July 23, 2006

Love, tolerance temper life for Cairo street girls

By Jonathan Wright

CAIRO (Reuters) - Film-maker Tahani Rached, returning to
Egypt after almost 40 years in Canada, has revealed the hidden
lives of girls who live, beg, cheat, sniff glue, pop pills and
give birth on the streets of Cairo.

But unlike many other films on such themes, Rached's
one-hour documentary El-Banate Dol (Those Girls) finds many
positive aspects in their marginal lives -- their freedom,
their solidarity, their vitality and their capacity for love.

"It's a film full of hope because despite poverty, despite
abuse, humanity is still alive," Rached told Reuters.

In a symbolic opening scene, teenager Tata, a little
scruffy, her hair uncovered, trots on horseback down the main
street of the Mohandiseen district, between decrepit taxis and
the polished limousines of the wealthy.

None of the drivers raises an eyebrow at the exotic sight,
showing a tolerance at odds with a social conservatism which
frowns on nonconformity, especially among young women.

The film is a breakthrough for Egypt and has taken by
surprise audiences who never imagined that such wild girls
existed or, if they existed, did not think they had stories to
tell or plausible reasons for living as they do.

But the film did not come easy. Rached said she spent five
months "just being around" so that she could win the confidence
of the group of girls and find out how they live.

She also had to overcome the suspicions of the authorities
and local people, some of whom initially speculated that the
film team had come to steal kidneys, convert the girls to
Christianity or have them perform in pornographic movies.

"But after a time they saw us as just a part of the
neighborhood," she said.

Rached's crew then filmed 58 hours of material over six
weeks, mostly at night, when the streets of Cairo come alive.

"The day before you filmed, you had no idea what you would
film. It was they who decided what is in it," she said.


The crew found the girls mainly hanging out, defending
themselves in a hostile world, sometimes dancing, sometimes
singing but mostly just talking about their lives.

They reminisce with nostalgia about the boys they have
loved, now mostly in jail for petty crimes, and, in language
which has never passed Egyptian censorship, explain how best to
deal with the unwanted and often brutal advances of other men.

Maryam describes how she left an orphanage and began life
on the streets at the age of 14, how she cut her hair short to
look like a boy and how submitting to rape in an isolated
cemetery is better than having your face slashed and scarred
for life.

The girls take the film crew to a shack in the fields on
the edge of the city, where they say other girls have been
imprisoned for months as sexual slaves. The boys even have a
special word for the practice -- "storing up" a girl.

Ola Galal, a member of the audience, said she was surprised
to hear the girls, especially the way they talk without shame
about their sexual lives.

She said some Egyptians would object to the film. "They
have this idea about tarnishing the image of the country," she

Producer Karim Gamal el Din said the studio had sent an
expurgated version of the film to the censors, with many words
bleeped out, in the hope of showing it more widely.

Rached said she offered no solution for the girls, just
gave them a chance them to express themselves freely.

"My job is to make people aware of them and show them as
human beings. But nobody here knows what the solution is.
That's for society as a whole to work out," she told a

But the film also touched Rached personally.

"My main character I have to love otherwise I can't (film),
and Tata I adore. She grabbed me totally. I liked the way she
thought. There were many things I did not understand, how you
can go living like that? ... but life goes on," she said.

Rached also found a difference between the life of Cairo's
street girls and that of the homeless in other countries.

"In Paris, people live on the streets and they are in hell
alone. Here no, there is this solidarity, and one of the things
I have learned is how tolerant people were," she said.