There is no such thing as one common struggle Egyptian women go through. Egyptian women’s struggles differ depending on their social background and personal circumstances. The one thing they all have in common is that at the end of the day, for all of them it all comes down to their perseverance.
The film Om Amira is a documentary that captures an Egyptian woman’s struggle. It captivated the hearts of many, was screened numerous times in Egypt and all over the world, and was the first Egyptian film to be screened in the Berlin Film Festival in the last 30 years. The film tells the story of Om Amira, an Egyptian mother of two who is striving to make a living for her two daughters and husbands. Amira, the daughter from whom both the woman and subsequently the film got their namesakes, had struggled with heart problems her entire life. The film follows Om Amira’s day-to-day life as she tries to continue providing for her family – by selling French Fries sandwiches – and treat her daughter.
Despite her mother’s efforts and the filmmakers’ support, Amira couldn’t be saved. Yet her story continues to provide hope and much needed insight to viewers all over the world. We spoke to Naji Ismail, Om Amira’s Director, as well as Om Amira herself, in an attempt to put the story into perspective.
she’s a lovely lady, she felt the need to stand by us and we felt that she was one of us
The whole thing started with Rahala, the production company which Naji and another director friend of his, Shady Ishak started together. Other than working on other directors’ projects, they work on their own, including Om Amira, “I’ve known Om Amira for five or six years, and I proposed the project of the movie about her to GIZ”, he tells, “who were holding a competition to support women who provide for their families”.
Om Amira was filmed over four months, with the actual filming taking place over five days. During these four months, Amira passed away, “four days of shooting took place before Amira passed away. At that point we edited the film and that was supposed to be the end”, he says, “then Om Amira herself told us she wants to finish the film and that it’s her last memory with Amira and she wants it to turn out in the best way possible”. This wasn’t Om Amira’s only concern, “she’s a lovely lady, she felt the need to stand by us and we felt that she was one of us”, he tells.
Since the release of the film, the reaction of Om Amira has been both emotional and supportive, “she always attends the screenings, and every time she does she ends up in tears”, he says, “it’s always very emotional”. The film’s spread helped Om Amira’s business, though, “Om Amira was always well-known around the area, but after the film more people started knowing about her and even her clients changed”, he confirms.
When it comes to the increase of women supporting their families financially, Naji recognizes the phenomenon. He has his own theory about it, “it’s not always men sitting around demanding that their women work to feed them and their children” he explains, “even when that happens there’s a sense of helplessness for a man who is unable to provide for his family”.
there’s a sense of helplessness for a man who is unable to provide for his family
This well-received documentary was not easy to make. To Naji, the main character is the star, and instead of just gathering information about them, the film is done on their own terms, “she should be able to decide when to film; it can’t be forced”, he says. The bigger difficulty when filming in public isn’t with the people on the streets, “I can handle harassment from people; what I can’t handle is harassment from the security forces”, he tells, “the use of their authority to stop me from filming is the one thing I can’t handle”.
Naji’s view on his future work isn’t bound by a certain genre, “life is simple. The idea I like, I execute”, he concludes. At the time being, he is working on a short fiction film.
Since the film, Om Amira’s life continued to change. After the tragic loss of her daughter, came that of her husband. She is still full of admirable acceptance, though, “this movie is my life. They saw a woman struggling for her family and made a film about her”, she says, “what changed is that I lost my daughter and then her father. Now I’m working hard for my other daughter; I want to get her educated and married, but still, I’m tired. It’s not like before”.
if she wants to continue to University I’ll support her as long as I live, and then I want her to get married because I’m getting tired
Om Amira’s prime concern is her remaining daughter’s wellbeing, “I want her to finish her studies; she has one more year to go in school”, she says, “if she wants to continue to University I’ll support her as long as I live, and then I want her to get married because I’m getting tired”.
As a woman who works, quite literally, day and night, Om Amira has encountered her fair share of annoyances, “it’s not one person in particular. Sometimes you’d encounter a drunk, though this has decreased lately”, she explains, “but if someone is insane, they can’t help it”.
Om Amira’s livelihood depends on her cart. While a shop would help things, that didn’t work out, “I had a shop, but problems started happening and I left it even after I had it prepared for opening; nothing matters if my neighbors will be upset”, she says. She still has her spot where she sells sandwiches from her cart, “the owner of this place decided to let me stay and work from here”, she tells, “because he knows I’m raising my daughter, I’d like to thank him, actually”. As for work permits for her cart, she knows she needs one, but has no knowledge of how to go about it, “I don’t know where to go or what paperwork I need”. There is always the police to consider, “the entire country is on edge; things are not easy for anyone”, she explains, “and we respect that. I just implore them to understand that if I had any other means of income for my daughter and I, I would have done that”. Om Amira’s work is taking its toll on her and she experiences severe pain, but she would never consider the alternative; begging, “should I stay home and beg for money? I wouldn’t accept that”, she tells, “I work as hard as I can so I don’t need a single Pound from anyone”.
should I stay home and beg for money? I wouldn’t accept that
As we spent more time with Om Amira, we noticed that she is respected by all the men in her area, “it has always been like this, they can tell I’m a woman who is working hard for her family”, she explains. She, too, noticed that many women are now the providers for their families, “that’s life, sometimes the husband dies or is sick, sometimes women make poor choices when they’re getting married and they end up with men who want women to provide for them”, she tells, “these women shouldn’t let that happen; they should kick those men out and raise their children and that’s it”.
When Om Amira was approached by Naji for the film, she didn’t dismiss it, “he could tell I’m a hard-working woman”, she recollects, “when he told me he wanted to make a movie about me I laughed and said ‘out of everything in the world you chose Om Amira?’ he said he wanted to do this because he could tell I’m a hard-working woman”. Naji and Shady’s friendship with Om Amira extended beyond the film. During the filming, when Amira got ill, they helped her get Amira to Dr. Magdy Yacoub.
as for Amira, he said she will tour the whole world, and when I asked him how so, he started crying
The film’s positive reception wasn’t only due to how nicely directed and well crafted it was, but also because of how fascinating Amira’s story was. Turns out there is more to it; and the film being screened all over the world was an eerily beautiful kind of closure to Om Amira, “around 25 years ago, an American man and an African man used to sit at the café and play dominos”, she recalls, “and Amira and Basma used to watch them. One day the African man took the girls’ hands to tell their fortune”. Om Amira is still reluctant to believe in the supernatural, but she still tells the story with awe, “for Basma, he said she will do great at school and go on to do well in life”, she tells, “as for Amira, he said she will tour the whole world, and when I asked him how so, he started crying”.
Make sure to catch Om Amira for a beautifully told story about Egyptian women’s lives that is all too real, extremely sobering, and above all, inspiring.