When I was a child, I used to write and hide secret letters to the archeologists of the future. In them, I’d describe my life and the world around me; a window into a specific moment captured for ever in a time capsule. Now, happily, I do that professionally.
I was born in Swansea, the daughter of a Welsh mother and an Egyptian father. When I was a few weeks old I was taken to Cairo, which is where my parents were living. Throughout my teenage years I never saw young women like me on screen.
The only movies I had access to as a child growing up in Cairo were black and white musicals from the 1930s and 40s, the golden age of Egyptian cinema. The women in these films were predominantly sexualised bellydancers and unlike any of the women in my life. There certainly weren’t any stories about refugees.
And then one day my father came home with a VHS player and a new world opened up. I watched nearly all the Hollywood films of the 80s and 90s. Films such as Ghostbusters, Dirty Dancing and all John Hughes’s films. But the Arabs in these films made me uneasy. They were always barbaric baddies. In Raiders of the Lost Arc, Indiana Jones shrugs and then casually shoots an Arab swordsman who confronts him, Doc Brown is shot by Libyan plutonium dealers in Back to the Future and Disney’s Aladdin opens with the lyrics: “Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place / Where the caravan camels roam / Where they cut off your ear / If they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but, hey, it’s home!’’
Arab women were pretty much nonexistent. If present, they were either oppressed victims, veiled in black, or – again – sexy bellydancers. After 9/11, a third role opened up: the terrorist.
Over the past 21 years, things have slowly begun to change – if not in cinema, then elsewhere across culture. Moon Knight’s Layla is an unapologetically Arab superhero. Her curly hair hasn’t been straightened in an attempt to appear more western. She is fierce, fends for herself and has agency within the narrative. Likewise Kamala Khan, the Pakistani-American and first Muslim superhero of the Ms Marvel television series. Yet mortal portrayals of Arab women lag conspicuously behind. There, the effects of decades of dehumanisation seem harder to shake.
When I started making films, I paradoxically did not think about my own gender or race. I never questioned why my first film, My Brother the Devil, was predominantly a story about brothers and men – told with what people reductively, I believe, perceived as a masculine style. Virginia Woolf wrote that “the androgynous mind is resonant and porous” – and the most conducive to creative freedom. This is something to which I aspire. It’s the film-maker’s job to inhabit all our characters, regardless of gender.
So, I have now made a film about two real-life superheroes which I hope might have inspired my 16-year-old self: about two sisters fleeing Syria in 2015, and how one of them goes on to become an Olympic swimmer and the other makes a decision so brave that it’s worthy of a gold medal.
On one level it’s a classic, underdog sports movie. But by dint of featuring teenage Arab refugee girls as the heroines, I think it feels revolutionary. When I screened the film in Cairo and Marrakech, the Arab audiences burst into tears and applause when the younger sister won her race. They were witnessing something they’d never seen before: an Arab girl triumphing on the world stage.
It also happens to be true. Yusra and Sara Mardini were making the perilous voyage from Turkey to Greece when the engine on their boat failed – it was old, and carrying too many people. They jumped into the sea and swam the dinghy to safety, saving the lives of those on board. They eventually made it to Berlin, where they found a swimming coach. In 2016, Yusra competed at the Rio Olympics, and then again in Tokyo in 2020.
War turns everything on its head. The patriarchal, cultural and religious structures that preserve society are shaken. If it hadn’t been for the Syrian war, Yusra and Sara would never have had the freedom to go on such a journey without their parents – or to take their lives into their own hands. Female ambition is often treated as a thing of shame, but I wanted to celebrate it. In the Mardini sisters I saw a chance to make heroes out of the type of modern, liberal Arab women who cinema usually ignores.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote: “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Perhaps archeologists 200 years from now will come across The Swimmers and it will go some way towards completing the picture in its depiction of young Arab women and refugees. They will be seen as they are in real life – as complicated, multifaceted people who contain multitudes.