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On a warm summer evening in 1952, Cairo’s aristocracy gathered for a soiree at a palace belonging to King Farouk’s sister, Princess Faiza, and her husband, Bulent Raouf. The newly wedded couple was well known both in Egypt and Europe for their glamorous lifestyle, and their home on the Nile island of Gazira had become a favored meeting place for Cairo’s nobility.
But this particular party was not quite like the others. As the guests arrived, wearing the latest couture from Europe, sipping cocktails at the bar and dancing under the glimmering chandeliers, members of the royal family filmed it all with a 16mm camera. For months, the royals had been working to produce their own movie, an epic historical drama titled “Oil and Sand,” and they were shooting the final scenes in the ballrooms of the Zohreya Palace.
What they didn’t know was that this would be the last great social event of the 140-year-old Muhammad Ali dynasty. An era in Egyptian history was approaching its end, and in a remarkable twist of fate, the royals foreshadowed their own demise in this home movie. Within weeks of the party, the plot they had written for “Oil and Sand” came strikingly close to reality — just like the fictional king in their movie, King Farouk was deposed by his own military.
The royals never got to finish their movie project. After the coup, the film’s director, Raouf, burned the original film reels for fear they would be used as propaganda by the new military regime. For decades, “Oil and Sand” remained a secret shared by only a small group of royals living mostly in exile, and it would have fallen into complete oblivion had it not been for the rediscovery of a second set of film reels.
While the royals filmed the Zohreya party, it turns out they were also filming themselves with another camera. These and other shots from behind-the-scenes at the royal film sets were hidden away for 60 years in a steamer trunk in the attic of a villa in Cairo’s Garden City neighborhood. Now they have been recovered and restored in the new documentary film, “In Search of Oil and Sand.”
“Just seeing members of the royal family on film — that alone is something new and huge in Egypt. The footage we have here is a window to a lost world,” says Wael Omar, co-director and producer of “In Search of Oil and Sand.”
The film follows Mahmoud Sabit, the son of a cousin to King Farouk, as he tries to uncover the story behind a film that he heard so much about when he was a kid. He still lives in the Garden City villa where he was born a few years after the military coup, and where the reels were stored away.
The 56-year-old historian has made it his personal project to gather rare material from the days of the Muhammad Ali dynasty. After searching for years for documents, diaries and pictures related to the royal film project, he is able to tell in detail of how “Oil and Sand” came about.
It all began in the same place that it ended — the Zohreya Palace. On the rooftop terrace, Princess Faiza and her husband Raouf — both enamored of the new celebrity culture — constructed their own, private cinema where they watched the latest Hollywood movies with their friends.
“Raouf believed this was the era of the celebrity, and he wanted to make his wife into a perfect princess on a celebrity level,” says Sabit. “But suddenly, the stage she should have been performing on was denied her, when the king [Farouk] put them under house arrest. So Raouf had to come up with new ideas, and they began to dance, make costumes, create sets and organize small performances at Zohreya, and finally they decided to make a movie.”
In writing the film’s script, the royals drew heavily on the experiences of Mahmoud’s father, Adel Sabit. At the time, he was working as a diplomat in the Arab League and witnessed the new geopolitical maneuverings following World War Two. This inspired Adel Sabit to develop an intricate plot for the film in which a king is deposed by his own military as part of a regional power struggle between foreign powers.
In the spring of 1952, the royal film crew began shooting the first scenes near the Sakkara pyramids south of Cairo, even though the city had literally been on fire just weeks before. Angry riots had erupted against the British colonial forces and the ruling aristocracy, yet it never occurred to them that the very film plot they had devised could become reality in their own Egypt.
“They knew the British were weak and on their way out, and the Americans on their way in. But they were convinced that the Arabs themselves would fill the vacuum of power in the region … So for them the movie was comic relief at a time when they felt insecure. I wouldn’t call it escapism, but they were simply waiting things out and trying to entertain themselves at the same time,” says Sabit.
Reality, however, quickly overtook fiction as King Farouk was deposed in a bloodless military coup on 23 June 1952, and pushed into exile along with the rest of the royal family. The military officers not only took away their positions and possessions, but also dragged them through a fierce smear campaign to bolster the new regime’s legitimacy.
Mahmoud’s parents ended up fleeing to Germany after Adel Sabit was accused of a fantastical plot in which he was allegedly conspiring with the French to bring down the military regime and re-institute the monarchy. In Bonn, the family was briefly joined by Raouf, who slept on the couch or under the kitchen table in the family’s small apartment.
For the royal refugees living in exile, their old film project remained a vivid memory from the life they had once been enjoying, says Sabit.
When Sabit’s family was able to return to their villa in Cairo in the early 1970s, they brought the behind-the-scenes footage down from the attic and screened it on a white wall. By then, it was already in a very fragile state. They put the reels back in the steamer trunk and never dared to run it through a projector again. The film stayed in that trunk for another 30 years until Sabit told the tale of the royal home movie to Omar and his co-director, Philippe Dib.
They were fascinated by what they heard, and considered the film reels to be important historical documents. Egyptians have rarely had a chance to see their former rulers on film or hear about their lives without those stories being distorted to serve the military regime. Only in the last years of the Mubarak era did the state begin to allow, and even encourage, some projects that dealt with the life of the royal family, but the film and TV series that emerged did not truly challenge the 60-year-old state narrative.
“Many Egyptians perceive the royal family as having been demonic and diabolic autocrats who were not real Egyptians,” says Omar. “My hope with this film is that it can color and nuance this impression … The idea isn’t that you walk out after seeing the film as a royalist or a monarchist. It is about taking control of the narrative again, and starting to eat away at 60 years of very deliberate and directed revisionism.”
When the revolution started in January 2011, the film crew was about to start shooting scenes with Sabit in his home close to Tahrir Square. The protests delayed the production, but also gave it a new sense of urgency, says Omar.
“The revolution made me think that this film had to be completed now more than ever, because it is very relevant to our current situation. We are now in a phase where we need to ask ourselves: Is Egypt going to make the same mistakes that we did after the regime change in 1952? Are we going to attempt to flush out the former regime and vilify them all again, or are we going to take an honest look at the past? It is important that we learn from our history, or else we are forever doomed to repeat it,” says Omar.
“In Search of Oil and Sand” premiered at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in October. It won the award for Best Arab Director in the Documentary Competition.
Images courtesy of Middlewest Films
This piece appears in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.