By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 20, 2006
CAIRO -- When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited this city last month, Egyptians had an unusual choice: watch her on TV as she expounded on issues of war and peace in the Middle East, or go to a neighborhood movie theater and see her portrayed by a look-alike actress belly-dancing and placed in "adult" situations.
The film in question is "The Night Baghdad Fell," which depicts Egyptian obsessions with war, sex and the United States. Wildly anti-American, it has done a brisk business for two months, a long screen life for Egyptian-made films. In "Night," Egyptians fret about an American invasion of Egypt and the potential destruction of their capital. Americans are bullies, rapists and mindless killers.
By the way, "The Night Baghdad Fell" is a comedy.
The film is only the latest bit of Egyptian pop culture to display deep unease about Americans. Beginning two years ago, Yanks emerged as bad guys on Cairo stages. In one play, "Messing With the Mind," the audience was ordered around by wild-eyed ushers dressed as Marines. In another, a Statue of Liberty was blown up in the lobby.
Ugly Americans began to emerge on-screen last year. In "Alexandria, New York," director Yusef Chahine rebuked U.S. attitudes toward Arabs. "No Problem, We're Getting Screwed," a black comedy, told the tale of an Egyptian who sends his son to Iraq to deliver mangoes and then must travel there to get him out of an American jail. Along the way, the father tumbles into the hole where Saddam Hussein was hiding, gets caught in insurgent crossfire, is arrested by the Americans and is taken to President Bush. Bush forces him to wear a beard and confess to bombing the American Embassy. Somehow, the Egyptian escapes, outwits his captors, sells his mangoes and gets his son back home.
Egyptians are not the only ones depicting villainous Americans on screen. "Valley of the Wolves: Iraq" debuted in Turkey last year and featured a Turkish hero who takes revenge on U.S. forces that detain Turkish troops in northern Iraq. The on-screen Americans shoot up civilians at a wedding, firebomb a mosque and carry out summary executions. Torture at Abu Ghraib prison makes a cameo appearance.
"These movies show that there is paranoia everywhere," says Nabil Shawkat, a humor columnist at the Daily Star newspaper. "In Egypt's case, the feeling of impotence in regards to the Americans is a common feeling."
Not everyone considers the anti-U.S. theme of "Night" valid. Many critics regarded it as sophomoric and a typical Egyptian effort to blame its problems on outsiders. A critic in the al-Ahram newspaper called it "a puerile comedy expressing the views of an enthusiastic teenager with little political knowledge."
Egypt is officially one of Washington's closest allies in the Middle East. By and large, workaday Egyptians are solicitous toward visiting Americans and endlessly reassure them they are loved here. Americans-as-heavies are a departure in Egyptian film. In the distant past, British colonialists were targets of negative portrayals. Later, unlabeled foreigners appeared on-screen to exploit Egyptian wealth. Americans, if portrayed at all, were cast as unwitting victims of crafty Egyptian tour guides or as people with charming if incomprehensible customs, like wearing shorts in public.
One old satire, called "The Visit of Mr. President," portrayed a village mayor who was comically eager to show his enthusiasm for Anwar Sadat's friendship for the United States -- funny because the mayor is at a loss to explain how, only a few years before, the U.S. was Egypt's enemy. The movie was banned in Egypt for many years.
Israelis have been the most common screen menace, even in comedy. In a film last year called "The Embassy Is in the Building," an Egyptian emigre returns home, wants to engage in sexual affairs in his old apartment, but can't because Israel's embassy is next door. Missiles fly in through windows and security guards block the exits and entrances. All the neighbors have moved away. When the harried man sues the Israelis, he becomes a national hero.
In "Night," a schoolteacher tries to recruit a brilliant former student to create a weapon for use in case the Americans invade Egypt. The student is strung out on hashish, but partly because of his admiration for the teacher's radical peacenik daughter, he takes up the project. The teacher even arranges for the daughter to marry the boy. "Do it for the nation," he urges her.
The men in the film have sexual problems. The student fails to get aroused on his wedding night, fantasizes in bed about Rice and also about a Marine named Jack. The teacher and his friends are impotent. All these conundrums are resolved when wives and lovers await in bed while dressed up in U.S. desert fatigues.
Reports of U.S. atrocities in Iraq pile up and the Egyptians form a rag-tag militia to confront a possible invasion. When a test of the new defense weapon fails, the teacher has a nightmare about his daughter being raped at Abu Ghraib. Near "Night's" climax, an Egyptian who goes out to greet invading Americans is shot dead by a U.S. soldier.
"I felt that an event like the fall of Baghdad could not pass without some sort of comment," director Mohammed Amin says. "All we Arabs could do was sit and watch it on TV. So I decided to make a movie about impotence. That is what it is all about."
The film is Amin's second comic outing. Last year, he made "Cultural Film," which told the tale of a group of young Egyptians trying in vain to find a place where they could be alone to watch pornographic videos.
In "Night," he satirizes Egyptian life and politics, too, though not through the kind of shocking imagery he uses on the Americans. When the teacher wants to boost the morale of his militia, he produces a video of Egyptian achievement since the 1973 war with Israel. It is composed of a single goal in a soccer game in which Egypt tied its adversary. He approaches a general to ask about developing weapons, but the officer says military industry is engaged in producing umbrellas. An acquaintance says Egypt already possesses weapons of mass destruction -- he knows it's so because, once, the entire country suffered a blackout when all energy was diverted to enriching uranium.
The Condoleezza Rice fantasy sex scenes received a lot of negative commentary in Egypt, but Amin defends them on the grounds that a weak character naturally fantasizes about possessing someone more powerful. "The student hates U.S. officials, so he defeats them in bed in the form of Rice. Rice is always coming to Egypt to lecture us. It is like fantasizing about your sixth-grade teacher."
He insists he is not reflexively anti-American. His next project, he says, is a movie both about the horrors of Iraq but also the good some American doctors did recently in separating conjoined Egyptian twins. "I want to investigate how a country can do so much good and bad at the same time," he says.