Saidi at the American University (Cairo)

[Saidi Fi al-Jamiah al-Amrikiyah = An Upper Egyptian at AUC]

August 31, 1998

Egyptian Comedy Angers Israel

at 2:31 a.m. EDT

By The Associated Press

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- A hit film that pokes fun at Westernized Egyptians has managed to anger Israel and the American University in Cairo as well as point up deep differences in this Arab country's society. ``Saidi at the American University,'' tells the story of Khalaf, a bumpkin southern Egyptian who wins a scholarship to study at the university whose students -- many from Cairo's upper class -- are known for their Americanized attitudes. The ``saidi,'' the Arabic word for a southern Egyptian, runs into trouble from his first day. Wearing a tie and yellowish suit, he draws giggles from fellow students in casual college dress. ``Did you fall into a mustard jar?'' one asks Khalaf. But audience reaction, as reported in the Cairo press, has turned the tables on the students' derision -- with cheers for Khalaf and boos for his detractors. Both film and reaction speak to the contrast between upper middle class Cairenes who go to bars and American fast-food restaurants and the vast number of Egyptians who are conservative Muslims. Khalaf -- definitely in the second group -- doesn't drink alcohol, speak English to fellow Egyptians, or dance with girls. In his hometown of Sohag, Khalaf never saw men and women dance together. Some who have seen the film feel that Khalaf is the real Egyptian while the university's students represent an alien culture. ``They are from a different world. They want to imitate everything Western,'' said Mona Mohammed, a 21-year-old student at a technical university in Cairo. Whatever the reaction, the film is so popular that tickets must be bought days in advance. Showing at 25 movie theaters, it made nearly $600,000 in its first week, very high by Egyptian standards. Mohammed Hineidy, who plays Khalaf, is said to have doubled his salary per film to $58,000. Hineidy, 36, is now seen as a rival to Adel Imam, Egypt's top comedian. And many people in Cairo are singing one of the film's songs, ``Casuawilouh,'' an Arabization of the word ``casual'' that means ``make him dress casual.'' The song plays as Khalaf, making peace with fellow students, visits one of Cairo's shopping malls to trade his old-fashioned clothes for jeans and polo shirts. Not everyone is happy with the film. The American University in Cairo, which was founded in 1919 and sees itself as having educated generations of Egyptian society, sued to stop distribution of the film using its name. But it withdrew the lawsuit this week after the filmmaker said he intended no harm to the university. The film's producer, Mohammed el-Adl, was quoted in the press as saying the university refused to allow photos to be taken on campus to help design sets. Some scenes were shot at Cairo's Russian Embassy, which looks like AUC's older buildings. The movie's main scene also angered Israel. It shows an anti-Israeli demonstration on the 50th anniversary of the Jewish state earlier this year. One student organizer is arrested but manages to throw an Israeli flag to Khalaf, who sets it ablaze. Israeli Embassy spokeswoman Ayellet Yehiav said such a film should not be shown ``after nearly 20 years of peace and relations,'' referring to Israel's 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, the first with an Arab state. ``I can only regret the fact that in a film that is supposed to be a comedy, there is a scene that is not funny at all in which they burn our flag,'' she said. The director, Saeed Hamed, has said audiences often applaud and stamp their feet at the flag-burning, reflecting Arab frustration over Israel's stalled peace talks with Palestinians. ``When they burnt the Israeli flag, we began to clap. There was a feeling inside us. I had tears in my eyes because of what is happening in Palestine,'' said 19-year-old law student Ibrahim Mohammed Talib. After the protest, Khalaf tells police: ``I have nothing to do with demonstrations or politics. But after burning the Israeli flag, I felt relieved.'' The film ends with Khalaf, who came first in the political science exam, giving a graduation speech. ``When I first came here, I was overwhelmed by America. But after three years,'' he says, ``I would like to say that we don't hate anyone ... but we hate those who call us backward people.''


Date: Thu, 20 Aug 1998

Subject: An Upper Egyptian at AUC

Sender: owner-arabic-info@indiana.edu

Dear Arabic Info Subscribers:

While I recognize the following message falls outside the oft-discussed parameters of this listserv, I want to draw it to your attention. Today's al-Ahram weekly (English) printed a brief note reporting that the American University in Cairo has decided to file a lawsuit requesting that the new movie Sa'idi fil Gama'a al-Amrikiya be banned. The public relations office of AUC has stated that they oppose, "the use of the university's name and logo without legal permission." While I am uncertain about the legal merits of this case, it strikes me that any effort by the American University in Cairo to ban a film with the level of popularity that this one has enjoyed is counterproductive in the extreme. In its first two weeks, the film has grossed almost 2 million Egyptian pounds, breaking box office records. Having seen the film, a comedy/musical about the travails of a young Sa'idi who wins a grant to study at AUC, I would attest that it's not a work of cinematic brilliance, but the catchy music and humor make for an enjoyable experience. Furthermore, the hostility towards Israel and the US contained in the movie seem to have struck a chord with the movie-going public here. If the American University in Cairo is supposed to promote liberal values, including freedom of expression, this seems an odd place to launch a legal campaign in favor of censorship. The banning of this film would, I believe, only inflame public opinion. Would not a better strategy be some kind of debate or discussion with the producers of the film, in an atmosphere congenial to intellectual exchange of the type the AUC if supposed to uphold? Indeed, the film ends with its protagonist, in his valedictory address to the student body, arguing that what he finds most reprehensible about America is its tendency towards "fard al-Ra'i" or "impostion of opinion" (pardon the bad transliteration and translation here). What could be a worse way of reinforcing this widely-held opinion than to attempt to ban a movie that expresses it? I also want to contrast the AUC's public stance on this issue with the treatment it gave a recent controversy surrounding a faculty member who offered his students the chance to read Maxime Rodinson's biography of the Prophet. When some alumni of the University complained vociferously about the content of the book, the University bowed to government demands to remove the book from library shelves, and left the teacher in question to dangle in the wind, refusing to stand up for any basic principle of academic freedom. The faculty member in question was left to defend himself against charges that he was anti-Islamic, and found public support only among Egyptian academics outside AUC. One can say what one will about the choice of reading material for the class, but academic freedom strikes me a a vastly more important topic than a satiricial and fictional portrayal of AUC. If this comes across as a bit of a rant, I apologize. I can only say that the myopic response of the AUC administration to this movie, contrasted with its willingness to abandon a faculty member to his fate in a case obviously involving the fundamental values AUC purports to uphold, leaves me baffled and frustrated. I personally do not believe that attempts to ban this movie have anything to do with the intellectual and educational principles that liberal thinkers of any stripe out to espouse. Sincerely, David Peters

Date: Thu, 20 Aug 1998

To: arabic-info@indiana.edu

Subject: RE: An Upper Egyptian at AUC

Sender: owner-arabic-info@indiana.edu

Dear Readers:

I've already responded to Mr. Peters at some length, but I would like others to know that: a. The AUC was under a great deal of pressure including several vociferous attacks in the media which some of you may not be aware of. b. The AUC did not leave the professor "dangling in the wind" who assigned the Rodinson book. Nor had it much choice in the book-banning which was ordered by Presidential edict after the uproar caused by a journalist's exposition of "offensive" portions of the book in the press. There were efforts to communicate AUC's support of its liberal values which were not printed. c. If AUC is the subject of the film and the film has not obtained the necessary legal permissions for such a spoof why should it not react as it has -- given the current situation in Egypt? The parallel would be certain films made in the US which link Muslims and Arabs to terrorism -- there has to be some response objecting to one-sided characterizations as they can and do cause harm to individuals (and in this case, perhaps to an institution) -- even when, in theory, we support freedom of expression. Sincerely, Sherifa Zuhur .


Date: Mon, 24 Aug 1998

From: Yasmine abou el-kheir

To: arabic-info@indiana.edu

Subject: RE: An Upper Egyptian at AUC

Sender: owner-arabic-info@indiana.edu

AUC's actions are hardly surprising much as Zuhur may protest. The only liberal value the AUC promotes is a utilitarian one. Wary of AUC's image as an American outpost, the Public Relations Office takes its role of protecting the fort to extremes. During my brief stint as editor of AUC's staff and faculty newsletter, I've witnessed how the university suppressed discussion on any controversial issue affecting it. Although debates raged informally, I was expressly told not to write about them. Most notable was the number of law suits raised by Egyptian faculty members against the university over preferential treatment given to American faculty members. While the Egyptian press was happily reporting on the subject, AUC faculty couldn't air grievances in their own newsletter. Adding insult to injury, the adminstration had proclaimed that academic year (1996-1997)as a "Celebration of Liberal Education". I remember how on one occasion while accompanying then president Donald McDonald on a tour of AUC's satellite campus in Heliopolis, I was taken furtively aside and shown the prayer area. The staff member, though proud of the facility, made me promise not to mention it in the newsletter lest it be taken down. Apparently, teenagers praying constitutes an assault on the "liberal education" the university is trying to foster in Egypt. In response to Zuhur's reply, I have only this to say: Her analogy between the film (which is a spoof as she admits) and American films portraying Muslims and Arabs as terrorists (which are not spoofs) is faulty. The two deliver completely different messages and fulfill different purposes. If my reading of the reviews are correct (I have not seen the film), "An Upper Egyptian at AUC" addresses the real issue of cultural dislocation in one's own country. It is not so much an anti-American film as it is an explorationg of American cultural hegemony. I don't think Zuhur could argue that the negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in Amercan films serve the same purpose. p.s. Although I have not seen the film, I have heard the soundtrack. The songs constitutes mostly of Arabic renditions of popular North American hits and are as mindless in Arabic as they are in English. At least some things can be culturally universal.

Date: Thu, 27 Aug 1998

X-PH: V4.1@cornell.edu (Cornell Modified)

From: NITAMRAZ@aucegypt.edu

To: arabic-info@indiana.edu

Subject: AUC responds: An Upper Egyptian at AUC

Sender: owner-arabic-info@indiana.edu

It is time to clear the situation to subscribers, before more readers who have not watched the film give their distorted opinion. The American University in Cairo is a well- established non-profit educational institution with a long and excellent record of service to education in Egypt and the Middle East for the past eighty years. The university's name and its logo are patented and are the legal property of the university and it is the university's right to protect its name as any other entity. Any use of the name and/or logo without the prior consent of the university constitutes an infringement on that right. The American University in Cairo has filed a law suit to protest the use of its name and logo in the film "Saidi Fil Gamaa El Amrikiya" without prior consent from the university to do so. The film makers approached the university, last April, for permission to shoot the film on campus. Their request was refused, as university regulations do not allow any commercial shooting to take place on campus, whether it is an advertisement or a film. Prior to filing the law suit, and while the film was being shot last June, the university had sent a legal notification to the producers of the film advising them not to use the name and/or logo of the university without its prior consent. While the sentimental feelings are leaning towards the film, because of its comic aspect, I would like to ask the readers what would happen if a comedy entitled "Moron at Microsoft" is produced, without asking the permission of Microsoft. The producers are clearly making money off the name, pure and simple. While AUC is not interested in money, AUC as an academic institution is interested in protecting its name and copyright. It is that same violation of copyright which the film makers in Egypt complain as costing them losses of $200 million annually as pirated copies of films are sold throughout the Arab countries. Some people like to politicize matters and say that AUC is against the scene of burning the Israeli flag. This allegation has no grounds, and the protests against Israel and the burning of its flag, actually did take place on campus, after the massacre at Qana, almost two years ago. The university wanted to make its point, and I am happy to report that the matter has been settled amicably between the two parties. The film producers have apologized formally for not seeking AUC's permission to use its name and logo, and AUC has withdrawn the suit.

Nihal Tamraz

Associate Director for Media Relations The American University in Cairo

Middle East & Islamic Studies, http://www.library.cornell.edu/colldev/mideast/