In the last article we looked at the film Genoun al-Shabab (c.1975). In that film we had a resident lesbian to whom one of the main characters at one point refers in the masculine pronoun. “Ma lak” instead of “ma lik,” (what’s wrong with you?) asks ‘Alaa when Usmat comes by his house to tell him her girlfriend got married. Usmat is allusively conveyed as masculine in both dress and demeanor and she is also coded as the “active” party in her encounters with the coy Dalia. There is another depiction of a seemingly masculine, hypersexual homo, that’s even less flattering than the one we discussed previously, and its home is 1958.
The film in question belongs to Salah Abu Seif. It is one of his women’s emancipation gems and he directed it in collaboration with the great writer Ihsan Abd al-Qudoos (story) and Naguib Mahfouz (scenario). The trio also gave us another cinematic powerhouse women’s emancipation film Ana Hurra/I Am Free, starring Lubna Abd al-Aziz in 1959. We all know that Naguib Mahfouz is no stranger to same-sex sexuality. The claim is that his Ziqaq al-Middaq/Middaq Alley (1947) was the first Arabic novel to convey homoerotic desire between men. Salah Abu Seif, it seems, was also a little intrigued by the concept, judging by the occasional splatter throughout his filmic career, and culminating in Hamam al-Malatily’s (1973) evident homosexual, Raouf Bey. By the way, in Hamam al-Malatily, Raouf dances himself into perdition to James Brown’s “Like a Sex Machine,” just like the hippies in Genoun al-Shabab do. It’s all James Brown’s fault, you see!
But I digress. In al-Tariq al-Masdud (1958), we follow the story of Faiza (Faten Hamama) whose widowed mother and two sisters make a very decent living by entertaining men of wealth and influence in their home, at the expense of their reputation. Faiza doesn’t want any part of this; for her, integrity and personal honor are paramount. Never are her mother and sisters depicted as fallen women, but rather as women who may have cleverly cultivated personal power for themselves in a social economy that has compelled them to this kind of resort. Needless to say, these women are very well connected. The film accords them respect and in fact shows that when one of the daughters decides to marry, all the neighbors show up at her wedding, even though they had previously ostracized the household. The implication being that wherever there is free food and music, people will show up, or rather, that money buys societal acceptance – pointing to social falsity and hypocrisy. Faiza soon graduates and attends her first teaching job at an all-girls’ school in the Egyptian reef, where the customs and the people are a little different from the folk she is used to encountering in the city. She must live on campus and thus begins a new chapter in her life.
While there, Faiza comes to discover that an honorable person, who is not willing to do the bidding of the men (and as we shall see, one woman) who desire her, will find herself without allies. She is accused of having a relationship with a twelve year-old boy and in this instance the accusation functions identically to actual guilt, because everyone who ever wanted her and didn’t get what they asked for, was now testifying against her in an ensuing investigation. Faiza goes back to the family home and fortunately for her, her mother and friends are very well connected and with a few phone calls the investigation is called off and her name is cleared. Guided by the archetypal male superhero (a romance novel writer on whom she was initially fixated), Faiza is urged not to relinquish her integrity. In the hasty denouement characteristic of films of this era, she refrains from going down the same path as her mother and sisters, which her growing cynicism and disillusionment were directing her towards, and gets together with the romance novelist (played by the king of suave, Hafeth Mathhar).
Of interest to us in this film are the depictions of a masculine gynophile. From my research into medieval Arabic literature, I know we can trace back descriptions of the masculine, woman-loving-woman to at least one millennial text and another from the eleventh century. Such women were referred to as “al-mutathakirat,” which we can translate as male-acting (where male is synonymous with masculine). There is no such name for the school teacher, Hussniya, but it’s impossible to read her as anything other than a butch lesbian (please dis-attach both the “butch” and the “lesbian” from their historical specificities for a moment and allow them to operate as metaphoric signifiers). Hussniya is referred to as “weird,” and indeed she is, in her effusions about Faiza’s youthful good looks. There can be no doubt that there is more to this than mere homosociality. Let’s take a look at the scene in which she first enters the set (a description follows below) where Faiza has just arrived at the school and is being introduced to the other teachers.
Hussniya is the only one wearing a tie and she takes quite a liking to Faiza and kisses her an inappropriate number of times. She tells Faiza that she likes her nightdress and when it is politely offered to her, she declares that she wants to see it on Faiza and that she only wears pyjamas. If that’s not enough, in another scene (see it here), Hussniya wonders what the most beautiful thing about Faiza is. Their colleague remarks that it’s Faiza’s spirit, but Hussniya clarifies that she is referring to that which is tangible and draws the figure of a voluptuous woman with her hands saying that everything about Faiza is beautiful. The scene ends with some man-hating affirmations on her part. More violations of Faiza’s personal space occur in a later scene.
You might know or remember Harry Benshoff’s epic book Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality in Horror Film (1997). I’m bringing it up here because I’d like to catalog Hussniya as a “monster” in this Egyptian film, although she doesn’t appear to be in a closet at all. She seems to be burdened with neither shame nor fear of exposure, and her monstrosity is comical just as it is disturbing. That this happens in the countryside, a world away from the social elites we are used to see depicted as being Westernized, is also remarkable. I’m interested to know to whom was this characterization speaking? To the average movie-goer of the day? Does something so evident as this still classify as subtext? If not, then what are we to do with the current theoretical literature that consistently explains the “gay” (or transgender, see earlier post) away as a metaphor for a nation in crisis, or as really being in reference to women’s liberation narratives?
There was another similar monstrosity to Hussniya in Usmat from Genoun al-Shabab, although she was better dressed, and came with a story line that may invoke some compassion in the traditional viewer. And unlike Usmat (or the women in Nisa’ Bila Rijal), there is no traumatic reason given for Hussniya’s proclivities, she just is what she is: the hyperlibidinal (read as masculine), lesbian predator. I don’t know about you, but when I was a school girl, I had to contend with the heterosexual panic of my peers who were worried about being (visually) devoured by the lesbian predator. I can’t tell you how many times I overheard them express horror and concern that so-and-so may be a lesbian, and that they had seen her stare at them or at their legs. Growing up listening to this diminishes you, and it certainly retarded my ability to develop strong friendships with women. To this day, one of my worst nightmares is to be misconstrued for one of those mythological lesbian objectifiers of women. Latently, I learned to deal with my neurotic fears by voicing them out loud, so that my few women friends and I can laugh together at the insanity that has calcified around my adolescent experience of relentless homophobia. And while we’re at it, just for the record and in case any of them are reading this, those girls in my school were about as sexy to me (and Ms. so-and-so) as a cactus! Ms. so-and-so had the good fortune to move to another school, I stayed and listened to this for a few more years.