Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Journey of reconciliation

Rania Khallaf does Sunset Oasis

Journey of reconciliation
Sunset Oasis

Directed by the talented young filmmaker Kamla Abu-Zikri, Mariam Naoum and Hala Al-Zaghandi’s adaptation of Bahaa Taher’s historical novel Sunset Oasis, which won the first “Arabic Booker” in 2008, is the story of a young police officer named Mahmoud Abdel-Zaher (Khaled Al-Nabawi) and his Irish wife Catherine (Menna Shalabi). With stunning photography by Nancy Abdel-Fattah, the series depicts the time of the Orabi Revolution, which led to the British occupation of Egypt on 11 July 1882. The British fleet bombarding Egyptian soldiers at the Qaitbay Citadel in Alexandria and the destruction of houses in Manshiya are portrayed with remarkable verisimilitude, though they took up too much of the first episode for my taste. In the thick of battle Mahmoud is seen helping transport the wounded and crying out in support of Orabi. Mahmoud believes in the revolutionary sheikh Jamaluddin Al-Afghani’s ideas and is secretly in league with the Orabi militants; when he is to be questioned by the British, however, his commander advises him to deny any connection with Orabi for fear of a military trial. The series follows the novel closely, with an authentic portrayal of the people and settings of that time: belly dancers, songs and nightclubs; hospital, police station and residential block; Mahmoud’s black servant and mistress Neama, who cooks for and tries to have conversations with him.

Al-Nabawi, a film star born in 1966,  is perfectly cast: he has the right physique and even the facial features for the role. Likewise Shalabi, who masterfully gives the impression of a foreigner learning to speak Arabic. She first appears in the third episode. A nure who is enamoured of Egyptian antiquities and the Arabic language, she meets Mahmoud on board a cruiser named Sudan in Aswan; bonding over hatred of the English, their courtship is set among the monuments on the banks of the Nile. They are soon married, but Mahmoud starts an affair with a bar dancer. He takes to drinking and neglecting Catherine, especially when he is punished for his views by being appointed police chief of the remote Siwa oasis, with duties including the collection of taxes for the occupier as he angrily remonstrates with his commander. In some ways the entire story consists of Mahmoud’s attempt to deal with the guilt he feels for his betrayal of the revolution. In the next few episodes, an as yet uncorrupted Siwa – filmed mostly in the old city of Shali – becomes a subject in its own right: the traditions and the rituals of its people, their revolt against the British chief of police who attempts to raise the levy on their crops and their distinctive architecture...

Mahmoud and Catherine’s camel journey from Mahrousa (“the Protected”, i.e., Cairo), accompanied by soldiers and a desert guide called Sheikh Metwalli – played beautifully by the Jordanian actor Munzir Raihana, whose deep voice and expressive eyes mirror his environment – makes for incredible cinematography showing nature at different times of day. Sheikh Metwalli dies in a sandstorm in the 13th episode. In his monologue, meanwhile, Mahmoud describes the desert as “the garden of the soul” and “the paradise of prophets and poets”, complaining that he is as yet unmoved by it. Thanks to Catherine’s determination, the journey becomes an opportunity for husband and wife to grow close. But on arrival they are faced with a new set of challenges. The people of Siwa have killed their British and Turkish chiefs, how is he – their first Egyptian one to establish his authority? How will the couple reconcile and adapt to life here? Main characters include the head guard Shawish Ibrahim (Sayed Ragab), who is Mahmoud’s faithful assistant, and the local girl Malika, a rebellious spontaneous sculptor played brilliantly by the new Jordanian actress Rakin Saad.

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