Archives for posts with tag: Egypt

c7d0e1aa-c494-4918-8efb-d94e96de3a06Fou’ada is their conscience and the voice of reason, an entire village’s moral compass and the only one to stand up for what’s right. She is also the one soft spot of the strongman terrorising the village, Atrees. He wasn’t always like this, when they were kids they were equals – sensitive, caring, and not wanting to hurt a living soul. But the little boy was trained in the ways of his cruel grandfather who through years of abuse manages to infiltrate his grandson’s mind. Atrees grows up knowing that he is not like his grandfather by nature and promises Fou’ada to never kill. This all changes when one villager shoots the grandfather and makes Atrees promise to take revenge. In an exaggerated show of violence and as a metaphor for the death of his innocence and kindness, Atrees uses all of his men’s guns to repeatedly shoot the perpetrator.

Atrees becomes increasingly cruel, killing those who defy him and punishing others by burning down their farms or cutting the water supply. He has come to understand that to continue having this much power it must be done through fear, he has no desire to be loved or respected. This fear shapes the village, it infects how they interact with each other and how they view themselves, with most of them complacently accepting that this just how things are. The only exception is Fou’ada, who is not governed by fear. When she questions why no body is standing up to Atrees, the reply is always ‘why should I be the one to do it and risk death?’ Everyone is waiting for someone else to take the first step. The good of the individual is pitted against the good of the community and that is the true victory of fear and violence.

In the moving scene of rebellion where Fou’ada opens up the water supply while the rest of the village sulks over their misfortune, the people rejoice at her actions but are not moved to follow suit. There is an understanding that only she can do this because Atrees loves her. She has the one tool that exists outside the power structure. Her overwhelming compassion for others and intimate knowledge of Atrees makes her the go-to person when something has gone wrong. The men don’t turn to each other for help and support because they have nothing to offer each other whereas Fou’ada is always willing to help them out. Her expression of emotion is always to mourn for and with others but in the face of any personal struggles we get the steely glance of perseverance.

Atrees tries to intimidate Fou’ada and her family into a marriage with him and although she doesn’t agree her father and his witnesses lie and say she does; assuming that, like them, she will cower in front of him when the time comes. It is here that we see Fou’ada using the one structural and institutional piece of arsenal available to her – a Muslim marriage is only legitimate if the woman approves it. Despite this, her father marries her off anyway and it is almost through sheer luck that her brutal husband decides not to rape her. But for Atrees, to have Fou’ada by force would be counterintuitive because the reason he wants her in the first place is that she is balm to his wounded self, she is the sole source of light in this violent life he has created. He never talks of her personal attributes but keeps mentioning over and over again how she used to make him feel. She is his pain because she is a living reminder of the person he used to be and he wants to contort that into something that will give him relief instead. She is not a person with agency and her own make-up, she only exists in relation to him.

Fou’ada reminds him that his violence is a choice. He forced this marriage on her father but she would have willingly had him if he hadn’t committed all these unforgivable crimes. Yet he still tries to force her to become his salvation when she is clearly more interested in saving her village from him. The men’s reactions to her stance is particularly interesting. The young idealist claims that she has killed their manhood because she has done what none of them had the courage to do. Usually this would incite a reflexive hatred towards the woman for reminding them of their shortcomings as men but instead they have decided to use it as motivation to act, because if a woman can do it then they as men can do it too.

The most progressive gender stance then comes from the idealist’s father who tries to rally the men after Friday prayers. His argument is that even if they allowed Atrees to break the laws of man they must not allow him to break the rules of God. When another villager points out that they have a woman in their midst who sins by sleeping around, his response is that she has done this of her own free will whereas Fou’ada was taken from her family home against her wishes; and once they free themselves of this tyranny they can then sort out any internal issues that are bothering them. This begs the question then of whether or not they would have come to Fou’ada’s rescue if she had been raped or beaten? Or was it only in the breaking of the sanctity of marriage as laid down by Islam do they find their true motivation for taking action?



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.

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.