I saw my first Moroccan movie tonight, on my second visit to a Moroccan movie theater. This cinema is not the best one in town, Farid later told me, and – without having seen Rabat’s other cinema from the inside – I am eager to believe him. The Royale was full of people, hustle and bustle, but it had an air of abandonment about it. Everything – the walls, the carpets, the brass finishes on the staircases and ticket booth – looked as though for years it had borne heavy loads of traffic, but had since then been covered in a layer of unstirred dust. The once-bright colors on the wall had long faded, and the carpets bore the worn signs of a million footprints.
The film, “Hijab l-houb,” or “amours voilées”* told the story of a young female doctor who, as TelQuel describes, “est complètement perdue entre son amour pour Dieu et son amour pour [un homme].” Batoul, the protagonist, is portrayed as a woman who allows herself to enjoy life, but also actively upholds her religious obligations.** Then, she falls in love with a very wrong, much older man who clearly is not looking for marriage. She allows herself to be pulled along by the current of this affair, yet is clearly conflicted about what she does. Perhaps it is this sense of conflict – this discrepancy between moral expectations and actual behavior – that compels her to don a hijab, a veil.
It is ultimately this conflict – between religion and sordidness, between moral expectations and personal desires – that drives the story to its climax. Caught with her lover at a party one evening by her brother (who is there himself with a girlfriend, but the movie dwells on this fact for no more than a second), a high-speed chase ensues when she and her lover flee the scene, and a sudden stop, the inability to stop the car, kills Batoul’s brother. This death sends an acute and searing message both to Batoul and to the audience that her kind of behavior leads to nothing but dire consequences.
But surprisingly, the movie does not stop here. Though we see Batoul in a state of deep religious repentance (while her lover moves on to other women), it becomes clear that the conflict has not yet been resolved: she returns to him. The audience is then treated to a second shocking climax: after Batoul learns she is pregnant, a complete nervous breakdown on the road lands her in the hospital, where the story is then suddenly and a bit unsatisfyingly terminated.
This ending alone made this movie incredibly interesting to me. I was surprised not only that the obvious message inherent in the brother’s death was not intended to be the take home message; I was also surprised that the movie passed no explicit judgment on Batoul’s pregnancy. Yes, the movie made clear, this is a difficult situation that is not without stigma. But no judgment was made. She was not denounced, neither explicitly nor implicitly. Ilyas – my movie partner for the evening – suggested that Batoul was able to get away with her transgressions because of her status in life. As a doctor, he said, she enjoyed the respect of her family, and had enough money to buy herself a certain level of freedom.
But there’s a larger message here, I think. I don’t think the movie is in the business of denouncing immoral behavior. I think, rather, that this movie actually laments the unfair burden placed on women’s shoulders to uphold the moral fiber of society, and the constraining boundaries that this burden imposes on them. It is a story that highlights the unfairness of these boundaries, and the immense difficulty women thereby face in their efforts to pursue some kind of happiness within these constraints.
This is portrayed most poignantly not by Batoul, but by her friend Houyem – a mother of two who has been left, years ago, by a philandering husband. Bearing the responsibility for two young children, she especially is expected to play the role of demure housewife. Without the protection (control?) of a man, Houyem is consigned to a sober life inside the house. She plays this role, and does it with gusto. She also plays a different one, however. A very different role, marked by a different costume: disguised by a wig, Houyem likes to go out on the town at night to have some fun and meet the occasional man. Her disguise lends her a bit of anonymity, which in turn allows her to transgress certain boundaries without risk of repercussions. But when a friend in the know confronts her with the hypocrisy and immorality of her soirées, this is what Houyem says: how fair is it that she is made to pay for her husband’s flouting of his responsibilities? He was never held accountable for his transgressions, or for the fact that he left, while social norms now confine her to a life inside the house (in the same way that Batoul is punished for her affair with a dead brother and illegitimate baby, while her lover is free to move on to the next woman, without reprimand or accountability). Houyem simply does not want to wake up one day, she says, and discover that she is fifty and life has passed her by.
The movie, I think, very strikingly portrays the crisis of looking for happiness when you don’t truly have the right to define for yourself what that happiness is, nor how to seek it. This is the tragedy: these women seek approval in the eyes of society. They seek the ultimate measure of success (and even of freedom?) as defined by the moral norm: marriage, a husband, financial comfort. Some of Batoul’s friends pursue these imposed dreams so ardently that they simply do not allow themselves time to think about whether this would truly bring them happiness. Those who do give themselves that time and discover that happiness may lie elsewhere, open themselves up to scorn and moral rejection.
Batoul’s headscarf essentially serves the same purpose as Houyem’s wig. Religion, for the women in this movie, becomes more a kind of self-protection than it does an ideological conviction. Religion is not the boundary that confines them, it is not the force that keeps them in line. On the contrary: it is a safe ticket to transgress these boundaries. This is what Batoul’s flirtation with the veil is about. For both herself and her family, this veil provides a material and psychological ‘shield’ that makes them all feel more comfortable about the life she leads beyond the gates of her house.
Religion is also a shield for Batoul’s best friend, whose ultimate goal is to marry a “barbu” – a bearded, AKA religious, man (and it is in pursuit of this goal that she, too, begins to wear a headscarf). Her implicit thought process reasons that a religious man is more inclined to transgress the moral boundaries, thus taking some of the woman’s moral burden upon themselves and balancing that responsibility more evenly.
No wonder the Islamists in Morocco are upset with the movie. Without having seen the film, they have denounced its message and have called for it to be taken out of circulation. It paints a horrible picture of veiled women, they cry; religion may under no circumstances be associated with that kind of hypocrisy. Telquel has devoted a bit of attention to this in two separate issues, but I can almost hear the editors’ laughter at these protestations emerging from behind their printed words. It doesn’t seem like Islamist groups have any clout in this matter – and aside from Telquel few others seem to take these protestations seriously. And for now, Amours Voilées continues to enjoy a considerable (and perhaps a bit naughty) popularity here in Morocco.
*the translation for these two versions of the title are subtly different from one another: the Arabic means ‘veil of love’ while the French means ‘veiled love’.
** This role is played by a French-Algerian actress. Ilyas disapproved of the fact that she was not Moroccan. I had had the feeling that she wasn’t quite convincing in her role. Perhaps our impressions came down to the same idea: that this actress didn’t truly feel the weight of the conflict this character was involved in? In last week’s Telquel, the film maker was asked why he chose this particular actress, and he replied that it is actually quite difficult to find an actor or actress residing in Morocco who is willing to play daring and controversial roles such as this one. An actress residing à l’étranger, at a safe distance from Moroccan moral judgment, is more free to take on such roles.