The outrage created by one scene in Netflix’s new Arabic film “Perfect Strangers” (“Ashab Wala Aaz”), in which Egyptian actress Mona Zaki removes her underpants, seems rather ridiculous when compared to some Egyptian films of the 1970s.
Take for example 1973's “Wolves Don’t Eat Meat.” Not only did it include Nahed Sharif appearing fully naked, but the Egyptian actress even kissed another woman on the big screen. And yet, in the wake of Netflix's film, Zaki has been subjected to cruel, extensive, artistic and public criticism.
“Perfect Strangers,” a remake of the eponymous Italian movie, follows an encounter between several friends and the dark secrets that come to the surface. The remake was made specifically with Arab audiences in mind by director Wissam Smayra. Yet despite his efforts, the discourse in the Arab world has noted that the new film is a pale replica of its Western counterpart, which fails to take into account the uniqueness of Arab society and its religious-cultural characteristics.
One Egyptian lawmaker, Mustafa Bakri, was especially angered by the movie and demanded that Netflix be banned in Egypt. He went on to accuse the streaming giant of assailing Egyptian values by encouraging homosexuality and flagrant displays of sexuality – even though there is not a single full sex scene in “Perfect Strangers.”
At the same time, others have claimed that the film faithfully reflects the social, cultural and sexual profiles of Arab society without embellishment. Zaki said she strongly connected with her character, Maryam. “I really identified with her, I’ve met many women in my close circles who have sex lives similar to Maryam’s. It was important for me to make space for them,” she said.
The emperor has no clothes
But “Perfect Strangers” is just the latest victim of censorship and public vitriol in the Egyptian film industry. This persecution goes back to the 1930s. Egypt’s film industry, which was in its infancy, saw the birth of new historical, comic and imaginative genres. There was even room for female directors, such as Fatima Rushdi, Aziza Amir and Bahiga Hafez.
In 1938, King Farouk prohibited the screening of “Lachine, the People’s Hope,” which tells the story of a courageous and moral Egyptian military commander who speaks out against a corrupt prime minister. Censors working for the Interior Ministry claimed that the film was indirectly accusing the king of corruption and tarnishing his image. Even though Studio Misr, which produced the film, changed the ending to portray the ruler as victorious and decent, the movie was banned by royal decree and consigned to the Egyptian archives.
The persistent and systematic censorship of Egyptian films began in the early ’60s, under President Gamal Abdel Nasser. It continued through the ’70s under Anwar Sadat, and then into the ’90s under Hosni Mubarak and his successors.
While the list of banned Egyptian films is very long, the reason for their censorship varied over the years. In this millennium, the establishment has objected to films that it claims threaten the social order. Examples include “Roukh’s Beauty” (2014) and “Perfect Strangers,” due to their sexual subject matter. The establishment claims that such movies offend religious sensibilities and corrupt family values.
In contrast, censors in the ’60s and ’70s primarily censored movies for political content. Nasser prohibited the screening of “The Iron Door” (1958); Sadat banned “A Dawn Visitor” (1973), “Al-Karnak” (1975) and “The Guys on the Bus” (1979); Mubarak banned “The Innocent” (1986). These movies all dealt with arrests and the political persecution of Egyptian students in the ’60s, sharply criticizing the Egyptian regime at the time.
This censorship was the side effect of a social and political process that began in the early ’50s, with the 1952 Free Officers Movement led by Nasser. This process is still at work today. Nasser outlawed all political parties, except his National Union party. Despite the rich cinematic creativity, a nationalist film industry arose, which lauded the 1952 revolution and even the Egyptian rout in 1967’s Six-Day War.
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Sadat entered this complex social-political scene in 1971, following Nasser’s death. Established parties were allowed to resume activity at the end of 1976, but Sadat adopted a wily policy: On the one hand, he took harsh action against fundamentalist, Islamist underground organizations; and, on the other, he glorifiied Islam within civil society. He embraced certain Islamist factions in order to block the growing power of the communists, who were in the opposition. This political strategy, along with abundant funding from Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf states, allowed the leaders of the factions to support religious institutions that preached against secularism and the left in Egypt – a pillar of the cultural scene.
This drive toward religion and censorship peaked in the ’80s and ’90s, with the growing power of Wahabi Islamic movements. Under their influence, a “clean” film industry took shape – one that avoided dealing with sexuality in any form. According to Egyptian journalist Hani Mohammed, this gave way to a very conservative generation of actors. Mohammed claims that, in contrast to the ’60s and ’70s, the censorship, silencing and even persecution of topics related to sexuality now arose from within the art world.
He says there is now an entire generation of actors and actresses in Egypt who adamantly refuse to act when there is physical contact with the opposite sex. The phenomenon, often referred to by the name of actor-comedian Mohamed Henedi, goes so far that some actors condition their participation in a project on dropping all scenes that include kissing or other contact. These actors, most of whom come from a religious rural background, have brought traditional, conservative values to Egypt’s art scene, pushing out the more liberal actors of the earlier generation.
Censorship is also common in other Arab countries, including some that outwardly present a liberal and democratic face, such as Lebanon and Morocco. For example, Lebanese films such as “Terra Incognita” (2002) and “Hotel Beirut” (2011) faced harsh criticism from state institutions. In Morocco, the government banned “Much Loved” (2015), claiming it featured too many sex scenes. The rules are clear in the Arab world: religion, sex and politics are red lines that must never be crossed.
Both bold and conservative
So what are the dos and don’ts when it comes to sex in Egyptian cinema? A look at five major banned films from various periods may shed some light on the issue.
“My Father Up on the Tree” (1969) is still considered one of the most beautiful Egyptian musical-romantic films ever. Starring Abdel Halim Hafez, the film is based on a story by the legendary Egyptian author Ihsan Abdel Quddous.
The film tells the story of a young engineering student, Adel, who leaves his conservative sweetheart when she rejects his advances. In a bar in Alexandria, he meets a beautiful belly dancer, falls in love and the two move in together. His father travels from Cairo to Alexandria in the hope of bringing his son home. The father also falls in love with a belly dancer and abandons his family. In contrast to his father, Adel eventually comes to his senses and returns to the straight and narrow, and to his virgin sweetheart.
The film was one of the most widely viewed in the history of Egyptian cinema. It screened in movie theaters for 58 consecutive weeks, breaking box office records. Despite its success, Egyptian censors later banned the film and it could no longer be shown – mainly because the film included about 50 kisses and what the censors described as “immoral scenes.”
Alcohol flowed like water throughout the movie, and the male and female actors appear in their bathing suits. However, there is almost no significant sexual content in a film that deals with the characters’ sexual desires and fantasies. In effect, the film’s ultimate moral is that sex and sexuality outside of marriage are unacceptable and disgusting. There is one interesting exception, in a scene where Adel tells his friend that men don’t “take” anything from women during sexual relations, rejecting that common equation.
“Malatily Bathhouse” (1973), on the other hand, greatly expanded the boundaries of Egyptian sexual discourse. Directed by Salah Abu Seif, the film recounts the story of Ahmed Abdel Salam, a young man who leaves his hometown of Port Said to get married.
Like Adel from the previous film, he loses his way in the big city. He cannot find work or a decent place to live, and is forced to live and work in a hammam. There he meets a young prostitute called Naeema, and falls in love with her. He also encounters a man named Raouf, who falls in love with him.
Abu Seif presents a tightly-knit story and a well-constructed plot. There are sex scenes between Ahmed and Naeema that depict kisses, half-naked bodies and signs of sexual relations (such as clothing tossed aside), without ever showing the act itself. But the movie really broke boundaries by depicting non-mainstream sexuality.
In one scene, Raouf, who is sitting half-naked in the Turkish bath, wearing only a towel around his waist, stretches out his hand and sensually wipes beads of perspiration from Ahmed’s forehead. In another scene, he trails his fingers across Ahmed’s back and says, “Do you want to change into something comfortable?” That scene ends with Raouf dancing sensually, half-naked, before Ahmed’s eyes – the type of scene that has disappeared from recent Egyptian cinema entirely.
And still, in the end, Raouf’s character is never able to fully embrace his sexual identity. Toward the end of the film, he conforms to social and religious dictates, and blames his mother for his sexuality, claiming that she didn’t set clear moral boundaries when he was a teenager.
The film was only shown once and was immediately censored, with claims that it encouraged homosexuality. Although the producers acceded to the censor’s request and cut most of the scenes that were said to be too sexual, the film is still banned in Egypt to this day.
That same year, 1973, also saw the premiere of “Wolves Don’t Eat Meat,” which made a priceless contribution to the conversation on sexuality in Egyptian culture. Directed by Samir Khouri, the film follows an Egyptian journalist, Anwar. After years of exposure to injustice – the war with Israel, the occupation of Sinai and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – Anwar becomes a money-hungry hit man. After he is seriously wounded in an operation, he arrives at the home of a former lover, Soraya. She nurses him back to health and the two renew their love.
To this day, the film is considered revolutionary. It was the first Egyptian film to show an Egyptian actress naked, getting into bed with a fully naked actor and even kissing another woman. If that weren’t enough, it was the also the first film to show a female character demanding ownership of her sexuality without fear, regret or self-victimization.
In one scene, Soraya’s husband rips her panties, takes her into the bedroom, stands her in front of the bed where Anwar lay wounded and asks her: “Do you like him?” Without hesitation, Soraya answers, while removing her clothes: “Yes, I like him.” In another scene, Lutfiya, Soraya’s sister-in-law, says to her: “Thank you for pleasuring me with your body.” Soraya replies: “You deserved to be loved like anyone else.” The Egyptian censor immediately issued a blanket ban on the film ever being screened.
But the cinematic boldness, which peaked in the mid-’70s, began to wane in the ’80s, giving way to the clean Egyptian cinema of today. Both “Alley of Love” (1983), about prostitution in Egypt, and “Roukh’s Beauty” (2014), about a woman whose husband abandons her, present a God-fearing, conservative, tortured sexuality that can only be restrained by institutionalizing it in marriage. One of the prostitutes is murdered by her brother and the main character in “Roukh’s Beauty” pays a high price for her sensuality and is brutally raped.
The message is clear: sexuality outside of the ordained institutions comes to a bitter end. Yet “Alley of Love” still presented one fascinating scene that is still quoted to this day: An important politician (played by Hassan Abdin) comes to the brothel in secret and tells the main character: “I pay so you’ll humiliate me” – a sexual discussion that was not at all routine, then or now. The film was banned because it ostensibly legitimized prostitution by discussing it. Similar claims were made against “Roukh’s Beauty” regarding its portrayal of sexual scenes involving a minor.
Having the cake and eating it too
In contrast to the films produced in Egypt, it’s interesting to examine how Muslim-Egyptian sexuality is portrayed in the West. The Hulu series “Ramy,” for example, offers a fresh approach. The show is the brainchild of Rami Youssef, a 29-year-old American actor and comedian with Egyptian roots, who tired of the Western portrayal of Arabs and Muslims only as terrorists or rebels against their own religion, tradition and society.
Hence his decision to write “Ramy.” The show has been highly successful and is about to air its third season. The series follows a young Egyptian-American living with his parents and sister in New Jersey. As a Muslim growing up in the shadow of 9/11, he deals with crises of identity, values, religion and morality.
Unlike the conservative discourse in Egyptian cinema, “Ramy” introduces an honest, direct and complex view of sexuality. The Muslim protagonist masturbates, has sexual relationships with women outside of marriage and even sleeps with a married woman. Youssef presents a split, unstable sexuality that is fully aware of its conflicting stance to the values of Islam.
At the same time, like many of the characters in Egyptian film, he has no desire to fully sever himself from religion, tradition and social dictates. Unlike Egyptian characters – who ultimately express regret for fulfilling their sexual desires and return to the straight and narrow – Youssef’s characters want to have both worlds. In other words, they seek both full sexual fulfillment and belonging to the Muslim nation, despite the inherent conflict that presents.
The series manages to do all this without picking a side. In an interview with British online newspaper The Independent, Youssef said he is interested in “a genuine emotional representation of the type of confusion that many Arab-Americans, especially Arab-American men, experience.”
The series has been roundly condemned in the Arab community, which claims that it shames Islam and its values. Youssef, for his part, told the Emirati newspaper Al Khaleej that he was not surprised by the negative response and doesn’t blame the community. He stressed that Ramy’s character does not represent either Muslims or Islam.
“Ramy” really is a breath of fresh air to both the American and Arab scene. It dares to present sexual content without fear or censorship. It describes a burgeoning Muslim-Western sexuality without criticism or a deep questioning of the mechanisms that restrain, silence and reject it.
Moreover, as in the Egyptian films surveyed here, the series does not address the notion that there is no place for sexuality, particularly female sexuality, in religious Muslim spaces. In doing so, it essentially avoids any critical debate about sex that could challenge the dominant Islamic discourse or the superficial sexuality of clean cinema.
Returning to “Perfect Strangers,” the film is a failure: Not because of Mona Zaki’s underpants, but because it once again presents a passive, victimized sexuality that does not have the strength to oppose the social trap it is embroiled in. It reflects the trend in Egyptian films of recent decades, which sabotage the courageous and complex cinematic sexual discourse that developed in the ’70s.