Visions of female power and creativity

The arts are starting to offer women a way of expressing themselves in male-dominated cultures.

John Carlin’s piece earlier this month in The Times magazine on Egypt’s Light and Hope Orchestra (£) celebrates women’s visibility and power. Ironically, it was entitled "Female. Arab. Poor. And Blind." The orchestra is composed of 34 blind Muslim women (all wearing hijabs) who can impeccably play "at least 45 pieces of classical music" without notes to read and a conductor to follow, but through their extraordinary memories.

Again, earlier this month Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadja, the first ever film made by a woman in Saudi Arabia (where cinema is illegal) was screened at the Venice Film Festival. The groundbreaking film tells the story of Wadja (played by Waad Mohammed), a rebellious 11-year-old girl, who enters a local Koran reading competition, planning to use the prize money to buy herself a bicycle, in a culture where women are not encouraged to cycle.

Earlier this year Abeer Zeibak Haddad released her extremely powerful documentary, Duma, about women speaking out about their experiences of rape and sexual assault, generally regarded as the first ever film to shed light on violence against women in Palestine.

Power and creativity resonates within the music of the Light and Hope Orchestra; in the story of the making of Wadja, and in women’s articulation of their damaging experiences in Duma. Each of these examples of women’s work is significant in terms of women’s visibility within cultures and societies that remain male-dominated.

Critical debates around women and the gender politics in the Middle East are increasingly stimulating. In the context of film this is particularly due to the expanding interaction between writing by scholars, critics and filmmakers from Western perspectives and from within Middle Eastern countries.

The issue of representation is important in thinking about women, power and creativity – not only in political terms, but also in relation to the media’s representation of women. Who is representing and who is represented? Can, for instance, filmmakers or journalists represent accurately different people, including those who they are not? Can men represent women and vice versa? In the context of film, for instance, does it matter if there are not many women directors? This last question is especially pertinent if it is believed that only women can represent women, or that they do it generally better than men. It is from this perspective that the absence of women directors leads directly to absences from the films themselves.

Women filmmakers from the Middle East tend to focus on issues including virginity testing, so-called "honour" crimes, female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and rape, which continue to be (at times religiously) practiced. Abortion is illegal or extremely restricted even in cases of rape in some countries. Making these issues more visible through the media is a complex task which may have different implications and reiterate differences between different cultures and societies. Yet, there is an urgent need for women to be more visible, more audible, more powerful. As Wadja’s director Al Mansour has commented in an interview:

"Women have to stick together and believe in themselves and push towards what makes them happy. We just need to push a little bit harder against tradition. We need to do things and make things and tell the stories that we want to tell. And I think the world is ready to listen."

The images in our minds about aspects of women’s issues and womanhood may predominantly come from the field of visual representation. To understand different types of womanhood from around the world more positive images of women are needed. Reality and representations of different realities have a strong connection. To create a positive change in the status of the real requires a parallel change in the media which seeks to represent the real.

 

The Light and Hope Orchestra in concert.
Photo: Getty
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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem