Ahmed Khaled's "The Fifth Pound"

A Bus Named Desire

Egyptian filmmaker Ahmed Khaled has produced a courageous film about sexuality in the Egypt. But the film can't be shown. Sonja Zekri reports

​​Just under a quarter of an hour is a good length for a provocation. It's just 14 minutes and 20 seconds from the point of origin to the end of the line in an empty, air-conditioned, darkened long-distance bus, and a man and a woman take advantage of the opportunity to do something they can do no place else: a furtive exchange of stolen glances and tender caresses – observed with mistrust in the rear-view mirror.

At the end of the trip, the man presses money into the driver's hand. Two Egyptian pounds per ticket, and another pound to buy the driver's silence: "The Fifth Pound" is the name of this short film by Ahmed Khaled.

Sex, religion, and compromise

The director shows the film on a laptop computer, because it is hardly ever seen on a large screen. It reveals too much of what Egyptian society would prefer to keep hidden: sex and religion and the compromises young people make with regard to both.

Khaled's studio is in a side street in downtown Cairo where the metropolis takes on aspects of the rural countryside: donkeys pulling carts laden with mountains of fruit, moped repair shops, asphalt streets in various states of repair, where everyone knows everyone else.

And yet, here Khaled can do as he pleases. So far, at least, one should say – because if developments in Egypt continue as expected, if the Moslem Brotherhood that is now secretly attempting to come to power one day manages to achieve its goal, then the slim, trustful 30-year-old with the elegant sideburns will no longer have much to laugh about.

And he will certainly not be allowed to make the kind of films he wants to make.

The route between Gizeh and the airport

It was hard enough already. Khaled had to lie to the director of the transport company, telling him he was making a film about a couple on its way to a holiday trip. "Oh, he said, I just hope you're not going to make a film about sex on our busses. I said, Sex on the bus? Never heard of such a thing...", he reports.

photo: Ahmedkhaled.com
Ahmed Khaled

​​But the most provocative aspect of his film is precisely the fact that in reality, everyone has heard of such a thing – "the route between Gizeh and the airport was notorious" – and friends even told him they would probably be forced to look for another refuge.

But the worst thing of all, the unpardonable aspect of the film, is not the bleakness of the stolen kisses, and not the fact that the couple chooses a Friday morning for its tryst, when good Moslems are expected to be in the mosque, and not even the fact the driver, while listening to cassette tapes of the Koran, fantasizes about being in the young man's place.

Most outrageous of all is the fact that the young girl is wearing a headscarf. A woman who wears a veil and yet allows herself to be touched by a man – the very idea flies in the face of every conviction and belief regarding dress codes and morality. And that is precisely what is intended.

"So much hipocrisy"

"Women with veils are good, and all other women are bad – what nonsense!" Khaled says with scorn. A female attorney has already threatened to take him to court. At a screening of the film in the Russian Center, someone heckled the film, saying such conditions didn't exist in Egypt.

"There are so many prevalent lies in this country, so many taboos, so much hypocrisy," Khaled says. "They must be broken down."

Khaled knows first-hand what that means in a society that has access to satellite television and avidly consumes lascivious belly-dancing videos along with the breathtaking window displays of Cairo's lingerie boutiques, and yet in which the Al-Ashar Mosque just recently issued recommendations on the most effective sex practices to ensure pregnancy.

"Maybe it's all just fiction," he suggests slyly. But that's merely an attempt to defend himself.

The wrong audience

Egypt is home to the largest film industry in the Arabian world; cinemas from Casablanca to Kuwait show films that originate on the River Nile. But most Arabs have only heard of "The Fifth Pound" from reading newspaper articles. Khaled never presented the film to the censors, and as a result it has no distributor and has only been screened at a few festivals.

The University of Oxford recommends it as a source document for Middle Eastern anthropology, but that's not exactly the audience Khaled had hoped to reach.

It's his first cinema film. Previously he had produced videos – one about the ecstatic frenzy of a religious festival, and one about protests against the Iraq war. That film was more critical of Egypt than it was anti-American, which led the director of a youth center to tell him. "It will be thirty years before this film can be shown."

Turning to high-risk subjects

He has been asked to make a film about Gamal Mubarak, the son of Egypt's president, but people have long since started wondering why this well educated young man from a family of journalists continually turns to high-risk subjects, and above all, how long he can keep at it.

He experienced Islamist artistic training first hand at the Conservatory for Fine Arts in Heluan. It was not the best education imaginable: too academic, too old-fashioned, with access neither to the work of Hopper nor that of Pollock, just a little Renaissance at best.

"Deformation of the imagination"

"And the in 90s an Islamist group turned up and began putting pressure on the students. Some of my friends quit coming to drawing courses because images of people had suddenly been declared ‘haram' – sin," he recalls. This "deformation of the imagination" enraged him, and when he speaks of the Moslem Brotherhood, he uses a forbidden English word that begins with "F" and expresses a great sense of powerlessness.

"What can I achieve with my art? Compared with a bullet – nothing," he says. And because he's in a Wild-West kind of mood, he adds, "Them or me. We'll see."

We will indeed. Already, however, his enthusiasm is getting him into trouble. In an interview with a private broadcasting company, the subject of the cartoon brouhaha came up, and Khaled tried to make a point that he now repeats, namely that the cartoons were repulsive to him, because they are insulting, but that they were not nearly as repulsive to him as the reactions against them.

"The Egyptian newspaper Al-Fagr had printed the images four months earlier and no one got upset about them. But then the bird flu came, the soccer championships, the elections – and all hell broke loose. Every country had a different excuse for the riots; they are not honest, not civilized. It was the worst showing we could possibly have given."

That was what he would like to have said, but the show's host cut him off. So far, the attempts to silence Ahmed Khaled have remained peaceful.

Sonja Zekri

© Süddeutsche Zeitung/Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Mark Rossman

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