"The Sultan and the Saint": Building Bridges Through Film
Stories move us. Films are one of the most effective forms of storytelling and one that can be used to great advantage by Sister Cities, as the Baltimore Luxor Alexandria (Egypt) Sister City Committee did in recent months.
A nonprofit film production company, Unity Productions Foundation uncovered an incredible, virtually unknown aspect of a meeting between two men – St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan al Malik of Egypt - in 1219, during the height of the Crusades on the battlefield in Damietta, Egypt. Their meeting inspired the Sultan to make an incredible humanitarian gesture to the defeated Crusader army, which planted the seeds for eventual peace.
The current retelling of the story comes at a similar moment of division, fear, and disunity.
Most of The Sultan and the Saint was filmed at an old bottle cap factory in the city of Baltimore. Interior sets were built for a tavern, a prison cell, and the interiors of thirteenth century army tents. In the parking lot, a huge façade was built to serve as the front of a castle, various churches and the backdrop for street scenes. Religious leaders and scholars talked about the events unfolding in dramatized action scenes.
The Baltimore-Luxor-Alexandria Sister City Committee, under the leadership of its Egyptian-American chairman Tharwat Abouraya, sponsored screenings at Egypt’s Cultural and Educational Bureau in Washington, D.C., and Montgomery College in suburban Maryland as well as the first international screenings in Cairo (at Al Ahram Weekly and the Cairo public library); at the great library in Alexandria, Egypt; and at the public library in Luxor – with audiences totaling nearly 1,000. Finally, there was the 101st screening and the Baltimore premiere of the film at the Church of the Nativity and Holy Comforter– an interfaith congregation of Lutherans and Episcopalians. Each screening was attended by Muslims and Christians, Americans and Egyptians – as well as members of Baltimore’s other Sister City Committees.
At the final screening before the public broadcast of The Sultan on PBS on December 26, Unity Productions Foundation gave its Sultan and the Saint Peace Award to Tharwat for his “dedication, optimism, and unshakeable faith in the value of interfaith work at a time of great division and upset” and his “tireless efforts to promote citizen-to-citizen peacemaking.”
That of course is precisely the mission of Sister Cities International as conceived by President Eisenhower 61 years ago – and the mission can be furthered by using film to bring diverse people together and build awareness of sister cities. Sister city committees are uniquely positioned to encourage debate and discussion because they will celebrate differences while building partnerships that can create lasting peace where there may have been division before.
Contributed by Karen Leggett, Secretary, Baltimore Luxor Alexandria Sister City Committee