Salad days

Nadia Kamel's controversial documentary uses her family story to examine Egyptian identity. Ursula Lindsey meets the contrarian director.

Documentary filmmaker Nadia Kamal stands on the balcony of her flat in Cairo on August 19, 2008. Kamal's first film ìSalata Baladiî has won a number of awards at international film festivals, but it has not yet received the approval of the censorsí in Egypt.  Photo: Victoria Hazou for the National *** Local Caption ***  NadiaKamal.04.JPG

The documentary Salata Baladi (An Egyptian Salad) has not yet received the approval of Egypt's censors, nor has it had a commercial release. But it's won several awards at film festivals, and its director, Nadia Kamel, has screened it 20 times at private, improvised venues in Cairo and Alexandria. The film is structured around the story of Kamel's own multicultural family, which she uses to mount a critique of Egyptian nationalism and what she sees as a rising tide of close-mindedness and intolerance in Egyptian society. "I want to reclaim my Egyptian diversity," she says. "I want to tell the story of how we are real Egyptians too."

Earlier this summer, after a screening in the theatre of a Cairene high school, a young, veiled woman rose from the audience to ask Kamel what exactly she was trying to say about Egyptian identity. Her tone was one of umbrage muffled by politeness. Kamel, a small, energetic woman with a mane of greying hair, responded by launching into a long, fluid discussion of Egypt's "identity paralysis" - its inability, as she sees it, to openly discuss and critique its own history. She wants Salata Baladi, her first feature-length film, to combat this paralysis by starting a conversation about troublesome, oft-avoided historical subjects, including: the flight of Egypt's Jews before and after the 1952 Free Officers' Coup; the effectiveness of the Arab boycott of Israel; and, ultimately, the notion of a singular Egyptian identity.

The story starts with Kamel's young nephew Nabeel - a winning presence - going to Ramadan prayers for the first time at a mosque in Cairo. Little more than a toddler, he earnestly follows the motions of the men around him. When the prayer is over, the adults on either side of him shake his hand, and he glows with the pleasure of being welcomed into their fraternity. It's a moving moment, but Kamel is troubled by the "us versus them" tenor of the imam's sermon, his emphasis on the ongoing battle between Islam and its enemies. She doesn't want this to be the only narrative Nabeel hears. So, she and her mother, Naila, take on the project of presenting their complex family history (which she describes as stories of "strangers falling in love") to Nabeel - and to us.

The result is a dizzying, three generation-long chain of moves, border crossings and religious conversions motivated by economics, politics and - remarkably often - love. Kamel's maternal grandmother, a young communist, fled fascist Italy to come to Cairo as a nanny. There she met Kamel's grandfather, a Jewish electrician born and raised in Egypt, and they fell in love. Their daughter (Nadia's mother), born Jewish in Cairo, fell in love with and married Nadia's father, a Muslim.

Thus Marie Rosenthal became Naila Kamel. Naila and Saad Kamel lived in Egypt, where they engaged in leftist politics and journalism, while branches of Naila's Jewish family left for Italy and Israel. Finally, one of Naila's daughters, Nadia's sister, married a Palestinian man. Thus Nabeel - Naila's grandson, Nadia's nephew - is of Egyptian, Italian and Palestinian origin, and has Jewish, Christian and Muslim relatives.

Unsurprisingly, Kamel objects to "the idea that there is one way of being Egyptian, that there is such a thing as 'a real Egyptian'." Kamel believes that, i