Al-Ahram Weekly Online
30 August - 5 September 2001
Issue No.549
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Lions stall the weddings

Africano leaves its audience lapping up the racist slurs, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Ahmed El-Saqqa in Africano Park


The release of a film like Africano can do only an immense disservice to the long-championed dream of union between Mediterranean (Arab) Africa, and sub-Saharan (black) Africa. That the film's release coincides with the convening of the United Nations Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, taking place in the South African port city of Durban, serves simply yop heap on the irony.

A supposedly light-hearted comedy, the film glaringly highlights the prejudices and racist stereotypes ingrained in the contemporary Egyptian psyche. And judging from the film's commercial success, audiences obviously love it, hungrily lapping up the racist slurs. The tendency is to take entertainment at face value, and to conveniently overlook the historical and political processes specific to South Africa, where much of the film is set.

Africano does nothing to break the pattern of prejudice. It acts, rather, to confirm it. Yet not a single critic has raised the point that black Africans might find the film offensive. Bantu sensibilities were clearly not a deciding factor in determining Africano's marketability or financial viability.

Africano, scripted by Mohamed Amin and directed by Amr Arafa (best known for advertisements) is set in South Africa. The film stars teenage heartthrob Ahmed El-Saqqa, with Mona Zaki as his cousin, the beautiful heiress Gamila.

The film contrives to be sexist as well as racist. A mediocre improvisation on The Taming of the Shrew, it contains a scene in which Badr painstakingly paints a tattoo, a lion's head sporting a thick mane, on the shoulder of a pretty white South African teenager. Gamila complains that he is spending too much time on a single visitor to the game park of the title. Badr, in response, taunts the tomboyish Gamila for not dressing in more feminine clothes, accusing her of being a dakar, or male in Egyptian slang. Gamila's short fuse dramatically fizzles. With a toss of her head she reaches for her wardrobe, trying on half a dozen sexy gowns, swearing and pulling funny faces at her mirror in a fit of rage and utter frustration.

The plot may be banal, but it is far from innocent. Gamila is a spoilt brat. Badr is chivalrous. He is ostensibly an animal loving veterinarian who is passionate about hunting. But perhaps the worst offender among the characters is Essam Ragab, played by comedian Ahmed Eid, a lying humbug. The lecherous Essam, Badr's brother- in-law, cheats on his wife both in Cairo and then South Africa, where he meets Gamila's attractive and frugally clad maid servant Zinga who lures him into her bed with languorous waves of the hands and sensual swaying of the hips. Uncouth and gullible, his brusqueness was off-putting, to say the least. In exchange for sexual favours, he promises to marry Zinga, concealing the fact that he is already married.

Badr takes Essam along on his South African adventure, knowing full well his unsavoury character. Something of a nerd to boot, Essam can't quite figure out the difference between a lion and a lioness, a dog or a bitch, even though he owns a pet shop back in Cairo.

There is something to be said for political correctness. Essam jokes about the electricity being cut off as he peers into the faces of black South Africans. Essam's humour remains tasteless throughout. Racist slurs begin even before the action moves to South Africa. The announcement in Badr's Cairo flat of his uncle's death was in itself pretty bizarre. Two giant southern Sudanese Dinka men troop in carrying a lion cub shoulder high on a palanquin. They mumble something in the vernacular before Bwana (master in Kiswahili), unconvincingly played by Hassan Hosni, walks in fly whisk in hand, donning colonial helmet and off-white linen safari suit. He gives them their marching orders. He summons the entire family and explains that they are to get ready to fly immediately to South Africa so as not to be deprived of their inheritance.

Thereafter the plot thickens. Badr falls instantly in love with his new bucolic surroundings. He feels at home in his late uncle Taher El-Kashef's Africano Safari Park, even though he is initially made most unwelcome by his suspicious host, cousin Gamila.

But there is another problem in paradise. The unconscionably cruel Joe, a Lebanese tycoon, and Madeleine, Uncle Taher's widow who shares Joe's bed, are planning to take over Africano Park. Gamila and her cousins are summarily told that there is nothing for them to inherit save Africano Park, which is itself about to be repossessed by the banks to pay off a million dollar debt.

Adam, Gamila's Man Friday, played by black Egyptian actor, Talaat Zein, soon becomes the butt of Essam's jokes. The pride of the noble savage punctured, he sullenly discloses, in halting classical Arabic, that he is a graduate of Al-Azhar, Egypt's venerated ancient Islamic university. Missy Gamila is tops as far as Adam is concerned. Indeed, the infantile devotion of the domestic slaves to their masters and mistresses remains disturbingly reminiscent of Gone with the Wind. Adam, the sad and stoic clown, faithfully serves his masters, mediating between his people and their Egyptian overlords, not quite belonging to either group, a schizophrenic predicament Zinga shares.

The film's most affecting moments were provided by dance scenes, invariably tribal weddings rudely interrupted by a ferocious lion named Caesar, at which white and black gyrate closely to the intoxicating beat of the drums. I watched with utter amazement and disbelief the lurid nuptials of a presumably Bantu couple, who were proudly declared cousins -- an improbable union which flies in the face of Bantu traditions strictly forbidding the betrothal of relatives, even distant ones. A witch doctor officiated over the chaotic celebrations -- a confused blend of hooting, whistling, jumping and stomping about. The costumes of the rowdy assemblage were a bizarre mix of brightly-coloured cheap synthetics, feathers, animal skins, bones and teeth.

Amid the festivities, Caesar joins the fray. The dancers howl and barked as Caesar charges towards them. The beast leaps into the torch light procession of dancers, aiming for Badr whose life (mercifully?) is spared by the expert shot of Bwana Hassan Hosni, whose past sins and transgressions are thereby forgiven. "We are Egyptians in this damn savage land," he says by way of explanation.

The happy ending is by now well underway. With the lion finally dead, the film reaches an abrupt anticlimax. Badr and Gamila throw yet another wedding party for the final send-off. Badr's sister and grandmother arrive unexpectedly and Essam brushes Zinga aside. The spurned, now hysterical Zinga, slaps him hard and yells uncontrollably. His wife, meanwhile, has the last laugh as she hands him a black baby from the bush. He freaks out. "Whose baby is this," he trembles "Ours, my darling," she chuckles.

The backdrop terrain is landscaped rather than primitive virgin. But while there are great reaches of forest and scrub land, mountains, wooded valleys bursting with exotic fruit, flowers and waterfalls galore the cinematography falls far short of Out of Africa's memorable capturing of the breathtaking beauty of the African bush.

Africano, though, outdoes the worst of the blatantly racist Hollywood classics. It out-Tarzans Tarzan.

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