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"Cairo 678": Global Lens on Sexual Harassment in Egypt

diab-and-wifeTime was when the simple screech, “ ‘Ayb!” was enough to make an overheated Middle Eastern male act like a gentleman. Like garlic to a vampire, the Arabic word for “shame” stopped sexual harassers in their tracks, and became a vocabulary staple during my reporting days in the region. Nowadays, a gal may require something sharper than glottal stops to repel unwanted paws. At least that’s what the three heroines of the Egyptian movie Cairo 678 got to thinking while battling the sexual harassment that plagued them and that so pervades the local culture. 

Written and directed by celebrated Egyptian screenwriter Mohamed Diab, this timely social critique opened in national theaters one month before the popular 2011 uprisings that toppled the ancien régime. Nearly two years years after those heady events, Global Lens 2013 -- the 10th edition of the The Global Film Initiative series -- has selected Cairo 678 among its award-winning feature slate.

Diab emerged as something of a posterboy of the January 25 revolution. His edutainment and its rallying cry couldn’t have been better timed. 678 dares to tread where no Egyptian film had before it, tackling the taboo of sexual harassment and contextualizing it in the country’s conservative social traditions. The issue blazed the headlines following the allegedly brutal sexual assault of CBS News correspondent Lara Logan, in Cairo's Tahrir Square after President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation.

Diab spent a year researching women’s true experiences, which lends the film an air of documentary truth. Yet, unlike many an Egyptian film of gravitas, 678 manages to deliver character-rich drama without heaping a morality tale on the audience. And it does so with liberal sprinklings of that famed Egyptian humor, to boot.

The film follows three women from different social classes. Veiled and buttoned-up Fayza (Bushra, who is also credited as producer), juggles her government job, struggling husband (Basem El-Samra) and two children. Seba (Nelli Karim), a privileged jewelry designer married to a handsome doctor (Ahmed El-Feshawy), suffers a gang attack and takes to advocating women’s self-defense. That leaves Nelly (Nahed El Seba'i), an aspiring standup comedian – engaged to Omar Es-Saeed’s banker slash comedian -- who risks national ostracism for being the first Egyptian to sue for sexual harassment.

When the daily indignities send one of the women over the edge, she goes in for vigilante justice, stabbing brazen offenders in the groin. How she and her fellow rebels are handled by inspector Essam (show-stopper Maged El-Kedwany), reflects his journey from apathetic male to sensitive victim once removed.

On the occasion of the film's US premiere during New Directors/New Films 2010, sat down with Diab for an after-dinner chat about his directorial debut, and what it says about the high risk politics of silence and denial.

Q: What was it like to make the first film in the Arab world about sexual harassment?

MD: A lot of people were upset at first. I was accused of advocating for taharush (sexual harassment). The media criticized me: Isn’t there anything decent to talk about? You’re so irresponsible! I thought, How would I shoot it? How can I make a film that’s interesting about sexual harassment?

Q: Early on you show a taxi driver adjusting his mirror, the better to see his female passenger with. But you hold it an extra beat, as if we too are in the back seat and being checked out. Was that your intention, to set the stage for the story?

MB: Definitely, I just needed to make everyone feel that they are the target too. This is a film that is written and directed from the point of view of women.

Q: What happened to Seba at the soccer stadium? She’s grabbed by a throng of men and snatched from her husband, but we don’t know what ensued. Talk about your decision not to clarify it.

MD: By not showing the details, but her just disappearing among the thousands and thousands of people -- and they kidnap you in this way – it’s a lot scarier. I had this big dilemma between educating and entertaining. If I make a film that’s very sexually provocative, a lot of people will see it, but it’s not going to affect them. The film is about sexual harassment, so there was an opportunity to make a lot of explicit scenes. Every sexual harassment scene took a lot of thinking whether to be subtle or not.

Q: Nelly’s story is based on the real case of documentary filmmaker Noha Rushdi Saleh, who was grabbed by her breasts and dragged through the streets of Cairo, leading her to file the first criminal harassment suit in Egypt – and ultimately resulting in legislation criminalizing harassment. Where Fayza and Seba’s stories also taken from actual incidents?

MD: Seba’s story is a complete fabrication. I chose something that happens after a marriage. Egypt was playing against Algeria, and millions of people were in the street. [Actor Nelli Karim] didn’t show up, since her husband said it was too dangerous. So I got another actor. She was pulled away in the crowd and almost died. It took 15 minutes to get her back. So even that became a true story.

Q: Fayza is groped every day on Bus 678. Is that what’s behind her troubled sexual relationship with her husband?

MD: I’ve had relationships with four women, and three of them were sexually harassed. This is the 75 percent of Egyptian women who are brutally harassed. Fayza is in love with the person she’s married to, but she never wants to have sex with him. She gets on the bus and every day she gets harassed. She can’t stand any guy, not even the loving husband. It becomes a complex, something very difficult for you to tolerate. She feels like she’s getting raped if her husband touches her. For a lot of women, if they have a bad encounter, they just have one experience – animalistic.

Q: The mainstream media, from state-run outlets to Al Jazeera, failed to report the sexual harassment rampage that engulfed downtown Cairo for five hours during the post-Ramadan feast holiday of ‘Eid El-Fitr 2006. It was only three days later, when Nawara Negm appeared on Dream TV’s magazine show, that the story aired beyond the blogosphere. How has media coverage of sexual harassment changed since then?

MD: The media has been monitoring every ‘Eid since that incident, and they’ve been shooting a lot of footage. Even newspapers. There’s always been gang harassment. In the beginning people didn’t believe it. You didn’t see exactly what happened. Then there was no mistaking exactly what was happening. We live in a world where if things are not shot in a video, they did not happen. The bloggers exposed what happened on YouTube. It might have been happening for a long time, but we didn’t know because it wasn’t shot.

Q: What role can cinema play vis-à-vis the media?

MD: During the two months of 678’s showing in Egypt, the cases of sexual harassment reported were more than during the whole year. Most of the men thought [the film] was a complete fabrication. I heard of so many women who brought their fiancés to the film just to show them. It was very well received in Egypt, but it was very provocative.

A policeman called me and said there was a lady and a husband on a bus going to another city. They got into an argument with a guy who was harassing her. The police told me, “I caught this guy because I saw your film.” And I’ve had so many girls saying, “I’ll speak out -- from now on I’ll never shut up.”

Q: That’s a far cry from ‘Eid 2006, when police stood by in silence, not to mention the year before, when they had helped molesters during the referendum.

MD: Police are men. It’s not a police thing.

Q: What guided your portrayal of the police detective in your movie?

MD: To me he represents every Egyptian man. He’s a great guy, but when it comes to sexual harassment, he thinks it’s an exaggeration. “What does he do, take a part of her body and take it home?” That’s the sort of thing [the police] will say. Until it becomes personal.

Q: The inspector is the one who mostly carries the humor in the film. Why him, and why was it important for you to use humor in dealing with this topic?

MD: [Maged El-Kedwany] won Best Actor at the Dubai film festival. He took the film to another level. It wasn’t easy to integrate laughter in the film, but he made it possible. I chose comedy not because I wanted to make my audience laugh, but because I wanted to show how lightly they take things. We laugh with the cop throughout the film until it becomes personal to him. We are the officer. No one ever laughs after that scene.

Q: When one of the sexual harassers says he rode a bus to get fresh air, the inspector – and anyone who’s ever been on a Cairo bus – has to laugh. Yet we also sympathize with this hapless man who has no prospects of employment or meeting a woman.

MD: Sexual harassment is a mix of a lot of things. It’s very hard to get married in Egypt because it costs too much money. And it’s impossible to have sex before marriage, because people are very religious – Christians and Muslims – in Egypt. The Gallop Institute said Egypt is the most religious country in the world. So you figure that puberty is 16 years of age, and the average age of marriage is 35, so there’s a 20-year gap.

Given the provocative world that we live in -- everything is sold by sex – the average man in the world thinks of sex 500 times a day. Just imagine a guy who isn’t going to have sex for 20 years. Because of all that frustration, you need someone to blame. Ninety-nine percent of men blame women and say they are asking for it, they want it. It starts on a small scale, and this idea spreads in the collective mind. Even men who are not frustrated, even a kid who hits girls.

Q: One of the most powerful moments in the movie is when the women argue among themselves, and Fayza accuses the other two of drawing harassment with their risqué appearance. She’s in turn taken to task for her “backward” thinking. How did you arrive at this scene?

MD: I had so many criticisms from so many camps on this. The meaning of this scene is that women condemn women. It comes from ignorance, fear and oppression. The “Six, Seven, Eight” of the movie title is the number of the bus that Fayza takes, but it also refers to the list of things we mentioned in the trailer that are problems with the society. We listed: One: poverty; two: ignorance; three: oppression; four: aggression; five: fear; six: injustice; and seven, eight and so on, stuff like this. Every one of these is what led to sexual harassment. And if you remove the word “sexual harassment,” you’re going to get the five or six causes of the revolution.

Q: Was there sexual harassment during the revolution?

MD: In Tahrir Square, we were all united and we were all healed from this problem. It was so crowded you couldn’t see below your waist. But no one was touching anyone. The revolution washed this. What happened in these 18 days was that it created a new breed of Egyptians who believed that anything is possible, who are utopic, who respect women’s rights, who are honest, clean, everything. But this isn’t everyone; this is one third of the country, those who participated in the revolution. if we changed this amount of people in 18 days, imagine what we can do in one or two years.

Q: You helped launch a viral video campaign to oppose the constitutional amendments, a first in Egypt. The Egyptian people voted in favor, whereas your campaign advocates postponing elections to allow new parties to get organized. What’s at stake, and what’s next on your agenda?

MD: The people who made the revolution are liberal, moderate. If we lose and we didn’t show people that our take on the revolution is successful and is going to improve their lives, then someone else’s view is going to prevail. Usually it’s an extremist party. We’ve just got to get it right and we need help. Help on the economic front is the most important help.

We’re organizing a tour here to Egypt. We’re inviting celebrities like U2 and Oprah -- we’ve just met with John Kerry, with the foreign ministry of Russia, and we’re meeting with Bill Gates -- and we’re making this huge festival, in June. I’m inviting everyone to come to Egypt, and to invest there. If the economy is not strong, you are asking for a new Hitler. Not necessarily the Muslim Brotherhood – any extremist.

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