“I was surprised one day, with director Radwan El-Kashef asking me for a meaningless song that carries all meanings!” says the Egyptian poet, Abdel Rahman el-Abnudi, in an interview regarding the origin of the song, Beba, that makes one of the most memorable parts of the 1998 film, Arak El-Balah (Date Wine, lit.The Sweat of Date).
In many ways, this quote captures the essence of the film in a better way than anything else did. We’ll return to this in a bit. Written and directed by Radwan El-Kashef, the film tells the tale of an Upper Egyptian village that gets deserted by its men who seek gold and money elsewhere, leaving the women, old and young, behind. The only men who stay are the mute elder and founder of the village, and his young grandson, who refuses to leave his side.
Metatextuality, the film is essentially a tale within a tale; like Shakespeare’s prologue to Romeo and Juliet, Radwan El-Kashef exposes the story with a quote on the screen, “The tale of a village abandoned by its shade when the high palm trees fell and was barren the horror of the sun”. Invoking Scheherazade— especially due to the use of Standard Arabic of children’s tales used in the first storytelling scenes in contrast with the Upper Egyptian dialect used in the rest of the film, which is also reminiscent of the desert nomad tradition of storytelling— , Arak El-Balah starts with an old Sudanese woman telling the story of the visibly abandoned, sun-exposed village to a prodigal grandson returning with questions. She tells him the tale of this village, its birth, and its death.
The story follows the women in the village, abandoned and deprived, focusing on two youngsters, Ahmed, played by Mohamed El-Nagady, and Salma, played by Sherihan. Out of necessity, and sometimes out of simple tradition, the women make a man out of the boy who cares for nothing in the world but reaching the top of the highest palm tree to bring white dates, ardently believing its rare wine will heal his grandfather of his silence.
Growing out of his shell, Ahmed falls in love with Salma, as both discover desire and intimacy, with the innocence and naivety of sheltered children. The consummation of their union, highly symbolic as it occurs on the deserted bed of the woman driven to suicide by the village’s women after her adultery, is what brings the film to its climax. A union that starts not out of fervent passion, but rather of the utmost grief and terror at a world starting to bare its horrors, is also how the conception of their child occurs: A girl, who will later be the sole reason the village survives, implicitly symbolising its resurrection.
Known for drawing from mythology, folklore, biblical imagery, and symbolism, Arak El-Balah is unlike most mythology-inspired films; it takes the language of mythology itself to write the film. And by ‘write’, we don’t just mean the dialogue or the sequence of scenes, but the whole language of cinematography, characterisation, atmosphere, and the village itself. Arak El-Balah is, essentially, a myth in itself.
“Myth is always an account of creation,” says Mircea Eliade, one of the most prominent historians and philosophers of religions and mythologies, “a dramatic breakthrough of the sacred”, And this is what Arak El-Balah is: A myth in the form of a film. It’s a myth about a village’s creation as well as its decay and death, and true to its mythological language, its resurrection.
In our view, what truly marks this film from many others that simply seek to reach international festivals, both in its time and in ours, is how specific to its own self and identity it is.
Meaning, in cinema and literature, the desire to reach ‘universal truths’ often distil the work, watering it down to a hollow frame for identity so that any other can fit in it, with only a few peppering of ethnic markers. This, in no way, occurs here. Admirably and uniquely, Radwan El-Kashef sticks to his story, a specific one in a time and place it’s dedicated to “To the pursed Southerner and that which he conceals…peace be upon you the day you die, peace be upon you the day you rise back to life”.
The film is true to its own melancholy, folklore, to its themes of people betraying their memory and heritage and abandonment and what happens to the one left behind. By being truly honest about its identity, the film manages to reach universality—not by the melting pot theory, but by holding the viewer, Egyptian or otherwise, still in front of this piece of art and evoking in them the feeling that says, “This might not be my story. It might not be similar to my people’s experiences, but it’s human in a way I can understand, feel for, and appreciate”.
It’s often claimed that Arak El-Balah is an allegory for Egyptians, especially Southerners who left for work in the Gulf. And on a lesser level, to the north, the city. While this certainly rings true, the allegory is in no way a strict mirror. There’s no one allegory or one fable. There’s an abundance of interconnected themes, religious commentary, feminist ideas, sexual complexity, and psychology. But like a true myth, this film is a well of symbolism, one that we shall dig out truths and meaning from indefinitely. Essentially, Arak El-Balah is a film that means nothing, a film that means everything.