Egypt! It’s the home of pharaohs, mummies, pyramids, scarabs, sphinxes, cartouches, hieroglyphics, reed boats, jackal-headed gods, and—oh, yeah—also some stuff that’s happened within the last 3,000 years.
It’s the largest Arab country by population, Cairo is the largest Arab city, and the oil wealth of the Gulf hasn’t displaced it as the cultural center of the Arab world. In 1990, it was in the midst of the decades-long rule of Hosni Mubarak, and doing its best to sell itself as modern and Western despite remaining entirely undemocratic. That year brought us one of the last things you’d expect from a dictatorship: a satire of domestic politics.
The Belly Dancer and the Politician kicks off with the belly dancer, Sonia Seleem (played by Nabila Ebeid, who must be a big deal because she’s the only name listed before the title) driving through the streets of Cairo while listening to an English-learning tape that has a soundtrack resembling Switched-On Bach. She’s famous enough that people wave at her when she drives by, but not famous enough to have her own driver. (It seems that age is no barrier to fame in the belly dancing industry. Ebeid was 45 when she played this role.) She’s also dressed like Fran Drescher, and will continue to be throughout the film.
Her first few scenes establish her as a big shot. The doorman at her apartment building claims that Sonia’s recommendation can get his kid into school. Her pudgy friend at aerobics class takes advice on how to wink her way out of speeding tickets. (The aerobics outfits are exactly as goofy as you would expect for 1990 in the Middle East. Pudgy friend wears a lavender sweatshirt that says OCTOPUS SOON, for some reason.) Then Sonia heads out to the edge of town to meet with her manager, Shafik.
So. Shafik. He’s gay. Super, super gay.
Shafik’s the one talking here. Also, it seems that Sonia went to her hairstylist with a picture of Rosie the Riveter and said, “This, but bigger.”
You may have heard that it’s not much fun to be gay in Egypt, and you have heard correctly. Homosexuality per se wasn’t illegal in Mubarak’s Egypt, but there was an all-purpose prohibition on “debauchery,” which they interpreted to prohibit homosexuality. Shafik, who minces around limp-wristedly, is a sign that an Egyptian audience of the 90s were willing to put up with camp gays as entertainment on screen even if they weren’t willing to deal with them in real life.
Anyway, they’re out on location because Sonia’s trying to buy up some land here, and she’s concerned that the “high rollers” are going to use their influence to prevent her from getting it. The purpose of the land is as yet unrevealed.
The first scene featuring Sonia dancing is of what I guess is a private lesson. She’s cavorting around a living room in a tiger-print leotard with an old dude in a sweater. Even more oddly, they’re doing this while watching a political talk show. Maybe there are people who watch “Meet the Press” while working out: such people are hopeless. The guest on this show is a member of parliament by the name of Abd Elhameed Ra’fat, and like about ninety percent of Egyptian MPs, he’s a member of the ruling party. He’s speaking purely in platitudes about democracy and the will of the people and so forth (and will continue to avoid any mention of actual political issues throughout the film).
Cut to a meaningless tango performance that lasts nearly a minute, which doesn’t seem like a long time until you see it on film. This is at Sonia’s club, and she’s backstage, still watching Abd Elhameed get interviewed. Must be a long show, like when Hugo Chavez used to take over the Venezuelan airwaves for the entire morning. Actually, no. We will later learn that this scene is a flashback. We’ve had none of the usual indications of a flashback: no dissolve, no shot of a calendar, no subtitle, no nothing.
Featuring the traditional Egyptian accordion!
Anyway, Sonia kicks off her first performance, and I guess if you like this sort of thing, it’s the sort of thing you’ll like. I’m overwhelmingly indifferent to belly dancing, and yet I chose to watch this movie anyway. What’s wrong with me? The best parts of this scene are the shots of the crowd: a guy in a keffiyeh who’s cosplaying a Saudi prince, a woman in a black dress smoking a cigarette wistfully, an older woman who’s never definitively identified as British but couldn’t look more British if she were eating Tim Tams while sitting on the Stone of Scone.
You may note that there aren’t any veiled women in this film, and everyone drinks alcohol despite the Muslim prohibition on doing so. Egypt has traditionally enforced a less strict version of Islam than many of its Middle Eastern neighbors.
Two men go backstage to see Sonia, and one of them is Abd Elhameed (although he’s going by “Khaled Madkour”). He’s got a proposal for Sonia:
KHALED: We need you for a small party.
SONIA: A small party? You don’t need me, then, you need a small time dancer.
Sonia wants no part of this until Khaled says that there’s a VIP from out of the country who wants to see her. She still defers, insisting that the VIP appear at the regular show. (Sensible decision making here, not going around with strange men who claim to be politicians.)
KHALED: So you make no allowances for the Egyptian government?
SONIA: The government recognizes no allowances and the tax department makes me pay for every twist of my waist. Every other day I get an upsetting yellow envelope.
So yes, Mubarak’s Egypt was a dictatorship, but it wasn’t a totalitarian dictatorship. You could get away with griping about the government, so long as you didn’t say that someone else ought to be in charge. This is the same attitude I saw in display in Singapore. More on this later.
Sonia eventually takes the job, but gets very nervous when she isn’t allowed to bring her band along. Sounds an awful lot like prostitution to me.
And to Sonia as well. That’s Abd Elhameed on the right.
At the performance, the dudes in the suite are bopping right along, except for Khaled, who’s trying to act like he’s studying her like she’s fine art or something (you may see this expression on display in the front row at a strip club). “Khaled” checks his watch about the same time I would’ve if I’d been wearing a watch. The entire dance scene lasts about two minutes, and maybe it’s more exciting if you aren’t a decadent American like me.
Khaled returns Sonia and describes it as “the night of a lifetime,” and Sonia invites him up for a drink.
SONIA: You’re going to say you have to work in the morning. No problem. You can go to work straight from my place.
Khaled literally does the collar pull in response and wait, this is a sex scene. A sex scene that very clearly involves cunnilingus. Apart from the not-married part, this appears to be just fine, according to this source: “Muslim jurists are of the opinion that it is lawful for the husband to perform cunnilingus on his wife, or a wife to perform the similar act for her husband (fellatio) and there is no wrong in doing so.” But these guys seem to think that it “does not agree with human nature” and is haram. It all depends on which imam you find most authoritative.
The next morning, in Sonia’s bedroom (which is the first sign that this is a flashback—its decoration is very sixties), Khaled is gone. He left a fake name and a fake number, and took a third of the fee he paid for the dance. That’s awfully petty, but I can think of politicians who would have taken the entire fee.
Back to the present (again, without any indication that there’s been a time shift) and Sonia seems to be convinced that Abd Elhameed is, in fact, Khaled. She starts making phone calls, posing as a female member of parliament, to get Abd Elhameed’s phone number. As soon as she gets through, she announces she’ll sue him for alimony and paternity (this must have been a subtitling mistake, as there wasn’t any wedding and there wasn’t any child):
SONIA: We’re living in tough times, and a strange atmosphere. It keeps fluctuating from cold to hot. If you protect yourself by making relations with a high official, you’ll have guaranteed yourself an air conditioner, and you’ll have the remote control in your hands, understand?
It’s implied that this is tied in with the land deal from earlier, and we still don’t know why she wants to buy that property. I initially thought that Sonia’s blackmail attempts would have come off as better justified if she were on the defensive, rather than on the offensive: trying to fend off another politician who’s trying to shut her down as indecent or something. (Which reminds me of something I’ve forgotten: the 2003 Fox TV show “Skin,” which had about a zillion ads during the World Series featuring Ron Silver yelling “Her father is the district attorney!” Not that you care, or that it’s particularly relevant.)
Sonia and Abd Elhameed meet up again, and after having sex again, they have the most dangerous conversation a couple can have:
SONIA: What’s wrong?
ABD ELHAMEED: Nothing.
Abd Elhameed is upset because he loves the power that comes along with politics, but hates the pressure. He talks a bit about his wife, and Sonia points out that she shouldn’t be upset by his carryings-on: after all, she knows what he is. That’s enough to get him to walk out, but not before she offers him a Meaningful Gift… of a rare paperweight. I don’t blame him for refusing it.
Back at the office, Abd Elhameed says “yes, sir” on the phone. Frequently. Some voice of power he is. His aide, Barham, drops in and says that the cops gave him a tip: they saw him at Sonia’s place. Of course, they weren’t monitoring Abd Elhameed, he’s immune! No, they were merely watching Sonia, like any red-blooded man would do. Abd Elhameed says that Sonia is nuts.
And her body was never found. The end.
Cut to a wedding, where Sonia is performing again, this time for someone “much more important” than Abd Elhameed (although he’s present at the ceremony). This is a televised performance, and one of the cameramen they show us looks oddly like Alex Rodriguez’s husky brother. At this three-minute long performance, which features a traditional Arabic electric guitar, Abd Elhameed grabs his throat and shakes his head to show his discomfort. I’m half expecting him to start whistling and pounding on the table like a Tex Avery wolf.
Some mischief maker at Abd Elhameed’s table invites Sonia to sit with them after the dance, and she does so. There’s a smart aleck woman there who isn’t real keen on belly dancing, but Sonia says it’s an art form that’s universally renowned.
SMART ALECK: Is that why your audience is all men?
SONIA: Men and women. Most women watch us so they can learn.
And with that, she flounces over to another table to talk to some cabinet minister, who invites her to his place out in the country.
The next few scenes are spent on Abd Elhameed driving through Cairo on his way to a cabinet meeting, followed by the meeting itself, which is entirely vague and filled with management speak about final committees and implementing solutions. None of this has anything to do with the plot, so I suppose it’s here to contrast between the respectable but boring life of a politician and the disreputable but fun life of a belly dancer.
And what fun is the trip to the countryside, which features not only Sonia’s dancing, but a magician! And a traditional Easter Punch and Judy show! (In Egypt?) And donkey rides!
Scenes involving dancers and donkeys are not usually this wholesome.
Sadly, the fun comes to an end when Sonia has a sudden pain in her side and she has to be rushed to the hospital. (Appendicitis? Kidney stone?) Cut to the hospital, where Sonia’s still wearing makeup despite having undergone surgery, and her room is full of cards, flowers, and Shafik, who’s standing in the doorway with his hands folded like he knows something terrible is happening but he doesn’t want to say what it is. Sonia is none too moved by the expressions of condolence from her fans:
SONIA: Throw them on the floor and step on them. None of them thought of coming to visit me.
In what I thought was the funniest scene in the movie, Shafik takes Sonia literally and starts stomping on get-well cards while wearing a puzzled expression on his face. A few kids barge into the hospital room. (They call Sonia “Aunt,” which confused me until I realized they’re doing the thing where you call any woman older than you “Auntie.”) Their mom is a patient in the next room, and asked them to visit the famous woman next door. I’m hard pressed to imagine this sort of thing happening in America. “Now, kids, I know you’re sad about Mommy’s surgery. Why don’t you cheer yourselves up by going down the hall and watching Lindsay Lohan get her stomach pumped?” “But Mom, we did that all day yesterday!”
When Sonia gets out of the hospital, she joins Shafik by the waterfront, where he’s fishing while wearing a yellow bucket hat and a red tracksuit. (Sonia is more sensibly dressed in a floral print jacket with shoulder pads upon which you could land a helicopter.) Shafik tells Sonia she’s got it made, but she disagrees:
SONIA: The truth is different.
SHAFIK: This is the truth that people see.
While Sonia was in the hospital, she got to thinking about how insecure she is, and about how the world’s affection for her is a mile wide and an inch deep. (She never notes that Shafik was there for her the whole time. Either his affection isn’t enough to keep her happy, or she thinks he’s only loyal because of money—which would be in character for him.) She’s got a plan to assure that she’ll get some real love in her life. She wants to turn that plot of land she’s buying into an orphanage.
The subtitles are usually excellent. Here’s why I said “usually.”
Sonia’s lawyer gets to work getting approvals for the project, but there are a lot of government officials who need placating. The first guy, who holds his cigarette weirdly and talks about God a lot, is pressing about how Sonia got her money, because Sonia will probably just raise them to be hookers or something.
Sonia meets that guy in person and complains that kids are begging in the streets despite the government’s efforts to stop it. (Again, criticism of the government, OK: blaming the President, not OK.) Sonia offers a bribe, then a private dance (!). She says her money’s as good as anyone else’s, or better, because she worked for it, but the permit guy still refuses because she’s not respectable.
Then Sonia proposes letting Shafik build the orphanage, and the guy says fine. Oh, snap, but Shafik is gay! Sure fooled him! This Daily Show-like stunt was about as effective at changing the permit guy’s mind as, well, as a Daily Show-like stunt.
Over at Abd Elhameed’s office, he’s concerned that his name is showing up in the gossip columns. Rumors are swirling about him and Sonia. He says that Sonia is calling his office night and day to put pressure on him to get her permits, but he doesn’t want to do it because it would look corrupt. Look corrupt, hell. It would be corrupt. But maybe this movie is in favor of bribery? A lot of people think that this sort of political blackmail is necessary to Get Stuff Done, and not all of those people live in Chicago. (I’ve heard at least one elected official opine that we ought to legalize bribery so construction projects will get finished faster.)
Shafik ogles a dude at the gym before meeting up with Sonia. He says that Abd Elhameed is hanging out at his elite tennis club. And we cut right to the club, so the whole purpose of this scene was to show Shafik ogling a dude. Good job, movie.
At the club, Sonia more or less stalks Abd Elhameed until he agrees to sit down and talk with her about the project, but he doesn’t want her to embarrass him.
ABD ELHAMEED: People here know you’re a dancer.
SONIA: But I’m supposed to be one of the people, your Majesty, or are you not responsible for all the people?
The movie’s thesis statement.
Anyhow, back at the office, Abd Elhameed complains to his aide Barham that Sonia got to him at the club, and says the experience was like “how a strong maid beats the hell out of a carpet.” Barham’s got a solution to the problem, though. Cut to Sonia’s next show, where she’s dressed in pan-African colors and performing with an electric funk bass. At one point she throws the heavy metal horns during this sequence.
Shafik spots some goons backstage before the show ends, and plays dumb. These goons are from the police, and they’re here to charge Sonia with public lewdness. When Sonia finishes her show and comes backstage, she has a mighty argument with the cops, using much the same facial expressions Princess Leia used when she argued with Grand Moff Tarkin.
At the jail, Shafik minces right in with snacks, and finds Sonia, out of focus and gazing off into space. She says it’s not such a big deal because the orphanage was worse (presumably the one she lived in, not the one she’s building). Her lawyer shows up and pleads that belly dancing can’t be obscene because it’s an Egyptian tradition, but the cops aren’t buying it. He complains that foreign pop stars wear skimpier outfits, but again, no dice. She has to pay bail to get out.
Sonia’s arrest is front page news: there’s a paperboy, or rather, an old guy in a toque, doing the “extra! extra!” shtick to promote the story.
I’ll never complain about the quality of the stipple drawings in the Wall Street Journal again.
Sonia gets on her car phone (her car phone!) and calls Abd Elhameed’s office. She makes it clear that she’s going to respond to this arrest “in the way of the belly dancers.” It would seem from the next scene that the way of the belly dancers is to go to the sauna and to engage in a media blitz.
Abd Elhameed reacts with the classic “hold up the newspaper in front of your face, then slam it down violently” business. (This guy is just a fountain of cliched reactions.) He’s nervous because Sonia says she’ll self-publish her memoirs, which will allow her to evade censorship laws. The rest of the cabinet is offering bribes to get out of her memoirs.
A comic relief guy drops in on Sonia at a restaurant. He’s wearing a backward baseball hat and is accompanied by surf guitar, which I suppose is the Egyptian way of indicating someone is a loser. His name is Atwa and he’s Sonia’s hitherto-unknown ex-husband, for reasons that soon become clear:
SONIA: Do you still eat opium?
ATWA: I snort these days.
The problem with getting opium addicts to do your bidding is that they aren’t so great at keeping secrets, and he reveals that he got his most recent fix from a politician who asked him to cause a scene with Sonia in public. For whatever reason, his antics don’t attract much attention, but I’m sure whoever hired him will be forgiving.
Off to a film shoot now, where Sonia is dancing. This set involves a staircase, and if you’ve never seen someone try to belly dance down a staircase, well, there’s a reason for that. She just kinda wobbles her arms around while walking. The setting is supposed to be some kind of rough and tumble saloon, complete with teakettle fog (no dry ice here) and angry drunkards. The drunkards get in a knife fight that ends in Sonia getting stabbed, and I nearly choked when I saw her line:
SONIA: Why would you kill me when I love you, Morsi?
(Mohamed Morsi, who would replace Mubarak as president of Egypt in 2012, was still working as an engineering professor when this movie was made.)
And about now, Barham shows up in the shadows, smoking a cigarette—the universal cinematic sign that things are about to go wrong…
I found this to be a fairly run-of-the-mill story of a plucky underdog overcoming sexism and making a corrupt system work for her. I can imagine them filming an American version in the 80s starring Dolly Parton and Gene Hackman. But I was most surprised to see a movie decrying political corruption in a dictatorship. Abd Elhameed is a member of the Egyptian parliament, and nearly all those guys were a member of Mubarak’s party. I asked a friend of mine who did some work in Mubarak’s Egypt to give me some thoughts on the issue, and here’s what he said:
For most of Mubarak’s rule, there was only one party, but parliamentarians still had to get elected. Most of that had to do with the internal politics of the party, and how well one played that game determined how big one’s portion of the pie was when it came to power and the proceeds of government.
The dictator needs a large base of like-minded legislators and administrators to help run things and maintain the charade. If anyone gets TOO corrupt, and especially shameless, then the people start to question whether the strongman/dictator system is really worth it.
And, it’s actually a boon for the dictator to grab the overly corrupt minor politician and chastise him, because that shows everyone that he has the best interests of The People at heart.
I’d add my Hot Take about the 2016 presidential election here, but I doubt you want to hear it.
• Technically sound: no glaring errors in the visuals or the audio, and the subtitles are quite well done.
• Very accessible to non-Egyptian audiences.
• The costume design people did a great job finding outlandish outfits for Sonia and Shafik.
• The movie ambles along at a leisurely pace. Nobody ever has to make a quick decision, which lowers the dramatic tension.
• If you don’t much like belly dancing, then you are going to be bored stiff.
Watch It If:
You’re Allison Pregler and you need inspiration for new outfits. You’re curious about what the Great Pyramid looks like from suburban Cairo. You’d like to see a movie about Arabic women that doesn’t feature a single hijab.