The Torrid History Of Sex In Arab Films

Halawet Rooh (2014), banned from cinemas
Halawet Rooh (2014), banned from cinemas

CAIRO â€" 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 â€" 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 â€" awakened every full moon â€" 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” â€" Adel Imam, Waheed Hamed and Sherif Arafa â€" 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 â€" played by Khaled al-Sawy â€" 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.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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