We’ve been preoccupied with one question this week: Why is it that humans insist on judging each other?
We do not know for certain where morals lie, what their source is, how they are evaluated. Are they a natural presence in our body? As in, are people born with them? Do parents pass them on to their children, or are they later planted by society? We simply don’t know. Yet humans hand out moral judgments all the time: in the form of Facebook posts, full-blown campaigns on mainstream media, or laws that can actually land you in jail. All with no consideration for the fact that people are different: they face different challenges, they have different feelings, they make different choices.
Be it the result of pedagogical intervention or an ingrained need for control, moral judgements stem from a set of hypothetical values shared by the majority and used to evaluate minorities. And if your nature, choices or preferences place you in the latter category, you will surely find yourself at the receiving end of these judgements more often than not. Because screw your individualism: if you want to be accepted, you need to conform.
It’s such an absurd ambition, for everyone to be the same. Would the world really be an ideal place if we all followed the same moral code? The truth is — even though the same values are constantly being shoved down our throats and imposed on our lives in the form of legal structures we’re forced to abide by in an exceedingly conservative society — no one is happy, and we’re all struggling to find the way. Life is too complicated — too difficult — for one to simply submit to another’s judgments about who they are. Confronting our doubts, desires and disappointments is taxing enough, to be honest.
Once again, we realize we’re a minority. But this time we also realize we’re comfortable being one. Even though, among us, we often disagree, today — in our sadness, our loss, our fear — we are together. We grieve, but we don’t fall apart, because we draw strength from one another. And so long as we’re not hurting anyone, we don’t care much about the judgment of others. In the words of Abu Nuwas:
Cease your reproach, for reproach is but temptation
And cure me with the very cause of my debilitation …
As for the would-be philosopher, say:
‘Knowing one thing doesn’t make an education.’*
-On the occasion of Salman Rushdie’s birthday (June 19), we share the British-Indian author’s account of the event that changed his life: a fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini sentencing the author to death for the content of his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. In the piece, titled “The Disappeared,” Rushdie writes about himself in the third person, recalling the confusion of the first few hours after he got the news (“This is what he thought: I’m a dead man”), and the deeper effects on his daily life and relationships that followed. You can also listen to BBC Radio 4’s podcast Fatwa, a 10-episode series that tracks the story of Khomeini’s declaration, particularly its effect on the immigrant experience in the United Kingdom.
-Meanwhile, last Tuesday was Bloomsday, a day dedicated to commemorate the life and work of Irish author James Joyce. Named after Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Joyce’s Ulysses, the celebration takes place on the same day in which the novel is set: June 16. Join in the fun and read this highly engaging piece by Egyptian author Mohamed Farag about the man who brought Joyce’s magnum opus to Arabic readers: translator and English literature scholar Taha Mahmoud Taha.
-The New Yorker publishes an excerpt from American author Eddie S. Glaude’s upcoming book, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. The piece, titled “The History That James Baldwin Wanted America to See,” argues that the key to achieving racial justice in the current moment is changing the narrative that’s being told about America’s history — for white America to “shatter the myths that secure its innocence” — as Baldwin himself proclaimed decades ago: “White man, hear me! History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us.”
This week, we recommend watching Hussein al-Imam’s first (and, unfortunately, last) feature film as a director, Like a Matchstick (2014).
Like a Matchstick is one of a few parody films in the history of Egyptian cinema. Others include Akhtar Ragol fil Alam (The Most Dangerous Man in the World, 1967) by Niazy Mostafa, its 1972 sequel directed by Mahmoud Farid, Hassan Hafez’s Viva Zalata (1976), and, more recently, La Taragoa Wala Isteslam (No Retreat, No Surrender — Ahmed El Gendy, 2010).
Imam shoots the film in black and white, using footage from several films produced in the 1940s and 1950s and directed by his father, iconic filmmaker Hassan al-Imam, famous for helming some of the most memorable “moral melodramas” of Egypt’s “Golden Age of Cinema.” In Like a Matchstick, the younger Imam pays tribute to the films of that era, gloriously mocking them at the same time.
The story follows Wahid Ezzat (played by Imam himself), a playful hash dealer and nightclub owner who also happens to be a pretty conservative and paternalistic male figure, with an overly macho energy to him — albeit in a very funny way. The world of Like a Matchstick is comically evil. In a way you can call it a film noir, with exaggerated villains who force women into working in cabarets and selling drugs, while simultaneously following a strict moral code that safeguards their “honor” above all else, because, as the old saying — which Wahid keeps repeating throughout the film — goes: “A girl’s honor is like a matchstick, you can only light it once.” (He is, of course, speaking of said girl’s hymen, nothing else).
Imam, who also wrote the film, creates a story around Wahid, and ingeniously weaves newly filmed scenes with ones from the older films he chose from his father’s repertoire. He creates new characters and multiple subplots in the process, using the performances of the stars that filled those classics, including the likes of Faten Hamama, Hend Rostom, and Farid Shawky, to name a few. Employing its same tools and tropes — most remarkably the naive women who are consistently seduced and deceived by men, and the fateful repercussions of their actions — Imam reconstructs his father’s cinema in the form of a searing satirical critique.
The female characters in Like a Matchstick — removed from their original context — have a strange, mercurial presence; they disappear and reappear depending on Imam’s invented story, which is in turn dictated by the archival material he had available. Sometimes, for instance, their responses have nothing to do with what Wahid is saying, which is deliberately orchestrated for comedic effect. But this device does more than that: One can see it as a commentary on how female roles were often written in this era of cinema — as two-dimensional vehicles used to deliver straightforward, moralistic messages to viewers, rather than fully rounded, flesh-and-blood characters.
Imam’s critique extends to other features of Egyptian films at the time. For example, in one of film’s most hilarious scenes, he delivers a voiceover narration against a typical fight scene from an old film, drawing our attention to the fact that one of the men being thrown around in the fight still has his fez on, and voicing the exact question on the viewer’s mind: “Is that fez glued to your head?” This is just one detail among many that often make fight scenes in Egyptian films rather laughable, even when they’re meant to be super serious. Another example is when, near the end of the film, Ezzat approaches Mr. Bahgat (Hussein Riad) and suddenly tells him that he’s found out he’s the big boss (the identity of whom was the main mystery driving the plot throughout), adding: “Don’t ask how I found out!” — as though he’s addressing the audience. Yes, there’s a bit of exaggeration here, but such unexplained and nonsensical plot resolutions, especially in crime films, are not uncommon in Egyptian cinema.
Yet in his satire of his father’s films, Imam questions not only the patterns that governed cinema at the time, but also the moral values promoted by these films, which themselves governed society (and arguably still do, only today they are promoted in more contemporary ways). As a matter of fact, he manages to undermine all restrictive molds, both moral and artistic: here, nothing is above critique, and the only rule is laughter. He promotes his own values instead — or perhaps it’s only one value, which has always been at the forefront of his work: Let’s not take ourselves too seriously. As he puts it in the quote that appears on-screen before the film begins: “Things are not how they appear to be, but how we want to see them.”
There is no absolute value; a set of rules is only powerful because people make it so — and, if they choose to, they can always strip it of its power, and render it obsolete.
In the end, dear leaders, we leave you with this classic ode to love, hope and acceptance from Mohamed Mounir:
A beautiful tomorrow is all ours
Our memories of today will grow greener
As long as we live without
Inflicting pain on the lovers amongst us
*Translated from Arabic by Alex Rowell