Last Tuesday, I caught Passion (Bab al-Makam) as part of the Austin Film Society’s Essential Cinema series on Middle Eastern films. If you have the means, get your local theater to screen it or find a copy.
Mohamed Malas’ haunting 2003 feature is set ten years ago, just before the United States invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban. It focuses on Imane (Salwa Jamil), a 30-year-old Syrian wife and mother who is transformed by her love for Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, after her husband, Adnan (Oussama Sayed Youssef), plays a tape for her. Unfortunately, Imane’s male relatives grow suspicious of how the singer’s music changes her. She becomes more independent and headstrong, most demonstrably through singing. Convinced that a singing woman is flaunting adulterous behavior, they begin to monitor and police her actions, with damning consequences.
As I tend to spoil a movie when I write about it because it’s hard to write criticism without parsing out major plot points, I’ll reveal now that Imane is ultimately silenced by an honor killing while looking after her children and niece when Adnan is away at a rally protesting U.S. occupation. It’s especially cruel that her uncle and cousins stab her to death while she and her charges are singing while cavorting around the house. I have heard that the film received some criticism for the ways in which patriarchy is represented in Arab Muslim society, suggesting the film prescribes to the ugly American racist essentialism that all Muslim men are misogynist pigs. I would hedge these comments by pointing out that these men are depicted as conflicted and deeply troubled by what they perceive their culture to expect of them as men.
Furthermore, Adnan’s gentle presence complicates this reading. He’s a kindhearted cab driver who cares very deeply for his family. Moreover, he’s delighted by how Kulthum’s music inspires his wife to sing. In bed one night, he reveals that he wasn’t especially fond of Kulthum until he heard her songs reinterpreted by Imane. He then requests that she sing for him, and goes down on her as she offers an incantation. It’s a sexy scene, particularly because the camera focuses on her face as she reacts to the pleasure she’s receiving from her lover as much as from her own voice.
What I find especially interesting about Passion is Imane’s reconciliation of the sacred with the sensual. This territory is well-traveled, whether we’re talking about the Song of Solomon or Prince’s and Tori Amos’ oeuvre. However, I’m not as aware of texts concerned with Muslim women making these connections and using their corporeality to do it. Granted, Kulthum’s music may be something of an easy entry point for many Western viewers (like me) who may not be particularly aware of Middle Eastern media culture but learned about her music from fans like Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley, or NPR.
However, Kulthum’s fame (at least in some circles) also makes her a symbol for Muslim female (and possibly feminist) identification. Kulthum’s music conceptualized the spiritual realm and the secular flesh coming together in the service of Allah. She also enjoyed tremendous success in Egypt from the 1930s until her death in 1975, ostensibly serving as the voice of the Middle East. The entire nation watched her concerts on their televisions with rapt attention for decades.
There’s also something inherently queer about Imane’s identification with Kulthum. Perhaps this bond scares her male relatives the most, as there are few things terrifying to some men as an autonomous woman evolving. Imane nearly articulates the Sapphic dimensions of her love for Kulthum at one point, lolling on the floor and dazed by the power of Kulthum’s music. Entranced by the singer’s powerful voice, Imane proclaims that her music has transformed her from within. At the risk of cheapening the scene, Jamil plays this moment as if the post-coital cigarette is just out of frame. Imane may not desire Kulthum physically, but the homosocial exchange between musician and fan is undeniably charged with sexual electricity. Lest we forget that the most powerful erogenous zone is the brain. The ears and voice work with it, receiving sound and repurposing it. It’s congress however you puzzle it out.
Most importantly, Imane passes on the power of her voice to younger members of her family. While she may be left for dead by some members of her family, her niece and children take to the streets to protest her killing. Assuredly Adnan will join in once he hears the news of the tragedy. More importantly, she’s taught them Kulthum’s music, who will assuredly shape how they understand the value of raising their own voices. The promise to overthrow patriarchy’s stranglehold in this region blooms within them.