egyptian society. "I want to reclaim my Egyptian diversity," she says. "I want to tell the story of how we are real Egyptians too."
Earlier this summer, after a screening in the theatre of a Cairene high school, a young, veiled woman rose from the audience to ask Kamel what exactly she was trying to say about Egyptian identity. Her tone was one of umbrage muffled by politeness. Kamel, a small, energetic woman with a mane of greying hair, responded by launching into a long, fluid discussion of Egypt's "identity paralysis" - its inability, as she sees it, to openly discuss and critique its own history. She wants Salata Baladi, her first feature-length film, to combat this paralysis by starting a conversation about troublesome, oft-avoided historical subjects, including: the flight of Egypt's Jews before and after the 1952 Free Officers' Coup; the effectiveness of the Arab boycott of Israel; and, ultimately, the notion of a singular Egyptian identity.
The story starts with Kamel's young nephew Nabeel - a winning presence - going to Ramadan prayers for the first time at a mosque in Cairo. Little more than a toddler, he earnestly follows the motions of the men around him. When the prayer is over, the adults on either side of him shake his hand, and he glows with the pleasure of being welcomed into their fraternity. It's a moving moment, but Kamel is troubled by the "us versus them" tenor of the imam's sermon, his emphasis on the ongoing battle between Islam and its enemies. She doesn't want this to be the only narrative Nabeel hears. So, she and her mother, Naila, take on the project of presenting their complex family history (which she describes as stories of "strangers falling in love") to Nabeel - and to us.
The result is a dizzying, three generation-long chain of moves, border crossings and religious conversions motivated by economics, politics and - remarkably often - love. Kamel's maternal grandmother, a young communist, fled fascist Italy to come to Cairo as a nanny. There she met Kamel's grandfather, a Jewish electrician born and raised in Egypt, and they fell in love. Their daughter (Nadia's mother), born Jewish in Cairo, fell in love with and married Nadia's father, a Muslim.
Thus Marie Rosenthal became Naila Kamel. Naila and Saad Kamel lived in Egypt, where they engaged in leftist politics and journalism, while branches of Naila's Jewish family left for Italy and Israel. Finally, one of Naila's daughters, Nadia's sister, married a Palestinian man. Thus Nabeel - Naila's grandson, Nadia's nephew - is of Egyptian, Italian and Palestinian origin, and has Jewish, Christian and Muslim relatives.
Unsurprisingly, Kamel objects to "the idea that there is one way of being Egyptian, that there is such a thing as 'a real Egyptian'." Kamel believes that, in today's Egypt, this narrow, dichotomous view of identity "is a rhetoric that's becoming a reality. You repeat it so many times and you avoid talking about what doesn't fit the rhetoric. You end up believing it, you end up being it, you end up forgetting other possibilities and other stories." To Kamel, the idea that there is a single and correct way of being Egyptian is linked to xenophobia, intolerance and discrimination based on gender and religion. "We have allowed ourselves to sort ourselves, to reclassify people into included and excluded," she says. "We're doing it today with Muslims, with Copts, with women. It has become OK to classify people ... to excommunicate people."
Salata Baladi quickly finds its human centre in Nadia's mother, Naila, a paragon of humour, charm and integrity. She is the one who shows the old family photographs and old identity cards, all the while explaining the family's tangled history in lovely, Italian-accented Arabic. In the first half of the film, we see the startled, unbelieving smile on Nabeel's face when she explains that her father was Jewish. We also them travel together to Italy, where their relatives remember Egypt as "the land of plenty", a lost paradise.
Kamel views her Italian grandfather's forced migration from Egypt as damaging both to him and to the country. She doesn't believe in being nostalgic for the pre-Revolutionary past, but she compares the way Egypt - in a post-colonialist, nationalist fervour - rejected and forgot its foreign residence to "cutting off a part of our body". Above all, Salata Baladi gives one a sense that what drives Kamel - who grew up in a deeply political household, and whose parents paid for their beliefs with jail time - is an intense irritation with political sanctimonies and accepted truths. Her political contrariness is most evident in the film's second half, when the matter of Naila's relatives who emigrated to Israel (in 1946, following a teenage son who was an ardent Zionist) comes up. The film swerves suddenly in a new direction, abandoning its focus on the past in favour of an examination of the family's decision whether to travel to Israel or not.
Naila - a lifelong committed leftist and support of the Palestinian cause - agonises over whether the trip might be a betrayal of her principles. Her husband is also clearly reluctant; his deadpan remonstrances ("I can't believe while I'm being filmed you're asking me to go to Israel" he tells his daughter) and his insistence on standing by his wife's side ("If she went alone it would be as if she were one thing, and I another") are two of the most touching aspects of the decision-making process. Eventually Kamel and her parents decide to make the trip.
In a modest flat in Tel Aviv, bemused young Israeli relatives witness an emotional reunion between Naila and a cousin she had not seen since they were both young girls playing on a rooftop in Cairo. The encounter between the different branches of the family is moving and awkward. An elderly uncle shows off the room he's consecrated to Egyptian nostalgia, which he retires to every afternoon to listen to Oum Kulthoum. While the uncles and his wife talk of the kindness of their old Cairo neighbours, the camera wanders around the room, lingering on a photograph of the man's two sons in their Israeli Defence Force uniforms.
Kamel's inclusion of the trip to Israel (and a conversation between her and a Palestinian friend who criticises the Arab boycott of Israel for isolating the Palestinians) launched a heated debate around Salata Baladi, much of it consisting of charges that the film is "pro-normalisation". The former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat may have signed a peace treaty with Israeli in 1979, but he did so in the teeth of Egyptian popular opinion. Intellectual and cultural circles here remain violently opposed to normalisation - generally understood as having any contact with Israel or Israelis. Most professional syndicates have passed resolutions supporting a total boycott.
The Egyptian filmmakers' syndicate tried to revoke Kamel's credentials, and summoned her to show her film and explain its political views. Kamel refused. "They are crazy to think that they can make an investigation about the content of a film," she says. In a widely-circulated article first printed in Egypt's Al Ahram Weekly, the Columbia University professor Joseph Massad faulted Kamel for not assigning greater responsibility to Israel, both for the emigration of Egyptian Jews - which Israeli espionage and terrorism in Egypt helped precipitate - and for the isolation of the Palestinians. (Kamel's response is that the film's focus isn't on Israeli crimes but on the Egyptian response to them.)
Massad also accused Kamel of badgering her elderly parents into the trip to Israel in order to push her own "pro-normalisation line". He wrote that "Nadia is undeterred by the discomfort of everyone around her with her project of talking her parents into going to Israel. She is a driven woman throughout the film, appearing to be on an ideological crusade of sorts." Kamel says Massad's article "hit below the belt," and that she found it so hurtful she had trouble reading it to the end. Kamel admits that she encouraged her mother to travel to Israel, and she makes this clear in the film. This was part of her decision not to, as she puts it, "hide behind the camera".
"All the producers and grant-makers I was trying to convince that there was a film there - they had a set of regular questions," she says. "One was: 'This is your family, how are you going to get the distance?' My answer was: distance comes from the opportunity to work in depth and with serious people. And the other question is: 'What is your position… are you the filmmaker or are you a subject?' I used to say: 'I am a member of this family that decided to record this story. I am the member of the family who carries the camera. I was going to take a position when I had a position.'"
Kamel says she isn't pro-normalisation. She just wants to open a debate on the effectiveness of the boycott as it is currently practised in Egypt. "Boycott is a way of resistance," she says. "It's a tool. You can boycott, you can make way, you can make a demonstration, you can sign a petition. It's a tool - not a principle, not a lifestyle, not an attitude." At times, Salata Baladi has an amateurish feel, but that suits the film's intimate subject matter. The more serious problem is the disjuncture between the film's first and second halves. When the focus shifts to the Israel trip, Nabeel disappears, and new characters who aren't part of Nadia's family enter. This is partly the result of following an unscripted story as it unfolds, but it is also a testament to the force of the Israel/Palestine issue in Egypt. The question of normalisation is so contentious and so emotional that it almost knocks the whole film off-balance, overshadowing the family history.
Despite this unevenness, Salata Baladi succeeds thanks to the strength of its characters. Kamel's parents are two truly remarkable people: devoted to each other, generous, principled and funny - relatives you wish you had (Saad Kamel sadly passed away after the film was finished). The family's story is fascinating, am embodiment of all the swift and dramatic changes Egypt has gone through in the last 60 years: the end of the colonial era, the blooming of Arab nationalism, the conflict with Israel, the fervour and frustrations of the Palestinian solidarity movement and the current soul-searching of the Egyptian left.
Like any work of art, Salata Baladi can and should be questioned and critiqued. But it's a welcome starting point for a far-ranging debate. Kamel raises complex questions about nationalism and nationhood, and shows how strong and yet how arbitrary our sense of who we are, and where we belong, can be.
Ursula Lindsey is a freelance journalist based in Cairo, and writes the culture blog The Arabist Review.