The cinema was crowded but not full when, at the end of August, Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 opened in a theater in Cairo’s leafy southern suburb of Maadi. An audience made up of expatriate employees of UN agencies and well-heeled Egyptians snickered at each of Moore’s jabs at the ineptitude of George W. Bush and his coterie. Though Egyptian audiences, unlike their American counterparts, are accustomed to graphic pictures of the effects of shrapnel and phosphorus on the human body, women openly sobbed during the clips taken from al-Jazeera television that show Iraqi children who had been shot and burned in the course of the US invasion and occupation. When Neil Young’s anthem “Rockin’ in the Free World” boomed from the theater sound system as the credits rolled, the audience rose to its feet and applauded.
Since his scathing indictment of the Bush administration won first prize in the Cannes film festival in May, both Moore and his right-wing critics have made much of the reaction to the film abroad. The right-wingers have considered it sufficient to point out that Cannes is in France. Moore has cited warm receptions like the applause in Maadi as evidence that foreigners would like Americans again if they threw Bush out of office. But the fleeting run of Fahrenheit 9/11 in the Egyptian capital suggests a more ambiguous reception for the film that variously dazzled, disgusted and depressed American movie audiences in late June and July.
Haves and Have-Nots
Although Fahrenheit 9/11 has been screened in Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Turkey, Egyptian censors apparently felt some trepidation about the long-term bookings at multiple venues that went on throughout the summer of 2004 in European countries. In the first week of its Cairo release, Moore’s latest documentary championing the downtrodden was shown in only four small upscale cinemas in suburban shopping malls in Maadi and Nasr City, miles away from the bustling downtown area and nowhere near affordable public transportation. At the Osman Group Cinema on Palestine Street in Maadi, there was valet parking for filmgoers arriving in sport utility vehicles and Mercedes sedans. Tickets in the cinemas in malls and luxury hotels cost double what Cairo’s popular downtown venues charge.
Several of these cinemas were packed to the gills with people who came to see Matt Damon playing the memory-challenged and misunderstood CIA agent in The Bourne Supremacy. Otherwise, patrons of the cheaper theaters were stuck with Groom from General Security, starring Egypt’s beloved, if aging comic actor Adel Imam as a doting and overly protective father who is reluctant to have his daughter marry an agent in the mukhabarat (secret police). Of course, the hated mukhabarat win his grudging admiration in the end. In Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore mocks the American upper crust in a clip where the tuxedoed Bush jokes with a crowd he calls “the haves and the have-mores.” “Some call you the elite,” Bush continues. “I call you my base.” In Cairo, it was the haves who had the privilege of viewing Moore’s socially critical cinema and chuckling at his in-your-face bashing of Bush and the Saudis, while the have-nots made do with mediocre movies whose messages reinforce the status quo.
For otherwise appreciative Egyptian audiences, there was something missing from Moore’s strange narrative of how the Bush administration came to react to the September 11, 2001 attacks by launching an invasion of Iraq. In Moore’s geography of the US foreign policy power structure, it is the Saudi royal family with its personal ties to the Bush dynasty that is the implied culprit, presumably to deflect attention from the fact that 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were citizens of Saudi Arabia. Moore recycles—without stating it directly—the canard that members of Osama bin Laden’s family were flown out of US airports when all other planes were grounded after the attacks. As more evidence, the film adduces a private White House dinner for the Saudis’ ambassador in Washington, as well as the web of Bush oil interests and a montage of images of the elder Bush shaking hands with a succession of Saudi princes.
There is little love lost between most Egyptians and the Gulf Arabs who descend on Cairo every August to escape the scorching heat of the Arabian Peninsula and indulge in decadent pleasures denied them in their own countries: alcohol, gambling, prostitution and discos. But Saudi oil wealth does not translate into sufficient political clout in Washington for the Saudis to push the US into war, as far as Egyptian and Arab audiences are concerned. Meanwhile, the influence and strategic vision of another US ally in the Middle East—Israel—is nowhere to be seen in Fahrenheit 9/11. It is an odd omission for Egyptians familiar with the tales of how an Office of Special Plans assembled by an undersecretary of defense sympathetic to the Likud Party cherry-picked and stovepiped intelligence on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.
Passengers on Cairo’s underground rail system watch television on monitors on the platform while they wait for their train to come. On opening night of the Moore film, the monitors featured the latest music video by the crooner Shaaban Abd al-Rahim, made famous in the fall of 2000 for his tribute to the Palestinian intifada entitled “I Hate Israel.” In his latest foray into politicized pop, “The Attack on Iraq,” Abd al-Rahim chants anti-imperialist slogans as the accompanying cartoon depicts a map of the Middle East as a cake being carved up by US and Israeli tanks. The message is crude, but it resonated among the hundreds of passengers who gathered mesmerized around the monitors.
In the new Youssef Chahine spectacle, Alexandria-New York, one finds a similar motif. The film is the fourth installment in Chahine’s autobiographical series that began with Alexandria…Why? In his ongoing cinematic reminiscence, Yahya, the Chahine character, is finally lauded with a major retrospective at New York’s Lincoln Center after being ignored by American critics over a distinguished, quarter-century career as a film director. Upon hearing the news, Yahya watches televised images of Israeli soldiers shooting at Palestinian demonstrators and the funeral procession of one of the Palestinian victims in a white shroud. He vows not to go to the US because of its collusion with the Israel in suppressing Palestinian national aspirations. Chahine’s was the only film released in the summer in Egypt that even vaguely reflected current popular attitudes and anxieties toward the catastrophes afflicting the region. In this atmosphere, Egyptian reviewers of Fahrenheit 9/11 noted that Moore’s single-minded focus on the Saudis verged on a pernicious kind of anti-Arab racism.
By the second weekend of its run in Cairo, Fahrenheit 9/11 was showing on fewer screens and at less convenient times. The film finally moved to a central Cairo location within walking distance of two subway stops, but tickets at the Cairo Sheraton remained out of the price range of most moviegoers. The theater at the Sheraton showed the movie only once a day at one o’clock in the morning.
One such showing of Fahrenheit 9/11 was filled with extended families on vacation from the Gulf. The families bought whole rows of seats to accommodate all the relatives. The vacationing Gulf Arab audience was completely silent—no sobbing or standing ovations. For them, perhaps, Moore’s documentary was a curiosity, a form of political pornography. They saw the Saudi royal family scorned on screen, but perhaps they were convinced that none of the House of Saud could suffer the consequences Moore has in mind for the House of Bush. “Rockin’ in the Free World” got no applause, and the somber crowd rushed out to waiting black limousines or rented white vans.
Its political flaws notwithstanding, Fahrenheit 9/11 is at its best when advancing the proposition that ordinary people should have the power to change their government when it acts in ways detrimental to the welfare of the majority of citizens. Indeed, for Egyptians, Michael Moore’s denigration of the dynastic succession in the Bush family and his polemic about the “stolen” election of 2000 have not so subtle reverberations in domestic politics. Earlier in the summer, President Husni Mubarak made a sudden trip to Germany for an operation for a slipped disc. Upon his return, he reshuffled his cabinet to include eight ministers who are also members of the ruling National Democratic Party’s policy secretariat, which is headed by his son Gamal. The opposition press has dubbed the new council of ministers “Gamal’s shadow cabinet.” The question of the day in Egypt is whether these steps are the prelude to an Egyptian dynastic succession whereby Mubarak, like Hafiz al-Asad of Syria before him, bestows the presidency of the republic upon his son as if the country were a monarchy. Perhaps this is the reason why Egyptian censors and theater owners treated Fahrenheit 9/11 as underground cinema, banishing it to prohibitively expensive moviehouses and, even then, allowing it on the screen only after midnight.