Cultural rainbows

Khaled Diab

As Hollywood does gay in a big way, the issue of homosexuality in the Arab World is slowly coming out of the cultural and media closet.

 

May 2006

 

‘Reel life’ gays featured prominently at this year’s Oscar awards, with the gay cowboy love story Brokeback Mountain riding off with best director for Ang Lee, and Philip Seymour Hoffman walking away with best actor for his portrayal of gay writer Truman Capote. While these victories represent a visible gain for mainstream acceptance of homosexuality, the awards did not go down well everywhere.

 

Inside the United States, cinemas in the ‘Mormon states’ of Utah and West Virginia did not waste time in banishing the film from their screens. Internationally, China was among the first to ban the film. Censors in Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates have already barred the film from movie houses, and other Arab and Muslim countries, especially those outlawing homosexuality, will undoubtedly follow suit. “Brokeback Mountain is likely to run into problems in some Muslim countries where homosexuality remains officially illegal, even if tolerated behind closed doors,” predicted film industry magazine Variety.

 

However, tightly controlled Singapore’s censor confounded expectations by allowing the film to be shown, claiming that it does not “promote or glamorise the [gay] lifestyle”.

 

Ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia is unlikely to ban the cinematic release of the film, simply because, following austere Wahhabi prescriptions, the kingdom’s big screens were all shut down in the 1970s for their ‘immorality’ and the ‘graven images’ they projected.

 

There is currently a campaign afoot to reintroduce cinemas. Public showings of children’s cartoons in one brand-new cinema for women and children in a Riyadh hotel have been permitted since November 2005. Inside Saudi homes – which are “sacrosanct and shall not be entered without the permission of the owner” according to the kingdom’s laws – it is a different matter. Millions of Saudi citizens point their satellite dishes to the heavens and view the latest racy celluloid offerings uncensored on foreign movie channels.

 

Coming out on the Arab silver screen

While Hollywood was busy mainstreaming gay issues by raining down accolades on Brokeback Mountain and Capote, mainstream Egyptian cinema was taking its first bold strides towards opening the closet door by casting homosexuality in a more natural light. Umaret Yaqubian (Yacobian Building) is not a gay flick per se, but one of its pivotal characters – intellectual newspaper editor Hatem Rashid – is a homosexual who is portrayed sympathetically.

 

The groundbreaking film, which reportedly cost an unprecedented – for an Arabic film – $3-$6 million, premiered internationally at the Berlin International Film Festival in February and was even part of the line up at the Teddy Awards, a sideline event for queer films at Berlin. It is due for general release in Egypt in May 2006 and will also be shown in 50 countries across the region and beyond.

 

It is based on a controversial best-selling novel, first published in 2002, of the same title written by Egyptian dentist-turned-author Alaa al-Aswany. Describing the film as a “sprawling, star-studded epic that spans all social classes in today’s Cairo”, film critic Deborah Young, writing in Variety, commended the film’s “frank treatment of homosexuality” and Khaled el-Saway’s “sensitive, rather ironic portrait of the gay Hatem”.

 

Celluloid closets

In addition to the film’s bleak portrayal of corruption in high places, exploitation, terrorism, radical Islam, grinding poverty and ruthless businessmen, Hatem Rashid, the gay intellectual newspaper editor, is provoking a lot of interest and controversy. “This is what could get us into trouble,” debut director Marwan Hamed – whose father, famous screenwriter Wahid Hamed, wrote the screenplay – told The Daily Telegraph. “We present Hatem as a normal human being and this will lead to a lot of attacks when the movie comes out.”

 

Although fears were expressed by gay advocates before the shooting of the film that the makers would drop the Rashid character, both Hamed senior and junior did not shy away from bringing every element of the novel to life on the silver screen. “I tried, as much as possible, to retain the essence [of the original],” Hamed said in an interview with London-based al-Quds al-Araby. “I’ve adapted it to the language of cinema.”

 

But Wahid Hamed is no stranger to controversy, having written a string of hard-hitting – and often hilarious – films that have become hallmarks of Egyptian cinema, including al-Irhab wil Kabab (Terrorism and Kebabs), al-Mansy (Oblivion) and Teyour al-Zalam (Birds of darkness). Perhaps surprisingly, this has not affected the film’s distribution prospects and it looks set to become one of the biggest grossing films in the history of Egyptian cinema, the Hollywood of the Middle East.

 

This might represent a significant turning point in the popular cultural acceptance of homosexuality, given that Arabic cinema, unlike classical Arabic literature, has tended to skirt the issue, due to government censorship and self-censorship. “While the explicit depiction of homosexual acts in film has been the subject of strict censorship,” Garay Menicucci, assistant director at the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of California, wrote in issue 206 of Middle East Report “cinematic references to gays and lesbians abound, if often in heavily coded forms.”

 

These include cross-dressing male and female characters as metaphors for gay love (as well as female emancipation), and portraying certain characters as implicitly homosexual – without actually mentioning their orientation or showing any physical intimacy – through their close bond with another male character. Prior to Umaret Yaqubian, the most daring film was Salah Abu Seif’s 1973 Hamam al-Malatili (The Malatili Bath) which depicts the love affair between an artist and a poor migrant from the provinces.

 

Giving the Arab novel back its teeth

Umaret Yaqubian has become the best-selling Arabic-language novel in years and al-Aswany has been hailed as the saviour of the genre by critics across the Arab world. He has been praised for his bold storytelling and his willingness to tread where most other Egyptian authors are unwilling or unable to go.

 

Set in a famous downtown building by the same name, the novel presents a sweeping account of life in Egypt over a period of half a century. Although the fictional building and its inhabitants are symbolic of Egyptian society, the real-life residents of the building have taken offence and are planning a lawsuit against al-Aswany.

 

The building is named after the leader of the 1930s Egyptian Armenian community. This once posh and gleaming façade of a lost world of privilege has developed serious cracks and is no longer an exclusive home for the wealthy and well-heeled. Its fictional residents include a skirt-chasing playboy aristocrat who has fallen on hard times, seedy bars and prostitutes. Buthayna is a tough and intelligent young woman who gives up her love for the poor porter’s son in order to retain her job – and feed her family – by providing her exploitative boss with sexual favours.

 

Taha, the porter’s son, dumped by his childhood sweetheart and his dream of entering the policy academy foiled due to social snobbery, gets drawn into radical Islam and – after being arrested and sexually abused in prison – his youthful idealism turns into violent extremism. And, of course, there is Hatem Rashid, the elegant and intellectual editor of the fictional Le Caire newspaper who is comfortably and confidently – if self-consciously – gay, but keeps it private because of the social taboo attached.

 

Close-up glances

Rashid is as flawed as the other characters in this grim and dour Dostoyevskyesque epic, but is portrayed as intelligent, talented, capable and, above all, human. “He quickly proved his competence as a journalist and rose to the position of editor-in-chief by the time he was 45,” the book tells us. “This success was a natural and fair product of Hatem’s effectiveness, determination and dynamism… as well as his superhuman capacity for work which he inherited from his father.”

 

However, al-Aswany does make a couple of questionable sweeping generalisations about gays. “Gays, like pickpockets and other outlaws, create their own private language which enables them to communicate indecipherably amongst other people,” the book claims. The book also refers to the codenames given to ‘active’ and ‘passive’ homosexuals, as if a gay man has a single fixed position or role in a sexual encounter – which is a widely held belief in Egypt.

 

Rashid happens to be half French. This could be interpreted as a subtle suggestion on the part of the author that homosexuality is somewhat foreign. Alternatively, al-Aswany may have plonked for this European influence in order to portray a comfortable homosexual identity more convincingly to his audience in taboo-ridden Egypt. Rashid was neglected as a child by his busy parents and al-Aswany appears to suggest rather dubiously, in a couple of passages, that the boy’s lonely, bicultural upbringing somehow had a role to play in his homosexuality. That said, Hatem’s boyhood love affair with his Nubian servant is portrayed lovingly and beautifully by al-Aswany.

 

“God is great and is truly merciful,” Rashid told his doubting and frightened lover. “There are lots of people who pray and fast, but they steal and harm others. God will punish people like them. As for us, I’m sure God will pardon us because we are not hurting anyone. We just love each other.”

 

Aswany, himself, has observed a drift towards sexual intolerance in Egypt and wanted to address it in his novel. “I believe homosexuals in Egypt were always tolerated – probably not in the same way as in the west – but now I think this has changed. There is less tolerance,” he admitted in an interview with UK daily The Guardian. “I tried to portray the gay character as a human being, not as a particular case. That is something new.”

 

 

 

 

 

ă2006 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.