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Thursday, January 6, 2011

A New Year's Resolution

Still frame from 99.10.14 [John V. Hansen
Travel Footage of Egypt, ca. 1926-1930]
'Tis the season for promises and oaths.  The world over, people are vowing to get in shape, get organized, quit smoking, learn to play the guitar, or finally take that vacation to Bora Bora. 

This year, I'm keeping it simple.  In fact, I'll be getting my New Year's resolution out of the way with this very blog post.  I vowed to spread joy by sharing one of my most favorite scenes in all of the Human Studies Film Archives' collections:  John V. Hansen's footage of an Egyptian snake catcher, shot somewhere between 1926 and 1930.

The guy's got skills, and he knows it.  He seems to really enjoy his work and he is definitely having fun hamming it up for the camera.  I love his confidence, his flair, and his mischievous smile.

Theatrical flourishes aside, this snake catcher and others of his profession provided a very important service.  In 1864, Islamic Studies scholar Alfred von Kremer described their work:
The Ghagar form in Egypt a numerous tribe, travelling through the country as tinkers, trope dancers, monkey showmen and snake charmers…Whilst one portion of the tribe are traders, another portion live in Cairo as snake catchers (H’wai*)…  It is this class which frequently come into contact with the European traveler and do good service to the naturalist, for they always have for sale snakes with or without the poison fangs, jackals, wolfs, lizards, etc.  The dexterity with which these people discover and catch snakes is really surprising.  Armed simply with a palm stick the operator gives a few knocks on the walls and floors, plays a short tune on his reed pipe, and the snakes make their appearance, which is explained by the fact that there are in most of the old houses of Cairo many snakes, most of which are, however, quite harmless.  The inhabitants are, nevertheless, in great fear of them and no person dares to sleep in a room after the Hawi had declared it to be haunted by a snake.   -- Alfred von Kremer, "The Gipsies in Egypt", Anthropological Review Vol. 2, No. 7 (Nov., 1864), p. 262-26. Published by Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland

Hansen, an award-winning amateur filmmaker and member of the Amateur Cinema League, shot nearly five hours of footage in Egypt, including the Tomb of Queen Nefertari in the Valley of the Nobles  and the Pyramids and Sphinx at Giza.

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