The 24th of January 2011 was an auspicious date for Egyptian liberals and human rights activists. It was the eve of the ‘Egyptian Spring’ and one can only imagine the heady excitement and fear of those who knew they would take to the streets to demonstrate against Hosni Mubarak’s regime the following day, especially after seeing the Tunisian President flee to Saudi Arabia just two weeks earlier. On a quieter note, it was also the day of the first screening in Cairo of Asmaa, a much overlooked film by Egyptian director Amr Salama and one of the few Arab films to explore issues surrounding HIV and AIDS.
Egyptian attitudes to HIV remain pretty woeful. Those who are HIV positive are forced to keep the condition a secret for fear of being shunned by the community, as many believe the disease can be passed on as easily as the cold. Even doctors rely more on superstition than fact in dealing with HIV-positive patients – according to one survey, 57 per cent of doctors believed HIV could be transmitted by mosquitoes, and many refuse to treat people with the condition.
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Based on the true story of one such person who could not obtain medical treatment, Salama’s film centres on Asmaa, a HIV-positive woman living in Cairo who suffers from gallstones but is refused the relatively simple operation to remove them when she reveals her HIV status.
Asmaa keeps her condition a secret from everybody except her father, in fear of how neighbours and colleagues will react. The height of the prejudice comes to a head at work, where Asmaa has long avoided providing her employer with her medical records. When assured that she can’t be fired for her HIV status she finally produces her records, only to be humiliated when her boss reveals her condition to her colleagues and asks them to vote on whether or not they feel able to work alongside her. A regretful show of hands forces Asmaa to leave her job behind.
As her gallstones become life-threatening, and with a daughter to support, Asmaa is persuaded by a television host to go public about her HIV status in order to confront the taboo head on and to get the treatment she needs.
The film is interspersed with flashbacks to Asmaa’s life in her village as a young girl, her marriage, and the way her HIV status leads to her being ostracised from the community and forced to leave for the big city with her father and young child.
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Another issue cleverly woven into the story is the prejudice within the prejudice – the fact that as soon as people learn about Asmaa’s HIV status, they want to know how she contracted the virus, the fact being that she would be judged more harshly if she had caught the disease through extra-marital sex. The story culminates in the offer of an operation at a ‘charitable’ hospital, where the surgeon offers to operate only if Asmaa can confirm that she did not catch the virus in a ‘sinful’ way.
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A lot of work went into the film; Salama reportedly rewrote the script over 30 times, cutting and inserting according to what he felt local cinema audiences could handle, and he made the actors who played HIV-positive characters meet carriers of the virus to help them better understand the condition.
Hend Sabry plays the leading role as the down-but-never-out Asmaa who squares up to the prejudices of a very traditional society. The other characters in the film are a bit clichéd – the larger than life TV host, the doting father and the wayward daughter have all been seen before. The film may be too saccharine-sweet for many, but this is no bad thing; Salama clearly aimed his film at popular audiences in Cairo rather than the critics at Cannes, and the result is a gripping story that tackles a taboo that is difficult to discuss for its perceived associations with homosexuality, prostitution and drug use.
Late last year, YourMiddleEast reported on UN figures which showed that the number of HIV positive people in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region had more than doubled to 470,000 in the eight years to 2009, with the MENA region the only area not seeing a reduction in the number of children newly infected with HIV.
The uprising of January 2011 has led to an Islamist-leaning government headed by the new president, Mohamed Morsi, which many activists fear will lead to increasing conservatism in Egyptian society. This will make it more difficult to confront attitudes to HIV/AIDS, which will in turn lead to poorer treatment for those living with the condition and a higher rate of new infections.
Asmaa won the New Horizons awards for Best Director from the Arab World at the 2011 Abu Dhabi Film Festival and was given the audience award at the 2012 Fribourg International Film Festival. But sadly, the film has had very limited distribution in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East. Yet its central message has become more urgent than ever.