Grounded in a sense of place and far richer in personality and understanding than might be expected from a brief synopsis, “Um Ghayeb: Mother of the Unborn” is a nuanced, moving portrait of a barren woman in rural Egypt. On the surface that may sound almost pathetic, but first-time documaker Nadine Salib looks beyond infertility and the deeply rooted, fascinating pre-Islamic superstitions holding sway in the region, allowing her subject a fuller and sadder character not solely tied to issues of motherhood. This beautifully lensed, insightful look at a little-known community should see significant fest traction, with possible release in doc-friendly art houses.
Upper Egypt, the vast, insular region in the country’s south, has long been economically depressed and culturally distinct from the urban hubs to the north. Isolated by the inhibiting twins of poverty and government neglect, the area remains tied to traditional social patterns, including the woman’s primary function as a baby-making tool. Penetrating these communities has always been a difficult task, and it’s to Salib’s enormous credit that she and her small crew were able to win the trust of a particular village’s residents.
Working-class and peasant women in Egypt are generally known not by their given names, but through their firstborn sons, so if a Fatima gives birth to an Ahmed, she’s henceforth known as Um Ahmed (Mother of Ahmed). So important is a woman’s status as mother that those incapable of giving birth are called Um Ghayeb, literally “Mother of the Absent.” That’s how some villagers call Hanan, who has been trying to conceive for the past 12 years.
Doctors told her she has problems with her uterus, but she’s determined to have a baby, both via basic medical options and also through the intercession of midwife Um Mansour, skilled in shamanistic practices stretching back, it’s said, to pharaonic times. Unsurprisingly water plays a key element, tied to the life-giving mythologies of the Nile, as do snakes, likely derived from the ancients’ worship of the snake goddess Renenutet, associated with fertility. Hanan tries them all, from stepping over a serpent to rolling in the dust.
She’s fortunate: Her gravedigger husband, Arabi, doesn’t want a divorce, though it’s within his rights to end the marriage and find a woman to bear him children (he’s been tested, so it’s not his biology at fault). As the docu develops, Hanan’s infertility becomes the catalyst for an existential crisis of distressing depth: As a woman, who is she if not a mother? How can she identify herself aside from the cutting name Um Ghayeb? Surrounded by an extended family including nieces and nephews, Hanan is constantly reminded of her inability to conceive.
Salib’s success at making Hanan feel at ease on camera is reflected in the way the woman surprisingly opens herself up. Whereas other pics might never have penetrated the surface distress, “Um Ghayeb” respects its subject enough to ensure she’s a three-dimensional figure, hardly limited to simple labels like “barren.” Respectful but revealing statements about her relationship with her husband — betrothed since they were kids — are remarkably frank, adding profundity to Hanan’s melancholia and also rebuking the idea that self-awareness is the prerogative of the educated classes.
Also noteworthy is the way Salib grounds the film in a sense of place, beautifully capturing the isolated village’s relationship to the earth and the surrounding flat, unforgiving countryside. A scene of Hanan distractedly watching TV as events unfold in Cairo’s Tahrir Square shows just how far away Upper Egypt is from that turmoil, which has only a tangential connection to village life. Occasionally the docu tries too hard to capture a kind of poetic lyricism via moody, often unnecessary underwater shots and such, though Sara Yahia’s sensitive lensing is a major asset.