Sigara wa Kass (1955): a gendered portrayal of addiction, pleasure and productivity in Egyptian cinema

In her seminal work, The Resisting Reader (1978), Judith Fetterley argues for the need to challenge dominant readings of literature by producing new, “resisting” readings of classical texts as a way to change their impact on us and to make their agendas palpable (Fetterley, 1978). Some of Fetterley’s main contributions are her arguments that for centuries the presumed readers literary works have been written for have been men and not women, and that said works “immasculated” their women readers. According to Fetterley, women have continuously had to “forget” they are women and read as men, in order to be able to follow the implicit and explicit assumptions on which these texts have been built (Fetterley, 1978).

Within “The resisting reader” Judith Fetterley performs analyses of major American classics through the resistance lens she encourages, showing that these works largely frame women as an “other”, vis-à-vis their male protagonists and implied male readers (Fetterley, 1978), therefore legitimizing and transmitting a version of reality that does not acknowledge the experiences of women as valid and worthy of attention. Through her literary analyses Fetterley reveals the potency and impalpability of the “designs” that have been imprinted on women, therefore unmasking literature as political rather than free of ideology, as well as demonstrating the utility of her suggested method of reading. In this paper I perform a resisting reading of a 20th century Egyptian cinema classic, in order to investigate the culture that the artwork reflects, and to expose and question its implicit ideas and messages.

A_Glass_and_a_Cigarette_posterReleased in 1955, A Glass and a Cigarette (Sigara wa Kass) is an Egyptian movie directed by Niazi Mostafa, considered one of “[t]he most important directors in the history of Egyptian cinema”[1] by his contemporaries. The classic movie tells the story of Houda, an extraordinarily famous international cabaret dancer and movie star who gives up her career in order to devout herself to family life in accordance with traditional Egyptian values. Although Houda sacrifices her career, provides her husband and child with a luxurious flat to live in using her savings, and even builds a hospital for her husband to manage, soon the protagonist finds her marriage threatened by another woman. As a result of this familial drama, the female character’s previous tendency to find comfort in drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes soon takes the shape of what is depicted as an uncontrollable addiction and gets forcefully portrayed as the main roadblock to her family’s integrity and happiness. The portrayal of Houda’s struggle to deal with jealousy and addiction provides a unique environment for the manifestation of the complex concept of addiction and its interaction with mainstream beliefs about gender, productivity and pleasure.

Although Cigarette and a Glass is a peculiar mix of Western and Middle Eastern influences, typical for cinematography preceding the Golden Age of Egyptian cinema (pre- 1960s), the illustration of alcohol and cigarette use in the movie are representative of the conflicting nature of the concept of “drug”, developed in the West.

While bearing a rather clear message as to who and when is permitted to smoke and drink, the movie doesn’t prohibit the consumption of tobacco and alcohol altogether. Houda’s husband and the secondary male characters are seen smoking and drinking throughout the movie. Their substance use is not only left unreprimanded, it is elevated to a norm which dictates that alcohol and tobacco use are appropriate only when they are performed by males, in moderation and as a social activity. In contrast, the only female who engages in smoking and drinking in the movie is Houda. The abnormality of her behavior is further emphasized by her gradual portrayal as a compulsive addict who drinks and smokes- alone- whenever she is emotionally disturbed. The impact of gender on the movie’s definitions of norm and prohibition of substance use casts light on the peculiar nature of “drug” as a cultural construct impossible outside of history, culture and culture-based morality (Derrida, -).

Since “drug” is a “delimitable domain” it can be applied to any objects of compulsion (Derrida, -). Cigarettes and alcohol are not the only manifestations of the concept of “drug” in the context of the movie; the quasi-possession that is associated with “drug” also finds its criticism in the way Houda’s love for her husband is simultaneously glorified and condemned. The contrasting depictions of substance use and Houda’s “obsessive” love closely resemble the notion of “drug” as pharmakon, whereby remedy and poison exist concurrently and the danger lies in that “the bad pharmakon can always parasitize the good pharmakon” (Derrida, -).

The first scene in which we see Houda drinking is prior to her final performance.  She justifies her alcohol consumption with the need to gain courage to perform while her husband-to-be, Mamdouh, is in the public. This incident is passed without negative remark from the surrounding her characters, and portrayed as innocent from the point of view of a gendered frame which accepts that women will go at great lengths to impress their lovers and gain their benevolence . While Houda’s choice to give up her career to get married and have children is depicted as the expected progression in a woman’s life and a sort-of redemption for her departure from the cultural norms of her society (her stage presence and dancing are seen through a combination of admiration for her talent and a degree of criticism for her display at the center of the attention of the predominantly male public), her jealousy is regarded as a negative result of her obsessive love. Indeed, although throughout various scenes we see Yolanda, Mamdouh’s chief nurse and powerful Italian seductress, attempt to get between the couple, Houda’s jealousy is nevertheless treated as irrational and blown out of proportion.

4b3190bffd2af8d4996c0b59dd234aa4

Yolanda

This injustice to the female lead is seemingly justified given her assumed predisposition to addiction and substance abuse. While she uses alcohol and tobacco as an escape from her daunting, one-sided relationship, she is vilified through her identification with the “addict” who fails to meet “the key requirements of liberal subjects, notably ‘responsibility’, ‘rationality’, ‘reasonableness’, ‘independence” (O’Malley and Valverde, 27). Furthermore, despite the unrealistic happy ending of the movie where having temporarily lost everything (that is her husband and daughter), she quits smoking and drinking, her addiction is perpetually portrayed as stemming from her flawed character, therefore being irreversible.

The portrayal of Houda’s alcohol and tobacco consumption aligns with the modern narrative that “denies or silences the voluntary and reasonable seeking of enjoyment as warrantable motives” (O’Malley and Valverde, 28), if it deviates from the expectations for productivity and responsibility that modernity places on the human subject. Who gets to enjoy substance consumption in the movie is largely shaped by the normative gender roles, taken for granted throughout the film. Thus, Mamdouh’s occasional lightning of a cigarette after work, together with male consumption of alcohol and entertainment are not seen as deviant because they do not interfere with their productivity and labor.

Houda, however, is entirely deprived of enjoyment both as a factor of her inability to render her substance use governable by choice (O’Malley and Valverde, 36) and her failure to meet the requirements for productivity placed on her. She is never seen drinking or smoking in a context of emotional stability; instead, she drinks quickly to forget without ever slowing down to enjoy the taste of her drink. Given that woman’s productivity in the context of the movie is measured through her ability to perform the role of the “home maker”, the “omnipresent, vigilant Mother”, she is seen as undeserving of pleasure because she lets her addiction get into the way of her being a good wife (she drunkenly quarrels with her husband and humiliates him by drinking cognac in public, while he sips juice) and a good mother to her daughter (At the end of the movie she puts her daughter to sleep, gets upset thinking of her failing marriage and forgets to turn off the still burning cigarette left nearby the child’s bed when she goes downstairs to drink. As a result, her daughter’s room sets on fire and Houda almost fails to save the child because of her drunkenness).

By taking on a taboo subject such as female’s substance consumption, A cigarette and a glass necessitates a moralizing resolution. Despite the negative actions of other characters, Houda’s addiction and substance use renders her vulnerable to the harsh criticism modern society places on those who fail to meet its standards for productivity, responsibility, “calculated hedonism” and appropriate gender performance. Her portrayal as tormented by pain and addiction reinforces the idea that substance use is free of pleasure, unless it happens within the “institutionalized”, culturally appropriate contexts of the society and gender one belongs to.

The application of resisting reading to “A Glass and a Cigarette” shows the normalization of sexism and the different gendered expectations of men and women in Egyptian society in the twentieth century. An uncritical viewing of the movie is likely to produce criticism of the main female character and to narrowly perceive her actions as transgressive and immoral. A critical reading of the movie as an artwork that is not unbiased, but rather representative of a culture’s ideological, moral and social codes and prescriptions allows us to dive deeper into the processes of disempowerment, scapegoating and villainization which the female lead is forced to undergo, and is vital in aiding our ability to empathize with her which is a radical act given that the implicit goal of the movie is to portray her as an antihero.

References:

  • Armbrust, Walter, ed. “The Golden Age Before the Golden Age: Commercial Egyptian Cinema before the 1960s.” InMass Mediations: New Approaches to Popular Culture in the Middle East and Beyond. University of California Press, 2000. California Scholarship Online, 2012. doi: 10.1525/california/9780520219250.003.0013.
  • Derrida, Jacques. 2003. “The Rhetoric of Drugs.” Pp. 19-39 in High Culture: Reflections on Addiction and Modernity. Edited by A. Alexander and M.S. Roberts. New York: State University of New York Press.
  • Fetterley, Judith. 1978. The resisting reader: a feminist approach to American fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • O’Malley, Pat and Mariana Valverde. 2004. “Pleasure, Freedom, and Drugs: The Uses of ‘Pleasure’ in Liberal Governance of Drug and Alcohol Consumption.” Sociology 38: 25- 42.

[1] Quote by Samir Farid taken from the Wikipedia Page of Niazi Mostafa, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niazi_Mostafa

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