Sex Behind the Veil
CAIRO -- The extremely rare "Adults Only" sign hanging in the ticket window outside Egypt's current hit movie would hint that something particularly lascivious lies within.
This is, after all, a country where there are only two official movie ratings, "Normal" and "Adults Only," and it's been almost 10 years since the last rating to restrict children was issued. It's also a country where crowds of rowdy young people cram the theaters during the annual Cairo Film Festival in late autumn for a glimpse at uncensored foreign entrants. Here, coffee shops often show "cultural films" -- the local euphemism for porn -- on the sly.
But the film in question, "Sahar Al Leyali," or "Sleepless Nights," has been packing the houses and causing a stir more for its emotional and psychological frankness than its sexually explicit subject matter.
Four Couples in Crisis
"Sleepless Nights" looks at four young couples in crisis. The husbands are all childhood friends -- making the film comparable to a younger "Big Chill" or "Peter's Friends." One couple is stuck in a passionless marriage and the film includes a wince-inducing scene of their awkward sex life. Another couple is unmarried and debating their future together. In the United States this would be unremarkable, but in Egypt, it's a shock to see a neutral, matter-of-fact depiction of an unmarried pair "living in sin." Both characterizations are nearly unprecedented in Egyptian cinema.
"I'm trying to talk about things that usually aren't talked about," said first-time director Hani Khalifa, in an interview. "I'm not trying to shock people, but we need a discussion."
The film has grossed about $1.5 million and spawned a flood of newspaper articles debating its social significance. A runaway hit with critics, it stands far apart from the noisy comedies and melodramas that clog Egyptian cinema.
The film opens with all the characters in Cairo, but after all four couples have fights, the young men leave town together. From there the scenes jump between the guys in a beach house in Alexandria and their female counterparts back in Cairo.
While centering on the road trip of the young men who turn to one another to escape their love-life difficulties, it's the portrayal of the female characters that breaks new ground. Moushira, the frustrated young wife, nearly steals the show. Sexually unfulfilled, but trapped by both love for her kind, repressed husband and fear of the stigma of divorce, Moushira indulges in lurid sexual fantasies on her analyst's couch and the brief attentions of a rival suitor. She has the only real sex scene of the movie and the shot of her vacant eyes over her husband's shoulder is more haunting than racy.
Private Unhappiness That Resonates
"There's nothing arousing about that scene. That's the point," said Khalifa, who noted that the emptiness of the scene is what reverberates with viewers. The director recounts sitting through one screening where a middle-aged woman in the audience shouted, "I'm Moushira!"
Magda Khairallah, a film critic for the magazine Akher Saa, praised the portrayal for its clear-eyed view of a widespread problem. "That's very common," she said. "There are a lot of women living in 'automatic marriages' where their husband treats them as just one more thing in the house. But (Moushira) doesn't want to leave or betray him."
In a U.S. context, Moushira's unhappiness might be easy grounds for a divorce. But the situation isn't that simple in Middle Eastern society. In most cases, a divorced woman would have to move back in with her parents, essentially reducing her status to that of a child.
"The idea of divorce isn't an easy thing," said Khairallah. "Although a woman might be unhappy with her husband, she would be giving up a lot of freedom if she left him."
Another character, Inas, is a young career-minded woman trying to convince her commitment-shy boyfriend Sameh to propose. The portrayal of an out-of-wedlock physical relationship is not new in Egyptian cinema, but the film breaks ground by treating the pair as an ordinary, mainstream couple.
"In a normal film, he would have to be smoking hashish while she danced around the room for him," Khalifa said. "She would have to be a whore."
Looks Through the Islamic Veil
But the film doesn't just challenge conservative mores. It also points the camera at veiled women. Although these women are the vast majority of female Muslims, they are often neglected by television and movie studios. Female television personalities and news presenters eschew the veil, which is normally reserved for the depiction of on-screen mothers, unmarried older women and radical fundamentalists. But in this film, one of the country's most prominent young actresses, Mona Zaki, plays a woman for whom the veil is incidental, not defining. The character, Perry, kicks her philandering husband out of their home after years of putting up with his indiscretions and despite being pregnant with their second child.
"There are muhagabat (veiled women) all over who are living normal lives," said Khairallah, the film critic. "It doesn't prevent them from doing normal things. They go to parties. They fall in love. It's good that the film showed this."
Director Says Goal is to 'Be Real'
Khalifa says he didn't go out of his way to create a controversial film. "I have no goal except to be real," he said, gesturing over his shoulder at other people in the Cairo coffee shop where he is sitting. "You see the young woman sitting behind me? She's veiled, and she's sitting in a coffee shop, holding hands with a guy and it's normal and it's real. The people want reality. They want stories, and they want to laugh and cry and be scared. But they want it to be real."
But too much reality isn't necessarily welcome in Egypt -- particularly on intimate issues. Several years ago, a popular youth-centered radio advice show was abruptly pulled off the air after the callers started asking nitty-gritty questions about sexual longings, premarital sex and unhappy marriages. Just a few months ago, the local resistance to embarrassing realities manifested itself again. A satellite channel talk show -- known for its freewheeling discussions -- came under fierce press attacks after an episode centered on masturbation -- or "the secret habit" as it was called -- among the youth. The show was quickly toned down.
So far, Sahar Al Leyali has been spared that sort of a backlash -- something the director admits is a pleasant surprise. But it remains to be seen if the film's popularity will spawn a new wave of films that present the realities of warts-and-all modern life.
Ashraf Khalil is a Cairo-based freelance writer whose work appears in the Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle. He is a former editor in chief of Cairo Times newsmagazine.