tearsAl-Ard (The Land, 1969) is arguably one of the most powerful depictions of land struggles and the plight of the farmer against oppressive landowners, the corrupt government and British rule in the history of Egyptian cinema. I was very young when I first saw this film and my lasting impression of it was its visual homage to Egypt’s stunning farmland and the intensity of feeling it aroused in the people who inhabited it. On second viewing I started noticing disturbing (though unsurprising) patterns in its portrayal of masculinity.

The whole village, young and old, is fixated on beautiful Wassifa (who also happens to be the most light-skinned woman in the village). She is strong-willed and courageous, supports her father and cunningly navigates many difficult situations but is still only ever lauded for her looks. Although she and the rest of the village women work as much as the men do, the women in the film don’t outwardly take pride in their work nor is it acknowledged by anyone around them. Instead they aspire to the life of leisure of the Cairo women that don’t have to get their hands dirty in the sun. The ideal scenario for women is that of a pampered wife who can stay at home and have children, the polar opposite of the masculine ideal; which is why both men and women in the film consistently use variations of “woman” as the worst possible insult to give a man.

Beyond the universal gender divide, in the towns and cities social hierarchy is also clearly divided across class lines and wealth as well as proximity to power or governmental ranking, two elements that are often inextricably linked. This also applies to the village but only in their relationship with the external forces acting upon them, amongst themselves the most important factors are family and land. This is made apparent when a murder occurs in the village and no one is held accountable because the victim is a poor, orphaned woman who has no land. It is immediately assumed that she must be of poor reputation and is consequently considered not worthy of a proper burial. The only suspect is the one other character in the film who has no land or family either. He is essentially scapegoated by the corrupt local leadership and only unofficially punished. The social circumstances of both these characters also prevented them from getting married, in essence their fate is pre-determined and there is no way for them to conform to social norms despite their desire to do so. He is socially emasculated as a result and she loses her “honourable” femininity.

The ideals of masculinity were represented through two central characters in this film. Mohamed Abu Swelam (played by Mahmoud El Meligui) is the older, principled, activist who believes in the power of small-scale collective action. He is the thinking man who is willing to lay down his life for what he believes in. His passion is viewed as a strength rather than blind emotion that could hinder his rational thinking. This is because he shows emotion towards the things that are socially acceptable for men in his village to show emotion towards – symbols of strength and masculinity, and his farm which is the lifeblood of his family. This is evident in the two most intense scenes of the film; the first shows his moustache being forcefully shaved off while in prison and the other shows his blood spraying the cotton as his body is dragged through the field, his fingers clinging to the dirt. Neither one of those images is subtle because they simply don’t need to be. The moustache is not a metaphor for his masculinity, it IS his masculinity. His jailers know that as a farmer who is willing to fight and receive violence for his cause – a truth he understands and accepts (see Fanon’s “Concerning Violence”) – the only way  to truly hurt him is not through physical torture but by emasculating him in both his eyes and the eyes of his peers.

The other masculine ideal is that of the strong young man, Abd El-Hadi (played by Ezzat El Alaili), he is impulsive and threatens his clearly more powerful oppressors with physical force at every opportunity. To ensure that he is not supplanted as the alpha male of their social group by the new male, Abu Swelam conducts several displays of physical strength to Abd El-Hadi (at the wedding and later in his home). This makes them equals and partners, and combined they represent a complete humanity in its various stages that draws in strength from the mind, body and soul; thus naturally rendering the women irrelevant. Except for the running joke of Abd El-Hadi asking Abu Swelam for his daughter, Wassifa’s, hand in marriage and Abu Swelam telling him this is not the right time (they have more important things to do).

In one of the film’s most seminal scenes, Abu Swelam gives a rousing speech to rally the villagers against the landowner and calls on the men to be men. Throughout the film, masculinity is portrayed as a form and expression of resistance. It is the symbol of strength in the face of oppression. The men use it as code for standing up for your rights and falsely equate it with characteristics that should have never been gendered. Which means that when the women also collectively organise themselves and face a terrible amount of violence, these acts of resistance end up being erased by default, simply because they are not men. It is a disheartening pattern we see throughout history where the role played by women in any revolution or anti-colonial struggle often goes unacknowledged. Ultimately we see masculinity being celebrated as being noble and heroic and women being treated as empty vessels for men’s designs. Maybe the characters did not have the right words to describe what needed to be done and so wrongly ascribed it to “being men”, but in doing so they perpetuated more of the violence and injustice that they hated so much in their own oppressors.