A gasping young man forces open the wooden gate of a small, walled village in remote Upper Egypt. He enters the dark alleys of Aaliah, which has managed to escape civilization.
A young woman leads him to a clammy basement where a blind old woman keenly awaits. “I knew you were coming,” she says. “I smelled you.”
Arak al-Balah (Date Wine, 1998), written and directed by Radwan al-Kashef, is a grand parable about Egypt’s migrant workers and abandonment.
The blind woman tells the stranger of the day another stranger came, and we enter an extended flashback. That stranger was rich, concealed in a tent carried by a camel, and accompanied by bizarre topless masked guards on motorcycles. They lured away the village men with promises of gold and jewels to a faraway land. Like helpless sheep, they were pushed into the back of a huge truck.
Only an impassive, voiceless grandfather (Hamdy Ahmed) and a young man called Ahmed (Mohamed Nagati) remain. Ahmed also trains to climb the village’s highest palm tree, Al-Beidah, a victory only attained once before, by the grandfather. For years letters from the wanderers arrive loaded with regret and turmoil, adding to the misery of the isolated women. The men are being worked mercilessly from dusk until dawn.
Meanwhile playmates Ahmed and Salma (Sherihan) grow to be lovers and Salma becomes pregnant out of wedlock. And Ahmed finally climbs Al-Beidah, so the village can feast on some special white date wine.
Eventually the empty shells of the wanderers return to the village broken by burning sun, forced labor and death. One tells a horrible story about his cousin, who burned to ashes and was carried away by a weak dawn breeze. They prayed for deliverance.
Yet filled with anger, doubt and jealousy, and more conservative than when they left, the return of the men turns out to be a dark, tragic event rather than a joyful homecoming.
Throughout its long history, Egypt has witnessed many moments of male exodus, from the ancient Egyptians enslaving commoners to build the pyramids, through the kidnapping of craftspeople by the colonizing Turks, to the rich Arab countries luring Egyptian workers in modern times — not to mention the massive internal migration of the last few decades.
Egypt lifted restrictions on labor migration in 1974, and large numbers of temporary migrants began to work in the Gulf countries, where oil revenues had multiplied due to the oil embargo. And in 1973, masses of Egyptian soldiers climbed the Bar Lev Line built by Israel along the eastern coast of the Suez Canal, leading to a victory tinted by the sacrifice of so many souls.
Date Wine is a gem because of its impressively epic ambition and unique idea, but you have to be in the mood for it. It’s almost two hours long and there are lots of scenes where people stand around and watch a drama unfold as traditional music plays (Yasser Abdel-Rahman wrote the score).
It’s somewhat didactic in tone, nostalgically picturesque, and sometimes feels self-indulgent. But this does lead to beautiful sequences focused on the landscape and the women, joyful self-contained song and dance scenes, and some moments that have an unforgettable intensity.
Kashef uses a dark pallet and the dramatic lighting of grand European history paintings to tell this story of those who abandoned their lands in pursuit of erroneous gains. The gloominess is brought to life by Tarek al-Telmessany’s skillful framing.
The casting is unusual. Specifically Sherihan, the big star, is watchable but seems a bit out of place, overacting wildly at times. For the role of the grandmother though, Kashef chose Sudanese actress Fayza Aamseeb, who has a weighty presence as a strong elder who possesses wisdom yet lacks power. Her rigid features and strong gaze are worth a million words. Hamdy Ahmed’s portrayal of authenticity and history is also compelling.
Date Wine succeeds as a poetic rendering of the many agonies of Egyptians throughout history, but in a way that won’t convince everyone. It won several international prizes but failed to stay in Egyptian cinemas for more than a week. Perhaps this was due to the intense symbolism, the slowness of the events or Sherihan’s over-the-top style, and perhaps also to industry monopolization, much debated at the time.
Kashef’s movies tended to address those marginalized by life and forgotten by others. His Leih ya Banafseg (Violets are Blue, 1993) is about a group of friends who manage against the odds to generate happiness through their music. Like Ahmed in Date Wine they try to make the best of the worst in life. In 2001, Kashef directed his last film Al-Saher (The Magician), about a underprivileged magician and his daughter.