Stars and stripes seared in your mind
Eric Walberg remembers a sad date through laughterLast month marked a sad anniversary for the entire world -- the invasion of Iraq. Here in Cairo, some friends decided to 'celebrate' by watching "The Night Baghdad Fell" (Laylat Suqout Baghdad), a 2005 Egyptian farce written and directed by Mohamed Amin, which broke quite a few boundaries to make its points about US cultural and political hegemony in the Middle East.
College Dean Shaker (Hassan Hosni) becomes obsessed with the idea that Egypt is next on the American list after Iran and Syria and even paints a big stars and stripes on the roof of his aparment building to ward off bomber pilots. It treads an uneasy balancing act between humor and fear, with Dean Shaker taking matters into his own hands when he realizes his government has no protection plan -- the absence of any government figure is actually a powerful critique of official impotence in the face of US actions. He approaches a general to ask about developing weapons, but the officer says military industry is engaged in producing umbrellas. So Shaker mortgages his home, finances his son-in-law to develop a weapon, and moblizes men in a voluteer militia to fight the invaders. CIA agents try to steal the secret weapon the dean's son-in-law is developing between tokes on his gigantic spliffs. Shaker has nightmares of US Marines invading his home and hallucinations of them hoisting the US flag at the college after seeing images of troops entering Baghdad.
Amin uses sex as a way to achieve devastating political satire. Shaker's son-in-law has nighttime fantasies involving Condoleezza Rice (Rice asked to see the film during one of her visits to Cairo, though I doubt the irony of this was lost on her). When Abu Ghraib hits the headlines, the two men become impotent and it is only when Shaker's daughter and wife don US Marine uniforms that their husbands' fires are rekindled. "I felt that an event like the fall of Baghdad could not pass without some sort of comment," director Mohammed Amin explains. "All we Arabs could do was sit and watch it on TV. So I decided to make a movie about impotence. Rice is always coming to Egypt to lecture us. It is like fantasizing about your sixth-grade teacher." Daily Star columnist Nabil Shawkat confirms that "in Egypt's case, the feeling of impotence in regards to the Americans is a common feeling." In a twist worthy of "Lysistrata" , soon all the neighborhood women are hanging US uniforms on their clotheslines.
Despite its ability to cut to the quick about Arab impotence and government duplicity, it was widely panned. A critic in Al-Ahram called it "a puerile comedy expressing the views of an enthusiastic teenager with little political knowledge." But this sounds like sour grapes. The film still packs a punch three years on. As for Abu Ghraib, I personally still can't deal with that sordid example of US war crimes. The only possible reaction is laughter as you do when totally outraged. Amin is clearly on the same wavelength here.
Watching it, I was reminded of European (east and west) new wave cinema of the 1950-60s -- low-budget, bubbling over with ideas, sharp in its social critique. Nabil el-Hagrafy, who plays a psychoanalyst in the film, called it a "wake-up call" for Egypt. After I read the script I felt that this is a nationalist patriotic work which will arouse in us many things which we thought died inside us a long time ago."
Eric Walberg writes for Al-Ahram Weekly. You can reach him at www.geocities. com/walberg2002/