Political Awakening, Pleasure and Jealousy

Kavya
2018-03-04 06:21:02
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Nouri Gana, professor of literature, argues in his article Sons of a Beach that many Tunisian cinema makers have struggled with the issue of paternity. He finds the Oedipus complex very useful for him to understand the relationship between Tunisian intellectuals and the legacy of their postcolonial dictator, Habib Bourguiba (1903 - 2000). Bourguiba, according to Gana, has a real, symbolic as well as theological weight. Gana explores the intellectual Gilbert Naccache in particular, who wrote in 2006 that "[The] despair of today has its origins in the misery and sadness of yesterday." This quote also resonated with the themes in the assigned film, Samt al Qusur (The Silences of the Palace). Alia, amidst a pending abortion decision, went back to the palace. Memories of the past as well as her political and sexual awakening are linked to her present misery through film-editing.
Although Gana brought up good points for the other films, which I have not watched, I do not agree entirely with characterizing Samt al Qusur within a framing that solely mourns or searches for paternity. Although the young Alia is repeatedly sad and upset when her mother, Khedija, withholds the identity of her father, there is a sense of comfort, joy and camaraderie through the company of the women. The final advice she receives from Mroubia, another servant in the palace, was that asking for her father’s identity will not necessarily bear good results. The servant proverbially states that fatherhood is not just in a name but also in the sweat and labor of love he provides every day. While some members of the palace visited her in times of sickness or distress, the majority of the burden was shouldered by the people of her class, including the revolutionary professor Lotfi. Through interacting with him, she found her voice, literally and figuratively, and anti-colonial subjectivity. As the director Moufida Tlatli said, “It’s only through him that Alia begins to identify with the nationalist struggle.” Yet she also realizes through revisiting the palace that “Lotfi had done nothing to change her life and it’s at that moment that she takes control of her own fate,” subsequently deciding to name her daughter after her mother, Khedija. In that sense, her mother as well as the whole kitchen staff served as her “father.”
Another problem I found with Gana's framing of nostalgia and loss was that he left no room for understanding the pleasure among the lower classes or "bastards." While Alia is indeed anxious about her status, she also finds pleasure in her in-between-ness. The association with upstairs granted her attention and resources; she learned how to sing and how to play the oud. Khedija at times worries for Alia, but also becomes jealous of her in other times. Alia also receives the love and attention from the kitchen family, e.g., when one of the servants rubbed her body when she fell ill.
The film successfully questions the idea of the "family." It is interesting that during the turn of the century, middle class in the Ottoman realm used the word "familie" rather than the Arabic word “عائلة.” In one scene, Khedija also uses this word when she wanted Alia to spend the summer with the familie. Alia refused angrily, expressing her discontent with “those people.” Yet the film largely focuses on the experience of those inhabiting the kitchen and subsequently is devoid of the actual political agitation other than the piece of news brought to them by the male servant. The audience is granted a claustrophobic yet intimate view of the dynamics within the palace, in which the director turns the image of the “harem” on its head. The palace is a “place where a strange ballet of desire, power, domination, attraction, and rejection is enacted, thus harming the women and making the men unhappy.”
In my view, not only were there opportunities for queer exploration within the beylical family, but also in the kitchen. One of the female servants, Falla, enjoy her status as the mistress of the Sidi Bechir from upstairs, and other female servants also express their jealousy of Khedija’s patronage by Sidi Ali. The women express their desires together through songs while completing their domestic chores. A dichotomous view of women-as-victims or men-as-oppressors would not do the film justice. Unlike what took place between Abraham and Ismael, there is no patricide or filicide (or sacrifice) to conduct. Alia, through her own experiences of womanhood and struggle to become a “proper” woman who sings for a living in Tunisia, accepted the legacy of Khedija in the conclusion of the film, and does not renounce her mother or herself as a “beach.” Gana also recognized the significance of this self-acceptance, in which he claimed it to be a reclamation of “her bastardy.” Still, the tension between the male bastard’ directions of desire and those of the female bastard is clearly underexplored in Gana’s article, which largely focuses on other former. Moufida Tlatli remarked in an interview, women were called “la colonisée du colonisé” (“the colonized of the colonized”). Her film resists any clear-cut answer to what role women should play in the nation or the family, since the nation and the family has also undergone immense changes. A speech Bourguiba gave on Jan. 1st, 1957, on the occasion of the Women’s March:

The man remains the head of the family and he will always remain so. The women cannot at any moment seek refuge under “Mr. Habib said.” [in reference to the law Personal Status Code in 1957]. She must know that she has responsibilities to assume and that the man will always have the last word.

Yet as the film has shown repeatedly, Alia had the last word in the palace at Sara’s wedding, as well as the last word in regards to her own child.
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