While the cinemas are re-opening in Riyadh, the Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch tells the story of Casablanca, the city of criss-crossing destinies

This article was published in Oasis 27. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:56:58

A-Hologram-for-the-King-.jpgWhat will the Middle East be like in twenty years? It’s easy enough to play the prophet about certain things: women will very soon drive in Saudi Arabia. Just give them time to take few lessons. Evidently, that is not the crucial issue in a country that uses torture and capital punishment, but one has to start somewhere. Women are certainly a good calling card: this much had been understood even before crown prince Muhammed Bin Salman’s promises of reform. In 2013, on YouTube, an irreverent song entitled No Woman, No Drive (a parody of Bob Marley’s masterpiece) went viral. It was sung by an activist dressed in traditional clothing. When interviewed, he minimized the importance of a protest that can cost you dearly in Saudi Arabia. But then along came the young prince: Saudi women – he has said – will be able to drive without someone accompanying them but also to go to the stadium and to cinemas, which will reopen after a 35-year ban. Perhaps little girls will even be able to bike, much to the delight of the Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour, who dedicated a highly regarded film entitled Wadjda to this and other absurd prohibitions.


In the meantime, another Saudi director popped up at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival (and that makes two, out of a population of 27 million). Mahmoud Sabbagh presented his comedy-drama, Barakah meets Barakah, starring Hisham Fageeh, the comical protagonist of the joke on YouTube. Set in Jeddah, the film light-heartedly recounts the excessive number of rules, the lack of public places where a man can meet a woman and the unhappiness of young people. One laughs when the grey official invites Bibi, the beautiful model for the “Celestial hips” brand and famous blogger, out to dinner, only to discover that there is nowhere to take her: the restaurant doesn’t have an area for couples, the religious police can turn up at any moment on the beach and open-air shows have been abolished. It is even forbidden to sit on the pavement. “Do you think you’re in Paris?” All that remains is a sandwich in the car, a chance meeting at the chemist’s and escape onto the roof at home. One laughs because the colour of the film is pink, like the ridiculous bras paraded by the mannequins: and because, rather than denouncing the pall of religious fundamentalism under which highly rigid codes of behaviour hold sway, the film limits itself to emphasizing the nostalgia felt for the years preceding 1979, when the Islamic revolution in Iran and the attack on Mecca empowered what is, today, one of the most illiberal religious cultures in the world.


A bizarre American film from 2016, A Hologram for the King (directed by the German, Tom Tykwer, and starring Tom Hanks) tells us something more. A businessman is sent to Saudi Arabia: financially ruined and with his marriage over, he is also filled with remorse at having destroyed a company by choosing to delocalise to China. The story begins with the need to sell the king a teleconferencing system based on holograms. It ends when, in the desert, he finds his last, unlikely chance of being happy thanks to the Thousand-and-one-Nights love of a mature lady doctor with a veil. There, where Kmet – the city of the future – ought to be rising, there is only the evanescent no man’s land, a great tent and a worksite full of sand and boredom. The king hasn’t been seen for 18 months, the electricity comes and goes and the protagonist’s personal crisis is interwoven with the obvious failure of a country where young people (70 per cent of Saudis are under 30) have no future. Because – says the taxi driver – the oil wealth is not enough to make one forget the wretchedness of the public executions, the repression of women and the lack of openness towards the world.


If we are to gather issues that couldn’t be more different, nothing beats passing from the pitiless light illuminating Saudi Arabia and depriving it of chiaroscuro (even in an American film shot, of necessity, in Egypt and Morocco) to the Egyptian night in The Nile Hilton Incident or the five stories interweaving different Moroccan destinies in Razzia. On paper, these are all countries united behind the same front, namely, Sunni Islam. In reality, however, what with History and individual stories, their identities are profoundly different. And the quest for a single centre of gravity only risks leading to a common enemy. The Moroccan director, Nabil Ayouch, who both produced and directed Razzia, was born in Paris and has been living by his own choice in Casablanca since 1999. Director of Horses of God (2012) about the 2003 Casablanca bombings, in 2015 was forced to leave Morocco following threats relating to the Cannes presentation of Much Loved, a film recounting the bitter condition of prostitutes in a cross-eyed, male chauvinist country subjugated by an intransigent form of Islam. Two years later, Ayouch returned to his dearest theme: demanding freedom in a confused society. Something has changed the country – he tells us – a notion of education that has spread through the Atlas Mountains. We see a schoolmaster in the 1980s explaining to children in Berber how the planets move around the sun. A government official attends the lessons and, bringing to completion a reform that began in the distant 1960s, imposes Arabic as the teaching language and a course on Islam instead of science. “What does faith matter, if you take their dreams away from them?” laments the teacher. But there is no answer to that; not even in today’s Casablanca, which is beautiful, dirty and full of vitality, split between western models and religious precepts and full of children without fathers and women without men. In the background, to the sound of music by Queen, we see the 2011 demonstrations.


In Egypt, too, the main problem seems to be not so much the fundamentalism as the unasked questions. Questions that are the same for everyone, starting with the director of The Nile Hilton Incident, Tarik Saleh, who, being a Swede with Egyptian origins, is a “foreigner.” While the television is talking about values and showing images of Mubarak, the policeman Nouredin Mustafa is taking bribes. In the meantime, he is listlessly investigating the umpteenth murder. The victim is a singer. The trail leads to a politician. There is a witness on the run: a Sudanese immigrant who lives in a dormitory quarter. What with the money, the cigarettes smoked ad nauseam, the torture and the old television sets that only broadcast European channels or the Muslim Brothers’ sermons, Egypt seems to be in the grip of an organized chaos. Portrayed in the giant posters covering walls, the world’s powerful tell their lies and, in the street, the anti-hero policeman is lying as he swears by a justice in which he certainly no longer believes. The finale sends shivers down one’s spine: marching through the streets with its slogans and sticks, the new Egypt seems no better than the old one.