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Egypt’s cinematic gems: The Greatest Child in the World
 
 

In a sprawling Beirut mansion, two of Egyptian cinema’s most iconic actors, Rushdy Abaza and Hend Rostom, play out the demise of cinema’s golden age. As they languidly go through the motions of their lives — she as a daytime television show host, he as a university lecturer — their sexless, childless marriage is interrupted by an unexpected visitor who will shake their very belief in marital union. The culprit? Newly famous actor Mervat Amin’s cleavage and, implicitly, the aftermath of the 1967 Arab Israeli war.

Galal al-Sharkawy’s 1972 film The Greatest Child in the World deals in dichotomies, pitting an old generation of film stars against new, East against West and love against desire, in a fascinating psychosexual love triangle that combines the worst of orientalism, nationalism and the male ego. This little known B-movie can be viewed alternately as the actualization of an Arab male’s Freudian fantasy, a cautionary tale for the Arab émigré, or an allegory on the fate of those who allow themselves to be seduced by cold-hearted capitalism.

The Arab-Israeli war is not actually featured in The Greatest Child in the World, but it gives us insight into the post-1967 mood in Egypt. Like many films made in the aftermath of the 1967 defeat, it takes place outside of any familiar reality, in no specified time period and with no mention of historical events, in an abstract, fantastical Beirut. As Cairo’s sexier, more relaxed neighbor, pre-war Beirut was the perfect location for a story focused on the usurping of Egypt’s traditional mores, and lower filming costs and lax censorship made it the setting for many films between the nationalization of Egypt’s cinema industry in 1962 and the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. These include a significant number in which Abaza also starred, such as Al-Dayaa (The Loss, 1970), Imra’a Li Kol Ragol (A Woman for Every Man, 1971), and Al-Atefa Wal Gasad (Emotion and Physicality, 1974). According to an article in Lebanon’s Al-Nahar paper, no less than 30 Egyptian-Lebanese co-productions were made annually between 1962 and 1967, with production then slowing to about 10 films annually.

Aatidal Momtaz, head of Egypt’s film censorship board around the time of the film’s release, says in her 1985 book The Memoirs of a Censorship Official that explicit instructions were given to the board following the 1967 war to allow scenes depicting sex and drugs in films no matter how daring, which she interpreted as an attempt to distract the public from the defeat. The Greatest Child is by no means the most explicit of that era, however.

But back to Amin’s neckline: Shortly after the film begins, she arrives in Beirut as Matilda, the half-Swedish daughter of a former university colleague of Professor Fathy (Abaza). She is introduced with a tilting shot that climbs up her svelte figure, and responds with encouraging flirtation to the professor’s immediate flustered excitement.

Fathy lectures at a Beirut university on a topic that is never defined, but is likely some sex-focused form of sociology or family planning, since all he ever seems to discuss is love, marriage and the desires of married men. From the get-go his lectures serve as a shallow mirror of his state of mind, and increasingly turn into soliloquies on his sexual frustration, recounted to the class through the thinly veiled story of a fictional “friend.” In contrast to his students’ opinion that marriage is just a social construct, he asserts that “marriage and family are the greatest things in the world,” but it’s a viewpoint he will struggle to maintain. Fathy’s wife Samia (Rostom) is a controlling, career-driven woman who hosts a relationship advice show called “Your Problem, My Lady,” which, once Matilda arrives, also becomes a platform to discuss her own relationship problems.

Fortunately something then happens that takes this film beyond the confines of midlife crisis and a basic Electra-complex fantasy to enter the realm of the fascinating and bizarre: Matilda proposes to Professor Fathy that they join together in a purely scientific experiment to make “the greatest child in the world,” combining her beauty and his intelligence. It turns out that Matilda had seen Fathy’s photograph in the paper and, struck by how “wonderful, beautiful, alluring and full of manliness,” he was, decided to travel halfway across the world to make him the father of her yet-to-be-conceived child.

“Really? You see all these qualities in me?” he asks sheepishly. “Was there no one in Sweden you could do this experiment with?”

“No. He has to be a Middle Eastern man,” she responds. “It is a purely scientific experiment. To blend the manhood of the East with the femininity of the West. Without marriage or restriction, without troubles or losses.”

A union without troubles or losses, particularly to create the world’s greatest child, would have been impossible in Egypt at the time: The country was in the midst of massive student protests and increasing public frustration at the inaction over Israel’s occupation of the Sinai Peninsula. This is another reason this fantastical tale could only have happened in Beirut, a place yet untainted by defeat, where narratives of Arab greatness could still be maintained.

The set-up reminds me of the reaction to Egyptian actor Amr Waked’s kiss with Scarlett Johanson in Luc Besson’s 2014 film Lucy. Egyptian male viewers championed Waked in online forums as a hero. “The only Egyptian to have kissed Scarlett” said one Twitter user, while another retorted, “No, she kissed him,” and another simply declared, “We are all Amr Waked!” Waked was celebrated for making this fantasy attainable to the common Egyptian man by association, through his extremely brief (acted) sexual conquest of a blonde Hollywood movie star. “No, she kissed him,” seems to reflect a need to self-narrativize and reverse the direction of desire in order to justify one’s own.

The constantly fertile, sex-crazed Western siren in a baby-doll nightgown calls out to the Arab man to abandon his traditional life. But not through forces of desire, no, of course not, that would be sinful and hedonistic. In the name of something greater, in the name of progress, in the name of science! The man has to do absolutely nothing — he is desirable for the qualities he seemingly innately possesses by virtue of his Arabness.

Fathy resists at first, but eventually, slow-dancing in Matilda’s arms, he admits that Samia cannot have children, and that he has “always dreamed of fathering a great child.” Matilda breathes: “He could be Einstein, Beethoven, Napoleon, Van Gogh!”

These illusions of grandeur and desire for continuity allegorize the fading reign of Roshdy Abaza, then 46, as Don Juan of the Arab screen. Usually cast as the dominating charmer, in this role he is taken for a ride by Amin, powerless in the face of 26-year-old “western” femininity. Thirty-nine-year-old sex bomb Rostom, as the dominating, infertile, jealous wife, is equally helpless to defend her reign against the new generation of beautiful actors. Casting ageing icons of a golden age of cinema then in its final throes gives the whole film (for those of us watching it now through a retroactive lens) a self-reflective and melancholy feel.

This was Sharkawy’s last film before he devoted himself to theater directing, following his phenomenal success with Madrasit al-Moshaghbeen (School of the Rowdies), a comedy about the antics of a group of unruly schoolchildren and the school management’s repeated attempts to discipline them, one year later. Sharkawy’s previous cinematic endeavors were limited, and were largely in the same vein. He had cast Abaza in his 1967 film Al-Eib (The Shameful), and made only two other films, Armala wa Thalath Banat (A Widow and Three Daughters, 1965) and Al-Nass Elli Gowa (The People in There, 1969). While Sharkawy would go on to direct more than 40 theatrical plays and act in multiple films and television series, becoming a much-loved household name, his forays into film directing, particularly this film, remain less known.

The Greatest Child is also one of Amin’s early film roles after shooting to fame in her much tamer debut as the chaste love interest in Hussein Kamel’s 1969 Abi Fawk al-Shagara (My Father is on the Tree), alongside Abdelhalim Hafez in his final film role.

Fun fact: One of Amin’s most unforgettable roles, in Mohamed Khan’s An Important Man’s Wife (1987), was as the wife of a police officer played by Ahmed Zaki. In this film her character is obsessed with Abdelhalim Hafez’s music, the sentimental and earnest counterpoint to her husband’s cold opportunism. The film includes a memorable scene of Amin’s character learning of Hafez’s death in 1977, which strongly affects her and is a turning point in the couple’s relationship.

Some unusually framed shots by cinematographer Mahmoud Fahmy enhance The Greatest Child’s sense of eroticism and secrecy. As Matilda enters their home for the first time, for example, we see her framed through the back of a wooden chair. And as she flirts with Fathy while he fixes his car, the camera peeks out from the car bonnet. The lighthearted approach to the subject matter, the farcical and less-than-convincing acting, as well as the sexual innuendos that pepper the dialogue make the film a fun watch (approached as a guilty pleasure of course).

“Your library is totally out of order, do you mind if I reorganize it?” asks Matilda in an early scene, and the flustered Fathy replies, “No no, I’m afraid you’ll mix it up even more!” Then during a particularly charged game of chess, Matilda points out that he has lost all his pawns, to which he replies, “That’s ok, I do pretty well with my knight,” before she delivers her symbolic and seductive “checkmate.”

The Greatest Child does not avoid misogynistic undertones, and its female characters are either cold and opportunistic, or dominating and stifling. The contemporary Arab man as embodied by Fathy is caught between two women’s desires and with little room to act on his own.

The film goes to great lengths to contrast Fathy’s wife Samia’s firm, demanding nature with Matilda’s gentle, ever-ready-for-the-taking feminine allure. In one scene Samia interrupts Fathy and Matilda’s conversation and enters wearing a comically large tie and checkered trousers. In another, she is chastised by her co-worker for neglecting her marital duties, immersing herself in work, and doling out bad relationship advice on her show, which lead “five women to get divorced this month alone!” The film’s unmistakably male perspective reduces women to conquests or oppressors, never equals. Although sex is the main driver of the action, female sexuality is handled at arms length, presented from Fathy’s perspective as a confusing, destabilizing force.

A scene in which Fathy and Matilda begin to consummate their desire (in the name of science, mind you!) caused a major backlash against the young Amin, and shots showing her nude were cut from the cinematic copy, which was categorized as 18+. But not from the post-midnight, adult-only programming of the Arabic satellite movie channel where I first encountered this gem.

At one point Fathy, emasculated, whimpering, cries out “What do you think I am? A lab rat? A test tube? I’m flesh and blood! I’m a human!” But it is precisely his humanity that western Matilda finds so disgusting: “I thought you were a man of science, but discovered you’re just another human, one of the thousands who confuse love and desire.” Despite her temptations, the film tells us, the West will never embrace you: she’ll take what she can and then cast you aside. And despite the fact that Fathy does not heed the advice he so emphatically gave his students, that “separating sex and love can be enough to destroy society,” he actually suffers no major consequence as a result of his brief infidelity, reiterating that the nation state and its warm buxom bosom will always take you back.

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Lara El Gibaly