MESA Banner
Transnational Arab Cinema Histories

Session VII-12, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
This panel looks beyond the nation to examine Arab cinema within regional, global, and colonial contexts. We also cast our gaze beyond the screen, examining cinema production, consumption, and circulation. We underscore cinema and cinema-going as a domain for contestation between colonial, nationalist, and transnational visions and infrastructures of production and exhibition. By introducing new research on the multiple histories of Arab cinemas, we look into its aesthetic aspects, material and economic affiliations, and entanglements with other regional and global film industries. The panel highlights Arab cinema’s relationship with other technologies and commercial industries of leisure, including nightlife, infrastructures of sounds and sonic material such as cassette technology. Simultaneously, we pay close attention to the role of minorities, the life and labor of female cinema stars, and the convoluted and gendered processes of racialization that were often bound up with colonial and imperial presence in the region. By engaging creatively with sources, archives, and parafilmic material, we question the usefulness of the national frame for the analysis of Arab cinema. Focusing on the interwar period, the first paper places Egyptian cinema within a larger global history as it examines aspects of film programming, distribution, exhibition practices, and cinema-going beyond a national framework. Taking a global cinema studies approach, the second paper focuses on Egyptian media representations of an Egyptian female film star and her mobility beyond Egyptian cinema. The third paper offers a micro-history of a 1951 conflict between British and Egyptian film producers over Rivoli Cinema in Cairo and highlights how new regional and international political powers challenged British imperial power and its attempts to establish cultural hegemony, including within the world of cinema. Moving from Egypt to Iraq, the fourth paper explores the transnational and transregional history of the early Iraqi cinema industry and shows that national narratives of cinema have a tendency to write out the involvement of those with hybrid identities. The final paper further questions the national frame and elaborates on the embeddedness of Arab and Middle Eastern cinemas in South-South circuits. Through a study of Hindi film songs, this paper shows that a focus on national contexts obscures the degree of intertwinement that existed between transregional cinema industries.
Media Arts
  • Cinema historians are rare in Middle East Studies. Often scholarship focuses on film analysis without detailing the historical contexts in which cinema functioned. This trend is, of course, changing; as this panel and other recent scholarship attest. In the first half of my paper, I will examine the implications of exploring cinema from a historical perspective, and examine how this might open up exciting research opportunities into cinematic cultures that existed in the Arab world throughout the 20th century. In terms of Egyptian cinema history, the national framework, and the focus on films produced in Egypt, for example, obscures a much larger global history of which Egypt was a part, obliterating the many facets of early cinematic cultures that existed. As a result of this national frame, aspects of film programming, distribution, exhibition practices, and the practice of cinema-going are not well studied. In the second half of my paper, I will zoom into the challenges and opportunities of excavating histories of cinema audiences in Egypt during the interwar period focusing on celebrity and fan culture, and the early cinematic press. Specifically, I will explore early Egyptian press coverage of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Rudolf Valentino. What emerges from these historical sources is the existence of a vibrant and globally-oriented cinematic culture and film audience that can help us better understand not only the movement of images, ideas, and commodities but the practice of pleasure and leisure in early twentieth century Egypt.
  • In early 1937, the Egyptian press reported on a surprising development. The actor known as Kouka (née Nagiya Ibrahim Bilal) had been selected to play the romantic lead opposite African American star Paul Robeson in Jericho (1937), a British-produced film. Kouka had recently appeared in supporting roles in two Egyptian films: alongside ‘Ali al-Kassar in Bawab al-‘Imara (1935); and Umm Kulthum in Widad (1936). Egyptian media’s surprise extended not only the elevation of this supporting actor to leading lady and her casting in a British film, but also to the studio’s publicity campaign touting the Cairo-born actor as a Sudanese princess. Touching briefly on the racial politics of the plot—-in which an African American naval officer passes as a Bedouin-—and the circumstances of the film’s production in London, this paper examines the racialized and gendered media coverage of the film. The Egyptian press uses various colorist terms to describe Kouka’s physical appearance, but puzzles to make sense of the fictitious Orientalist narrative about the actor’s identity. This paper aims to unpack what the Egyptian media’s coverage of this incident reveals about contemporaneous assumptions about race, gender, and nation in Egypt as articulated in direct dialogue with British and American Orientalism and racism. While this paper focuses on Egyptian media representations of an Egyptian film star, I take a global cinema studies approach, questioning the relevance of the national cinema frame. Building on star studies scholarship about public perception and labor of women in Egyptian films, I examine media responses to a woman’s mobility beyond national cinema. This paper contributes to the limited but growing body of work that deals with race and minorities in Arab cinema. Further, this study offers insights into the marketing, reception, and consumption of foreign films in Egypt. Kouka’s image promoted by the British film company’s publicity department followed her back to Egypt—-for the rest of her career, she was frequently cast to play Bedouin characters.
  • This paper examines the role of film production in promoting British cultural hegemony in Egypt before and after the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of Alliance, which formed a significant step towards Egypt’s political independence. I argue that British cultural interest in Egypt was initially shaped by a negative policy, i.e., an indirect one that focused more on limiting European cultural expansion than promoting British cultural hegemony. Yet the 1936 Treaty urged for a shift to a positive cultural policy, i.e., a direct one, aiming to sustain the amour-propre of the “White” man, hence the soldier of the British Empire, as the ultramodern civilized man. Considering the looming shadows of WWII, the new positive policy was equally expected to ensure stability in Egypt during the war. It was also hoped to regulate the post-Treaty amour-propre of the Egyptian ruling elite as modern sovereign rulers of a modern and civilized Egypt. Being a new powerful medium of communication, film was expected to contribute to these ends. But the British government’s reluctance to provide funding for film production or screenings, the entrenched French cultural hegemony in Egypt and Hollywood dominance over the film market proved that the reliance on film to serve the new positive policy was too late to bear the expected fruit. Moreover, the unilateral abrogation of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty in 1951 made it difficult for British producers to operate in Egypt to the extent that the first threat on a British business in Egypt after WWII arose from a conflict of interest between British and Egyptian film producers over Rivoli Cinema, which was by then the second entertainment center of its kind in the world(the other being its sister theater in New York). The case of Rivoli Cinema does not only shed new light on how business competition could have possibly played a role in instigating the fire which burnt the Cairo business district during the famous Cairo Riots; more importantly, it stands as an utmost expression of the failed British attempts to employ film production in service of a positive British cultural policy in Egypt as the blaze of British imperial power was diminishing while new regional and international political powers were emerging.
  • On the evening of July 26, 1909, the first silent film was shown outdoors in Baghdad. In 1911, the place became known as Cinema Baluki, named after the Iraqi Jewish merchant who imported the equipment and the films. Beginning with the owner of Cinema Baluki, many Iraqi Jews invested in film exhibition infrastructure and technology. This paper explores the history of the Iraqi cinema industry between 1909 – the year the first permanent cinema was built in Baghdad and 1951 – the year when the majority of Iraqi Jews were forced to leave. In the 1940s and early 1950s, the Jewish Sawda’i family pioneered the construction of cinemas, import of films, and established Iraq’s first film studio, Studio Baghdad. Before they began investing in cinema, the three Sawda’i brothers, Ezra, Me’ir, and Hayyawi, had made their fortune through a silicate brick factory, which they co-owned. National narratives of cinema have a tendency to write out the involvement and contributions of those with hybrid identities. In the case of Iraq, many accounts have obscured the role of Iraqi Jews in the cinema industry’s first four decades. This paper investigates the historical entanglement of capital, culture, and leisure by mapping the local Iraqi capitalist and entrepreneurial elites, many of whom were upper-class Iraqi Jews with international outlooks, who invested in exhibition and production technology. More specifically, by focusing on the Sawda’i brothers, this paper interrogates networks, connections, and the circulation of cultural products and material objects, including films, equipment, and technology and asks how these came together at a particular historical moment with capital, performers, and people with technical skills to establish a film industry in Iraq. The paper adds to the growing scholarship on film histories in the Global South that challenges purely national frameworks and engages creatively with the lack of film texts and archives. In addition, this paper examines the Iraqi cinema industry through its networks of affiliation not only with cinema in other countries, such as Egypt, but also with other emerging capitalist industries in Iraq. By complicating national frameworks, the paper recovers the role of Iraqi Jews and the transregional connections that constituted the early film industry in Iraq. This paper uses previously unconsidered primary materials, including Arabic and Hebrew archival records, fiction and poetry, photography, periodicals, memoirs, personal accounts by Iraqis involved in the cinema industry, and the personal archives of the Sawda’i family now living in Israel.
  • A growing body of scholarship has approached the history of Arab and Middle Eastern cinemas through their embeddedness in robustly South-South circuits of films, technology, labor, and aesthetics. Much of this work has focused on commercial industries, to highlight the extent to which various transregional industries (e.g., those of Tehran, Bombay, Istanbul, Cairo, and Dubai) have historically been far more intertwined than might be evident in accounts focused on a single industry or national context. Building on this work, I turn to the material and affective presence of Hindi film songs in Arab “city” films produced amidst a 1970s-1980s boom in audiocassette tapes. I focus in this paper on Algerian cult feature OMAR GATLATO (Merzak Allouache, 1974) and Sudanese experimental short AL MAHATTA (Eltayeb Mahdi, 1989). While the films may initially seem to have little in common, both films render frenetic encounters with/in the city (Algiers and Khartoum, respectively) through a meta-narrative of mediated sounds. Hindi film songs, in particular, unfold as ineffable, feminine seductions of cosmopolitan encounters and technological promise, which enchant the masculine protagonists. The films record a history of Hindi film songs’ presence in soundscapes of the everyday, while simultaneously drawing out the Hindi film songs’ associations with star-crossed desires. My paper builds on Kaveh Askari’s (2022) materially-focused historiography of media circulation, Maya Boutaghou’s (2021) analysis of cinematic soundscapes of Algiers, and Andrew Simon’s (2022) and Peter Manuel’s (1993) studies of cassette cultures in Egypt and India, respectively. Through documentary proclivities that highlight processes of recording and mediation, OMAR GATLATO and AL MAHATTA index both urban soundscapes revolutionized by cassette tapes, and the everyday handling of sonic material that in turn came to infuse and inspire filmmakers’ own formal experiments with film sound. By looking closely at the two films’ formal and narrative engagements with Hindi film songs in their respective soundscapes, I draw out an intermedial, transregional history of cinema and cassette technology that opens up new perspectives on experimental and “city” films in histories of Arab cinema.