Sandouk El Dounia is a morality tale set in an archetypal modern city, a chaotic urban space, a maze. Aspects of Cairo, New York, London or Beirut are turned inside out, all services and no facades, a theatre full of narrative potential. The stories that intertwine within this space have no apparent coherence - no beginning, middle or end. They follow their own inherent logic like a three dimensional game of snakes and ladders, at times connecting on parallel paths, at times flying off on their own trajectory. Their one common link is that they all spiral unpredictably around the central unifying force of Teta, enigmatic, humorous and larger than life. Papa, mama, grandma are our first words and they vary little from one culture to another, but in Arabic, grandmothers are Tetas and this Teta is the center of Lara Baladis world, both in fact and fiction a slice of the real world that has magically morphed into the embodiment of the mischievous, destructive Kali, the puppeteer pulling all of the strings. While the other characters run around in search of themselves (and an author) Teta belongs to a different generation, existing on a different plane, poking out her tongue at her audience as if to say: lighten up, lifes not that bad despite everything it throws at you. Kolo bi adi, everything passes ... like Kali, whatever destructive forces she has are only there to clean the ground and ultimately to allow a new fertile world to be reborn. The stories that are enacted around her are contextualised by her presence, but also serve as a cathartic force in the game of life.
The female characters live their own lives, but are in reality multiple facets of the same woman as she evolves within the kaleidoscopic landscape of Sandouk El Dounia, gradually transforming from the innocence of youth into the wisdom of age. Within this world, a subjective re-interpretation of the seven ages of woman, the curious mix of manga characters and fairy tale archetypes are overseen by two mutated personifications of Charlies Angels and Superman who have somehow slipped from the big screen into this photographic mlange.
Dolly is the sacrificial lamb, the original doll, connected by name to the first cloned sheep. She appears like manna from the heavens in a satellite dish, a modern day chalice cum technological mediator, the only visual manifestation of our intangible communion with the heavens. This innocent presence finds herself in a completely unfamiliar world in which Mario, the masked presence, pursues her. Mario, the male force, is a caricatured macho but simultaneously gender unspecific. He never removes the kendo mask that conceals his features, leaving open the possibility that he is the male personification of a female presence. In the chase, Dolly looses her innocence, soiled by his unwanted attentions. She escapes but ends alone trapped in her beauty - a beauty that has reduced her to an obscure object of desire. Imprisoned in her human form, but in fact reduced to a plastic doll in her shop-soiled celluloid wrapping, she encounters Alixia.
Alixia, the alter ego of Carolls Alice seen through a broken glass, is the second incarnation. Her clothes are covered with dismembered fragments of discarded plastic dolls resembling strands of DNA. Alixia is the eternally unsatisfied girl, a shopaholic in pursuit of her true self, finding only superficial layers of camouflage that conceal more than they reveal, both to herself and others. Throughout Sandouk El Dounia she constantly projects herself onto animate and inanimate objects alike. When she finds Dolly she thinks she has found her holy grail. Free from her wrapping, Dolly has her own agenda and returns to the urban chaos mourning her lost Arcadian paradise. Alixia, forced back into herself, realises she is only the sum of her fragmented parts.
The pretty in pink Bambarella has many of the qualities of the 60s futuristic comic strip heroine Barbarella, but is very much a product of the 90s, dressed in a fluorescent outfit inspired by cutie manga characters, complete with big eyes and pony tails. She exudes confidence and a limited sense of rebelliousness, as she bounces ineffectively up and down staircases like Bambi on speed. Occasionally she fights Zobirak.
In Bambarellas teenage idealism Zobirak sees many of her own dreams, dreams that were not entirely lost as she grew into the vulgar character she is. Zobirak is a true dyed blond, the type of housewife who fills her social obligations and throws Tupperware parties. This carnivalesque house robot wears her colours on the outside, clad in a curious mix of cheap Egyptian kitchen utensils but sporting on her back the face of an inflatable doll fantasy and frustration in equal measure characterize her pent up energy awaiting transformation. She gazes into the middle distance as she sprays bullets from her machine gun with no rhyme or reason. Underneath the facade her youthful heart craves love.
In the development from innocence to wisdom, Sirena comes before Zobirak. Sirena, the mermaid, is the anima mundi, the soul of the earth - as important as Teta yet in many ways invisible, a disembodied force of feminine good that balances the world. Throughout this nightmarish narrative she carries the light, radiating compassion for all the characters fighting their private battles. Like a fish out of water in this urban environment, she is surprised by the chaotic and fragmented world she finds herself in. She is Ariel, The Little Mermaid, transformed into a manga heroine dressed in Louis the fourteenth style.
Maria, yes there has to be a Maria, is a tall feline woman heading towards wisdom yet still caught up in romantic nostalgia. She glides through the shadows of past histories, a collective unconscious veneered with personal experience, as she waits to metamorphose into her pure and radiant form. The baroque architecture she is confined within has seen better days. Its abandoned rooms and dusty memories envelop her, isolating her from the external world while enhancing her romantic longings. Her quest is a lonely one. She is done with fighting. She yearns for acceptance and understanding. Her melancholic environment only affords glimpses of a better world through partially obscured windows.
Overseeing this drama of female self-awareness are Afrita and Super Aroussa ... like two fairy godmothers, these extreme characters are oppositional but complementary forces. They are the most obvious reference to Egyptian contemporary society in Sandouk El Dounia. Afrita, the female devil in Arabic, is dressed in the tent cloth used during funerals, weddings, and the holy month of Ramadan. If Afrita is the potential for extreme evil inherent in all the characters, Super Aroussa is their super-ego, the female Superman. Unlike her male prototype, she is a multi-layered character taking on the mantle of both the doll and bride implicit in her name. Her dress sense comes directly from the packaging of Egypts national beverage, Shai El Aroussa whose character trademark encompasses myriad archetypes embedded in both popular and high culture ranging from the ankh to the cross, Tanit, queen of Carthage to African fertility fetishes. Aroussas shape resembles a keyhole, the symbolic opening into Sandouk El Dounia, blurring the boundary between the mundane and the sacred, the private and public, the pharaonic and the contemporary.