Censorship and Queer Representation in Egyptian Cinema

By: Amin El Sharqawy

Photo by aj_aaaab on Unsplash

The current political climate in Egypt does not allow for the explicit discussion of queer rights in the media or in the public sphere. I myself am writing this article under a pseudonym, for fear of having my real name attached to any discussion of this issue. Despite rigid censorship, queer characters have long appeared on screen in Egypt, in ways both empowering and problematic: as agents of comical relief, symbols of Western cultural encroachment, but also as controversial actors in the struggle for national independence.

The representation of queerness on the Egyptian screen has long been subjected to a wealth of legal and cultural obstacles. A number of censorship regulations -both written and unwritten- hinder the possibility for balanced depictions of the country’s queer community. While homosexuality in Egypt is not explicitly criminalized, it tends to fall under the broad and obscure category of “debauchery”, which encompasses any action deemed contrary to prevalent social norms. The on-screen depiction of queerness may therefore constitute an “incitement to debauchery”, and entail legal consequences for film practitioners. Today, most funding for the Egyptian film industry stems from conservative Gulf countries, a factor which further stifles artistic freedom. Thus, while queer characters are not absent from the Egyptian screen, they are frequently relegated to the narrative background -as agents of comical relief, antagonists, or symbols of Western colonial and cultural encroachment.

The silver screen often acts as an audience’s gateway into the lives of a marginalized other. In the face of continuing repression and marginalization, queer representation in Egyptian films plays a critical role in the struggle for equal rights. It is thus important to examine the representation of queerness in Egyptian cinema, and the various ways -at turns problematic and empowering- in which filmmakers have managed to overturn censorship.

Much of the literature surrounding the topic points to censorship laws, which prevent the explicit depiction of homosexuality on screen. In spite of these restrictions, however, many filmmakers have managed to include queer characters and narrative arcs into their works, owing to a number of subtle loopholes. Among these loopholes is the portrayal of cross-dressing, which Menicucci discusses at length in his study of homosexuality in Egyptian cinema. This narrative device is commonly used to tackle subjects which may, otherwise, be deemed too provocative by the wider public. Cross-dressing in Egypt has been prevalent since pre-Islamic times, and gained further prominence in the nineteenth century, under the rule of Muhammad Ali, when female dancers were banned and replaced with cross-dressing men -known as khawalat . The reversal of gender coding was carried into twentieth century theater, most often as a comical trope. With the advent of cinema and the beginnings of the local film industry, in the late 1920s and 1930s, cross-dressers went on to populate the Egyptian screen.

One of the earliest examples of cross-dressing in Egyptian cinema is director Ahmed Galal’s 1938 comedy, The Pacha Director’s Daughter. The film follows a young woman, Asya, who finds herself forced to replace her brother as the tutor for a wealthy Pacha’s daughter. The protagonist goes to the Pacha’s house disguised as her brother, Hikmat. Soon enough, her student’s sister, Badriya, becomes sexually attracted to Asya. Asya willingly returns Badriya’s advances, going so far as trying to kiss her in a highly eroticized scene, which is brought to a halt by the intervention of Badriya’s older brother. Despite its explicit and erotic portrayal of female homosexuality, Galal’s film was uncensored and well-received, for a number of reasons.

First, the relationship between Asya and Badriya manifests as the comical result of a case of mistaken identity. The initiator, Badriya, pursues her sister’s tutor while fully convinced that she is in fact pursuing Hikmat -Asya’s heavily coded gender performance therefore legitimizes Badriya’s attraction. Second, the cross-dressing Asya does not initiate the relationship, she merely reciprocates. In doing so, Asya mocks or ridicules the Pacha’s daughter, but her actions do not necessarily amount to genuine courtship. Furthermore, the older brother’s intervention points to two moral underpinnings: “premarital sex was to be avoided, homosexuality was abhorrent”. Therefore, the film frames its depictions of homosexuality as comical, and, as Menicucci rightly notes, it is ultimately understood to uphold widespread morals and values. Thus, homosexuality is portrayed on-screen, but as a comedic, perhaps even moralistic device.

When queerness is tackled in genres other than comedy however, queer characters tend to be treated more harshly. In most instances, these characters are antagonized, or, at best, they are worthy of sympathy insofar as their queerness is a mental illness, and/or results from childhood trauma. One of the best-known portrayals of homosexuality on the Egyptian screen was featured in director Marwan Hamed’s 2006 drama, The Yacoubian Building, based on the novel of the same name by Alaa Al Aswani. The film follows several characters who each represent a faction of 1990s Egyptian society, to explore changing social dynamics in the country, and corruption under Hosny Mubarak’s presidency. The protagonists all live in the titular Yacoubian Building, in Downtown Cairo.

Hatim Rashid, one resident, is a prominent journalist born to a wealthy Egyptian father and a French mother. Those in his social circles are aware of Hatim’s homosexuality, but owing to his wealth and social prominence, most people choose to look the other way. As the story progresses, Hatim is shown to be increasingly corrupt and abusive. He takes a young, naive police conscript from the provinces, Abd Rabuh, as his lover. While Abd Rabuh does not identify as queer -he is married and has a young son- Hatim uses his wealth and power to sexually exploit the young man. When Abd Rabuh’s military service ends, Hatim even buys him a kiosk, so that he will have a business of his own and a reason to bring his wife and son to Cairo so he can remain in the capital. As the illicit relationship develops, the two men’s affection becomes genuine, and the conscript grows more sympathetic towards Hatim and his “condition”, as do the audience.

This sympathy, however, is counterbalanced by the seemingly inevitable consequences of the two men’s sins. Hidiya, Abd Rabuh’s wife, knows but refuses to admit that her newfound good fortune derives from her husband’s homosexual liason. The young man’s internal turmoil and shame lead him to treat her with increasing harshness, a cycle of abuse which culminates in marital rape. Any remaining sympathy vanishes when finally, Abd Rabuh’s son, Wael, falls ill and dies, a tragedy which manifests as divine retribution. The married couple subsequently return to Upper Egypt, and Hatim dies murdered in bed by another lover. In his final moments, we learn from a flashback scene that the journalist was molested by an older man, a house employee named Idriss, in his childhood. Thus his sexual deviance is attributed to this childhood trauma.

Upon its release, Hamed’s film sparked much controversy, and the homosexual plotline was subsequently removed from the 2007 series adaptation. Nevertheless, the film managed to pass censorship in spite of its explicit nature. For one thing, while homosexuality is never openly condemned by the characters, Wael’s death and Abd Rabuh’s slow descent into mental instablity and abuse are clearly understood to be the consequences of his “wrongdoing.” For another, while Hatim is at several points depicted in a sympathetic light, his death at the hands of an illicit lover reasserts -with none too subtle symbolism- the deviance of his sexual orientation.

Another notable aspect of Hatim’s queerness is its “alienness”, an aspect which is repeatedly underlined in Stephen O. Murray’s analysis of the film. The character’s sexuality, aside from being a vice and a mental illness, is also a product of his Westernized upbringing. Hatim’s French origin, and his heavily accented Arabic, form an important part of his characterization. As such, he is a symbol of lingering colonial influence in the country and of the ensuing moral degradation of Egyptian society. The discreet gay bar where he goes to meet other homosexual men is called “Chez Nous”, and is managed by a man named Aziz, whom Hatim refers to as the “Englishman” -thereby further alienating him from the “true” values of the country. Aziz himself came to this position after having been the young lover of the previous owner, a Greek migrant. Even Abd Rabuh, who comes from a modest provincial background, is ultimately corrupted by a Westernized man. Thus everything to do with queerness is attributed to Western moral deviance.

The characterization of homosexuality as a Western colonial implant is a recurrent trope within Egyptian cinematic depictions of queerness. This trope is discussed at length by Omar Hassan in his analysis of queer representation and colonialism in Egyptian cinema. The author notably mentions the film adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz’s novel, Midaq Alley, in which the openly gay character, Kirsha, is shown to be a British collaborator, aligning with the colonial forces against those fighting for Egyptian independence. In both the novel and the film, it is heavily implied that Kirsha’s sexual leanings directly correlate with his treacherous political affiliations. Ultimately, what is to be retained from this example and others is that homosexuality cannot be native to Egyptian culture and society, it is necessarily a foreign ill.

Alexandria Why

Nevertheless, queer and queer-friendly filmmakers have found ways to use this colonial exceptionalism to overturn censorship, while still providing more nuanced portrayals of homosexuality on the Egyptian screen. That is, by placing queer characters at the center of cinematic metaphors for decoloniality. The first installment of Youssef Chahine’s autobiographical film trilogy, Alexandria Why, is perhaps the best-known example of this narrative reversal of the colonial trope. Both Meniccuci and Hassan note that the 1979 film was one of the first in the country to deal with homosexuality in a “matter-of-fact” way, not seeking to derive any moral or philosophical conclusions from the characters’ sexual preferences.

Set in Alexandria during the Second World War, one of several subplots revolves around the protagonist’s uncle, who routinely kidnaps and murders British soldiers in defiance of British imperialism. On one occasion, he kidnaps a drunken soldier, Tommy, from a bar; but when the time comes to shoot him and dispose of his body, the uncle hesitates. Finally, the young soldier falls sobbing into the uncle’s arms, and the latter bitterly reprimands him “act like a man.” We cut to an image of the two men in bed the following morning, implying a homosexual encounter. Again, the uncle threatens Tommy with a gun, but still cannot bring himself to shoot. In the following days, a subtle courtship develops between the two characters. While it never takes on an explicitly sexual nature, the homoerotic aspect of the relationship is evident.

The seemingly controversial storyline was not deemed too provocative for the Egypian screen; the film was even selected as Egypt’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 52nd Academy Awards. Here, the character’s homosexuality is not attributed to mental illness, it is not equated with moral deviance, nor is the relationship initiated by the Western soldier. Nevertheless, what Chahine manages to do is posit the homosexual encounter not as a sexual act, but as a metaphor for colonial struggle: one from which Egypt emerges victorious, as the uncle clearly overpowers the British soldier. The Egyptian man is older, and on their first meeting, possesses the advantage of sobriety. On two separate occasions he points a pistol at young Tommy. The phallic symbol works to reassert the power dynamics at play. All the more, the uncle’s last remarks prior to the sexual act, “act like a man”, indicate that he is the one penetrating, and not being penetrated. The act is thus framed as a metaphorical reclamation of territory, manhood, and national pride. This portrayal is obviously not unproblematic. For one thing, the characters’ affection emerges from what is initially violent hatred between the two men (Hassan, 2010). For another, it presents penetration as an act of dominance, while being penetrated is equated with weakness and submission. In doing so, the narrative reinforces patriarchal structures of power, and the mysoginistic notion that homosexual relationships entail a “masculine” and a “feminine” partner -wherein the latter is shamed and looked down upon. All the more, it furthers the notion that men and masculinity should figure at the forefront of resistance movements, a recurring motif in decolonial art. In short, it is hard to overlook the sexist nature of the two men’s dynamic.

Nevertheless, the film’s depiction of homosexuality still represents an important step forward in the representational politics of Egyptian cinema. In spite of its problematic implications, the growing relationship between Tommy and the uncle is depicted in a sympathetic light, and unlike the majority of on-screen queers, neither of them suffers “retribution” for his sexual deviance. No allusion is made to mental illness or childhood trauma to justify the characters’ sexuality. All the more, the uncle is depicted as a role model and mentor to the young protagonist, Yehia, -Chahine’s alter ego. A militant nationalist and agent in the decolonial struggle, the character strikingly defies the notion that queerness is alien to the country, or results from Western encroachment.

Chahine’s controversial legacy also notably set the path for his longtime collaborator and successor, Yousry Nasrallah, to present the audience with increasingly balanced and humane portrayals of queerness on screen. Nasrallah’s 1988 debut, Sariqat Sayfiya (Somersaults), recounts a story of childhood friendship between the son of aristocratic landowners and the son of a peasant who works on their land. The two go their separate ways in adulthood, but during a brief reunion, the romantic character of the relationship becomes apparent as the two men embrace, and the wealthy land heir declares “I have never loved anyone the way I love you.” Nasrallah’s 1999 drama film, Al-Madina (The City), also features a presumably queer character in the role of the protagonist’s lifelong friend. While in both films, the characters’ queerness is not explicit (presenting instead as close friendship), it is heavily implied and void of psychological justifications, alienness, or even political implications, thus taking another significant step forward.

It is nonetheless important to note that Chahine and Nasrallah both frequently turned to Western funding for their productions. Many of their works, and of Nasrallah’s films in particular, were widely screened and acclaimed in the West, but vastly overlooked by Egyptian audiences. With most funding now stemming from conservative Gulf countries, and censorship growing ever more stringent, it is hard to envision a widening space for more balanced representations of queerness on screen. The latest edition of the Panorama of the European Film (organized by Misr International Productions, which was founded by Youssef Chahine) demonstrated a relative ouverture, with several of the selected films featuring explicitly queer storylines, and even uncensored erotic scenes between same-sex partners. However, it should be noted that those films were all European productions, and as alternative films, attract a particular audience. All the more, they were screened as part of a festival, for which censorship authorities apply different rules than for regular cinema releases. It is therefore unlikely that the same leniency would be granted to commercial, or even alternative Egyptian films. One solution could be for artists to explicitly seek funding from Western donors, at the risk of seeing their films banned or censored in their home country, or restricted to one or two screenings within the framework of a festival. Nevertheless, the Egyptian film industry is among the oldest, richest and most diverse in the world. Film practitioners in the country have time and time again stood up to rigid censorship and cultural barriers. In the face of adversity, one can only hope that this vibrant film scene will continue to surprise and subvert.

The Politics of Representation

The Politics of Representation

We aim to explore and foster debate on wider questions of the politics of representation.

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