Egypt’s cinematic gems: The Night of Bakiza and Zaghloul’s Arrest

Laylat al-Qabd ala Bakiza w Zaghloul (The Night of Bakiza and Zaghloul’s Arrest, 1988) is a spin-off from a TV series broadcast a year earlier. In the series, Bakiza w Zaghloul, Bakiza is a rich woman living in a villa with her husband who starts looking for his long-lost son, Zaghloul. The husband suddenly dies, leaving Bakiza bankrupt with nothing left but the house. Zaghloul shows up too late, and also turns out to be a woman. She moves in though, and the two women soon form a quirky friendship while searching for creative ways to make a living.

There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the look of the series or the film. Both rest on a crazy plot and the performances of the main two actors, who outshine everyone else. One thing that always seems to get in the way of great female performances is that producers or the actors themselves are concerned with attractiveness. Neither Sohier al-Bably as Bakiza nor Isaad Younes as Zaghloul seem to show any such concern here. We see them taking off hair extensions, getting diarrhea and mostly just looking like they need a shower.

Bably was a theater legend who later in life announced that she’d donned the veil and quit acting because it’s sinful — before making a comeback, quitting again and then making another comeback. Bably was 53 when she made this film, and unlike Adel Imam at the same age, she’s not playing a 20 year old in college.

Younes, who wrote the script for the series and the film, is well known as a shark who’s wrought havoc on the Egyptian cinema industry with her distribution monopoly. Her production company, Al Arabia Cinema, currently owns the rights to the film, and it also owns the Renaissance Cinemas chain, with a total of 99 screens operating all over Egypt and Jordan. For 15 years now, the rule is that if Younes doesn’t like your face, your film will flop. It’s also widely rumored that she bought up the rights to many old Egyptian films and resold them at a profit to Saudi-owned Rotana. You’d think she would write a more flattering role for herself than Zaghloul, but she knew better.

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Bakiza w Zaghloul

The film starts right after the series ends. Bakiza and Zaghloul have been conned out of their home and are now living on a rooftop. The plot revolves around them being chased by a gang of spies that wants an unnamed something the duo have. One spy demands the return of the chocolate the two had already eaten, but how? It’s not like their stomachs are mailboxes. They go to the police, who don’t believe them, but one thing leads to another and the Interior Ministry gets involved.

Bakiza’s ambitions are far too big for someone doesn’t have enough money for her next meal. She instructs the minister of interior to address her as “Bakiza Hanem al-Daramaly Pasha Sherin,” and suggests that the ministry hire her as a general as a reward for her anti-espionage efforts. When the kidnappers come to get her she is disgusted instead of terrified, as though being confronted with a very disagreeable smell. It’s difficult to tell if her class and ambition are assets or a curse, but they are all she has.

For me, Bakiza is very real. She’s my friend’s mother who knows I’m an artist and calls me over to look at her painting of a plate of grapes because she wants to sell it in a Zamalek gallery. I see it and am horrified, but the only way to get out of the situation is to say “it’s nice, tante” in a French accent.

Zaghloul is a tomboy and constantly mistaken for a man. She is the yin to Bakiza’s yang: poor, uneducated, masculine, with the lowest possible ambitions. She is constantly being condescended to, even though she might be the smartest person around for miles. Every man she meets makes it a point to comment on her supposed unattractiveness. She’s ingenious, but with no social capital her skills are left to be used for things like how to escape from a kidnapping. She knows she is underestimated, but she accepts and internalizes this fact of life. In other words, Zaghloul is just poor, her most prized possession being striped pajamas.

At the end though, Zaghloul suddenly cleans up nicely. One wonders why. Was she unattractive because she didn’t have money for the right clothes? Or was the way she dressed a deliberate defense mechanism in constantly precarious situations, and now that she’s safe in the metaphorical loving arms of the Interior Ministry she can finally risk styling her hair?

What else? The film is directed by Mohamed Abdel Aziz (Halaa Housh). Youssef Shaaban, whose biggest asset is his authoritative moustache, is type cast as a shouting policeman. He recently reprised this role in a TV ad shouting at terrorism to stop. The score is wacky and unique, composed by the late Ammar al-Sherei (who had some fantastic film and TV scores under his belt, like the iconic 1987 spy series Raafat al-Haggan and 1985’s very musical Stories of Him and Her). For The Night of Bakiza and Zaghlouls Arrest, it seems like Ammar treated it as an opportunity to play around with a piece of equipment – namely a cheap synthesizer – that he’d just bought.

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Bakiza w Zaghloul

As with many movies, a dose of nationalism is inserted right near the end, with the Ministry of Interior’s last-minute genius stroke against a foreign state meddling in Egypt. It had stood by as four people died and two were kidnapped, but now Bakiza and Zaghloul’s lives are in danger and the state acts and it is triumphant.

Being one of the few films with female leads (interestingly, the very different but also wonderful women-led Ahlam Hend we Camellia (Hend and Camellia’s Dreams, 1988), by Mohamed Khan, was produced the same year), this film, like the TV series before it, plays with class difference and ambitions. Bakiza’s class takes her nowhere near her high aspirations, and Zaghloul’s modest ones prove also impossible to achieve. We learn that Bakiza did not continue her education because she has never needed it — being the wife of a very rich man, she was versed just in fashion and French. Zaghloul has a higher education certificate than Bakiza. Neither are taken seriously. Is it because of their poverty? Or the fact that they are women?

Like in many other films Abdel Aziz made, it seems that no matter what your position, getting anywhere in Egypt is impossible.

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Bakiza w Zaghloul

Correction: A previous version of this article suggested that Al Arabia Cinema was founded 20 years ago, not 15. This was corrected on October 30.

Hanaa Safwat 

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