Italian-born actress Sarita Marchesi has spent three years in Egypt learning Arabic and singing opera for Sinai Bedouins
By Sherif Awad
Photographs courtesy of sarita Marchesi
Visitors to Egypt are often told that if “you drink the waters of the Nile, you will always return.” Italian-born singer and actress Sarita Marchesi has not only tasted those proverbial waters but she has breathed the sea air of Alexandria and walked the sands of Sinai. And she has no desire to leave. Since arriving in Egypt in 2010, Marchesi has found a place for herself as an opera singer, teacher of Bedouins and soap opera actress.
Marchesi was born and raised into the arts in the Italian city of Florence, the heart of Europe’s renaissance period. Her Italian father, a renowned classical guitarist specialized in South American music, named her Sarita — “Little Sara” in Spanish. Her Dutch mother was an art collector who hosted exhibitions of paintings and sculpture at their Tuscan house. Steeped in this aesthetic tradition, Marchesi went to her mother’s homeland to first study art history at Leiden University and then classical music and opera in the Academy of ART Amsterdam, graduating in 2004.
She has worked with renowned theater directors like Peter Sellars at the Amsterdam Opera House, but Marchesi considers the internationally renowned Dutch star Rutger Hauer to be her real mentor in acting and performing arts. Hauer, famous for his roles in films such as Blade Runner (1982) and The Hitcher (1986), founded the Rutger Hauer Filmfactory in Rotterdam to offer masterclasses in acting and directing. Marchesi enrolled as one of the first students in 2006 and went on to become Hauer’s assistant in his masterclasses.
Up to this point, Marchesi’s performance career was based solidly in European culture. But an accidental meeting with Iraqi-born, Amsterdam-based film critic Intishal al-Tamimi at the International Film Festival Rotterdam introduced Marchesi to Arab film and culture.
“Intishal invited me to join him as one of the co-organizers of the Rotterdam Arab Film Festival [AFFR],” she remembers. “There is a lot of tension and prejudice between Dutch people and the Arab community across the Netherlands. The Arab Film Festival Rotterdam helped to create this intercultural dialogue through cinema in order to bring them together.”
Marchesi, who served on the AFFR’s board from 2008-2009, was profoundly affected by the Arab filmmakers and their films — so affected that in 2010 she moved to Egypt to learn Arabic and discover Egyptian arts, both ancient and contemporary.
Arriving in Alexandria, Marchesi was introduced to baritone Dr. Gaber El-Beltagy, who cast her to sing a repertoire of Arie Antiche at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Her performance drew the attention of AUC voice teacher Neveen Allouba, who invited her to join a masterclass at the Cairo Opera House. She had barely settled in the capital when the revolution erupted in 2011.
“I was in Lotus Hotel near Tahrir Square when two of my friends told me to leave Cairo because something big was going to happen,” Marchesi remembers. “So at six o’clock in the morning of January 25, I went back to Alexandria.”
In Alexandria, Marchesi was staying at La Casa di Riposo Vittorio Emanuele III, a decades-old landmark that was once a gathering place for the city’s Italian community. Designed in 1927 by the Italian architect E. Verrucchi, the building, next to Alexandria University, has since become a retirement home for the few remaining Italian expats. “I first visited it back in the summer of 2010 when I first arrived in Egypt,” she recalls. “It was like a new world opening in front of my eyes, a treasure I never knew existed and a piece of Italy that reminded me of our grandparents.”
Over the 18 days of the uprising, the Italian Consulate called upon Italian citizens to evacuate Alexandria and offered free tickets and transportation back to Italy. However, Marchesi was very curious and decided to stay, and even started to shoot her own documentary about the revolution.
“While I was in the retirement home, Franco Greco, an elderly Italian man who has been in Alexandria all of his life, asked me to sing opera for the elderly people to comfort them and prevent them from hearing the gunshots outside,” she recalls. “Soon all the people around became like my second family in Egypt.”
She says that her elderly audience was the best she could ever wish for, filled with spirited old ladies and gentlemen the likes of whom no longer exist in Italy. “Fiorina was always wearing black because of the death of her husband many years ago. Gennaro was remembering his youth during the British occupation of Egypt.”
Still, Marchesi was captivated by the events taking place around her. “When Mubarak stepped down, I took the first train and went celebrating in Tahrir Square with millions of Egyptians. The Egyptian revolution ran in my blood, carrying it for the rest of my life,” she says, recalling the sense of hope at the time. “The youth were cleaning the streets and metro stations featured graffiti about the new Egypt that everybody dreams of. I was walking across the streets, smoking shisha and talking for hours and hours. I learned so much from the Egyptian people.”
After the high adrenaline of the revolution, Marchesi decided to take a break in South Sinai far from the madding crowd. “I spent four months in Nuweiba where I volunteered in the Habiba Learning Center, which tries to overcome the lack of children’s education in this amazing area of Egypt where a thousand stars shine at night,” she says. “In Habiba, we tried to teach the children another language and some music, while also showing them some hygienic disciplines like bathing and brushing their teeth. It was hilarious when I started to sing opera for them and their families.”
Marchesi notes that Bedouin children in these remote areas often have gaps in their education, due to the nomadic lifestyles of their families. Neglect from Cairo and a lack of investment for South Sinai natives also hinders their development. Launched by the founders of the agro-tourism Habiba Organic Farm, the learning center had gained the trust of the normally suspicious Bedouin tribes, and the after-school program was already packed with kids coming to learn even before the full project was complete.
“Some days, we did not have paper to teach the children how to draw, so we started to use stones to draw on the sand,” says Marchesi. “The results were amazing and the kids were very happy. So from that day we decided to create our own tools from recycled materials like plastic bottles, boxes, shells, bamboo and even camel bones.”
When she returned to Cairo, Marchesi got a job as a full-time English teacher at the Maadi Narmer School. While there, she was cast in bit roles in two Ramadan series and one TV commercial for Mienta House Appliances. “I played a British secretary visiting Dr. Aly Mostapha Mesharafa in the 2011 series Ragol Lehaza al-Zaman that focused on the life of this great Egyptian scientist. The following year, I was cast as a French doctor who was part of Napoleon’s Egyptian Expedition in the historical series Napoleon Wee al-Mahroussa,” she said. “It was interesting to see how Egyptian TV drama approaches historical events and real-life figures, which is quite different from European productions.”
In December 2013, Marchesi quit her job at the Narmer School to go back to Nuweiba and help the Habiba Center build a proper school building. “I will share all my love and experience with the Bedouin children. I will teach them and I will learn from them, for sure,” she announced on her Facebook page at the time. “I believe that education is the human right of every child in this world; knowledge is the base of every healthy society.”
But Marchesi hasn’t completely left the world of film and TV. She continues to take opera courses with Allouba, and she assisted US-based Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima with his filmmaking workshop at the Luxor African Film Festival (LAFF). She was also one of the 2014 LAFF coordinators.
Most recently, Marchesi landed her first Egyptian film role, a bit part in the comic film Al-Mowaten Bors (Citizen Gecko) written and directed by Ramy Gheit. Set for release during Eid Al-Fitr, the film revolves around the security problems following Egypt’s two revolutions, focusing on armed robberies of money exchange companies. et