Black Candles

A handsome, loyal, reader sent in the following question.

Dear darknessatnoon,

Yesterday my ex-bf sent me this [editor’s note: stop talking to your “authentic” Egyptian ex!]:

Is it from a progressive film, because the plaintive singer refers to the homosexuality of her silent companion, or has the gender of the pronouns has been mistranslated?

Either way, I find it a bit over the top.

A handsome, loyal, and honest Reader,
Signed J__

First let’s get something out of the way — there are no progressive Egyptian films. After watching the clip, it seems obvious that something homosexual is going on here, or that she’s possibly calling him a “bitch” because she caught him screwing the dog. Either way, it looks like she’s giving him a severe verbal castration.

In fact, after consulting my Near Native Informant in Lebanon [thanks DW] the clip is from a film called,

الشموع السوداء

El Shoumou el sawdaa, or Black Candles (1962). Abdelwahab was the composer of the music; Ashnawi wrote the poem. The song in question is sung by Najat al Saghira, and this is one of her most famous performances. Najat’s father was one of Um Kalthoum’s (the Madonna of the Arab world) violinists.

The basic plot of the movie is that Ahmed discovers that his wife is cheating, so he rides his horse in anger and falls off, losing his sight. ‘Mistrust, betrayal and murder follow.’ The song she’s singing is adapted by a poem entitled “Don’t Cry,”by Kamal Al- Shanawi, into the following lyrics:

اني رأيتكما معاودعي البكاء …..
فقد كرهت ألأدمعا
ما أهون الدمع الجسور اذا جرى …….
من عين كاذبة فأنكر وادعى
اني رأيتكما ……
أني سمعتكما
عيناك في عينيه …..
في شفتيه …..
في كفيه …في قدميه
ويداك ضارعتان ……..
ترتعشان من لهف عليه
تتحديان الشوق بالقبلات …..
تلذعني بسوط من لهيب
بالآهات ….
بالصمت الرهيب
ويشب في قلبي حريق ….
ويضيع من فدمي الطريق
وتطل من رأسي الظنون تلومني ……..
وتشد أذني …..
فلطالما باركت كذبك كله …..
ولعنت ظني …
ماذا أقول لأدمع سفحتها أشواقي اليك ؟؟؟؟؟
ماذا أقول لأضلع مزقتها خوفا عليك ؟؟؟؟؟؟
أأقول هانت ؟؟؟
أأقول خانت ؟؟؟؟
أأقولها ؟؟؟؟
لو قلتها أشفي غليلي …. ياويلتي ,
لا لن أقول أنا فقولي …..
لاتخجلي مني ,,,
فلست بثائر,,,,
أنقذتني … من زيف أحلامي وغدر مشاعري
فرأيت أنك كنت لي قيدا …
حرصت العمر ألا أكسره ……
ورأيت أنك كنت لي ذنبا
سألت الله ألا يغفره …. فغفرته
كوني كما تبغين …لكن لن تكوني …
فأنا صنعتك من هواي ومن جنوني ……..
ولقد برئت من الهوى ومن الجنون
Another translation of the poem would be “Don’t Lie to Yourself,” which could very well bolster a queer reading, especially since he uncomfortably sucks on a cigarette the whole time. However, since she’s singing a classical poem to him, it could mean by the logic of gender inversion that she has seen him with another woman. Given the surface plot of the movie — that she’s helping him cope with the rage of his wife’s infidelity — the song is more likely *his* point of view given voice by the feminine instrument. It’s unlikely we’d see such an obvious homosexual scene. He’s lost his sight, and therefore his power in the world. Clearly, Egyptian cinema didn’t hire proficient animal trainers, given that seeing-eye dog practically mauls his master during the scene. Since he is blind, Najat acts as Ahmed’s voice to help him compensate for the missing instrument his wife took away. What’s she’s doing is called ‘singing in the masculine,’ taking upon herself the voice of the poem. She’s singing to him in the imperative, as if he’s another woman, referring to the man his wife cheated with as “him,” lamenting seeing her lips touch “his lips.”

This kind of voicing leads to a lot of interpretive excesses of Arab literature. Which is not to say that there’s not a lot of overt bisexuality in Arab poetry, however, a blatantly gay moment like that would be more than a little shocking. Egyptian Cinema doesn’t handle homosexuality very deftly. I found 2006’s adaptation of The Yacoubian Building to be one of the more derogatory, stereotyped, melodramatic, depictions of homosexuality I’ve seen in the past decade. And that was hailed as “progressive.”

Which isn’t to say that it’s advisable to swing to an extreme of interpretative conservatism, which, unfortunately, I find is the case with Joseph Massad’s reactionary, Desiring Arabs. Massad wasn’t trained in the Humanities. He’s a Political Scientist, and all his readings suffer from the dogmatic, condemnatory, tone of his field. I can’t bring myself to read anything more than excerpts from the book, however, I know the argument from its earliest incarnation in articles and from a lecture at a conference called “Hatred of the Other” where, after Massad finished a demagogic lecture, I raised my hand to explain “Joseph, I hated your speech, and now I’m going to tell you why… .” We ended up in a shouting match over his basic thesis that a ‘Gay International’ has emerged which projects a Western Constructed gay identity upon subjects in the Arab World, and uses the language of Human Rights interventionism as an excuse to interfere in the local politics. This interference somehow produces a native gay identity (he refers to these people with the charged Anthropological pejorative of “Native Informants”), and, it follows, a heterosexual/religious backlash in Middle Eastern countries. Obviously, this is a crock of bull. Phenomenological encounters between East and West are always more complicated than that, but not according to Edward Said’s book Orientalism, from which Massad cribs his b.s. argument. Also, if there is a backlash against homosexuality in the Islamic Nations, the role in the U.S. arms build-up in Israel can’t be ignored, given that Israel itself is largely tolerant of a kind of Euro-Trash gay identity. John Scaglioti damns Massad’s argument over in a review at The Progressive:

In other words, sex was all cool and fluid in the ancient East, and guys used to be able to “penetrate” other guys and not have to worry about being called anything. Those were the good old days, when sex didn’t have to have horrible Western identities. Everyone was straight, so life was easy and gay. Then along came the “Gay International” and ruined it all, compelling poor straight people or bisexuals in those countries who are practicing their same-sex expressions into a gay (or straight) identity, and bringing out the worst in governments that previously paid no attention but now are forced to call in the hangman for the lovers who choose the wrong side. …

Of course, Massad says this all very academically, with tons of footnotes, so you automatically think he must know what he is talking about.

It’s true. Massad misses the Boy’s Club. I know guys like this. They have to screw a woman once a year so that they can maintain their membership in the Boy’s Club, though for the rest of the year they have no problem blowing frat boys in campus bathrooms. His argument is the worst kind of literalism. Are there greater or lesser degrees of Arabness? Is someone suddenly less of an Arab if she lives in Paris? Did Marjorie Satrapi’s narrator become less of an authentic Persian during the parts of Persepolis when she lived out of country? My anthropologist friends evince the worst of this trend. The same people who just a few years ago were railing against Area Studies now go around saying that one cannot understand Globalization without knowing what is happening on some random street corner in Mumbai, or wherever. Reading about religious fundamentalism has rubbed off onto these social scientists so that now they have become Geographic Fundamentalists. Scaglioti points out people in the Middle East may or may not start watching Ellen,

But gay liberation is no more intrinsically Western than black revolution is intrinsically Haitian. People have sex and fall in love; they’re different and they don’t want to lie and hide. Some do, but many more want to come out, and if that can happen, it will happen. And if a government is going to lash or torture or kill people who come out, gay people are going to fight for gay people. Just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you don’t have some yelling rights.

This is a long way off from answering a reader question, however, I wrote all this to make clear that I am not squashing a gay reading for the sake of a Massadian kill-joy agenda and to rant about Joseph just a little. Even though I actually enjoyed the fact that the Zionist group Campus Watch persecuted him, I will refrain from discussing him as insultingly here as I do in casual conversation. In fact, I wish him all the luck in the world with his current ‘belly-dancing’ project. I’m sure it will rock the world of Political Science. Maybe he’ll be able defy common sense again to prove definitively that male belly-dancers are as straight as can be.

I leave my readers with a treat! Images from Youssef Nabil’s homo-erotic, hand-painted, photography. The images are from his Sleep in My Arms exhibit. DW especially loves the fetishism of the first image.

Rashid with a shisha in his mouth, Paris 2004

and, my personal favorite is the following:

Self-portrait with a broken doll, Athens 2000

I’d like to discuss Nabil at greater length in a later post. In the meantime, enjoy the images as well as the clip from Black Candles.

Works Referenced:

Menicucci, Garay. 1998. “Unlocking the Arab Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in Egyptian Film.” Middle East Report 206: 32–36.

Scagliotti, John. “The Myth of the Gay International.” The Progressive. March, 2008.

Research Intern/Native Informant:



2 Responses to “Black Candles”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    There does seem to be a contradiction in the position of the Edward Said school of postcolonialism that ideas arising in the West are inherently imperialist and the reality that the most successful postcolonial thinkers are located in the West (Fanon, Said, Spivak, Bhabha and now Massad??)…

  2. darknessatnoon Says:

    Hmmmm… Not sure I would lump Fanon, Spivak and Bhabha into that trend. Spivak repeatedly points out that the idea that only Europe can be Eurocentric is a Eurocentric idea. Fanon felt that Hegel and Freud could be powerful tools against colonialist ideologies. And Bhabha is one of the harshest critics of Edward Said’s politics.I may have problems with Fanon psychoanalyzing patients through a translator (I imagine that sort of like being analyzed over the internet through a patchy dial-up connection), with Spivak’s insane made-up German translations, and with Bhabha’s rampant over-lyricism… but… Said and Massad? Those two are just ridiculous.

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