Filmmakers Who Feature Arab Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Characters
Yes, I dared to use “Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual,” partly because the films themselves depicted identities, not simply behaviors, and partly because I have never really found it epistemically pernicious to engage in cultural translations and historical equivalencies. A lot has happened since the publication of Chapter 6 of Female Homosexuality in the Middle East. That was the chapter in which I discussed a number of mainstream Egyptian films that depicted some form of queer text, character or subtext. Here are some films that came out in the last decade that are just waiting for some serious analytical attention. Tool ‘Omri/All My Life (2008) Made on a shoe string budget, with a non-professional cast and crew, this is one of my favorite gay Arab films. Don’t be put off by the independent-film budget, pay attention to the dialogue and rejoice in the power of a community-driven production. Set before and during the Cairo 52 case that rocked the Egyptian homosexual underworld in 2001, filmed in Egypt and San Francisco, the film is written and directed by Maher Sabry, himself an Egyptian exile who had to flee state persecution Just in case you have been living in a hermitage in the Himalayas for the past fifteen years, the Cairo 52 case was an incident in which Egyptian police raided a gay nightclub, a show boat named the Queen Boat that was moored on the Nile. The police arrested 52 Egyptian men predominantly from the impoverished classes. The arrests were followed by a pernicious trial which was covered extensively in the media (and John Scagliotti’s documentary film Dangerous Living). Sabry was one of the whistle-blowers who alerted LGBT rights organizations to the arrests and for this he won the Felipa De Souza award in 2002. Maher Sabry was interviewed, albeit briefly, for Scaglioti’s film and also appeared in the short documentary I Exist (2003), although the depth and breadth of his creative intellect is yet to be explored in a feature interview. There is a lot to love about Sabry’s film! I am not in the least deterred by the allegation that it contained “gratuitous nudity,” making it “just another gay film.” Nor am I deterred by the occasionally grainy acting or low budget filming, because there is a consistent intersectional critique throughout the film, the intelligence of which you are not likely to see in “just another gay film.” For example, I love that Sabry, probably in the tradition of Ihna Btoo’ il-Otobyss (1979), shows police brutality and torture in Egyptian prisons. That he is able to tell the stories of men persecuted by the state in this way, alone deserves a mark of respect. I also admire how Sabry is able to demonstrate the privileges accorded to Western citizenship and/or socioeconomic status, which translate into being “above the law,” since state police seem to invariably target men who cannot pay their way through the system or who do not have the right connections to protect them. Sabry also shows that exclusive homosexuality can operate without epistemological and identitarian tentacles, just as we see in the case of the country boy, Atef (played by Maged), who lacks the pretension of his modernized counterpart, Rami (Mazen Nassar). Atef’s character stands in sharp contrast to Abd Raboh, the “he’s not really a homosexual” character, played by Bassem Samra, in the blockbuster film, The Yacoubian Building (2006). Abd Raboh, also a peasant from the country, is depicted in a such a way as to reinforce the stereotype that homosexuals are passive parties and whose active partners are, if anything, hypersexual heterosexuals, because their penetration of other men makes the latter women. One gripe you could have with Tool ‘Omry, which I don’t really share, is that there are no real female characters in the film. Dalia, Rami’s best friend, is a virginal, sexless angel, more or less. But Jwana, the actor who played Dalia and the film’s co-producer, passionately disagrees. “Dalia….grew tired of fighting and struggling on a daily basis in a religious society. After she moved to San Francisco, [and] like so many other free-thinker women of al-mahjar, she wanted to do something to change the miserable state of our Arab world. We all know the rest of the real story and what happened to hundreds of Dalias in Tahrir.” In light of the renewed persecution of gay men in Egypt (following Mona al-Iraqi’s TV exposé of an alleged gay bathhouse in Ramsys in 2014), the film needs to be seen by audiences worldwide, now more than ever. The recent Egyptian law permitting the state to deport foreign nationals for homosexual activity, also changes the landscape since Sabry’s film, which was critical of the privilege accorded by the State to sex tourists hailing from the West. Unfortunately, as vital as this film is to international discussions, an English release of the DVD has not yet transpired. And since the film is predominantly in Arabic (YouTube preview not withstanding), it is now out of reach to English-speaking audiences. The great news is, seven years later, the English-subtitle DVD release is due this year, according to the film’s co-producer (and co-actor), Bassam Kassab. On an interesting side note, the French subtitles of the film were written by Remi Lange, the writer and director of Tariq il Hob/The Road to Love (2001), another excellent, low-budget independent gay film we are going to be having a look at below. Rémi Lange is also the distributor of the French DVD version of Tool ‘Omri in France, Belgium and Switzerland. The film has also been released with German sub-titles in Germany and Austria. I cannot stress it enough, this is not a film to be missed. If you find Sabry’s work compelling, you might be happy to learn that he and Bassam Kassab teamed up on another feature-length, Sin Visa, which was directed by Ana Simões and premiered at the landmark Roxie Theatre, in San Francisco, earlier this year. Sin Visa contains a gay Arab couple and sees Kassab’s return to the big screen as writer and actor sporting that same infectious grin we see in his role as minor character, Hatem, in Tool ‘Omry. Tarik il-Hob/The Road to Love (2001) Tariq il-Hob predates Tool ‘Omry by six years, and it was co-written and directed by the French Filmmaker Remi Lange and released in 2001. With the exception of one word (I believe, it’s “inshalla”) the entire film’s dialogue is in French. It is set predominantly in Paris, with perhaps the last twenty minutes of the film being shot in Morocco. Lange does a very interesting job of telling the story of Karim (played by Karim Tarek), a sociology student who decides to do one of his assignments, a video documentary, on homosexuality among men of North African descent in Paris. At that point, Karim has a girlfriend named Sihem (played by Sihem Benamoune) and hasn’t really given much thought to exploring his sexuality beyond his relationship with her. He soon meets one of his interviewees, a handsome young man named Farid (Riyad Echahi) and the story line unfolds predictably around Karim coming to terms with attraction to a patient, yet unrelenting Farid. If Tool ‘Omry was ever criticized for brandishing too much nudity, surprisingly, Tariq il Hob abstains from gratuity. On the contrary, it approaches male homosexual attraction with an unusual emphasis on emotions, and the need for bonds of certitude, and does not depict male sexuality in the usual fast-pace-disposability we see in gay male cinema generally speaking. At the same time, it does not represent gay men as the typically castrated homosexuals suitable for mainstream consumption—the film finds a healthy and invigorating balance. Lange’s films are not for mainstream audiences, and Tarik il-Hob made the rounds in the LGBT film festival circuit, so there is something to be said about his choice to resist giving the stereotypical film viewer what they came for (no pun intended). The DVD of Tariq il-Hob is available for purchase, along with English subtitles, it also includes extra footage that didn’t make it into the final cut. My personal delight in this film is seeing a very young Abdallah Taia after the release of his first book, which, he complains elicited no response from his home country, Morocco. Of course, fast forward thirteen years and Taia is writing editorials in the New York Times, publishing critically acclaimed semi-autobiographical works and even making a directorial debut as a filmmaker himself. It is Taia also who discusses the homosexual marriage contracts found in the Egyptian Oasis of Siwa at the turn of the twentieth century, and it is from him again that we hear about a city in Algeria, which in the 1950s, is said to have also had a tradition of homosexual marriage contracts. I also felt that the inclusion of references to Rumi and Jean Genet were both particularly apt endeavors on the part of the writers to claim culturally-specific same-sex sexual encounters, histories and personages, contrasting them with a more contemporary violence, particularly targeted at the so called “passive” homosexual man. Like Tool ‘Omry, it’s not surprising that women are represented by one minority character and in this instance it’s Sihem, Karim’s girlfriend, who makes a gracious and early exit that allows him to further explore his sense of self. Sukar Banat/Caramel (2007) Nadine Labaki’s debut film is gorgeous. It was the film chosen for the Arab Film Festival’s opening night in Sydney, where I first beheld it in 2008. In his opening remarks about the film, University of Melbourne Professor of Anthropology, Ghassan Hage, said that it was a film whose critique of Lebanese social ills was “made with love,” and he was right. It’s nice enough watching a film made by a woman director, but the film also has a soft spot, an open wound—the dull, subtle pain of which, lingers long after the film has ended. To trivialize it, we can call it a “chick flick,” since it centers on the lives of a group of women who are brought together in humorous scenes at Leila’s (played by Labaki) hair dressing salon. Leila is dating a married man, whom we never see because he stands her up. We see her trying to book a hotel room in Beirut, having no luck, since she doesn’t have proof of her marital relationship, a restriction I was not aware was still observed in cosmopolitan Beirut. Her assistant and friend, Nisrine (Yasmine al-Masri), has a hymen reconstruction procedure because she cannot bring herself to tell her fiancée that she is not a virgin, while her other friend, Jamale (Gisèle Aouad), is a single mother of two and an actress, who fakes her menses and actively lies about her age in an effort to remain competitive with younger, more beautiful women in an industry of substantial cruelty to women. If it weren’t for Leila’s co-worker at the salon, Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), the film would not make this list. Rima is an interesting character in a film that endeavors to catalogue the tragic restrictions imposed on women socially, whether that they must compete for beauty and youth or feign chastity or be treated like play things by married men. Enter Rima who, we are shown, is not interested in the young man who clearly wants to initiate some kind of romantic involvement. She is also lovingly chastised by her friends for her lack of self-beautification. We see her get mobbed by her friends and subjected to waxing of her body hairs in anticipation of Nisrine’s wedding. We also see Rima give what may seem like a look of longing, an expression of both loneliness and alienation, when a woman sits next to her on the bus. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much get communicated without words about sexuality in an Arabic-language film before. No one ever says that Rima is a lesbian, we don’t see her go out on dates with women, she never articulates the reasons for her seeming alienation, but it’s further intimated in her interaction with a salon patron who comes in regularly to have her hair washed. At the end of the film, that patron asks to her have her long hair cut short, which for some reason or another, is a symbol for breaking away with society and tradition. Placed in context of the film as a whole, it’s clear that Rima is another archetype of woman who is not being given the space to assert individuality or to live comfortably, according to her desires. She is a likeable character, albeit marginal to the film, and her depiction is a safe one. There’s nothing confronting about her; mainstream audience members may not even have it register on their radar that she may be anything other than a quiet, shy and lonely girl. But, I think that kind of sensibility is effective; it’s not pushing the envelope too far, it’s not starting a conversation about a subject, which for many, remains unspeakable, but it is acknowledging the subject’s existence and the silences that are built up around such existences. Bidoon Raqaba/Uncensored (2009) Anyone who has read enough of my work probably notices that I am not a fan of critique for critique’s sake. I find that kind of pompousness tiresome. It’s like we academics have to find something lacking in everything we see in order to justify our salaries. But frankly, I did have to suffer through this film to give you this little note on it. But before we get to the suffering, let’s focus on the joy. The film was entertaining, in part, because it was a film about university students in their final year of their law degrees, and the film contains so many party scenes involving disaffected youth getting drunk or high, that might invoke, for some, memories (or lack thereof) of misspent youth. I also liked that all the sex that is had in this film is defiantly non-marital in a country experiencing a religious backlash. The God-fearing character, Ibrahim (played by Bassem Samrah from The Yacoubian Building and Sarkhat Untha), who spends much of the film sermonizing to his “lost” friends about abstaining from sex and alcohol, and observing prayer, turns out to be human after all, with the same desires as his peers. He is depicted as reprehensible and hypocritical by the end of the film, no doubt a critique of the Muslim brotherhood and their discourse. This connects comfortable with Sabry’s depiction of his repressed fundamentalist character, Ahmad, in Tool ‘Omry. There are a lot of elements in the film on which its makers ought to be commended, but I found the 4 or 5 music video clips interspersed throughout this film excruciating to sit through. For example, seemingly out of nowhere, the main character (played by well-known Egyptian singer, Ahmad Fahmi) suddenly bursts into song. The filmmaker, Hani Georges Fawzi, was perhaps trying to capitalize on Fahmi’s fan base, but sitting through the sudden music clips was definitely a first-world problem I would have been happy to fast forward through. I’m also slightly, but not very, disappointed in Shareen (Alaa’ Ghanem), the resident bisexual character in this film. I am glad she made it on screen and was given some unapologetic, self-asserting lines that we have never heard on the Egyptian cinema screen before. I am not glad that she is depicted as a sexual predator of innocent women, and that her background story is that she had been preyed on in seventh grade by her cousin who initiates her into homosexual behavior. I know the film, which is ironically titled Uncensored, was in fact censored several times and there were many compromises that had to be made with the censorship board for its release to be allowed, so I do wonder what the authors had to compromise on and whether Shareen’s character was different from what she ended up being. Nonetheless, despite the depictions of her predatory behavior of uninitiated women, Shareen delivers some lines for which one is infinitely grateful, given the context of the film’s audience and the pernicious stereotypes that permeate about same-sex desire and behavior. And given the film is not accessible in English subtitles, we will wrap up this article resolving that accessibility issue. Enjoy! After Shareen sleeps with a male friend of hers, Karim, he asks her “when you’re with a girl, which one of you is the man and which is the woman?” To this she replies: “What stupidity is this? Are we in a group of morons or what?” “No, but seriously, you two are the same, how do you do these things?” “Like what you and I were doing now.” “But that’s natural. A man and a woman.” “And when I’m with a girl, I’m acting according to my nature.” “Ok, what do you feel when you are with them?” “What you feel when you are with me.” “Well, then, which one are you? The man or the woman?” “I’m both.” In a scene a little later on in the film, we see Shareen with her new love interest, a girl procured for her by a friend, who says to her that she is not comfortable with what they are doing together. “This is haram [forbidden]. I heard a sheikh say this is haram.” Shareen replies: “Oh, and you didn’t hear the Sheikh who said eating cucumbers was forbidden?” Shareen is not joking, absurd fatwas (religious decrees) are released intermittently, and the forbiddance of eating cucumbers, since they resemble the phallus, is not an invention of her own imagination. But perhaps my favorite line by Shareen is when she is speaking to Ibrahim, the religiously observant character who asks her to repent and stop defying God (but is actually interested in sleeping with her). “We both defy God, but I don’t lie to myself, while you don’t know how to lie to people.” These comments are particularly powerful in light of the renewed popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a country that has been grappling with its social and cultural identity, oscillating between liberalism and religious conservatism, since independence was attained in the 1950s. Finally, I appreciate this film and its Shareen because she does not die at the end! Nor does she turn out to be a vampire! Two usual endings that the Hollywood celluloid bisexual still meets with. *Originally published on July 25, 2015 at http://samarhabib.com/filmmakers-who-feature-arab-gay-lesbian-and-bisexual-characters/ now discontinued.