Mohammad Shawky Hassan’s Ode to Queer Love in Berlin

15 September, 2022
Selim Mourad in Shall I Com­pare You to a Summer’s Day? (2022) by Moham­mad Shawky Has­san (pho­to cour­tesy Aflam Wardeshan/ Amerikafilm).

 

Queer pos­si­bil­i­ties for the impasse of nar­ra­tive in Shall I Com­pare You to a Summer’s Day?

 

Iskandar Abdalla

 

From the very first moment, Moham­mad Shawky Has­san’s film Bash­taalak Sa’at or Shall I Com­pare you to A Summer’s Day? (which had its pre­miere in the Forum sec­tion at the 2022 Berli­nale Fes­ti­val), seems to fall into con­flict with its own pos­si­bil­i­ties of nar­ra­tion. How many sto­ries can we tell about love? And if there is only one sto­ry to tell, how many ver­sions can it have? And who shall tell which part? Shawky Has­san invokes Scheherazade (played here by Donia Mas­sod), the myth­i­cal nar­ra­tor and the great­est among all sto­ry­tellers in One Thou­sand and One Nights,  to weave a sto­ry or rather sev­er­al sto­ries of love that seem to elude the very act of “prop­er” telling. But Scheherazade’s exquis­ite art of telling lies appar­ent­ly here not in com­ing up with a sto­ry­line that would sort out the quandary of nar­ra­tion and enthrall the listeners/viewers with the audac­i­ty of its per­fec­tion; it lies rather in ques­tion­ing nar­ra­tives; in entan­gling the tools and tra­jec­to­ries of their for­ma­tion; in trou­bling their tem­po­ral depen­den­cies and spa­tial framings.

Scheherazade’s sto­ry­line will soon be dou­bled and tripled. It frees itself from the allur­ing grip of its renowned teller to wan­der among the respec­tive voic­es of all those who lived out the story(ies). The sto­ry becomes thus mul­ti­vo­cal, mul­ti­fac­eted, embell­ished with intri­cate­ly curved lines; an assem­blage of mem­o­ries and sen­sa­tions of love that shift its own­ers — all name­less pro­tag­o­nists — that exchange posi­tions, move between places, times, and bodies.

I am strug­gling to under­stand where each sto­ry begins and ends… Do they even end? Or do new sto­ries begin with­out us return­ing to the first one?” asks a name­less pro­tag­o­nist (Selim Mourad) his invis­i­ble coun­ter­part, while lying naked under a flow­ery blan­ket and fac­ing us — the viewers.

We are then not alone in fac­ing this puz­zling conun­drum. The pro­tag­o­nists them­selves seem to get lost in the maze of a plot that weaves its sto­ries around and through their bod­ies, that ties them togeth­er in times and sets them apart in oth­er times, that seems to be ruled by a unique order of inci­dents. The inci­dents them­selves can be recalled, nev­er­the­less one can nev­er be sure who told what first and why one keeps on telling the same sto­ries one already knows. Is that what we can call a queer nar­ra­tive?

 

Berlin is a queer haven, or that is how the city at least hopes to appear. No bars seem to block the hori­zons of expres­sion when queer artists are at stake. Nev­er­the­less, when you are both queer and Arab, hav­ing a place and a voice in such a haven is sub­ject to a set of con­di­tions and pre-estab­lished per­cep­tions. The point here is not that the sto­ries of queer Arabs are ignored or remain under­rep­re­sent­ed, but that their rep­re­sen­ta­tion must often cor­re­spond to cer­tain modes of fram­ing and tem­plates of nar­ra­tion. In the West, queer Arabs are hailed when they speak as vic­tims of a patri­ar­chal cul­ture they left behind, or when they express their grat­i­tude for a gay-friend­ly present they are sup­posed to embrace. But can queer Arabs speak about love beyond cul­tur­al­ist fram­ings and nar­ra­tives of victimhood?

Many of the pro­tag­o­nists of Shall I Com­pare you to A Summer’s Day? and the direc­tor him­self live in Berlin. But the film is even­tu­al­ly a film about love. And for it to be only about love the film for­goes tak­ing place in any spe­cif­ic time or region. Nev­er­the­less, its root­ed­ness in local Arab-Egypt­ian cul­ture is unmis­tak­ably con­spic­u­ous. Egypt­ian pop­u­lar songs and film dia­logues func­tion in the film not only as ref­er­ences for the unfold­ing sto­ries of love and lust, they rather endow the film’s nar­ra­tive with its very pos­si­bil­i­ty to come forth and mate­ri­al­ize a mul­ti­tude of dis­cours­es about love and desire. Ramadan’s musi­cal rid­dle shows, known as Fawazeer, and Egypt­ian tele­vised Tales of Thou­sand and One Nights are evoked and aes­thet­i­cal­ly reclaimed as a stage for pic­tur­ing realms of queer love. Both shows had enjoyed remark­able pop­u­lar­i­ty in the Arab-speak­ing coun­tries dur­ing the ‘80s and ear­ly ‘90s. They shaped the hori­zons of imag­i­na­tion of a whole gen­er­a­tion of view­ers and con­jured their affec­tion with a unique world of phan­tas­mal images, spec­tac­u­lar dance sketch­es, and the­atri­cal scener­ies that fea­tured demons, witch­es, wiz­ards, leg­endary kings, and queens.

Moham­mad Shawky Has­san stud­ied phi­los­o­phy, film direct­ing and cin­e­ma stud­ies at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty in Cairo,  Acad­e­my of Cin­e­mat­ic Arts & Sci­ences and Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty. His films include bal­aghany ayy­oha al malek al sa’eed/ it was relat­ed to me (2011), On a Day like Today (2012) and Wa Ala Sa’eeden Akhar/And On a Dif­fer­ent Note (2015). He pre­sent­ed film pro­grams at the Ober­hausen Short Film Fes­ti­val, Anthol­o­gy Film Archives, The New York Pub­lic Library and Union­Docs, and is cur­rent­ly run­ning the Net­work of Arab Art­house Screens (NAAS). His new film is Shall I Com­pare You to a Sum­mer’s Day?

In evok­ing such icon­ic images, Shawky Hasan pays trib­ute to an infor­mal queer his­to­ry of view­ing; of fas­ci­na­tion with the visu­al lan­guage and poet­ics of these shows; of their appro­pri­a­tion into inti­mate frames of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion that plead for freer pos­si­bil­i­ties of being, and shook free from the firm grip of gen­dered norms. In place of nar­ra­tive tem­plates that fore­ground a repressed sex­u­al­i­ty con­fined to secre­cy and inflict­ed by fear; in place of the famil­iar three act dra­mas of per­se­cu­tion, then flight, before find­ing lib­er­a­tion in a west­ern queer haven like Berlin, queer Arab his­to­ry of imag­i­na­tion is recast in the film as a vehi­cle of self-fash­ion­ing; of coun­ter­bal­anc­ing the sense of social alien­ation and patch­ing up social bound­aries. Queer Arab imag­i­na­tion becomes a sort of counter-imag­i­na­tion, enti­tled to frame one’s own affec­tions, inti­ma­cies, ways of being, and desir­ing by draw­ing on a per­son­al archive of visu­al mem­o­ries and the affec­tive reg­is­ters they acti­vate to envi­sion being beyond racial­ized imageries and gen­dered dichotomies.

What is at stake is a queer utopia to be real­ized by the pow­er of imag­in­ing freer domains for artic­u­lat­ing love and desire. Its queer qual­i­ty lies pre­cise­ly in its denun­ci­a­tion to the notion of per­fec­tion. The kind of queer utopia fea­tured in the film is inflict­ed by pain, grief, sep­a­ra­tion and even death. They become con­stituent to the expe­ri­ence of being queer­ly in love. It is a utopia that with­stands the upright­ness of affec­tion, the straight­ness of bod­ies, desires but also of narratives.

Shawky Hassan’s film invites us to go beyond think­ing about queer cin­e­ma in terms of the sheer rep­re­sen­ta­tion of queer char­ac­ters and sto­ries, and to reck­on rather with styles of expres­sion and forms of sto­ry­telling that can be iden­ti­fied as queer. In oth­er words, queer cin­e­ma should urge for forms and styles of cre­at­ing mean­ing that bet­ter trans­late the intri­ca­cies of the queer expe­ri­ence; that cor­re­spond to the inno­v­a­tive ways by which queer peo­ple appro­pri­ate iden­ti­ties, prac­tices and sub­vert het­ero­sex­u­al for­mats of being. In this log­ic, lin­ear plot­ting and plain nar­ra­tion that cap­i­tal­izes on a con­cate­na­tion of sin­gle actions and clear-cut char­ac­ters prove futile for rep­re­sent­ing queer love. In resort­ing to the spec­tac­u­lar char­ac­ter of pop­u­lar songs and musi­cal shows like Ramadan rid­dles, Shawky Has­san is relo­cat­ing Arab queer expe­ri­ence in rela­tion to an affec­tive­ly struc­tured archive of audio­vi­su­al mem­o­ries and diverse modes of engage­ment with pop­u­lar cul­ture. On a dif­fer­ent note how­ev­er, restor­ing to the spec­tac­u­lar as a lan­guage of sto­ry­telling in gen­er­al can be read as an expres­sion of a sort of indif­fer­ence if not of inim­i­cal­i­ty towards lin­ear nar­ra­tive progress, as Valerie Rohy[1] (2018) reminds us in her read­ing of Tony Scott’s film The Hunger (1983). This implies the rethink­ing of our estab­lished con­ven­tions about spec­ta­cle since Aris­to­tle as a genre placed at the bot­tom of art, if not “the most of for­eign to art” (Heller [2]1982, 240). But more impor­tant­ly, the way how the film’s lan­guage appro­pri­ates spec­tac­u­lar com­po­nents urges us to break with the oppo­si­tion between nar­ra­tives as the prop­er way of telling sto­ries and spec­ta­cles as a crude mode of enthralling sen­ti­ments, char­ac­ter­ized by dif­fu­sion and for­mal effects dis­posed of mean­ing. Such oppo­si­tion rein­forces name­ly het­ero­sex­u­al modes of straight­en­ing affec­tive expe­ri­ences and inti­mate encoun­ters. Resort­ing to the spec­tac­u­lar entails fur­ther­more the poten­tial to queer nar­ra­tives when doing so alludes to the fail­ings of nar­ra­tives; to their inevitable inad­e­qua­cy for cap­tur­ing the myr­i­ad man­i­fes­ta­tions and expres­sions of being in love; to their sta­tus as noth­ing but a “fan­ta­sy” that gives “for­mal and tem­po­ral coher­ence to an essen­tial impasse of sig­ni­fi­ca­tion” (Rohy 2018, 153).

The Eng­lish title of the film is bor­rowed from Shakespeare’s most famous son­net in which the beau­ty of an unnamed young man is cel­e­brat­ed by the devot­ed poet. The first line of the son­net brings this sort of inad­e­qua­cy or impasse in the form of a ques­tion to the fore: Shall I com­pare thee to summer’s day?

Shakespeare’s ques­tion is rhetor­i­cal. Nei­ther his beloved, nor his read­ers are expect­ed to answer. From the out­set, the com­par­i­son is doomed to fail as the next lines of the poem demon­strate. The beloved is more love­ly and more tem­per­ate than a per­fect summer’s day. Time pass­es and even the most immac­u­late Eng­lish sum­mer must be fol­lowed by fall. An anal­o­gy to what objec­tive­ly seems to be the order of nature fails then to describe the expe­ri­ence of love. Queer love dodges descrip­tion, not because it longs for per­fec­tion but because its hori­zons of imag­i­na­tion are out of joint; they nei­ther can be con­fined by bounds of time, nor of space or the order of nature. Art too is not about long­ing for per­fec­tion but enact­ing eter­ni­ty. And only by the virtue of a poet­ic imag­i­na­tion can love become eternal:

“But thy eter­nal sum­mer shall not fade,
Nor lose pos­ses­sion of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eter­nal lines to time thou grow’st”

 

[1] Rohy, Valerie “The Cin­e­ma of the Impos­si­ble: Queer The­o­ry and Nar­ra­tive” in Zara Din­nen and Robyn Warhol (ed.) The Edin­burgh Com­pan­ion to Con­tem­po­rary Nar­ra­tive The­o­ries (Edin­burg Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2018), 147–157.
[2] Heller, Janet Ruth, “The bias against spec­ta­cle in tragedy: the his­to­ry of idea,” in The Eigh­teenth Cen­tu­ry, Autumn 1982, Vol. 23. No. 3 (Autumn 1982), pp. 239–255.

Arab filmqueer narratives

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Iskandar Abdalla is a researcher, writer, educator and curator. He studied history and Middle Eastern studies and is a doctoral fellow at the Berlin Graduate School for Muslim Cultures and Societies. In his dissertation project, he focuses on the affective underpinnings of debating Islam and migration in Germany. His research interests encompass furthermore queerness, film and cultural history in the Arab world and Jewish-Muslim relations. Iskandar has worked as film programmer at the Arab Film Festival (Alfilm) in Berlin since 2015. He has also programmed and curated many cinematic events for various institutions, including Goethe-Institut and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

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