With the longest-running film industry in the Arab world, Cairo has staked its claim as the Hollywood of the Middle East. Egypt’s rich cinema history began with silent films at the end of the 19th century and really exploded with the advent of sound in the 1930s, followed by government funding for filmmaking in the ’50s and ’60s.
Today, the vast majority of Middle Eastern and North African films are made in Cairo. And together with Egypt’s legendary music greats — including Umm Kulthum, who passed away in 1975, at the forefront — cinema has been responsible for exporting Cairo’s distinct Arabic dialect throughout the entire Arab world.
For any actor or singer in this region who wants to make it big, they must first come to Cairo.
“Go to any city in the Arab world and talk with a Cairo dialect, and everyone will understand you,” says Cairo native and short-film maker Ahmed Khalil, 35. “This is because Egyptian films have been spread all over the world.”
Cairo is like a poem, an epic.
The father of triplets says he has found inspiration for filming in many neighborhoods within this city of some 20 million souls, but Old Cairo, where the religious history and way of life is best preserved, inspires him the most.
“Cairo is like a poem, an epic,” says Khalil. “This is a city where, if you give yourself a chance to be a son or daughter of this place — if you try to understand it — you’ll find it so unique and different.”
His short films like “Crossroads” give viewers an authentic glimpse at a city that can be hard to decipher, placing the viewer in the middle of Cairo’s nonstop swirl of humanity in neighborhoods like Ard El-Lewa and Old Cairo.
Marriott TRAVELER sat down with Khalil to learn more about Cairo and the places around town that most move him.
How do you describe a city as enormous and full of emotions as Cairo to someone who’s never been there?
Egyptians call Cairo 'Egypt itself' because it's so huge and full of wonders.
Egyptians call Cairo “Egypt itself” because it’s so huge and full of wonders. Cairo doesn’t have one look. It’s a city of many faces, many cultures.
Each neighborhood has its own mood. Some have a European touch; others are more medieval. Some are full of gardens, and others are full of noise. There are the areas by the Nile, the hills of Mokattam in southeast Cairo …
When I am filming, all I have to do is choose the right spot to help me create the right vision and spirit for the storytelling. People are very kind and generous here. Sometimes they are hot-tempered, but they don’t keep those feelings in their hearts. Greet them with a smile or say one nice word in Arabic, and you will see.
What is it about Cairo that makes it such a special place for you to film?
Like any city, it’s about the faces and people here. And Cairo is special because you feel like you are in the middle of a symphony. The city is very crowded; it can be very hard. Every morning people start the day with the intention to finish something, despite all the traffic, pollution and other hardships.
Cairo is special because you feel like you are in the middle of a symphony.
Cairo is loud. You wake up with sounds all around you of people, busses and cars, everything. There’s the heat, too. My work tends to be philosophical. It inspires me how many people have lived in this city, how many stories have been told here and how many kids have played in these streets.
In my very first film, “Just a Day,” I show a peaceful young man from the beginning to the end of his day living in one of the old districts of Cairo. I tried to show the elements of the city that eventually turned him into an aggressive man. … You might be surprised that the film is actually a light comedy, and the only of that genre that I’ve made. I feel it gives a true look into the life of one man in this city.
Do you have a favorite Cairo cinema?
There are so many film houses in Cairo, from modern ones in malls and old cinemas that date to the beginning of the last century to cultural cafés and centers and new theaters that show international films and documentaries. Zawya was one of the first hubs in the city for international films and documentaries and is one of my favorites.
It was started in 2014 by award-winning female producer Marianne Khoury, who rented a hall in a big cinema in downtown Cairo to show European, Asian, Latin and independent American movies.
She also opened the door on opportunity here to showing independent Egyptian films, documentaries and short movies. While many film centers have followed since Zawya’s opening, trying to repeat its success, this theater retains its unique atmosphere as a meeting point for the city’s filmmakers.
For me, Zawya is always special, too, because I can enjoy a double espresso here instead of a tub of popcorn.
Where do you recommend for a night on the town?
If you love music, go to Cairo Jazz Club, a club in the Agouza neighborhood where famous and emerging underground bands perform everything from jazz, folklore music and electronic to oriental, Latin and other genres. I call this place a small temple of music.
For anyone who wants to write and direct, diversity is what makes a city interesting.
Because the place is small, the experience with the music is more intimate and intense. And even though this isn’t a spot where films have been shot, it is a place where Cairo’s community of filmmakers and artists gather.
What cafés around Cairo have inspired you in addition to the city’s iconic spots like Café Riche and El-Fishawy?
I like Café Kunst Gallery, a small café and gallery in downtown Cairo where I’ve had some great moments with artists preparing projects. The owner is incredibly welcoming and always open to the craziest initiatives. There are books to browse and buy here, as well as paintings and other works for purchase.
A similarly inspiring place near the Cairo Marriott Hotel & Omar Khayyam Casino is Sufi, a dimly lit café and bookstore in the heart of the Zamalek neighborhood with oriental decor and a mysterious atmosphere. Young artists from varying fields often meet here; it’s quieter than many other spots in Zamalek.
Do you have a favorite Cairo neighborhood?
Cairo is a place where you can see so many huge differences in one city. Cross a bridge and you’ll likely see something totally opposite of what you saw a block before. In the neighborhood of Heliopolis, where I live and often film, it’s an old district with Andalusian and even Italian architecture, as well as villas for the Belgian residents of Cairo.
For anyone who wants to write and direct, diversity is what makes a city interesting. My short films “Semicircle” and “The Gift” were partly shot in Heliopolis, and I chose to film here both because this part of town fits well with the storylines of those films and also because I know the story of this place — and its story is also mine, too.
I also like Zamalek Island, an extension of downtown Cairo, because it’s the heart of cultural activities and a place for artists to meet. It’s a mini cosmopolitan district famous for its cafés, international restaurants, the Cairo Opera House, embassies and location along the Nile.
But Old Cairo’s religious district is where I go for personal spiritual pilgrimage, starting with the Amr ibn Al-Aas Mosque, famous for being the first mosque built in Egypt and Africa. One of the oldest synagogues in Egypt, Ben Ezra, is also in this part of town, as well as the historical Hanging Church, Cairo’s famous Coptic church.
Being in this neighborhood is breathing the essence of the city; it’s pure inspiration. I enjoy the real taste of Cairo along Mo’ez Street, one of the city’s oldest, and in all of Old Cairo. This is where you find the narrow alleys full of cats, noise and voices that ring out all night long, where people play cards and backgammon and smoke shisha into the morning.
Until you’ve walked through and spent time in such a place, you won’t have understood anything about Cairo.