On Fleeing Egypt and Studying Filmmaking in France
The repression of my homosexuality and the brutality of the Egyptian regime pushed me to leave Cairo forever.
Illustration by Ana Jaks.
Ahmed Sleiman* is 31 years old and originally from Egypt. He currently shares an apartment with roommates in Paris.
Cinema has been my passion since I was a kid, but no matter how hard you try, it's almost impossible to turn a passion like that into a job in Egypt. But when I arrived in France, I jumped at the chance.
I left Egypt four years ago when I was 27. As a young, homosexual man, it was very hard to live a normal life in my country. The Egyptian regimes—the actual military regime and the Muslim Brotherhood—have never tried to hide their hatred and contempt for queer people. While there is no law specifically banning homosexuality in Egypt, according to the New York Times, "since the 2013 military intervention that established former Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as the country's ruler, at least 250 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people have been arrested in a quiet crackdown that has shattered what had been an increasingly vibrant and visible community." So far, the sentences have ranged from two to 12 years.
And it's not just sexuality; art is policed as well. You can only study art or cinema at ludicrously expensive private institutions. Even if you could study it, the field is vigilantly watched by the regime, and the government exercises a strong control over film production, censoring whatever is considered unfit for the people of Egypt. If my life was going to be my own, I had to leave.
If my life was going to be my own, I had to leave.
When I first arrived in Paris, I didn't speak any French. I stayed with a friend from Palestine, and my goal was to enroll at a university to learn French. I applied to so many places and was rejected by all of them—Paris V, Créteil, and the Sorbonne included. I guess it didn't really matter, as I didn't have enough money to pay for them, anyway. Finally, I was accepted by a great university—it's quite leftist and open-minded, and I'm very happy to be studying there. At first, I started with a special French course for foreigners, and later I enrolled in a degree in film, which I'm still doing today.
My favorite class is on the history of politics and social issues in cinema. I especially love documentaries about politics and social development—we can learn so much about the world from them. So once we were asked to start making our own film, I knew I was always going to make a doc.
I chose a subject that, to me, is personal as well as political—the migrations of Nubians. They're an Egyptian minority—originally from Nubia in the South of Egypt—who have been fighting with the Egyptian government for decades. Nubians were first forced to migrate with the construction of the Aswan reserve in 1902, and then again in the 1960s because of the construction of the Aswan High Dam over the Nile. More than 100,000 Nubians were forced to leave their land and moved to Cairo and other cities in Egypt. Others went abroad.
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At the moment, the Egyptian government is planning to redevelop a site that once held 17 Nubian villages, to sell to investors. Returning to their land is an important issue for the Nubian community, and since my family is Nubian, it's an important issue for me, too. That's why I decided to make a documentary about Nubians living in Paris.
I'm working on it with two friends from university. Tarek* wrote the script—he's Syrian, knows a lot about the subject, and has already made two films about the civil war in Syria. Adeline* from Lebanon is behind the camera. Together, I think we have all the skills we need to make our documentary—even on such a low budget.
If I were in Egypt, it would be a whole lot harder—and maybe even risky—to make a documentary like this, and that's one reason I love Paris. But how could you not love a place so full of art and culture? I'm in a theater company, and I also play Tar (an Arabo-Andalusian musical instrument) in a band. We've played a few times in a bar near Place de la République. But I generally don't have much free time.
I'm also already working on another project with several students from my school—it's a documentary about our community of foreign students. The university has students from all over the world and together we speak just about any language. We're figuring out how to live and study in France when you're from a faraway country, and I'd like to show other people what that's like.
Illustration by Ana Jaks
*Names have been changed for safety purposes. Certain information has also been redacted.
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