CAIRO — In 1929, Egypt's Interior Ministry banned Wedad Orfi's Masat al-Hayah ("The Tragedy of Life"). "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," the government explained.
It was the first Arab film to be banned for sexual content.
But sex has always been critical in shaping Arab cinema, which has depicted it in various contexts, created sex symbols, unleashed various fantasies and impacted the sexual consciousness of millions of viewers. This timeline is an abridged history.
Ibrahim Lama's first silent feature, Qoublah 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 a struggle to prove that he didn't kill his uncle, and to protect Hilda. Besides some long kisses, one scene shows a woman belly dancing with a sword in front of foreigners, nude except for a veil covering her 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 was the first to feature the character of a sex worker, even though prostitution was legal in Egypt at the time.
Mohamed Karim's Awlad al-Zawat ("Sons of Aristocrats") was the first Arab talkie, and took on a popular theme of the period: love stories between Arab men and European women, often portrayed as dancers. The French Foreign Ministry requested a ban at the time, but another feature, Italian director Mario Volpe's Inshudat al-Fuad ("Song of the Heart"), quickly surfaced with the same theme, also in Egypt. In both films, sex plays a part in stories of betrayal and European women's decadence and deception — a warning to men.
1942 to 1944
The European sex worker was replaced during this time by an Egyptian version, who were usually led to the profession by some kind of 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 was portrayed as shameful behavior, separate and apart from love, which is kept "honorable" in scenes of mere handholding. But while cinema promoted platonic love, it didn't condemn sex workers. Rizk set a slender and pale beauty standard, and belly dancing in transparent garb became an essential cinematic element.
The Kingdom of Egypt was replaced by the republic, and the Free Officers Movement prompted a wave of change in the whole region. A new censorship law was issued in Egypt with one article requiring the observance of public morals and order. A new generation of Egyptian directors pushed 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, ended the era of pale, delicate film stars. New beauty norms and dramatic sexual themes arrived.
Youssef Chahine's masterpiece Bab al-Hadid ("Cairo Station") unleashed a new take on male sexuality and, for some, a new world of fantasies. Qenawy is a mentally unstable newspaper seller with a fixation on Hanomah. He cuts images of film actresses from magazines while eavesdropping on the story of a woman's assault and mutilation.
Abu Seif brought 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.
A new sexual fantasy: In Nagdi Hafez' Moutarada Gharamia ("An Amorous Pursuit") a rich engineer who wants to marry his fiancée, but his uncontrollable foot fetish gets in the way. It was an early representation of a sexual fetish with no condemnation.
An explosion in the Lebanese cinematic treatment of sex came 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 of the open depiction of a gay relationship between the protagonist, played by Mohamed al-Araby, and a visual artist pursuing him.
There are many 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 made Amoot Marratayn wa Ahubbuk ("I Would 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 became a top 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 continued to appear in films with dark themes, from drug trafficking to espionage to terrorism and revenge. With every new film she wore a new style of lingerie, which became the fashion among female audiences. Her only rival was Nabila Ebeid, and their differences are clearly manifested in how they were characterized: "star" versus "idol."
Tunisian director Ferid Boughedir's Asfour al-Sutah ("Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces") returned to public bath houses with a coming-of-age story tracing the desires and sensual discoveries of a teenager in a hardscrabble neighborhood. It managed 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 began in the late 1990s under slogans such as "no kisses." But Radwan al-Kashef disrupted 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 made a comeback to Egyptian cinema in Imarat Yacoubian ("The Yacoubian Building"). Based on a novel by Alaa al-Aswani, 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 was represented in one of the dialogues between the two.
Egypt's prime minister pulled the film Halawet Rooh ("Sweetness of Spirit") from cinemas. Though it doesn't cross any lines when it comes to sex scenes, 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.