Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Jungle Films in Egypt: Race, Anti-Blackness, and Empire

Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Jungle Films in Egypt: Race, Anti-Blackness, and Empire

Article excerpt

You, O Egyptians, are the whiteness of the eye, and we are its Blackness, and sight cannot be complete without whiteness.

-Naduja (1944)1

The scene could be from any of hundreds of jungle films. Safari-suited swashbucklers stumble across an "African" community. There are leopards and tigers, men and women dancing around a fire, torches hoisted in the air, drums pounded rhythmically, tribal spears threatening a distinctly "lighter" female hostage, tied up and ready to be burnt at the stake. The swashbucklers interrupt the dancing and drumming and attempt to save the woman from the ostensibly threatening tribe. But this scene is from Wadi al-Nujum, an Egyptian film made in 1943, when Egypt was still under British occupation and fighting its own battles against colonial misrepresentation.

These tropes entrench African otherness. They are typical of the jungle film genre, epitomized by the Tarzan franchise. Beginning with the 1918 film adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs's novel Tarzan and the Apes, audiences around the world enjoyed a steady stream of American and European jungle films.2 A byproduct of late nineteenth-century "animal films," jungle films replayed fantasies of colonial power in the context of the post-World War I sense of imperial decline. In America, Hollywood jungle films enjoyed their heyday in the 1930s and 1940s. A racially charged genre, jungle films deepened Hollywood's relationship with racism, coloniality, and the production of empire. Typically set in a fabricated African terrain, these jungle films reduced people and landscapes to a series of shots that recall what Richard Abel describes as the fatal "analogy between the camera and the rifle."3 Relying on a violent juxtaposition between Euro-American superiority and African subservience, marked visually by white and Black bodies respectively, these films frequently included images of bare-chested Black porters carrying luggage on their heads for a group of safari-suited, pith-helmeted, armed white adventurers.4

Much has been written about jungle films, a violent colonial genre that operates as part of what, in another context, Edward Said called "narratives about geographical possession."5 Eric Cheyfitz, Gail Bederman, and Alex Vernon, for example, have explored how the hierarchies of power inherent in the jungle genre reflected psychological, class, racial, and gender relations in European and American societies.6 These and other scholars examine American and European representations of "African" people and landscapes through the Tarzan franchise. What has not been addressed, however, is how colonized or occupied people, struggling for independence and fighting against colonial stereotyping, reacted to and adapted this genre. An examination of this adaptation may help us think through the workings of empire and race in colonial settings.

The popular and commercial success of Tarzan narratives, paeans to virile whiteness and empire, among Egyptian and other Arab audiences raises questions about their appeal in different contexts. This article considers what happens to Tarzan when he is removed from a Euro-American context. It unpacks the way directors and producers transplanted the jungle film within an Egyptian colonial context by examining two Egyptian-made jungle films, Wadi al-Nujum (Valley of the Stars, 1943) and Naduja (1944).7

The films demonstrate key tensions in Egypt's cinematic self-representation at a crucial moment in Egyptian history. Depictions of Africa in Wadi al-Nujum and Naduja reflect an ambiguous and messy configura- tion of national identity, racial politics, and ideas about empire. At the time of the films' productions, different social factions hotly contested the political parameters that defined Egypt, its relationship to modernity and nationhood, and attitudes toward tutelage and sovereignty. Egyptian jungle films fracture the binary of colonized and colonizer in a way that exposes the political realities of Egypt's efforts at empire building in Africa, especially in relation to Sudan. …

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