Egyptian film explores tradition and modernity

Staff Writer

This past Tuesday, Dr. Chris Micklethwait screened “El bab el maftouh,” or “The Open Door,” at St. Edward’s University. This is the second film in the Cultural Foundations Middle East Film Series this semester.

The film, directed by Henry Barakat in 1963, is set during Egypt’s 1952 revolution that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. The main character, Laila, played by Faten Hamama, must choose between the man she loves and the man her father chose for her to marry. It is a classic story of the clash between tradition and modernity in the Arab world.

The plot is simultaneously about the nation’s revolution and Laila’s personal revolution. In a sense, the film tells a coming-of-age story. As many young patriots join the revolt against the occupying forces in the Suez Canal, Laila must defy her conservative father’s wishes in favor of political activism. The plot, on the surface, is a love story. However, look deeper and you will notice Laila’s life is an extended metaphor for the political issues plaguing Egypt at the time.

At first, Laila falls in love with her cousin Isam. She then discovers that he is sleeping with the maid behind closed doors. Laila also discovers Isam’s sister Gamila cheating on her husband. The characters explain that these acts are tolerable, as long as it is done behind closed doors and no one knows about it. This is a commentary on the concept of “shame” in Arab culture. Gamila says that divorce is less “shameful” than adultery.

Another aspect to this situation is the fact that Gamila had an arranged marriage instead of marrying the man she loves. Along with discussing the concept of “shame”, the movie also makes commentary on what is “right” and “wrong” in Arab culture. Laila’s father as well as her fiancé Mahmoud represent the upper-middle class who are defending their socio-economic status. They are complacent and are adamantly opposed to joining the revolution. They would rather protect themselves than their homeland. This touches on the ideas of nationalism and patriotism — values clearly not shared by all.

The movie never discusses the revolution in a complicated way. It is merely a catalyst for the characters’ philosophizing. The movie is laden with social commentary on Arab culture and the misappropriated values that often accompany it.