فيلم عرق البلحAnd what happens to the women when they leave? This is the central question posed by the 1999 Egyptian film ‘Arak El-Balah (3ara2 elbala7 – “Date Wine”). 

It starts with a mysterious voice visiting a poor village and asking all the men to come to a faraway land where they will gain many riches. The incentives appeal to the men’s masculinity: buying jewellery for a beautiful wife or being able to afford a daughter’s wedding. Although these reasons revolve around the family, the women express that they do not care about these things and would rather their fathers, husbands and brothers stay. It is clear the men are going to be exploited, the conditions for their work are: silence, blindness, forgetting.

The one man who resists is the one with no family, no wife or children to take care of. He is only concerned with the large palm tree. His self-assigned life purpose is climbing it and getting the white date wine that will cure his ailing grandfather. They end up being the two masculine figures left behind, the young man that must prove his manhood and the old man who can no longer speak or support himself. The old man is accompanied by Grandma Zein, the mysterious black woman who represents ancient wisdom, she is the overseer and protector of the village – sometimes through simple actions and stories, other times through cryptic metaphors and poetry.

The young man, Ahmed, is the only person in the village that knows how to read and becomes the women’s sole connection to their estranged partners and relatives. It’s one of the many ways he begins to gain their respect, culminating in a scene where they dress him like a “real” man and put him on a horse to call for musicians from a neighbouring village to celebrate a newborn baby. Like a child he accepts their grooming – it is the women who make the man. It is only when they stop treating him like a teenager that he stops trying to prove himself to them.

As time passes many women fall into either despair or insanity – sadness and madness – the central thread running through the women’s characters. Female sexuality for example is portrayed as a rising tension that sometimes leads to self-pity and other times to depravity. Only the married women have sexual desire, seemingly because they tried it and now cannot live without it. They are the ones who start proactively trying to find ways to fulfill their needs. One goes after Ahmed when drunk and gets beaten off like a dog by Grandma Zein, and another dances suggestively and ends up sleeping with one of the musicians from the neighbouring village. In a scene that provides an intense visual representation of shame; when the women find out, they surround her and silently pressure her into killing herself. On a group level it is a form of self-correction in order to preserve their social norms and on an individual level her pre-existing shame makes stepping into a fire and burning herself alive almost seem inevitable. Female desire is never treated as just being human, it is subhuman and abnormal, and is treated as such at every turn.

The men eventually return, tired, broken and seeking consolation in their women. The women seemingly so relieved at their return must quickly hide any mental distress that was caused by their departure but it manifests in other ways. The woman who had pursued Ahmed doesn’t want her husband anymore, she spends her days holding her son that she had almost killed in a fit of rage and smoking cigarettes (a decidedly masculine habit). The village is silent about the woman who killed herself and when one man asks why she did it, his wife tries to blame the sadness and he responds by telling her that they all have sadness in their hearts but nobody has killed themselves. Sadness is their accepted fate and it must come with an acceptances of all circumstances – acknowledging the possibility of desire, shame and mental imbalance is not an option.

The men also find out that Ahmed intends to marry the young and beautiful Salma but has impregnated her in the meantime. In a final showcase between two adjacent interpretations of masculinity, Salma’s father challenges Ahmed to climb the tall palm tree as a dowry for his daughter then cuts it down when he reaches the top, ultimately killing two of the village’s most valuable and productive entities.

Unlike palm trees that are resilient and don’t break in the wind, the system they had created and tried so hard to protect only works when everything is going smoothly with man, woman and children at home. In its attempt to spotlight the importance of family and the trivial pursuit of wealth, the film actually exposes how deeply flawed a traditionally patriarchal system is. The system however has succeeded in making the female characters internalise it and believe that they cannot survive without men, to the point where the women were able to successfully perpetuate its destructive tendencies. This is despite the fact that there are many modern, historical, urban and agricultural examples of successful female communities and female-led households. It is clear then that the overarching system cannot survive without this firm belief that if all the men disappeared, the women would crumble, like a built-in safety mechanism.