Audiences and Class
Audiences and Class
Abstract and Keywords
Earliest cinema-going was at the outset a bourgeois habit in Egypt, as elsewhere in the Middle East and unlike Europe and the U.S. where the invention was soon proletarianized through lower-class distribution circuits such as the funfair and nickelodeon. This cinema seems to have appealed not only to the Middle Eastern elite but also to Egypt's urban petite bourgeoisie, which, although still socially and politically marginalized during the early decades of the twentieth century, was culturally rather active. Third-class cinema differs in program and equipment from first- and second-class cinema. It does not present any new releases, but offers a program that usually comprises one Egyptian and one or two foreign films. The expression of a sexual, religious, or ethnic Otherness still encounters taboos which indicate clearly that there is a weak point in the existing perception of the Egyptian nation and in the notion of sexual identity.
Earliest cinema-going was at the outset a bourgeois habit in Egypt, as elsewhere in the Middle East and unlike Europe and the U.S. where the invention was soon proletarianized through lower-class distribution circuits such as the funfair and nickelodeon. Some of the more privileged foreign and national inhabitants of the two major cities Cairo and Alexandria must have been the first to attend the screenings that presented the new technical invention, first in the Tousson stock-exchange in Alexandria and then in the Hamam Schneider (Schneider Baths) in Cairo. In 1896, only a few months after their initial European screenings, the Lumière-cinématographe was used to project films to an exclusive audience in Egypt.
Yet the medium widened its scope steadily. In the following years, short screenings started to complement native theater performances and by 1912, cinemas were offering Western films with titles and inter-titles (written dialog inserted between scenes, as in silent movies) translated into Arabic, usually projected on a smaller, adjacent screen. At about the same time, local foreigners and native residents of Egypt started their own small-scale production. Both are a clear indicator that the less affluent and the less educated (that is, only Arabic-speaking) urban population started to be drawn to (p.282) screenings composed largely of European fiction films that since the mid-1910s had started to adapt to the more sophisticated needs of Western middle classes in terms of morals and narration. This cinema seems to have appealed not only to the Middle Eastern elite but also to Egypt's urban petite bourgeoisie, which, although still socially and politically marginalized during the early decades of the twentieth century was culturally (and increasingly politically) rather active. It eventually reached a position that prepared its members to oppose British occupation, and by striving to obtain higher education for its offspring it was soon able to monopolize intellectual activity (Hussein 1973, 34–36), and who certainly also contributed to the creation of national cinema in Egypt.
Thus in the 1920s performers such as ‘Aziza Amir and Amina Muhammad, who did not come from an illustrious social background, ventured to produce their own films, while the offspring of prosperous aristocrats’ and traders' families, most notably Yusuf Wahbi and Togo Mizrahi, were among the first to set up small, provisional studios in 1928 and 1929. Furthermore the construction of modern well-equipped Studio Misr in 1933–34 allowed an increasing number of less elevated Egyptians to turn to filmmaking, as they received their professional training there, with directors like Salah Abu Seif and Kamal El-Cheikh as the most notable examples. Eventually, after the rise to power of the Free Officers in 1952 and the free education offered by the state-run Higher Film Institute since 1959, film could at least theoretically attract cineastes from all classes.
This however did not help to spread film in rural areas. Going to the movies in Egypt has remained an urban form of entertainment. With the opening of early cinematographs and, later in 1906, the Pathé movie theaters in Alexandria and Cairo, the number of theaters in Egypt grew constantly. However, as the absolute number of theaters always stayed disproportionately low in comparison to the country's population, Egyptian producers were strongly motivated to export their films. In 1954, when the number of cinemas reached its peak, they did not exceed 360 (al-Naggar, 2002, 311).25 In the course of the 1960s, due to the introduction of television and the (p.283) nationalization of around one third of all cinemas in 1963, the numbers decreased continuously—147 in 1992—as did the technical standard of theaters until the mid-1990s. Their distibution has remained uneven, with more than half of them concentrated in the two major Egyptian cities, Alexandria (twenty-one) and Cairo (fifty-nine) (al-Naggar 2002, 311). As no theaters exist in villages, regular access to films there started only after the introduction of television and VCR in the 1960s and 1970s.
Moreover, movie theaters reflect the pyramidal structure of society through their division into three categories. It is unclear when the threefold division into first, second, and third-class movie theaters was established. Yet it must have been quite early, probably during the first construction wave in the late 1910s, at a time when Alexandria with its strong cosmopolitan population including communities such as Greeks and Italians, was still the center of distribution and emerging production. An indiciation for this may be that the third class still keeps its colloquial name al-tirsu derived from the Italian terzo (third).
The third-class cinema differs in program and equipment from the first and second class. It does not present any new releases, but offers a program that usually comprises one Egyptian and one or two foreign films. It is repeated for several days; the (predominantly male) audience enters the theater at any time, often knows the films by heart, interacts vigorously with the action, and even comments on or reenacts it during the projection. An accurate depiction of the vivid atmosphere of those movie theaters can be seen in Yousry Nasrallah's 1993 feature film Mercedes (which also, incidentally, represents the cinema as a place for gay encounters). Today, third-class theaters are run primarily in the outskirts of towns, like the industrial Cairo satellite district of Helwan, or in the provinces, while in the major inner cities almost none exist any more (al-Naggar 2002, 303).
In the late 1970s the class system of movie theaters was further entrenched by the introduction of the VCR, and this was also instrumental in reinforcing gender segregation, for middle- and upper-middle class audiences, in particular women, increasingly began to watch films at home. This (p.284) development was encouraged by the bad condition of the old first and second-class movie theaters, particularly in Cairo's and Alexandria's inner cities, as a result of the 1963 nationalizations. After two decades they had deteriorated to such an extent that suburban middle-class families started avoiding them, also because they presumably attracted a male, lower-class audience.
New releases are offered only by first and second class theaters. They distinguish themselves through ticket price, choice of program, furnishing, and technical standard of equipment and projection. The largest number of first-class theaters are found in Cairo and Alexandria, representing around 50 percent of all cinemas there. Starting in the early 1990s, their earlier decline was reversed: some state-run cinemas were leased or sold to private entrepreneurs and renovated, while the increasing numbers of modern first-class theaters equipped according to the latest standards, including Dolby stereo and digital sound, were built in Cairo's affluent suburbs. Some of these are located in the new shopping malls, which have sprung up all over town. A ticket costs up to LE25 (around U.S.$4), twice as much as in second-class theaters.
Social scientist Mona Abaza has demonstrated the extent to which the shopping mall developed the potential for creating a new, less hostile urban space in which women and youth can move more easily, assert their own presence in the public space, and partake in new lifestyles. However, even these spaces have been divided into ‘popular’ and ‘chic’ locations (Abaza 2001, 108), and may support social exclusiveness. Just like the new security-guarded gated communities that are spreading on Egyptian coasts and on the fringes of the metropolis' extended suburbs, some of the more imposing shopping malls are hardly accessible to the poor urban, even less the rural population, excluded not only by lack of financial means to access and enjoy these new locations, but also because their very presence and appearance, marked by different dress and manners, would be at best suspiciously watched, if not actually kept out by security.
Still, the shopping mall seems to have facilitated the appearance of a new, more gender-inclusive (but middle-class) ‘youth’ culture linked to the (p.285) films shown in the mall, which are also attended by young middle-class girls and women who come and visit these places on their own—to the extent that Egyptian producers have started to develop specific ‘shopping-mall films’ designed for this particular audience. This has coincided with an increase of pop music concerts offering yet another opportunity for a non-segregated (but privileged) form of popular entertainment. This ‘pop’ culture has been spreading since the advent of satellite and cable television, and is also mediated by music channels and music videos, a development that can be sensed not only through the sudden shift from an older star generation to a new one, but also through the occasional appearance of some of those pop stars on screen. It has also contributed to a booming number of Egyptian movies that includes music videos, even if no professional singer has the lead.
Class Perceptions and Recent Popular Film
Doubtless the resurgence of the musical has been backed by the long tradition of film musicals in Egypt. This tradition recycled both traditional Egyptian and Western forms of music and dance, developing a novel and genuine form of these arts. It was moreover responsible for the country's first successful film exports during the 1930s (Shafik 1998, 103). What characterifies the musical but also most other popular film genres in Egypt is its constant mixing of various generic elements and the dominance of spectacle over narration. Spectacle crystallifies not only in musical numbers that may subvert any dramatic consistency (like the fragmentation achieved through farce and action), but also in the ritualified repetitiveness of style and motifs as well as in the inscribing of star personae into the film text.
This polarization of spectacle and narration is mirrored to some degree in the polarization of audience preferences on the one hand and critical esteem on the other, similar to the controversy surrounding realism and melodrama, for the lowbrow-highbrow art dichotomy that has often guided cinematic evaluations in Egypt is not necessarily in line with box office success. On the contrary, often box-office popularity subverts all normative criteria that critics have attempted to establish. Indeed accusations of triviality are recurrent (p.286) in the debate on films. That these controversies are strongly informed by class can also be seen in the case of one of the most popular but also controversial recent spectacles, the major box-office hit of 2002, al-Limbi/al-Limbi by Wa‘il Ihsan starring new generation comedian Muhammad Sa‘d, which was caught in the crossfire of public evaluation.
As a matter of fact al-Limbi does not fit into the typical shopping-mall film scheme, if compared to Sandra Nash'at's Thieves in KG2/Haramiya :KG2 (2002), Friends or Business/Ashab walla bizniz (2002) by ΆliIdris, and Sleepless Nights by Hani Khalifa, all centered around middle class suburban youth suffering from filial and/or emotional conflicts. In contrast, al-Limbi presents a lower-class underdog and his attempts to succeed economically and emotionally, thus relying on one of the most central plots of Egyptian cinema since the 1930s that capitalize on the dream of social mobility.
(p.287) Although the press watched the immense success of this film with puzzlement and consternation, accusing it of marking an unprecedented decline of the Egyptian film into a “cinema without reason” (Sa‘d 2002). It was said to make absolutely no sense, dubbed in Arabic hals (nonsense) (cf. Akhbar al-Yawm 2002), denounced as being of very bad quality, presenting a constantly drugged main character, signifying “decadence and intellectual and moral depravity,” a sinima al-bangu product (bangu means marijuana) (‘Uthman 2002). The acknowledged critic and screenplay writer Rafiq al-Sabban issued an article under the title: “Cinematic lectures in triviality and silliness” (Sabban 2002). Even the film censor was called in because the film had made fun of an Umm Kulthum melody, and the press reported that the cineastes ‘cursed’ the film and wanted it to be banned from exportation for sullying Egypt's image (al-Hakim 2002).
This evident contradiction between the success of the film and its negative critiques was one of the questions that guided Dalia Nimr, a graduate student of the American University in Cairo, to investigate the interest of youth in cinema. In 2003 she conducted an empirical focus group enquiry comprising forty-six respondents, all female and regular moviegoers aged between 16 and 30, belonging to urban lower- and upper-middle classes. The results showed a clear difference in responsiveness to the film's meaning that correlated to the interviewees' social status but not to their age. While they all felt very much entertained by it and could “laugh from the bottom of their hearts,” some of the upper middle class respondents considered the film funny but illogical, a mere compilation of humorous scenes. Some even thought it reflected a “negative model of Egyptian society” namely “a hooligan and street guy.” These concerns were not voiced by those women considered lower-middle-class, something the researcher attributed to the fact that the film's hero belonged to the same social group as the respondents, who appreciated him for his achievement in developing from an unemployed loafer into a respectable father (Nimr 2003).
Nimr's examination follows the methodology of market research. Her insights give a certain indication of the class-specific nature of perception, (p.288) but do not really pay tribute to the complicated nature of spectatorship that has troubled a number of film scholars. While some think that the issue of the “determinants, the ‘why’ of specific subject or spectatorial articulations” has not been sufficiently explained by cultural studies, discourse theory, or psychology (Pribram 2004, 163), others have attempted to give more down-to-earth but still not entirely new answers. Drawing upon Murray Smith's 1995 findings, Julia Hallam and Margaret Marshment for example proposed to distinguish between different spectatorial alignments without excluding ‘difference.’ Six distinct sorts of alignments, intellectual, moral, emotional, concern, interest, and aesthetic (Hallam and Marshment 2000, 134) seem in their eyes to explain the possibility of the viewer's partial emotional detachment and simultaneous maintaining of pleasure and/or interest. Even though the nature of the correlation between viewer alignment and class in Egypt are still little explored, the varied possibilities of viewer alignment give some indications for understanding the contradictory reaction to one and the same work that need to be combined with the dynamics of general social organization.
In any case, upon closer investigation the film text as such may offer some indications of a probable explanation for its controversial status. As stated earlier, al-Limbi deploys a quite common plot structure, a continuous chronological storyline, and clear-cut, albeit highly stereotypical characters. Its main protagonist, al-Limbi (Muhammad Sa‘d) represents a young, very naive lower-class illiterate who has difficulties finding a job, a fact that obstructs his chances to marry his beloved Nusa (Hulla Shiha), a neighbor's daughter. Faransa (Άbla Kamil), al-Limbi's mother, forces him to help her earn money. She wants to move her little bicycle workshop to a Red Sea resort. When first they arrive they manage to earn a good many dollars—until they are stopped by the Tourist Police. Back home the plot thickens, as Nusa's father decides to marry her to a schoolteacher with a stable income and Nusa herself seems unwilling to wait any longer while al-Limbi makes futile attempts to earn a living. The turning point is brought about by al-Limbi's elderly friend Bach, who tells him that because of his father's (p.289) generosity with other people at their weddings he may expect an immense amount of wedding gifts. With this Bach saves the day: al-Limbi decides to join literacy classes and is eventually able to win Nusa.
Looking at topic and plot structure, one feels reminded of numerous socially committed realist-oriented Egyptian films, from Kamal Selim's Determination in 1939 to Daoud Άbd El-Sayed's The Wedding Thief/Sariq al-farah in 1995. But how then to account for the accusation of meaninglessness that has dominated the criticism of the film? This is certainly due to the fact that mise-en-scène and dialogs do not bear out its realist plot. They intentionally elude any ‘politically’ allegorical reading, a tradition that is, as I have shown elsewhere, very common in committed and realist cinema (Shafik 1998, 164). This applies to the protagonists' names for instance, such as the mother's name Faransa, meaning ‘France.’ Its choice turns out to be no more than a joke, for there is no identifiable reason why the mother has been given that name. The same applies to al-Limbi, whose name is derived from the British General Allenby, the much-hated military administrator of Port Said during the 1920s. Again the informed viewer looks in vain for a connection.
Also the film's style and numerous linguistic and comic gags as well as cheerful music clips fragment the film plot decisively, turning it into a typical farce comedy. Using a comedian to perform musical clips places it clearly in the tradition of earlier popular comedians, such as Nagib al-Rihani in the 1940s, as well as Isma‘il Yasin and Shukuku in the 1950s, who introduced intoned speech in order to present musical numbers. The mise-en-scène—highly professional and well-crafted regarding photography, lighting, sets, and editing—leads constantly away from the ‘social’ subject of the film by using farce's typical device of stylization, expressed primarily in theatrical comic acting, particularly that of the main protagonist.
All in all, the latter unfolds a naive personality, strongly attached to his mother, who dominates, mothers, patronizes, protects, and exploits him at the same time. His infantile character is underlined even more by his staggering walk and a speech defect that makes him almost unintelligible. The (p.290) dialog strongly supports al-Limbi's character trait by using fragmented syntax, as can be seen in a supposedly romantic scene, in which he feels obliged to recite poetry to his beloved:
- al-bos, al-bos [kiss, kiss]
- al-hudn, al-hudn [hug, hug]
- mishta‘, mishta‘ [miss you, miss you]
- al-shư, al-shư [longing, longing]
- widd ya widd [friendship, oh friendship]
- wil ya wil [woe, oh woe]
- halu ya halu [hello, oh hello]
- min taraf akhuki al-Limbi [from your brother al-Limbi]
The songs performed in the film, shot in a typical music video style, with dancers and a lot of pretty girls, also have bland lyrics, mixed with some Dadaist ‘non-sense’ and performed in a stuttering rhythm. This applies in particular to the ABC song in which al-Limbi, assisted by his cheerful mother, tries to rehearse the alphabet while making many spelling mistakes because of his defective speech. This scene gives a hilarious demonstration of the character's infantilism and recalls the great joy of pre-school children in producing and listening to verbal nonsense.
In many parts the film rejects the production of rational meaning and focuses on the nonrational, preintellectual, prelinguistic state, inviting the viewer to participate in a temporary regression. According to Sigmund Freud this kind of regression into the fantastic repetition of an ‘infantile scene’ (Infantilszene) does not serve the ends of wish-fulfillment but may, just likelaughter, assume a cathartic function, in representing “the effect of resistance, that opposes the advancing of a thought to consciousness on the normal way” [author's translation] (Freud 1961, 446). Supposing this applies to the special brand of ‘regression’ sketched out above, it could certainly represent one of the reasons for al-Limbi's success and shows that, much as the film deals with social aspiration, it may be read as an emancipation story from the all-devouring mother or father, a topic that recurs in quite a number of ‘shopping-mall (p.291)
In his analysis of generic developments and functionality in American fiction films (which can be applied, up to a point, to commercial film production elsewhere) Rick Altman states, “For ninety minutes, Hollywood offers generic pleasure as an alternative from cultural norms,” that is “authorized opportunities for counter-cultural activity” (Altman 1999, 156). Generic pleasure is thought to be rooted in the transgression of cultural values, an augmenting transgression though, as it moves from breaches of etiquette to adultery, from brawls to murder, from slight creepiness to bloody carnage. Yet the idea of psychic transgression based on Freudian theory cannot be applied without qualification to the Egyptian audience, not least because it must be assumed that class affiliation is not without implications for individual psychic organization.
As Freud's (repudiated) disciple Wilhelm Reich has concluded in his 1933 study on the foundation of the Third Reich, religiosity, nationalism, and state loyalty were first and foremost propelled and exerted by members (p.292) of the petite bourgeoisie, thus forming the major pillar of the fascist regime. He regarded this class's oppression of sexuality (as one of the major forces within the human psyche) as a precondition of the role it played in this context (Reich 2003, 55, 77). It may be assumed that patriarchal nuclear family organization with its oedipal structure has been instrumental in engendering this kind of psychic structure. In Egypt too the nuclear family has spread, particularly in the more urbanized and bourgeois environment, largely replacing the extended family (Abu-Lughod 1998, 12). An additional class-related factor is also the resistance to what Timothy Mitchell described as the colonizing “new disciplinary power” exerted through the military and the educational system (Mitchell 1991, 176) which certainly has played an additional role in the amount of suppression the individual has learned to perform. All of this may well be responsible for the varied degree of ‘regressive’ transgression refused or required by the spectator.
And at this point we may reformulate the question of where to locate the source of class-specific response to al-Limbi. In its particular case, lower-middle-class respondents, if we are to believe the focus group study cited earlier, enjoyed the transgressive pleasure quite unconditionally, whereas the more privileged spectators felt much more ambivalent about enjoying the transgression. Their criticism of its meaninglessness could also be interpreted as an attempt to control the irrational subconscious and the film's invitation to join a temporary state of regression.
Capitalizing on Triviality
Some of Egypt's most inspired committed filmmakers have tried to capitalize on the schism created by the lowbrow-highbrow dichotomy in order to get through to the box office without abandoning their own ideological agenda, an attempt not always rewarded with success. One of its most illuminating examples was Tusks/Anyab (1981). Coscripted by its director Muhammad Shebl, this musical and horror film parody was overtly inspired by The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). In a quite ambivalent way it attempted to exploit the appearance of Ahmad Άdawiya, a very popular (p.293) singer at that time who became best known in the early 1970s for his songs “Ya Lahw Bali” and “Iss Sah Iddah Imbu” using lower-class slang and baby-talk in combination with sha‘bi (folk) music elements. Tusks was held in high esteem by film critics: “The film presents Άdawiya for the first time in a very smart way. The director uses him on two levels: he is the Prince of Darkness, black, ugly, with tusks; and he is also the ‘vulgar’ singer—al-mutrib almubtadhal” (Bishlawi 1980). Ironically, the film flopped at the box office, precisely because—as I would argue—it used Άdawiya in a negative role, reinforcing his ambivalent image.
Doubtless Άdawiya was considered by some as synonymous with trivial art (al-fann al-habit). However, as anthropologist Walter Armbrust put it, it was his “appeal to the masses—without any of the rhetoric of ‘raising their cultural standards’ that sets him apart from singers backed by the cultural establishment in print and on television” (Armbrust 1996, 184). The film in turn exploited Άdawiya's lowbrow reputation by conferring upon him the negative role of the vampire as opposed to his sympathetic counterpart in the film, Άli al-Haggar, also a singer who has in contrast a classic highbrow musical repertoire. Hence, unlike its Western model, Tusks voiced the basic fears and biases of the Egyptian middle-class regarding their own social status instead of working to undermine bourgeois ideology.
In brief, the plot is framed by a character, doubling as narrator, and begins with a couple whose car breaks down on a country road in the middle of the night. As they search for help they end up in a palace inhabited by Dracula and his retinue who invite the visitors to attend a dinner party. While the girl feels herself attracted by Dracula's Airting, her fiancé is troubled by their strange surroundings. Meanwhile, the narrator reveals some of Dracula's general characteristics by linking him to the outside world. The prince of darkness features in a series of successive scenes in which he represents various corrupt and greedy characters who attempt to suck money from the helpless couple. Examples include the plumber who drives a Mercedes, the taxi driver, the butcher, the trader, and the schoolteacher, all of whom hoard commodities and demand excessive compensation from their middle-class (p.294) customers for their services. Eventually, as in Murnau's film classic Nosferatu (1922), the couple manages to vanquish Dracula by opening the windows of the palace, thus letting in the sunlight that destroys the prince and his companions.
The plot contains several musical numbers that set up an opposition between Άdawiya's popular music and the songs of the young bridegroom (al-Haggar). Whereas the former spices his colloquial lines with urban lower-class slang wrapped in relatively rough tunes, the latter has a much more polished performance style, in lyrics and melody. The contrast also has a visual component, which manifests itself in the physique of the two singers. Slim al-Haggar, with his light complexion complemented by the blondeness of his bride, contrasts sharply with the stout, dark-skinned, frizzy-haired Άdawiya. Άdawiya's looks are also mirrored in the negroid features of his first assistant, with whom he competes at the end for the girl's blood. Thus, the bourgeois couple are threatened not only with having their pockets emptied, but with being swamped by supposedly ‘gross’ lowbrow art and the ascendant aspirations of the lower classes. This makes for an interesting contrast with the original The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which seeks to mock bourgeois sexual morality and ideology.
It is not clear whether this unequivocal backing of the bourgeois perspective was the reason for the limited success of Tusks, or its rather clumsy mise-en-scène, yet it certainly did not possess the same transgressive potential as al-Limbi, nor the polished finesse of the highly satirical musical A Citizen, a Detective, and a Thief (2001) by Daoud Άbd El-Sayed, which applied a promotional strategy similar to that of Tusks with much more success. In parody of a social success story, this film developed a new version of ‘bourgeois horror’ depicting a citizen's gradual decline from a Westernized bohemian into cultural and religious conservatism, becoming an acclaimed member of the new Islamic bourgeoisie.
As in Tusks, the question of class is depicted as a clash between highbrow culture and kitsch, a central motif of the film, on which its director (who also wrote the screenplay) elaborates on different levels, not so much (p.295) evaluating as deconstructing it, by presenting the controversial popular sha‘bi (folk) singer Sha‘ban Άbd al-Rihim in the role of the citizen's opponent, the thief. On the narrative level the film could be read as an allegory of class development in Egypt, with its focus on the cultured, rich, and handsome bachelor in the process of writing his first novel, who is overrun by a number of lower-class characters, the detective, the maid Hayat, and her boyfriend al-Margushi with whom he ends up as business partner. It is at that point that the intellectual rewrites his book according to the thief's ideas, to be published through the latter's publishing house. On the sexual level, too, things get increasingly mixed up, with the maid marrying the writer and the thief wedding the writer's former girl-friend. And later, their grown-up children fall in love and marry each other too.
On the temporal level the film condenses more than two decades—from the mid-1970s until the present—into its plot. By alluding indirectly to the leftist anti-Zionist student movement, suppressed during the first half of the 1970s, to which the citizen supposedly belonged, it also sets a clear quasipolitical historical framework even though this particular reference in relation to the main protagonist turns out to be misleading. For the majority of the students at that time, despite being largely secularly oriented, were not members of the upper bourgeoisie but belonged to the middle and lower class, with a large proportion suffering heavy deprivation for the sake of their studies (cf. Άbd Allah 1991, 134).
Yet in other terms, the film gives a quite stringent account of the formation of what it perceives as the new bourgeoisie, with the citizen/novelist as the centerpiece of the action. He seems to represent the creative individual, the educated, modern ‘citizen’ firmly installed in his highbrow cultural environment, at first victimized and then overrun in the course of the events by the tide of his lower-class acquaintances or in other words the ‘masses,’ who in collaboration with the state (embodied by the detective), take over first his house and then his mind. This depiction seems quite telling, if not contemptuous, putting the modern, educated, male individual in the spotlight and in opposition to the illiterate, conservative religious masses. Yet the (p.296)
It is precisely the thief's character who first, defies ‘high’ culture and then redefines the taste and cultural orientation of the ‘citizen’ by criticizing, destroying and eventually reediting his literal output; a direct allusion to real conditions in Egypt, namely to religious censorship on literature, as practiced lately by the Islamic al-Azhar, in addition to ‘social’ censorship of cinema that developed gradually during the 1980s and continued throughout the 1990s. Thus, the film obviously tackles the previously mentioned new morality, or conservatism, that has seized Egyptian society since the 1980s and reversed many of those modernist developments made in the past, particularly in female dress codes as well as adaptation to ‘Western’ culture.
One of the film's major means to describe the radical social change is through its characters' dress, manners, language, and cultural interests. The (p.297) ‘citizen’ is depicted as strongly westernized in dress and behavior. Not only is his villa furnished with precious antique furniture, but he also has uncomplicated extramarital relationships, loves European cuisine, wine, and Western classical music. He differs sharply from the other protagonists, such as the detective, who lives in a small cramped flat on a roof in an overcrowded lower-class neighborhood and dresses in the traditional gallabiya, and the maid Hayat and the thief, who live in even worse surroundings in the middle of a shantytown.
The course of the film shows how the three parties come together and end up wearing the same style of dress and living in the same kind of modern villa situated in one of the newly constructed affluent suburbs. They also come to share the same ideas and moral concepts. This is expressed by the citizen's gradual shift to cultural and religious conservatism, embodied by his growing beard toward the end of the film, indicating the birth of a new brand of conservative ‘Islamic’ bourgeoisie. Yet this development is shown as a fraud, for despite their respective marriages, the former thief is seen keeping up his relationship with the citizen's wife Hayat and the novelist is still courting his former girl friend, the thief's wife. This explains the two families' subsequent strong objections to their children intermarrying. Even though the film's finale does not fully explain these objections or link them in an overt way to the two couples' extramarital relationships, it implies that the parents are not quite sure about the paternity of their offspring, a state of affairs in overt contradiction to the moral standards promoted by writer and publisher.
This last narrative twist makes a strongly disparaging comment on the new bourgeoisie, as does the final scene, where everybody seems to settle into the new cheerful amalgam that is celebrated with a masquerade, a masked ball, accompanied by an Άbd al-Rihim song:
- On a nice occasion once I married a sheep off to a wolf.
- Dear mouse don't jump! I'll marry you off to the cat,
- You'll like the marriage and be all right,
- No more roaming in the streets, no more sleeping on the sidewalks …
- (p.298) Tomorrow the mouse will carry mouse-kittens,
- all mixed up, a different kind of kiddies,
- so that love grows, no hatred anymore,
- thanks to sympathy and promise-policies,
- why not become just one
- with all the difference gone?
The film does not just portray a highly ambivalent social compromise, it also sketches out, albeit ironically, the struggle between one powerful and one weaker party—without being too clear about who is mouse and who is cat—leading to an only ostensibly happy ending and the seemingly positive message that ‘all difference is gone,’ or in other words, that the bourgeois character has been deprived of, to cite Pierre Bourdieu's quotation of Proust, “the infinitely varied art of marking distances” (Bourdieu 1984, 66).
However, while on the narrative level the film depicts a bourgeois nightmare, of being swamped by the proletariat, it also distances itself from its privileged hero through its ironic and satirical style. On several occasions the plot is intercut with songs performed by the thief, which develop—particularly at the finale—a quite alienating effect, in the way they are juxtaposed to the film's outcome. The major source of dissociation is an anonymous commentator, a male non-diegetic voice-over that explains, at times quite flamboyantly, the events presented. For instance, when the detective beats up Hayat up for having stolen goods from the citizen's house after her sexual entanglement with him, she falsely claims to be pregnant in order to make him stop. At this the narrator's voice comments, “The citizen's battle was not over yet. By no means could he agree to leave any extension of himself in an environment so polluted by ignorance, poverty and corruption. How could he leave his son in Hayat's womb?” A short while later, the voice continues, “What had happened was an experience, from which the citizen learned a simple lesson: if a common language and shared values exist, the rules of the game will be known. But once you leave your familiar game and playing field, you will encounter unexpected risks.”
(p.299) Even more subtle irony is evoked by casting in the role of the thief the popular sha‘bi singer Sha‘ban Άbd al-Rihim, who himself was the object of heavy public controversy for his alleged ‘lowbrow’ musical style. Because of the public discourse linked to his on- and off-screen persona he embodies hypocrisy and the double standard, one of the film's core motifs, not only in relation to moral values but also in relation to culture. This has also reflected on the film's evaluation. Doubtless director Daoud Άbd El-Sayed has been respected as a committed intellectual artist who built up his name through his earlier New Realist works, a real auteur. This is why the film was generally perceived by the press as multi-layered, as it was intended. Yet some still mocked the director's casting of Άbd al-Rihim. Filmmaker and former head of the National Film Center Hashim al-Nahhas wondered why the sha‘bi singer was not used in a more ironic way, in order to distinguish the film from “the traditional manner of representing the song that Egyptian cinema has inherited since the era of Karim in his films with Άbd al-Wahab until now” (al-Nahhas 2002).
In fact, the illiterate, coarse-looking former laundry-worker Άbd al-Rihim had become the unexpected star of the season, despite his association with kitsch and low musical culture due in part to the social origins of his special brand of sha‘bi music. It stems from the musical traditions of the urban lower classes and is performed at weddings, popular religious festivals, or even commercial events such as the opening of a new shop. Even if some of its performers succeed in having their songs distributed on tape, they are commonly denied access to television or satellite music channels except for specially designed ‘folk’ programs. When Άbd al-Rihim made the top music charts it came as a surprise and ignited a fierce debate on cultural standards. He was criticized for his bad taste and his poor musical talent, in spite of achieving astonishing popularity among all classes with his comic-ironic lyrics. In particular, he made headlines with his provocative song, “I hate Israel,” along with a television advertisement presenting the traditional local falafel as a new McDonald's specialty dish.
It is not clear how far Άbd al-Rihim was the unwilling victim of the media, who derided him as the personification of bad taste—he usually (p.300) wears very colorful patterned Hawaiian shirts which are considered unmanly or at least unsuitable for the city—and how far he actively encouraged this image through conscious self-presentation and his extraordinary sense of humor, as shown in an anecdote circulated among the film crews during the shooting of A Citizen, a Detective, and a Thief. Always wearing two large, expensive gold wristwatches, he was asked for the reason, only to reply that he wore one for himself and the other for anyone who wanted to ask him the time.
The anecdote conveys much of the ambiguity with which Άbd al-Rihim offers up his persona to interpretation. The wearing of large flashy watches is associated with nouveaux riches; to carry two at once seems even more pretentious, yet the singer's own interpretation switches the meaning toward either generosity, which fits into the traditional ibn al-balad honor code of the lower classes, or parody, which seems even morelikely in the light of the wording of some of Άbd al-Rihim's songs (usually written by Islam Khalil, a modest teacher from rural al-Qanatir on the outskirts of Cairo).
Ironically, in some of those texts Άbd al-Rihim reproduces the very reproaches leveled at him in public and in private for his low musical and artistic standards, and redirects them at other media stars. In his song “Fi Amsterdam” (‘In Amsterdam’) (tape title: I Don't Succumb to Threats/Ma bathaddidsh, 2000), for instance, he alludes to the film Hamam in Amsterdam that became the box-office hit of the season in 1999/2000. He dismissed the musical output of the main actor Muhammad Hinidi, who also performs a few musical numbers in the film, as trivial. The song begins with the words, “I'm off now to Holland, Amsterdam, leaving my team just like Ibrahim and Husam [Egyptian soccer players]. … ” Then he adds several lines on a controversial issue which he thinks ‘matters,’ namely the pollution of the Nile river—before continuing his attack:
- Folks, we should sing what matters!
- Bilya al-Duksh registered a tape
- some noise and some clapping
- (p.301) shouting, drums and jubilation
- writing “mix-up” on its front.
- Bilya al-Duksh was just a beggar,
- listened to his own bathroom voice.
- Now he sings, a man of art,
- plans to shoot movies as a start.
- Bilya al-Duksh, O gentlemen,
- received the wooden disk award,
- got also some certi:cates
- from the festival in Munu:ya [provincial town].
- He spoke on television too
- in a jacket multicolored,
- said, “I made a new song
- and called it ‘Pestle.’”
- What a pity, what a shame!
- Arts have crashed like a plane,
- singing spread in alleys, streets,
- and at wedding feasts …
To blame others for a lack of art while himself using a highly limited range of melodies and rhythms clearly derived from ‘wedding’ music, seems to an outside observer to add to the irony of this particular song and the whole Άbd al-Rihim phenomenon. And this is exactly the same strategy that director Άbd El-Sayed applied, criticizing kitsch by generating it, thereby trying to deconstruct the preconditions of its emergence. Thus the filmmaker was able to exploit the singer's controversial mass-media persona in introducing him to film stardom, permitting him even more access to established mainstream culture, while at the same time denouncing that selfsame culture. In this also he departs decisively from the 1980s New Realist concept—so vividly presented in Tusks—of the bourgeoisie as the victim of social change, by making it complicit in the undermining of its own class.
As the case of Sha‘ban Άbd al-Rihim shows, not only individual films but also star personae became carefully constructed around their avowedly lowbrow and lower-class status. This applies in particular to male actors who were able to excel in the action film, a genre that rarely found support among critics due to its alleged ‘inauthenticity’ and imitativeness on the one hand and its popularity among lower-class men on the other. The comedian Άdil Imam, for twenty years the most popular and successful representative of the terzo (tirsu), used to combine his action roles with comedy and/or social satire. While his display of physical force was loaded with ambivalence, his significance lay in the way he reenacted through generic means a certain type of class-defined masculinity, closely linked to the less privileged urban strata.
In fact, lower-class audiences seem to have played an increasing role for Egyptian film distributors since the end of the Second World War, particularly workers and craftsmen employed by the British forces, who earned enough to make going to the movies their main entertainment (Saif 1996, 110), which coincided with a boom in local film production. At the same time, directors are said to have been displaying considerable consciousness of ‘third class’ spectators, as al-Sharqawi stated in describing the tumultuous ending of Kamal Selim's film Les Misérables/al-Bưasa‘ (1943) that just like his earlier Determination (1939), presented a happy ending brought about by a brawl (al-Sharqawi 1970, 84).
I was told in February 2006 by the manager of al-Hamra, one of the largest and oldest downtown Cairo video film stores, that since the 1980s it has been particularly a male lower-class audience that tends to buy and rent Egyptian action- (and sex-) oriented movies, such as films starring Farid Shawqi and Rushdi Abaza, stars of the late 1950s to 1970s. The latter appeared at times also as a gigolo, and featured in a number of films dominated by suspense and brawls, as well as sexual liaisons, such as The Woman on the Road/Mar’a:-l-tariq (1958), a remake of the American Duel in the Sun (1946), and The Road/al-Tariq (1964).
(p.303) The first signs of adventure and action (in other words the depiction of the male figure in a landscape, to use Laura Mulvey's feminist interpretation) in Egyptian film were introduced along with the Bedouin film, later dubbed the Oriental Western (al-Sharqawi as quoted in Saif 1996, 112). Yet, unlike the U.S. Western this genre had little to offer in terms of conquest and border fights but was interpreted melodramatically with films like Ibrahim Lama's A Kiss in the Desert (1928) and Lady of the Desert (1929) by Wedad Orfi, revolving around romance, crime, or deadly male competition. As a result, such works quite often presented women in main roles, constructing a number of stories around pretty Bedouin girls, such as The Beautiful Bedouin/al-Badawiya al-hasna‘ (1947) by Ibrahim Lama, and a series starring actress Koka and largely directed by her husband Niazi Mustafa. The production of this type of film ceased in the early 1950s; at the same time less folkloric genres such as the police film and the thriller appeared, along with a kind of local gangster sub-genre, the futuwwa or ‘thug film.’
With this, Egyptian action films focused largely on a dual narrative concept that includes women also. Its strategy implies what has been common in a lot of Hollywood blockbusters, to take only Titanic (1997) as an example, namely “combining a story vehicle for male heroism and spectacular action with a heterosexual romance of cross-class conflict” (Hallam and Marshment 2000, 66), a combination that has recurred in Egyptian cinema quite similarly to this day in films such as Tito (2004). This I would describe as the double strategy of film industry: to keep its products family-friendly but also to bow to the audiences of the tirsu, that is, the urban and provincial lower class.
There is no doubt that the Egyptian action film Airted openly with an association with the lower classes, as can be seen among others in the thug cycle. Farid Shawqi, one of the earliest stars associated with this genre during the 1950s, was consciously displaying ‘lower-class virility’ along with an action-oriented persona. For this reason he dubbed himself ‘King of the Terzo’ (malik al-tirsu) in his 1978 autobiography issued by Iris Nazmi, in reference to his assumed popularity with audiences of third-class movie (p.304) theaters, the urban lower class including workers and craftsmen (before he switched in the late 1970s to the elderly husband or paterfamilias.)
Shawqi modeled himself into the personification of lower-class virility for the first time through one of his early films, indeed his first self-production, Master Hassan by Salah Abu Seif (1952). In this film he featured as a worker from the lower-class neighborhood of Bulaq who gets ensnared by a beautiful bourgeoise from the affluent suburb of fiamalek, whose handicapped husband helplessly witnesses his wife's excesses. Shawqi had assumed the same persona, that of the strong, virile working man, in Cairo Main Station (1958) by Youssef Chahine who makes Hannuma, the beautiful soft drink seller fall for him instead of the handicapped Qinawi. By contrast, in Niazi Mustafa's Hamidu (1953) and Sultan/Sultan (1958) he represented lower-class criminals, the son of a fishing community in the first, and a servant in the second.
(p.305) At the time Shawqi tried to compensate for his unsavory screen persona by presenting a liberal middle-class appearance off-screen and in the media (Armbrust 2000, 217). On-screen, his recurrent personifications of villains did not always have a clear-cut or consistent class affiliation but displayed a cross-class criminality or viciousness. Shawqi more or less maintained his self-assumed kingdom of the terzo during the 1960s and 1970s. Even then he was not uncontested, for the slightly younger and more attractive Rushdi Abaza also featured in ‘tough guy’ roles; but his position was completely taken over by ‘Adil Imam during the 1980s and 1990s. Simultaneously, the deterioration of former first-class theaters in downtown Cairo had gone so far that in the eyes of middle-class audiences they had become almost equivalent to the terzo in serving a chiefly male working-class clientele.
During the 1970s some new directors, most notably Samir Saif, were captivated by the action film genre and specialized in it. Saif's first film, The Circle of Revenge/Da’irat al-intiqam (1976), is a bleak story of a man whohas been jailed for a crime he did not commit, and does not rest until he has hunted down those responsible for it. Just as in subsequent films by Saif, the tension arises primarily from the hero's quest. As spectacle, the action is modest, confined to a few gunshots, a chase through the aisle of a train and the successful escape of the hero on a vintage motorcycle. Then in 1981 Saif directed The Suspect/al-Mashbuh (1981) starring Άdil Imam. That marked the beginning of a fruitful cooperation, and helped Imam to transform his persona from a subversive figure into a less ambiguous, potent hero, starring primarily in action films, often directed by Nadir Galal, which like no other films were completely immersed in a lower-class environment.
In The Suspect, a remake of the U.S. film Once a Thief (1965) by Ralph Nelson, Imam featured as a young thief who after marrying renounces his earlier shameful career. However, although he has finished his jail sentence, he is still persecuted by the police officer whose weapon he stole. But when the thief's son gets kidnapped by his father's former gang, the officer joins forces with him. In this narrative Imam is depicted as a victim of circumstances, (p.306) initiated and later forced into a life of crime by an older brother. However, his redeeming feature is his ibn al-balad behavior, for he is shown as a faithful husband and devoted father, unashamedly lower-class in his inexpensive clothes and modest, poorly-furnished home (in contrast to his main adversary the bourgeois police officer), all of which he accepts for the sake of the promise he made to his wife.
Superstar Άdil Imam's fame began originally on stage, in School of the Rascals/Madrasat al-mushaghibin (1972), where he played a troublesome student who mocks the modernist ideal of education; a later role showed him as a funny, yet still sarcastic lower-class desperado. His early films and persona reflected first and foremost a strong skepticism toward the notion of social mobility. The first Άdil Imam film that could be classified as social comedy, The Wallet is with Me/al-Mahfaza ma‘aya (1978), was followed by Ragab on a Hot Tin/Ragab fawq sa:h sakhin (1979), both by MuhammadΆbd al-’Aziz, which became major box-office hits and installed Imam as the king of Egyptian comedy for more than twenty years.
Thus Άdil Imam—and this may be one reason for his success—subverted the image of the bad arriviste of the ‘who-is-to-blame’ films of the 1960s and 1970s and remade it in the character of the sympathetic corruptible hero who falls prey to the system. In The Wallet is with Me (1978) he performed as Άtwa, a drop-out who ends up as a pickpocket. In an attempt to start a new life he searches for a former classmate and friend Shukri, who has become head of a state-owned company, and asks him for work, to no avail. But fate intervenes when he accidentally picks up Shukri's wallet, whose contents prove his involvement in a high-ranking corruption scandal. Instead of reporting him to the police, Άtwa decides to blackmail Shukri, who duly nominates him for a post in the company—only to turn him over to the police for his pickpocketing offences, as soon as he gets his papers back.
In an attempt to show the whole range of society's immoral survival strategies, from petty theft to high-level fraud, Imam frequently dismissed the whole system as corrupt and inefficient, as in The Advocate/al-Afukatu (p.307) (1984) by Ra‘fat al-Mihi, and Ramadan on the Volcano/Ramadan fawq alburkan (1985) by Ahmad al-Sab‘awi, where he appeared as a duped fraudster, the engaging middle or lower-class crook who gets outwitted by even more powerful and professional gangsters. In So that the Smoke Does Not Evaporate/Hatta la yatir al-dukhkhan (1984) by Ahmad Yahia, a somewhat melodramatic film, Imam played a likeable opportunist who started as a poor student, without even the money to save his ailing mother from death, and has become a very prosperous businessman. Having sold his conscience, he eventually succumbs to a deadly disease, the result of his earlier lifestyle and involvement with drugs.
In the process of changing his original anti-heroic persona into a smart, tough lower-class guy, Imam gradually made the transition to action and gangster films: The Suspect, The Festival/al-Mulid (1989) by Samir Saif, The Forgotten/al-Mansi (1993) by Sharif Άrafa, and the historical spectacle Message to the Ruler/Risala ila al-wali (1998) by Nadir Galal among the earliest. In The Leopard and the Woman/al-Nimr wa-l-untha (1987) he finally emerged as an unambiguous ‘good’ hero, in the role of an undercover
In Sharif Άrafa's The Forgotten (1993), Imam represented a lonely railway signalman whose solitary sexual fantasies (a pin-up girl from his wall starts dancing) are suddenly interrupted by the beautiful Yusra, in flight from a rich businessman for whom she works as a secretary. Invited by her employer to a luxurious party in the countryside, she was about to be forced to prostitute herself to her boss's clients. Imam, a chivalrous and hospitable ibn al-balad, takes up her cause and defends the honor of this nighttime beauty against the muscular henchmen of the evil capitalist.
Despite his change of persona, Imam was able to maintain his leading position at the box office, while still criticized for his lower-class approach. In press reviews ‘Adil Imam's esteem at first remained high because of his huge success with audiences, making him the best-paid actor and therefore also the most powerful star in Egypt since the early 1980s. Reservations regarding his triviality were made only occasionally or through indirect allusions, as in a critique by Hisham Lashin in 1981. After deploring “the schism between intellectuals and Imam” he defended the actor for presenting those things that have sunk to the bottom of society (Lashin 1981). Ra’uf Taufiq in turn complained that people saw in Imam only the man who earned thousands, and made him the scapegoat for all the negative aspects of Egyptian cinema and the “degeneration in general taste” (Taufiq 1984, 52).
Samir Farid was one of the few who dared to be ironical, comparing Imam's physical features with those of ET, and adding, “he will lose a lot of his audience when he appears with a full face, his hair cut for tens of pounds, wearing a Pierre Cardin pajama while he inhabits a hut on the roof top” (Farid 1983). The controversial debate regarding Imam's persona shines through his own counter-statements. In 1985 he defended Khamsa Bab as “a film with an aim and not trivial” (Fahmi 1984), though the work created such (p.309) an uproar because of its alleged low standard that even the censorship was called in to ban it retrospectively. a‘uf Taufiq described the star's position more bluntly when he quoted the actor as saying that he does not “read the criticisms of his films nor does he take interest in what has been written on him, because his real audience does not know how to read and write” (Taufiq 1984, 52). Hence, one of the insights offered by the previously analyzed film examples, and in particular Imam's star persona, is that the public discourse voicing accusations of triviality and nonsense implies a conservative and binarist view of art that distinguishes between sense and nonsense, social commitment and triviality, disregarding the potentials of film messages and doing away with psychological transgressiveness enjoyed by audiences.
Violence as Transgression?
Some of the main transgressions offered by the action film (the genre in which Άdil Imam often starred) are its inclination to rapid movement, male muscularity, and physical violence, if not cruelty and carnage. On the international level, mounting screen violence and its increasingly graphic quality (cf. Hallam and Marshment 2000) has often been discussed and put in relation to real social problems. Censorship laws have been called in to protect the young, for fear that popular characters might function as role models and violence would be internalized. In Egypt, too, official regulations have banned the use of extreme cruelty and violence in film. As for the films themselves, in Egypt as elsewhere a mounting resort to violence, shootings, and brawls can be observed since the mid-century. In addition, particularly in the 1980s, New Realist films as well as a number of ‘fat cat’ narratives also followed the tendency to resolve conflicts through violence and bloody encounters, suggesting at first sight an increasing social antagonization in Egyptian society. The inclination to read those films as social and political allegories was also reflected in the fact that critics of the time drew a direct connection between some films and political events as Kamal Ramzi did in his 1987 study, for example linking The Innocent (1986) to the insurgence of the Central Security Forces a few months later.
(p.310) True, some scholars propose that “the action scenario is not simply a narrative of empowerment, in which we identify with a heroic figure who triumphs over all obstacles, but is also a dramatization of the social limits of power” (Tasker 1993, 117). Thus, the number of violent showdowns in films critical of the in:tah could be easily interpreted as resistance to that very policy and seemed to suggest signs of unrest or ‘inflammation of the Egyptian street’ (ihtiqan) to use the recurrent Arabic expression voiced also by Muhammad Hasanain Haikal (for example in an interview on Al-Jazeera on September 7, 2005 on the eve of Egypt's presidential elections) in the face of the country's difficult sociopolitical situation.
Doubtless any present-day ‘inflammation’ is but a new installment of a chain of events stretching back to Sadat's takeover in 1970 and the post-1967 turbulence, first given voice in consecutive student protests between 1968 and 1973, and in the subsequent mobilization of the Islamist student movement, the bread riots in 1979, the assassination of president Anwar al-Sadat in 1981, and numerous Islamist assaults on civilians including Copts and tourists, ending with the Luxor massacre in 1997. An additional factor that would speak for the migration of street violence to the screen is the general authoritarian character of Egyptian society and its political system.
However, this interpretation does not really seem plausible for several reasons, one of which is that much more democratic countries have produced an abundance of tremendously violent, and likewise ‘realistic’ films, which display much more ferocious, cruel, homophobic, and misogynist attitudes than Egyptian cinema ever did, to name only some classical American horror movies such as Mother's Day (1980) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), or innumerable recent American war films that include horrifically graphic depictions of killings and mutilations. Moreover, the Egyptian ‘street’ was already ‘inflamed’ before the 1970s, starting with the revolution in 1919, the assassinations of Prime Minister Ahmad Mahir in 1945, and Nuqrashi Pasha in 1948, the proclamation of martial law in 1948, the Lavon Affair in 1954, and the wide-ranging crackdown during Nasser's reign on all forms of political opposition, to mention only a few events.
(p.311) In the face of this continuing ‘crisis,’ I doubt that a direct relation between social unrest and violent action in cinema can be established (disregarding the occasional obvious referentiality to specific historical events and developments). Therefore we probably need to look for more global explanations related to the international mediascape instead, which may feed back into a local context. French philosophy in particular has offered explanations for violence in the media: Paul Virilio places the whole cinematic invention, its preoccupation with mobility, image ‘shooting,’ with its voyeuristic objectivation, submission (and destruction) of the world, into the context of modern high-technology warfare, that in turn resulted in a shattered human perception (Virilio 1989, 46). Similarily, Jean Baudrillard has described the media as a simulacrum, in which the constant ongoing stream of factual news imagery and fictional images melt into a complete undistinguishable “simulation” (Baudrillard 1983, 138–52). One of the setbacks of this view is that it presupposes a passive spectator who is unable to distinguish between fact and simulation, subject and object. Undoubtedly the concern with speed and motion is an important aspect of cinematic pleasure, if not its essence, since the time when the Lumière brothers' train first approached its audiences. For to speak in Richard Dyer's words, “The celebration of sensational movement that we respond to in some still unclear sense ‘as if real’, for many people is the movies” (Dyer 2002, 65).
On the other hand there are some even more spectator-oriented factors to consider. Apart from that sensational experience of movement there is the “reproduction of a masculine structure of feeling,” which “is represented as experienced not within the body but in the body's contact with the world, its rush, its expansiveness, its physical stress and challenge” (Dyer 2002, 66) that is paired with a “delicious paradox.” For action adventure movies “promote an active engagement with the world, going out into it, doing to the environment; yet the enjoyment of them means allowing them to come to you, take you over, do you,” an experience of passivity that Dyer equates with sexual fellatio (Dyer 2002, 69).
(p.312) Thus, the understanding of action points less in the direction of politics, more in that of the psychology of sexual difference in relation to the ‘modern’ urban technological environment. Moreover, the kind of sexualized orgiastic description made by Dyer underlines the cathartic nature of violent physical entanglements in action films and clarifies a certain common denominator between action film and melodrama that is summarized in their tendency to “sacrifice the chain of character-centered causality, foregrounding artistic motivation’ to spectacular action scenes, simulated visions and the like, or in other words to subordinate narrative consistency to a ‘disruptive force that creates gaps in the narrative” (Hallam and Marshment 2000, 70) that is related to the specific kinds of ‘transgressions’ the genre offers.
Authenticity, Underdevelopment, and Male Global Heroism
One of the longest-standing problems of Egyptian action has been precisely its difficulty in producing ‘sensational movement.’ Thus the genre used to center primarily on a modest display of physical force, crimes, or investigations. The editing, at first relatively slow, was successively accelerated until the late 1970s. With its most distinguished action performers during the 1950s and 1960s either tough or coarse but rarely handsome-looking, like Farid Shawqi, Mahmud al-Miligi, Rushdi Abaza, and in the 1970s and 1980s Άdil Adham, Hasan Hamid, Mahmud Farag, and Salah Nazmi among others (Saif 1996, 64), the genre went through three different phases up to 1975: first, highly folkloric films, that is, the Bedouin film, the thug film, as well as Arab legends and adventures; a second wave started in 1952 with modern adventures—thrillers inspired by the film noir and the detective film, and feeding eventually into a third phase from 1963 to 1975 that was characterized by a strong deterioration in quality but not in quantity. Then, following 1975, with the advent of a new generation (among them Saif himself) a sort of revival could be witnessed along with a stronger mainstreaming of action film elements. In improving their mise-en-scène, using chases, changing scenes, varied fighting, and quick editing, directors like Saif tried to cope with and make up for technical deficiencies and low budgets. Nonetheless (p.313) deficiency remained inscribed into the genre in the metaphorical as well as economic sense.
Egyptian action film was always considered a foster child of American film with a varied degree of ‘Egyptianization.’ Inauthenticity was one of the most recurrent reproaches made against the genre since A Kiss in the Desert, as Saif remarks, “the film critique did not pay sufficient attention to it, but their prevalent view is almost exclusively representing them as commercial films that do not carry artistic values worth of studying. In addition Egyptian action films were accused being a pale imitation of different American action film models, what makes them lack both elements, Egyptianity and authenticity” (Saif 1996, 30). However, Egyptianization, as Saif wants us to believe, was a precondition for the success of the genre among Egyptian audiences (cf. Saif 1996, 31, 118, 270). Indeed apart from the folkloric desert films, American film noir elements were the first to surface in Egyptian adaptations or ‘inspirations,’ such as Kamal El-Cheikh's thrillers. Yet the most compelling films were believed to be those able to convincingly buy into an Egyptian setting, such as Hamidu (1953) and Sultan (1958) by Niazi Mustafa, or Struggle on the Nile/Sira‘ fi-l-Nil (1959) by Άtif Salim.
Interestingly this applies in particular to the ‘thug film.’ Their numbers have always been very limited, but represented nonetheless a recurrent phenomenon until the 1990s, with The Husayniya Thugs/Futuwwat al-Husayniya (1954) by Niazi Mustafa as one of its earliest examples (Salahflbu Seif's The Thug is one of the most acknowledged, yet less typical films). The thug cycle soon developed a recurrent schematic formula involving an urban lower class character who, thanks to his physical capabilities—including traditional stick fighting—is able to positively or negatively monopolize power in a traditional alley. This film type experienced a peak in production during the 1980s with The Mountain Thug/Futuwwat al-gabal (1982) by Nadir Galal, several films by Samir Saif, among them Streets on Fire/Shawari‘ min nar (1984) and The Chased/al-Mutarrad (1985), as well as The Salakhana Thugs/Futuwwat al-Salakhana (1989) by Nasir Husain.
(p.314) The term futuwwa emanated originally during the Middle Ages signifying members of Islamic brotherhoods governed by chivalrous precepts. It acquired only later, in the colloquial Egyptian context, the connotation of thug, bully, or racketeer. On the screen it carries the latter meaning, but seems to have fused in its positive coding with the ibn al-balad character and the latter's high moral standing. The attractiveness of this sub-genre for the film industry was not only its connection to indigenous lower-class values but also its low-budget level of action due to the largely quasi-historical setting. The ‘moral’ standing of ‘traditional culture’ was made to compensate for the absence of technological sophistication.
In his study on the development of action film in Egypt, director Samir Saif argued that unlike melodrama, where the cross-class battle is metaphorically inscribed in class representatives themselves and less in their surroundings, this particular genre depends much more on the social environment as such, that being a decisive factor in engendering its heroes' cinematic conflict (that is, one man against the world) (Saif 1996, 74). This is also why the actual body of the (mostly male) hero and its problematic relation to the outside world is pivotal to this genre. This has implications for negotiations that take place regarding gender roles, class position, technological progress, and efficiency vis-à-vis the West.
The U.S. Western for instance, which is considered the forerunner of today's action film, is as old as the film industry, if we just think of Harry Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1908). In contrast, the more topical Hollywood action film was released from its marginality and funded with high budgets, but attained wider popularity only during the 1980s. Dismissed at times as “dumb movies for dumb people,” the most contemporary U.S. examples have favored the visual display of violent action and the muscular (phallic) body over narrative and dialog (Tasker 1993, 5).
In her book Hard Bodies (1994), Susan Jeffords worked out convincingly the confluence of cinematic representations of the masculine ‘hard body’ and the official ideologies of the Reagan administration, that eclipsed the earlier post-Vietnam war period characterized by anxiety and indecision (p.315) (coded as ‘femininity’) by imposing a new agenda of national restoration, individualism, and technological advancement ultimately expressed in the Rambo series (1982, 1985, 1988). Her “reading tellingly reveals shared presuppositions about just what a male (and the state) is and should be: i.e., sharply delineated, assertive, tough, and, when necessary, violent—in short, a ‘hard body’” (Pazderic 1995).
However, the machismo of a “failed masculinity” as Yvonne Tasker chose to define Sylvester Stallone's ‘Rambo’ and other similar muscular Hollywood heroes (Tasker 1993, 121) that are characterized by expansiveness, physical stress, and an almost masochistic infliction of pain, are remote from Egyptian action films. In fact, unlike in the United States, as was the case with Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, Egyptian body builders with mediocre acting talent like Shahhat Mabruk, who starred in several action films in the 1990s, could never leave his B-actor status, challenge less muscular popular actors like ‘Adil Imam, and become a superstar himself. Thus in reversing Jeffords’ argument, I would claim that the genre reflected the nation's general lack of national technological advancement in combination with the political appeasement of the post-Camp David Accords era, not just in a metaphorical sense; for the incapability of producing a perfect ‘body machine’ runs parallel to the fact that on the structural level the action film posed a profound economic problem for the relatively poor Egyptian film industry.
To be precise, low budgets and lack of know-how in special effects (including make up) kept the Egyptian action film technologically at a quite ‘underdeveloped’ stage. In particular, car chases tended to be either absent or short and deficient. The same applied to crashes, which usually involved little or no damage with a lot of inexpensive debris flying around in the collision. The difficulty of providing high-cost technology (also true for genres like the horror film, science fiction, and even the historical spectacle), reflected in an almost allegorical sense on the heroes of the genre, and in particular on superstar Άdil Imam.
The latter's conscious construction of his own ‘lower-class’ cinematic persona did negotiate masculinity in relation to progress and technology, (p.316) or to put it differently, through his lower-class defined masculinity, heavily based on the ibn al-balad honor code, Imam was able to offer a certain compensation for the lack of technological excitement. This implied also his probably unintentional representation of a deficient ‘body machine,’ at least throughout the 1980s and until the mid-1990s, expressed in the fact that he is neither handsome nor muscular, but had always insisted on getting involved in cinematic brawls which he usually won. The evident discrepancy between his unimpressive physique and the impressive force of his adversaries make these scenes hover on the fringe of comedy, despite the fact that they were usually not presented in an ironic or alienating way. In his late films, such as The Forgotten or Message to the Ruler the audience had to suspend its disbelief even more, graciously overlooking the obvious signs of age and weight problems and accepting the notion that the hero was young, strong, and muscular. As it was always Imam who backed the evidently much stronger attackers, you were simply not supposed to ask how this could happen. In fact, it was exactly this discrepancy
Imam's insistence on combining comedy with action has certainly been due to his belief in the popularity of both genres, and did add to the above described ‘deficiency,’ like The Leopard and the Woman and the Seven Samurai-remake Shams al-Zanati. While the first compensated for the relative lack of technical facilities with a tight plot and constantly changing locations reflecting the breathless hunt of a police officer (Imam) for the leader of a drug gang, the second demonstrated the difficulty in accommodating the genre on a number of other levels. Although the story seemed highly spectacular, being set in the Second World War and featuring al-Zanati's fierce patriotic battle against a gang who took over a desert oasis, numerous comic elements and effects disqualify the ‘seriousness’ of the action. The choice of second-rate comedians for al-Zanati's men, their funny character traits, some comic situations, the inadequate historical set design—as well as inaccurate costumes—all indicate a profound deficiency and undermine the effect of the physical violence in the action scenes.
Doubtless a large number of Imam's films reflected the factual inability to accommodate the action movie properly. The futile attempt to display technical and male-defined potency, the mediocre special effects and ineffective ‘musculinity’ (that is, muscular masculinity; Tasker 1993, 132) tipped them into the realm of disguising, a masquerade. If muscular actors such as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger are seen to slip into a “parodic performance of masculinity” (Tasker 1993, 111) through overstatement, I read Imam's persona as a parodic insistence on an ‘imagined’ masculinity; a pointed inability to acquire successfully technology and physical efficiency.
To be more precise, he embodies, consciously or not, a deficiency that exposes his mimicry as fantasy recalling Frantz Fanon's analysis of the physical fantasies of the colonized subject: “ … the dreams of the native are always of muscular prowess; his dreams are of action and aggression. I dream I am jumping, swimming, running, climbing” (Fanon 1985, 40). Imam's (p.318) peculiar fantasies could of course be not only those of a formerly colonized individual, as was suggested in his highly allegorical Message to the Ruler (which starts with the British invasion of Egypt) but also the dreams of the lower-class underdog, whom he has so often chosen to embody, vis-à-vis the country's elite. Interestingly, those fantasies have lately been extended by Imam's successors to include the international arena.
It was primarily the stars of the new generation, first and foremost Ahmad al-Saqqa and comedian Muhammad Hinidi who represented young emigrants abroad, in films such as Hamam in Amsterdam, Africano, Ma:a, China's Magni:cent Beans, and The War of Italy. Not all went out to conquerEurope: Africa, Asia, and the Americas were also placed on the cinematic travel routes. Apart from their reliance on the ‘glocal’ nexus, this new wave of action films worked hard to resolve the decade-long film industry problem with action-film technology through importing the necessary know-how, or to be more precise, by shooting the difficult scenes abroad. The car chases and explosions in Hamam in Amsterdam and Ma:a are a good example, as the films were shot in the Netherlands and South Africa respectively (with the cinematic pretense that the action takes place in Egypt in the case of Ma:a). In addition, the director of these two films was one of the first in Egypt to resort to foreign expertise with respect to computer technology, using animation to improve his action scenes. The increase in ‘efficiency’ has also been reflected in the performer, culminating in the improved ‘body machine’ of Ahmad al-Saqqa, for instance. However, the efficient male body has not completely replaced the parodic representation of masculinity or male masquerade as embodied earlier in Imam. It found in fact a continuation in Hinidi's comic persona, as can be seen in one of his recent action films.
In his role as the cowardly offspring of a gangster and futuwwa family in China's Magni: cent Beans (2004) by Sharif Άrafa, the Hinidi character was unwillingly made to master Chinese martial arts, winning on the way the heart of an Asian beauty. The parodic nature of this film was enhanced by the plot and its main protagonist, who objects to becoming a gangster like the rest of his family members, being simply too scared to join in brawls or use (p.319) weapons. Nonetheless he is haunted all through the plot by criminal activities, even during his unintentional trip to China (predominantly shot in Thailand), where he accidentally takes part in a cooking contest. There he not only wins first prize with the national dish of Egypt (brown beans or ful, the main element in the daily diet of the poor), but meets a beautiful young Chinese translator, whose father introduces him to martial arts. The importance that the film crew has attached to the acquisition of this particular action-film technology becomes evident in the epilogue, in which the credits are intercut with shots from the making of the film, showing Hinidi being pulled high up in the air on ropes for the Asian fighting scenes while helplessly crying out the director's name, an image that may be also read as a humorous metaphor of the male urban Egyptian underdog, unwillingly catapulted into the global arena and attempting to cope with its multiple challenges.
What China's Magni: cent Beans and other ‘globalizing’ films, notably An Upper Egyptian at the American University, Hamam in Amsterdam, and Hello America have suggested is the symbolical juxtaposition of male lower-middle-class representatives with Arab-Egyptian Muslim national identity,
This kind of symbolic common social denominator has not remained unchallenged but has always been subject to various negotiations on the structural as well as on the textual level. True, the Egyptian film industry was subject to economic changes that moved it more into the ownership and dominance of its ‘native’ bourgeoisie; yet it always reflected different ideological class-related negotiations and strategies of distinction, for example, between lowbrow and highbrow culture, between new and old bourgeoisie, and between the needs of the terzo and the cultural and religious aspirations of the petite bourgeoisie. It has moreover given way to the formation of numerous on-screen battles and alliances, or to use Άbd El-Sayed's metaphor in his film A Citizen, a Detective, and a Thief, it has allowed “mouse and cat to marry” as much as it gave an opportunity to confound the position of mouse and cat through cinematic myths. The dynamic inherent into this metaphor, signaling both struggle and reconciliation, has not just informed the structure of film plots but lies also at the heart of dilm's generic development, caught between melodramatic emotionality, cathartic resistance, and dreams of sexual and global empowerment.
This is how genres could become means of social and ideological distinction, as the evaluative struggle within national and international film critique attempted to break the hegemony of prerevolutionary melodrama and install postrevolutionary realism as the core of an authentic and more progressive film culture. Yet the alternating class perspectives and concerns have always expressed themselves through different generic frameworks. Just as the action film has negotiated concepts of lower-class masculinity and (p.321) national identity since the 1970s, early melodrama did negotiate questions of modernity, gender roles, and the bourgeois family ideal including love-marriage. The idea of romantic love, for instance, as developed against the backdrop of allegorical cross-class rape and seduction narratives, helped to express and ventilate class injustice and hegemonial social reconciliation. With all this in mind, the theory that Egyptian cinema with its post-independence realism has simply abandoned its early upper-class perspective in favor of a predominantly middle-class perspective has clearly proven to be too reductionist, because it underestimates the ‘dialogic’ or multivocal quality of popular art and culture.
Hence, one important result is to comprehend the porosity of generic borders in popular cinema. They have allowed not only social ascent aspirations but also accusations of female opression in patriarchal society to be translated into the ‘woman as victim’ discourse, to traverse from popular pre-1952 melodrama into post-independence realism, and to commute back into the misery feminist works of the 1960s up to the 1980s. Even though these seemed to present modernist ideas and to promote women's education and public labor, they reflected moral reservations and ambiguities regarding women. Within this context the modernist view wanted to put young women in the service of the nation, although the modernist ideal of the mother as educator of nation was often cast negatively by equating mothers with ignorance and superstition—the nation's Dark Continent.
More empowering notions of femininity appeared toward the 1990s with female avenger and female bonding stories. Motherhood and friendship as venues for female bonding asserted a polysemic femininity that implied passivity and activity at the same time. They appeared not only in the ‘realist’ and committed films of male directors, but also in the mainstream commercial oeuvre of woman director Inas al-Dighidi. Simultaneously, the resurgence during the 1990s of the ‘traditional’ implicit theory of the sexually powerful woman through the star persona of Nadia al-Gindi for example (so challenging to misery feminism) has been accompanied by other negotiations as well. Conservative morality and modernist ideals including sexual virtue, love, (p.322) marriage, and woman's employment were placed under pragmatic reconsideration in view of the ongoing social injustice.
Doubtless the major cinematic gender-related negotiations in popular Egyptian film have been dominated by the discourses of class, morality, and femininity crystallizing in some major omnipresent dichotomies, that is, virgin-whore, male activity-female passivity, rich-poor. Simultaneously, in quasi-feminist as well as in mainstream films, questions of morality—but more importantly, of power—were constantly at stake. Central to both was how to reconcile femininity with the idea of activity. Is woman a victim or a source of vice? Moreover, women's cinematic isolation on the level of editing and point-of-view shots, her subjection to the ‘male gaze’ seems to have paid tribute to the Christian-bourgeois idea of a passive female sexuality, but has been simultaneously qualified by the concept of a female seductive power. The Egyptian femme fatale is thus, like the female avenger, a product of the virgin-whore dichotomy, but by ‘overstating’ the seductive (yet not phallic) feminine, she has displayed an affinity to Arab-Muslim ideas of female sexual omnipotence.
Mostly bound to the virgin-whore dichotomy, women in film have tended to be represented as ethically and sexually vulnerable. As a consequence, they have been at the heart of any moral question voiced in and around cinematic texts. Moreover, along with sexual morals, women epitomize the ideological controversy between secular modernism and Islamism, a controversy that became particularly strong during the first half of the 1990s when several actresses started to veil themselves and renounce show business for religious reasons. As prevalent concepts of morality have played a crucial role in public evaluation, it has become clear that any mythical effect engendered by Egyptian stars is strongly dependent on their gender affiliation and which side of the moral dichotomy they embody on both the fictional and biographic levels. The morally controversial image of any female star has hampered her access to the moral community of at least some social groups, like the poor rural population.
(p.323) Even though sexual immorality may be excused in secular modernist approaches and in accordance with traditional local views, it may not be excused merely for the sake of attaining sexual pleasure or power, as the case of superstar Nadia al-Gindi most strikingly illustrates. Hence, women's victimization, the suppression of sexuality, the display of social conscience, and a (qualified) modernist orientation, translated into the ideals of women's education and professionalization and displayed in ‘realist’ representation have formed some of the major prerequisites for a film or actor's elevation to highbrow status in the eyes of, first, the critics and, second, the public. In other words, being a prostitute for a good reason could not invalidate the quasi-automatic association of women with sexuality and their use to confirm a binary moral system. Yet despite any fetishizing, the case of Nadia al-Gindi showed that mainstream cinematic genres have been far more flexible than the critically acclaimed socially committed cinema or rhetorical realism in accommodating femininity with work and power, while at the same time expressing skepticism about the modernist project.
This eventually ran counter to immediate postrevolutionary attempts to put women in the service of the nation, a nation coded as female, to be defended by men from men. This gendered iconography found its epitome in the screen representation of the country's revolutionary pan-Arab leader Gamal Άbdel Nasser, an ultimate expression of a unitary, univocal nation. Indeed, as the process of modern nation formation ran parallel to the introduction of the audiovisual media in the region, it is evident that Egyptian cinema has not only witnessed the evolution of Egyptian nationalism during the colonial and postcolonial eras, but has also contributed at times to the construction or ‘imagination’ of a modern national identity. In the course of this process it has tried to either eradicate the traces of its original de facto multiculturalism or reformulate it in terms of the ‘national identity’ ideology. Different strategies have been applied in this context to imagine a coherent Arab White Egyptian Muslim nation. The ethnic or religious Other, most notably Nubians, Copts, and Jews, has been excluded, belittled, demonized, or partially admitted within a framework of political correctness.
(p.324) On the political level, the complete exodus of the Jewish population that followed the foundation of the state of Israel, the destruction of Old Nubia, and the gradual confessional (self-)isolation of Copts have accompanied the political and military challenges from outside and the attempts to consolidate the envisioned post-independence Arab Muslim nation. Thus, in spite of its verbal anti-sectarianism, Egyptian nationalism has reinforced the old multi-community or neo-dhimma state, a fact that has necessarily created discrepancies with the ideal of equal citizenship. Moreover, persisting social and political inequalities have led to a latent political mobilization of the different communities, tending in the Coptic case toward a religious counter-fundamentalism. Sectarian counter-nationalisms were meant to challenge the dominating unitary ideology, as the creation of an alternative Coptic film production showed. At the same time Muslim (and Christian) inclusive attempts and ‘religious’ heteroglossia have not always been welcomed.
This is not surprising, since deviant representations were at times perceived as separatism endangering national unity or undermining bourgeois religious morality. The fact that the expression of a sexual, religious, or ethnic Otherness still encounters taboos indicates clearly that there is a weak point in the existing perception of the Egyptian nation and in the notion of sexual identity. Official rhetoric and public discourse has been characterized by the denial of particularities on the religious and ethnic level and the insistence on binary difference regarding the sexes, something that will not change in the absence of a profound secularization and democratization of the whole of Egyptian society, which could enhance the representation of a diverse people living in a diverse world, both on and off the screen, or as I emphasized earlier, which reflects a non-essentialist concept of otherness that is able to multiply differences in order to move beyond any antagonizing process of ‘Othering.’ Yet, and this I hope to have made clear, popular Egyptian cinema has been as much a dynamic and exciting witness of these limitations as it has also been instrumental in negotiating and, at times, even transgressing them.