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The underappreciated “Old Hollywood” of the Middle East

| Thursday, February 24, 2022

I was introduced to vintage fashion at the tender age of eight, thanks to a mini-revival of rockabilly style in the late 2000s. I dreamt of the circle skirts, red lipstick, sharp cat eyeliner and soft, movie-star curls that marked American Hollywood royalty between the 1930s and 1960s.

Reader, a tube of Mac Ruby Woo and a copy of “Pygmalion” in the wrong hands is a time machine. Late on school nights, our household became awash with the sounds of a much older person’s television — I couldn’t get enough of Turner Classic Movies. I’d roll curlers in my too-long hair to Audrey Hepburn’s singing in “My Fair Lady,” Marlene Dietrich’s commanding presence in “Witness for the Prosecution,” and of course, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

There was a lot of tap dancing for some reason, but I loved watching Fred Astaire throw down with his female co-stars — there was levity, competition and laughter. They were always a match in dancing skill and spunk.

This era in American history was marked by wealth and the rise of consumerism. Many famous Old Hollywood films like “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “My Fair Lady” and “Gone with the Wind” feature women from all social classes striving to end up with wealthy men. The war was over, and it was time to indulge. Consumerism was advertised as American patriotism. The American Dream on TV looked like a car in the garage, a woman in the home, a diamond on her ring finger and a couple of kids surrounded by toys.

Around the same time, an ocean away, Middle Eastern pop culture contended with class, wealth and gender somewhat differently. The Golden Age of Egyptian Cinema (1940-1970) occurred during what can be grossly simplified as a decades-long trend towards secular social progress after the overthrow of King Farouk’s British-installed Egyptian monarchy.

The films created during this period are snapshots of a post-imperial, secular Egypt that was proud, progressive and ephemeral. Religion was relatively uncoupled from formal political institutions. Art and music flourished like never before. There was revived patriotism and convivial public spirit.

Egyptian women’s fashion during the 1950s, 60s and 70s was bold and risqué. Arab actresses wore slinky spaghetti strap dresses, off-the-shoulder and backless gowns. Crop tops and beach sarongs, miniskirts and towering heels. The makeup was a mix of eastern and western trends, with many Arab actresses accentuating their eyes with dark smokey liners, and others opting for the classic red lip and simpler eyes. Hair might be worn long in luxurious updos or short dark curls that framed the face.

Importantly, many in the era saw these new fashions as an assault on modesty and traditional Muslim values. The clothing of 1950s and 60s Egyptian film actresses might appear far too revealing in many parts of Egypt today. Estimates from 2012 suggested 90% of Egyptian women wore some form of hijab.

The films themselves are interesting cultural and thematic artifacts. These films focus on illuminating the lives of the downtrodden and destitute. 1940s Arab icon Abdel Halim Hafez illustrated a man’s worth had little to do with wealth, aggression, family name or social status in his music and acting. Hafez played humble characters, soft-spoken and sensitive amateurs, starving artists and scandalized children on screen. In an ”Appointment with Happiness,” Faten Hamama plays the daughter of a live-in servant who is sexually assaulted by the wealthy owner of the house. These films did not shy away from the inequities resulting from gender and class-based violence.

Relatedly, Egyptian cinema approached emotions, romance, vulnerability and softness in new ways. In “Woman’s Enemy” it is mutual care and softness (Dr. Issa making Nadia a cup of tea, Nadia tending to his burned hands) that brings the unlikely pair together, teaching the misogynistic Dr. Issa how to be more comfortable with his emotions. Despite modern stereotyping of Arab men as aggressive, people forget Egypt’s darling, Abdel Halim Hafez, “The King of Music” and “The Son of the Revolution,” was also known as “The King of Emotions and Feelings.”

In addition, these films often portrayed the notion that a woman would want a man for his money as outdated and gauche. In fact, the Arab women in these films often eclipsed their male counterparts in education, career success, intellect or social status. Take for example Nawal (Faten Hamama) in “The Date,” a plucky and respected journalist who falls for a struggling musician trying to get his big break. Or Souad Hosny and Nadia Lutfi as geologists denied work due to their gender in the comedy “For Men Only” (they disguise themselves as men to get the job). Or Nadia Lutfi as a former lawyer and upper-class aristocrat in “Woman’s Enemy.”

Prominent figures challenged prevailing Eurocentric norms pertaining to race and colorism in postcolonial Egypt. In a 2018 interview with Brittle Paper, Sudanese-American poet Safia Elhillo notes that Abdel Halim “would address a lot of his love songs to ’asmarani,’ which is a term of endearment in Arabic for a brown-skinned or dark-skinned person … That felt pretty radical to me — that his song lyrics were taking time out to specify she was a darker girl. In this world that’s pretty racist and colorist, that felt important to me.”

You can find many of these films on YouTube; relics of Egypt’s recent past and of its future, too.

Renee Yaseen is a senior economics major with minors in theology and Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE). In her free time, she writes poems, hangs out with loved ones and ponders the view from her undisclosed study spot in [redacted] Hall. Please send all comments, diatribes and warm fuzzies to [email protected].

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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