Sep 18, 2013

Gay Characters in an Arabic Movie from 1978

The last thing I expected was to find gay characters in a movie from the Middle East, produced in 1978.  But there they are, in Alexandria...Why (Iskanderija...Lih?), directed by Youssef Chahine.  It is set in Egypt during World War II, when Allied troops are occupying Alexandria and German General Rommel is at the door.

Chahine, who died in 2008, was rumored to be gay, and you can tell immediately: the movie is full of men, lying naked in bed, swimming in the Mediterranean, their shirts ripped off during fights, all beautifully filmed, but juxtaposed with images of Hitler's troops and appalling violence.

There are three interconnected stories, each of which could make a full-length movie all by itself.

1. Yehia (Mohsen Mohieddin), a student at the elite Victoria College, spends his time at the movies.  He is obsessed with Hollywood and all things American, even preferring to speak English over Arabic or French.  I thought he was the gay character -- he's soft, passive, pretty, and uninterested in girls -- he keeps refusing when his friends want to go look for girls, and when they find one, he doesn't participate in the sex.

He eventually gets a girlfriend -- with sex scenes displaying male but not female nudity -- but when he wins a film competition, he leaves her to go to America.  The last scene shows a grotesque Jewish-stereotype Statue of Liberty grinning at him as barbarous Hasidic Jews wait with open arms, suggesting that he's made a mistake, that American is occupied by "the enemy."

2. In spite of the offensive antisemitism, Yehia's neighbor and confidant is a middle-aged Jewish woman, in love with a Muslim man.

3. You can get anything on the black market, and Yehia's wealthy uncle (Ahmed Zaki) likes to buy Allied soldiers, rape them, and then kill them.  But he feels sorry for his latest victim, a brawling British soldier (Gerry Sundquist, British teen idol who played Karpenko in Meetings with Remarkable Men), and lets him live.

They embark on a dominant-submissive romance that mirrors the Western dominance of the Middle East, especially the habit of wealthy gay Europeans of taking homoerotic holidays to have sex with Arab rent boys.  It's not portrayed as a positive relationship, but at least it's open, not requiring a subtext.

It is a bright, bustling, vibrant, colorful movie tinged with horror.  It's also disjoint, overpacked with irrelevant events, losing the main stories in detail. And antisemitic and homophobic. But definitely worth a look.