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The Parable of a Lost Generation: Hippies and Lesbians in the Sadat Era

Over the past six months, I have been endeavoring on this website to update the work I undertook in Chapter VI of Female Homosexuality in the Middle East. In that chapter, I offered a brief review of homosexuality as it manifested in Egyptian cinema and I reported on the film Genoun al-Shabab/The Madness of Youth, which was directed by Khalil Shawqi. At the time I was writing my book, I had to contend with the difficulties of accessing many of the films, a matter that has since been remedied by the people’s YouTube and other user broadcasting venues. Ten years ago, you would’ve been hard pressed finding a copy of Genoun al-Shabab and in fact my mission to locate a viewable copy failed, despite recruiting the help of a friend in Egypt, as well as scouring all bootleg stores in Western Sydney, which gave me access to gems like Bint Ismaha Mahmood and Quta ‘Ala Nar on VHS. But, nevertheless, I had watched the film in my youth and was evidently moved enough by it at that age to be able to remember broad brush strokes.

In 2005, which was the time I prepared chapter VI of the book that would be published two years later, I wrote that: “the only information I can here present is from memory and from a website advertising the sale of an original poster for the movie and as such I cannot engage in a close reading of the film.” In 2005 I mistakenly reported that Salwa, the film’s protagonist (played by Mervat Amin), was the film’s resident homosexual. But in fact, it was Salwa’s friend, Usmat (played by Sana’ Younis) who was. Usmat’s lover, Dalia, who is also the subject of her numerous paintings and her muse, goes on to marry her cousin, which sends Usmat spiraling into a crazed depression, culminating in a suicide that closes the film on what is already a very low note, lamenting Egypt’s lost and under-employed youth in the Sadat era. There is some contention regarding this film’s release date as well. According to the encyclopedic book, al-Jins fi al-Cinema al-Masriya/Sex in Egyptian Cinema (2009) by Mahmoud Qasem, the film was banned in Egypt in the 1970s and it was not until the “early 80s” that it was released at the Alexandria Film Festival. The film was banned in Egypt ostensibly for its insinuation of drug use and “sex without love” culture. This insinuation centers around the lives of ‘Alaa and his “shilla” (group/gang), in whose world Salwa becomes entangled. ‘Alaa, who is bare-chested for the entire film, advocates a return to a Tarazan-like primitivism by refusing to work and importing with him, from his escapades in Europe, a deliberately misrecognized hippie culture, which is depicted as destroying an already strained fabric of Egyptian society and its newly formed Bourgeois nuclear family. But the film that Khalil Shawqi directed is clearly adapted by a director whose home is in the theater and it labours a significant effort to make its point in artful and avant-garde ways. There is so much going on visually in this film, and its postmodern aesthetic was unfortunately too good for its time. To enter into a detailed analysis of all the elements at play and the breaking of the Arab spring that Sadat’s presidency began to institute, as critiqued by Egypt’s intellectuals and revolutionaries at the time, is beyond the scope of this particular article. We could perhaps revisit this era and gain access to the zeitgeist in another article through the songs and numerous arrests of al-Sheikh Imam and Ahmad Fouad Nijem in the years that followed the six day war. For now, let’s stay on topic and that is homosexuality in Egyptian cinema. There are not many films that depict same-sex sexual relations between women textually in this context, most are sub-textual and even those which aren’t, seldom give this much space to a lesbian subplot. The film wants you to see Usmat and Dalia as victims, it wants you to sympathize with them. Usmat is a little predatory in her sexuality: even as she is just about to die of heartache over Dalia, she makes sexual advances on her friend Salwa but she is able to control her lust and nothing becomes of it. Salwa, being wholesome, is of course disgusted by this and tells her friend that her feelings (for Dalia) are not normal.

Earlier in the film both Usmat and Dalia speak directly to the camera to explain to us what is implied to be the etiology of their deviant behavior. Usmat was raised in a very poor family of five girls. Her father prostituted them and she swore she would never let a man ever touch her. Dalia, on the other hand, used to share a bed with a poor girl who was the house maid. One night, Dalia’s father raped her while Dalia was sleeping in the same bed. These stories are agonizing and to deny that sexual abuse of this kind is prevalent or that it does not play a role in the instantiation of homosexuality does a disservice to truth. These stories are just as real as the stories of something we might call (for expedience) “innate” homosexual desire that is not produced or conduced by trauma. What is more, such homosexual desire can also coexist within or post a context of sexual abuse, these are not mutually exclusive. But, such stories, because they are the only representations available publicly at such a time and place, further marginalize and misrecognize the multifarious manifestations of homosexuality as a life-long, exclusive practice. But this is the pop psychology that we have to contend with and it plays to the tune of an earlier cinematic depiction in 1971, in the awful, awful film, al-Mut’a wa al-Athab/Pleasure and Suffering, directed by Niazi Mustafa. In that film, once again, female homosexual desire is the product of a woman traumatized by her father’s lovelessness. Interestingly, however, and in contrast with Mustafa’s film in which the villain is made good by his love, there are no good men in this film. Salwa’s father has a secret lover in Alexandria and treats her and her mother horribly; her cousin who plans to marry her expects from her an unrealistic traditionalism and her lover ‘Alaa’, is, well, an idiot. If only men were better behaved, the film seems to suggest, then the women in it would not be lost.

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