Arab Cinema

Cinematic Migration to the "West" in Egyptian Film

Contemporary Egyptian film reflects the distrust of the Egyptian intellectuals towards American policies; migrants to West, however, are also portrayed in a negative light – they gain freedom but lose their identity. By Ala Al-Hamarneh

photo: artmuseum.gov.mo
Differences between the representation of Europe and the USA are clearly visible in Egyptian films - scene from 'America Abracadabra' by Khairy Bishara

​​The presentation of the "other" in Egyptian cinema is somewhat rare. The few exceptions are the presentations of foreign soldiers and Israelis in war and spy films and of the so called foreign residents in Egypt (Italians, Greeks, British and French) in the "patriotic" films that deal with the topics of de-colonization and nationalization in the era of President Nasser.

The presentation of European and American countries is mainly limited to using them as settings and/or background for spy activities, love stories and honeymoon trips.

In this context, films dealing with migration topics are of special interest: first, they demonstrate direct contacts and inter-actions between Egyptians and foreigners from a different culture; second, they allow the viewers to gaze into the other's culture, space and lifestyle; third, they expose the various ways of understanding and interpreting the "other" by the filmmakers themselves, who present an important and active part of the cultural elite; and forth, they examine and re-shape the stereotypes about the "other" of Egyptian and the Arab audiences.

Cultural dichotomy: USA versus Europe

Analyzing four movies which are set in Romania (America Abracadabra, by Khairy Bishara, 1993), France (The City, by Youssri Nassrallah, 1999), the Netherlands (Hammam in Amsterdam, by Said Hamid, 2001) and the USA (Hello America, by Nader Galal, 2000), a major difference between the representation of Europe and the USA is clearly visible:

Europe is portrayed as a friendly space and as a home of cultures that are very similar to the Arab-Egyptian culture, while the USA is shown as the "other" space where values and phenomena totally unacceptable to the Arab audience flourish and dominate.

In Europe, the beliefs in solidarity, trust, friendship, hospitality and cultural openness still have a daily practical meaning: they are a part of the European lifestyle, no matter what country, city or village is meant.

The Romanian peasants accept the Egyptian migrants in the same positive and friendly way as they would a Parisian homeless, a French nurse or the businessmen from Holland.

The negative characters in Europe who try to swindle and to cheat the new migrants are other Arab migrants: thieves, traffickers and "westernized" relatives. "The people here in Romania are exactly the same as us, fallaheen like the Egyptian ", says one of the characters in Khairy's film.

"Paris is exactly like Cairo", writes Nassrallah's main character to his friend in Egypt. Another negative personality in Europe is the Israeli Jew in Hamid's film, who declares the Pyramids Jewish and tries all possible tricks to make the life of the Egyptian migrant difficult.

Negatively stereotyping Arab migrants and Israelis in Europe reflects a common distrust towards both communities in Arab societies. Arab migrants are shown either as criminals or as individuals who have lost the values of their homeland's culture and adopted ignorant attitudes towards their own people.

The US culture stereotyped in a state of moral decay

"Why did you tell them that we are Arabs?" is one of the first phrases the Egyptian Adila utters after landing in New York. The American passengers leave the airplane in panic after learning that an Arab couple is on the plane.

From the very first moment, the Egyptian Arabs are under suspicion of being terrorists. They are faced with ignorance and suffer humiliation directly upon arrival in the USA. The USA is stereotyped as a space where crime, injustice, social coldness, religious fundamentalism, homosexuality, political intrigues and the power of capital dominate daily life.

"Hello America" is, on the one hand, a comedy that exposes the differences between the Egyptian way of life and Egyptian stereotypes about the American way of life. American culture is reduced to its negative aspects as portrayed in third-class Hollywood productions as well as by the cultural isolationist movements in the Arab World.

On the other hand, the movie reflects the deep distrust of the Egyptian intellectuals towards American policies and democracy. The movie makes an attempt to explore the role of the lobbies, mass media and corruption in the political system of the USA.

The Egyptian husband – passive and tranquil

The negatively-characterized Arab migrant is presented here as well as in "Hammam in Amsterdam" as a helpless spouse in a bi-national family. The Egyptian husband is portrayed as a weak character who is incapable of forming his own opinions and whose behavior is that of the "traditional" female in the family: passive and tranquil.

Nevertheless, it is interesting that the Egyptian spouse in couples of Egyptian/non-Egyptian bi-nationality is always the male, never a female. The emancipation of women is an important issue in the cinematic migration that is a part of a complex of topics connected to gender and sexuality.

Emancipated women and homosexuals are presented, as a rule, as posing a threat to the Arab-Egyptian system of values and as an integral element of the "other's" culture and space.

The migrant's daughter in the USA behaves immorally by having a boyfriend and her father is immoral as well for tolerating their relationship, although he is under pressure exerted by his American wife. The popular actress Shweekar in "America Abracadabra" plays a prostitute who is striving for a new life with her daughter by migrating.

Migrant men dependent on a migrant prostitute

She is trapped with a group of migration seekers in Romania because the traffickers cheated them. Left without money, food or medicine, she sells her body to obtain money to buy food for her daughter and the male migration seekers she is stuck with and who are not able to manage the situation.

She is neglected and respected at the same time by her colleagues: respected for managing the crises and looked down upon due to her past. All in all, emancipation is addressed as a male adjustment problem and as a moral and value issue, and not as a matter of personal freedom and social injustice.

Homosexuality is present either as an open threat to the manhood of the Egyptian migrant in the USA and as an often-shown negative attribute of the other, or as an erotic element in "The City", which is presented as being part and parcel of Cairo and vanishes totally in the migration. Nevertheless, it does not play an important role in the lives of the migrants themselves.

The question of individual and collective identity in the migration is highly present in the films. The collective Egyptian and Arab identities are demonstrated beyond the family connections as an identification factor by the "other" and for the "other". "We are Egyptians, Arabs" is the answer of the migrants in Romania to the question of their nationality.

The Mideast Conflict and Arab identity

The Palestinian issue plays a central role in the collective Arab identity: On a virtual meeting between the President of the USA and the Egyptian migrant played by the Egyptian star Adel Imam, he asks the president to liberate Jerusalem and the Palestinians. The Palestinian issue is the main subject of the conflict between Hammam and his Israeli colleague in Amsterdam.

In "The City", the Palestinians suffer more than the other illegal migrants because they have no homeland to which they can return. The movies show that to be/become an Arab is a part of the migration to the "West", because the people are identified as such by the "other".

Individual identity is put to the test in the migration. Only Said Hamid gives his main character the chance to succeed, to establish an existence, to stay and to be happy in the migration. The other three directors send their "heroes" back home after suffering unpleasant experiences in the "West".

Free but bereaved of identity

Youssri Nassrallah makes his main character lose his identity in Paris: he suffers from amnesia and loses his documents. He regains his memory when he returns to Egypt.

The total loss of memory symbolizes the loss of the past, present and identity. The migrant has the choice of becoming a "nobody" and staying in France or going "home" to find himself again.

This extreme anti-migration attitude is based on the understanding of freedom and self realization expressed in the idea "Paris is exactly like Cairo": it is not a matter of geography or economy; it is rather a personal matter.

Nevertheless, Nassrallah's character says further "but the people may express themselves freely here [in Paris], they demonstrate without fear of being beaten".

Could it be that personal and collective freedoms are a major reason for migration? And not only for a cinematic migration.

Ala Al-Hamarneh

© Qantara.de 2005

Dr. Ala Al-Hamarneh is a researcher and lecturer at the Centre for Research on the Arab World, Institute of Geography, University of Mainz.

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