The Middle East’s Underrated “Old Hollywood” // The Observer
I was introduced to vintage fashion when I was eight years old, thanks to a mini-revival of rockabilly fashion in the late 2000s. I dreamed of the circular skirts, red lipstick, pointy 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 house was flooded with the sounds of a much older person’s television – I couldn’t get enough of the classic Turner movies. I would roll curlers in my hair too long to by Audrey Hepburn sing in “My Fair Lady”, by Marlene Dietrich imposing presence in “Prosecution Witness”, and of course, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russel in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”.
There was a lot of tap dancing for some reason but I loved watching Fred Astaire to throw with his female co-stars – there was levity, competition and laughter. They always lived up to their dancing skills and their spunk.
This era of American history was marked by wealth and the rise of consumerism. Many famous old Hollywood movies like “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, “My Fair Lady” and “Gone with the Wind” feature women of all social classes who strive to end up with rich men. . The war was over and it was time to surrender. consumerism was heralded as american patriotism. The American Dream on television looked like a car in the garage, a woman at home, a diamond on her ring finger and two children surrounded by toys.
Around the same time, an ocean away, Middle Eastern pop culture was dealing with class, wealth, and gender in somewhat different ways. The Golden Age of Egyptian Cinema (1940-1970) occurred during what can be roughly simplified as a decades-long trend toward secular social progress after the to spill of the Egyptian monarchy installed by the British of King Farouk.
The films made during this period are snapshots of a post-imperial, secular, proud, progressive and ephemeral Egypt. Religion was relatively divorced from formal political institutions. Art and music flourished like never before. There was a rekindled patriotism and a friendly public spirit.
Egyptian women’s fashion of the 50s, 60s and 70s was bold and risque. Arab actresses wore skin-tight spaghetti strap dresses, off-the-shoulder, backless dresses. Crop tops and beach sarongs, mini skirts and high heels. Makeup was a mix of Eastern and Western trends, with many Arab actresses accentuating their eyes with smoky liners, and others opting for the classic red lip and simpler eyes. Hair can be worn long luxurious updos Where short black curls which framed the face.
Importantly, many at the time saw these new fashions as an attack on modesty and traditional Muslim values. The clothing of Egyptian film actresses from the 50s and 60s may seem far too revealing in many parts of Egypt today. Suggested 2012 estimates 90% Egyptian women wore a form of hijab.
The films themselves are interesting cultural and thematic artifacts. These films aim to illuminate the lives of the oppressed and deprived. 1940s Arab icon Abdel Halim Hafez illustrated that a man’s worth had little to do with wealth, aggression, family name or social status in his music and his acting. Hafez has played humble characters, soft-spoken, sensitive amateurs, starving artists, and outraged children on screen. In a “Date with Happiness”, Faten Hamama plays the daughter of a servant who is sexually assaulted by the wealthy owner of the house. These films were unafraid of the inequalities resulting from gender and class-based violence.
Along the same lines, Egyptian cinema has approached emotions, romance, vulnerability and gentleness in a new way. In “Woman’s Enemy”, it’s mutual caring and gentleness (Dr. Issa makes a cup of tea for Nadia, Nadia tends to her burnt hands) that brings the unlikely pair together, teaching the misogynistic Dr. Issa how to be more at ease with his emotions. . Despite modern stereotypes that Arab men are aggressive, people forget that 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.”
Additionally, these films often portrayed the idea that a woman would want a man for her money as outdated and left. In fact, the Arab women in these films often eclipse their male counterparts in education, career achievement, intellect, or social status. Take for example Nawal (Faten Hamama) in “The Date”, a spunky and respected journalist who falls in love with a struggling musician trying to get his big break. Or Souad Hosny and Nadia Lutfi as geologists deprived of work because of their sex in the comedy “For Men Only” (they dress up as men to get the job). Or Nadia Lutfi as a former lawyer and high-society aristocrat in “Woman’s Enemy.”
Prominent figures have challenged the prevailing Eurocentric norms of race and colorism in postcolonial Egypt. In a 2018 maintenance with Brittle Paper, Sudanese-American poet Safia Elhillo notes that Abdel Halim “addressed many of his love songs to ‘asmarani,’ which is an endearing term in Arabic for a brown-skinned or dark-skinned person. .. It was pretty radical to me – that her song lyrics took time out to make it clear that she was a darker girl. In this pretty racist and coloristic world, that felt important to me.
You can find many of these films on YouTube; remnants of Egypt’s recent past and its future as well.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.