Between Italy and Egypt




Between Italy and Egypt

Between Italy and Egypt


Between Italy and Egypt

by Sherif Awad

Italians were the oldest European community in Egypt and the most amalgamated into the Egyptian society. Mosques such as Omar Makram in Cairo and Mursi Abou-Al-Abbas. in Alexandria were designed by an Italian architect called Mario Rossi who lived then died to be buried in Cairo; The Italian school Don Bosco played a historic role in the formation of skilled Egyptian craftsmen; The Alexandrian cinematographer and filmmaker Alevise Orfanelli worked in Egyptian cinema from the 1920s till the 1960s and passed his craft to many skilled generations of the Egyptian cinematographers. Italian Jew Togo Mizrahi was born in Alexandria only to become one of the greatest pioneering filmmakers in Egyptian cinema. A new documentary directed by the Egyptian Sherif Fathy Salama and written by the Italian Ramona Di Marco retells the stories of these Italians of Egypt and many others who are still living. Some of them went back to Italy while others are still in Egypt. Their testimonies show the major role of Italian community peak in the 1930s until Italy was involved in World War II which was the beginning of the end of their long history.
Director Sherif Fathy Salama has a long story that started with the love of cinema that took him to Italy. “In Cairo of the 1970s and 1980s, going to cinema with the whole family was a weekly habit. But it had a certain discipline. It was like going in Tuxedos and fur to the Opera House. I have seen many films, Egyptian and international but my early influences came from the films by the great Egyptian director Youssef Chahine’s, most of all his series of personnel autobiographies like Hadouta Masreya, An Egyptian Story and Eskendria Leih? Alexandria, Why”, remembers Salem who, after finishing his studies in architecture, he immediately went to realize his early dream of studying filmmaking in the Egyptian High Institute. “Our class of 1994 included Ahmed Rashwan, Hala Gala, Saad Hindawy, and Nasser Abdel-Rahman. All of them became established filmmakers. I can say our class was the luckiest because we were tutored by greats like Dr. Hesham Abou El-Nasr, Dr. Madkour Thabet and even Youssef Chahine who used to come and at the Institute. I directed many shorts and clips while studying and my graduation project was called Kasr Men Ten, Mansion made out of Mud, where I depicted Kasr Village in Wahat el-Dakhla.. It is an Islamic village built on Roman ruins. The documentary brought me my first award from Islmailia Festival then it was screened in international festivals, namely in Tunis and Munich”, he says.
Sherif Salem recites Chadi Abdel Salam and Dr. Madkour Thabet as the directors who mostly had big influence on his style when conceives a documentary. “While we were students at the Egyptian institutes, Dr. Thabet invited us to see an advertising documentary he helmed about Shell Company. I was astonished by the accessibility of the information in watching such specialized doc. Thabet’s style taught me how to make a documentary enjoyable as much as it informative. Abdel Salam who is mostly known for The Mummy was a very sensitive artist whose documentaries also showed me how to poetic and touching”, he says.
Going to Rome and working in the regional office of Arab Radio Television (ART) in the Italian Capital was not among Sherif Salem’s plans. “Accidentally, 1994, which was my graduation year, was the worst year in Egyptian film production with a decline of the number of produced narrative films into only nineteen films. I was assistant director but it was difficult to find work with this small number of films in the making. Then I got an offer to work as anchorman in ART, first in Egypt then it Rome. That’s how my relationship with Italy has begun. My work on the screen prevented me from directing films for ten years until I resigned from ART and returned behind the camera in 2005. “When I wanted to refresh my directorial skills by applying to a film course in room, the school’s director, after seeing my early films, told me they have nothing to teach me. In fact, he told me I’d better apply for a teaching job because the films were the work of a professional. At that point, I realized that it is not enough to learn and or be taught but what’s matter that the relationship with the other should be built on reciprocity and exchange of information”, explains Salem who was driven by this revelation to direct his first documentary about Italian Orientalists. “It was called Orient Passion in which I tracked down the history of Orientalism in Egypt. For instance, I discovered there was an Italian-born professor who was teaching Arabic language in Cairo University to the likes of great Egyptian novelist Taha Hussein. While researching this documentary, I fell upon lots of information that interconnect East and West through the Mediterranean Sea, which was the source of civilization for mankind. The monuments by Muslims in Sicily became the topic of my follow-up documentary The Traces of the Sicilian Muslims that shed the light on the period between the year 1000 and the year 1200 and also shows how Muslim brought to Sicilians lot of their social habits, culture and practices in agriculture”, he says. The screenings of these documentaries between Egypt and Italy saw lot of interest and applause to the point that Salem started to predict it. “I think audience is always looking for such historical documentaries because the televisions around the world rarely show such serious content. History of Arab in Italy is less known that their history in Spain because their architecture in Italy, which was fatimi, was less impressive than the ravishing heritage in Andalusia. Moreover, many historians tried to burry this chapter from history books. But thanks to an Italian historian called Michele Amari who wrote this huge three-part encyclopedia about Muslim heritage in Sicilia, we would have never got these details. My film was dedicated to his name”.  
Alongside Sherif Salem, the name of Ramona Di Marco is credited on The Italians of Egypt. “Actually Ramona is my wife. After we got married, she started to collaborate with me on my films as a writer and researcher”, explains Salem. “Our first collaboration was a documentary Clandestini about illegal immigration from the Arab countries of the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. I thought Ramona was the best researcher for such topic because she studied then practiced law in the Italian government. In that doc, we showed many moving stories including one about an Egyptian underage adolescent who took the boat to Italy but was caught and put in a juvenile home. Because he was ignorant of the Italian law that gives to underage teen like him education and residency, he escaped from the juvenile home because he thought it was some kind of jail. Two years later, after he became aware of the law, he left himself to be apprehended again. Now he grew up to be a legal resident”.
The premise of Italians of Egypt was also initiated by Ramona Di Marco when she met an old Italian lady speaking about her childhood memories of growing up in Egypt. “This encounter drove Ramona to research the stories of Italians in contemporary Egypt. When she brought me the first results, I was ashamed because, although I studied architecture, I did not know that the Italian architect Mario Rossi was behind the construction of Egypt’s most famous mosques like Omar Makram and Mursi Abou-Al-Abbas. My friend Abdel-Menem Saiid, a researcher in Dar Al-Kutub, The Egyptian Book Archives, also contributed by bringing to us many articles that helped us to track down Italians in Cairo and Alexandria. One important article was written by the late historian Younan Labib Younan who brought the facts about how Italians of Egypt who suffered during the World War II. One great example of Italian of Egypt who is still living and contributing to society is Franco Greco who was born in Alexandria then moved to Italy in his youth but decided to comeback upon his retirement in order to start an intercultural organization in his city of birth”.
Finally, I asked Sherif Salem about the Mediterranean culture and collaboration that we hear about all the time through many organizations in Europe but without real outcome. Salem notes: “In filmmaking, many organizations offer workshops and training courses for up and coming filmmakers but rarely we hear that such organizations go on and launch a financing program for these trainees or distribution system to support finished films in finding exhibition. So the outcome of such entities is quite vague. If we look to the big picture, I guess people fall victim to political games. The word collaboration only signifies economic collaboration and nothing more. Even this economic collaboration has certain limit and extinct.