One afternoon a few years ago, a friend and I had ducked out of Egypt’s summer heat and into the luxury Semiramis Hotel in downtown Cairo in search of a foreign newspaper. As we reached the doorway of the cramped gift shop, an elderly man, well-dressed, a slight tremble to his hands, came ambling out with a copy of Vogue tucked under his arm. My friend introduced me, traded greetings with the man and, once he’d gone, explained to me: “His grandfather was once the ruler of Egypt. The British removed him for siding with Germany in World War One.” Had many things turned out differently, my new acquaintance might have been a king.
Vestiges of royal Egypt were perceptible here and there amid the simmer and boil of daily life in Mubarak-era Cairo – the fine old mansions, some restored and some in disrepair; the elderly men and women you sometimes saw on the street, dressed as if by British tailors; and in the sighs of a few liberals who wondered, privately, what might have happened to Egypt if 1952 had not.
The historian Mahmoud Sabit has unearthed a rare and charming artifact of the very moment when monarchist Egypt became revolutionary Egypt. A recent documentary, “In Search of ‘Blood and Sand,’” 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.
To make matters stranger, the role of the British agent was played by the British diplomat Sir James Murray. The role of the American agent was played by Bob Simpson, at that time special assistant to the American ambassador in Cairo.
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.
Variety had this to say about the resulting documentary:
“Intelligent nostalgia is rarer than intelligent comedy, yet Wael Omar and Philippe Dib beautifully succeed in resurrecting the teetering glamour of Egypt’s late monarchy in their evocative In Search of ‘Oil and Sand’. Their subject couldn’t be more perfect: Urbane Mahmoud Sabit, a distant cousin of King Farouk, discovered outtakes of an amateur film his parents shot with society friends in the heady days before the 1952 revolution. The kind of docu that sends auds into their imaginations as well as their history books, In Search will be sought out by nonfiction sidebars, and is ideal for smallscreen rotation.”