V New understandings of conflict
Islam, gender, and extremist violence in contemporary Egyptian cinema
While the image of Arab as terrorist has been the subject of investigation in the study of American films (Alsultany 2012, 2016; Gettl 2009; Semmerling 2006; Shaheen 2001; Slocum 2005), there has been much less examination to date of images of terrorism in Arabic cinematic production. Arab societies have suffered scourges of violence in recent decades attributable to militant groups espousing violent extremist ideologies, and the counteractive measures of regimes scrambling to maintain control. The governments and individuals within these societies have had to react to and strategize in response to militant groups which perpetrate violence, and to come to terms with the draw which extremist groups must have had to gain adherents in Arab societies. How have Egyptians, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, viewed the relationship between perpetrators of violence using religiously articulated justifications, and more mainstream understandings of Islam which the nonviolent majority espouse? Cinematic production offers us a window into attempts by Egyptian filmmakers to come to terms with sources of extremist violence, to understand the appeal of such groups in their societies, and to relate stories of victims and perpetrators of this violence.
This chapter analyzes a set of films from Egypt which contain characterizations of extremists, their perpetration of violent actions, and the exploration of the causal chain which led to their entry onto a pathway of violence. These films also offer contrasting images and discourse on Muslim identity, piety, devotion, social responsibility, and gender values, while exploring the communal and individual crises caused by or coincidental with violent extremist actions. These dramatic (and occasionally comedic) feature films treat extremist phenomena directly, such as The Terrorist (al-Irhaabi, Nader Gelal, 1994) and Terrorism and Kebab (al-Irhaab wa-l-Kabaab, Sherif Arafa, 1992). Others such as Yacoubian Building (Tmarat Ya’qubyan, Marwan Hamed, 2006) or The Closed Door (al-Abwab al-Moghlaka, Atef Hatata, 1999) examine the personal stories of those touched by extremist violence. These films’ images of extremist violence are examined in the context of the social, economic, political, cultural, and individual characters’ circumstances presented in the film and those contemporaneous to the film’s production, to examine how contemporary Egyptian cinema suggests how
Egyptians struggle to understand the violence labelled “terrorism” in their society.
Egypt, with its significant history of cinematic production (Shafik 2007; Armes 2010), provides a fascinating locus for the divergent uses of Islamic discourse and images of the “terrorist” in contrast to other images of Muslim identity and practice in film. It is critically important to distinguish between the broad range of mainstream religious expression among Muslims in Egypt, and modern fundamentalist currents which appeared in 20th century Egypt, most obviously with establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt at the hands of Hassan al-Banna, and the later appearance of a number of fundamentalist groups, including al-Gamaa’aat al-Islamiyyah (Jabbour 1993; Kenny 2006; Zeidan 1999).1 While some of these groups have focused in on understandings of communal and individual piety, others have espoused militant action to destabilize government, toward the goal of establishing an Islamic state according to literal “originalist” interpretations of Islamic texts. In this chapter, then, the term Islamist refers to an Islamic fundamentalist (who may not be violent at all), while radical, extremist, or militant Islamist is used to refer to a member of a group which deploys violence in pursuit of its political goals.
Terrorism and Kebab
Terrorism and Kebab (1992) directed by Sherif Arafa, and starring Adel Imam, reflects the social and political challenges in Egyptian society related to terrorism at the decade of the 20th century. Although the history of the acts by the violent arm of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups (al-Gama’aat al-Islamiyyah) may go back to the first half of the 20th century, this film appeared shortly after a particular upturn in violent incidents aimed at police, officials, civilians, and tourists starting in the 1990s.
In this context, this comedy film presents social and political commentary on Egyptian society (Neihardt 2011; Fanous 2012) through the story of Ahmed, an employee at the Water Commission, who also holds an evening job to make ends meet, and who wishes to process a school transfer for his children in the central governmental administrative building, al-Muganima’, located in Tahrir Square. Unable to effect the transfer on his first visit, due to the inefficiencies of government employees, he must return another day. He faces the anger of his boss for taking a second day off to effect this administrative task. After a full day of deepening frustration with the miserable, dizzying bureaucratic nightmare of the Mugamma’ offices, and employees’ avoidance of fulfilling their responsibilities, he refuses to leave the office dealing with school transfers that afternoon until his task is complete. Security comes to remove him. In his struggle to stay put, Ahmed grabs the security officer’s gun, instantly becoming an accidental terrorist. Four other marginal and oppressed members of society soon join with him to hold the Mugamma’ hostage. Finally, after demanding and winning kebab dinners
Islam and extremism in Egyptian cinema 183 for everyone in the building, to their delight, Ahmed considers this life or death situation, and expresses his one desire for human dignity - to not be humiliated at work, home, or in the street. His comrades add their desire for justice, truth, and fairness, each telling his or her story of complaint against their treatment by the government. They demand the government ministers all resign, to no effect. Faced with imminent attack by security forces, Ahmed releases the hostages, who, now sympathetic to his situation, come back and include him in their midst as they exit the building, leaving no terrorists to be found.
In this film, the terrorism depicted is simply accidental and without ideological or religious underpinnings, for Ahmed is not a radical Islamist, but rather merely a frustrated citizen. The images of Islamic fundamentalism in the film, while not violent, are, moreover, less than savory: one of the government employees in the office where Ahmed seeks to effect the school transfer is never available to do his job because he is constantly praying. He sports the beard, skullcap, and forehead callous often associated with those aligning themselves with the Muslim Brotherhood. His constant expression of piety in the form of continual prostrations on his prayer rug in the office seems to be an unassailable means to avoid actually doing any work. The same character ogles an attractive woman who had been arrested and accused as a sex worker, and who now has joined forces with Ahmed. The Muslim Brother suggests that she could live a rich and comfortable life, if she simply decided to put on the veil, and marry one of the Muslim Brothers, and be shut away in her house. The woman, whose life has been negatively impacted by women’s status in Egyptian society, wants none of the piety which, from her perspective, simply disguises lust and a desire to control women. The film critiques the unwieldy and inhumane inefficiencies of government, the unfairness of the justice system, and the unmet needs and daily humiliations of citizens of the state, while also critiquing the behavior of the Muslim Brother character as venal and hypocritical. The seeming terrorist takeover of a government building, and the taking of hostages tragicomically reveals the daily frustrations which Egyptian experience in their society and interactions with the state apparatus.
In contrast, and perhaps in response to the worsening security situation in Egypt in the early 1990’s, The Terrorist, a second film starring Adel Imam, and directed by Nader Gelal, is a much more serious depiction of a fundamentalist terrorist organization in Egypt, just as the film also may be seen as a message of support for government campaigns against terrorism (Birnbaum 2013). The main character, Ali Abd el-Zaher, has participated in an attack on a gold jewelry store catering to both Christian and Muslim customers, perhaps to fund the organization, and against a video store, offering entertainment considered taboo according to the group’s Islamist values.2
Chased by the police, Ali reports back to Brother Seif, his spiritual leader who calls for the violent overthrow of the “heretical” regime, and bans television, music, dancing, movies, smoking, and the visibility of women to non-relatives. As reward for his fidelity to the group, Brother Seif offers him engagement to a fully veiled woman, whose melodious voice he hears. Ali learns she is a young widow, whose previous husband died in one of the organization’s operations, and accepts the offer. As bride-price for the woman, however, Ali must carry out an attack on tourist buses, which he does. Now hunted by the police and security forces, Ali is sent to hide out in Cairo without seeing the promised fiancée. Further charged to carry out the assassination of a journalist who rails against Islamic extremist violence, Ali must shave his beard and wear Western style clothing to get near the target. We see the journalist speaking at a public event with slogans written behind him: No to Violence, No to Terrorism, Egypt for all Egyptians (Christian and Muslim), Egypt is a Land of Safety and Security. In contrast to these slogans, Ali and his co-conspirators attempt the assassination of the journalist, who survives the attack. A police officer from Tura prison, where detainees and political prisoners from al-Gama’aat al-Islamiyya are held and tortured, however, is shot.
Ali alone escapes, only to be hit by a car when he emerges from the metro. The family of the woman whose car struck him take him into their gardened villa and call the father of the family, a doctor, to come care for the injured man. The doctor, who coincidentally is treating the officer wounded in the attack, returns home to care for the unknown man whom his daughter struck, in an attempt to avoid legal complications from the accident. While Ali is unconscious from the shock, the family opens the attaché case he had been carrying in search of his identity. They conclude he must be Mustafa Abd el-Rahman, a philosophy professor from Cairo University, from whom the car containing the attaché case had been stolen for use in the terrorist operation.
Much of the film concerns Ali’s convalescence in their home under this assumed name of Professor Mustafa, during which we observe the huge contrast between the values Ali had been taught by the Islamist group, and the values of the liberal well-to-do Muslim family which has taken him in. When he protests their generosity and hospitality, the mother says, “We know our Lord,” suggesting that their behavior is guided by their religious faith. Yet he is scandalized by the rich folk - their music, television, posters of movies and Che Guevara, and women in Western clothing. Meanwhile, the police have surrounded the district of the city to prevent the escape of the terrorist, whom they know is in the area. The family expresses dismay at the terrorists on the news, doubting their Egyptianness, opining they are mercenaries to foreign interests, or the uneducated poor, manipulated by others. Ali/Mustafa meets their next door neighbor, a Christian whose wife is quite conservative and strict, and mistakes him for a pious Muslim. He enjoys this man’s company, and is much surprised and taken aback to later discover that this man is in fact Christian.
The wounded officer dies, and Ali has now abetted murder of the doctor’s dead patient. Brother Seif comes to visit under the guise of a relative from Mustafa/Ali’s village, and instructs Ali to steal money from the family, and to freely assault the “loose” women, since the women of heretics are booty. While playing cards with the younger daughter, Ali puts his hand on her knee, to her great offense. That night he tries to steal money and sneak out of the house, but he is felled by a gallbladder attack. The family members take him to hospital for treatment, and bring him home to recover, with the older daughter Susan nursing him. Ali discovers that the journalist, who had been the original target of the unsuccessful attack that had claimed the officer’s life, is a close friend of his host family. During a visit at their home during Ali/Mustafa’s recovery, the journalist, the Christian neighbor, Ali/Mustafa and the family all sit around watching the soccer cup final. Each prays in his own way for Egypt’s victory in the soccer match. When the Egyptian team wins, Ali/Mustafa spontaneously embraces the Christian neighbor, who leads the communal chant “al-Misriyyina-humma” (Egyptians, They’re the ones!). Ali sees and enjoys this moment of national and confessional unity despite himself.
Ali/Mustafa intends to leave the next day, but is clearly impacted by what he has experienced. Susan, the older daughter who had struck him in her car and nursed him, had become drawn to Mustafa based on the personal journal she had read from the attaché case. She asks him to stay one more day to attend her birthday party the next night. She kisses him on the cheek, when she discovers he is not engaged. Ali/Mustafa clearly is falling in love with her.
The next day, the younger daughter has determined to find out who Ali/ Mustafa really is, due to his touching her inappropriately, and his mysterious behavior. She discovers the pistol hidden in his room, and resolves to find out more. That evening, the lavish birthday party begins. The targeted journalist and a General of the Security Forces in attendance talk about the terrorist problem, and its funding from abroad. Ali/Mustafa comments that the Islamists will not go away, as it is ideological warfare. The General of the Security Forces wonders where he has seen him before. Both the general and host family’s younger daughter become more and more suspicious, while Ali/Mustafa drinks, flirts with women, declares himself a communist, and dances rowdily in turn, all in attempt to throw them off the scent. He becomes quite inebriated, only to hold forth loudly and tipsily from the stair landing before all the guests in a fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist sermon, condemning all the behaviors before him, when he passes out from excessive alcohol consumption.
The next morning, the younger sister goes early to Cairo University where she meets the real Mustafa Abd el-Rahman, whose car and attaché case had been stolen the month before. Meanwhile, back home Ali/Mustafa is taking his leave of the still trusting family members. The mother gives him a neck chain with a protective verse from the Qur’an, to send him on his way.
The younger daughter arrives home in time to confront him, at which he acknowledges he is the missing terrorist. The mother asks how could he possibly know religion, killing women and children as he had done? He leaves the house to find he’s surrounded, his escape route cut off. So he gets out the pistol and flees to the Christian neighbor’s house, where he takes them hostage. When he has yet another gallbladder attack, the decent neighbor gives him an injection to ease the pain, explaining that he had been in the medical corps in the war of ’73. Ali escapes via metro to central Cairo, pointed evidence of the state building infrastructure to the benefit of all Egyptians. He makes it back to Brother Seif, where he finds his promised fiancée has been married to someone else. He requests time to think and recover. The organization decides to send him abroad - perhaps Afghanistan, thus confirming the international ties of the Islamist organization. Ali learns that there is to be a second attempt to assassinate the targeted journalist. As Ali heads toward the border, he calls to warn the journalist of the assassination attempt, to no avail. The journalist is struck down. Ali turns back to Cairo, wishing to express his love for Susan, the older daughter who had nursed him. He is shot from two distinct directions at once by both an Islamist sniper for his betrayal of their cause, and by the security forces as a hunted terrorist, to die in Susan’s arms, knowing he had been wrong, and regretting he could not save the journalist’s life.
This film, then, offers two radically contrasting images of Muslim piety. The first is the ideal of the Islamist, which details strict behavioral proscriptions, constraints on women and their use as objects of reward, the repudiation of all who do not identify with the radical Islamist mission, and justifications for violence and its use by the group to achieve the goal of an Islamic state. The other depicts the common everyday religious sentiments and expressions of the doctor’s rather secular liberal well-to-do Muslim family, who also emphasize Egyptian identity as the great unifier embracing all religious identities. In this fashion, Islamist terrorists are contrasted with upper middle class well-educated and successful people who profess and act out their charity, liberal devotion to Islam, and successfulness in society, in alignment with the projects and policies of the state.
All aspects of the argument structure of the film encourage a critical discrediting of the Islamist group which destroys property, kills innocents, considers women treasure or booty, and despises all others who do not agree with them. The film clearly outlines the dismay which many mainstream Egyptians feel in the face of terrorist acts - particularly that of the more privileged classes who enjoy decent standards of living, nice places to live, have prospects for the future, do not suffer at the hands of police, and reject religious discrimination. While the doctor’s family and their well-placed friends express sorrow that less privileged Egyptians may be taken in by the Islamists’ discourse, there is no indication what either they or the state can do beyond slogans to counteract the attraction which Islamist organizations may have by way of the support services, community, and pathways to marriage and income they offer.
One of the more interesting constructs of the film is the contradistinction of the Islamist exclusionist identity with a nationalist, Egypt-first identity, which embraces both Muslims and Christians (Khatib 2006). It is the nationalist Egypt-first identity which lies behind the mother’s wondering how the terrorists could really be Egyptian - how could they have drunk from the waters of the Nile and still perpetrate such atrocities?! Similarly, it was the Egypt-first nationalist identity which allowed the neighbors, friends, and dissembling terrorist among them to celebrate Egypt’s win in the soccer final, despite their differences, and their different manners of praying. The Terrorist as a film allows the viewer to fantasize how to change a terrorist’s heart, through love, morality, liberal Islam, and modern, national values. It does not, however, give us insight into how Ali arrived at his recruitment into the Islamist group or the conviction to use violence in the first place. This is the only film considered here which suggests it might be possible to change the mind of someone committed to the violent acts for which he has been trained. In the unlikely scenario of The Terrorist, the perpetrator confronts the humanity and kindness of the Egyptians whom his organization has targeted, and comes to identify with the more inclusive nationalist Egyptian identity over strict intolerant sectarianism. It is not a solution for a grander scale.
The Closed Door
In The Closed Door (1999) directed by Atef Batata, we see the cinematic imagination of how a young man is gradually recruited into an Islamist organization, and evolves toward an eruption of violence. Muhammad (nicknamed Hamada) is being raised by his mother alone, as his father divorced her, abandoned them financially, remarried, and raised another family. His older brother has been missing in Iraq for the last three years. Fatma, his mother, works as a maid in the home of a well-to-do couple, where the husband eyes her sexually, while Fatma attempts to please and engage the lonely and neglected wife. When Hamada is kicked out of his Arabic class for peeping at the girls’ school next door, he learns that his teacher Ustadh Mansour wishes to give him private lessons, which Fatma can ill afford. Muslim Brother Hassan, who works at the school, kindly suggests he find study help at the local mosque. It is through Brother Hassan and the study group at the mosque that Hamada learns the strictures of Islamist discourse. Although Hamada feels confident in his Arabic and community in the mosque lessons, Ustadh Mansour comes to his house to speak with his mother to insist on outside lessons. Hamada goes to his father’s office that sends workers to jobs abroad, to ask for the money for the lessons on which Ustadh Mansour insists. His father refuses to help, despite the fact that Hamada has spied on the father’s new family to see that they enjoy a much higher standard of living than he and Fatma do. Ustadh Mansour, clearly interested in Fatma, offers the lessons at a discount. Hamada objects, but his mother accepts the kind offer, hoping for the lad to grow up successful and become a pilot, as he dreams. At some point over the course of weeks of lessons, Ustadh Mansour is able to communicate his interest to Fatma.
At home, Hamada is uncomfortable with his mother working as a maid, especially when he hears about the employer husband’s behavior. His mother’s friend and next door neighbor, Zainab, is a sex worker, unbeknownst to Hamada. While they chat, Fatma asks her, doesn’t she fear God? At Fatma’s job, the husband asks her to clean his old apartment on her day off (but in secret from the wife), during which he attempts to rape her. She is able to fight him off, and maintain her chastity. When Fatma stays home in bed, ill from the trauma, and considering how to manage the attempted rape, Hamada sees his mother with sexual eyes for the first time, and later has a wet dream which causes him consternation. He takes his experience to Shaykh Khalid at the mosque who urges chastity, veiling of women, keeping them home, and promises each of the lads at the lesson 4000 virgins, 8000 concubines, and 100 slave girls for those who go to heaven from among the Brotherhood. Inflamed by this sexually arousing discourse, Hamada returns home. When Zeinab offers him tea as he awaits his mother’s return from work, and sits by him on the couch, he fumblingly jumps on her in an abortive sexual assault, which Zeinab easily deflects. He runs away in shame, and later uses tapes of Islamist sermons to loudly compete with the television’s romantic musicals, and Zeinab and his mother’s playful makeup session.
Shortly thereafter, while chatting with the employer’s wife who drinks alcohol during the day, Fatma inadvertently reveals that she has been to the husband’s apartment, triggering the suspicious and jealous wife to insist on her expulsion from her job. Hamada is glad at this news, for her mother is now away from the harassing employer. Fatma, however, wonders how they will live. Hamada consults with Shaykh Khalid at the mosque, who instructs him to have his mother stay home and veil. He suggests that she should marry a real man from among the Brothers. Ustadh Mansour, on the other hand, promises to help her find a new job, and continues the lessons for free.
Hamada decides to take on responsibility for the household, however, and peddles flowers in the street with the brazen Awadain, a street youth he had befriended. Despite getting into a street fight over peddling territory, and baring a switchblade, Hamada proudly pays Mansour for his lessons, and funds the household through his activities. Based on this economic power, he instructs his mother to veil and stay at home. Desperate for help with the now self-righteous and overbearing lad, the mother goes to his father, who refuses to take the young man in hand.
Despite excelling in his lessons both at the mosque and with Ustadh Mansour, the unexpected difficulty of the General High School exam in Arabic take Hamada and his classmates by surprise. His classmates rip up their exam papers in dismay, while Hamada makes his into a paper airplane, spelling the end of the dream of academic success. Peddling once again on
Islam and extremism in Egyptian cinema 189 the street with Awadain, Hamada witnesses his friend being struck by a car and killed, propelling Hamada into crisis. Distraught, he finds his way to Shaykh Khalid preaching in an outlying town, where the crowds of men call out, “There is no homeland but Islam.”3 Shaykh Khalid allows the boy to mourn, then sends Hamada with a letter to a leader higher in the organization, a Shaykh Abdul-Aziz, for a solution to the boy’s situation. Hamada now begins to peddle religious tracts outside the mosque, and practices fire and brimstone sermons on his bed. The solution arrives soon thereafter, when Shaykh Khalid congratulates Hamada that his mother may marry Shaykh Abdul-Aziz, while Hamada himself may marry Shaykh Khalid’s lovely young daughter Samaa. Shaykh Khalid would visit soon to lay out the proposal. When Shaykh Khalid and Brother Hassan come to propose to Fatma (who would be a joint-wife were she to accept), she rebuffs them by falsely claiming she was still married to Hamada’s father. Enraged that he had tried to foist her off on some Islamist so he could marry, Fatma and Hamada fight, and she kicks him out of the house for a few miserable hours overnight.
Defying Hamada’s repeated instructions that she stays at home, Fatma soon finds a job in a nursery school with decent pay. She begins to come home later than expected for she has started meeting Ustadh Mansour as their gentle relationship develops. Under pressure to control his mother, Hamada has Muslim Brothers intimidate Zeinab into leaving her home next door. Hamada follows his mother after work to the apartment where she meets Ustadh Mansour. He breaks in to find them together, and stabs Mansour and then his mother multiple times with his switchblade. With his mother lifeless on the floor below him, he looks with horror at what he has done, as people pound on the door to discover what horrible mishap has occurred.
As a coming-of-age story gone wrong, the argument structure of the film suggests that Hamada arrives at his episode of violence through a horrible confluence of factors - abandonment by his father, poverty, the destruction of dreams for future success through standard (academic) pathways, sexual stirrings in confusion and shame, and an experienced affront to his family sexual honor in the form of his mother’s relationship with Ustadh Mansour, combined with the strict moral, religious, and political injunctions of the Islamist brotherhood from whom he received the only support he could accept, and the violent thuggery he had developed on the street. Without a helpful male role model in his life, and faced with pressure to “become a man” from all sides, Hamada chose to align himself with Brother Hassan and Shaykh Khalid, and their strict discourse over Ustadh Mansour and his mother, and her amity with sinners (Zeinab in particular). He chose the moral rigidity of the Islamists over the moral flexibility of his mother, and was entrapped when he was most in need, by the Islamists’ promises of sexual fulfillment, connection, and guiltlessness, if he would only abide by the strictures they laid down. Frantic at the need to control his mother, whom he now saw as wayward, and who destroyed his chance to marry Khalid’s lovely daughter, he struck out in rage at what he could justify as her sinful behavior, and destroyed the one closest to him. In this fashion, the film has made it imaginable how the young man evolved into a killer under the influence of Islamist discourse.
The Yacoubian Building
The Yacoubian Building (Tmarat Ya’qubyan, 2006) directed by Marwan Hamed in an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Ala’ al-Aswani, exhibits similar argument arcs concerning the origin of Islamic extremist violence on a larger scale. All of the films suggest that a young man, impeded by poverty, and lack of opportunity to progress toward fulfilling ideals for manhood in the form of a sustainable livelihood that would allow him to marry and support a family, may be ripe for recruitment by Islamist organizations and vulnerable to brainwashing for their purposes.
In The Yacoubian Building, the story of turning to Islamist fundamentalist violence is but one thread of many which are woven together in the fabric of the film as a whole, which follows the lives of several residents in the iconic building. Taha El-Shazli is the son of the resident doorman, janitor and guard in the Yacoubian building, whose family lives on the roof in small shacks divided among several other poor families. Taha loves Buthaina, who also lives in a rooftop set of two rooms with her mother and siblings. The two have been close since childhood; and Taha has given Buthaina a silver ring as a sign of his love for her. When Taha is helping his father mop the main staircase and landings of the building, we learn that Taha has scored high on the general high school exams, which would allow him to go into the engineering school for university, when a well-to-do resident and his wife ask about him as they enter their flat. He says he would prefer to enter the police academy and serve his country. He prays his dawn prayers as he prepares for his interview for the police academy.
Despite tensions in their relationship, Buthaina heartily wishes Taha success as he goes off in his new suit to his interview for the police academy, calling down prayers and blessing upon him. In the interview, however, despite his excellent grades, and excellent answers to interview questions, he trips up over a question about his father’s profession. Taha stretches the truth and says that his father is a [government] employee. When the interviewer challenges him, saying is not his father a building doorman and guard, Taha replies that that is a type of employee. The interviewer dismisses Taha, either for his lowly origins or for his attempts to hide the socially embarrassing truth of his class. Taha is crushed by the disappointment.
When next we see him, Taha is attending his first college lectures in his new suit, sitting high up in the lecture hall, observing other college men and women from afar. He is approached by another young man in plaid who asks why he is sitting so far away. They fall into conversation, sharing their
Islam and extremism in Egyptian cinema 191 common sense of alienation from the more well-to-do, and their sense of being out of place, as the sons of a doorman and a cobbler. Taha attends prayer at the mosque at the university, and meets a Muslim Brother student named Khalid, who praises his piety, and encourages him to attend Friday prayer at a large congregational mosque.
Taha later catches up with Buthaina walking home on the day her new boss had exploited her sexually at her new job. He tells her how discouraged he is by his sense of alienation at college. Tired and downcast, and hiding the harassment, which is the price of continued employment, Buthaina tells Taha to finish school and go work in the Gulf. He agrees, on the condition that she go with him. Taha notices that Buthaina is depressed and changed. In the subsequent weeks, Taha begins to attend Friday prayer with his schoolmate Khalid at a large congregational mosque, with an increased presence of security personnel. He has let his beard grow for several weeks, emulating those around him. The imam delivers a sermon criticizing the moral bankruptcy of society and the state, advocating for a state which is “not democratic or socialist, but Islamic.” Taha returns home from the mosque to see Buthaina hanging laundry. He offers her a book calling her to “Veil before the Day of Reckoning.” Buthaina explodes in anger, and resentment at his attempt to control her according to these Islamist teachings. She breaks off their relationship for good, pointing out how he had begun growing his beard like an Islamist, while Buthaina prefers to wear short skirts, in contradistinction to the fundamentalist ideals dictated in his book.
Suffering from the loss of Buthaina, Taha goes to consult with the shaykh/ imam of the large mosque, who tries to comfort him for the loss, suggesting that there are lots of good fish in the sea. The shaykh then challenges Taha to focus on jihad rather than romance, and love of God rather than love of woman. He then asks him to lead a demonstration at the university, which he does. The large student Islamist demonstration clashes with the riot police at the gate of the university. Taha is beaten, and captured. In detention, blindfolded, Taha is tortured and beaten to soften him up for the interrogator. The interrogator arrives with the distinctive sounds of his metallic cigarette lighter, and his voice. Suggesting he knows everything about Taha and all the residents of the Yacoubian building, including the fact that his mother had been married before his father, the interrogator asks to which Islamist organization Taha belongs. When Taha denies everything, the interrogator declares that he will have his subordinates rape Taha to force him to talk. The rape ensues, after which we see Taha naked, alone weeping in detention.
A month later, Taha meets the shaykh at Groppi’s for tea, having spent these weeks hiding out at home since his release, attempting to get over his horrible experience in police custody, during which he had never offered any information. The shaykh wants him back at school; but Taha is way beyond that... he wants revenge on the man and system which had raped him, taken his honor, and wounded his manhood. The shaykh then takes
Taha to the Islamist training camp somewhere in a desert oasis, where he undergoes military style basic training, and studies under another Islamist shaykh. During the extended time at the desert Islamist training camp, Taha marries a beautiful young woman from among the Islamist group, fulfilling his sexual dreams and desires.
When finally Taha and two companions go into the city to assassinate the interrogator who had had Taha raped, a terrible gun battle ensues, in which all three Islamists and the interrogator and several of his guards and subordinates are killed. Taha and his target fall near each other, with their dying blood intermingling on the street.
While the story of Taha el-Shazli is but one thread of the complex story of The Yacoubian Building, it nonetheless serves to suggest that the combination of class discrimination, the frustration of ambition (to enter the police academy) based on educational and moral merit, lack of pathways for success, alienation from upper middle class peers, the lack and loss of love and sex, and the torture and abuse suffered at the hands of the state investigative apparatus all combine to allow Taha to be swayed by the Islamist group and participate in violent action. Taha’s story is also intimately bound up in gender, and the construction of masculinities in contemporary Egypt. Humiliated and disadvantaged by the social standing of his father in society, Taha finds relief and strength among the Islamic Brothers who call for equality among men in an Islamic state dedicated to support the poor, offering pathways to manhood, marriage, sanctioned sexual expression, livelihood in service to God and his polity, and images of everlasting male sexual fulfillment after death in paradise. Humiliated further by the sexual torture he endured at the hands of state security investigators, Taha seeks revenge for the forced violation of his own sexual dignity, and is empowered by the Islamists to do so, for their own purposes.
In contrast to the Islamist ideology which draws Taha in, in his vulnerability, there is an alternative image of Muslim piety in “The Yacoubian Building,” which suggests the convenient use of piety as social capital in the personage of Hajj Azzam, a wealthy businessman in his late 50s or 60s, who owns numerous businesses in the downtown area, and who renovates one of the flats in the Yacoubian building for his new second wife. Hajj Azzam constantly presents himself as pious - in dress, behavior, and speech, despite consuming and dealing in hashish, and using and controlling his second wife for his secret pleasure and convenience. When Hajj Azzam finds that he is experiencing sexual arousal and wet dreams, and finding his first wife unattractive and uninterested at this stage, he consults a shaykh, who congratulates him on his good health, and directs him to a second marriage, since Islam allows a man to marry as many as four women, so long as he can provide for them.
While on a business trip in Alexandria, Azzam espies Su’ad, a pretty young veiled widow working in the offices of a business colleague, and determines to marry her, on the condition that she leave her six-year-old son with her
Islam and extremism in Egyptian cinema 193 brother in Alexandria, and that she not conceive. The contract is economically advantageous to the widow Su’ad, who needs to support her son in whatever way she can, so she agrees. Su’ad finds, however, that the arrangement is less than satisfactory. It is a marriage purely for Hajj Azzam’s pleasure. Hajj Azzam requires her to stay at home. The marriage, legal though it may be, is kept secret from the first wife; so Hajj Azzam never sleeps in Su’ad’s apartment, after his sexual pleasure. Her son may not come to visit, and she may not visit him. Months later when Su’ad becomes pregnant, and shares the news happily, Azzam flies into a rage, and demands she abort the pregnancy. Su’ad refuses. With all Azzam’s attempts to convince Su’ad and her brother to effect an abortion to comply with the original agreement, only to be told that they find it contrary to God’s law, Hajj Azzam hires women to drug Su’ad and kidnap her from her bed and take her to abort the pregnancy. She awakens in hospital recovering from hemorrhage after the abortion. Azzam’s adult son comes to inform her that she is divorced and that all her belongings will be sent to her brother’s house along with the required divorce payment. When Su’ad in her pain says that Azzam does not know God, his son retorts that Azzam knows God very well, and has done everything according to the law.
This particular image of Muslim piety is less than attractive, focused on Hajj Azzam as an astute business player who uses the levers of his understanding of Islamic law for his personal advantage and pleasure. Azzam uses (il)legal and social advantages he has as a rich man and husband to control and punish those who resist him, using the facade of piety to get away with assault, kidnapping, and forced medical procedures without consent.
The Yacoubian Building, then, presents two powerful yet contrasting images of Islamic piety, one which uses Islamic fundamentalist discourse in attempt to make political, social, moral, and religious change in society through violence, and another in which an individual uses the tools and discourse of piety to his own advantage, at the expense of others. The film does not focus on mainstream and moderate religious expression and practice, but on these two characters of Taha and Hajj Azzam whose use of Islamic discourse to justify actions is presented as extreme, problematic, even distasteful. For just as the shaykh manipulates Taha into carrying out political actions which escalate to murder, so Hajj Azzam manipulates people and the law in order to take what he wants from Su’ad, and to assault her, and remove her agency and choice from her, and throw her away when she becomes inconvenient. It is remarkable, however, that the argument structure of Taha’s story suggests that issues of class discrimination and the brutality and torture used by police and the security apparatus may also contribute to the recruitment of youths to violence.
All of these Egyptian cinematic productions wrestle with the phenomena of Islamic extremist discourse and violence in Egypt, and offer critical arguments for what factors might contribute to the vulnerability of youths in economic or emotional extremis to being recruited for such violent acts.
While some of these films seem to support the state and its response, they also contain social and political critique giving food for thought and posing challenges to the viewing audience. There are no happy endings. Several films suggest that the interaction between requirements on young men to fulfill prescribed gender roles, the lack of pathways for economic success, and social and economic barriers to socially acceptable sexual expression may contribute to vulnerability to the influence of extremist doctrine, and Islamist community support structures. At the same time, the films do hint at dissatisfactions with police brutality, interrogation techniques of torture and abuse, governmental and judicial policies, all of which were factors in the recent revolutionary movements in Egypt. All this begs the question of what solution might be found for such extremist violence, between authoritarian rule based on the military, and authoritarian rule based on the Muslim Brotherhood or fundamentalist doctrine.
- 1 It is important to recognize and assert that, contrary to stereotypes in the west, the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not violent, and that among those who espouse fundamentalist piety, only a small minority have espoused violence, while some have repudiated it.
- 2 The irony is wonderfully unavoidable, that the attack against the video store also apprises those who watch this very film that they are sinful in the eyes of the Islamist group Ali represents.
- 3 This fascinating chant is syntactically parallel to the first line of the confession of faith in Islam: “There is no god but God . . . “This chant, then, sets up Islam at the primary of focus of allegiance, displacing and subordinating allegiance to homeland, tribe, nation state and family.
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