There is a general perception in Egypt today, shared by fans and many critics, that “old” Egyptian films depicted sex more tastefully than recent films. The following passage by critic Hisham Lashin is typical:

Until approximately the middle of the 1960s, the Egyptian cinema treated the subject of sex with extreme caution, without frankly depicting it. There was an exaggerated delicacy, an excessive romanticism, in the way such films as Salah Abu Sayf’s Shabab Imra’a (A Woman’s Youth) dealt with this type of sensitive relationship. [1]

The claim that the “old films” handled sex more tastefully than 
contemporary ones, however, overlooks the more central real
ity that film in Egypt has always challenged patriarchal norms.

Historically, sexual imagery in Egyptian films has worked on two levels: It champions the cause of individuated marriage and contrasts sexual transgression with traditional social norms. Placed strictly in the context of legitimate marriage, sex in the Egyptian cinema seems hopelessly straitlaced compared with Western cinema. The often-repeated love and marriage trope, however, frequently does not conform to tradition. From the beginning, film characters have typically sought marriage arrangements that do not accord with patriarchal values. In a patriarchal society, any relationship not arranged and approved by the father is illicit, although patriarchal authority may, in life as well as in art, be exercised more by mothers (in the name of the father). The overriding principle is that a legitimate marriage brings together families first and unites individuals only as a secondary consideration. In contrast to an individualized society where love is a prelude to marriage, in a patriarchal society love follows marriage. Of course real marriages in Egypt do not necessarily conform to such idealized models. Film narratives commonly articulate conceptual extremes of both patriarchal control and individualized love rather than real life situations.

The conflict of individualized, romantic love with patriarchy is starkly depicted in films, like Bayn al-Qasrayn (Palace Walk, 1964), based on the first part of Naguib Mahfouz’s famous trilogy. In film and novel, the domination of the family by its patriarch, Ahmad ‘Abd al-Gawad, is subverted by all the man’s sons, but particularly by Fahmi who represents perhaps the best hope for changing the patriarchal values of the older generation but dies tragically at the end. ‘Abd al-Gawad’s remaining offspring either compromise with his traditional patriarchal domination or embrace it.

Relationships that would be illegitimate by patriarchal standards are rendered acceptable through the ideal of romantic love. They are acceptable, that is, by modernist standards that simultaneously break down traditional values and define the limits of new behaviors. The White Rose — a 1933 musical starring the singer and composer Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab — was a prototype for such narratives. In this film, ‘Abd al-Wahhab falls in love with his boss’ daughter, but patriarchy triumphs and forces the woman to marry her cousin. Later ‘Abd al-Wahhab films soft-pedal patriarchal authority. In Yahya al-Hubb (Long Live Love, 1938) ‘Abd al-Wahhab finally gets the girl of his dreams, who happens, this time, to be his employer’s niece. His Mamnu‘ al-Hubb (Love Is Forbidden, 1942) is a comedic version of Romeo and Juliet in which warring clans are eventually united by the protagonists’ unstoppable romantic love.

Mahmoud ‘Awad, a prominent ‘Abd al-Wahhab biographer, praised the singer for promoting the idea of romantic love between individuals. ‘Awad described patriarchal society as a “closed culture,” in which men and women are strictly separated. According to ‘Awad, this commonly resulted in love at first sight. Songs invoking love at first glance were said to have been ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s forte. Yet ‘Awad’s biography depicts ‘Abd al-Wahhab as an important figure in prompting the evolution away from extreme separation and sensitivity between men and women and toward a public culture that encouraged greater openness between the sexes:

Because sex is a general instinct, and love a personal emotion…because sex is practiced by both humans and animals, whereas love is found only in humans, the songs of any given society cannot eliminate sexual symbolism unless it has reached a sufficient level of cultural development — a level at which individuals do not act upon their instincts. [2]

The principle of individualized love triumphant over the sexual instinct allegedly applies to ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s films as well as the songs. Not that overt sexual imagery is absent from his films or those of later stars — it crops up in abundance. Dancers, traditionally a sanctioned form of sexualized femininity, appear often in films, although not those starring ‘Abd al-Wahhab. Several of ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s films do, however, feature rooms full of sultry Europeanized beauties smoldering as ‘Abd al-Wahhab croons. Alone, such imagery would have been termed mere smut, but it rarely appeared in isolation. Romantic narratives were invariably part of commercial film genres in Egypt, as they were in most American and European films of the 1930s and 1940s (with a few exceptions, such as films of Mae West). But over the long term, the grip of romantic love was relaxed somewhat in American and European films. More importantly, the significance of a love story in which two individuals find their own way — and in many cases eventually find social acceptance — resonates differently in a society where arranged marriages are a common option. ‘Awad sees this process of individuation as having begun in ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s generation, but as having never been completed: “The new [rational individuated] lover is still a minority of the lovers portrayed in our songs. But because of continued development he is destined to be in the majority.” [3]

‘Awad’s sentiment may appear more prescriptive than realistic in the Egyptian context. Nonetheless, almost four generations of Egyptians have grown up exposed repeatedly to films, songs and other manifestations of public culture that center on men and women trying — with varying degrees of success — to choose their own partners. During this time, men and women increasingly went to school together, worked in the same offices and rode the same buses. This greater mixing of the sexes, at least in urban areas, has enhanced the idea of marriage as a union of two individuals rather than a contract between patriarchally dominated families. This is not to say that arranged marriages no longer occur or that parental approval is not a decisive factor in marriage choices. But many couples who eventually marry now meet in school, at work or in other public spaces. Films are part of a larger discourse that now sanctions a degree of autonomy in marriage greater than that of preceding generations.

Sex Outside of Marriage

Sex outside marriage occurs frequently in Egyptian films. Usually such transgressions are contained by showing the consequences of such behavior to be negative. In Salah Abu Sayf’s Shabab Imra’a (A Woman’s Youth), the middle-aged female owner of a flour mill who lures a naive student from the countryside into a relationship of sexual dependency, is ultimately crushed to death by a millstone. This is a particularly graphic example, but hardly unusual. A dancer in al-Wahsh (The Beast, 1954) is killed by her estranged husband in the midst of a police raid on her bandit lover’s hideout. In Al-Bidaya wa al-Nihaya (The Beginning and the End, 1960) a prostitute is forced by her brother to drown herself in the Nile. Sometimes the price is less steep. In Abi Fawq al-Shagara (Papa’s Up a Tree, 1969) the dancer/prostitute ends up merely remorseful, while some dance films end with the dancer reforming, essentially quitting her profession.

The punishment for sexually transgressive men is often less severe than for women. For example, a weak-willed factory worker falls for a depraved rich woman in Al-Usta Hasan (Foreman Hasan, 1952). The rich woman dies; Hasan merely hits his son while driving her car (the boy lives). An outstanding illustration of sexual double standards is Husayn Kamal’s Abi Fawq al-Shagara. The film stars ‘Abd al-Halim Hafiz, the last of the great canonical Egyptian singers (after Umm Kulthum and ‘Abd al-Wahhab). In this film ‘Abd al-Halim plays a college student on summer vacation at the beach. His fiancé, a fellow coed, is also there, and ‘Abd al-Halim wants to be alone with her. The shy young woman refuses to associate with him except in the company of their friends, and so ‘Abd al-Halim leaves her for a prostitute and spends a summer of debauchery that includes a trip to Beirut. Near the end of the film ‘Abd al-Halim’s father comes looking for him, finds the prostitutes instead, and falls into the same dissolute behavior as the son. Eventually father meets son, both realize the errors of their ways, and all is forgiven. ‘Abd al-Halim’s spurned fiancee also forgives him. The film ends with the couple frolicking happily, and the final frame is a passionate kiss.

One could argue that the film advocates greater freedom for young lovers, that ‘Abd al-Halim would have been less vulnerable to the charms of the prostitute if his fiancee had been less afraid of ruining her reputation by being alone with a young man. One could also argue that Papa’s Up a Tree contrasts the young man’s absolute sexual freedom with his fiancée’s relative lack thereof.

The sexual double standard evident in Papa’s Up a Tree conforms to traditional norms stipulating that family honor depends upon the behavior of its female members. The articulation of this standard is quite common in Egyptian films. For example, Nur al-‘Uyun (Apple of My Eye, 1991), by Papa’s Up A Tree director Husayn Kamal, distills Papa’s sexual exhibitionism, but makes only a cursory nod toward justifying its protagonists’ behavior on moral grounds. In this film a young woman’s father is murdered. Left with no effective guardian, she marries her cousin, who tries to force her into a life of depravity. She becomes a dancer, but resists the worst of his immorality. He frames her, and she ends up in prison. After serving her sentence she uses her sexuality to entice and then take revenge on all the men who have oppressed her. By the end of the film the dancer appears well-fed, sexually satisfied, completely unrepentant and uncontrolled by any man. Apple of My Eye, however, was received by critics and the public as nothing more than a commercially exploitative vehicle for its belly-dancer star, Fifi Abduh.

Other films address sex in more complex and nuanced ways than Apple of My Eye. Several of Sharif ‘Arafa’s popular five-film series of ‘Adil Imam vehicles, the best of which was Al-Irhab wa al-Kabab (Terrorism and Kabab, 1992), feature unmarried sexually active but positively portrayed women. Magdi Ahmad’s Ya Dunya Ya Gharami (Life, My Passion, 1995) depicted the lives of three single thirty-something working women, all with absent or incapacitated male guardians. Each must confront the marriage market with diminished cultural capital, and in the end each is forced to make compromises with the romantic ideal promoted in films and songs. Ahmad’s and ‘Arafa’s works generally have been popular with both critics and audiences.

Other recent films are more controversial. Usama Fawzi’s ‘Afarit al-Asfalt (Asphalt Devils, 1995) portrayed adulterous relationships in a lower-class neighborhood as no less warped — indeed, in some ways perhaps more emotionally satisfying — than legitimate relationships. The sex in Yusri Nasrallah’s Mercedes (1993) was quite casual, entirely out of wedlock, occasionally homosexual (alluded to more than portrayed) and essentially without moral consequence. Some critics, and many non-specialists, found Nasrallah’s almost tongue-in-cheek approach to sex alarming. Both Mercedes and Asphalt Devils were denounced by some (but by no means all) journalists for allegedly pandering to Western ideals of sexuality. The fact that both films did well in international film festivals, and one of them (Mercedes) was financed by French television, only fueled anxieties in the press about Western cultural domination.

‘Arafa, Ahmad, Fawzi and Nasrallah are young directors. Of course filmmakers from earlier generations, including Salah Abu Sayf and Youssef Chahine, worked to redefine the boundaries of sex in the cinema. But, the master in confronting social sensibilities regarding sex was ‘Atif al-Tayyib, who died tragically young in 1995. Al-Tayyib was a prime mover of “neo-realism,” a characteristic genre, of post-1970s Egyptian cinema that features on-location shooting and, at its best, a brutally unromanticized vision of social contradictions. Some of al-Tayyib’s films are unsurpassed not only in laying bare thorny issues of sexuality but in doing so largely within the conventions of commercial cinema. Inzar bi-l-Ta’a (Warning of Obedience, 1994) addresses a premarital sexual affair that leaves a young woman caught between coercive parental authority and a fragile male ego; Kashf al-Mastur (Uncovering the Hidden, 1994) is about sexual espionage orchestrated by a state far more corrupt than the prostitutes it employs; and Layla Sakhina (Hot Night, 1995) aligns an essentially decent prostitute with a hard-bitten taxi driver in a desperate attempt to raise large sums of money needed to forestall disaster in an utterly corrupt world.

Milaff fi al-Adab (A File in Vice, 1986) — perhaps the best of al-Tayyib’s explorations of sexual themes — marks the boundaries of what is sexually possible by graphically illustrating the sexually impossible. The film angrily rips to shreds the breezy confidence of Mahmoud ‘Awad that “the new lover” can smoothly negotiate a transition between a society in which contact between unmarried men and women has no social sanction and one in which rational individuals seek their own life partners. Set largely in grimy downtown Cairo offices, A File in Vice depicts a horrific encounter between an ambitious but cynical vice cop desperate to make a prostitution bust and middle-class bureaucrats who go to heroic lengths to arrange a proper courtship between a perfectly decent middle-aged man and a divorced woman. The climax of the courtship, an absurdly over-chaperoned lunch date, becomes the vice cop’s big prostitution bust. The case rapidly falls apart in court, but tragically, this does not matter to the women arrested in the ill-planned raid. To them the public humiliation of having a file in vice far outweighs the fact that the case lacked even the barest shred of evidence. Sexual freedom within the boundaries of middle-class propriety is barely a dream in A File in Vice. Even the best-intentioned courtship channeled through improvised “families” composed of fellow office workers is doomed to failure. A juxtaposition of the grim pessimism of A File in Vice with the more fanciful sexual imagery of films like Papa’s Up a Tree suggests that sexual imagery in the cinema is complex. The usual truisms of Egyptian cinema — “they’re all copies of Western films,“ or “all Egyptian films must have a belly dancer” — do not even begin to address this complexity. Always obsessed with sex, the cinema can plausibly be interpreted as a force for the status quo or as an implacable opponent of convention. From the beginning it has contributed to the form of debates on sexuality. Films normalize behavior unthinkable to previous generations, but that is not the whole story They also construct new conceptual boundaries that later generations must either elaborate on or reject.


>[1] Hisham Lashin, “Al-Jins wa-l-Raqaba fi-l-Sinima al-Misriyyra,” al-Qahira(December 1997), pp. 69-71.
[2] Mahmoud ‘Awad, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab Alladhi La Ya‘afihi Ahad (Cairo: Dar al-Ma‘arif, 1991), p. 160.
[3] Ibid., p. 171.

How to cite this article:

Walter Armbrust "Transgressing Patriarchy," Middle East Report 206 (Spring 1998).

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