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A Woman’s Closet Is Her Castle: Lesbian Subtext and Corrective Pretext in Women Without Men

August 4, 2016

Ahmad Jalal wrote the screenplay for Bint al-Basha al-Mudir. Jalal starred alongside Marie Queen and Assia Dagher and the film was produced by their company, Lotus Productions in 1938.  As I have written in an earlier article, this film gives us our first same-sex subtext in Egyptian cinematic history. The actresses involved are real life Lebanese aunt and niece and they were among the founding pioneers of the Egyptian cinema industry.  In 1940, Queeny and Jalal marry and they found a new production company, Jalal Films, and begin to work independently of Dagher. In 1953, after the death of her husband, Queenie hires Youssef Chahine to direct Nisa' Bila Rijal/Women Without Men. She stars alongside Huda Sultan in a story idea conceived by Ihsan ‘Abd al-Qudoos, who is a prolific writer and who is also responsible for giving Egyptian cinema several of its women’s emancipation screenplays of the 1950s. Most remarkable of these to my mind is the story inspired by the life of the actress, Lubna Abd al-Aziz, who plays the main protagonist in the film Ana Hurra/I Am Free (1959), directed by Salah Abu Seif. The screenplay for Women Without Men was written by Nayrooz ‘Abd il-Malek, himself a prolific screenwriter, who had already at this stage collaborated with Chahine and Queeny on Man of the Nile/Rajul al-Neel (1951) and who also characteristically went on to write controversial screenplays, often about sexuality and non-traditional relationships.

Nisa2 Bila Rijal/Women Without Men has not received any critical attention as far as I know, and it’s for this reason that I wanted to spend some time appreciating and valuing its place in the history of queer Arab cinema. It should be noted that both Bint al-Basha al-Mudir and this film are conceived by men. Youssef Chahine, though not responsible for the story line, would go on to make films in which male homoeroticism receives warm, humanist depictions time and again. We see these honest representations throughout his filmic works and most notably in his semi-autobiographical films: Alexandria Why? (1979); An Egyptian Story (1982); and Alexandria Again and Forever (1989). Chahine really deserves a deep analysis of the homosocial and homoerotic signifiers that are infused throughout his work, for these have been skillfully obviated by both critics and biographers. In his prelude to an interview conducted with Chahine in 1998, Joseph Massad touches on these homoerotic protrusions but interestingly refrains from exploring them in the wonderful interview itself, in which Chahine reveals insight both as a humanist and a devoted Arabist. Perhaps Chahine’s fifty year marriage to Collette Favaudon makes dealing with the homoerotic elements of his work cumbersome or awkward for biographers and analysts, but we would do well to move away from this awkwardness in the future.

There is no women’s equivalent to Chahine’s consistency with homoeroticism, especially in the early stages of Egyptian cinema. Genoun al-Shabab/Madness of Youth (1975-1980) is perhaps an exception, but as you can see it’s not until 1980 that we get it. There are two iconic scenes in my mind when I think about Women Without Men (1953) that make for very interesting reading. Chahine imbues these scenes with a very rich subtext which is characteristic of his remarkable directorship. The story line of this film is evidently symbolic of the political and cultural turmoil Egypt was experiencing at the end of the second World War. The young and honorable son, Jamal, represents an Egyptian thinking-class yearning for republican freedom (he runs in elections against his own father later on in the film and obviously his name is Jamal; he could be no other than a foil for Jamal Abd al-Nasser). Jamal rejects his father’s corrupt political ways and seemingly aimless aristocratic hedonism – evidently a symbol of the hangover from the Ottoman regency and the British protectorate.

After a heated argument with his father, Jamal takes his wife, Dawlat (whose name is a homphone for the word “country”), and goes to live with his aunt, ‘Iffat. His aunt lives in the Egyptian reef, the rural area, often a symbol for a more authentic Egyptian experience removed from the “westernization” of the urbanized social elites. When he gets there, however, he finds a strictly segregated living system in that household. ‘Iffat has some very strong opinions against men and does not allow her daughters to socialize, see or even think of marrying. No man, with one [seemingly asexual] exception, is allowed to enter ‘Iffat’s household. Of course by the end of the film everyone is going to be heterosexually married, ‘Iffat is asked to shed down the stringency of her traditionalism in favor of a more open society. Obviously this is premonitory of the decade of infitah/openness that would ensue under the Nasser administration. Yes, the old political establishment needs to make way for the new and more honorable blood, the film seems to suggest, but it would not hurt to also update social customs and allow for less stringency in men and women’s associations with each other. The final scene of the film shows us ‘Iffat changing her mind about her no-man policy and quite literally running after and catching up with the moving parade of newlyweds.

But of course in the presence of the homosocial, the homoerotic then becomes a contigency, and the film follows the predictable trajectory of having the deviance corrected through heterosexual unions. There are two scenes that speak an entirely different language than the metaphor of country and tradition. In these scenes there is a language of existent yet unspoken desires, there is a celluloid closet, whose door we began to open in the last article on the convention of cross-dressing in Lahalibo (1949).

In the first of two scenes I am going to share with you, we see Iffat’s oldest and most conservative daughter, Azhaar (almost a homophone for al-Azhar), run after Dawlat who is now lying in bed, smoking a cigarette. Dawlat was frightened by the sight of a cat; it’s not clear why the cat frightens her. Now, Azhaar enters the room holding the offending cat in her arms. She asks her what’s wrong with her and Dawlat says “Nothing, I thought you were someone else.” She goes on to say that “Truth is, we are not as scared as you are,” and wonders why the women in that household are often silent and reserved. Azhaar tenses up and says “We are like this, this is our way of life, our regime is like this,” to which Dawlat replies, “it is enough to drive a person crazy!” She receives no sympathy from Azhaar who abruptly tells her to get used to it. At this point, romantic string music plays, Azhaar releases the luxuriant cat onto Dawlat’s bed and extends her hand to touch Dawlat’s hair, but checks herself before she makes contact and withdraws (later on in the film, Azhaar gets to liberate her own hair and so even this gesture is given a narrative pretext to undo the homoerotic subtext). “You have beautiful hair,” continues Azhaar. “Your hair is pretty too, but why have you done this to it?” is the reply. Azhaar is evidently offended. “We are like this, our regime is like this, this is our way of life,” she says for the second time. Do watch for the sensuous cat, the reluctant hand of repressed desire, the softness of the eyes, the suggestiveness of the bed and Sultan’s languorous lazing.

 

Some time later in the film, Dawlat has fled this prison and Azhaar has predictably fallen in love with her cousin, Jamal, who is now running for elections against his own father, with the funding help of his wealthy aunt. At this stage her mother and other sister suspect that Azhaar is falling in love. In this scene they come to impress upon her the importance of remaining man-free and the terrible consequences that would ensue should she begin to desire otherwise. Azhaar’s hair in this scene is let loose, she dreams of intimacy and sexual liberation. The lines her mother and sister deliver sound like they are pulled out of a really bad 1950s lesbian pulp novel, written by a man. Oh, hang on a second, that’s exactly what they are! You can’t help but chuckle at the melodrama of the acting, you almost expect the two women to turn into vampire bats who fly out of the window into the darkness… Here are the lines of this scene for viewers who require translation. Predictably, they cast the homosexual vis-a-vis the homosocial as a pathology resultant for women’s traumatic experiences with men. We will see plenty more of these insulting explanations in the years to come.

‘Iffat: We have come to warn and caution you.

Sister: And at the same time we have our eyes on you.

‘Iffat: In spite of my unshakeable trust in you.

Sister: Men are snakes as we have told you.

‘Iffat: Yes, men are all snakes. And the snake who bit me is your father.
[they walk closer]

‘Iffat: The reason I hate men is because of him. He was nothing. I turned him into a human being. The moment he drew his first breath [i.e. as soon as he was in a good position] he tried to kill me in order to obtain what he wanted. I kicked him out of the house like a dog, until he saw his end. From that day I swore that I would defend and protect you [daughters] and to keep you away from the bitter cup I drank from. All men are one kind. A woman in their hand is like a toy, a flower they smell and then discard the second it begins to wilt.

Sister: You are like us, and you have to stay like us always.

‘Iffat: It’s true. We put you in the midst of the fire [by getting her to help her cousin with his election campaign and working closely with him], but don’t let the fire consume you. If anyone tried to draw you in with sweet talk, shake him off with all your strength. Stay like us.

Sister: Stay like us.

‘Iffat: Stronger than fire.

[Walking out]


Iffat: Listen, if I notice anything from Jamal I am going to kick him out like a dog
 

 

 

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