December 4th 2008; day 17 of 18 of filming

When I wrote the first draft of the script a couple of years ago, I imagined a scene between Bisan and Yusif at al-Saqi bookshop in Westbourne Grove. Having lived in London from the mid-1980s, I’ve always been enamoured with this shrine to all things written from our part of the world. Often I would set aside a whole morning to visit al-Saqi, hoping to spot the a new voice among the tens of new authors that the presses of Beirut, Cairo, Tunis, Casablanca, Damascus, and sometimes Baghdad, churn out every year. I would head to the nearest cafe, order a huge coffee and with the joy of a child unwrapping a present in christmas or the great Eid, I would gently glide my findings from the elegant plastic bag and simply start floating with the characters, stories, memoirs and poetry. It was here that I first read the Cairo trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz; Hikayat Zahrah/The Tale of Zahra by Hanan al-Shaikh; al-Nakhlah wa al-Jiran/The Palm Tree and the Neighbours by Gha’ib Tu’ma Farman; al-Masarrat wa al-Awja’/ Joy and Pain by the late Fu’ad al-Takarli; Mudun al-Milh/Cities of Salt by Abd al-Rahman Munif..the list goes on.
As I arrived to the sixth draft of the script, I was beginning to worry that I was deriving so much creative energy out of basing a pivotal scene in the film at a location without knowing for certain whether we would be allowed to film at the bookshop. A few months ago, I plucked the courage, and instead of simply taking my “finding” to the till, I said hello to the beautiful bookshop manager, Safa, whom I have known from a distance for many years now. It was she who had gently shown me more than ten years ago the three separate novels that make up the Cairo Trilogy. She was ever so generous, helpful and receptive to the idea of allowing me to film at the location. I remember walking out with a new book (Diana Abu Jaber’s The Language of Baklava) literally jumping with joy and excitement for being allowed to include in the film this place that has been an inspiration and a harbinger for one’s cultural orientation.

Today was the day. We arrived at 10am. Bit by bit, about a fifth of the contents of our Transit van began to line the corridors between the bookshelves. Once an HMI was turned on, I think the bookshop staff realized what they were in for:-)

Safa arrived at 11am; she was the epitomy of calm and charm. Not only did she not complain or rush us, she went out of her way to make sure we were able to keep our equipment in a safe space during the shoot.

At the end of the shoot, with the kit being piled back into the van, I was back at the till with a “finding” which Safa had reserved for me for a few weeks- “Arabian Jazz” by Diana Abu Jaber.

We were back in Knightsbridge for lunch.
Through his great scour and find skills, Kawa had managed to rent a people-carrier for two full days at an extraordinarly low price. We’ve been mulling over the model of the car that the character of Hussyan would drive- the story is set in late 2002/early 2003. When it came to it, we all were relieved to get a people carrier, period.
While Alessio, Kate and Alice were busy rigging the car with lights for the car scenes, I spent an hour or so going through the lines of the character of Hussayn with sayyid ‘Aziz al-Na’ib. We were sat on the staircase leading to the first floor, reading through the text and practicing the lines.

Thankfully, the car scenes went well: sayyid ‘Aziz was driving, with the camera on the passenger seat, Alessio propping himself uncomfortably against the dashboard and the windscreen, Axle and Kate hiding in the back seats, and me in the middle seats helping sayyid ‘Aziz with a very long speech.

Better come to a halt now- I was at my favourite bookshop today and there is a new book to take to bed…
Good night.

From top right: Mahmoud, Gabriella, Alice, Alessio, Tina, Riyadh, Axle

Nasri, Daphne, Arij


Rabii, the bookshop member of staff who took on the role of the bookshop assistant; Safa, the lovely bookshop manager who took on the role of a lovely bookshop manager; Daniel and some guy who insisted on the photo…

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