‘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.
However, tightly controlled
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
“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
ă2006 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.