BEIRUT

Culture

When an Afghan woman speaks her mind

ABU DHABI: Women’s rights are among the many contentious issues being discussed in the Muslim world nowadays.

Since the Arab world’s sclerotic, but self-consciously secular, authoritarian regimes began to wobble beneath the weight of popular revolution, their liberal and left-leaning citizens have been concerned with how women’s rights will be perceived and delineated, interpreted and enforced. There is a common perception in the West that Muslim women face systemic discrimination.

Arguments dwelling upon their legal, political and social inequality vis-a-vis men are not infrequently countered with assertions that differences of status don’t reflect discrimination but women’s distinct roles in Muslim society.

This situation varies from country to country. Until recently Tunis has been the uncontested paragon of Muslim women’s rights. At the other end of the spectrum has been Afghanistan, where during Taliban rule systems of tribal patriarchy were reinforced by a uniquely conservative interpretation of Islamic law.

For artists whose work is concerned with the condition of women, the experience of Afghanistan has offered unique rhetorical opportunities, since rigidly conservative social mores are seen to erase several facets of individualism that liberal Westerners prize.

Since Western culture stores particular value in the unbridled public expression, and appreciation, of feminine beauty, the hijab – especially the full-face veil, elaborated in Afghanistan as the burqa – has become a ready-made symbol of cultural difference.

A more powerful metaphor for feminine individuality, since it implies much more about agency than looks alone, is voice.

Voice and feminine beauty are two of the central components of “The Patience Stone,” the second feature film of Paris-based Afghan novelist and filmmaker Atiq Rahimi. The film premiered last month at the Toronto film festival and had its Middle East debut this week at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, where it is competing in the New Horizons/Al-Jadid program.

Based on Rahimi’s novel of the same title, “The Patience Stone” is very nearly a monologue, as an unnamed woman depicts the catastrophe that is her present lot in life.

She’s living with her two young daughters in a ruined house, located on the front line of a meaningless and murderous conflict between rival militias. She can’t leave the house because she must attend her husband. Himself a militant, he has lain in a coma for two weeks with a bullet in his neck – the end of a petty argument over some matter of honor.

As she contends with how to feed her daughters and obtain medication for her husband when the shopkeeper refuses to extend any more credit, she vents her deep ambivalence about having to risk everything to care for a man who for a decade has been less of a loving husband than a jailer.

When the neighborhood changes hands again, with blood curdling consequences for her neighbors, the heroine’s anxiety reaches a fever pitch and she flees with her daughters to stay with her young aunt. Herself divorced, the aunt has been forced to go to work in a brothel.

Once she’s freed herself from her husband’s unresponsive body, however, the heroine realises that her rambling monologues have actually helped relieve the weight of 10 years of enforced silence. Her aunt, a sort of kohl-eyed shaman, reminds her of the folk tale of the patience stone, which silently absorbs a suffering woman’s tales of woe until, beneath the weight of her agony, it shatters, taking the woman’s misery with it.

Wanting to rid herself of her agony once and for all, she returns to her husband and finds herself enjoying intimate contact with his limp form, while frankly describing his shortcomings and the disturbing lengths to which she had to go to bear his children and stave off the ignominy of social rejection.

Her monologues provide a healing counterpoint to the shelling and incursions of gunmen through the household.

Rahimi’s film is quite likely the most politically daring work competing at Abu Dhabi this year. The mixed audience of Western expatriates, Arabs and expat Afghans and Iranians in the audience, at least those who expressed an opinion in the post-premiere Q-and-A, embraced the film warmly.

There are several reasons for this.

Though a plot summary makes the story seem unremittingly dreary, Rahimi and Jean-Claude Carriere, who worked with him in adapting the novel to the screen, stir more than a soupcon of humor into the mix.

More importantly is the apparent verisimilitude of a film that represents Afghanistan via Moroccan locations and two of whose principal actors are Iranian. Also, though both writers are men, they appear to have done a capable job of capturing the sentiments of their audience, women and otherwise, and fashioning their expression into a form credible for their protagonist.

The film’s other main asset is Iranian actor Golshifteh Farahani, who breathes life into the film’s heroine. With the script placing her at the center of every scene, often reciting long soliloquies with only the inert body of her countryman Hamid Djavadan for accompaniment, this is easily her most challenging role. Her wit and emotion conspire to make it a bravura performance.

Between the subject matter and Farahani’s appealing on-screen presence, “The Patience Stone” ought to attract ample attention among Western audiences.

ADFF continues through Oct. 20. For more information see http://www.abudhabifilmfestival.ae/

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 18, 2012, on page 16.

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