‘Um Ghayeb (Mother of the Unborn)’: Abu Dhabi Review

Um Ghayeb (Mother of the Unborn) Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Abu Dhabi Film Festival

Um Ghayeb (Mother of the Unborn) Still - H 2014

Simple and direct filmmaking makes this a haunting story

A young woman ostracized from society in her Egyptian village because she is infertile struggles to come to terms with her lot

A village woman unable to conceive a child is distressed and socially stigmatized in a starkly simple film that examines her painful dilemma on psychological, mythic and social levels. Nadine Salib’s first feature-length documentary, Um Ghayeb (Mother of the Unborn), took home well-deserved laurels as best doc at the Abu Dhabi festival. Women viewers will be particularly affected by the humanity of its subject, Hanan.

Hanan is a bright young woman in her 30’s who has been trying to have a baby with her husband for many years. An arranged marriage and a tumultuous engagement have ended in a loving relationship between them. But without children she feels she has failed her husband and community (“fed like a useless cow who gives nothing in return”). She divides her time between doctors and medical treatments, and midwives and traditional remedies like rolling around in a graveyard or stepping over a snake. Nothing works. Even close friends and relatives superstitiously avoid her, as though her infertility was contagious, and casually call her “Um Ghayeb”, which means mother of the unborn.

Though camera-shy and barely in the movie, Hanan's husband Arabi is a key character. It’s not unusual for village men to divorce women who can’t bear children and seek another wife to have offspring. Arabi has already been tested and has no problem conceiving. Although she offers to find him another wife to have a baby, he touchingly refuses to abandon her.

Salib dives deep into village society; her talks with Hanan and her friends and family are unguarded and surprisingly intimate. In one shot, Hanan even appears without the omnipresent hijab all the women wear on their heads.

These ladies don’t stop on the surface but bring out ancient beliefs surrounding fertility. The womb is “a house of babies” and they have a hundred superstitions about how to break the curse of a childless womb.

The modern world co-exists, however. Tahrir Square in on TV and little children laughingly repeat the slogans they hear. But in the village, life goes on as it always has. For Hanan, marriage and babies are any woman’s greatest wish. She's sometimes philosophical, sometimes immensely resentful, and dark thoughts of suicide arise.

Sara Yahia’s camerawork keeps things simple, moving its way through closed spaces. Even if there’s little to look at in the dusty, brick-and-mortar village with its plain interiors, the film examines bees pollinating flowers and dreamy water reeds on the Nile.  Reality is what you believe in, ponders Hanan, as she contemplate death in graveyards that are "like a mosque." 

Composer Rami Abadir contributes a stirring final drum solo joined by female voices.

Production companies: Hassala Films
Director, Screenwriter: Nadine Salib
Producer: Maartje Alders
Director of photography: Sara Yahya
Editor: Micheal Yousef Shafek
Music: Rami Abadir
Sales Agent: Hassala Films

No rating, 88 minutes