By Omar Hassan.
In the post-Brokeback Mountain era of film-making, cinematic representations of homosexuality no longer conjure up lengthy debate or public controversy. Producers have developed the assumption that the LGBT community (who are generally believed to possess a higher disposable income) are hungry for media to consume. As such, niche film-makers and distributors have made big business out of churning out targeted low-budget gay films, whilst the hegemonic studio forces occasionally add to this pantheon with Oscar-worthy fare such as the 2008 biopic by Gus Van Sant, Milk. However, while attitudes have progressed in the developed world, Arab culture has yet to experience such a renaissance. Egypt, which is the region’s only real movie producer, depends largely on funding from conservative Gulf financiers whose shallow understanding of morality, dictate that homosexuality is alienating if not downright ‘evil’.
This institutional boundary is coupled with the Egyptian government’s own strict censorship law. Since 1947, this legislation has included 71 prohibitions, detailing five major areas of limitation (loose morality, politics, religion, seditious ideologies and violence) (Shafik 1998). In 1976, these were reinforced, allowing the clergy to have censoring powers and thus providing fundamentalists with the final say in film output. The impact of these provisions has been felt by many film-makers, including the late film-maker Yousef Chahine, who was sued in the mid-1990s for flouting the Islamic convention with The Emigrant/al-Muhagir(1994). Yet, the reach of this pejorative regime extends far beyond the legal system. Arguably, when such practice is made law (i.e. embedded in the building blocks of civil society), the effects tend to permeate the culture at large. The media, the authorities, the masses and, to an extent, even the bourgeoisie tend to develop a closed-off perspective to anything that threatens what is ultimately the nation’s political (and patriarchal) stability.
A recent example can be made out of the reaction to independent Egyptian film-maker Maher Sabry’s project All My Life/Toul Omri (2008). The film, which Sabry had hoped would show the first balanced representation of homosexuality in the Arab world, was never allowed a public screening in Egypt or the Middle East. Despite this, Sabry informed me that a former religious cleric called for the ‘immediate burning’ of the film, without ever seeing it. At the same time, Zein el Abedeen, the director of Egypt’s anti-AIDS programme, stated that ‘the film was a painful blow to all of our efforts to combat HIV’. Sabry has also had to deal with an in-box overflowing with hate mail (from Muslims and Christians). From this, one can deduce that overt displays of homosexuality in film will be forbidden from reaching a mainstream audience in Egypt and the Middle East.
Accordingly, these strict regulations have suggested that Egyptian film-makers tend to use melodramatic devices[i] or ‘coding’ to portray homosexuality in an allegorical manner. In the past, homosexuals have predominantly made it onto the Arab screen as drag queens and the like; however, the topic of this discussion is the overtly homosexual male or the khawal. My analysis examines the overarching tension between the khawal in Egyptian film and how this homosexual ‘vice’ is relegated or blamed on the ills of western society, who were in effect the colonizers of the North African region, where Egypt is located.
The khawal in Egyptian film
Historically speaking one of the earliest openly gay male characters in Arabic culture was Kirsha from Naguib Mahfouz’s successful novel Midaq Alley/Zouqaq al-Midaq, which was released in 1947. Yet in the 1963 film adaptation directed by Hassan al-Immam, Kirsha’s homosexual tendencies are all but removed from the film. Yet, the character that remains is depicted as a menacing opportunist. He deals drugs to British troops and finds conquests for his scheming plans in dark, derelict spaces. Arguably, Kirsha’s drug dealing is put down to his desire to pleasure the British troops (i.e. the colonizers). In turn, his moral degradation is put down to a western influence.
But the coupling of homosexuality and western colonialism does not end there. Elsewhere in the film, we find the protagonist Hamida, who wishes to escape the ‘alley’, which is teeming with drunken British soldiers, in favour of a life of comfortable wealth and posterity. Unfortunately for her, her naïve opportunism leads her to a life of prostitution, where she is forced to live in a brothel with a khawal. Again, this instance suggests that it is the colonizer’s influence (or her desire to escape them), which has forced Hamida to associate with the ‘social aberration’ that is the homosexual (Menicucci 1998).
In 1973, Salah Abou Seif, who was renowned for tackling controversial issues in the Egyptian film, attempted to confront homosexuality in the film The Malatili Bath/Hammam al-Malatili. In the story, a young man leaves his family in the country and relocates to Cairo, where he hopes to bolster his education and job prospects. Unfortunately for him, insufficient funding finds him in a bathhouse frequented by gay men. A regular gay visitor, attracted to the young man, brings him home to his apartment, where he attempts to seduce the youth with the so-called western ills of alcohol and pop music. In this case, it is James Brown’s ‘Like a Sex Machine’. The topless man who one assumes is under the influence of wine and his hyperactive libido engages in a sexually charged dance, before falling down next to the young man.
Certainly, the use of western popular music and alcohol, which is considered harem (or forbidden) amongst the Muslim community, suggests that the colonial influence is largely to blame for this homosexual manifestation. But the psychological analysis does not end there. As the narrative unfolds, the older gay man reveals that his homosexuality stems from the estranged relationship with his mother, which made him detest women altogether. The character also explains that his ill feeling towards women inflicted him with a desire to dress up as a woman himself. Thus, the film-maker’s suggestion is that homosexuality is caused by ‘women’s emasculation of men’; gender dysphoria and the ‘ills’ associated with ‘urbanization’, which are in themselves a product of colonial rule.
Progressive homosexual representations?
Garay Menicucci notes that it was not until the first instalment of Yousef Chahine’s autobiographical film trilogy was released in 1979 that homosexuality was dealt with in a ‘matter-of-fact’ manner. In the first film set during World War II, Alexandria Why?/Iskindiryah Leh?(1979), it is revealed that the protagonist’s aristocratic uncle has a habit of kidnapping British soldiers and assassinating them. The uncle is a tall slender man, who speaks with a lisp that is indicative of his camp predisposition. When presented with a drunken British soldier (Tommy), he drives him to a pier and hangs him over a banister, where he can shoot him before throwing him off into the sea. But things do not go to plan. The young and desperate Tommy falls off the banister and the uncle must reach out to set him back up.
During this moment, the helpless soldier sinks into the uncle’s arms and begins to sob. In what Chahine might have considered an ironic turn of phrase, the uncle tells Tommy to ‘behave like a man’. After this, we cut to the next morning, where the soldier lays half naked in his captor’s bed. Tommy wakes up unsure what has happened the night before, while his subjugator stares at him lustfully, whilst pointing a gun at him.
However, from here on out, Tommy’s abductor finds that he is unable to kill his new pawn. Instead, he takes his acquisition on a journey of homosexual seduction. He introduces him to his opulent world and regales him with stories. He tells him that he can no longer kill him because ‘he spent the whole night looking’ at him and he confesses that he would like to ‘pat his silly little backside’. Whether, Tommy is gay or not is beyond the point. Both men are desperate for some form of physical affection and the homoerotic nature of the relationship is palpable, without ever being made an analytical philosophical ‘issue’, which at the time was extremely rare.
Yet, the bond between the two men still remains polemical. Indeed, it seems that Chahine felt he could only depict the physical longing between the two men by making their lust a product of a ‘murderous hatred’ (Kiernan 1995). Homosexuality in effect becomes the morally decrepit part of the relationship between the colonizer and the nationalist. In effect, the only reason that it is permissible within the narrative (or with viewers) is because the manifestation of homosexuality allows for the Egyptian nationalist to physically ‘rape’ his colonizer, which in a sense allows him to claim back a part of his nationhood (and to an extent his manhood). It is for these reasons that the homosexual in Alexandria Why? is able to take on a more honourable societal role than the venerable khawal found in other Egyptian productions.
Chahine’s cinematic representation of homosexuality is complicated further by the final instalment of his trilogy, Alexandria Once Again/Iskindiryah Kaman wa Kaman (1989). In the film Chahine plays himself, a film director who is romantically obsessed with a young actor (who ironically is the same character who was mentored by the gay uncle in the first film of the trilogy, Alexandria Why?). The homosexual nature of the relationship is dealt with subtly, but is made evident by the presence of the director’s wife, who is jealous of the time that the two spend together. As the narrative ensues, the unmistakable homosexual romanticism between the actor and director is manifested in an odd scene where the two male leads dance in a European street, miming along to a Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire duet.
At the same time, Chahine is nominated for a European film award and he tells his young protégé that one day he will be the ‘best actor in the world’, ‘Not just in Egypt’. The significance of the dance, which ordinarily would be reserved for a man and a woman (as the songs suggests), coupled with these statements implies that Chahine is looking to exorcize himself from repressed Arab culture and echoes his desire to live in the liberal West, where his homosexuality could exist freely. This notion is echoed by Chahine’s behaviour in later life, which found him spending large amounts of time in Europe and then the more liberal Lebanon, as well as his tendency to often seek European funding for his films. Ironically still, Chahine’s biggest gaffe is that he has somehow failed to see how homosexuality can be a universal facet of human nature (regardless of culture or geography). In both pictures, he deems it a western/colonialist by-product. In the first segment, he seems hell-bent on destroying the object of his homosexual lust and in the latter he has given up fighting his homosexuality, but is unable to embrace it at home and feels that he must retreat to a different world (Europe) where he can wholeheartedly embrace it.
A new paradigm?
Now, when one looks at recent Egyptian cinema, it appears that the representation of homosexuals has yet to evolve from the depressing state it was in during the 1970s and 1980s. An example here is made of Yacoubian Building/Omaret Yacoubian(2006), a film that was praised for breaking new ground with the plurality of views that it represented. Nevertheless, the impositions of both a state and a personal censorship have dictated that the moral binarisms surrounding homosexuality in the text are still entirely bigoted and contradictory. Indeed, the polemical characterization of the gay newspaper editor in the picture insinuates that the bounds of what is socially permissible in cinema are as conservative as ever before.
In the film, Hatem Rashid, the editor of French-language newspaper Le Caire is presented as a predator who feeds on a naïve Upper Egyptian police guard called Abd Rabu. Like in the aforementioned The Malatili Bath, Rashid seduces Abd Rabu by getting him drunk with the forbidden western ills of red wine and (heterosexual) pornography. All the while, Hatem’s sense of logic is also warped and confused. He convinces Abd Rabu that cheating on his wife with a man is not sinful because ‘a man cannot get pregnant’. Subsequently, he threatens the young police guard when he refuses his advances, warning that he ‘could harm him’ if he didn’t continue to consummate their relationship. Again, it is no surprise that Hatem Rashid is half French and the editor of a French-language newspaper, insinuating that the homosexual vice is a predicament relegated to the Egyptians who hold associations with the world of the former African colonies.
The deriding of homosexual practice in the Yacoubian Building does not end there, however. Later on in the picture, a homosexual act is portrayed as a source of unparalleled evil. This occurs when a secret intelligence officer rapes Taha, a university student, after he refuses to reveal the names of his co-conspirators in a religious protest. Taha’s consequent revenge on his captors in an all-out blood bath is in effect, a form of retaliation against this (homosexual) act of menace. Again, the unfortunate pop psychologizing of gay practices continues further near the end of the film. Like in Abou Saif’s 1973 The Malatili Bath, the producers of the film feel a need to justify the homosexual character’s motives. In the Yacoubain Building this is achieved by suggesting that Hatem’s gay orientation is a product of child molestation.
This is revealed in a flashback sequence, where a heartbroken Hatem Rashid sits crying in front of two portraits of his parents. He recollects a time when he walked in on his French ‘whore’ of a mother in bed with a man other than his father. The shocked young boy then finds comfort from this startling secret by spending time with a household servant, Idris, who later on in the flashback is seen (or at least it is suggested) to have performed a sexual act on the young Hatem. A tortured Hatem, in turn, decides to lead a life of homosexuality, preying on young conquests in the same manner that he was pounced upon as a vulnerable child. This misguided validation from the creators of the film relegates blame to the western mother of Hatem Rashid, who was not able to protect her son from the marauding hands of a child molester.
picture. Still, it ultimately ensures that the character is murdered by one of his sexual conquests, almost hinting that this outcome was inevitable for a man who chooses to lead Hatem Rashid’s lifestyle. One is unsure whether the scene of Hatem’s murder was kept in because it was the film-makers’ perceived version of reality or because they wanted to appease audiences. However, director Marwan Hamad has stressed in the past that his main concern while making the project was ‘how to tackle taboos [without] the audience walking out’ (Anon. 2006). Still, it has been noted on Internet blogs that some audiences burst out clapping during Hatem’s violent murder, as well as after the scene involving the slaying of the police officer, both of which represent the so-called homosexual menace (Whitaker 2007).
Ultimately, Egyptian film practitioners seem set on maintaining their popularity with audiences at the expense of challenging them. Alternatively, some film-makers are lucky enough to manage the escapist root of securing European financing. However, Menicucci is cautious of this, noting that films with foreign funding are perceived locally as distortions of Arab culture. Instead, they choose to believe, for instance, that ‘Homosexuality is a figment of Western imagination’ and that it is does not play a role in the Arab consciousness (Menicucci 1998). This comment is echoed by the words of M.S. Sai’id in 1994, who noted (that it is) ‘easier and safer for [an Arab] writer to flatter people’s national and religious instincts by stating that all problems [homosexuality included, one assumes] […] are but the result of a Western, Zionist, or satanic conspiracy’ (Sai’id 1994).
This belief is coupled with a conservative shift in recent history, which has seen a number of high-profile Egyptian actresses retreat from public view for religious reasons. In 2007, Viola Shafik confirmed that in Egypt (as in much of the Middle East), cinema is now believed to be one of the ‘darker’ arts, stating that ‘cinematic practices [had become] considered oppositional to Islamist-defined piety’ (Shafik 2007). These significant cultural changes, along with the dependency on Gulf financing for Egyptian film production suggest that any further representation of homosexuals in the medium will continue to be shallow and bigoted. And although the Egyptian moving image has seen renegade film-makers such as Yousry Nasrallah attempt to tackle the issue fairly in the mainstream form, the resulting output has only managed to gain western viewership. The remaining solution would be for media behemoths such as the Good News Group (who produced Yacoubian Building) to use their political and economic leverage to create cinematic texts that challenge the status quo and represent minority groups. Otherwise, independent film-makers, as is evidenced by the experience of Maher Sabry, will continue to see their depictions of homosexuality squashed into obscurity.
Omar Hassan is a freelance writer and journalist. Born in Cairo, Egypt, he now resides in the United Kingdom.
This article was originally published in Film International 43, vol. 8, no. 1, 2010.
Anon. (2006), ‘Taboo-Smashing Film Breaks Egypt Records’, BBC News. Accessed 15 May 2007.
Kiernan, M. (1995), ‘Cultural Hegemony and National Film Language: Youssef Chahine’, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, 15, ‘Arab Cinematics: Toward the New and the Alternative’, pp. 130–52.
Menicucci, G. (1998), ‘Unlocking the Arab Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in Egyptian Film’, Middle East Report, 206, ‘Power and Sexuality in the Middle East’, Spring, pp. 32–36.
Sai’id, M.S. (1994), Ruz al-Yusuf, 9 May, p. 78.
Shafik, V. (1998), Arab Cinema: History & Cultural IdentityCairo and New York: The American University in Cairo Press.
________ (2007), Popular Egyptian Cinema: Gender, Class & NationCairo and New York: The American University in Cairo Press.
Whitaker, Brian (2007), ‘Yacoubian Building’, 31 March, Al-Bab: An Open Door to the Arab World. Accessed 12 November 2007.
[i] It is often noted that like Douglas Sirk and other film-makers familiar with the melodramatic convention, Egyptian film-makers relied heavily on ‘coding’ and subtext as a means to represent their messages and to subvert the script system of censorship.