I was fortunate to attend a screening of this film last night: Salata Baladi ســلطة بـلدي. It tells the story of an Egyptian family with Jewish, Christian and Muslim members; the elderly mother was born a Rosenthal in Cairo, became a Communist and married an Egyptian Muslim. Her relatives now live in Italy - and Israel; she has a grandson who is a Palestinian living in Egypt. The film opens with relatives telling stories of their ancestors from all around Europe and the Middle East, a marvelous mix of complex identities.
The filmmaker, Nadia Kamel of Cairo, explains:
The original inspiration for this film was simple enough: a love for my family's stories and a wish to share them. It was a story telling project. The energy that eventually propelled me into this adventure was more complicated. I saw my octogenarian mother aging and my 10-year-old nephew growing up under a shadow of satellite dishes and a rising clamor about some inevitable clash of civilizations. And a mixture of hope and fear overtook me.
My mother's stories, woven across the 20th century, confound any straightforward understanding of the historical events during which they were played out and are almost always an exception to the reductive homogeneity with which we are taught to view 'History.' In my family, religions and cultures get married when they appear to be divorcing in the global arena. In a world where my family's identities are being squeezed into irreconcilable positions, I needed to document my history before I became apologetic about it and the myth of its extinction was realized.
But as my mother told her stories, I discovered that the film could not simply be a reclaiming of our treasured past: we found ourselves colliding with pockets of denial and silence. Without confronting the taboos of our present, my mother's stories were reduced to self indulgence and nostalgia. And so my story telling film became a witness to a new story still in the making -- a story about my family's efforts to once more climb the wall that unjustly insists on separating our principles from our humanity.
A note on the title: A Dutch writer on the Salata Baladi blog translates the film's title to "Salad House." This is a literal translation of the film's French title, "Salade Maison", which I think seems to connote the "house salad" of a restaurant, the salad put together by the proprietors, as well as the salad of home.
However the Arabic title is "Salata Baladi", which means literally "Country Salad". This has the connotations of "rural" in Egypt, but also "very Egyptian" - "baladi" bread in Cairo is whole wheat, rustic, for "country" people to eat. Furthermore, to this Lebanese-American, "baladi" has the connotation of "my country" as in my nation, the nation to which I belong. And baladi means also my local area - my village or region. The title in Arabic has nationalist, class and geographic implications that are important, I believe, to the film's context and purpose.
The salad may be a melange of ingredients but it is a salad of the film-maker's country, Egypt. It is an Egyptian salad. Not just the house salad of some restaurant, or the salad of the film-maker's home (maison). The salad's mix of seemingly disparate ingredients reflects the cosmopolitan nature of Egypt, in the old days and even now.
One of the Israeli cousins in the film bestowed this word "cosmopolitan" upon Egypt, and when asked, said that he and his own countrymen were no longer cosmopolitan. "We are local patriots," he said with a laugh. I suppose his English did not extend to the antonym for cosmopolitan: "provincial."
Most of the relatives on either side of the Egyptian border have become provincials under pressure of decades of war. Meanwhile Mary (the elderly mother), her husband, their daughter the filmmaker, and her Palestinian and activist friends remain able to see the bigger, "cosmopolitan" picture.
These friends and the Kamel family are all leftists; the Kamels were Communists in fact. I grew up in a family that was very liberal, with occasional socialist leanings; there are branches of my family that are Phalangist, and the political split has caused hard feelings over the years, which we paper over because we love each other. Meanwhile, my parents associated with all manner of lefties, including some famous Communists, whose perspectives I engaged.
Although Communism always struck me as a futile, dead-end movement (sorry, comrades), and I never wanted to follow my various Communist friends along their path, I must say that it's the Communists of this world, Jews and Arabs, who keep the ideals of humanity alive. Perhaps the extreme idealism of Communists helps them maintain their larger perspective even when modern society goes insane and tries to divide itself into nations, civilizations, warring factions which must oppose each other.
If you probe the family backgrounds of my Jewish friends and relations here in America, (my husband is half-Jewish), you'll find that every last one of them has a Socialist or Communist ancestor somewhere. None of them are that far to the left now, but I think it's interesting that the Jews I associate with in America almost all have such family backgrounds.
And my Arab-American friends are also descended from lefties. I don't feel "sympatico" with Arab-American investment bankers much, even when they're my cousins whom I love; but some random Arab-American middle-aged hipster I meet in a pizzeria or a poetry reading will turn out to have a father who belonged to the secular pan-Arabist party favored by some of my lefty relatives.
I can't become a Communist any more than I could become an Evangelical Christian. But I understand and respect some of the core principles.
This film affected me so much that when I woke up at 3 a.m., a little while ago, I could not stop thinking about it. So I'm blogging, hoping to get it off my chest and go to bed. I have to go get more chemo in San Francisco six hours from now.
By the way, Salata Baladi will show in New York City and at Cornell University next week. Details:
March 28, 2008 @ 4:00 pm
Kevorkian Center 50 Washington Square South at 255 Sullivan Street
New York, NY 10012
March 30, 2008 @ 7:00 pm
Cornell University, New York
Cornell Cinema, Ithaca, New York
Update: Joseph Massad criticizes Salata Baladi with a complex view of the family's larger historical context. He elaborates on the subtext I noticed - the Communist, nationalist, Socialist history of the Kamel family and of Egypt. He's not happy with the film's perspective. Read his comment - and still see the film.