Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Cosmo cocktail

Al-Mawlouda (The Newborn), Nadia Kamel, Cairo: Al-Karma, 2018. pp.550

Cosmo cocktail

This hefty volume tells the story of Nayla Kamel, born Mary Elia Rozenthal in a poor house on Al-Ashmawi Street near Kekhya Mosque, which is being told for the benefit of Nabil, Nayla’s grandson. Nadia Kamel, Nabil’s maternal aunt, is the one to record her mother’s memoirs, initially in colloquial Arabic... 

Born in 1960 in Cairo, Kamel studied microbiology and chemistry but followed her passion for filmmaking as of 1990 working with Youssef Chahine and Yousri Nasrallah as an assistant director before making her own family documentary, Salata Baladi (House Salad) in 2007, a year before her father’s death and a five before her mother. Nayla was more fortunate than her husband because she lived to see the 25 January revolution, the two of them having spent their lifetimes in politics.

Nayla, or Mary was born to an Italian mother and a Jewish father neither of whom had Egyptian nationality or spoke Arabic, and both of whom left Egypt for good at the start of World War II. Economic difficulties forced the family to move all around Cairo after the father lost his permanent job as a Siemens electrician, but despite poverty they maintained a tradition of going to the cinema to see Charlie Chaplin films. The book gives an engaging picture of early 20th-century Cairo, with its Italian, Greek and Armenian communities and neighbourhoods; nostalgia for the cosmopolitan city permeates its pages. 

Mary’s knowledge of Arabic did not develop until, through friends at the Italian Club, she became a communist activist in her teens. It was then that she married Abdel-Sattar Al-Tawila, an older activist, but it was a short-lived, purely political affair. When she ended up in prison Mary found out about life in Egypt through the tales of fellow inmates, paving the way to her close friendship with Saad Kamel; they were a widely admired couple. Another communist, Saad introduced her to famous actors, intellectuals and politicians, and brought her to the centre of the cultural scene in mid-century Egypt. They married against her parents’ wishes, and the better to fit in with the people – something she never told her parents till they died – she converted to Islam, changing her name to Nayla and moving from Boulaq to Dokki. 

As the film shows, Nayla went in search of her family in Italy with her daughters and Nabil, but being leftists committed to the Palestinian cause, should they visit the other branch of the Rozenthal family in Israel? Long, complicated debates ensued, but it was Nadia who persuaded her parents to travel to Israel to visit her cousin Sarina, with whom she had occasionally corresponded; both Sarina and Nayla were ageing and Sarina’s heart condition meant that she might die at any moment. Saad and Nayla finally decide to go, and Nadia goes with them. But, since his father was Palestinian-Egyptian, his paternal grandfather being a well-known Palestinian Authority minister, Nabil could not join them on the trip. 

Reflected in the film’s title, multiplicity within the same family was something Nadia believed in, and the film leaves the viewer in a state of emotion during the reunion of the Egyptian family with the Israeli family, whose members are homesick for Egypt, still have some Arabic and listen to Um Kulthoum. The question is, rather, why having made the film Nadia has decided to publish the story as a book stuffed with seemingly superfluous detail? Yet can one blame her for providing such a rich social-historical document so full of relevant information?


Reviewed by 

Soha Hesham

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