CAIRO — Can a fire that destroyed many of the props that are iconic for the Egyptian cinema pave the way for the creation of a film museum displaying props and set decorations in Egypt? Abbas Saber, Egyptian prop master who lost thousands of dollars worth of merchandise in a fire this spring, certainly hopes so.
The props and decorations in Saber’s store in 6th of October City, 20 miles from Cairo, have featured in Egyptian cinema and TV series since the first half of the 20th century. In an interview with Al-Monitor, Saber said that he followed in the footsteps of his father, who had started the business in 1934, in supplying props and furniture for films.
The company, Props Egypt, provided props for the legendary Egyptian films of the late 1950s and 1960s, such as award-winning films “The Land” and “The Nightingales’ Prayer.” Saber joined his father in 1959 and their business expanded with the start of Egyptian television in the early 1960s.
The 1960s were a transition period in terms of decor and accessories used in films, accompanied by the gradual development of TV dramas, a trend that further developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1984, the TV series "One Thousand and One Nights" was first produced, for which Saber's company provided the bed of Sherazade.
Saber bought furniture and accessories from the houses that were built in the 19th century directly from the owners or from the market sellers of “robabekya,” a corrupt version of the Italian word “roba vecchia” that means junk. His taste and his collections are eclectic and include almost anything from phonographs to vintage clothes, carpets to vases and even old doors and windows in the traditional Arabic design, which are great decor pieces for historical dramas. He bought antiques from the palaces of senior state officials of the past at auctions, and he even bought the items of collectors from within the film industry such as Naguib Khoury, Abdul Salam al-Sherif and Agmi Abdul Rahman.
By the 1990s, Saber had become Egypt’s famous prop master and the largest supplier of props and decorations for Egyptian films and TV series. The props he collected from the old houses in the Jewish quarter were used in the TV series “Haret al-Yahoud” ("Jewish Quarter") in 2015.
Prized possessions in his collection include items that cinephiles recognize immediately: the office desk and library of Selim Albadry Pasha, one of the main characters of the longest-running Egyptian drama series "Al Helmeya Nights”; Sherazade's bed in "One Thousand and One Nights"; and the antiques in Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum's home in a TV series carrying the superstar’s name. In 2001, the company provided the exact same office furniture and accessories of President Anwar Sadat for the film "Ayam El-Sadat" ("Days of Sadat").
Saber also owns period pieces that show the development of technology in Egyptian households, even though some have yet to be used in a film or TV series. His collection includes hundreds of old radios, TVs, cellphones and fans, as well as weapons such as swords, knifes and guns from the 1800s and early 1900s. In addition, he owns hundreds of copies of old film posters and old newspapers reporting on the 1919 revolution and the wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973.
Saber told Al-Monitor the fire that broke out April 23 in his warehouse in 6th of October City “destroyed almost everything.” The incident took place before the start of the Egyptian Ramadan TV series that was aired May 16.
Saber along with his team and with the help of the Civil Defense Forces managed to put out the fire to save the accessories and decorations that were used in about 18 TV dramas and Ramadan series. But some of the oldest pieces and designs that featured in the old Egyptian films and TV series were damaged by the fire. Saber said that more than 5,000 pieces have been destroyed.
Saber has transferred some of the damaged items to a large plot of land that he owns in the Green Belt, 6th of October City, so decor experts and carpenters can repair them.
He noted this was not the first time a fire broke out in one of his six warehouses. In 2011, a major fire raged in a warehouse in 6th of October City, which contained several vintage paintings and accessories from the beginning of the 20th century, which were used for the TV series “Om Kulthum.”
Another one of Saber's warehouses where costumes, vases and carpets are stored caught fire in 2013 when a worker threw a cigarette on a pile of carpets and clothing.
During the recording of the film “Kalimni, Shukran” (“Please, Call Me”) in Studio Egypt in 2010, some of Saber’s accessories were also damaged by a fire on the set. The losses were estimated at about 3 million Egyptian pounds (roughly $167,500).
“[Providing props for films] is not an easy job,” said Saber, noting that his biggest challenges are “workers” and “storage.” He explained that setting up props for films or TV series requires an “army of workers” to search for the required props, furniture and costumes. Some items need to be stitched, cleaned or restored before they can be used.
It is a challenge to find a warehouse where they can be kept under the appropriate conditions, as renting a warehouse or store is very expensive, according to Saber.
“My warehouses do not provide enough space and safe storage for the items — some of which are part of Egyptian cinema history,” he said.
He hopes that the state would propose to turn the warehouses into museums to protect and display the props and decorations, similarly to the film museums in Iran.
Nader Adly, a film critic who writes for several Egyptian newspapers, told Al-Monitor, “Decorations and accessories are a very important part of a film set for actors to truly get into their characters. Similarly the stage props are important to convince viewers of the era or atmosphere in the film plot.”
Adly added, “I wish the state would establish museums to help preserve these valuable items that also show the evolution of the clothes, decorations and furniture in the Egyptian cinema industry.”
Meanwhile, Egyptian producer and filmmaker Hesham Soliman has called upon other producers and directors to join hands to establish the much-anticipated museum, without the need to wait for the state to take the initiative. “The state has already a lot on its plate with the successive economic and security crises it is facing. It is the role of the artists themselves to take the initiative to set up the museum.”
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