IN SEARCH OF OIL AND SAND – An Egyptian Documentary Film Review
by Nile El Wardani
A 1952 feature film within a 2013 documentary film, In Search Of Oil & Sand, directed by Wael Omar and Philippe Dib, won the “Best Arab Directors” award at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival for successfully merging two historical timelines and creating synthesis between past, present, fact and fiction. Produced by Mid West Production and Sarakene Ltd., the film is guided by historian Mahmoud Sabit, an old world soul with a modern twist of savoir faire and political savvy, as he delivers both an historical detective story and political analysis of the late Egyptian Royal Family. Starring the Royals themselves, Oil and Sand (the film within) was completed just weeks before the 1952 coup d’etat that ushered in a new era for Egypt.
While Egypt’s current revolution is kept alive by today’s youth, Egyptian aristocrat and royal relation Mahmoud Sabit has unearthed never-before-seen footage and glimpses into Egypt’s second revolution, that of 1952, and the connections are nothing short of amazing. Sabit is determined to activate Egyptian historical memory and provide Egyptians with public ownership of their own history, as told by Egyptians, rather than foreigners.
Sabit is uniquely qualified to do this. The son of Adel Sabit, the cousin of Egypt’s King Farouk, and Frances Ramsden, an American Hollywood actress of the 1940s, Sabit Junior grew up in European exile after his father was wrongfully accused of spying on Egypt for the French in 1961. Until that time Adel Sabit was the publisher of the Egyptian Economic and Political Review. The first article published in the review was written by President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Adel Sabit’s life was full of adventure, not unlike that portrayed in the fictional film he co-wrote. While young Mahmoud and his mother were able to leave Egypt in 1963 with their American passports, Adel Sabit had to escape Egyptian prosecution in the trunk of a car that drove him across the Libyan border. The family reunited in Europe. Mahmoud Sabit returned to Egypt in the 1990s and now resides in the 1923 Garden City mansion of his grandmother, Fatimah Hanem Chahin, the first cousin of Queen Nazly.
Within the glamorous remnants of the mansion Sabit discovered more than 15,000 photographs which document Egypt’s Belle Epoch from 1850 to 1956. Even more phenomenal, Sabit located the 8mm black and white rushes of the amateur film shot by Princess Faiza and her entourage, the Zohreya Set, an elite group of royals, aristocrats and diplomats.
Mahmoud Sabit’s parents socialized often with Princess Faiza and her debonair Ottoman husband Mohammed Ali Bulent Rauf (1911-1987). Rauf was the great-grandson of Ismail Pasha, khedive of Egypt from 1863 until 1879. Born into the Ottoman elite of Istanbul, Rauf was competent in French, English, Arabic and Ottoman Turkish. He had studied English literature at Cornell and Hittite archaeology at Yale. In 1945 he married his second cousin Princess Faiza and they had settled into a privileged life together in Egypt.
This was an Egyptian milieu characterized by a cosmopolitan openness to other cultures and a tolerance of different faiths. They encapsulated privileged tastes and the refinement and sophistication of both the Egyptian and Ottoman cultures.
This was also a time when Egyptian studios was producing more films than Hollywood. The Zohreya Set very much enjoyed watching films together and it was only natural that the group should decide to entertain themselves by making their own film. Influenced by the politics of the times, Adel Sabit, Frances Ramsden and Bulent Rauf wrote their script.
More than a premonition of things to come, the film told the story of a fictitious Arab monarchy who is caught up in a coup d’etat and forced into exile and tries to regain control. Replete with a love story, Western spies and oil men and a lovely ball, filmed at Zoyreya Palace, within which the real elite of Egypt are featured, the finished film was burned by the director Rauf immediately following the real coup of 23 July 1952.
Adel Sabit served as Director of Photography. Princess Faiza played a princess of course and Princess Nevine Abbas Halim played a kidnapped American woman. British and American embassy staff played oil men and spies, while local Bedouins played the rebels. A British diplomat in Cairo played the role of an official of his country which supported the ousted monarch.
What started out as plain fun became prophetic foreshadowing of the tumultuous times soon to come. This was particularly true in regard to the tall handsome American Bob Simpson. Befriended by Princess Faiza and her husband, Simpson was a regular member of the Zohreya Set. Simpson served in Egypt as the special assistant to the US Ambassador to Egypt, Jefferson Caffery. Ironically Simpson played the role of a US diplomat backing the fictitious coup. In an amazing twist of fate or a well thought out plan, Simpson was the actual person ordered by the American Embassy to organize the abdication of King Farouk following the coup, only six weeks following the completion of the film.
The rights and wrongs of that revolution or coup d’etat, its impact on the wider region and the geo-political world situation over the ensuing decades, are briefly touched upon in the film, by Mahmoud Sabit. The film is a glimpse into history, said Sabit, pointing out that King Farouk had lost trust in the British. The Abdeen Palace Incident of 1942 nearly resulted in a forced abdication of the King. British troops and tanks surrounded the palace and forced a change of government for their own purposes. King Farouk capitulated but never forgave the British.
Sabit’s historic reflections are pointed, “When push came to shove Nasser and Co. thought that the British might interfere on Farouk’s side, and seemed to have made a deal with the British over the abandonment of the Sudan, to forestall, such an eventuality. It was one of the revolutionary accusations that Farouk was a British agent. It simply was not true.” As a result the humiliation meted out to Farouk, and the actions of the Wafd Party in cooperating with the British and taking power, lost support for both the British and the Wafd among both civilians and, more importantly, the Egyptian military. Can such a history be repeated?
During Sabit’s search for the film footage, the working title became clear; In Search of Oil and Sand. What perhaps may never be clear are the answers to such questions as; If the monarchy had survived would Egypt have been able to make the transition to a democratic parliamentary political system? Were there external actors that may not have wanted such a future for Egypt? Did external actors play a role in the 1952 coup d’etat? What could have been their motives? Were the Royals as corrupt as their accusers portrayed them to be?
Sabit does not profess to have the answers, but he hopes that his film will provoke debate and raise questions about recent Egyptian history, particularly as seen through the prism of Egypt’s ongoing third revolution. A passionate researcher, Sabit went looking for anyone from the 1952 film that might still be living. Freakishly, Simpson had simply disappeared and there was no record of his death or whereabouts. Sabit poured over his mother’s letters and memoirs. In one entry she recounts Simpson’s drunken confession, to Princess Faiza and Bulent Rauf, that he was indeed an American CIA agent and felt so badly because “they had indeed been so kind to him.”
Sabit found the last living cast member, Princess Nevyne Abbas Halim residing in a well-worn villa in Alexandria, Egypt. In the documentary, she recounts with passion and humor the making of the film, the opulent times and the trauma of the ensuing coup. The documentary ends with images of the Royal family and friends taking a night fishing trip in Alexandria harbor on the eve of 22 July 1952. When they return to shore at dawn they are struck by the knowledge that army officers, including future President Gamal Abdel Nasser, have toppled King Farouk and they are no longer welcome in Egypt.
Sabit’s film In Seach of Oil & Sand deserves to be screened throughout the world as it weaves together history, politics and the creative human energy that makes for great story-telling, the cache of all human experience. As Egyptians fight every day for the successful future of their country, they and the world need to activate their understanding of what is shaping Egypt today. In Seach of Oil & Sand is a sumptuous and compelling place to begin.