Look, it's genuinely heartening that the Middle East's liberals are organizing themselves, demonstrating against their suffocating regimes, issuing manifestos, and otherwise working for reform. The same is true for those exasperated Arab liberals who have been writing angry articles and essays in the region's press and online denouncing the desiccated pathologies of Arabism. These are courageous people who deserve admiration and support. There is clearly a long-term effort under way to loosen the Arabist stranglehold that has been paralyzing the region's political discourse since at least the days of Gamal Abdul Nasser.
But if you want to know how complicated it can be to address the region's social and political issues while navigating its sensitive cultural context, you have to put down the op-ed page and make a quick trip with me to the movies. This summer, an exceedingly controversial Egyptian film entitled B'heb al Sima (I Love Movies) finally opened in Cairo. That film attempted to mix sex, politics, and religion, with the result that its completion has been delayed for years due to a combination of budget and censorship problems. Now that it's out, the controversies swirling around it have only become ever more complex.
According to the region's entertainment press, B'heb al Sima is set in 1960s Cairo, and deals with a family whose patriarch is a religious fanatic. He refuses to let his artist wife show her work or to allow his son see any movies; indeed, the father fasts for religious reasons some 200 days a year. He even regards it as sinful to have sex on any of these fast days. One result is of his fanaticism is that his unhappy wife has become involved in an adulterous affair. We're already in dangerous territory, but things get much more complicated. There are kissing scenes, bubble-bath scenes, and even a scene featuring a fight during a religious ceremony, any of which would normally have been enough to make a contemporary Egyptian film controversial.
But never mind those. In one scene, the unhappy wife mounts her fasting husband, hoping—in vain—to arouse him. In the meantime, the family's radio is blaring away in the background. What's on? It's not Umm Kulthum singing one of her sad, 45-minute epics. It's no less than President Nasser, delivering a famous speech in which he takes responsibility for Egypt's ignominious defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, and offers to resign. I will leave you to contemplate this remarkable contrapuntal presentation of various Egyptian frustrations.
No wonder, you may be thinking, that such a film is controversial; it's a wonder that it was released at all. Actually, no. The real problem faced by the film is that the family portrayed in it is Coptic Christian, which has deeply offended a significant portion of Egypt's Coptic community. (Copts are perhaps 10 percent of Egypt's population.) A group of 40 litigants, many of them clergy, charges the film with defaming all Copts, and demands that 15 scenes be cut. The only court to rule on the film thus far has decided it had no jurisdiction, enabling a belated release. Unhappy Copts say they are pursuing the matter in other courts, charging that the film insults them and citing a notoriously ambiguous Egyptian law that forbids "injury to the unity of the nation." Meanwhile, the film has been screened publicly.
Why tell such a story about Copts in the first place? Well, both the director, Osama Fawzi, and the film's screenwriter grew up in the Coptic community they are portraying, so there are personal reasons to set their story there; the film may well draw on their childhood experiences. There may also be political reasons to tell such a story. As one Christian moviegoer told Reuters, "If the movie was about Muslims it would have been banned immediately." That may be true; Fawzi thus had an opportunity to address such difficult issues as Egyptian religious fanaticism, sexual mores, and controversial politics, and to get away with the whole package by setting it outside Islamic Egypt. Plus, he's a Copt himself, so it's okay, right?
Wrong. Fawzi, you see, isn't a Copt anymore. He married a Muslim woman, and necessarily converted to Islam. That too has become a charge against him. According to his accusers, he's supposedly a Muslim fanatic who hates his former community, and has used this film to denigrate it. While I have no idea what Fawzi thinks of Copts at large, that charge seems empty. Not only does the screenwriter remain a Copt, but the film has attracted Coptic defenders who see the real controversy as involving freedom of expression.
In other words, there are simultaneous debates about this single film. As the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has observed, "Now there is a double-barreled argument: among the Copts over the degree to which the community has or will be hurt; and between the Copt opponents and the Egyptian culture ministry, which approved the screening of the film."
Nor does the matter end even there. The Copts' allegations against the film matter, because in the past the U.S. has criticized the treatment of religious minorities in Egypt. In fact, as Haaretz notes, a considerable sum of U.S. aid money to Egypt can potentially be tied up on such grounds. U.S. delegations visit countries that receive American aid, and report to Congress on just such issues. In the past, the delegation that has visited Egypt has included Jewish members, which has suggested to some Egyptians that its U.S. aid money is tied up in a Zionist plot. Anyway, there's apparently been some concern that the Egyptian government could yet prohibit the film in order to avoid a negative report to Congress. No one that I know of has yet suggested that the film is really a part of a Zionist plot to embarrass and impoverish the Egyptian state, but given the debate so far, the lack of such a charge is almost disappointing.
B'heb al Sima itself features a happy ending. The ascetic patriarch has a reverse conversion, puts his fanaticism aside, and even makes love to his wife. By the end of the film, the family actually goes to the movies. Let's hope that whatever film they see had a less complicated history than does the one that tells their own story.