Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Kerr Houston:

Text of talk given in February about Egyptian film posters at the annual College Art Association Meeting in Los Angeles

It would surely be simplistic to say that the 1950s were a period of exceptionally dramatic upheaval in Egypt: so, too, were the 1860s, and the 1910s, and the 1940s – and so too, of course, is the present. Still, it’s clear that Egypt saw a number of significant sociopolitical developments in the 1950s – beginning, most obviously, with the revolution of 1952, during which the Free Officers forced the king into exile and established a socialist republic. The revolutionaries soon drafted a new constitution, enacted land reforms and labor laws, and gave women the right to vote – and they also began to affect the larger landscape of global politics. Consequently Cairo, in the years between 1952 and 1967, was one of the most closely observed cities in the world.

Rivoli Cinema burns 1952

Given the scale of these events, it may seem trivializing to claim that the cinema occupied an important place in Egyptian history at that time. And yet, a combination of foreign influence, popular enthusiasm, and official support meant that film, in mid-20th-century Egypt, was often bound to larger discussions regarding independence, nationalism and evolving moral codes. Indeed, these discussions could become violent, as in January of ‘52, when the Rivoli Cinema was burned by rioters demonstrating against the British military presence. But they could also assume a subtler form, in conversations regarding the sorts of films that were screened: in this vein, Robert Vitalis has argued that by ‘52 Cairo’s movie palaces “were constituent elements in a landscape of power.” And so, too, I would add, were the films shown after the revolution. Indeed, as Joel Gordon has argued, Naguib, Nasser, and the other Free Officers were raised “in a world of matinee idols,” and they shared a deep interest in the cinema. Consequently, films screened in Cairo often acquired complex political and social overtones, or inflections. For instance, the first film shown at the Cinema Metro after the July coup was Quo Vadis, whose treatment of a lavish, irresponsible Nero struck many observers as an allusion to the fallen King Farouk. Subsequently, the new government exerted considerable pressure on local studios and cinemas in censoring or encouraging particular projects, and by ‘63 the film industry was nationalized. Thus, the revolutionaries may not have openly cited Lenin’s idea that “of all the arts for us the cinema is the most important,” but, in Gordon’s words, “they certainly saw the silver screen as a palette for depicting a new polity and society.”

Film posters in Cairo

If cinemas and screened movies, though, played a role in Egyptian political discourse of the ‘50s and ‘60s, what of their even more visible cousins: movie posters? After all, Cairo’s cinema facades and boulevards were regularly dotted with posters advertising both imports and domestic releases. Produced by local painters and lithographers, movie posters were generally issued in several standard sizes and in multiples of several thousand. Of course, they competed for the viewer’s eye with hundreds of other placards and billboards, in a dense urban network of signs. And, of course, they were ephemeral, as they were usually covered or removed within a few weeks. But as we’ve already seen this morning, ephemerality, in a modern urban context, hardly implies insignificance; rather, as Baudelaire once wrote, even the briefly revealed beauty of a woman’s leg can leave a passerby on the street convulsed or delirious.

Certainly, one could approach the hundreds of surviving mid-century movie posters from a variety of angles; although they’re only ads, and sometimes rather coarse ads at that, they can also reveal a good deal about the larger social and political climate of the time. In this talk, I’ll limit myself to a particular strand of socio-political change in post-revolutionary Cairo: in the spirit of Baudelaire’s poem, I want to think about women in the city. More specifically, I’ll argue that movie posters from the period offer two distinct means of presenting the female form – and thus offer, as well, distinct modes of thinking about the place of women in the city. To be sure, the examples I’ll be considering are hardly entirely typical: after all, some posters of the period were completely aniconic, many focused solely on male figures, and a number of those that did picture women did so in generic and conventional ways. That said, two bands of imagery common in the ‘50s and ‘60s seem to relate meaningfully to larger attitudes about public space, Western influence, and Egyptian identity. In his 1974 history of posters, Max Gallo wrote that his aim was “to show through posters the evolution of society, of customs, of ideas.” Here I hope to do something similar, if on a more modest scale.

If you leaf through surviving examples of mid-century posters, you’ll come across a handful of images that show women in windows. Admittedly, in one example, a man shares the space; in most examples, though, only women fill the frame. Bound by sills and rectangular frames, they peer out at us from a clearly differentiated architectural space. The effect can be playful, or inviting, or even flatly voyeuristic, as we’re given a partial view into a private interior. And while it is possible to find occasional examples of a comparable motif in Hollywood posters of the time, the Egyptian use of the theme feels less inspired by foreign example than by local experience. For instance, in her Life Among the Poor in Cairo, based on her experiences in the city in 1969, the anthropologist Unni Wikan returned repeatedly to the fact that, as she put it, “people take part in the life of the streets from balconies and windows, as either actors or audience.” Relatedly, glimpses of a female body, through a screen or window, were a well-worn motif in Egyptian literature. Indeed, the idea permeates Arab writing generally: given the long regional tradition of haram, or seclusion, the sequestered, enframed, and often desired female is a standard trope. But it was a particularly familiar one, it’s fair to argue, in mid-century Egypt, for Naguib Mahfouz, Cairo’s most celebrated novelist, returned to it again and again in his writings. In his 1947 novel Midaq Alley, for example, the lovestruck barber Abbas peers repeatedly at the window of the object of his affection, the beautiful Hamida. Typically, he’s rewarded with little more than brief, partial views of her – but these glimpses come to form an important role in his love for her. Indeed, when he prepares to leave the neighborhood for a stint in the army, it’s the view of her in the window that he claims he will miss the most. “Every morning,” he tells her, “I’ll think of the beloved window from which I first glimpsed you combing your lovely hair. How I’ll long for that window…” The window, in short, has become the object of his desire – and, in the poster for the film, a condensed image of the story, generally.

Midaq Alley [zoqaq al-midaq] (1963) - (Shadia)

But posters like this didn’t only represent windows; in another sense, I think it can be said that they resembled them – or, at the least, offered an apt medium for the propagation of the motif. Pasted onto the walls of city streets, and usually around two feet wide and three feet tall, posters literally resembled windows, in their scale and placement. Moreover, the ephemerality of the movie posters broadly evoked the fleeting appearances of women such as Hamida, in their windows. And, finally, posters that depicted women in windows involved a tension (a tension between the urge to glimpse the partly revealed subject and the unreachability of that subject) that was entirely appropriate to print ads. That is, as images the posters placed viewers on the outside of a tantalizing interior, and as ads they offered a glimpse of a film that could be seen more fully only with the purchase of a ticket. The logic, then, was ultimately promotional, but it was cast in a visual language that was local, and that upheld traditional sexual boundaries, or public conventions.

At about the same time, though, a second motif, involving a very different sort of depiction of the female form, was becoming increasingly frequent in Cairene film posters. I’m thinking here of explicitly sexualizing images that depict women in various states of undress, revealing stretches of leg or bare shoulders. By the late 1950s, such posters were common – but they marked a real change from the chaste aspect of parallel examples from the 1940s. Compare, for instance, the posters for the 1941 film Layla, Girl from the Country and the 1959 film Layla, Girl from the Beach. Tasteful decorum yields to a more open and provocative display.

Layla, Girl from the Country (1941); Layla, Girl From the Beach (1959)

How to understand this second vein of imagery? In this case, I think, the background is more complicated. On the one hand, we might note that there was in fact a lively tradition of female exhibitionism in Cairo – at least, that is, in certain circles. Dancers, for example, often dressed in alluring ways. In his essay “Homage to a Belly Dancer,” for instance, Edward Said remembered seeing, as a 14-year-old, the famous Cairene performer Tahia Carioca in 1950, and recalled her allure as that of the femme fatale. Indeed, it was partly due to their habits of dress that dancers were often assumed to work as prostitutes – and contemporary images of streetwalkers, like this poster, often linked prostitution to wanton display. In fact, one could argue that here, too, there is a meaningful parallel between the movie posters and their subjects, for both involve the notion of deferred pleasure. Said, moreover, makes this a central theme of his essay, as he refers to the complex set of diaphanous veils worn by Carioca, and stresses the way in which his realization that his view of her couldn’t be consummated only intensified his excitement. Likewise, the streetwalker reveals, but doesn’t give – or, rather, gives for a price – much like, again, the movies, advertised by posters that showed flesh in a manner calculated to fuel certain viewers’ desire for more. Such an analogy, I admit, might seem like a stretch were it not for the fact that it appears, explicitly, in at least one movie poster of the time: in this poster, for the 1964 film The Abnormal Girl, the marginalized heroine proffers her body while she stands against movie posters that line the wall of an alley. Her pose, we understand, is like a poster: it exhorts us to see more.

Abnormal Girl [fatat shaza] (1964) - (Shouweikar)

Nile Hilton, 1959

The abnormal girl is also revealing, though, in that she wears Western garb – and so affiliates herself with a mode of display that was commonly linked, in Cairo, to American influence. In her book Building the Cold War, Annabel Wharton argued that the Nile Hilton, which opened in Cairo in 1959, embodied a foreign attitude towards the body on view. In her words, “the open balconies of the Hilton on which viewers displayed themselves offered a manifest contrast to the shuttered compartments of old Cairo in which viewers hid themselves.” That is, guests at the Hilton didn’t peer between shutters for views of one another; rather, they could ogle the beautiful bodies of the wealthy at the hotel swimming pool. Or, in fact, they could simply walk the streets of Cairo, where women were increasingly visible. Encouraged by Nasser’s gestures toward secularization and enabled by the pedestrian sidewalks of the largely European-designed downtown, Egyptian women of all classes began, in the 1950s, to work outside the home and to travel through the city as a matter of course. Certainly, many of these women were veiled, but many were not – and, as Sawsan al-Messiri noted in a 1969 thesis, even some women who did cover their heads mastered a subtle art of display in which handkerchiefs and garments were allowed to fall so that they could be retied in an act of public exhibitionism.

In short, a variety of circumstances meant that the female body was often on display in mid-century Cairo. But before we read this in terms of conventional objectification, it’s worth realizing that many Muslim observers saw such display as dangerous, or debasing, to the viewer. In a terrific article on the averted gaze in Iranian cinema, for instance, Hamid Naficy once referred to a common idea that “instead of controlling women through their gaze, men are lured and captured by the sight of women…” Similarly, the Moroccan writer Fatima Mernissi has referred to the widespread notion that if a woman enters a traditionally male space, “she is upsetting the male’s order and his peace of mind. She is actually committing an act of aggression against him merely by being present where she should not be…” Where she should not be: in the years before ‘52, Cairene women had generally been restricted to their immediate neighborhoods, and those few who regularly moved about in the largely Western downtown were often assumed to be – like Hamida, in Midaq Alley – morally void participants in the sex trade that catered to foreign visitors and troops. But after ‘52, Egyptian women were no longer contained in the same way, and sometimes intimidated commentators who saw them as a nightmarish conflation of home and city, or Egyptian virtue and Western influence.

Cairo Station [bab al-hadid] (1958) - (directed by Youssef Chahine)

Interestingly, one of the most celebrated of all mid-century Egyptian films clearly points to the relevance of such claims. Cairo Station, or Bab al-Hadid, was issued in 1958; directed by Youssef Chahine, it focused on Qinawi, a cripple who sells newspapers at the Cairo train station. Qinawi fantasizes about marrying Hanouma, a sultry soft drink vendor who also works at the station and embodies the newly visible working woman – but who often flirts with potential customers even though she is engaged to a charismatic porter named Abu Sehri. Ultimately, the jealous Qinawi attempts to murder Hanouma, but fails in the task, and is finally apprehended.

Youssef Chahine as Qinawi and Hind Rostom as Hanouma in Cairo Station

Cairo Station still with Niagra poster

Often dressed revealingly, Hanouma is consistently sexualized by Chahine’s camera – but she is hardly the only sexualized female in the film. Meaningfully, Qinawi is also obsessed with pin-up photographs, which he clips from his newspapers and tacks to a closet wall; the frenzy and the violence with which he cuts them suggest that the unveiled female body has somehow driven him to rash actions. But there’s more: in several scenes, a poster for the 1953 Marilyn Monroe film Niagara, picturing Monroe reclining in a bikini, dominates the background. A dense conflation of overtly sexual display, American influence, and femme fatale (for Monroe’s character attempts to murder her husband during their honeymoon), the film offers a dark summary of some of the ideas that typified discussions of women in public in 1950s Cairo. Public female display is linked, repeatedly, to violence – and nowhere more obviously, perhaps, than in a tense section in which the image of Monroe is juxtaposed with Qinawi’s lust, jealousy, and instability.

It’s a powerful stretch: Monroe’s revealed legs echo Hanouma’s, suggesting a conflation of beloved and pictured film star, and the closeup of the bowing rail evokes both the sexual congress of Qinawi’s beloved and her fiancé, and the mounting pressure within Qinawi, who will ultimately crack, and try to kill her. Indeed, Qinawi is totally unhinged by the end of the sequence, and the reasons for his dissolution seem clear: they lie in the allure of Monroe and the Americanness of the Coke bottle that he wields as a weapon. Baudelaire may have felt fevered after glimpsing a woman’s leg in the city, but Qinawi is flatly deranged. A novel urban geography, in which old boundaries have dissolved, has created overwhelming pressures. Given all of this, it is perhaps easier to understand why, in January of ‘52, the mob of anti-British rioters proceeded to the Rivoli – a cinema that regularly showed imported films – and burned it to the ground. While some Cairenes certainly enjoyed the foreign cinema, many others felt what Mernissi once called the “itchy ambivalence” of Arabs toward Westernization: a deep interest that was nonetheless tempered with suspicion. Indeed, that ambivalence also explains the conventional arc of many Egyptian films of the time: again and again, they introduce unabashedly Westernized characters who pepper their speech with Americanisms and adopt a newer, more open mode of display – only to be put in their place by the end of the film. Urban modernism is thus shown as superficially seductive, but as ultimately corrosive. And so, given that urban modernism generally carried a Western valence, mid-century Egyptian films offered in turn a conservative rejection of Westernization and a slew of related ideas: of feminism, for instance, and of open sexual display. Granted, they often used such subjects as a temporary means of titillation, but usually ended by celebrating instead, the baladi, or traditional girl from the country, as a truer icon of national identity. Or, as Hind Rassam Culhane once argued, “the theme of many Egyptian films is that the native sons and daughters of Egypt must struggle to preserve their identity… against the strong, almost tidal, pull of Western culture.” In this light, it’s worth knowing that Cairo Station – the setting of Chahine’s film – was also the site of a much-discussed moment in 1923, when Huda Shaarawi, an Egyptian feminist, returned from an international conference by provocatively taking off, as she stepped from the train, her veil. Thirty years later, the site of that radical gesture was cast as the backdrop for a poster of a scantily clad Marilyn Monroe that was implicitly associated with murder. A politically progressive act of unveiling was now reframed in violent, debasing terms. The city, and urban female space, were being redefined once more.

Neighbor's Daughter [bint al-giran] (1954) - (Shadia)

In the preface to Anwar Sadat’s 1957 memoir, Gamal Nasser wrote that “Egyptian affairs over the last twenty years are made difficult to understand by the complexity of events. But closer scrutiny reveals certain leading themes…” I’ll close by suggesting that movie posters were one field in which those themes are visible. Certainly, poster designers were aware of the potential power of the Westernized, sexualized female body. Indeed, so too were other Egyptians: in his 1956 novel Palace Walk, for instance, Mahfouz described a boy of about ten who (and I quote) “stopped under its billboard combing his little eyes up and down the color poster which depicted a woman reclining on a divan, a cigarette between her crimson lips…” But even as they depicted such subjects, posters also already implied that those subjects were corrupting, or foreign, or ephemeral – and would result, inevitably, in loss, or punishment. And, in the process, Egyptian posters worked to celebrate instead a series of local, traditional values, by citing the red, white and black of the Egyptian flag, or by placing virtuous heroines safely within the confines of a sturdy window frame – or by doing both, as in this version of the poster for The Neighbor’s Daughter. In short, such posters recognized the simultaneous allure and repugnance that many Egyptians felt for the West at the time – and they used that ambivalence as a means of promoting both the films and the larger nation for which they stood.

Kerr Houston

Professor of Art History

Dept. of Art History, Theory and Criticism

Maryland Institute College of Art


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