In 1929, the Ministry of Interior banned Wedad Orfi’s Masat al-Hayah (The Tragedy of Life). The reason: “The story as we saw it revels in self-indulgence, overshadowing the good part of it, leaving only a few meters of preaching, which neither leaves a strong enough impact on the viewer, nor gives the viewer a sublime idea about consequences of recklessness and sin.”
It was the first Arab film to be banned for containing sexual scenes.
But sex has always been an essential factor shaping Arab cinema, which has shown it in various contexts, created sex symbols, unleashed various fantasies and affected the sexual consciousness of millions of viewers. This timeline is an abridged history.
Ibrahim Lama’s first silent feature, Qoubla fil Sahra (A Kiss in the Desert), is one of the first Arab films to reference sexuality in its title. The protagonist, played by the director’s brother Badr Lama, is a knight living in the desert. He saves a foreign girl, Hilda, who falls in love with him, then embarks on extended struggles to prove both that he didn’t kill his uncle, and to protect her. Besides some long kisses, one scene has a woman belly dancing with a sword in front of foreigners, nude save for a yashmak (veil covering the face).
The Tragedy of Life stars famous Turkish dancer Efranz Hanem as a promiscuous belly dancer playing two brothers for their money. The banned film is the first to feature the character of a sex worker — sex work was legal in Egypt at the time.
Mohamed Karim’s Awlad al-Zawat (Sons of Aristocrats) is the first Arab talkie, and takes on a popular theme of the period: love stories between Arab men and European women, often portrayed as dancers. The French Foreign Ministry requests a ban, but another feature, Italian director Mario Volpe’s Inshudat al-Fuad (Song of the Heart), quickly surfaces with the same theme, also in Egypt. In both films, sex plays a part in stories of betrayed love and European women’s decadence and deception — a warning to men.
The European sex worker is replaced by an Egyptian version — who’s usually led to the profession due to social injustice. Kamal Selim’s Al-Bouassa (Les Miserables, 1944) stars Amina Rizk as a sex worker who sacrifices herself to save her lover. Togo Mizrahi’s Leila (1942) is based on Alexandre Dumas’ The Lady of the Camellias.
Sex starts being portrayed as shameful behavior, separate from love, which is kept “honorable” in scenes of mere handholding. But while cinema promotes platonic love, it won’t condemn sex workers. Rizk sets a slender and pale beauty standard, and belly dancing in transparent garb becomes an essential cinematic element.
The Kingdom of Egypt is replaced by the republic, and the Free Officers Movement prompts a wave of change in the whole region. A new censorship law is issued in Egypt with one article requiring the observance of public morals and order. A new generation of Egyptian directors pushes portrayals of sex beyond the context of the cabaret or dichotomies of platonic love or sin.
In Salah Abu Seif’s Shabab Imraa (A Woman’s Youth), Shoukry Sarhan plays a village boy studying in Cairo, who lodges with a voluptuous older woman played by Tahiya Karioka, who in her desire to seduce him ends up locking him in his room, offering food for sex. The film’s bold treatment of a sexual relationship in which the woman is instigator, dominant and in control, ends the era of pale, delicate film stars. New beauty norms and dramatic sexual themes arrive.
Youssef Chahine’s masterpiece Bab al-Hadid (Cairo Station) unleashes a new take on male sexuality and, for some, a new world of fantasies. Qenawy (Chahine) is a mentally unstable newspaper seller with a fixation on Hanomah (Rostom). He cuts out images of film actresses from a magazine while eavesdropping on the story of a woman’s assault and mutilation.
Abu Seif brings to the screen a script by Naguib Mahfouz titled Al-Tareeq al-Masdood (The Barred Road), a melodrama starring Faten Hamama as a girl from a depraved, libertine family who tries to escape city life to work as a teacher. The film references same-sex desire: One of the female teachers sexually harasses Hamama’s character.
Hassan al-Imam directs Bayn al-Kasrein (Between Two Palaces), another adaptation of a Mahfouz novel, telling the story of Al-Sayed Abdel-Gawad, a father who’s a tyrant at home but leads a secretly debauched nocturnal life, with son Yassin following in his footsteps. Throughout the film — and the following two parts of Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy — Imam revives the rich legacy of playful, enticing cabaret songs. This film sees Nadia Lutfi emerge as a new sex icon.
A new sexual fantasy: In Nagdi Hafez’ Moutarada Gharamia (An Amorous Pursuit), Mounir (Fouad al-Mohandes) is a rich engineer who wants to marry his fiancee (Shwikar), but his uncontrollable foot fetish gets in the way. An early representation of a sexual fetish with no condemnation, the film is a cornerstone in the rise of Shwikar as a temptress with her new seductive approach focused on her soft, moaning voice.
Hussein Kamal’s moralistic hit Abi Fawq al-Shagara (My Father is up the Tree) stars Abdel Halim Hafez and Nadia Lutfi, and not only scores high ticket sales, but sets a record for the number of kisses between its two protagonists. Various dancing scenes take place on the beaches of Egypt and Lebanon.
An explosion in the Lebanese cinematic treatment of sex comes with Samir Khouri’s Sayedat al-Akmar al-Sawdaa (The Lady of the Black Moons), starring Hussein Fahmy and Nahed Yousri. The latter’s character gives up love for a secure life with a wealthy man played by Adel Adham, but her desires — awakened every full moon — remain uncontrollable. She ends up in the house of a mysterious woman who hosts orgies. The film crosses a lot of red lines, unveiling breasts, buttocks and extended orgy scenes.
Hammam al-Malatily (Al-Malatily Bathhouse) is an iconic film about sex. It shocked not only because of nudity and sex scenes, but because it openly depicts a gay relationship between the protagonist, played by Mohamed al-Araby, and a visual artist pursuing him.
There’s an array of scenes and stories of same-sex relationships in 1970s films, some particularly seductive in nature, most notably Al-Suoud ila al-Hawiyah (Ascending to the Abyss, 1978), in which Eman Sarkisian’s character seduces Madiha Kamel’s in order to recruit her to the Israeli intelligence service.
In Syria, George Lutfi Khoury makes Amoot Marratayn wa Ahubbuk (I’d Die Twice and Still Love You), starring Naji Jabr and Ighraa, who wrote the script with Abdulaziz Hilal. Here there are no cabarets or melodramas disparaging sex, but an apparent desire to document Syrian marriage rites. In a bathhouse scene many women appear bare-breasted, then comes the boldly depicted first night of marriage between Ighraa and Nagi. The film also dwells on the social drama, from the bride’s timidness to parents eagerly awaiting a blood-stained handkerchief.
Nadia al-Gendy begins her ascent to becoming the number-one sex icon with Khamsa Bab (Five Doors), in which Adel Imam plays a police officer working in a red-light district.
Until the late 1990s Gendy continues to appear in films with dark themes, from drug trafficking and revenge to espionage and terrorism. With every new film she wears a new style of lingerie, which becomes the fashion among female audiences. Her only rival is Nabila Ebeid, and their differences are clearly manifested in how they were referred to: “star” versus “idol.”
Tunisian director Ferid Boughedir’s Asfour al-Sutah (Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces) returns to public bathhouses with a coming-of-age story tracing the desires and sensual discoveries of a young teenager in a hardscrabble neighborhood. It manages to strike a rare balance between a thoughtful treatment of sex and daring nude scenes.
Some of the few titillating scenes in Yousry Nasrallah’s second film, Mercedes, convey a subtly sarcastic approach to the idea of feminine seduction, including a scene in which a dancer performs behind a veil because she’s too embarrassed to face the audience. Magdi Kamel plays a gay artist cast out from his upper-class milieu who prefers to live on the margins with groups of young football fanatics and frequent working-class cinemas.
The 1990s “golden trio” — Adel Imam, Waheed Hamed and Sherif Arafa — meet in a comedy about a mysterious epidemic of male impotence, leading to widespread marital conflict and a subsequent change in social structure. Al-Nom fel Assal (A Deep Sleep) associates sexual impotence with political powerlessness, manifesting in the final scene when a mass of impotent men march to Parliament shouting “Ahh.”
So-called “clean” cinema begins in the late 1990s under slogans like “no kisses” and “no women in swimsuits.” But Radwan al-Kashef disrupts this sober wave with a number of long, shy kisses between Menna Shalabi and Sari al-Nagar in Al-Sahir (The Magician).
After a few years of absence, gay relationships make a comeback to Egyptian cinema in Imarat Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building). Based on a novel by Alaa al-Aswany, the film portrays a journalist — played by Khaled al-Sawy — who takes advantage of a conscript’s poverty to seduce him. For the first time in Egyptian cinema a religious point of view on homosexuality is represented in one of the dialogues between the two.
Egypt’s prime minister pulls Haifa Wahbe vehicle Halawet Rooh (Sweetness of Spirit) from cinemas. The film does not cross lines when it comes to sex scenes, but the prime minister sees it as “indecent” because of its depiction of a love story between a teenager and a mature woman.
This article was originally published in Arabic on Raseef22.