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.
When I saw the film version of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis, it was a pretty rad time to be a feminist moviegoer. In the last month of 2007 and the first month of 2008, this movie came out, along with Juno and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Having just completed a girls’ studies course, I was ecstatic that three different movies, each from a different country, were released with complex, resilient protagonists who were girls and young women.
Two of these movies earned Oscar nominations a few months later. Juno won Best Screenplay. Persepolis was nominated for Best Animated Feature, but unfortunately lost to Ratatouille. 4 Months, which documents the harrowing day of one college student trying to procure an illegal abortion for her roommate during the last years of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s in Romania, won the Palme D’Or at Cannes earlier in 2007, but failed to receive any nominations. For some reason. Perhaps it escaped nomination as a technicality, but I don’t understand why no one, particularly writer-director Cristian Mungiu or lead actress Anamaria Marinca, got any Academy recognition. Perhaps because it lacked the allegorical importance of No Country For Old Men or There Will Be Blood and cut to very real (and tremendously gendered) issues facing real people in the real world, many of whom reside in developing nations.
But it is really no matter. No Country, There Will Be Blood, Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There were but more examples of what a very fine time this particular two-month period was for movies. But 4 Months was easily my favorite movie of that year. The movie whose source material will be the focus of this post was a very close second.
Having seen the movie upon its U.S. release, some context has changed considerably upon revisiting Satrapi’s autobiography about coming of age inside and outside of Iran from the late 70s to the early 90s, a time period where the country witnessed the fall of the Shah (aided by the United States), the swift and crushing oppression of its citizens by Islamic extremists, a devastating eight-year war with Iraq, and the neighboring country’s launch of the Persian Gulf War. In late 2007, we were still living under the Bush Administration, so the country’s positioning as part of the “axis of evil” was in my mind, but being pretty ignorant about the country’s political history and our involvement with it past the Iran-Contra Affair, Bush’s branding of the country read more as a promise that the United States were, in fact, going to try and spread democracy by force to all of the Middle East, snatching up its real or imagined WMDs and drain its oil resources in the process. And I knew about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and was disgusted by his views on the Holocaust and heartened by the student protests around his adminstration, but was not yet aware of just what a dangerous despot he is.
This was, of course, before this year’s highly controversial presidential election, which Ahmadinejad “won” by a suspiciously high margain over rival candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, an Independent reformist. At the time, what seemed more present in our minds in the states was what Twitter was doing to help cover and contextualize the civic protests and how quickly mainstream broadcast news was going to incorporate the still-emergent micro-blogging site’s Tweets into their 24-hour cycle, regardless of how accurate they were.
As a result, I was a little jaded by the “Twitter users coverage of the Iran election is going to change news reporting” angle many seemed to be taking and instead wanted to know more about how the election was fraudulent, why certain people (specifically journalists, protesters, students, and politicians) were being arrested, what the stakes were, who was doing a good job covering this news story, and, most importantly, what circumstances led to the current iteration of Iran. Remembering that local branches of Barnes & Noble were donating proceeds to the Paramount upon purchase last weekend, shilling out my money to the big box chain for the sake of preserving a historical movie theater seemed as a good an opportunity to buy the book that may provide answers.
And, I’ll be honest. Reading the book left me with more questions than anything else (a similar feeling came over me when reading Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, two books whose timelines stretch past the 70s-90s, but contain a considerable overlap in terms of time with Persepolis, focusing on what was going on with ordinary people in Afghanistan, another contentious Middle Eastern country that borders Iran). It was hard not to check some ugly American tendencies I have toward Islamic traditions — particularly toward its views on marriage, sexuality, gender politics, and dress. At the same time, I was incredulous of how pro-West rhetoric and ideology, alongside our smuggled trinkets of popular culture, could possibly reform a nation, or at least save a person.
Luckily, Satrapi is skeptical of both and, like me and other feminists from all over the world, has a lot to negotiate. She grapples with these issues head-on. She argues with teachers against the physical restrictions and societal double standards that come with the hijab and the burka (sidenote: I know that Faegheh Shirazi, who teaches Middle Eastern Studies at UT and rejects traditional Islamic dress, has written and taught courses on gender and clothing in the Middle East, but any other suggestions for further reading are welcome). She watches her female peers grow up to only want marriage and children, in large part because these are the only things their nation’s leaders believe define their worth. Particularly poignant for this co-habitator, she regrets getting married to a man named Reza because they could not legally live together (or even walk the street) without proof of marriage, dissolving the marriage and leaving for France.
Satrapi is a smart rebel who reads constantly, thinks clearly, and never backs down from an argument. She yells at authority figures who bully her or deny that there are any political prisoners in Iran after learning about the loss of her grandfather, who was son and prime minister to the ousted king (a tie that Satrapi suggests is not uncommon).
Luckily for Satrapi, she gets through all of this with the love and support of her politically aware and resistant parents, their friends, and one rad paternal grandma. Not so luckily, she also knows and meets lots of folks who suffered for speaking up, speaking out, or just living in the wrong house during an aerial bombing. Something tells me that many Iranians could recount similar tales of horror.
Satrapi also learns that the ways of the West are not always ideal, either. While a pre-pubescent in Iran, she hangs Iron Maiden posters on her wall her parents smuggle from a vacation in Turkey when the government lifted border restrictions. She defiantly walks around her neighborhood, blaring Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” from her Walkman while sporting a Michael Jackson pin. But noting that their daughter’s rebelliousness is hardly a phase and that escalating conflict with Iraq could mean the imprisonment or death of their mouthy teen, her parents send her to live with a friend of her mother’s in Vienna.
Satrapi finishes high school, barely scraping by as she finds odd jobs, dates dumb boys, takes a lot of drugs, and runs into authority figures who want her to tow the line and behave. She also falls in with a group of radical misfits who dabble with nihilism, Marxism, hair dye, and punk. While Satrapi initially finds a home with these punks and new wave kids, she soon discovers their privilege has made them cowardly, pretentious, self-righteous, entitled, and lazy. Her outsider status also makes her cool, her Austrian peers clearly jealous by what she has seen and experienced without really processing the weight of it between drags off their joints and skims through their copies of the Marx-Engels Reader in their well-appointed bedrooms. It’s small wonder that, when Satrapi finally returns home to Iran after she finishes high school homeless and afflicted with bronchitis, she washes off a punk stencil from her bedroom wall. And while she’s sad that her mother gave away her cassette tapes, she probably wasn’t going to listen to them anyway. She would’ve kept the Kim Wilde tape, however.
So, ultimately, I do feel this revisit of Persepolis helped clarify my feelings about the state of Iran. It also left me with several questions and a need to know more. Ultimately, though, it left me with the sense of universality that exists between people, especially tough, smart women and girls, while at the same time recognizing the particularities that inform their realities. And continues to inform them. Back in June, Satrapi spoke out against the election results with filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalba. Something tells me that her grandmother, who passed away shortly after Satrapi moved to France at the close of the book, would be proud.