July 23, 1996

Egypt Eases Restrictions on on-Screen Sex


CAIRO, Egypt -- In this summer's hit movie here, three working women from a poor Cairo neighborhood fret about their meager choice of marriageable louts.

Aside from routine problems like bagging a longtime fiance seemingly allergic to commitment or warding off the boss' gropings, much of the plot of the movie, "Oh Life, You Are My Love," revolves around a shop clerk insisting that any man she marries must love her despite her lost virginity. When suitor after suitor flees, her friends convince her that restorative surgery will fool all future mates.

"The days are over when a girl's honor was like a matchstick, it could only burn once," one of the women says in the movie, mocking a famous adage. "Now it's like a lighter, you click it on and it burns, you click it again and it burns."

These are days of ferment in the Egyptian arts, with government censors allowing a more forthright examination of social problems and habits in movies, plays and on television. The government eased its restrictions as part of the showdown with religious militants seeking to establish strict Islamic rule, and also to combat public grumbling that senior officials live completely removed from common problems.

Parallel with more relaxed government rules, however, there has been an outbreak of freelance attempts to ban works deemed morally suspect. And while things like kissing may now be common on television and in the movies, writers and directors still haggle with censors, and religious institutions and the police are allowed to vet many materials.

"If one person from the police wakes up in the morning and decides he doesn't like something, he can try to get it banned," said Marlyn Tadros, deputy director of the Legal Research and Resource Center for Human Rights, a private, nonprofit group. "It is scary, because you don't know what is coming."

The most recent such move occurred this month, after the Artistic Works Police, a branch of the Interior Ministry, asked the Islamic Research Institute at Al-Azhar University for an assessment of a book about Muslim prophets. Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the head of Al-Azhar, told the press that the book, "A Psychological Analysis of the Prophets," was blasphemous because its descriptions of the men violated their religious stature.

Although Al-Azhar, which is run by the government, has no legal right to ban works, its rulings effectively get them pulled off the market. Either the government makes the ban official, noting Al-Azhar's role as moral guardian, or the state-run distributors that virtually control the market avoid selling it.

In the most recent case, the police confiscated all unsold copies of the book in the third such seizure this year. The author, an Egyptian journalist named Abdullah Kamal, said he would appeal the ruling.

Egyptian intellectuals accuse the government of working both sides of the fence. They say President Hosni Mubarak has stressed that his government is not in the business of banning artistic works, yet it does not rein in government institutions that target specific works.

"On the one hand, the Islamic Research Institute is a government authority, but on the other hand the government is giving some freedom in these artistic areas," said Rawia Abdel Azim, the director of Sinai House, a publisher whose works have been denounced by religious officials. "They are doing that to absorb the anger on the streets, not for the sake of real liberalization."

Newspapers remain stringently controlled. Journalists largely avoid writing anything about the military, national security, religion, or the character of the president out of fear they will be taken to court and face recently inflated fines. Like the newspaper law, the censorship law bans works that damage the public interest or religion, using vague terms that can be interpreted widely.

"There are certain scenes that do not go along easily with the principles of a religious society, things that cannot be seen as intellectual creativity," said Abdel Qader Nashar, the legal consultant to the minister of culture, whose ministry reviews every movie, television program, play, or song distributed in Egypt. "We cannot condone vice or delinquency or homosexuality and then show that to the society."

Sheik Youssef Badry, a Muslim cleric famous for confronting actors and writers, said he had yet to see "Oh Life, You Are My Love" but frowned on the idea of a woman deceiving her husband.

"It shows people how to get rid of their mistakes, but not through repentance and returning to Allah," he said. "This movie publicizes and legitimizes what has previously done in secret."

Both this movie and the newly released "Asphalt Demons," which tells the story of three minibus drivers who spend their off hours engaged in adultery with various neighbors and relatives, are considered marked departures because they talk about the ambitions, thoughts, and problems of ordinary people.

"One of the censors actually told us that there are more beautiful people around, people from better classes, why didn't we talk about them," said Mohammed Hilmi Hillel, the scriptwriter of "Oh Life, You Are My Love," noting he had to make 44 dialogue cuts to get the script approved.

It was only a few years ago that the entire cast and production crew that had shot a slightly racy couple scene was hauled to the police station to be accused of public indecency. Now there has been so much kissing, hugging, and dancing showered onto television screens that Egyptians flipping on their sets often gape in surprise.

"Oh Life, You Are My Love" includes one of the most daring Egyptian sex scenes ever, showing a newly married couple. Tame by Western standards, the bedroom shots of backs and intertwined hands shocked the audience during one recent screening, with one woman yelling: "Shame!"

"Due to the fierce fight between the government and the extremists, the government has allowed the intellectuals to join the fray," Hillel said. "The government realized that artistic works are a very good way to combat terrorism, to stand up to this phenomenon."

The movie includes one misguided figure in the form of an Islamic militant, something of a stock character these days. His conversion took place some time after he stole the shop clerk's virtue, an act he now calls sin and he demands that she take the veil. Such figures are always dupes.

"Egyptians are all profoundly religious and even with the terrorism this country has experienced they could not accept a sheik as a villain," said Rafric Sabran, a scriptwriter and prominent critic.

This induces considerable self-censorship, as does the fact that producers depend on rich Persian Gulf backers for financing. Most financiers arrive with a long list of prohibitions necessary to make any work palatable back home. They range from not having an unmarried man and woman alone in a room together (a proverb states that the third person always present is the devil) to not using common expressions like 'By God."

Those who test the limits do so not only with their choice of subject matter, but with plots that avoid the usual sugar-coated endings. Each woman in "Oh Life, You Are My Love" makes a troubling sacrifice to get what she wants.

"It is the first time you have three women as central characters, heroes really, in a film and it is the first time we talk frankly about their problems on the screen," said Attiat Abnoudi, an Egyptian documentary maker. "One of them is deceiving the man she wants to marry. In the old times a girl with a problem like that would have ended the movie in a Cairo cabaret working as a prostitute."

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