Probably not coming to a theater anywhere near you

Maher Sabry's Toul Omry (All My Life) is probably the most daring film about homosexual life in Egypt ever made. MENASSAT spoke with the director following the premiere of his film at a festival in San Francisco.
EGYPT, Toul Omry
The film's title, All My Life, is taken from Egyptian Mohamad Abdel-Wahab's song from the 1930's, which speaks of loneliness and the search for a soul mate.

SAN FRANCISCO, July 9, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Maher Sabry's film Toul Omry (All My Life) has been called "the first gay-positive, unapologetic feature movie in Arabic."

Certainly, Toul Omry was a labor of love and personal struggle for Sabry, who shot the film over a three-year period in Cairo and California.

The film's title is taken from Egyptian Mohamad Abdel-Wahab's song from the 1930's, which speaks of loneliness and the search for a soul mate. The narrative focuses on 26-year old Rami, a dance student living in Cairo who has just been dumped by his boyfriend. In this case, his ex, Waleed, has left him in order to get married – to a woman.

As a heartbroken Rami embarks on a path of one night stands and brief relationships with tourists in Cairo's gay underground, his friend Kareem is arrested in a police raid on one of Cairo's floating disco boats.

The scene is based on a real-life police raid of the Queen Boat in 2001, during which 52 people were arrested and charged with various antiquated laws that have increasingly been used to prosecute Egypt's gay community.

The arrestees have since become known as the "Cairo 52." In 2002, Sabry won the Felipa de Souza Award from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission for his work in alerting the world to the Queen Boat arrests and advocating for the rights of those arrested.

Among those arrested was Sabry's roommate at the time.

Burn it

Not surprisingly, Sabry's film has been met with much criticism in his native country. Among his fiercest critics is Sheikh Ahmad El-Tayeb, the previous Mufti of Egypt, who according to Sabry called for the film to be burned.

But if criticism from Egypt's religious establishment was to be expected, Sabry was taken by surprise by the strong reaction from the head of Egypt's AIDS program.

"The chief of the program said that my film would affect the AIDS program in a negative way and help the spread of AIDS," Sabry told MENASSAT over the phone from San Francisco.

The accusation comes at a time when Egyptian human rights organizations are calling attention to what they say is a legal campaign against HIV-affected men by the Egyptian authorities.

Since October 2007, several men have been pulled off the streets and put behind bars for being affected with HIV. Sources have told MENASSAT that most of the men are believed to have engaged in homosexual conduct.

But is Sabry really that surprised about the criticism?

"Not really. No, I wasn't surprised. But I always get frustrated when I hear these kind of things, especially from a doctor who is supposed to teach us about safe sex," he continued.

Censoring the arts

Egypt's censors have become increasingly active in the cultural domain in recent years. No less than sixteen different security, media, and religious institutions are involved with the country's censorship bureau for arts and cultural projects.

How then did Maher Sabry's gay film escape the watchful eye of the censor?

"I never sent my script to the censorship bureau. From the beginning, I depended on my friends and colleagues only. We shot the whole film with an amateur camera in the houses and apartments of my friends. Sometimes on the streets. Without a license, of course," Sabry said.

The production company behind Toul Omry is the semi-official Egyptian Underground Film Society, an organization that aims to "give voice to underrepresented groups such as women, and minorities, with a special focus on LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender and Queer) issues from the MENA region."

San Francisco's International LGBTQ film festival then picked up Sabry's film and premiered it on June 22. Toul Omry received a standing ovation at the festival.

Does Sabry think his film will receive a similar warm welcome in the Middle East?

"I was actually contacted by a group in Beirut who is interested in my film." But, he admitted, "Lebanon was the only Arab country that approached me,."

Back to Egypt?

Gay characters have been featured in Egyptian films before, but only in minor roles in such works as "The Bathhouse of Malatily" (1973), "Alexandria Why?" (1978), "Mendiants et Orgueilleux" (1991), "Marcides" (1993) and, recently, "The Yacoubian Building" (2007).

While Sabry says he hasn't received any personal threats yet, he is nervous about returning to Egypt after launching such a controversial film.

"Of course, it's scary. I don't think I want to go back any time soon. The government is targeting the liberals. Most of the liberal minds are leaving the country. The regime is continuously oppressing the secular groups," he said.

One journalist in Cairo told MENASSAT that other reporters have avoided talking to Sabry because of the film's subject matter.

As for incidents like the 2001 Queen Boat raid, Sabry says that international human rights groups have a responsibility to keep up the pressure on the Egyptian government so that similar large-scale arrests in Egypt's gay community don't happen again.

"I can't see something like the Queen Boat raid happening again. Of course, it's mainly because of international pressure, and these days the government is keen on maintaining a positive image. However, that doesn't stop them from pursuing individual cases that don't get high attention from the media."