Queer wasn’t a problem in Middle Eastern movies until recently

Gulf States Recently Banned Disney’s Toy Story Movie light year because of alesbian kiss. Saudi Arabia also demanded that Disney remove 12 seconds fromthe latest Doctor Strange movie, because the character America Chavez talksabout her “two mothers”. And last year in Egypt, an ultra-conservativeparliamentarian wanted to ban Netflix for ‘promoting immorality’ in the Arabicversion of the Netflix film. Perfect Strangers , partly because one of thecharacters comes out for his homosexuality. Meanwhile, _Perfect Strangers_Netflix’s most watched movie in the Arab world.

This week is coming Love, Spells and All That in the Netherlands, by ÜmitÜnal from 2019. A beautiful, naturally acted film about two women who meetagain twenty years after their first relationship and fall in love again. Isthat possible in Erdogan’s religiously conservative Turkey?

Surprisingly, Middle Eastern cinema has never had much trouble with queercharacters and themes historically. Queer is just visible in movies. In thefilms of the Egyptian pioneer Togo Mizrahi, who worked with the biggest moviestars of his time, comic entanglements regularly ended up in bed with peopleof the same sex or kissing each other more than amicably. Crossdressing sceneswere the order of the day.

In the decades that followed, Egyptian star director Youssef Chahine paid alot of attention to serious character interpretation in his films featuringqueer characters, for example in the partially autobiographical AlexandriaTrilogy. In the part Alexandria Why? we see a love affair with an eroticscene between an Egyptian nationalist and a British soldier. These films areconstantly shown on Arab television channels.

Only in 1964 did Chahine go too far Those People of the Nile , a film aboutthe construction of the Aswan dam, in which a Russian engineer has an affairwith an Egyptian worker. He takes him to Russia and then has him walk a fewmeters behind him on the street. These references to racism could upsetEgypt’s Russian allies, according to the censors. Chahine had to redo thesestreet scenes, but the love affair was no problem.


Salah Abu-Saifs The Malatily Bathhouse (1973) went even further in theportrayal of eroticism. The film is set in a bathhouse in Cairo, where awealthy artist falls in love with a working student from a poor family, whoworks there as a masseur. Even though the boy is in love with a prostitute whoalso works in the bathhouse, there is an erotic tension between artist andstudent.

The artist refers to the historical tolerance of the Middle East towardshomosexuality. In the meantime, he explains his homosexuality as Freudian byan unhappy relationship with his parents. But the film is a plea foracceptance. The fact that he can no longer be seen on television may berelated to the near-nude scenes. On the street you can find it everywhere onpirated DVD.

The plot of the transvestite comedy For Men Only (Mahmud Zul-Fiqar, 1964)does Billy Wilders Some Like it Hot of six years before, with the famous_gay twist_ at the end. Crossdressing comedies were common in Egypt, but ForMen Only was also a serious plea for equal treatment of women. Two graduatefemale oil engineers (star actresses Suad Hosni and Nadia Lutfi) can’t findwork until they show up dressed as men at an oil rig in the desert. There arethe necessary gender-conversion complications, such as during the weekly dancewhere the men dance close to each other for lack of women – according to somea reference to a gay nightclub.

The Yacoubian Building (Marwan Hamed, Egypt 2006) is the most commerciallysuccessful Arab cinema film ever. In this film, homosexuality is portrayed as’natural’; a gay journalist is one of the more likeable characters.

Turkish queer star

It is no different in Turkey. The Turkish singer/film star Zeki Muren, whooften performed in transvestism and who was known to be homosexual, was a folkhero in the middle of the last century. The next Turkish queer star was transsinger/movie star Bülent Ersoy. In 1981, just after she had undergone a gendercorrection, a military junta came to power that banned “social deviance.”Ersoy emigrated. After the junta disappeared, it returned, unabatedly popular.Her queerness does not stand in the way of ties with the current religiouslyconservative regime: in 2016 she caused a stir when she hosted the religiouslyconservative President Erdogan and his wife during a Ramadan meal.

Those People of the Nile (1972)

The Malatily Bathhouse (1973)

Homosexuality did appear in films half a century ago, but the theme was givenlittle depth. It was typical for the time in Turkish Kocek (1975). In this,a boy dreams of becoming a woman. He is forced by gangsters to act like_köçek_ prostitute, a traditional young male nightclub dancer dressed as awoman. When a rival gang wants to rape him, the criminals discover his sex andstab him. When he wakes up in the hospital, the doctor has performed a sexchange operation. Then a childhood friend falls in love with her, withoutknowing that she was once his best friend. All this in the form of a cheerfulmusical.

That rather farcical handling of queer themes gave way to more seriouscharacter drawing in recent decades. In Fatih Akins The Edge of Heaven(2007) a lesbian relationship was also central, just like in Lebanese_caramel_ by Nadine Labaki about a group of women and their relationshipproblems. One of them is attracted to women, which is not a problem foranyone.

In terms of openness and understanding, Middle Eastern cinema doesn’t farebadly compared to Hollywood, where in the past queer characters were oftentwisted bad guys, as in Rope, Midnight Express, Silence of the Lambs or_Basic Instinct_. Why does a movie become like light year now banned? TheGulf states talk about western influences that go against local values. Butdoesn’t it look like they are importing Western, Christian conservatismthemselves? They would do better to study their own film history.