Constructing and echoing social perceptions: Gay characters in Egyptian film
 
 
Mercedes (1993)
 

On Saturday, Supreme Council for Media Regulation head Makram Mohamed Ahmed ordered a media ban on the appearance of homosexuals and homosexual “slogans,” stating that homosexuality is a disgrace that should be covered up, not celebrated. The ban came amid arrests, prison sentences, anal examinations, public shaming, accusations of mental instability, and general incitement against people based on their perceived sexuality, an attack that started after rainbow flags were raised at a concert on September 22 in Cairo.

Egyptian cinema would look quite different without depictions of same-sex desire — suggestions of homosexuality have regularly appeared in films since the late 1950s. Many of these representations have caused heated debate, but not all are controversial — some are seen as comedy classics. How are these representations constructed, and to what extent do they influence society’s interaction with, and media discussions of gay individuals? Has there been any change over time in how such characters are depicted? Do these filmic depictions inform how we, both straight and queer Egyptians, see gay people?

In attempting to answer these questions, I found that gay characters in Egyptian films can be divided into five categories of representation.

The ‘khawal’ stereotype and macho domination as comic material

In Fateen Abdel Wahab’s popular comedy Eshaeit Hob (A Rumor of Love, 1960), Lucy (Gamal Ramsis) is a cousin of diva Samiha (Souad Hosni) and one of the main features on which the film’s comedy is based. He is mocked by Samiha’s father (Youssef Wahby).

“Who is this girl, Samiha?” Wahby’s character asks his daughter. “Is she your friend?”

“Her?! Dad, this is Lucy. He is a boy.”

“Oh God – are you sure, Samiha?”

A Rumor of Love (1960)

Lucy drives a Cadillac, dances the twist, has an Elvis quiff, sings in Greek and Turkish, and wears tight short-sleeved shirts and cropped pants. He symbolizes, according to Samiha’s father, the opposite of everything that is “manly.”

Filmmaker Neyazi Mostafa recreated the scene in another popular comedy, Al-Bahs Aan Fadiha (The Search for a Scandal, 1967): Sexist father meets the cousin of his diva daughter played by Mirvat Amin. Instead of Elvis-influenced Lucy, it’s Beatles-loving Rico (Nagui Angelo). Rico has a high-pitched voice, doesn’t stick to traditionally “masculine” conversation, refuses to watch boxing, plays guitar, and has Beatles mop-top hair.

The Search for a Scandal (1967)

Rico and Lucy are constructed as opposites to both films’ heterosexual, serious, self-made protagonists (played by Adel Imam and Omar El-Sherif respectively): undisciplined, spoiled, western-influenced individuals with inherited wealth. As well as comic effect, they create part of the obstacle course the hero must overcome to marry the beautiful sweetheart.

This construction has persisted – we can see it for example in Ali Idrees’s Al-Tagreba al-Denimarkia (The Danish Experience, 2003): a character called Bahaa (Khaled Shebl) is mocked and harassed, by another Adel Imam character, for not being “masculine enough” to control his wife, also as a foil to the men in the film who are presented as strong and attractive.

Lucy, Rico and Bahaa are presented as heterosexual men, but their non-macho or camp attitudes are clearly meant to suggest an inability to show dominance over women through a patriarchal display of masculinity. This becomes a source of punchlines. This so-called ‘inability’ was further developed in other films to build a new character.

In Hossam al-Den Mostafa’s Darb al-Hawa (1983), which discusses prostitution in Egypt before 1952, the madame’s assistant, Siksika (Farouq Falawkas), not only wears a tight galabiya and make-up but also expresses sexual interest in men. The film was censored and the Culture Ministry banned it from cinemas for “spreading a negative picture of the country.”

Darb al-Hawa (1983)

Historically, after ghawazi (female belly dancers) were banned by the Ottoman sultan in 1840, tavern owners substituted them with handsome young men (“köçek” in Turkish), who often wore femnine attire, and were said to be a smashing success. Egyptians coined the term “khawal,” a corruption of the root word khil, meaning “companion” or “friend” in Arabic. Siksika is presented as a “khawal” who either feels maladapted or just decides not to conform to the traditional masculine image and is looked down upon by society as a result. “What is this?!” asks the protagonist (Ahmed Zaki) when he sees Siksika, and we get the sense that the film’s director feels the same way.

Characters similar to Siksika pop up elsewhere, like Mahmoud al-Guindy in Shafeqa and Metwally (1978) by Ali Badrakhan, or Farouq Falawkas again as a modern, fancy-suited assistant to a belly dancer in Al-Rakesa Wal Siasy (The Belly Dancer and the Politician, 1990). With their disinterest in attracting women, and their homoerotic qualities, they are created to strengthen the corrupt environment some directors want to imply surrounds belly dancers or sex work.

The Belly Dancer and the Politician

The effect of these representations characterizing male homosexuality as male femininity can be seen in the attitudes and language of crime journalists and others. For example, in 2015 Al-Ahram reported the arrest of two men who use women’s names and “turned into Soha and Bolbola, offering sex to customers for LE2000 per hour,” while a 2014 video report by Al-Youm Al-Sabea spoke of the arrest of six “mukhannathun” (“sissies”) for offering “forbidden pleasure.”

Society’s unwanted children and ‘societal collapse’

A second representation of LGBT characters in Egyptian film is as molester or rapist, often physically resisted by the protagonist and then punished. In Saeed Hamed’s Rasha Garea (Dare to Give, 2001), an emerging actor played by Ashraf Abdel Baki is molested by a gay director, who is eventually killed by another, rival actor. The director (played by Ali Hasanen) is not portrayed as a villain, but as one among many obstacles the young actor faces as the plot develops.

This category often has some crossover with the previous one, representing the gay character as bohemian, artistic, upper-class and usually in contact with “the West.” In Zaki Fateen Abdel Wahab’s mostly forgotten debut film Romantica (1996), a young Egyptian wannabe Hollywood star (also played by Ashraf Abdel Baki) is convinced to get into bed with a German male artist. The gay character here exists to show the protagonist being exploited. This character also dies, in what is suggested to be a result of an “abnormal” lifestyle.

Romantica (1996)

This is arguably the most dangerous stereotype, as the character’s sexuality is their single defining trait — everything they do is prompted by their sexual orientation — and they are presented as courting gruesome deaths. These films show any sexual contact between two individuals of the same sex as either forced or meaningless, at best.

Khaled Youssef’s Heena Maysara (Until Things Become Better, 2007) and Hani Gerges Fawzy’s Bedoon Rekaba (No Supervision, 2009) both show lesbianism as a sign of moral degradation, as one woman seduces the other against a backdrop of green Stella bottles, brownish hashish joints and disco dancing.

Until Things Become Better (2007)

In the first, a runaway (Somaya al-Khashab) is tricked into sleeping with another woman (Ghada Abdel Raziq). When she refuses, the woman kicks her out of her house. As an attempt to portray the results of decades of government brutality and corruption – children living on the street, people forced into sex work, police brutality and rape – Until Things Become Better fails in its treatment of same-sex relations and the impact of such policies on them.

Though without nudity or much beyond an attempted kiss, the scene in which the two women go to bed, before Khashab’s character flees, was controversial and negatively received. An MP from the ruling National Democratic Party and an MP from the Muslim Brotherhood discussed the scene in Parliament and in the media when the film was released, accusing Youssef and the two actors of “inciting debauchery.” Conservative scholars filed lawsuits against the film, citing “immoral Western culture,” none of which resulted in a verdict. In 2010 Youssef in turn sued the Arab Radio and Television Network, whose channels cut the scene from the film, which did result in their screening the uncut film.

No Supervision (2009)

No Supervision shows a group of spoiled young people doing little but sex and drugs while trying to pass their college exams. One character (Ola Ghanem) is an older, well-off bisexual woman who exploits desperate young women. Her relationships are based on financial power, where rich seduces poor. Yet it too faced a lawsuit — by an Egyptian lawyer called Nabeh al-Wahsh, who is known for filing lawsuits against almost every film that contains sex and is particularly concerned with belly dancers and singers — accusing it of “promoting lesbianism.”

This same narrative is also heavily present in the Egyptian media when tackling “homosexual crimes,” telling stories about the defendant (often a private university student whose parents are working in the Gulf) and the lifestyle of debauchery they lead.

In May 2001, in the high-profile incident known as the “Queen Boat raid,” 52 men were arrested on charges of “debauchery.” A brief look at the reporting of the raid shows an approach that consistently depends on the idea that moral corruption and a lack of parental and societal control leads to homosexuality, a narrative that helps bolster a heavy-handed patriarchal state. The defendants were called satanists, spoiled bourgeois, westernized, and followers of Ibn Nawas, a classical Arabic poet known for expressing fondness for young boys and wine.

In December 2014, Mona Iraqi’s TV show “Al-Mestakhabi” (The Hidden) broadcast live the arrest of dozens of men in a public bathhouse in downtown Cairo, without regard for their right to anonymity. Iraqi, who became notorious for cooperating with police during the raid, justified her role by arguing that the bathhouse hosted homosexual prostitution.

Misguided empathy and the psychological misfit

A third category of representation presents the judgemental and conservative view that same-sex desire derives from some trauma experienced. In Salah Abu Seif’s Hamam al-Malatili (The Bathhouse of al-Malatili, 1973) and Marwan Hamed’s The Yacoubian Building (Emaret Yacoubian, 2002), homosexuality is a product not only of western influence and bohemian lifestyles, but also of unpleasant family history. Although 30 years passed between the two films, they have an identical approach: presenting themselves as sympathetic by arguing that the gay character needs “help.”

The Yacoubian Building (2002)

In The Yacoubian Building, Hatem Rashid (Khaled al-Sawy), an aristocratic half-French journalist living in one of downtown Cairo’s architectural masterpieces, enters into a relationship with a poor, well-built riot police conscript (Bassem Samra). Audiences were shocked and disturbed by the film, which, based closely on Alaa al-Aswany’s book of the same name, aimed to display the results of decades of corruption. It received an adults-only rating, and was criticized, in the media and through lawsuits against Aswany, as “promoting homosexuality.”

In Hamam al-Malatili a young man from Ismailia moves to Cairo for his studies, goes to a bathhouse frequented by gay men, and meets an artist called Raouf (Youssef Shabaan), who invites the young man to live with him. The film was banned, and only screened in the 1990s after lengthy scenes were cut, mostly of naked men in the bathhouse.

In both films the queer character faces a difficult relationship with their parents, and troubled childhoods are presented as the reason for their “emasculation”: Raouf was dressed as a girl, and Hatem was sexually assaulted by a servant. As adults, both use philosophy to justify their sexual orientation and preach acceptance, but they also both are mocked and despised by society, and face unpleasant fates.

Yacoubian Building (2002)

Hany Fawzy’s Asrar al-Ela (Family Secrets, 2014) presents the daily life of its 18-year-old gay protagonist. After well-publicized battles between the filmmakers and the censorship authority, the film saw light. Although eagerly anticipated by some members of the gay community and LGBT activists, it was a disappointment.

Although it does well in depicting the reactions Marwan (Mohamed Mahran) faces from his family and his experience of cyber sex, psychiatry sessions (an angle that was new to depictions of gay people in Egyptian film) and blind dates, it falls into three traps. It implies that Mawan needs to “recover” and that viewers need a “reason” for his sexual orientation. It adopts a stereotypical depiction of gay men, such as a feminine voice, long hair and shaved arms. And it perpetuates the delusion that gay men either had abusive mothers and were raised in “unmanly” environments, or were sexually assaulted as children.

Family Secrets (2014)

The argument that homosexuality is a psychological disease reached Egyptian public opinion rather late, taking hold in the 2000s, but has affected how media portray gay people: as victims now, as well as villains. Talk shows with pro-state hosts or so-called investigative journalists have started using psychiatry to tackle the issue. Sabaya al-Kheir, Intibah (Attention!), and other health-focused shows discuss homosexuality as a disease, and even host psychiatrists to analyze “patients” and offer advice.

Sexuality as one of many elements of humanity

A fourth category of representation belongs largely to Youssef Chahine, who showed LGBT characters as ordinary humans. In his often overlooked socialist realist masterpiece Al-Nas wal Nile (The People and the Nile, 1972) he set a relationship between two men — a Soviet technician and a Nubian worker — parallel to the triumphant construction of Aswan’s High Dam. Highly influenced by Soviet cinema and Egyptian theater, it was shot in 1969 but saw the light only in 1972 due to interference from both the Egyptian and Soviet governments.

The People and the Nile (1972)

In Chahine’s take on the French occupation of Egypt, Adieu Bonaparte (1985), a French general and scholar (Michel Piccoli) falls in love with two Egyptian boys in their late teens. Egyptian critics hated it, specifically the fact that the general kisses the feet of one of the boys. After that, Chahine hinted at homoeroticism rather than straightforwardly depicting it.

Adieu Bonaparte (1985)

In the first part of his autobiographical trilogy, Iskindryia lih? (Alexandria Why?, 1979), the protagonist’s uncle and role model Adel Bey (played by the brilliant Ahmed Mehrz), is a radical nationalist who kidnaps and kills British soldiers in Alexandria during World War II. Adel, an aristocrat and hater of a nouveau riche who prosper by collaborating with the British during the war, pays to have a New Zealander soldier, Tommy, kidnapped in order to kill him.

But Adel ends up takes him home instead, and the camera cuts to Tommy waking up on Adel’s bed in his underwear. Both characters’ need for physical affection is obvious. The lustful relationship between the two grows as Tommy returns to the front to fight in the battle of Al-Alamein. What started as an attempted murder becomes a tragic love story.

Alexandria Again and Forever (1989)

In 1989 Chahine directed Iskindryia Kaman wa Kaman (Alexandria Again and Forever), playing himself as a director who falls in love with an actor (Amr Abdel Glil). This relationship is also dealt with in a rather indirect way, and in one memorable scene, the duo dance passionately to Nat King Cole’s version of Walking My Baby Back Home after winning a prize at the Berlin Film Festival. Their mutual affection is shown platonically as they dance in tribute to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ romantic Hollywood duets.

Chahine makes it clear that unrequited love, passion and heartache are equally present in same-sex relationships as in heterosexual ones. By emphasizing romance, he shows that such relationships may not be, as depicted in the other categories of representation, only about sex. His characters’ struggles and development are not based on their sexuality. Some prosper, some fall into depression, others pass away.

Cat on Fire (1977)

Another important depiction is based on American playwright Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Qettah Ala Nar (Cat on Fire, 1977), directed by Samir Seif, stars Nour al-Sherif as Amin and Boussy as his wife Gigi. Lebanese actor Shawki Matta plays Issa, who has a drinking problem and feelings for his friend Amin. Desire between the two men is implied rather than explicitly shown, for example in the wife’s sexual jealousy, and the friends’ glances at each other. Jealous of Issa, who spends more time with her husband, Gigi plots to make Amin discover his friend’s sexual orientation, leading to tragedy. The film has clear sympathy for the character, arguing for tolerance and coexistence.

Mercedes (1993)

Youssry Nasrallah’s dark comedy Mercedes (1993) – in which Gamal (Magdi Kamel), a bohemian artist, escapes his a greedy and materialistic  bourgeois lifestyle to live underground with his poor hipster lover (Bassem al-Samra) – also emphasizes gay characters’ normality and humanity.

In Daoud Abdel Sayed’s Rasael al-Bahr (Messages from the Sea, 2010), two women (Samia Assad and Doaa Hegazi) momentarily fall in love with each other. Assad plays an Italian living in Alexandria who is initially in love with the film’s male protagonist (Asser Yassin), but as her perspective on sex changes she develops a longing for one of her female clients.

Messages from the Sea (2009)

The women are not out of the ordinary in any way; Abdel Sayed’s depiction does not conform to the stereotype that lesbians hate men and dress in manly clothes, as implied by Salah Abu Seif’s 1958 Al-Tareeq al-Masdood, in which a minor female character tries to harass the heroine.

In Deil al-Samaka (The Fish’s Tail, 2003), Amr Waked, in his first major film, plays a character whom an old lonely gay man vainly attempts to seduce. The man (Raouf Mostafa) later apologizes, justifying his sexuality.

“Did you choose your name? Your parents? Your birthplace? Your job?” he asks.

“No.”

“I too didn’t choose to be like this.”

Here there is no “reason” for homosexuality, and a person doesn’t need to be good or bad to be gay.

Approaching the political context of persecution

The fifth and final category has only one film. Seven years after the Queen Boat arrests, filmmaker Maher Sabiry made the compassionate drama Toul Omry (All My Life, 2008), telling the story of a gay accountant, Rami, trying to navigate Cairo’s underground gay community. All My Life was the first Egyptian film to relate political corruption, cyber surveillance and police brutality to the crackdown on LGBT people and specifically the Queen Boat raid.

All My Life (2008)

The film, produced by the Egyptian Underground Film Society, an organization established in 2005 to “escape restrictions of censorship” was never screened in Egypt, only at foreign film festivals, and after its release on the internet the former Grand Mufti Nasr Farid openly condemned the film, saying it incited “debauchery” and must be burned.

Taken from a song by Mohamad Abdel-Wahab, the film’s title refers to how Rami is abandoned by his lover and tries to fall in love again while hiding his sexuality so as not to get in trouble with the authorities. His character is not necessarily progressive, as at times he blames the Queen Boat defendants for being open about their sexual orientation.

Despite the poor quality of the production, it shines light on several crucial aspects, such as how police released the foreigners arrested at the Queen Boat, how the defendants were raped and otherwise mistreated in police custody, and how the media coverage of the raid was part of the state sponsored propaganda machine.

Hope for change?

The discourse around homosexuality in Egypt is often limited to human rights, analyzing state crackdowns from a political perspective. But looking at cultural representations, not only in film, but TV series, memes, and jokes, helps us understand why there is a lack of outrage over the rape of gay people in detention, why families often think homosexuality has a cause and a cure, and why journalists can get away with calling the rainbow flag defendants “sons of divorced women”, “western agents”, or mentally ill.

In parallel to documenting illegal treatment of defendants in “debauchery” related cases, Egyptian human rights organizations point to media campaigns that incite discrimination against people based on their perceived sexuality.

This survey of films, which of course does not include all films that suggest homosexuality, shows a lack of progress in when it comes to of depictions of gay characters. The feminine stereotype that started in the 1960s was echoed in the 2000s, while the 1970s idea of the psychological misfit also remained the same.

On the other hand, except for All My Life, narratives broaching the political crackdown on LGBT people are almost non-existent in film, suggesting that progressive representations have less exposure, and arguably less effect on public opinion. This leaves negative depictions in mainstream comedies and dramas leaking into public consciousness — to the extent that when a local news website wrote about a crime that allegedly involved a gay man last year, it used a still from The Yacoubian Building to illustrate the article.

The effect of this week’s media gag will likely mean restrictions on any sympathetic rhetoric towards sexual freedoms in future cinematic works.

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Adham Youssef