When Fadwa El Guindi was growing up in Cairo, she hoped to become an actress or a journalist. But "just as I was finishing college, the Aswan High Dam was being built, displacing the Nubians from their homes on the border of Egypt and Sudan. It was a great challenge to study a way of life that was vanishing," says El Guindi. She lived with the pastoral Nubians for a year and then studied and wrote about them for three more years in Egypt.
That work won her a scholarship to the University of Texas in Austin, one of the best anthropology departments in the United States. She earned her doctorate there in 1972 and began teaching at UCLA. But it was in 1982, when she moved to the University of Southern California, that she started down the path that has brought her so much praise.
Today, El Guindi is considered one of the top Arab ethnographers. In light of her childhood acting aspirations, it is appropriate that she has made her greatest contributions to anthropology using film. Her work has been richly rewarded, with her 27-minute film on an Egyptian birth ritual, "El Sebou'," winning prizes around the world.
El Guindi arrived at USC just as visual anthropology, which uses film to record people's customs, was beginning to blossom. It didn't take long for her to discover that there were almost no films in US libraries showing the "culturally significant transitions from birth to death" in Arab life. "It was an exciting, emerging field and I got the bug," she says. El Guindi set about filling that gap. "Film is one of the most powerful ways to convey culture. And the visual medium is more acceptable to the American public than books or articles because of the popularity of television."
"El Sebou'" was made in 1985 by an all-woman team. The ritual it records, which takes place seven days after birth in both Muslim and Coptic families, was filmed as it occurred, with no retakes, and reviewers say the film captures the essence of both the continuity and the change of tradition in a warm family environment.
El Guindi returned to Egypt in 1987 to make "El Moulid," which records a harvest-time festival celebrating the birth of a 13th-century Muslim cleric, Ahmad al-Badawy. The film premiered in Paris last March. Her next one, she says, will be about a Coptic religious ceremony. El Guindi's long-range aim is to record both public calendrical festivals and the transitions of the individual life cycle in a series called "Egyptian Celebrations of Life"; to achieve the goal, she has left teaching to set up her own non-profit ethnographic film foundation in Los Angeles, called El Nil-"The Nile."
Beyond the prizes her films have won, the 49-year-old film-maker says, one of the most rewarding parts of her work is the response she gets from young Arab women who see her as a role model. "I think, perhaps, because of my work, there will be a whole generation of female Arab ethnographic film-makers coming after me," she says. "That gives me a good feeling."
Brian Clark, a regular contributor to Aramco World, free-lances from Olympia, Washington.