'Seduction' in Arab Cinema: An Extinct Genre

Thursday 11 May 201707:25 am
Although at the outset, Arab cinema wasn’t that bold when it came to seduction, or ighraa' in Arabic, a term used to refer to sensual scenes, it must be recognized that whether seduction was present or absent, earlier films were like a dream for the Arab public, for what they featured in kissing, women, and seductive dancers. Leila Murad was perhaps the first Arab woman to capture the public’s eye, even if she wasn’t the first female actress on the silver screen. The “Harp” as Murad was called, didn’t appear in any seduction scenes. Back then, the most sensual thing one could hope for in a movie was a kiss at the end. But Murad was the embodiment of romantic seduction. After Leila Murad, it was actress Faten Hamama’s turn in the limelight. But Hamama, too, maintained her restraint on the screen, and was never a symbol of seduction, but was, again, a symbol of romance. Real seduction scenes in Egyptian movies produced during that period featured primarily belly dancers (Samia Gamal, Tahia Carioka, Naima Akef) who attracted moviegoers to come and “peep”. The presence of a belly dancer was the backbone of the film, and a sure way to make it a box office success. Producers thought of such films as a great way to boost revenues. At the end of the 1940s, actress Hind Rostom made her film debut in a secondary role. She would continue to appear in similar roles until director Hassan Imam took her under his wing in the mid-1950s, giving her roles in a series of movies that made her “the preeminent seduction star in Egyptian cinema”. Rostom and Imam would collaborate again in the 1960s when the actress was given the lead roles in Imam’s two films Chafika the Coptic Girl and The Nun, further establishing her credentials as a seduction idol. Film critic Tareq al-Shennawi proclaimed once that Hind Rostom’s brand of seduction wasn’t explicit but suggestive. He wrote, “it was enough for her to wear a traditional robe in Youssef Chahine’s The Iron Gate, Atef Salem’s Struggle on the Nile, or Fatin Abdel Wahab’s Hamidu’s Son, for her to be instantly desired by all men.” During Gamal Abdel Nasser’s mandate, seduction in film continued in “polite” form, perhaps because of the ideological halo of the Egyptian revolution and the rosy dreams of pan-Arabism. Films never crossed the so-called red lines, and belly dancers were censored and forced to adhere to a specific dress code. But after the Arab defeat of 1967, as Itidal Mumtaz wrote in her book Memoirs of a Film Censor, presidential instructions were given to censors to allow sex and drug scenes in movies, and not to cut any of them no matter how daring they may be, in an attempt to distract people away from the defeat and the feelings of frustration that came along with it. Dozens of seduction films were shot, featuring the stars of that generation such as Shams al-Baroudi, who starred in the biggest number of movies of this genre, most notably Salah Abu Seif’s The Bathhouse of Malatily and Mervat Amin, who starred in The Greatest Child in the World with Rushdi Abaza, directed by Jalal al-Sherqawi. There was also Nadia Lutfi in My Father atop a Tree, featuring several kissing scenes with Abdel Halim Hafez (directed by Kamal al-Sheikh), in addition to Naglaa Fathi in The Passion and the Body by Hassan Ramzi, Suhair Ramzi in The Culprits by Said Marzouk, Souad Hosni in The Well of Deprivation by Kamal al-Sheikh, and Zizi Mustafa in The Adolescent Girls by Ahmed Diaa al-Din, to name but a few. Full nudity in Arab film began in Beirut, in Lebanese cinema, with director Samir Khoury’s 1972 film The Lady of the Black Moons. The film stars Nahed Yusri in addition to a number of other actors. At the time, the Department of Censorship of Publications and Artistic Recordings insisted on giving the film an adults-only rating. Two years later, Khoury’s encore came in Wolves that Don’t Eat Meat, starring Nahed Sharif. The film was shot in Kuwait, because of the liberal climate there at the time. Nudity in the Lebanese director’s films was unabashed, and wasn’t even veiled with a “fig leaf,” so to speak. Birds flew over the actress’s naked body, as the male lead showered it with kisses, at times on the sandy beach, and at others in the bedroom. Even today, the actresses who appeared in Khoury’s films remain groundbreaking symbols in the history of cinema, and are trending names online for having appeared in “adults-only” films. After Nahed Yusri and Nahed Sharif, it was the turn of the Syrian actress known as Ighraa, who appeared topless in front of the camera in front of actor Khaled Taja, who rubbed cream on her breasts as she lay down. In The Panther by Nabil al-Maleh, Ighraa not only exchanged a passionate kiss with actor Adib Qaddoura, but bared it all for him in the love scenes directed by Maleh. Subsequent Syrian films didn’t live up to the level of Ighraa’s seduction. However, censors who allowed Maleh’s film to be shown would years later delete the “racy” scenes from cinematic memory forever. The seduction wave in Syrian and Lebanese cinema didn’t last long, whether because of civil war or of censorship. In Egypt, with the retirement of Shams al-Baroudi, and the receding stardom of Mervat, Suhair, and Naglaa compared to other male stars, the film landscape was ready for the emergence of a seduction star of a different kind: Nadia al-Jundi. Al-Jundi became known for her contrived roles, and rose to fame after starring in the film Bamba Kashar, which ushered in a phase of biopics about belly dancers in Egyptian cinema. Al-Jundi continued to be an unrivaled seduction star until Nabila Ebeid rose to fame. Ebeid appeared in similar roles as al-Jundi in films like Please Give Me That Medicine and Ayam Fil Halal (aka Marital Bliss). Al-Jundi and Ebeid continued to compete for stardom and box-office success until they both aged and retired. They competed in an era where handsome and leading men dominated the screens, such as Adel Imam, Mahmoud Yassin, Nour El-Sherif, Hussein Fahmi, Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz, and Ahmad Zaki. By comparison, the 1980s and 1990s featured sub-par seduction movies. Despite the many daring roles that Elham Shaheen and others starred in, the prostitute characters that Yusra played in a number of films, such as A Woman on the Verge of Falling, and despite the attempts of director Inas El-Degheidy to tackle themes like sexuality and sexual perversion in her films, this period couldn’t produce a true rival to Nadia al-Jundi or Nabila Ebeid, or fill the void they had left behind when they retired. In the past few years, there were signs of a revival in the seduction genre, with director Khaled Youssef casting the duo Somaya El Khashab and Ghada Abdel Razek in his films In Better Times and Chief Omar Harb. The two actresses rebelled against the zeitgeist dominated by so-called clean cinema, which meant movies had to be free of kissing and sex scenes, in line with the mentality of “prohibition” that had become commonplace in the Arab and Islamic worlds. Although there have been many seduction stars in the history of cinema, the seduction genre, for a large segment of moviegoers, remains linked to a few names, most notably Hind Rostom and Souad Hosni. For some, Hind Rostom is considered to be the sexiest and most attractive actress, and no star could ever overtake her, even the stars of the 1970s like Nahed Sharif, Madiha Kamel, and Mervat Amin, or the stars of the 1980s like Elham Shaheen, Yusra, Nabila Ebeid, and Nadia al-Jundi, not to mention the stars of our present day. Hind Rostom rekindled the notion of femininity with her body language, and was able, even in a traditional cloak, to stir up a whirlwind of swooning men around her, something that not even a modern girl in a party dress or a revealing gown can claim. For her part, Souad Hosni combined sensuality with innocence and mischievousness, an ideal combination for men, lying somewhere between the sensual Hind Rostom and the classical housewife-like beauty of Faten Hamama. Both Souad, "the Sister of the Moon", and Hind, "the Queen of Seduction", were a source of inspiration when it came to seduction and playfulness for the starlets of the new generation. It was as though the stars of our generation couldn’t get over the past, in an era of new political movements that aren’t only opposed to seduction, but cinema in and of itself. Indeed, even before the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power in Egypt, Egyptian society was already getting more and more religious, with headscarves becoming more widespread. This conservative trend was reflected in Egyptian cinema and its patrons, concept, and future. Since the 1980s, there was a curious phenomenon of “repenting” Egyptian actresses-turned-preachers, a trend that grew further in the 1990s. One consequence was that the Egyptian film scene saw an onslaught of dancers from Eastern Europe, who acted more as a substitute for what was missing. In parallel, Lebanese actresses featured more and more in Egyptian films, to compensate for the absence of Egyptian actresses who no longer wanted to star in seductive roles. Lebanese actresses who appeared in Egyptian films include the tediously seductive Nicole Saba, who appeared wearing a bikini in the film The Danish Experience alongside Adel Imam, and Haifa Wehbe, who appeared in a “polite” seductive role in the film Shehata’s Shop by Khaled Youssef. Today, seduction in Arab cinema appears to be an extinct genre. It seems that no one’s left on the seductive scene other than Haifa Wehbe and her ilk.
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