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Tentmakers of Cairo


Lost for Decades, a Beguiling Curio from Egypt's Royal Past

'… The historian Mahmoud Sabit has unearthed a rare and charming artifact of the very moment when monarchist Egypt became revolutionary Egypt. A recent documentary …follows Sabit as he finds and assembles the story behind a queer, extravagant film, made by members of the Egyptian aristocracy, about a coup against a fictional Arab monarchy. In a fantastic twist, the royals completed their film just weeks before Gamel abdel Nasser’s actual 1952 coup against the very monarchy they represented.

Sabit’s father, Adel Sabit, was a member of the Zohriya Set, a circle of friends centered around the Egyptian Princess Faiza, and her Zohriya Palace, located on Gezira Island in the Nile. Sabit’s mother was the American film actress Frances Ramsden.

Seeking diversion in the spring of 1952, members of the Zohriya Set decided to make a movie, penned by Adel Sabit, about a battle for power and oil in a fictional Persian Gulf sheikhdom. Adel Sabit’s story featured an American-backed military dictator (played by Prince Hassan Hassan of the Egyptian royal family) who has taken power in a republican coup, and his rival, the deposed sheikh (played by Prince Namuk Effendi of the already-deposed Imperial Ottoman dynasty).

None of the filmmakers had an inkling that a real coup was, at that very moment, nearing fruition. This would be the last lark of the Zohriya Set...

The film included scenes of guerilla warfare, harem intrigue (the harem girls played by Egyptian and Ottoman princesses), the kidnapping of an American oil executive’s daughter, and a magnificent ball – the last ever – held at Zohriya Palace. In one of the movie’s more enigmatic scenes, Mahmoud Sabit’s mother is filmed on camelback typing the notes and correspondence of a famed Italian criminologist.

The party ended on July 23, 1952, when tanks rolled into Cairo and King Farouk abdicated in favor of a life of luxurious exile. The movie’s director (and Princess Faiza’s husband), Bulent Rauf, is believed to have destroyed the completed Technicolor film, afraid that it would be used as negative propaganda against the Egyptian monarchy.

Things might have ended there, until Mahmoud Sabit sleuthed out 80 minutes of lost home movie footage and located surviving members of the cast. Together with Wael Omar and Philippe Dib he has made what appears to be a unique and sensitive film about a world lost for both better and worse.'

From: Dan Morrison, Lost for Decades, a Beguiling Curio from Egypt's Royal Past, National Geographic Voices, 24 June 2013: