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Minorities in Arab Cinema

By:
Viola Shafik
Source:
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Minorities in Arab Cinema

The Arab world is largely identified with Islam and Arabic culture while the region has been historically characterized by a high degree of cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and religious diversity. In the early twenty-first century a variety of ethnicities, such as Arabs, Amazighs, Nubians, Turkmens, Circassians, and Kurds, follow Islam, but do not necessarily speak Arabic. Religions and sects that cross ethnic lines apart from Sunni Islam are Shia Islam, Judaism, different Christian churches, and Baha’ism. Ethnic and religious affiliation may concur as well in the case of Copts, Maronites, Assyro-Chaldeans, Armenians, Druzes, Alawites, and Zoroastrians, among others. After the Arab conquest dhimma regulations guaranteed the safety of the People of Book, that is, Jews and Christians but not that of Muslim sects and other beliefs. Ottoman Millet community law continued to safeguard the existence of different communities without much persecution and interference. However in modern times colonialization and the creation of nation-states based on arbitrary borders, unitary ideologies, security, and surveillance have fostered the building of forced imagined communities and have given way to new forms of cultural, social, and political forms of exclusion including defamation, discrimination, persecution, and genocide—something which is affecting gender minorities as well.

In modern times audiovisual media has been instrumental in creating public spheres. The exclusion and marginalization of social groups are usually reflected in either the complete absence of representation or in depictions that cement social and political hegemonies. Thus, if not undertaken in a deconstructive or politically aware manner, audiovisual representation abides to the rules of Othering as identified by Stuart Hall, that is, demonization, fetishizing, naturalization, and essentialism. Dissident and divergent voices either get completely suppressed or exist underground. In times of resistance and social upheaval, a counter public may develop, extend, and acquire a stronger presence in the greater public sphere.

Cinema spread quite unevenly in the region since its introduction in 1896, depending on the level of economic and social development and on geographic accessibility with individual areas. Beginning in the 1920s regional production was dominated by a nascent Egyptian film industry. Most other Arab countries started production in the 1950s and 1960s following independence and relied on either public funding or European co-production. Consequently the representation of minorities has been governed by the possibilities and limitations of these different production forms and threatened by either industrial exploitation, state propaganda, or censorship. The democratization of the media started in the late 1990s with the rise of digital formats. New media has provided new possibilities of access and circulation. Last but not the least, the gradual collapse of some of the former Arab nation-states have allowed the formation of new public spheres and distribution circuits.

In the early twentieth century Egypt’s metropolises hosted a polyglot and multicultural elite. Egyptian pioneer cinema reflected the diverse fabric of the country on and off screen, with performers and professionals coming from all kinds of ethnic and religious backgrounds, including Europeans, Latin Americans, Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, Christian, and Jews, with practitioners, to mention only a few, such as Badr and Ibrahim Lama, Estephane Rosti, Fritz Kramp, Robert Scharfenberg, Alvise Orfanelli, and Nagib al-Rihani. Egyptian films featured Greek shop or bar owners, Jewish businessmen, poor native Jews (embodied by comedian Shalom), Coptic accountants, and Nubian servants. The representations were often comic and oriented themselves toward the local traditions of shadow play and musical theater.

Egyptian Cinema and the Representation of Religious and Ethnic Minorities

After the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the coup in 1952, the tendency toward successive exclusionism became more and more visible in Egyptian cinema, particularly with regards to Jews. Already in the 1940s Jewish artists, most prominently singer Layla Murad, felt urged to embrace Islam. The demonization of Jews started in Egyptian cinema, mainly after Israel’s participation in the tripartite attack on Egypt in 1956. Jewish directors like Togo Mizrahi emigrated and onscreen Jews mutated into enemy soldiers, spies, and eventually, after the Camp David Accords in 1978, became disloyal Arabic-speaking Egyptian Jews, starting with Jarima fi-l-hay al-hadiʾ (“The Crime in the Calm Neighborhood”; 1967) by Husam al-Din Mustafa and ending with Wilad al-ʿamm (“Cousins”; 2009) by Sherif Arafa (Sharif ʿArafa). More recently a sort of nostalgia and apologetic representation appeared describing Jews as part of a formerly multicultural but truly Egyptian facet. Amir Ramses’s (Ramsis) two documentary sequels ʾAn yahud Misr (“The Jews of Egypt”; 2013 and 2015) documented the extinction of the community along these lines.

Egyptian cinema’s relationship to Copts, who make up around one-fifth of the population, has been likewise ambivalent. Except for the harmless stereotyping prior to the early 1990s and due to the dogma of national unity, Christians were hardly represented on the screen except for Youssef Chahine’s semiautobiographical films, Iskandariya lih? (Alexandria Why?) and its sequels. With the rise of political Islam and the increase in sectarian violence, films started to include token Christians stressing the equality of all Egyptians as seen in Hasan wa Murqus (“Hassan and Marcus”; 2008). Only a very few films since then have neglected to include politically motivated symbolism and allegories and focused instead on either social problems within the Coptic community, such as 1:0 (2009) by Kamla Abu Zekry (Zikri); on individual memory as in Bahibb assima (“I Love Cinema”; 2004) by Ussama Fawzy; or have exposed discrimination, like La muʾakhza (“Excuse My French”; 2014) by ʿAmr Salama.

The ethnic and linguistic Nubian minority has suffered displacement and disintegration because of the successive constructions of the High Dam. Yet Egyptian cinema has not stopped portraying Nubians as kind-hearted easygoing servants since the appearance of the comedian ʿAli al-Kassar as ʿUthman in films by Togo Mizrahi in the 1930s until the most recent Qudrat khassa (“Special Abilities”; 2015) by Daoud Abd El-Sayed. Following largely the scheme of ethnographic essentialism, the representation of Nubians, and more in generally people of color, is historically tied to Egypt’s position as former colonized colonizer since the British-Egyptian joint dominion over Nubia and Sudan from 1889 to 1955.

Maghrebi Cinema and Ethnic and Religious Minorities

In other North African countries, that is, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, the representation of African-looking citizens was confined to documentaries or art house films and displayed a more inclusive attitude. Thawrat al-zanj (“Zanj Revolution” but literally “negro revolt”; 2013) by Tariq Teguia, for instance, is tracing the truth of the first black slave uprising in ninth-century Iraq. The dwindling Jewish communities started to become the subject of several documentaries after the Oslo Accord of 1993 between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In fiction films Jewish characters have largely invoked nostalgia for a lost diversity, like in the Tunisian Rih al-sadd (“Man of Ashes”; 1986) by Nouri Bouzid (Nuri Bu Zid) and Halq al-Wad (A Summer in La Goulette; 1996) by Ferid Boughedir (Farid Bu Ghadir) or in Marock (2004) by Moroccan Laïla Marrakchi (Layla Marakishi). It features a love story between a Jew and a Muslim girl, pictured with a homosexual sidekick.

Morocco and Algeria have witnessed an even more impressive development toward cultural inclusiveness, employing the different Amazigh (Berber) people who make up around one-third of the population. In Morocco Tamazight became an official language in 2011. TV channels produce regularly Tamazight-speaking programs. Already between 1992 and 2008 private production of video films in Tamazight amounted to 158, most of them in Chleuh. These TV-style films are widely distributed and pirated and appeal to middle-class families. The first Tamazight-speaking cinema films were released in 2006 and succeeded also in festivals: Tizza woul (“Heart Edges”) by Hicham Ayouch (Hisham ʿAyush) and Taghssa (“Skeleton”) by Yassine Fanane. Before that films like Fauq al-Dar al-baydaʾ al-malaʾika la tuhalliq (“Angels Don’t Fly Above Casablanca”; 2004) by Muhammad ʿAsli used the Amazigh-inhabited Atlas Mountains for depicting social injustice in Morocco. More recent films, like Hakim Belabbes’s Defining Love (2012), have been more interested in dealing with the mythical aspects of Amazigh culture.

History and mythology were also very present in the first Kabyle-Algerian films, a language that is taught today at schools on a non-compulsory basis. Machaho (“Once Upon a Time”; 1995) by Belkacem Hadjadj and Azzedine Meddour’s Baya’s Mountain (1997) portray Amazigh identity as linked to the mountainous geography of rural Aurès. The characters dwell in a quasi-mythological past that implies resistance against French colonialists and their rich Arab allies. After independence, as with Egypt and Morocco, Algeria had insisted on a unitary Muslim Arab identity and went on supporting the pan-Arab project. The subsequent official Arabization project hit francophone Kabyles the worst. Until the mid-1970s Algerian films used a sort of cleansed and artificial colloquial Arabic for its dialogues, even for films explicitly set in Kabylia, which is seen in the 1969 adaptation of Mouloud Mammeri’s novel al-Afyun wa-l-ʿassa (Opium and the Baton) by Ahmed Rachedi. Not only dialogue but also names were exchanged for Arabic. For three decades public film funding was denied to an adaption of Mouloud Mammeri’s novel Tawrirt yettwattun (Forgotten Hill/La colline oubliée). Eventually it would be realized by Abderrahmane Boughermouh with very little public support and was released in 1997. Only Assia Djebar’s (Jabbar) essay-film La Nouba des femmes de Mont Chenoua (The Nouba of Mount Chenoua’s Women; 1977) did not comply with that rule as she used French for its voiceover.

Levantine Cinema and Minorities

Lebanese and Syrian productions before the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975 followed the Egyptian mainstream model. Bedouins made a folkloristic appearance at most, while any difference between communities ranging from Druze, Shiite, Kurd, Armenian, Jewish, Maronites, and Orthodox Christian, among others, were amalgamated into a general modern urban versus traditional rural dichotomy. However sectarianism was soon to dominate modernist secular quasi-pluralist tendencies in the political arena and has been virulent to now. Before 1975 the central and strong position of Maronites (the majority at the time) was only implicitly detectable in details and geography, like in the popular musicals by the Rahbani brothers set in Mont Liban. Self-critical depictions of the community were undertaken only during the civil war by, for example, Maroun Baghdadi in Hurub saghira (“Little Wars”; 1982). After the war in the 1990s European-funded works dissected the absurdity of sectarianism, for instance in Bayrut al-gharbiyya (West Beirut; 1998), Bayt al-zahr (“Around the Pink House”; 1999) by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige (Jurayj), Tayara min al-waraq (“The Kite”; 2003) by Randa Chahal Sabag (Shahhal Sabbagh) on a Druze village on the Israeli border, Nadine Labaki’s comedy Wa halla l-wayn (“Where Do We Go Now?”; 2011), Fy Lubnan (“It’s All in Lebanon; 2011), a documentary by Wissam Charaf. Primarily documentaries reflected critically on the culture, policies, and representatives of their respective communities like Roger Assaf’s Maʾraka (“Maaraka,” lit. Battle; 1985), (Sharaf) or Eliane Raheb’s (Rahib) Layali balla nawm (“Sleepless Nights”; 2013), a double portrait of a Maronite war criminal and a woman whose son was abducted and disappeared. Some documentarists also sought to link themselves to their communities abroad, such as Armenian Lebanese Vache Boulghourjian with The Fifth Column (2010) and Tamara Stepanyan with Embers (2012).

As for Syria, a secular minority regime, namely the quasi-Muslim Alawite sect (believed to be close to Shiite Islam) had been ruling Sunnis, Christians, and Kurds, among others, since the 1960s. The cinematic representation of Alawites was rather implicit, detectable by the location rather than religious practices. Oussama Mohamed’s (Ussama Muhammad) Nujum al-nahar (“Stars in Broad Daylight”; 1988), as well as Abdel Latif Abdel Hamid’s (ʿAbd al-Latif ʿAbd al-Hamid) Layali ibn awa (“Nights of the Jakal”; 1989) and Qamaran wa zaytuna (“Two Moons and an Olive”; 2001) set in Alawite Lattakia were strongly critical of patriarchal society (and implicitly of the regime). Christians were the most overtly depicted, in passing, as part of the fabric of daily life, like in Mohamed Malas’s Ahlam al-madina (“Dreams of the City”; 1984). The current civil war that has taken an extremely sectarian turn may probably lead to quasi-pluralist representations as happened in Lebanon. A first example is Maʾ al-fidda. Suriya sira zatiyya (“Silvered Water: Syria Self-portrait”; 2014), a film essay co-directed by Oussama Mohamed and a young female Kurdish filmmaker Wiam Simav Bedirxan (Wiʾam Simav Badr Khan).

Iraqi Cinema

Exiled Iraqi filmmakers like Turkmen-Iraqi Parine Jaddo in Broken Record (2011) only recently could start to tackle the histories of their own communities due to the incredibly difficult situation for filmmakers in the country. Iraq hosts Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Kurds, and Turkmen, among others, some of whom were discriminated against like the Shiites or subject to genocide like the Kurds during Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, who had built his power among the Sunni tribes in the north. Until the American invasion in 2003, film production was entirely state-monopolized and reflected the secular ideology of the ruling Baathist party. The first Iraqi-Kurdish film, Narjis, ʿarus Kurdistan (“Narjis, Bride of Kurdistan”) by Ja’far ʿAli, was shot in 1991 after the erection of the no fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan. The film could not be shown in Baghdad. Some typical Kurdish national liberation films include: Zaman al-narjis (“Narcissus Blossom”; 2005), by Masʾud ʿArif Salih and Husain Hassan ʿAli, on heroic peshmergas; and the comedy Kilomètre Zéro (2005) by Hiner Saleem, the most internationally acknowledged Kurdish filmmaker who depicted a panorama of the regime’s atrocities and the contested Arab-Kurdish relations. More poetic and less politically polarizing was Kick Off (2009) by Shawkat Amin Korki. My Sweet Pepperland (2013) by Hiner Saleem, Before Snowfall (2013) by Hisham Zaman, and Memories on Stone (2014) by Shawkat Amin Korki in contrast tackle the misogyny of traditional patriarchal society. All these productions have profited from Kurdish governmental support and the emerging Kurdish television.

Shiites are not a minority in Iraq but they have suffered from discrimination. Still, after 2003 their representation has remained subtle and implicit, as in Ahlam (2006) by Mohamed al-Daradj. Some films were driven by an ethnographic interest like Zaman rajul al-qasab (“Zaman, the Man from the Reeds:; 2003), a French co-production by Amer (ʿAmir) ʿAlwan. A certain tribalism started to appear only recently under the Shiite-dominated government in an entirely publicly funded film, Samt al-raʾi (“Silence of the Shepherd”; 2014) by Raʾd Mushatat that was shot in al-Samawat in southern Iraq. Kurdish genocide is pictured as secondary to the violation of the tribe’s honor. Other Iraqi projects that are currently in the making go back to a reconsideration of the past and try to conjure diversity and peaceful coexistence. This programmatic orientation has appeared recently also in neighboring Bahrain with its Sunni-ruled Shiite majority in Husain al-Hulaibi’s Hanin (“Longing”; 2010) that depicts the rise of sectarianism in 1982 through the story of a mixed Sunni-Shiite family.

In Palestinian cinema the depiction of religious affiliation, that is, the differences between Christians and Muslims, has usually been subordinated to the overall Palestinian question. Only rarely have films presented characters with an explicit religious affiliation, like Suha Arraf’s Villa Touma (2014) or ʾUyun al-haramiya (“Eyes of a Thief”: 2014) by Najwa al-Najjar, the latter of which fights the stereotype of the current Palestinian resistance as being confined to Muslims only. One of the most thorough reflections on the contradictory concepts of nationality and religious difference was Michel Khleifi’s documentary al-Zawaj al-mukhtalat fi-l-aradi al-muqadassa (“Forbidden Marriages in the Holy Land”; 1995). Of course there are also examples of sectarian films, like the short Nihayat al-amal (“Dispersion of Illusion”; 2012) produced by Hamas in Gaza.

Gender and Sexual Minorities in Arab Cinema

Sexual minorities are highly contested in all Arab countries. However in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring the concept of equal citizenship as well as protection of sexual minorities started to be discussed. Unlike early Hollywood, the Egyptian mainstream has refrained from upfront vilification but is still caught in outdated biological and psychological interpretations of homosexuality. In the 1950s, when sexual reassignment surgery came to public attention, some comedies tackled the phenomena by playing with the confusion of sexual identity and gendered behavior, thus permitting comic catharsis, as in al-Anissa Hanafi (“Miss Hanafi”; 1954) by Fatin Abd al-Wahhab and Bint ismaha Mahmud (“A Girl Named Mahmud”; 1975) by Niazi Mustafa.

In the 1970s, with rising Islamization and new morality the victim, discourse attained more prominence. In social dramas, such as Hamam al-Malatili (“The Malatili Bathhouse”; 1973) by Salah Abu Seif, ʾImarat Yaʾqubian (“The Yacoubian Buidling”; 2006) by Marwan Hamid or Hany Fawzy’s Asrar ʿaʾiliyya (Family Secrets; 2014), homosexuality is treated as a psychological disease, the result of child abuse or troubled mother-son relationships. Female homosexuality in turn has been largely tied to extravagance or social exploitation, for example in Hina maysara (“Until Further Notice”; 2008) by Khaled Youssef (Khalild Yusuf) or Rasʾil al-bahr (Messages from the Sea”; 2010) by Daoud Abd El-Sayed. Much more significant are female bonding films, like Ahlam Hind wa Kamilya (“Dreams of Hind and Camelia”; 1988) by Mohamed Khan or Dantelle (“Lace”; 1993) by Inas al-Dighidi, as they are suspected of having a lesbian subtext.

The Arab art house fostered another problematic discourse using the embattled masculinity of abused and raped men as an allegorical criticism of patriarchal postcolonial society or as a sign of society‘s overall identity crisis. Examples are the Moroccan Washma (“Wechma,” lit. “tattoo”; 1970) by Hamid Bennani, the Tunisian The Man of Ashes or al-Bahr min waraʾikumm (“The Sea Is Behind You”; 2014) by Hisham Lʾasri. The first clearly undogmatic account was a Lebanese documentary portrait of a transsexual, Sinima Fuʾad (“Cinema Fouad”; 1993) by Mohamed Soueid (Muhammad Suwayd). Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari (Zatari) went farther in deconstructing male sexual behavior in Majnunak (“Crazy for You”; 1997). One of the first explicitly queer films was a student film, Equal Men (2011) by Lebanese Anthony Chidiac (Shidyaq).

To date only a very few Arab filmmakers dare admit their sexual orientation. Notable exceptions are Tunisian Nadia al-Fani and Moroccan Abdallah Taia (ʿAbd Allah Taya). But even they often stick to implicit representations in their works, like al-Fani in her Bedwin Hacker (2003), or Egyptian Yousri Nasrallah in his Mercedes (1993). More explicit depictions were made in Youssef Chahine’s Iskandariya lih? (Alexandria Why?; 1978) that included the story of an Egyptian aristocrat’s love for a British soldier. Nabil Ayouch’s (ʿAyush) Moroccan genre film Lahzat zalam/Une minute de soleil en moins (“One Minute of Sun Less”; 2003) featured a bisexual detective, while Good-bye Morocco by Algerian Moknèche included a European and African homosexual relationship. In contrast, L’armée du Salut (“Salvation Army”; 2014) by Moroccan Abdallah Taia is the first film to focus solely and explicitly on the story of a male homosexual. The most daring films were shot in France, including Abellatif Kechiche’s (ʿAbd al-Latif Kashish) Le bleu est une couleur chaude (The Warmest Color Is Blue; 2013), which includes highly graphic sex scenes between a lesbian couple, while Amor Hakkar’s bisexual triangle love story, Quelques jours de répit (A Few Days of Respite; 2011) has focussed on character psychology.

Thus it is evident that Arab cinema shows signs of an increasing political correctness and inclusiveness in representing sexual, linguistic, ethnic, and other minorities; however it has to be underlined that these works are often art house films or documentaries that do not circulate widely among local audiences. Mainstream films that include stereotypes of minorities or follow official policies have still greater access.

Bibliography

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  • Demirchan, Evelyn. “12th Annual Armenian Film Festival Features Directors from France, Lebanon, and Armenia. Hye Sharzhoom.” www.hyesharzhoom.com/ 12th-annual-armenian-film-festival-features-directors-from-france-lebanon-and-armenia.
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