In Mohammad Shawky Hassan’s fairy-tale musical, BASHTAALAK SA'AT (Shall I Compare You to a Summer’s Day?), the voices and bodies of past lovers and of storytellers weaving their tales converge to paint a picture of contemporary queer love, pulsating with colours and desire. In this fragmented celebration, which owes as much to Arabic poetry as it does to the technicolor camp of Egyptian diva Sherihan, Hassan collects the marginalia of life, the details that fuel desire, to better display and preserve histories of love.
Hassan collects the marginalia of life, the details that fuel desire, to better display and preserve histories of love.
Several framing devices orchestrate this choreography of lovers. Sometimes they speak as if responding to an ex’s questions, reflecting on love after the fact, as a form of investigation into what happened: how they met, how they loved each other, and how it went wrong. Other times, they lie naked in bed, in intimate conversation, as if whispering confessions before daybreak. Sometimes, it seems as if we are listening to the footnotes of love, the minutiae that assemble to form a relationship. The lovers itemize the moments: an hour remembered, a glance that changed everything, a kiss or a question that heralded a beginning or an end. These moments are endlessly reinterpreted, commented on, and investigated by those who lived them, as well as sublimated into fairy-tale plot twists.
Faces and places
And indeed, the characters are protean and multi-faceted. They can be mischievous at times, an impish smile lighting up their face; other times, they display disarming earnestness. Sometimes they are angry, or nostalgic, or regretful, or forgetful, or fearful. The range of emotions is as wide as the hues of Hassan’s world. Whether seen by the seaside, in a party, or inhabiting an abstract, neon-soaked space of desire; with words delivered in voice-over, spoken to an unseen figure behind the camera, or by song; with bodies tense or released—whatever the scenario, the lovers construct their own worlds and fantasies on their own terms.
In BASHTAALAK SA'AT, fit, male, bearded bodies are front and centre. In other contexts, this would run the risk of being stifling: after all, these are the bodies that tend to take up all the space around them, to dominate the grammars of gay desire, to devour all other imaginations. But thanks to some delightful animation, and most of all to the enchanting charm of the narrators—women who recount the love stories with the distinct cadence of Arabic storytelling and a hint of archness, as if casting a spell—this pitfall is avoided. Indeed, in Hassan’s handling these stories of modern queer relationships, touching on issues such as polyamory and online hookups, become timeless tales of love. Throughout, the women recite their lines as if speaking of, and to, children; even when discussing topics like physical intimacy they make the lovers seem a bit more innocuous, more innocent. The women mischievously orchestrate their apparitions on the screen, introducing and guiding the transitions between various episodes. By way of tone and gestures they establish a complicity with the audience, turning the men into endearing and innocent protagonists of magical tales.
Grammars of love
Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18”, dedicated to the Fair Youth—a young man who serves as the object of the poet’s literary desire and craft in Sonnets 1 to 126—begins with the famous line which gives the film its English title, whereas the title in Arabic refers to a song by Moroccan pop singer Samira Said. Both express longing and explore how desire and love can be translated into story and art, elevated to the realm of immortal tales. “You are my most beautiful story,” Said sings, while Shakespeare writes, “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see / So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”
These stories are told with our accents, our languages—a mishmash of classical Arabic and its dialects sprinkled with English words and phrases—and tell of our wounds and our hopes, as they can be seen in the most mundane aspects of relationships.
Situating itself within this dual heritage, BASHTAALAK SA'AT proposes a reimagined grammar of love. It roots itself in an intimate intertextuality informed by both classical and pop traditions, to better re-engineer its characters and scope. It’s a phantasmagory of desire; saturated emotions and fantastical, erotic beasts—sexy mermen and wide-eyed princes among them—act as wayposts for future lovers to understand their own histories and imaginations. In this way, BASHTAALAK SA’AT becomes an essential narrative as part of a corpus of queer Arab references. These stories are told with our accents, our languages—a mishmash of classical Arabic and its dialects sprinkled with English words and phrases—and tell of our wounds and our hopes, as they can be seen in the most mundane aspects of relationships.
This is the shape that Mohammad Shawky Hassan’s celebratory, yet wistful picture takes: an offering, in the form of footnotes and marginalia, to memories and futures of queer love.
Karim Kattan is a writer. His latest novel, "Le Palais des deux collines”, was published in 2021.