In 1915, after resisting Turkish forces for months in Turkey’s Musa Dagh, over 4000 Armenians escaped aboard French warships in what is considered the first recorded civilian rescue operation. Their disembarkation in Port Said marked the beginning of the rich and complex history of Egypt’s Armenian community, which is chronicled in Waheed Sobhy, Eva Dadrian and Hanan Ezzat’s’s new documentary We Are Egyptian Armenians.
Screening in the Cairo International Film Festival’s International Panorama, the documentary presents a wealth of historical fact, but lacks the coherence and narrative thread necessary to call itself a cinematic work. Like Amir Ramsis’s 2012 documentary Jews of Egypt, We Are Egyptian Armenians employs the kind of storytelling more at home on the History Channel than in a cinema. (Unsurprisingly, Ramsis has said he supported and oversaw the making of this film.)
After listening to the booming voiceover narrated in the style of a television news report for 10 minutes, I decided to give up on looking for narrative and surrender to a history lesson with visual aides.
If we do judge this film as a history lesson, I would have to say it is quite successful. Although it focuses on Egypt’s modern history, the filmmakers point out that Armenians had lived in Egypt long before the genocide that forced their displacement in 1915. As an example, they tell us that Mohamed Ali took control of Egypt in the early 19th century the with the help of an Armenian money-changer, who was then appointed the khedive’s financial representative.
Sobhy and his team aggregate the stories of prominent figures of Armenian descent in Egypt’s modern history. Nubar Pasha Nubarian became Egypt’s first prime minister in 1878. Yacoub Arteen was known as “the Great Teacher” for his reforms in Egypt’s educational system in the mid-19th century. Boghos Bey Yusufian was Egypt’s leading statesman in the early 19th century and the first Christian to be granted the title Bey during Mohamed Ali’s reign. The three unnamed brothers who designed and erected the three monumental gates of old Cairo in the 11th century were also Armenian.
Methodically, we continue through the list of accomplished Armenians, accompanied by archival images from the public domain, as well as family photographs. From Alexander Saroukhan, acclaimed cartoonist for Rose el-Yusuf magazine (among other publications), whose ink sketches satirized fascist currents in Europe and social structures in Egypt, to Levon Alexander Boyadjian, better known as celebrity photographer and eccentric self-portraitist Van Leo. We learn of the Armenian ancestry of child actor Feyrouz (originally Perouz Artin Kalfayan) and her sister Nelly (famous for her Ramadan television variety shows), as well as Egyptian singer Anoushka. We learn that the Kalousdian-Nubarian Armenian school, established in 1854, is Egypt’s oldest private educational institution, and that Artin’s delicatessen on Abdelaziz Street was once the best place in Cairo to get basterma. But it all feels like one interesting fun fact after another.
Granted, there are attempts at a narrative. The film progresses more or less chronologically, and we’re told of the role Armenian-Egyptians played in the rise of various industries, from printmaking and metalwork to jewelry making and leatherwork, only to have their businesses nationalized by Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s, leading to an exodus of Egyptian Armenians, this time to Europe, the United States and Canada, in the 1960s.
But this part of the story is only briefly mentioned so as not to sidetrack us from the romantic filter imposed by the film. The idealized nationalist undertone comes to its peak in the last few minutes, when the characters seem to be responding to the filmmakers’ question on whether they consider themselves more Armenian or Egyptian. The overwhelming answer is “Both of course!” and one man emphatically adds, “We’re Egyptian and we’ll never leave Egypt!” I found this confusing because I didn’t realize he was being asked to.
Unfortunately, in its laudable attempt to chronicle the history of this community, We Are Egyptian Armenians falls into a reductionist trap, treating its characters and inviting them to treat themselves as representatives rather than people. Segments of the film show characters of Armenian descent taking about themselves in the third person, saying things like “Armenians have always had a talent for languages — an Armenian will usually speak three or four” or “It’s a well known fact that Armenians are the best jewelers.” By framing its pseudo-narrative in these broad generalizations, the film communicates cultural stereotypes in place of stories.
Fortunately that’s not the case throughout the entire film. I particularly enjoyed the personal narrative of Ashod Papazian, who runs his family’s iconic watchmaking business, Maison Francis Papazian, in downtown Cairo. And the reminiscences of one old chain-smoking man who recalled, in broken Arabic, watching the king’s parade as a child and feeling a simple happiness. The film is starred with similar sentimental moments that could have leant it the real human element it lacks, had they been allowed to exist for longer.
A different approach is Ahmed Nabil’s 2014 film 17 Fouad Street, which focuses on the ageing Armenian owner of shoe store Chaussures Edouard, and presents us with a portrait of a bygone era by inviting us to look closely at a single subject, rather than offering the sweeping survey We Are Egyptian Armenians does.
Ultimately, I appreciated the chance to learn about an Egyptian minority group other than the Jewish community, which, as a subject of inquiry, fetishism and fascination, has been over-exploited. I was also struck by the enduring resilience and strong cultural identity the characters seemed to share. In a scene where young children marked the centennial of the Armenian genocide last year, I wondered what it must be like for these fourth-generation Egyptian Armenians, living their lives preserving a collective identity shaped by a massacre decades before their birth. The story of the Armenian community has all the necessary dramatic elements to keep an audience captive, but I wish we had been allowed to move through their lives at a slower pace, or that the filmmakers had been less ambitious and focused on a smaller group of subjects.
We Are Egyptian Armenians is aptly named. Just as the title implies, we are only fleetingly introduced to a massive cast of characters who barely have the chance to say “Hello! I am an Egyptian Armenian and let me tell you my sto…” before they disappear. Because we do not have the chance to linger on one story or narrative, all we end up learning about these people is what the title already tells us — that they are Egyptian Armenians.