It was early afternoon in the Upper Egyptian village of Abu Djoud in Luxor. Children were cheering and playing traditional games in unpaved alleyways in front of their homes. Then they headed for a felucca ride on the Nile that their village overlooks. The rays of the afternoon sun shone across the happy and innocent faces of the children, very much like those introduced by French documentary film director Aurélie Chaleur in her film Children of the Nile.
The documentary records a special journey into the traditional lives of Upper Egyptians seen through the eyes of children. It was being screened in Abu Djoud, a village near the Karnak Temple in Luxor. It features the lives of two children, Raouda and Bastud, from the family of Mohamed Mourad, leader of a famous musical troupe called the Musicians of the Nile. His band, dubbed Mataqils, is known for being made up of many talented musicians from Upper Egypt.
“Their settlement has a surreal atmosphere between a rural and a small urban neighbourhood and is a microcosm of a community numbering more than 70 people. These are the 26 children of Mohamed, all of whom today are married,” Chaleur writes in the introduction to her documentary. “On foot, by horse or by felucca, Raouda and Bastud take us on a voyage of discovery of their daily lives and their community and help us to explore their world of the alleyways, the neighbourhood, the banks of the Nile, and traditional celebrations.”
Upper Egypt has been the focus of many documentaries, but many only look at poverty, child labour, and gender issues, things which still unfortunately can affect this part of Egypt. Although Upper Egypt accounts for only 40 per cent of the country’s population, figures indicate that it is also where 60 per cent of those living in poverty and 80 per cent of those living in severe poverty are located. More than half the population of Upper Egypt is under the age of 29, while over one third of all young people are among the poorest members of society and more than half are jobless, according to a report from UNICEF, the UN children’s agency.
Upper Egypt is predominantly rural, with 75 per cent of its young people living in rural areas, and it is where the country’s poorest 1,000 villages are concentrated. Poorer people in the region, both men and women, may be uneducated, out of the labour force or unemployed, and the region as a whole has a higher percentage of child labour. Many documentaries, including those made by UN agencies, have tried to raise awareness of such issues and prompt government and non-governmental organisations to exert more efforts to solve them.
In a previous interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, one NGO volunteer described how many people in Upper Egypt still “do not have running water connected to their houses or mains sewerage, and many of their homes are not adequately built”. Moreover, “many are suffering from unemployment or malnutrition,” she added. “Even so, many people are still content with their lives.”
This sense of contentment has not featured in many documentaries on Upper Egypt, however. Part of the uniqueness of Children of the Nile thus stems from the fact that it provides a different perspective on life in Upper Egypt through its focus on art and culture. The documentary sheds light on life in the region through its focus on the daily life of a family of musicians in Luxor. It focuses on the happiness that can lie in a rural life style and the freedom and warmth it can provide far from the pressures of modern urban life.
The documentary reveals a different style of life, in which both elders and children obviously enjoy their lives, even if these look very different to some. Although they may not have modern facilities, housing, or education, Chaleur’s message in the film seems to be that being different does not mean being less privileged. These children are happy, and that is what matters.
VISITS TO LUXOR: Having graduated from the University of Sophia Antipolis in Nice in France, Chaleur embarked on a career in music production in Paris, later working as coordinator of the Festival of Polyphonic Meeting in Corsica.
Her passion for music was one reason why she travelled to India in 2006 to explore different types of music. That trip marked her career, as while working with traditional musicians and street children in India to produce albums and videos, Chaleur also developed a passion for such children. She joined an NGO called “Going to School” and volunteered in its campaign called “Girl Star” aimed at educating girls in New Delhi. Back in Paris, she decided to continue making documentaries in different parts of the world related to her passions of music and children.
The Children of the Nile is one of a series of documentaries Chaleur has made in different parts of the world, including India, Mozambique and Morocco. To produce her documentary on Egypt, she travelled to Luxor and spent 10 days at Mourad’s home in Abu Djoud, where she was warmly welcomed by his extended family of musicians. Mourad has been married six times and has 55 grandchildren, many of them members of his folkloric music group the Musicians of the Nile. The band not only performs at local moulids (popular festivals), but has also travelled the world, showcasing its talents at special events and festivities.
Taken by the family’s music and hospitality, Chaleur had pleasure in capturing aspects of the family’s lifestyle on film. “I was introduced to this family because of its musical heritage, and I came with an artistic director from Paris who knew them really well to select different musicians for French festivals,” Chaleur said. “I spent time in the house when I wasn’t with the musicians on the occasions I was filming, and I spent some time with the children as it was easier for me as I didn’t have to speak Arabic.”
Chaleur said she had been particularly “fascinated with the way this house and street was so full of life and stories, and the way the family included me in their lives so I could film them without having any issues. They really adopted me,” she said.
When she came back to France a few months later, Chaleur edited a short version of the time she had spent in the village and shared it with the artistic director. This version “showed another aspect to music in their life, and he [the director] was interested to share this at his festival in France,” Chaleur said. “So he offered to showcase my work at his festival for a young audience. As I was also doing a documentary on the family, he would also invite the musicians. That’s how I came back to Luxor after working with children in India, and that’s what interested me about this family.”
“I wanted to share how their lifestyle was different and joyful,” she said.
The documentary starts with images of the village alleyways at dawn and the family living together in the warmth of their house. It is a choice that has nothing to do with a lack of facilities: the film makes it clear that they live together with family rooms on one side of the house and animals on the other because they feel happy this way.
“I was overwhelmed by the warmth of this way of living —this togetherness and the way they welcomed me,” Chaleur noted. “I was not exposed to the town, but was mainly in this street where one side was for family members and the other side was for animals. I am used to travelling in different levels of comfort and I did not mind eating on the floor like in India or eating with my hands, which I also used to do in India when I was living there.
“Sleeping on a mattress on the floor is not a problem for me. It was not a problem for my father either when I took him to the village,” Chaleur said.
HAPPY IN THEIR OWN WAY: Children were the main focus of Chaleur’s interest, and her lens saw the smiles and laughter that are not featured in other documentaries.
She was particularly moved by how “the children felt free. They were organising themselves, and they had their own lives without the adults. It was very sweet to watch. But as soon as they needed something, they came to the adults for help, and they took the time for them. Not just the mothers, but the fathers and uncles as well. The only thing that struck me was the kind of food they were eating in between meals. I was surprised by the amount of sugar they had access to,” she said.
Mourad’s children seemed to be more privileged than their peers in nearby areas. “I do not consider Mohamed Mourad’s family to be poor at all,” Chaleur maintained. “The elders had traveled all over the world with their music, and they had managed to sustain the family in a very clever way: making space in the street for the family, building upper floors to make more room for them, sending the children to school.”
Issues of poverty, illiteracy, inadequate infrastructure, child labour, school drop-out rates, and gender issues — often dealt with in discussions of Upper Egypt — seemed to be unimportant for Chaleur, whose mission as an artist is to explore different cultures where different arts are born. “I did not travel to other areas, so I cannot really talk about other rural areas in Upper Egypt. It was not my focus while being there,” Chaleur maintained. “When I went to some moulids, it did not seem to me that people could not take their children there or that they could not buy food.”
“Obviously the level of facilities is different from where I live, and I had to adjust,” she said. “But I had hot water to bath; there was a toilet in the house; and I had my privacy. The family do not choose to have privacy — they sleep in one room, for example. But that is not because they are lacking in space like in some houses I visit in India. It is because they choose to stay together. So, they might not have enough toilets for many people to stay in the house, and maybe the hygiene is not up to the usual standard, but they don’t fall sick for this reason. They have electricity, water, and enough food for everyone.
“I followed some of the children to school, but their goal was to become musicians like their father and uncles, so they spent time at home to learn from them and to go with them wherever they played music,” Chaleur said. “It was a transmission process.
“About illiteracy, I am not sure I can tell you much as I was not speaking or writing the language,” she said when asked about the children’s level of education. “The point of my documentary was to show how their lifestyle was different, to highlight the joy of it, not to show what’s lacking and how they should change it.”
And what about the women in the family? “The women support the men who work outside the house by taking care of the house and the family — cooking, washing clothes, etc. So the mothers are teaching what they know of their lives to the girls, and the little ones play like any other children,” Chaleur replied.
“And again I can only talk about this family, not the wider rural community. By the way, to me Luxor is not a rural area. The way this particular family lives within the city is quite rural, yes, but this does not mean that their surroundings are all the same. You need to look at the history of this family that used to live a travelling lifestyle but then settled down and finally decided to live in the village. Their previous lifestyle did not get them used to education in the way they might have done. But it’s the same all over the world with traditional musicians living in villages: they take care of themselves and of transmitting their culture and music. It does not mean they are poor.
“This family and these children are happy,” Chaleur elaborated. She resisted the idea that people should feel sympathy for the children, perhaps because they lack a proper education or live in an informal housing area.
“Why should we feel that? We could be inspired. They live a life pretty much free from consumerism, and that does not mean they are poor. They have money. They just choose a lifestyle in sync with where they are coming from and not to copy the Western lifestyle. Who said that was best,” she asked.
BY CHILDREN FOR CHILDREN: Chaleur said her documentary was meant to be “a film for children by children.”
She was inspired to make the film while she was in India, and she showed 14 minutes of her first visit to Luxor to Indian children living in villages as part of her voluntary work with the Indian NGO. She then asked the Indian children what they would like to know about the Egyptian children in the film. The Indian children were curious about what the children’s houses looked like, what they had to eat, where they went to school, what games they played, and how they interacted with each other, and so on, Chaleur commented in an interview with director Sherif Awad.
In that sense, Chaleur “followed the family in their daily lives” while “being sure she was covering what the Indian children had asked” her.
So how did children in France and India receive the film? “The children loved to discover other children’s lives. Of course, they had questions as some of them do not live the same way,” Chaleur said. “The children in India did not react in the same way as the children in France, because their references are different. So, their questions were different, but there was no judgment — just curiosity, which demanded attention so they did not interpret what they saw in the wrong way.”
“I am sure that if I invited them to meet, they would get along well and play together and teach each other different things. As far as the adults who saw the film are concerned, they were more impressed at the way the family runs things with so many people in one place.”
Chaleur was particularly satisfied with the children’s reaction and the fact that the film had fulfilled its primary mission. “I think the children in the audience just took this film for what it is: an encounter with another way of life that is more traditional, less modern, more rural, less concerned with knowledge from books and more with knowledge from each other — the know-how of life. I think they liked the lifestyle, but I did not even ask them that question, which implies some kind of judgment. I asked them if they would like to invite the children to their homes, and they said yes. I asked them if they would like to travel to meet them, and they said yes as well.”
Asked whether documentaries have a role to play in alleviating poverty and tackling issues of illiteracy and gender discrimination, Chaleur was positive. “They can definitely do that if that is the purpose of the documentary, though this was not mine and not even part of my field of work,” she said. Her mission was different: “I promote music and culture in their uniqueness.
“Obviously, gender discrimination is present: the girls are not allowed to sing, and they stay at home and take care of the house. But this has nothing to do with poverty or even education. It’s a cultural thing,” Chaleur suggested. “Then, of course we can inspire people to go to school by showing them documentaries, and also to learn a new language, to travel, and to experience something new. They might decide for themselves what’s good for them. But who are we to decide? I asked myself this question when I made another documentary on child musicians in India. Who am I to decide whether they should go to school or whether they should practice their ancestral form of singing to save their traditions?
“For them, it was part of their caste, destiny, and life purpose. These things can change, but they should decide rather than us. If they ask for help, we might be able to play a role.”
Having a passion for music in general, Chaleur has also developed a special interest in oriental music and says that Sufi singers from Upper Egypt deserve more international exposure. But since transmission is equally important, she believes that children in France and other parts of the world should also be introduced to the culture surrounding the oriental arts so that they feel more curious to discover this kind of music.
“I could see that in the exhibition [where the film was displayed in France]: The children wanted to try the instruments and to listen to the musicians playing live. The interest generated by the film could thus make space for more artists to play abroad in the future,” Chaleur concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.