Images of same-sex love and sexual dissidence from the heterosexual norm have long been portrayed in literature, theater and cinema in the Arab world. While the explicit depiction of homosexual acts in film has been the subject of strict censorship, cinematic references to gays and lesbians abound, if often in heavily coded forms.

The most ubiquitous coding for gay and lesbian cinematic imaging has been cross-dressing. While the tradition of transvestite performers in Arabia can be traced back to pre-Islamic times, [1] in Egypt transvestites gained added prominence in the nineteenth century when Muhammad ‘Ali banned female dancers who were then replaced by khawalat — male dancers who dressed in women’s clothing and performed at popular celebrations and other public venues.

Costume and disguise go to the very essence of theater and film as media. Transvestism — a cultural practice which codes gender dissidence often associated with homosexuality — in itself is often an expression of eroticism and sexuality. [2] Virtually all Egyptian films employing cross-dressing as a plot device do so within a comic context in order to introduce sexual, gender or social issues that would be deeply shocking if dealt with in a serious manner.

Women as Men

One of the earliest examples of an entire plot constructed around cross-dressing is Bint al-Basha al-Mudir (The Pasha Director’s Daughter, 1938) directed by Ahmad Galal, who also starred in the film along with his wife Mary Queeny and his wife’s niece Asya. Asya is forced to disguise herself as her brother Hikmat and must substitute for him in a job as a tutor on a wealthy estate in the Egyptian countryside. Most of the plot revolves around untangling misidentities so that all the main characters will end in appropriate heterosexual marriages. There are, however, long erotic diversions before the prescribed happy ending. Asya, as Hikmat, becomes a symbol of worldliness and sexual dissidence for members of a rich pasha’s household who lack experience outside the confines of provincial society. One of the estate owner’s daughters, Badriyya, becomes sexually attracted to Hikmat. At one point, Badriyya tries to seduce Hikmat by twirling a rose between her teeth and then dropping it to the ground so that Hikmat will be forced to stoop before her to recover it. Asya as Hikmat then tries to kiss Badriyya. Interrupted by Badriyya’s older brother Tawfiq, the symbolic deflowering is stopped. A consummated lesbian act is prevented as well as any form of uncontrolled sexuality outside of marriage. Despite the conventional outcome, this scene is one of Arab cinema’s most erotic portrayals of two women engaged in flirtation and seduction.

Transvestism in the plot of The Pasha Director’s Daughter was consistent with an elite heterosexual strategy to press for the right of romantic marriage based on erotic attraction instead of the arranged marriages still common in the upper classes in the 1930s. In The Pasha Director’s Daughter transvestism is coded lesbian eroticism. Asya, cross-dressed as Hikmat, dresses to pass and is not an obvious parody. The kissing scene between Hikmat and Badriyya is not performed in a comic style, but in one of complete seriousness which heightens the erotic content. Despite scenes of same-sex eroticism coded by cross-dressing, it was to be understood by audiences that there were clear limits to erotic expression. Premarital sex was to be avoided; homosexuality was abhorrent.

During the Nasser period in the 1960s, female transvestism often served a didactic function. Mobilization of social resources was seen as imperative for economic growth. This meant new work roles for women. Gender segregation and residual traditional attitudes towards women’s activities outside the family domicile were seen as impediments to economic development. The regime promoted controlled entry of women into the public sector work force. Women dressed as men in film scenarios often provided ideological justification.

In Lil-Rigal Faqat (For Men Only, 1964) director Mahmoud Zulfiqar tackles the problem of the gender segregated workplace in a comedy starring Nadya Lutfi and Su‘ad Husni. At a state-owned oil company in Cairo, two women geologists are prevented from going on site to the Sinai in order to apply their skills in the “for men only” oil exploration project. None of the objections raised are convincing to the two geologists. Su‘ad Husni as Salwa delivers an impassioned speech avowing that women can perform any kind of labor as well as men and often much better. When two male applicants for the Sinai position arrive at company headquarters, Salwa and Hind (Nadya Lutfi) take their credentials and head for the Sinai. Upon arrival, Salwa and Hind are immediately attracted to two drilling technicians, Fawzi and his friend Ahmad. They must then control their sexual attraction and continue to act as men.

Lil-Rigal Faqat has one of the few portrayals of gay social life to be found in Arab cinema. When the two women in male drag first arrive at the Sinai work camp, they are taken to the barracks’ mess where all the men gather to dance cheek to cheek to Western romantic music. The setting has all the appearances of a gay nightclub. The inevitable problem arises of who is going to lead (a little disguised reference to gay sex roles). Fawzi chooses Salwa as his dance partner. In negotiating who will lead, Salwa in drag protests, “I’m a man.” Fawzi easily consents to being the “woman” and taking the passive role.

There are a series of unmaskings of the two women. The first occurs when a Bedouin woman enters the barracks and, while making insistent sexual overtures to Salwa, is caught by a male relative with rifle in hand. Just as he is about to shoot, Salwa and Hind tear off their wigs and reveal their true gender. Later, both Fawzi and Ahmad find women’s clothing in the closets of Hind and Salwa as well as the two women’s identification cards. The gender confusion is set right; everyone is paired in the appropriate heterosexual couple; and finally with everyone standing in awe in front of an oil rig, it gushes forth oil in commercial quantities in none too subtle symbolism.

While transvestism as an economic strategy for women continued to be a theme in Egyptian cinema into the Sadat-era infitah, the link between cross-dressing and gender equality in the workplace began to recede. The popular quarter and the workers’ barracks were forsaken for the drawing room of the new middle class created by the infitah.

Niyazi Mustafa, one of Egypt’s most prolific directors, began directing in the 1930s. One of his most successful drag films was Bint Ismaha Mahmoud (A Daughter Named Mahmoud) which came out in 1975. The main setting is the furniture business of a man whose only concern is to marry off his daughter once she has finished high school. His daughter represents the new generation of infitah women. She shuns the traditionalism of her father and never goes out without wearing a mini-skirt and a revealing top. In love with a young medical student, she herself has an exam score high enough to enter the business faculty of the university. When she rejects her father’s choice for a marriage partner, her medical student boyfriend comes up with the idea of dressing her as a man and informing the gullible father that his daughter has had a sex change operation. The sex change allows the daughter to enter the university and prevents the arranged marriage. The father is convinced that he now has a son, Mahmoud. As Mahmoud, the daughter has easy access to education and also takes over the family business which begins to profit as never before.

The daughter’s drag disguise is unraveled when it is suspected that “Mahmoud” does not have an “ordinary male’s” sexual drive. On three occasions Mahmoud is caught kissing her boyfriend, causing general alarm that the sex change not only created a son out of a daughter, but also a homosexual out of a heterosexual. The transvestite disguise is revealed finally during a double marriage ceremony concocted by the father for himself and his “son.” There is general relief that Mahmoud is once again his father’s daughter and not a male homosexual. Her normative heterosexual behavior is rewarded by an on-the-spot marriage to the medical student.

Men as Women

Male drag queens have become stock characters in Arab cinema. In al-Anisa Hanafi (Miss Hanafi, 1953) Isma‘il Yasin institutionalized the role of drag queen. In this nationalist parable, a traditional baladi Hanafi is forced into an arranged marriage with his stepsister. At the point of consummating the marriage, Hanafi is stricken with abdominal pains and is rushed to the hospital for an emergency operation that accidentally transforms him into a woman. Hanafi then devises various strategies to wed his beloved — a butcher’s assistant in a popular quarter of Cairo. He succeeds in the end and even gives birth to quadruplets before the official wedding ceremony. Yasin’s drag is not meant to be erotic; it mainly consists of modified traditionai women’s dress with very little homosexual double meaning associated with the transvestite disguise. Cross-dressing here serves as a comic vehicle for introducing class issues and the cultural transition from traditionalism to a particular kind of nationalist modernity.

In its elaboration of a gay subtext, the 1960 film Sukkar Hanim (Miss Sugar) marked a sharp departure from al-Anisa Hanafi. Based on the Brandon Thomas play Charley’s Aunt and its 1920 adaptation to the Egyptian silent screen as An American Aunt, [3] Sukkar Hanim appeared one year after the popular American transvestite comedy Some Like It Hot, starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe.

The plot involves two cousins, Nabil and Farid, who have moved into an apartment next door to two other cousins, Layla and Salwa, with whom they immediately fall in love. Layla and Salwa are watched by Layla’s father who tries to enforce strict gender segregation. An actor friend of the two men, Sukkar (note that “Sukkar” meaning “sugar” is also Marilyn Monroe’s name in Some Like It Hot), is practicing for a stage role as a woman and must dress in women’s clothing. He is accidentally caught in drag by Layla and Salwa. Posing as a long lost aunt, Sukkar Hanim, who has lived in the Americas for the past 15 years, offers the pretext for the couples to associate without patriarchal supervision. The middle-aged drag Sukkar Hanim is exempt from the sexual behavioral norms expected of the two younger women. As would be expected, the real Sukkar Hanim finally appears on the scene to expose the true identity of the drag queen, untangle the confused sexual orientations and give legitimate sanction to the marriages of the two couples.

While Sukkar Hanim makes the statement that to be modem is to replace traditional arranged marriages with unions based on romantic love and freedom of choice, the film replaces the de-eroticized image of al-Anisa Hanafi with a provocative and overtly sexual drag. The drag character Sukkar Hanim not only facilitates happy heterosexual unions, she also symbolizes uncontrolled sexual passion and alternative sexualities.

Beginning with Sukkar Hanim, drag comedies codify transvestism persistently, and sometimes explicitly, as tied to homosexuality. ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Ibrahim’s camp drag performance, with his feminized voice intonation and swishy mannerisms, is imitating and parodying stereotypical notions of feminine behavior as well as gay male behavior. It is no accident that Sukkar in drag becomes “tante,” the French word for “auntie” and the same word that Arab gays often use among themselves as a form of humorous mutual recognition. [4] The film has a gay ending reminiscent of Some Like It Hot. In the last scene of the American film, when Lemmon pulls off his wig and declares he is a man, his intended fiancee remarks, “Nobody’s perfect!” In Sukkar Hanim, when Layla’s father is about to be wedded to Sukkar in drag and the real gender of the bride is disclosed, Layla’s father is undeterred by the revelation that his intended marriage partner is a man and cries out, “I want to marry.” In Sukkar Hanim modernity is achieved when sexuality transgresses the boundaries of marriage. The confusion of gender roles unleashes repressed sexuality.

After directing two female drag films, in 1980 Niyazi Mustafa turned to male drag in Adhkiya’…Lakin Aghbiya’ (Clever…but Stupid). The film is short on plot and seems to have been an excuse for parading the popular comic star ‘Adil Imam around in drag. The film has all the earmarks of an infitah social comedy. ‘Adil Imam and a friend are poor students who cannot afford housing in Alexandria and do drag in order to be accepted into an all-women’s boarding house operated by an obsessive peeping Tom. Economic necessity is the pretext for cross-dressing. Although the references to homosexuality are numerous, ‘Adil Imam is a reluctant drag queen. He looks like a man wearing women’s clothing and refuses to alter his voice intonation. The lack of Imam’s finesse accentuates the outer limits of erotic fantasy. ‘Adil Imam had another run-in with confused sexual orientation in al-Irhab wa al-Kabab (Terrorism and Kebab, 1992) when he follows a man who he assumes to be a government bureaucrat into the men’s bathroom in the Cairo Arab League Building and instead finds a swishy queen waiting for quick sex in a bathroom stall.


Khawalat (male transvestite dancers of the nineteenth century and pre-1952 days) in history had very public roles as dancers and performers at popular festivals and celebrations. In Arab film, however, they have become standard characters to imply the existence of a homosexual subculture or transgressive sexuality in general. Functioning as the servants of brothel prostitutes and their mentors in the art of erotic belly dancing, they are cinematic code for the depiction of homosexuals as derogatory, effeminate men. They also often possess uncanny wit, a cynical sense of pragmatic realism and personal integrity lacking in the conventional heterosexual characters who surround them.

One of the central characters in Naguib Mahfouz’s 1947 novel Zuqaq al-Midaqq (Midaq Alley) is Kirsha, whose sexual obsession with young men continually provides a source of scandal and secret delight for the inhabitants of the quarter. In Hasan al-Imam’s 1963 cinematic adaptation of the novel, Kirsha is practically written out of the script while a brothel khawal is kept in. The film plot revolves around Hamida (played by Shadia), a beautiful naive opportunist. Hamida realizes that she has been lured into a life of prostitution when she is given a tour of a brothel. In one room, there is a man in women’s clothing and make-up instructing other prostitutes in belly dancing. The khawal symbolizes the complete moral degradation into which Hamida has fallen. In the film version of the novel, the khawal becomes the worst imaginable form of social aberration — a man behaving like a woman.

In the novel, Kirsha is self-willed and cares little about the neighborhood’s condemnation of his sexual antics with young men. When the guardian of local morals tries to convince Kirsha to stop a homosexual liaison with a shopkeeper’s assistant, Kirsha retorts, “People have been like that ever since God created the earth and all that’s on it.” [5] By erasing the homosexual Kirsha and leaving in the khawal, the film omits a characterization that would have made a neutral statement about the social acceptability of homosexuality. Instead, homosexuality is associated with perversion.

Khawalat fared much better in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 1983 film Darb al-Hawa (Alley of Desire) starring Yusra and Ahmad Zaki, a brothel khawal is given a fully developed character. The plot involves the ill-fated love of an idealistic professor for a young prostitute in the pre-Nasser period. The khawal acts both as a historical reference point for brothel culture in the 1930s and 1940s and as a kind of Greek chorus, observing and commenting on the drama that unfolds around him. Despite his subservient position, the khawal Siksika — a play on the word “saksuka” which means “goatee” even though Siksika lacks any facial hair and wears women’s eye make-up — maintains his personal dignity in every situation while other characters succumb to avarice and moral weakness. He playfully and overtly flirts with the brothel’s male clients. He is both wise and humorous at the same time. Siksika has left such a strong impression on the popular imagination that in Cairo street language “Siksika” is the term used to refer to an effeminate gay person.

Homosexuals as Themselves

Homosexual characters — not in drag — appear in many Arab films in an implicit rather than explicit manner. There are no kissing or sex scenes to be found. Directors have faced problems in realistically depicting homosexuals, even when they are required by adaptations from literature. Neither the word nor outright acts can appear on the screen because they violate censorship codes that ban the word “homosexual” or obvious depictions of homosexual sexual behavior.

One of the most fully drawn gay characters appears in Salah Abu Sayf’s 1973 film Hamam al-Malatili (The Malatili Bath). Abu Sayf is noted for his social realist style and for introducing provocative subject matter into his films. The plot involves a young man who leaves his family in Ismailiyya for Cairo to seek work and gain an education. Hampered by insufficient funds, he finds shelter in a bath house frequented by gay men. A gay man, who comes often to the bath to sketch the nude men, is attracted to the youth and brings him to his apartment to seduce him by plying him with wine, cigarettes and the music of James Brown’s “Like a Sex Machine.” This particular scene is the closest that Arab cinema has come to portraying gay sexuality. The artist bares his chest and gyrates in a frenzy to the music before falling in erotic exhaustion on a cushion next to the youth who is also bare-chested. In an effort to accent the realistic setting of the bath house, one scene includes fully naked men showering and walking in and out of the view of the camera.

Through the character of the homosexual artist, Abu Sayf makes a plea for tolerance of sexual difference. In the seduction scene as the artist reflects on his life as a homosexual, he tells the youth that it is evident from reading the chronicles of the nineteenth-century historian al-Jabarti that there was unrestricted freedom in the past. In the modem period there is none. The artist begins to imagine what a tolerant society would be like and the camera cuts to the artist in the Tal‘at Harb district of Cairo (a traditional cruising place for gay men) wearing a braided wig of long hair and what would be considered unmanly clothing. Shocked bystanders glare at him as he strolls down the street with a decidedly swishy gait. In an unfortunate case of pop psychologizing, Abu Saif explains the artist’s homosexuality as stemming from a love/hate relationship with his overbearing mother which causes the artist to abhor the idea of sexual involvement with women and, at the same time, to desire to become a woman in his outward appearance. Thus, homosexuality is associated with women’s supposed emasculation of men, transvestism, perversion and the social ills accompanying rapid urbanization. Nonetheless, the overall message is “live and let live” and that every person has the right to human affection no matter what form it takes.

In the 1977 Egyptian remake of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring Nur al-Sharif and Bussy, ‘Isa — the homosexual love interest of the hero Amin — figures prominently in the script. In the first scene the alcoholic Amin reminisces about his youth as the captain of a national soccer team. He remembers a championship match when he scored a winning goal. In front of thousands of cheering fans, his best friend ‘Isa interrupted the match by rushing onto the playing field to embrace and kiss Amin on his cheek. Here we see the connection between Amin’s drinking problem and his relationship to ’Isa.

Amin courts an Alexandrian woman named Gigi. From the beginning of the romance, ‘Isa hovers in the background at every meeting of the couple. ‘Isa is not attracted to Gigi’s girlfriend and is averse to dancing with women. Even after the marriage, Amin prefers to go on a train trip in the company of ‘Isa rather than his wife. Determined to break up the relationship, Gigi reserves her own train ticket and shows up in the sleeping compartment that Amin is meant to share with ‘Isa. When they arrive at the hotel, Amin refuses any sexual contact with Gigi. When he falls asleep, Gigi restlessly prowls the grounds of the hotel and spies ‘Isa propositioning a male hotel guest for a sexual tryst in his room. She then rouses Amin telling him that she is ill and needs aspirin from ‘Isa’s room. Amin then catches ‘Isa with the stranger. While Amin is distraught, ‘Isa, even more horrified that his sexual orientation has been discovered, commits suicide by slashing his wrists. Amin turns to alcoholism, suffers a debilitating leg injury and refuses to have sexual relations with his wife ever again. In exchange for the film’s explicit honesty in portraying the homosexual tenor of Amin and ‘Isa’s relationship, the homosexual is killed off and the object of his affection is physically and psychologically scarred for life.

More positive images of gay people appear in the films of the renowned Egyptian director Youssef Chahine. Gay people appear as they are without the heavy moralizing of most other Arab films with gay characters. In his 1972 socialist-realist epic extolling the completion of the Aswan High Dam, the joint Egyptian-Soviet production The Nile and Its People, one of the main subplots revolves around the friendship between a male Soviet technician and a male southern Egyptian worker. His latest film al-Masir (Destiny, 1996) includes a homoerotic scene in a traditional bath house, although none of the characters are explicitly portrayed as gay.

In his autobiographical trilogy al-Iskandariyya Leeh? (Alexandria Why?, 1979), Haduta Misriya (An Egyptian Story, 1982) and al-Iskandariyya Kaman wa Kaman (Alexandria Once Again, 1989) homosexuality is depicted in a matter-of-fact way. In the first segment, one of the characters from Chahine’s family album is a homosexual uncle who is involved in plots to assassinate British soldiers during World War II. He falls in love with a drunken British soldier that he has marked for assassination and instead of killing him, takes him home and sleeps with him. The telling scene has the British soldier waking up in the uncle’s bed in his underwear not knowing what has happened. The uncle goes on to act as a role model and mentor for the adolescent Yahya who represents Youssef Chahine.

The final segment of the trilogy, Alexandria Once Again, is a complicated — almost surreal — autobiographical commentary on Chahine’s personal life and the fantasies that have shaped his films. Chahine plays himself. The main story line traces his romantic obsession for the actor who starred in the first part of the trilogy. The signs of the love affair are often heavily encrypted and unfold at one point during a song and dance routine between the young actor and Chahine mimicking a Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire number during the Cannes Film Festival when Alexandria Why? was nominated for a prize. Chahine also writes into the script a fictitious wife who is jealous of his relationship with the young actor. Despite the softening effects, the homosexual nature of the relationship is unmistakable.

Following the lead of Chahine in giving an autobiographical imprint to his films, his longtime student and collaborator, Yusri Nasrallah, has been more forthright in his depiction of homosexual characters. Set during the period of Nasser’s land reforms, his first film, Sariqat Sayfiyya (Summer Thefts, 1988) is the story of the childhood friendship between the son of a bourgeois landowner and the son of an Egyptian peasant. The relationship intensifies in adulthood, but the two are divided as one becomes a journalist in Beirut during the 1982 Israeli invasion and the other is in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. Nasrallah’s 1993 film, Mercedes, includes not only a main protagonist who has a gay brother with a lover, but also a drug-addicted lesbian aunt.

It is Tunisian cinema, however, that has become the leader of the sexual avant garde in the Arab world. Compared with other Arab directors, Tunisians have had much more leeway in dealing with controversial sexual matters. This is due in part to the more lenient censorship policies of the government and in part because most Tunisian films are produced with French financing for simultaneous European distribution. Tunisian Nouri Bouzid is the only Arab director to script entire film scenarios around characters with sexual identity crises involving homosexuality. In his first feature film, Mih al-Sadd (Man of Ashes, 1986), three young carpentry apprentices are sexually molested by the head carpenter. When they become young adults, none of them can live up to the expected norms of marriage. One of the boys’ families tries unsuccessfully to arrange a marriage. No remedy — including a trip to a brothel — can be found to induce his sexual attraction to the opposite sex. In Bezness (1992), a man in his twenties has spent his adolescence as a male prostitute and tries unsuccessfully to become a gigolo servicing a clientele of middle-aged European women tourists. A crisis ensues when he is unable to persuade his fiancee to remain secluded while he plies his trade with diminishing returns.

It may be that foreign financing, mainly French, has created the artistic space for the introduction of homosexual subject matter into a number of Arab films. In the woman director Asma’ al-Bakri’s 1991 film Shahatin wa Nubala’ (Beggars and Aristocrats) we find not only a dancing khawal in a World War II brothel, but also a homosexual policeman investigating the murder of a prostitute. The homosexuality of the policeman is portrayed with nonchalance. He suffers the minor irritations that anyone would in their daily life, including an argument with his temperamental young male lover in a cafe.

At the same time, in an increasingly conservative Arab cultural environment, the accusation has been made that European-financed films include sexual material designed for European audiences and negatively distort the reality of Arab social life. Homosexuality in the Arab world is said to be a figment of the Western imagination.

The future for development of an uncensored sexual discourse in Arab cinema or the depiction of homosexuality is not a bright one. Egypt historically has been the major producer of Arabic language films. While Egypt used to produce 50 to 60 films in a year, the current annual average is about 15. Most of these are financed with Saudi and Gulf money for eventual television broadcast. Television is even more strictly censored than cinema and certainly the arbiters of official culture in most Arab states are not about to launch initiatives that promote public discourse on social issues relating to sexuality. Small-scale, independently produced films hopefully will continue to give us images of sexual diversity. But like Yusri Nasrallah’s 1995 documentary on sexuality and veiling among young adults in a Cairo popular neighborhood, Boys, Girls and the Veil, they might also only be shown in Western countries and sit on the shelf in the Arab world due to lack of effective distribution networks and the ever present hand of the government censor.


[1] See Everett Rowson, “The Effeminates of Early Medina,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 111/4 (October-December 1991), pp. 661-693.
[2] See Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 1992).
[3] Mustafa Darwish, Dream Makers on the Nile: A Portrait of Egyptian Cinema (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1998), p. 9.
[4] See Everett Rowson, “Cant and Argot in Cairo Colloquial Arabic,” American Research Center in Egypt Newsletter 122 (1983), pp. 13-25.
[5] Naguib Mahfouz, Midaq Alley (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1995), p. 95.

How to cite this article:

Garay Menicucci "Unlocking the Arab Celluloid Closet," Middle East Report 206 (Spring 1998).

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