Civil Liberties

Moses Can't Go Home Again; Exodus: Gods And Kings Banned in Egypt


Moses, who left Egypt under contentious circumstances some time ago, is finding he can't go home again. Ridley's Scott's biblical epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings, has been banned in Egypt (as well as in Morocco and the United Arab Emirates). The last time a major Moses movie tried to play the region, Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 extravaganza, The Ten Commandments, it was also widely banned in the Middle East (and throughout the Soviet bloc and by Mao's China).

The DeMille film was banned in Egypt even though much of it had been shot there. According to a 1958 account in The Hollywood Reporter, DeMille's movie was banned because "in the great clashes between the Egyptians and the Jews, the Egyptians were always the villains and the Jews the victims."

Today's Egyptian censors have been quite creative in coming up with reasons why Scott's movie can't be shown. For one thing, it's "a Zionist movie." For another, it's inaccurate. The chairman of the country's censorship committee insisted that Moses split the Red Sea using his staff, rejecting the movie's invention of a fortuitous earthquake. (The Koran's Red Sea story parallels the Old Testament version).

Among the contemporary censors' many other problems: The Hebrews are shown, ahistorically, building the Pyramids; Moses should be treated as a prophet and not a military leader; Moses' face shouldn't be shown at all. (Noah, the Russell Crowe movie, was also charged by Egyptian authorities with personification of a prophet, but that movie was eventually cleared for exhibition.) Also, God is shown in corporeal form (a serious matter in the Islamic world), and, as in the 1950s, the ancient Egyptians are made to appear villainous.

If one wanted to argue the recurring villainy point, one might note that, after all, the ancient Egyptians play the villain's role even in the Koran's account of the Exodus, and that anything less from Hollywood would be a kind of blasphemy. In a dramatic moment in the Koran's seventh sura, Pharaoh is about to be inundated by the returning waters of the Red Sea, and he announces his conversion to a belief in the One God. Allah, however, rejects his conversion, and causes Pharaoh and his host to be drowned. If God regards Pharaoh as such an unredeemable villain, what do Egyptian censors expect from Cecil B. DeMille and Ridley Scott?

Anyway, Egypt's censors aren't always so forthcoming about the reasons behind their decisions. For example, book censors last summer barred several titles (Egyptian, Lebanese, and French) without citing any reason at all. One of the titles, An Introduction to Semiotics, by Egyptian author Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, seemed a particularly unlikely target. However, writers at the liberal English-language site Mada Masr in Egypt remembered that the author had been convicted of apostasy in the religious courts in the 1980s, and that his wife had essentially been ordered to divorce him. Like everything else in the region, censorship in Egypt can get complicated.

By the way, the misadventures of the DeMille film with censors seem to have involved an early appearance in Western popular journalism of a group that we are now accustomed to call Islamists.

In 1958, Pakistan barred The Ten Commandments, becoming, in the words of The Hollywood Reporter, "the first country in the Free world" to ban the film. Pakistani authorities had no public objection to the film itself, but were wary of inciting what the trade journal called, in terms notably lacking in multiculturalist empathy, "a small group of illiterate fanatics." Apparently, these "illiterate fanatics" had been sufficiently provoked the previous year by the showing of some other, unnamed biblical epic, one with a Christian theme. That might have been The Robe; there were many such pious epics in the era. Whatever it was, the "fanatics" burned down the theater, and Pakistan decided it had had enough biblical grandiosity for a while.