Saturday, February 12, 2011

Ah min hawaa - The Taming of the Shrew

Egypt. Land of the pyramids, the Nile and the pharaohs - and Shakespeare? We've been reminded these last few revolutionary weeks that Egypt, that ancient superpower, is still a force to be reckoned with. And while the world watches the sweep of events in Cairo, Shakespeare girl is holding up the side by bravely watching: Egyptian Shakespeare!

The 1962 film Ah Min Hawaa, or Beware of Eve, is a loose adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. Set among a wealthy, westernized modern Egyptian elite, Amira (Lubna Abnel-Aziz in the "Kate" role) is beautiful, intelligent, educated and incredibly fashionable.

(Amira has an extensive wardrobe of cute 1960s clothes)

Nine suitors have expressed interest in her. The problem? She was rude to all of them - and she's consistently obnoxiously hostile to everyone she comes in contact with. As the blurb on the back of the dvd puts it:

 In a modern adaptation of William Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, the handsome veteran [Shakespeare girl's note - veterinarian] finds himself obliged to tame the beautiful but wild with the support of her family who is suffering from her tantrums and her tyranny in this comedy presented by a group of the most prominent Egyptian film stars.

Got that?

Amira's long-suffering grandpa Sayyid Amin is at his wit's end, but much to his delight, Dr. Hassan Shukri (Roshdy Abaza, playing the part of "Petruchio") arrives on the scene - he's a veterinarian from Cairo who has come to stay at the family’s estate in order to cure their sick farm animals. Hassan and Amira clash when he is not willing to tolerate the kind of ill-treatment she dishes out to everyone, and Hassan promises grandpa that he will try to help both "the animals in the stable and the animal upstairs [in the house]". But it isn’t until Amira decides to spread a malicious, slanderous lie about the veterinarian that he turns the tables on her - and the taming begins.

First, I have to say that this is a fun, funny, well-made movie. A film can be an easy-to-understand entry point to intersect with a foreign world, and this movie really works for that - it’s stylish and zany in the best tradition of screwball comedy, and the excellent and appealing actors throw themselves into their roles with energy and good humor. I totally enjoyed it. But going beyond the slapstick, it’s interesting to look at the transfer of this play, all about marriage and gender roles, into a Middle Eastern context.

Amira gets rid of an unwanted suitor:

Some of the concerns of the story seem similar to the issues Shakespeare was examining from a Renaissance European viewpoint, but were still applicable to 1960s Egypt: Yvette Khoury, in her interesting article about the film The Taming of the (Arab-Islamic) Shrew: Fatin 'Abdel Wahab re-frames Shakespeare's comedy for the Egyptian screen (published in Literature-Film Quarterly, April 2010), notes that The Taming of the Shrew has been adapted as a film no less than five times in Egypt, and that "Of all Shakespeare's comedies The Taming of the Shrew seems to resonate most with the domesticity of Arab-Islamic patriarchal societies....the subjugation of women to men as in The Taming of the Shrew is a phenomenon which is more oriental in spirit than western."

In the film as in the play, we have a very well-educated and clever woman who must stay under the authority of her grandfather (male authority figure), who is bound by his culture to take care of her, despite what she might say and do (the grandpa announces that he would disown Amira because of her rude attitude if she were a boy). Again, like the original play, the girls' grandfather has total veto power over whom they will marry, or when.

However, some of the issues dealt with in the film seem to arise specifically out of Egyptian culture. We see concerns over dishonor to the family, leading to threats to kill one of the girls to remove the shame; lots of the later conflict in the story arises from the potential non-permanence of marriage based on the easy access to divorce in Islamic societies.

A huge topic in the film is an examination of how people's behavior and treatment of each other sets them apart from animals. It's no accident that Hassan is an "animal doctor" who needs to give Amira some (literal and figurative) medicine; she, for her part, regularly insults him - and others receiving her wrath - by calling them animals. Related to this focus on the animal world is the film's preoccupation with fertility, which is indicated by Hassan's care of little baby goats, for example, and his concern for laying geese and ducks, which he then relates back to Amira and any future children she might have.

At times Hassan's treatment of Amira can be absolutely cringe-inducing - a major plot point rotates around a plan where Amira will assert that Hassan has given her a bad beating, and Hassan's statement that "women need to be insulted to cooperate" fits with his determination "to help [Amira] learn to be a good housewife". However, Hassan's hard-line stance towards Amira can perhaps be rationalized in the audience's minds by the fact that Amira seems even more malicious and out of control than Kate in The Shrew, and thus in need of some payback from Hassan. It is interesting to note that in this film the "wild animal" Amira not only accepts "Petruchio's" presence in her life, as Shakespeare's Kate does, but she also undergoes a very clear humanization. For the first time, she feels compassion for her family, and reacts with emotional sensitivity, empathy, and self-sacrifice in response to the needs of the people and animals around her.

Ultimately, the film seems to underscore, as Hassan says to Amira, that "marriage is not a game." He's right - in this movie, it's more like a war. Will there ever be peace? We'll leave that to the audience to determine!

All in all, this comedy makes for a fun, crazy and very Egyptian ride, and underscores the universal application of Shakespeare's take on the battle of the sexes. Just don't forget to beware of Eve - and watch out for Adam too.

1 comment:

  1. I really liked your analysis, the movie has some patriarchal issues that still exist in the Egyptians society. However, it has some good revolutionary ideas especially in the scene that you uploaded on youtube. I hope the Egyptians would get rid of all these patriarchal issues soon!