Spotlight is a newsletter about underreported cultural trends and news from around the world, emailed to subscribers every Monday. Sign up here.
The first moral panic I remember while growing up in the Middle East was outrage over a new wave of music video clips that were perceived as too sexual for Arab and Muslim audiences. It was initially focused on a music video by the Lebanese artist Nancy Ajram and a pair of videos by the Egyptian artist Roubi (you’ll notice that despite the accusations of moral degeneracy, they’ve collectively racked up tens of millions of views on YouTube alone, but we’ll get to that later).
I remember this outrage being accompanied by broader calls for cleaner forms of artistry, specifically “al cinema al nazeefa” (clean cinema) that better adheres to the supposed moral values and rectitude of society at large, or society as it should be. Mostly gone were the French kisses that bookended Egyptian classical, black-and-white films, replaced by a wasteland of vacuous comedic and absurdist pictures that appeared aimed at making people laugh and releasing some of the anger that accompanied the Iraq War and political stagnation.
There is an obvious problem with deciding that art ought to represent reality as it should be according to the moral arbiters du jour, rather than as it actually is. It creates a kind of societal schizophrenia in which people are publicly outraged over artists’ failure to adhere to the moral imperatives of their faith and cultural values but Muslim countries lead the world in Google searches for porn.
The latest moral panic to take the region by storm is over Netflix’s first Arabic-language production, “Ashab wala a’azz” (Netflix markets the film as “Perfect Strangers,” but the title’s translation loosely means “best friends”). It is a faithful remake in Arabic of an Italian hit, and it centers on a group of friends (three couples and a man) who meet up for dinner. After a discussion about secrecy, they ill-advisedly decide to play a game in which they all place their phones on the table and have to read aloud any message they receive and answer any call on speakerphone with the group listening in.
(Spoilers follow if you haven’t watched it yet.)
The results are predictably disastrous — two people cheated on their spouses, one was outed as gay, another solicited nude photos. The broader conceptual point is about how our phones have become repositories of our real selves, the actual complicated, nuanced and treacherous whole, as opposed to the airbrushed image we present on social media and with which we deceive even those closest to us.
None of this matters of course, because the controversies on social media were not about the artistic value of the film but about how our moral values are constantly under threat. Among the various criticisms that people have condemned the film for are the inclusion of a gay character who is portrayed sympathetically onscreen, the promiscuity of most of the characters and their liberal imbibing of alcohol during both pleasant times and distress (though frankly the most offensive aspect of the red wine on display is that it was paired with Egyptian molokhia stew).
But two key scenes in the film drew the majority of the opprobrium of online commentators. In the first scene, Mona Zaki, a star Egyptian actor, is shown from the waist up while she slips off her underwear and puts it in her purse before going out to the dinner party. We later learn that it is part of her attempt at infusing sexuality in her life after a year of not having sex with her husband. In another scene, Lebanese actor Georges Khabbaz answers a call from his teenage daughter telling him that she wants to stay over at her boyfriend’s house and is likely to have sex (his parents are going away). She asks him what she should do.
Let’s start with Zaki’s scene, while noting that despite the uproar it provoked, YouTube clips purporting to show it have garnered tens of millions of views on the platform. It is hard to make sense of the argument that it contravenes moral standards given that it is not explicit and the sexual escapades of the other characters, primarily the men, are more provocative. One solicits nude photos from strange women online, another impregnated his assistant and slept with his friend’s wife, and a friend who was not invited to the dinner was cast out of the group for leaving his wife for a 22-year-old.
Nor do far more sexually explicit performances by male actors draw such widespread condemnation. Legendary actor Adel Imam’s films and plays are laced throughout with sexual themes and antics that would be shocking to Western viewers and would likely be labeled as a form of harassment by more modern observers, reflecting the kind of harassment that plagues Egyptian society and that the vast majority of women who have visited Cairo have experienced.
What Zaki did, though, was portray an Egyptian woman and mother as having a sexual drive, as wanting to be touched, to be desired. That symbol of the Egyptian family (ironically, Zaki’s performance elicited far more controversy than did that of her Lebanese counterpart, Nadine Labaki, who actually did cheat on her husband in the film) was portrayed sneaking in a gulp of whisky to help her deal with her mother-in-law and violated public decency because she wanted to feel sexy by going commando to a dinner party. That was a far more serious breach of morality than Adel Karam’s character cheating on his wife with his assistant while also throwing a fit because his wife was still in touch platonically with her ex-boyfriend.
But to me the most fascinating scene in the film was when one of the main characters receives the call from his daughter about potentially having sex for the first time with her boyfriend.
After she seeks his advice, the father responds in his soft-spoken voice, telling her that if it was up to him she wouldn’t go away with that guy or any other but that he raised her to be free and to do what she thinks is right. He does not use his love for her as a tool to guilt-trip her into leaving but instead tells her that her first time will stick with her forever and to not do it just for the sake of making her boyfriend happy. At the end of the scene, the men don’t say anything, but the women all have tears in their eyes. His wife, who had taken a much harder line with their daughter and her romance earlier in the film, says to him, “neyalla feek” (how lucky she is to have you).
The scene was derided online as contravening the traditional role of an Arab patriarch in protecting his family’s honor. One of the memes floating around showed the actor with horns on his head, a symbol that denotes a pimp.
I don’t know any Arab fathers who would concede that this is what they would do in such a situation, certainly publicly, because of the castigation they would endure in response. I’m sure such fathers exist, and the broader philosophical point the father in the movie makes is sound. There is also power in such words being said out loud in Arabic. I am just not sure it translates realistically from the original Italian, even though I found it moving, and this may well be the main artistic weakness in the film.
But the response to the film raises wider questions about religiosity and its role in society at large in the Arab world. It is difficult to discern societal trends because of the inability to reliably measure public opinion in the region. But the overwhelming response has been critical — not of the movie itself or its artistic value but because of its alleged sabotage of public morality.
This is a hypocritical stance, because the standard is not applied across the board. Arabs continue to watch and revere Imam, or for that matter every other Netflix show, with no demands to censor the platform over its promotion of Western ideas about sexuality or standards of alcohol consumption. The Arabic satirical website AlHudood (full disclosure: I used to write for it) captured this well in an article about the film’s controversy that was titled “Netflix dubs ‘Perfect Strangers’ in English to make it acceptable to Arab viewers.”
And what is this vague public morality anyway? Who decides what it is? It has generally been used as a cudgel by dictatorial regimes to silence critics or make examples of inconvenient individuals to bolster their credentials in society and by conservatives also to silence their critics. But nobody has ever codified these standards of behavior. And that’s probably because everyone would fall short of them.
But for now, let’s all engage in a comforting make-believe in a pure and puritan society, shouting down those who would besmirch its honor on social media before switching back to the Pornhub tab.