Today (December 18) marks Arabic Language Day. The annual event was established by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2010 to celebrate the beauty and immense influence (did you know many English, French, and Spanish words derive from Arabic?) of the language in all of its different forms, from classical to colloquial and oral expression to calligraphy. In honor of the occasion, we round up nine classic Arabic language films that span from Lebanon to Algeria that everyone needs to watch. From Nadine Labaki‘s first feature film to Salah Abouseif’s stirring adaptation of a Nobel Prize winning author’s novel, read on for the Arabic films to binge watch now.
West Beirut (1998)
The internationally-acclaimed film, which was selected as Lebanon‘s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 71st Academy Awards, is set in a divided Beirut ravaged by a civil war, and follows a teenage boy named Tarek who finds himself in unlikely places as he crosses the Muslim and Christian divide in search for film for his camera. The coming-of-age movie has won a number of awards, including the FIPRESCI International Critics’ Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Best First Film at the Carthage Film Festival in 1998.
Bab El Hadid (Cairo Station) (1958)
With a highly-successful career that spanned over five decades, Youssef Chahine was responsible for some of the most-watched films in Egyptian cinema. His 1958 drama, Bab El Hadid, centers around a young man, Qinawi, who sells newspapers at a Cairo train station. Qinawi falls in love with Hannuma, a beautiful lemonade vendor at the same station. But word of warning, this is far from your typical love story.
Caramel is the first feature film by Nadine Labaki and centers around the intersecting lives of five woman in a Beirut beauty salon, who are each dealing with their own sets of problems, which ultimately brings them closer. Labaki, who stars in the film, received critical acclaim for Caramel for beautifully and accurately portraying the real issues every day women face in a sweet and comedic way.
The Sin (1965)
In this 1965 Egyptian drama, a poor woman from a village named Azizah (played by Faten Hamama) who gets brutally assaulted by a guard when she goes into the field to collect potatoes to make dinner for her ill husband. She dies shortly thereafter, becoming a martyr to the cause of the struggling countrymen, as rural workers rally around her memory. The film, which is based on a novel by the same title by Yusuf Idris, received a nomination for the Prix International award at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival.
Haifaa Al Mansour
In 2012, Haifaa Al Mansour made history as the first female Saudi filmmaker with the award-winning Wadjda, which was the first feature length film to be shot entirely in the conservative Gulf country. The acclaimed movie tells the story of a young, Saudi girl who wants to ride a bicycle in her country but isn’t allowed. The film explores the role of women in conservative Saudi Arabia through the lens of an 11-year-old girl who is trying to raise enough money for bike.
The Beginning and the End (1960)
Bidaya wa Nihaya is a 1960’s film adapted from a novel written by Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. Starring Omar Sharif, Amina Rizk, Sanaa Gamil, and Farid Shawqi, it revolves around the lives of an Egyptian family, a mother of three boys and one girl, who must find means to survive after her husband and father of her children passes away. The film is noted for having one of the most memorable (and tragic) endings in Egyptian cinema, and took home the Grand Prix at the 2nd Moscow International Film Festival in 1961.
Until the Birds Return (2017)
Three separate but interlinked stories unfold in this drama set around modern day Algeria’s urban and rural areas. Connected through a pass-the-baton style of narration, the film hops from one tale to the next, revolving around a middle aged property developer, a reluctant bride-to-be, and a neurologist plagued by past wartime wrongdoings.
The Last Night(1964)
The Last Night is a psychological thriller that stars Faten Hamama as a middle-aged woman who wakes up one day to find herself 15 years older and married to her brother-in-law. How and why she got there unfolds over the two-hour duration of the suspenseful drama. This Cannes Film Festival nominated piece is celebrated for grappling with the complexities of trauma, grief, and loss.
Bab’Aziz – The Prince That Contemplated His Soul (2005)
This mystical Tunisian drama completes Nacer Khemir’s trilogy entitled Desert. The story follows a blind dervish named Bab’Aziz and his young granddaughter, Ishtar, who traverse the desert together in search of a spiritual Sufi meeting that occurs only once every three decades. During their wanders, they encounter various hardships and other characters with their own unique stories.