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Notes on Cross-Dressing in Early Egyptian Cinema

August 4, 2016

 

In the Spring of 1998, Middle East Report published an article by Garay Menicucci titled “Unlocking the Arab Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in Egyptian Film.” To my knowledge this was the first article to talk about homosexuality in Egyptian film and to nuance it along the same lines argued by Vito Russo in his 1981 book The Celluloid Closet (which was made into an eponymous, must-see documentary by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman in 1995). Menicucci’s was a wonderful oeuvre into the gender and sexual queer of Egyptian cinema. He was the first to unearth Bint al-Basha al-Mudir (1938) as lesbian subtext. He too was the first to bring to critical attention other cross-dressing films like Lil Rijal Faqat (1964), Bint Ismaha Mahmoud (1975), Sukkar Hanim (1960) and al-Anissa Hanafi (1953). Menicucci is no stranger to the Arab world, having lived and worked in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. He is able to give us nuanced readings of these films, and is careful not to imbue them with a Western gay and lesbian epistemology, but rather focuses on the use of gender and sexual transgression as products of the thought of progressive, social elites, seeking to unseat traditional marriage and sexuality.

However, the notion of the closet holds steadfast in his analysis. For those of us here who are not specialists, the concept of the Celluloid Closet operates on a standard of subtext. Subtext in this case is when for several reasons — be they cultural or social, or (in the event of censorship) legal or bureaucratic — gender and sexual minority love has to find a way to express itself in heterosexually permissible ways. With the advent of the Hays censorship code in 1930, Hollywood began to rewrite many a screenplay; censors would write out the homosexual or transgender characters all together or at least give them very unhappy, unenviable endings. Therefore, those who wanted to transgress against this implicit and explicit homophobia had to find ways to write homosexuality, to signify it, in code. Among the easiest means available to the screen writer is the plot convention of mistaken identities through cross-dressing. That William Shakespeare used this more than four-hundred years ago is worth mentioning; it is not a new invention. And if one cannot prove that the director or the screenwriter had any intention of exploring same-sex love or desire by exploiting the convention of cross-dressing, then at least we can think of that audience member who either wittingly or unwittingly was being given the closest thing of a representation of their desires as they were ever going to get on screen.

 

I do genuinely believe that some cross-dressing films were imbued with far too much misogyny and resentment for homoeroticism for them to have been intended as transgressions. Among these are Sukkar Hanim or Mamlakat al-Nisa', for example. In contrast, there is the film al-Anissa Hanafi, in which a biological man (played by Ismael Yassin), undergoes a gender re-assignment surgery and subsequently becomes a woman who is accepted by her neighbors and who marries the local butcher, even becoming pregnant with his offspring. Much of the “comedic” value is at the expense of the “ugly” woman that Ismael Yassin makes, but there is a lot in this film to recommend it as sympathetic.

We might like to take a step back and say “whoa, hold on a minute. You’re telling me this film is pro transgenderism? Transgender identities had not even emerged historically, just yet. Surely, it must be a reflection of a post-war Egyptian sense of emasculation: this is 1953 after all, we’re still not even a whole year into the Nasser revolution.” Let’s just stick with that there was a crisis in Arab male masculinity and this film is about that. We’re more comfortable here, somehow, it makes our scholars feel like they’ve dug in and produced valuable knowledge that proves once again just how very Western and unprecedented all this talk of sexual and/or gender minority identity and rights is. That’s fine with me, I won’t argue with you, but I do think that this film both acknowledges and celebrates (an at least unspecified) gender and sexual diversity, while making a strong case for women’s emancipation.

In one telling scene, Hanafi (whose post-op name is Fifi) is talking to her step sister with whom she is constantly fighting. Moments earlier, Fifi caught her step sister on the rooftop with the local veterinarian who is in love with her and she with him. Fifi wants to prevent her sister from developing a bad reputation and is making demands to keep her from misbehaving in public again, by emphasizing restriction of movement. The following dialogue then ensues:

“Listen, when you were a man….”

“Shut up! I have never been a man, I have always been a mademoiselle.”

“At any rate, it is not shameful for a man to turn into a woman or for a woman to turn into a man. But what is shameful is for the man to be selfish and prevent the girl from getting an education and make her live in a prison like the one we are living in. “

“Why, what are you missing? You don’t eat, you don’t dress up, you’re being starved?”

“Life, my dear, is not just eating, drinking and dressing up.”

“What else is it then?”

“Everyone in this world has to have a purpose and the girl’s purpose is to get an education, so she can prepare herself for the day she is going to be a mother responsible for raising her children.”

Finally, what I want to leave us with today is one cross-dressing film from this fertile period in Egyptian cinematic history that has escaped critical attention. This film was titled Lahalibo and it was released in 1949 and was the film, along with al-'Eish w al-Milh (1949), that began Na'ima 'Akef’s acting career. Na'ima 'Akef was an incredibly talented Egyptian acrobat, dancer and actress. Legend has it that she began her performing career at the tender age of four, beginning in the traveling circus founded by her grandfather and now being managed by her father. The story goes that he eventually lost the business to his gambling debts. Another version of events indicates that it was when her father remarried that she was forced to move to Cairo with the rest of her family and to make a living as a street performer before joining an Acrobatic troupe. Eventually, she would become a sensation at Cairo’s prestigious Kit Kat Klub and through her connections there would meet Egyptian director Hussein Fawzi who would give her her filmic Debut in 1949. Fawzi and 3akef signed an exclusive contract and she was the star in at least fifteen of his films. Of the earliest of these was Lahalibo (1949) which may have been written specifically for her.

Lahalibo is a cross-dressing comedy about a young circus and dancing performer, whose parents have died but whose wealthy grandfather wants nothing to do with her because of his hatred for girls. In order to obtain access to him, she disguises herself as his grandson. Thus begins her double-life. One as a performer and the other as the Basha’s handsome grandson. 3akef taught herself how to tap dance and in this scene we see her give us a performance, the visual aesthetics of which are somewhat reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930). Mistaken for a man by everyone except her co-performers and the object of her affection, Amir, this scene is a delight to watch. 'Akef died of cancer at the very tender age of 37.

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