I’m worried about Youssef Chahine.
Nothing unusual in being concerned as to the welfare of an 80 year-old man, much less one of the world’s great filmmakers. But mere “health” isn’t what I’m talking about. It’s the gay crisis in Egypt today as outlined in an especially frightening and lengthy in the NYT Sunday Magazine:
“The politics of homosexuality is changing fast in the Arab world. For many years, corners of the region have been known for their rich gay subcultures — even serving as secure havens for Westerners who faced prejudice in their own countries. In some visions, this is a part of the world in which men could act out their homosexual fantasies. These countries hardly had gay-liberation moments, much less movements. Rather, homosexuality tended to be an unremarkable aspect of daily life, articulated in different ways in each country, city and village in the region.”
“Articulated” indeed. Paul and Jane Bowles didn’t move to Morocco for the weather. And as for Egypt it’s greatest modern poet is one of the central gay figures in all of world literature.. Needless to say that counts for nothing in today’s climate.
“But sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular are increasingly becoming concerns of the modern Arab state. Politicians, the police, government officials and much of the press are making homosexuality an “issue”: a way to display nationalist bona fides in the face of an encroaching Western sensibility; to reject a creeping globalization that brings with it what is perceived as the worst of the international market culture; to flash religious credentials and placate growing Islamist power. In recent years, there have been arrests, crackdowns and episodes of torture. In Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, as in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates — even in famously open and cosmopolitan Lebanon — the policing of homosexuality has become part of what sometimes seems like a general moral panic. “
Heterosexuals being the sole and exclusive owners of the “moral” doncha know.
“Egypt’s most famous crackdown got under way at a neon floating disco, the Queen Boat, docked on the wealthy Nile-side island of Zamalek, just steps from the famously gay-friendly Marriott Hotel. In the early-morning hours of May 11, 2001, baton-wielding police officers descended upon the boat, where men were dancing and drinking. Security officials rounded up more than 50 of them — doctors, teachers, mechanics. Those who were kept in custody became known among Egyptians as the Queen Boat 52. The detained men were beaten, bound, tortured; some were even subjected to exams to determine whether they had engaged in anal sex. In the weeks that followed, official, opposition and independent newspapers printed the names, addresses and places of work of the detained. Front pages carried the men’s photographs, not always with black bars across their eyes. The press accused the men of sexual excesses, dressing as women, devil worship, even dubious links to Israel. Bakry’s newspaper, Al Osboa, helped lead the charge.
The Queen Boat was just the beginning. Agents of the Department for Protection of Morality, a sort of vice squad within the Ministry of Interior’s national police force, began monitoring suspected gay gathering spots, recruiting informants, luring people into arrest via chat sites on the Internet, tapping phones, raiding homes. Today, arrests and roundups occur throughout the country, from the Nile Delta towns of Damanhour and Tanta to Port Said along the Suez Canal and into Cairo.”
In other words Egypt has moved in quite a different direction from the comopolitan sophistication Laurence Durrell charted a generation ago. And this de-evolution clearly leaves Chahine a stranger in the country he has devoted his life to celebrating.
While Cairo Station is generally acknowledged as the film that put Chahine and Egyptian cinema on the map in 1958, It should be pointed out that in 1954 his
Struggle in the Valley intorduced to the world a young actor named Omar Sharif. While Sharif burst onto the west like a comet (eventually sputtering out into contract bridge paying), that of his mentor took awhile longer, climaxing withAlexandria. . .Why?, a portrait of modern Egypt that was far from shy about including a gay love story in its plot. Chahine at this time instigated several French-Egyptain co-porioductions of note, the most important being Adieu Bonaparte a recounting of Napoleon’s adventures in Egypt starring Patrice Chereau as the Emperor/General and Michel Piccoli as a gay Egyptian he encounters on his campaign. America was also a touchstone for Chahine, having studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse. The Sixth Day, his cienmatic emmoir of his boyhood (starring the great chanteuse Dahlida as his mother) is dedicated “to Gene Kelly.” And as his wacky masterpeice Alexandria Again and Forever shows unashamedly it was always Chahine’s desire to be a musical comedy star. This gay Egyptain All That Jazz, in which Chahine playing himself seeks to make a star of his gorgeous but obviously only minimally talent boyfriend (Amr Abdel Guelil) takes the post-Fellini
apologia pro vita sua to camp heights its never achieved before.
Is this film now banned in its homeland I wonder? And what about Cavafy? Surely the following is too much for the Egypt of today:
“He came to read. Two or three books
are open; historians and poets.
But he only read for ten minutes,
and gave them up. He is dozing
on the sofa. He is fully devoted to books —
but he is twenty-three years old, and he’s very handsome;
and this afternoon love passed
through his ideal flesh, his lips.
Through his flesh which is full of beauty
the heat of love passed;
without any silly shame for the form of the enjoyment…..”
But remember too what Cavafy wrote in a poem called Dangerous Things:
“Said Myrtias (a Syrian student
in Alexandria; in the reign of
Augustus Constans and Augustus Constantius;
in part a pagan, and in part a christian);
“Fortified by theory and study,
I shall not fear my passions like a coward.
I shall give my body to sensual delights,
to enjoyments dreamt-of,
to the most daring amorous desires,
to the lustful impulses of my blood, without
any fear, for whenever I want —
and I shall have the will, fortified
as I shall be by theory and study —
at moments of crisis I shall find again
my spirit, as before, ascetic.”
Let us hope Egypt does likewise.