Being a (Muslim) worker in the Egyptian film industry

Chihab El Khachab

Since the 1930s, Cairo has been the center of the most prolific and commercially successful Arabic-language film industry in the world. Yet the fact that this industry is based in the largest Muslim-majority country in the Arab world - and that most of the creative and technical workers in today’s industry have a Muslim background - has never elicited academic interest on its own. This disinterest is partly due to the scarcity of scholarship on the industry itself as opposed to its products. Counting publications by critics and academics in English, French, and Arabic, there are comparatively few studies on the history and political economy of Egyptian cinema (see, e.g., Sadoul 1966; Al-Ashari 1968; Al-Hadari 1989; Wassef 1995; Shafik 1998; Flibbert 2001; Armbrust 2004), let alone on its everyday working practices (El Khachab 2021). In this context, the lives of film practitioners - including their religion - are sublimated by film narratives analyzed in relation to wider political and ideological currents (see, e.g., Gordon 2002; Shafik 2007; Gugler 2011).

When studies of Egyptian cinema mention religion, it is because of its representation on screen. Some studies have examined representations of religious minorities in Egyptian cinema, including Jews (Shafik 2007, 24-40; Shemer 2014; Starr 2015,2017) and Coptic Christians (Shafik 2007,41-52; Laachir 2011). Islam has attracted wider attention, which can be grouped in two broad streams. One examines how the “Islamic revival” has affected the norms of representation regarding female bodies, specifically those of actresses and dancers (Shafik 2007, 198-238; Tartoussieh 2007; Nieuwkerk 2013). The other stream shows how political Islam is negatively represented in mainstream cinema under the impulse of anti-Islamist state policies during the Mubarak era (Armbrust 2002; Khatib 2006; Allagui and Najjar 2011; Gordon 2015). While paying little attention to the religiousness of practitioners other than actors and directors, both streams tend to give a partial image of Islam either as a set of visually encoded signifiers (e.g., the hijab, the “Salafi” look) or as a doctrinal discourse, without examining everyday religious practices in film production, circulation, and consumption.

Given the scholarship’s bent toward on-screen representation, the emphasis on Islam’s visual and doctrinal aspects is unsurprising. Yet it obscures the role of everyday piety (or lack thereof) among practitioners and consumers alike. This chapter begins to remedy this gap, based on extensive fieldwork in Cairo’s commercial film industry between 2013 and 2015. I will start by describing how diffuse Islamic norms govern the temporal organization of filmmaking, specifically by punctuating the calendar of production and the everyday life of a film set. Then, I describe the ethical dilemmas presented to some Muslim practitioners given that they work in an industry that is sometimes seen as being “immoral.” In conclusion, I reflect on what is analytically gained by describing Egyptian film practitioners as being “Muslim.”

The time of production

The filmmaking season in Egypt is broadly organized around the Hijri calendar. This is not to say that the day-to-day unit of time reckoning is counted in Hijri months or days - all logistics are still coordinated according to Greenwich time and the Gregorian calendar - but significant dates of film release coincide with major Islamic holidays: the Small Eid (eid el-fitr) at the end of Ramadan and the Great Eid (eid el-adha) some weeks later. In an industry that still thrives on domestic exhibition sales, these holidays represent an important financial opportunity. A great deal of the population takes time off simultaneously to engage in collective leisure activities with family and friends, including moviegoing. During both seasons, cinema journalists become attuned to the local box-office, as “holiday films” (aflam el-‘eid) compete to attract more moviegoers and, by extension, more revenue. “Holiday films” do not constitute a specific genre like “Christmas movies” in a Euro-American setting, but they are usually crafted and released with the expectation of attracting a massive audience on holidays. Given most producers’ imagined audience as a young, male, urban one, the most recent holiday films have been predominantly light comedies and action adventure films.

Arguably, the coincidence between Islamic holidays and the film season has no deep religious significance, because these holidays are just moments where moviegoing becomes more intensive among Egyptian audiences. This suggestion can be reinforced by reasoning that the film release schedule does not mark any other religious holiday in any special way. The other major season is usually the beginning of summer break in national schools, when again releases coincide with a moment in which collective leisure activities are in demand. Sometimes, as was the case during my fieldwork, the bounds between seasons are blurred when Ramadan falls in the middle of summer break, yet these clashing schedules are not invested with significance beyond the logistical difficulty behind organizing a production schedule to release holiday films on time. Unlike the diffusely defined “summer break,” the Small and Great Eid set hard deadlines on film releases.

Indeed, a holiday film must be released on the very day of the Eid if it is to reap maximal profits, which creates a time pressure on postproduction,

Being a (Muslim) film worker in Egypt 43 shooting, all the way up to screenwriting. This pressure is most palpable in TV serial drama production, an industry with the same labor market and infrastructure as filmmaking in Cairo. TV serials are financed by satellite television channels. These channels, in turn, sell advertisements on primetime hours in the evening after if tar, when Muslim families are supposed to gather around their television sets to digest their copious meals and spend time with family. The time pressure to release the TV series on the first days of Ramadan is such that some episodes are finished mere hours before they are broadcast, while some productions continue shooting as they go along until the very last days in Ramadan. This kind of pressure accumulates toward the rear-end of production, but it is felt from the very beginning. “It’s very difficult to write [because of the] Ramadan season schedule,” complained the well-known screenwriter Mariam Naoum. “I get contracted in September-October . . . and I have two months to write a first draft until January [when shooting begins]. ... I barely have time to take a shower.” While the holiday film season is more flexible, not least because shooting is more condensed (two to eight weeks as opposed to the months of TV serial drama shooting), it is similarly bound by Ramadan deadlines, with a similar pressure on each phase of production.

In short, the film season (el-musem or just el-sizon) is tied to a Hijri schedule, but this fact is seldom taken to have religious significance, both by religious and non-religious film practitioners. What has more significance with regard to the time of production, however, is the everyday presence of Muslim prayer during the shoot. Muslim prayer is omnipresent in Cairo, the “city of a thousand minarets,” where the humdrum of loudspeakers calling believers to worship five times a day pervades the contemporary urban soundscape. Given my own preconceptions, I had never thought about the relationship between the call to prayer (adan) and the life of a film set beyond a working inconvenience, because dialogue recording must stop to avoid catching the call’s overwhelming sound into the film’s fictional world. To some workers, the call to prayer must have faded into the background of urban noise as it did to my ears. To others, it was more meaningful.

I had not given much attention to prayer until one time, while I was following a flurry of activity by the production crew in Oot w-Far (The Cat and the Mouse, dir. Tamer Mohsen, 2015), I walked by an office where the production manager Mohammed Setohy was praying. I was surprised for a moment, because I had never seen anyone praying in the company’s offices. I reasoned that this must happen often enough, just not in plain sight. Not being in the habit of praying myself, I had never felt the need to ask about where pious workers pray, although there is no reason to expect that they would not. Going through my field notes, Friday prayer seems to have been a particularly important occasion. This is not to say that pious workers do not pray on other days, but that their practice became manifest whenever they worked on Fridays.

“Whoever wants to pray can go pray!” This instruction was yelled out by the same Setohy while he announced the break on a shooting day in Décor (dir. Ahmad Abdalla, 2014). It was Friday, and the break happened to coincide with the prayer’s time. I later understood that Setohy was not just calling on his crew to pray but indicating that the break would be long enough to join the prayer at the local mosque. This has special significance because there is a widespread belief that Friday prayer provides additional blessings when carried out collectively, in a mosque, but the filmmaking schedule seldom matches prayer times in this manner. The assistant director who creates the overall shooting schedule and writes daily call sheets has several logistical concerns to juggle - including location changes, costume changes, actor availability - and adjusting to the prayer schedule is not high on their priority list. On an average shooting day, daily activities like eating, resting, or praying become subordinated to the imperative of executing the call sheet - crew members eat, rest, and pray on their own time.

After Setohy made his announcement, some crew members started organizing to go out praying. “Do you want to come pray with us?” asked the clapper Abdelsalam Radwan. I said that I did not wish to go, and he politely did not insist. This question arose given the ambiguity of my religious affiliation on set. The clapper would not ask his hierarchical superiors whether they would come out to pray, and he would certainly not ask women or Christians to come either. The question was legitimate in my case because I was a young Muslim male who did not have a clearly defined role on set, and whose religious affiliation was therefore unclear. Likewise, while we were scouting some antique galleries in Ward Masmütn (Poisonous Roses, dir. Ahmad Fawzi Saleh, 2018), the scouting session was interrupted when the cameraman and the production workers decided to pray in a local mosque before they miss the time. The director, his assistant, and I ended up in a nearby café waiting for the crew. “Why don’t you pray?” asked the assistant director. Before I could answer, the director had jumped in virulently: “Why would he pray?” The assistant cowered a little and muttered a brief “I don’t know . . . Are you Christian?” I smiled back and uttered a brief no.

Such direct questions about religious affiliation are infrequent in the industry, but they hint at an implicit awareness of each worker’s religious practices. Although there is a sizeable Christian minority behind the scenes, mainly Coptic, the industry is dominated by workers with Muslim backgrounds. Yet religious divisions are usually not salient in everyday working practices. This is, in part, because many workers commit to an openly secular worldview, where religion becomes a private matter with no place in a work setting. This is also because the industry’s hierarchical division of labor - between artistic and technical teams, between team heads and assistants - is a more explicit principle of organization. In this context, religious difference is not a prominent principle of distinction as it might be beyond the film industry in Egypt.

The fact that Muslim prayer explicitly and intentionally occurs during breaks or outside working hours, and therefore becomes invisible to whoever does not pray, is both a consequence of the secular attitude of many practitioners on set and of the industry’s hierarchical workings. This was clear in the case of Friday prayers in Décor, where the groups that went out to the mosque would consist mostly of men on the technical crew: the clapper, the sound assistant, some production workers, some lighting technicians, and some prop assistants. These workers have little to no say over their own schedules, being guided in this matter by their team heads and the call sheet, while being aware that prayer is not considered sufficiently important to warrant a scheduling derogation. Had a religious attitude been prevalent among hierarchical superiors like the director or the producer, it would have been reasonable to expect that prayer times would become more central to the day’s organization.

A story relayed by a sound assistant gives a more concrete shape to this proposition. “The problem with the Egyptian film industry is that it’s made upside-down (bel ma’lùb)” he suggested. He explained that instead of investing in good production value, then finding the appropriate cast and crew, the cast in Egypt is selected before the rest of the production crew. This gives way to a lot of “ass-kissing” (ta'rts) to bigger stars. The Egyptian film industry has always had a rigid star system (see Wassef 1995). This translates into overwhelming hierarchical respect for stars on set, whose every caprice must be accommodated accordingly. The sound assistant recalled once working in a TV series starring the aging yet iconic actress Nadia el-Gendi. The whole crew awaited the actress to appear on set, but she did not come out as expected. For hours, she went in and out of her lodge. Once, she said that she had to pray. She then packed and left for no apparent reason. The shooting day was cancelled. The sound assistant was fuming about the privilege accorded to the star, who stalled everyone’s workday at her own whim. He went so far as to question whether Nadia el-Gendi prays at all. Whether she does or not is insubstantial: what is clear is that her hierarchical position allowed her to take time off to engage in a personal activity, in a way that is not possible to other crew members.

Friday prayers are not always endowed with religious significance on set. “Meeting after prayer” is a frequent way of marking early Friday afternoon in Cairo, whether the interlocutors intend on praying or not. And while a significant contingent of technical workers went to pray at the local mosque while we were shooting in Décor, the rest of the crew did not mark the occasion in any way. Preparations for the next shot went on as usual, and some grips stayed on location to setup a dolly shot. This is not to say that the workers who stayed on location were necessarily less religious - in fact, several would probably have preferred to join the prayer - but that working considerations take priority over non-working needs, including eating, resting, and even praying. These considerations, again, are mediated not just by a secular understanding of religion as a personal or private affair but also by an acute awareness of labor hierarchies, which is palpable among religious and non-religious workers alike.

Cinema and Islamic morals

There is little talk in the Egyptian film industry about the practice of prayer and its link to the everyday work of film production. Moreover, none of my interlocutors ever reflected on the film season’s organization according to an Islamic calendar. What is regularly verbalized, however, are tensions between the practice of filmmaking and a moralizing Islamic discourse about the impropriety of cinema as a visual product and as a livelihood. Similar tensions have been highlighted elsewhere, specifically in the case of repenting actresses, a phenomenon which attracts wide press attention since the 1980s in Egypt (see Nieuwkerk 2013). Some actresses who have had a significant career in the film industry end up publicly donning a headscarf and repenting from their “sinful” activity. The press debate is usually set out in this contrast between the actress’ salacious life and her newfound piety, portraying actresses in terms of a virgin/whore binary, without examining the underlying assumptions behind this discourse - the assumption that filmmaking is immoral per se or that donning a headscarf is a moral activity per se. Such assumptions are most widely discussed in connection to actresses and their hyper-visible bodies, but they are in fact central to moral talk about the whole cinematic enterprise in Egypt.

An extreme example was expressed cheekily by the director Ahmad Fawzi Saleh while interviewing an actor for a role in Poisonous Roses (2018). To see how the actor would react, Fawzi shook him by declaring that “art is religiously illicit” (haram). The actor looked a little startled and muttered a brief “I don’t agree . . .” Fawzi asked him if he is Muslim, going against the tacit convention of avoiding any talk about religion overtly in a filmmaking context. “Yes, but I don’t practice much,” answered the actor, who added that he was still trying to become better at it. “It says in the Quran that art is illicit,” repeated Fawzi. The actor refused to believe it again, and he seemed a little uncomfortable, to which Fawzi answered by playing a verse from the Quran on his iPhone. “But there are, among men, those who purchase idle tales, without knowledge (or meaning), to mislead (men) from the Path of Allah and throw ridicule (on the Path): for such there will be a Humiliating Penalty” (The Holy Quran, Yusuf Ali translation, Luqman 6). The verse, he said, has been taken to mean that art is illicit by analogical reasoning (qiyas) in certain schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Fawzi’s performance was intended to gauge the actor’s response, since he most certainly did not believe his own provocation. Yet the discourse that he reproduced is widespread enough to have been preached, on Fawzi’s own admission, by a lecturer in cinematography at the High Cinema Institute, who stated in the classroom that “art is illicit” while pontificating about God’s existence.

While these examples might seem exceptional, I have felt the effects of this moralizing talk in conversations with film practitioners about how their families consider their job in the industry. Some practitioners reported no moral issue with their relatives after deciding to pursue a career in filmmaking. The line producer in Décor, Ahmed Farghalli, said that his family saw no problem with his career, but that they would have preferred him to become a doctor or an engineer. In Farghalli’s narrative, middle-class aspirations overshadowed moral reprobation. Thus, one should not overread moral motives into all disapproving comments about the film industry. Yet such a moral motive is apparent in other workers’ stories. The production assistant Khaled “Labanita” Hussein, for instance, explained how his devout father disapproved of his work, some three years into his career. Meanwhile, his mother was starting to become more accepting ever since he had worked in a TV serial that she had seen and liked.

The production manager Setohy had a similar story. His father initially did not agree with his decision to work in cinema, because he thought it was religiously illicit (haram). Setohy eventually eased his disapproval by convincing him that he is just doing a managerial job. “I still don’t feel right about it,” added Setohy in a reflexive tone. Implicit in Setohy’s unease was a desire to distinguish between religiously licit and illicit aspects of filmmaking, which translated into the common idiom of respectability (ehterâm). A managerial job like accounting or civil service is considered respectable by middle-class standards, because it is stable and comes from a legitimate source (e.g., a private company or the state). From the same perspective, cinema work is unrespectable, because it is unstable work and allows for gains from morally suspicious sources (e.g., producers associated with money laundering, drug trafficking, and promiscuous girls). Setohy did not directly challenge the latter characterization: hence, his “unease” with the job. Yet he established firm boundaries between his “respectable” (read morally appropriate) managerial work and the work he perceived as being “less respectable” (including acting).

This language of respectability bears important consequences for the women who work in Egyptian film production. Male workers dominate the industry except in certain positions such as actresses, stylists, and editors. Consequently, the few women who work behind the scenes - as directorial assistants, production assistants, or art directors - are faced not just with the burden of proving that they belong in a “masculine” line of work but also with constant suspicion about their moral respectability. This suspicion is cultivated by many male workers on set, regardless of religious affiliation, but it becomes visible when moral attitudes come to prevail among hierarchical superiors.

This point is well illustrated in a story relayed by the director Ahmad Fawzi Saleh, in a film where he worked as an assistant to a director who later “repented” after years of working in the film industry. In a scene where the main actress was about to go in the bathtub, the director saw the actress removing her clothes and immediately burst outside the bathroom yelling: “I beseech God almighty!” (astaghfar allahu-l-‘azim). When used unsarcas-tically, this religious expression is meant to state one’s repentance from sinful acts, seeking God’s help to avoid being tempted by a woman’s body for instance. The director’s performance of pious indignance had the effect, in this case, of reinforcing the notion that the actress was somehow engaging in sinful behavior, even though she was just executing her scene.

The assumption that the actress was to blame for her morally suspicious behavior was highlighted not just by the director’s pious stance but also by the rest of the crew, even though they did not act in an overtly religious way. When the assistant director had to finish the bathtub scene while the director refused to see it, he deliberately shot it three times in Fawzi’s recollection to be able to watch the actress removing her clothes repeatedly. All males in attendance had “their mouths literally opened,” to the point where the actress lashed out at the crew when the scene was over. Fawzi’s narrative shows how a male gaze, whether overtly pious or not, transformed the actress’ body into an unrespectable sight. Seeing as the onus of respectability is unilaterally brought to bear on women’s bodies, without a reflexive attitude toward male behavior as Fawzi had displayed in hindsight, female workers are compelled to invest extra care into maintaining their respectability on set. This explains why the actress would lash out at her overt sexualization by the crew.

The gendered labor of respectability does not just fall on actresses as documented by Nieuwkerk (2013) but also on workers behind the scenes. The costume script supervisor in Décor, Mariam el-Bagoury, is an interesting example. Bagoury hails from a family with strong connections to the industry: her grandmother was a well-respected actress; her uncle is a well-known director. Yet when she decided to become a director - a career progressing upward from script supervisor to assistant director in Egypt - she was met with some resistance within the family about joining a “bad milieu” for young women. This resistance might have been borne out of personal experiences with the all-male industry as opposed to religious avoidance, but it indicates the perception that the industry is morally fraught and imposes extra work on female practitioners to prove their respectability. This notion of respectability is not prevalent for purely religious reasons, because it has specific gendered and classed connotations as well. However, it is widespread enough among film practitioners to require a conscious response on their part, especially among hierarchically subordinate workers.

Filmmaking and piety

Throughout this chapter, I have highlighted elements in Egyptian film production that can be associated with Islamic belief and practice. Whether in a moralizing discourse about cinematic production or the organization of a production schedule, the presence of Islam in the film industry is difficult

Being a (Muslim) film worker in Egypt 49 to discuss unambiguously without considering additional factors inflecting it - for instance, a prevalent secular attitude, hierarchical labor relations, gendered and classed notions of respectability. While it is possible to distinguish between the attitudes of workers who display different degrees of piety, it is difficult to attribute their filmmaking practice to a purely orthodox understanding of Islam, if such an understanding is analytically possible. There has been an ongoing debate in the anthropology of Islam about whether Islamic piety is systematically displayed in individuated projects of ethical self-fashioning (see, e.g., Mahmood 2005; Hirschkind 2006) or whether pious practice is constantly intruded upon by competing “profane” agendas (see Schielke 2009). The case of filmmaking would seem to support the latter proposition, although both positions would seem to have validity depending on which groups are concerned, at what times in their working day, and in which spaces.

I have little evidence concerning film practitioners’ lives beyond the work setting. It is beyond my scope to discuss whether some workers are more deeply engaged in a specifically Islamic style of ethical self-fashioning than others. What is clear is that using the adjective “Muslim” to describe certain aspects of film production says little on its own about beliefs and practices in the film industry, even among pious workers. A pedestrian example of this contrast came up while talking to a pious production worker in Décor, while we were shooting on a cold night in the Egyptian Media Production City (EMPC). The worker had decided to rest a little to the side, after what looked like an exhausting workday for him. “I just want to go out and have a drink,” he muttered. For a moment, I thought that I had misunderstood, or perhaps he meant going out to drink tea or coffee, but the conversation soon veered to his past drinking experiences, including a nighttime shoot in a previous project where the whole production team had a sip of cognac to be able to bear the cold. This anecdote says little about this worker’s faith or Islam’s presence on set, but it is a reminder that an orthodox reading of Islamic doctrine cannot be unambiguously superimposed onto the living practice of Egyptian film practitioners.

So what can be gained by talking about practitioners as being “Muslim”? One important gain is an increased awareness of their social diversity. Egyptian makers of film are not just automatons who work in the same way as film practitioners elsewhere, but they are the products of a specific sociotechnical context where certain Islamic beliefs and practices are widespread. Thinking about practitioners as emerging from wider historical circumstances is a central tenet in existing ethnographic works on commercial film production (see, e.g., Ganti 2012; Hoek 2014; Pandian 2015; Meyer 2015; Martin 2016).

Such ethnographies situate religious beliefs and practices on set as part of a broader narrative about the industry’s work. In Bollywood, Ganti (2012) describes how film projects are launched with a puja ceremony on auspicious dates to confront the wider economic uncertainty of an unpredictable filmmaking market. In Ghana, Meyer (2015) describes how Pentecostal filmmakers and audiences use the cinematic medium to reveal and act against occult forces. In Hong Kong, Martin (2016) mentions how ghosts haunt the imaginary of filmmakers who are bent on chasing them to control the physical dangers and uncertainties of the filmmaking process. Such beliefs and practices shape each industry’s everyday work in ways that do not recur across the world, which in turn highlights the interest of Islamic beliefs and practices within the Egyptian film industry’s secular and hierarchical division of labor.

Another important gain in describing workers as “Muslim” is to highlight the diversity of beliefs and practices underlying the very concept of “Islam.” This has become a moot point since Talal Asad’s widely cited “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam” (1986), but it is important to reiterate the extent to which labels like “Islam” or “Muslim” can flexibly accommodate different beliefs and practices, whether among pious or not so pious individuals. The weight attributed to doctrine among film practitioners depends on their own sense of what Islam is, whether the analyst can identify some aspects of their work as being “Islamic” or not.

This point is perhaps most interestingly expressed in linguistic attitudes in everyday Cairo. God/Allah features extensively in expressions used by religious and non-religious workers alike, yet the weight attributed to the word’s religiousness will vary according to the worker’s attitude. When the line producer Ahmed Farghalli tells a crew member to “leave it to God” (hhalliha ‘ala Allah) to sort out unpredictable traffic conditions on a logistically difficult shooting day, his relaxed tone expresses nothing of the religious gravitas that the notion would have in another context. Likewise, when the production manager Setohy praises his production team as being the best in Egypt “with God’s grace” [befadl-ellah), his tone expresses a gratitude that cannot be simply written off as a secular metaphor. Unpacking what “Islam” means to different film practitioners, whether openly religious or not, whether the analyst and the practitioner even agree on what constitutes Islamic belief and practice or not, lends a different insight into the connection between cinema and Islam in this sense.


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