|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
15 - 21 October 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
The choice and the price
Tall, with sharp, angular features and piercing eyes, Attiyat El-Abnoudi is a woman not to be taken lightly. Her clothes and jewellery, distinctively Egyptian, match the colour of her skin. This attachment to her identity is as visible in her person as it is in El-Abnoudi's films.
"In the '60s, the general environment in Egypt was open to change. Everything was available. Books were five or 10 piastres. We had access to cultural centres and we would slip backstage at the Opera and sit in the extra seats. There was talk of socialism. Nasser was telling us 'to raise our heads'. There was discipline and choice. And we chose."
The ideals of the '60s molded El-Abnoudi, and their mark remains today. An ardent believer in social justice, a nationalist, she is a woman whose dreams do not necessarily come true and are therefore the constant source of a profound sadness.
Inside her unassuming apartment, the walls are adorned with pictures of Palestine, Abdel-Nasser, village girls and her "adopted" daughter.
As I gaze up at Abdel-Nasser, El-Abnoudi explains what it meant to be part of the "'60s generation". "We all had this ability to confront. And why not? It was an open society, moving forward." This is not just politics, but a way of life. "We got married for a dowry of 25 piastres [the legal minimum]. We believed in the cheese and olives deal. Ten years later, we were all divorced." The laugh that follows is not bitter. "I think that the women really believed in the deals they made, and the men took things for granted. When things started to fall apart, the men didn't have the stamina to pull through," she muses.
It was during those golden years that she married Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi, one of Egypt's most prominent poets. She recalls, nostalgically, "we did a lot of things people would not do now. For example, when I married Abdel-Rahman, his friend Yehia El-Taher Abdallah lived with us. I was fascinated by their friendship." Those were the days when friendships were clear-cut and intense. Nor would the strong ties that bound this group of talented young people together prove easy to sever. "When Yehia died in an accident 15 years ago, I brought his daughter to live with me. After all, she is Yehia's daughter, which makes her part of me." She points at pictures of Asma on the walls. "Isn't she wonderful?" she asks almost reverently.
Soon, however, hard realities set in. "Sadat came and he shook us all up -- all of the '60s generation that is. We were the sons of the petite bourgeoisie that dreamed. One day we looked around us and saw that everything we had dreamt of had not only been defeated, but had become a black spot -- something that could be used against you. One day we were listening to songs about workers and peasants on the radio, the next there was nothing."
Hindsight, however, has also given El-Abnoudi the ability to be self-critical. "It is true that intellectuals did not participate sufficiently in creating socialism. One day we woke up and the revolution was there. Another day we woke up and heard Nasser had died and the revolution was over." According to El-Abnoudi, a gap persists between what she terms the elite and the majority of people. "Talk to these educated people about the details of developments in the Soviet Union or Pakistan, and they will have much to say. Ask them about the details of Egyptian life, and they know a lot less."
Her work aims to bridge that gap. Her films all document different aspects of Egyptian life -- a task which she has had to carry our in a basically hostile environment. "At least during those times [Nasser's era] there was a state machine that turned out propaganda upholding socialist ideals, bringing them into people's homes. Today, open the paper and you find nothing that corresponds to people's lives. Everybody wants you to entertain them all the time."
By the time El-Abnoudi found her way, there was no longer a place for the kind of work she wanted to do. She has had difficulty finding outlets in Egypt for her films, documentaries which centre on the problems of the peasantry and simple women. "Today there are no longer television serials which deal with issues concerning workers and peasants, because these will not sell in the Arab countries. That is why production these days has to be geared toward beautiful stars and so on."
The strength to resist comes from the fact that she sees herself as a woman with a message. "I have two roles. The first is that of an intellectual from the '60s generation who refused to change or be broken. The second is that of my profession." So she films the simple people of her country because she wants to document their history and reveal the problems they face, but she does this for a foreign audience -- the only one she can find.
"Isn't it strange that all my films are funded from abroad?" she asks. Her lips curl into a coy smile as she gets to the crux of the matter: "I tell people that I am foreign-funded from the roots of my hair to the soles of my feet. I have found no one here who would fund me and give me freedom of expression at the same time. Besides, everything from national projects to the simplest things are foreign-funded, so why is an artist considered a traitor? The trick is to get the money." She admits that donors sometimes impose a certain agenda. "I want to do something on youth, but I can only get funding for something about women and irrigation. Women are also within my interest, and so I will do it." In this pragmatic light, the choice being imposed is part of her own agenda anyway. "Besides," she adds, "if I don't work, I will forget my profession."
Originally from Simbillawayn, in Menoufiya, she was the youngest of seven brothers and sisters. Descended from affluent merchant families, her parents did not fare as well due to her father's nonchalance. "My father sold his father's business and travelled. I remember he would come between one feast and the next and give us LE20, taking them back before he was off again. My mother had to sew to raise us." As a result, none of her brothers or sisters was able to continue their education. Being the youngest, El-Abnoudi was spared the same fate.
"The revolution came and the door to the dream was opened. We were sitting next to the radio, and we found out that we could have a different future." Concretely, this meant that a girls' high school was opened right in front of the family's home in the village. A good student, she was soon off to Cairo, where LE15 allowed her to study law at Cairo University.
After graduation, she went from the Railroad Authority as a petty clerk to the Puppet Theatre as a puppet artist, then the Pocket Theatre as an actress and, later, stage manager. Finally she moved on to the National Theatre.
"Even then I was picky and would choose carefully the director and subject. In those days they would bring foreign directors to produce plays, so I picked up language and ideas."
At that point, luck intervened. "In 1968, the Cinema Institute opened, which meant that for the first time middle- and lower-class students could enter the field. Before that, because cinema education could only be obtained abroad, only the upper classes got that opportunity." Mustafa Sueif became head of the institute, and upgraded the degree in cinema to post-graduate status. Even though her personal interest was involved, she laments the fact that this decision was later reversed. "The post-graduate system only lasted three years, which is unfortunate because this type of study needs a mature mind, not a teenager fresh out of high school who has not really had the opportunity to absorb other kinds of knowledge."
After graduation, however, El-Abnoudi felt the need for further education and applied to the International Film and Television School in England. "I had to take my films (two by then) and show them to the panel reviewing applications. The plane ticket cost LE150, so I borrowed from my friends and took my 16mm film under my arm, and came out first of the five chosen from among 250 international candidates."
Perhaps the artistic drive and foot-loose attitude came from her father. "I think that is where I got those genes, but I didn't discover this till he died. I remember a story he told me about how he and his friends would get drunk and dare each other to walk as far as they could along the railway lines, counting the sleepers. The day he died I asked my mother who had been married to him for 50 years, 'Did you love him, ever?' and she said 'No', and started to cry. So did I. It was the way it was: people just lived on, dreams trampled underfoot. She was a Wafdist though, and had some basic education and a little English. She used to sign her name 'Naeema' in English on the letters she wrote me when I was in England."
Which brings us back to those three years in London. "I was living day by day. I only had 60 sterling pounds which were transferred to me every month by the Ministry of Culture."
On her return, El-Abnoudi still did not get the recognition she had hoped for. "The state never produced any of my films, and to date television has never shown any of them either. All of the acknowledgment that I received came from abroad. Here they said, 'She is defaming Egypt' because my films were about the poor. I was labelled a communist -- a very convenient label to use against someone."
How does she classify herself, then? "I am an Egyptian-socialist, which means I believe in a sort of utopia -- a society where there is no injustice between the classes. Half of our population are farmers. They plant the several million feddans that we live off. How can we forget that 70 per cent of these people cannot read or write? How come none of the dozens of newspapers that are published in Egypt today are concerned with the problems that face these people? Where is the justice?" The large eyes water as she bends forward and fiddles with a piece of tissue paper. "Instead, people sit and tell jokes. 'Oh, look, the peasants have TVs these days.' They don't want them to have any dreams. They want them to stay the way they always were and leave the better developments in life to the educated men. It drives me crazy."
But why has the documentary been her way of expressing all these problems, ideas and dreams? The answer is simple. "A picture is the most legitimate medium. Take my film, Those Who Sold and Bought. No matter how much you write about the devastation which occurred to the 60km between Ismailia and Suez, you cannot really convey the sense of madness except with real pictures. Twenty years ago it was incredibly beautiful, with clean water, green trees and a desert backdrop. Then Open Door people came to build their cement villas and ruined the area. You walk along the road now and you can no longer see the water. Their sewage is dumped into the bitter lakes. The place is a mess."
El-Abnoudi has received over 30 international prizes for her films, of which there are 23 today. Finally, she is among the film-makers honoured at the National Film Festival, which opened this week.
"To receive recognition in Egypt is something else," she explains, her hands moving instinctively towards her heart. "People know me because they read my name all the time in news briefs after I receive some international prize. But they have never seen my movies. I have to explain to my neighbour what I do. It is very frustrating." Her plight reflects a more general shortcoming: namely the lack of interest in documentaries. TV programmes specialised in showing this art form have always proven the easiest to cancel and, according to El-Abnoudi, the budget given the Cinema Institute is the smallest in the Ministry of Culture.
"When I was at the Institute, I was never allowed to teach and instead was given an administrative job -- which is why I resigned in 1992. There was a constant conflict between an administrator's mentality and that of an artist."
These days, she is writing her memoirs of the six months during which her ex-husband Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi was in prison. "They said they were Maoists! Sixteen young men were arrested: people like Ibrahim Fathi and Salah Eissa. These young men were going to overturn the regime? It will be a hilarious book about how I went from the president's office to every other person I could meet, trying to find out why they were arrested. Only the men have written about those times. Their women have not," she said.
Since we are on the subject, it is time to ask about Abdel-Rahman's place in her life. "He was 20 years of my life. He is the single most important influence on my artistic development. I wanted to attain the level of his poetry in my films, which explains why people describe my movies as 'poetic documentaries'. I am fascinated by the poet in him."
Fifteen days after they first met, they were married. "I saw him read a poem at a friend's house. Then I heard him reading poetry on the radio about the peasants and workers and I said, 'I must marry that man'. He always said I am the one who chose to marry him, and he was right. No big love story. Twenty years later, I guess it just ended."
Before I go, just time for an autograph on my copy of her first book, Days of Democracy, published earlier this year. It includes the material used in her 1996 documentary on women candidates in the parliamentary elections. "You know what the problem is?" she asks. "We can no longer talk about the things that concern us. The few of us who still do are not being heard. That is why my sorrow is real and deep. My cause is no longer on the national agenda -- but I still believe in it."
photo: Randa Shaath