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How a new Netflix film exposed a simmering tension in Egyptian society

Netflix's first ever Arabic language film Perfect Strangers was a smash hit in the Middle East when it dropped last month.

The film itself is not particularly groundbreaking — it's a remake of a 2016 Italian movie and tells the story of a dinner among friends gone awry as a party game reveals their deepest secrets.

But since its Jan. 20 release, its themes and depictions of sexuality and cursing have sparked a wave of controversies and intrigue, especially in Egypt where public outrage and calls from conservative leaders to ban the film have been mounting.

According to Egyptian film critic Joseph Fahim, the backlash reflects an internal tug of war in Egypt, as the country struggles to preserve traditional social values while also striving to appear open and democratic on the international stage.

So what's going on here?

The film's star-studded cast has been copping criticism in some quarters ever since its release, but the harshest backlash has been focused on the lone Egyptian cast member, Mona Zaki.

"[Zaki] is one of the most beloved actresses in Egypt, who made a career out of playing the roles of the girl next door," Fahim told NPR. "This is the one film where you see her really getting out of her shell."

Actress Mona Zaki has faced harsh criticism for her role in <em>Perfect Strangers</em>.
Mohamed El-Shahed / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Actress Mona Zaki has faced harsh criticism for her role in Perfect Strangers.

Zaki's character, Maryam, is a married woman who is revealed to be having an affair, is seen cursing, and, in one scene, removes her underwear from under her dress (though no nudity was shown).

Thousands of Egyptians expressed their dismay online, criticizing her for what they view as representing Egyptian women negatively.

"[Zaki's role] upset a lot of people who hit the internet and social media attacking her, and attacking her husband and asking him to divorce her. It's been insanity," Fahim said.

The backlash against Zaki is connected to deeply rooted issues of misogynism in Egypt, Fahim said, as the most vocal critics were men who could not accept such a depiction of Egyptian women.

The film has also drawn criticism for the inclusion of a gay character, Rabie, played by Fouad Yammine.

Fouad Yammine stars in the film. Homosexuality is a taboo subject in Egypt and members of the LGBTQ community face persecution in the country.
Cedric Ribeiro / Getty Images for Netflix
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Getty Images for Netflix
Fouad Yammine stars in the film. Homosexuality is a taboo subject in Egypt and members of the LGBTQ community face persecution in the country.

"[He was] being portrayed in a sympathetic way. The movie does not condemn him at all," Fahim said. "A lot of conservative commentators saw this as what they branded as 'normalization with homosexuality'."

Homosexuality is not technically illegal in Egypt, but it is still widely condemned in society and members of the LGBTQ community have faced regular persecution and abuse from Egyptian security forces in recent years, according to report from Human Rights Watch.

"I think the crackdown [on the LGBTQ community] can be seen in a wider framework of a crackdown on freedom of expression," said Mirette Mabrouk, the founding director of the U.S.-based Middle East Institute's Egypt program.

"Whether it's political dissent, whether it's artistic freedom, that [crackdown] has been increasing over the past eight or nine years."

There's politics at play in the controversy

Fahim says all of this ties back to wider efforts from the Egyptian government to preserve traditional Islamic values.

"The current regime is trying to push entertainment — in either a very patriotic and nationalistic way — into adopting moderate Islamic family values," he said. "The questions of homosexuality and sexual infidelity and sex positivity are not things that should not be educated whatsoever."

Some conservative leaders in Egypt have called to ban <em>Perfect Strangers</em>.
Cedric Ribeiro / Getty Images for Netflix
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Getty Images for Netflix
Some conservative leaders in Egypt have called to ban Perfect Strangers.

Many in the wider Egyptian cinema community have stood by the film and its cast.

Elham Shahin, a famous Egyptian actress who was not involved with the film, called into a popular Egyptian talk show to defend it.

"I really don't know what's going on anymore. I watched the film and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it," Shahin told Al Hekaya.

In response to the criticism, Netflix held its ground and issued a statement, which read:

"Perfect Strangers is a fictional story that explores universal themes without taking a moral stand, instead inviting the audience to have an open dialogue and debate. The film tackles tough subjects through humanity and humor, led by a talented Arab cast focused on creative excellence."

Don't expect the controversy to change anything

Concerns have been mounting from Egyptian lawmakers over what they see as continued envelope pushing by Netflix.

"This is not the first time Netflix's content has targeted the values and ethics of Egypt and the Arab world," Mostafa Bakry, a member of Egypt's House of Representatives, told Al Hekaya. "We should ban Netflix from Egypt."

Still, given Netflix's wide popularity in the region and Egypt's desire to save face on the international stage, Fahim thinks the Egyptian government is unlikely to take any real action.

"They want to appear liberal, they want to appear democratic. The last thing they want is to get themselves into a massive headache by banning Netflix in Egypt," he said.

Mabrouk agrees that the condemnation from Egyptian political leaders is unlikely to have any real consequences. Instead, she views this as another example of drumming up political support by leveraging the latest hot button social issue, adding that this is not dissimilar to what we see in the U.S..

"It's a very deliberate sort of outrage that is politically expedient," Mabrouk said. "It is easy to throw red meat to certain sectors of your society and say, 'Look, we are upholding the morals. We might not be keeping up with the economy, and we might be struggling to keep up with a balance of payments, but by God we are working on the moral side of it.'"

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Levitt
Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Ayen Bior