Filmmaker Parine Jaddo observes the frustrations of Muslim women.
This is the moment Parine Jaddo has been dreading for weeks. Addressing a packed theater after the May 10 premiere of her new film, Aisha, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, she is a bag of nerves. It’s not simple stage fright so much as the preternatural shyness that afflicts her, “like all Middle Eastern women,” she tells the audience. “I wish that I could have a twin stand in for me on these occasions.”
It’s a telling choice of words, because her film explores the “twin” sides of a woman who journeys from the Middle East in pursuit of the American dream.
The protagonist in the 32-minute film, Nasrine, believes that by coming to America, she has escaped the miseries that women face in her native land. She becomes a television producer in Washington, D.C., struggling to embrace her new world but also cleaving to her traditional values. Fascinated by this disjuncture, her rebellious Americanized cousin, Tina, decides to make a film to capture the true Nasrine, because, Tina says, “she’s so complicated—because she’s such a spider’s web.”
As Tina stitches together filmed sequences in the editing room, the twin sides of Nasrine spin off in different directions. The American Nasrine’s growing cultural alienation slowly grinds her into failure, while her imaginary alter ego, prompted by Tina’s re-creation of her lost past, takes over as the film weaves a vision of an idealized, but never fully realized, Middle East.
“Of course it’s autobiographical,” Jaddo says of her tale about her family, who escaped from Iraq, then fled Lebanon when civil war broke out in the mid-’70s and came to the U.S. But she will always drag the leg irons of a Middle Eastern culture that purports to shelter women, yet often condones savage violence against them.
Like Nasrine, Jaddo says, she feels stretched between the traditions of her culture and family and the opportunities of professional America. At a time when most Arab woman lead sheltered, uneventful lives, revolutions in Iraq and war in Lebanon pushed her to gain new perspectives via sojourns in Cyprus, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and, eventually, Washington.
Born in Baghdad, Jaddo says she used to walk out of the house with a miniskirt on, “right in front of my grandmother.” After the Baathist revolution sent her family into exile, they lived a cosmopolitan, Westernized life in Beirut. Jaddo remembers wearing bikinis and smoking hashish on the beach. A good student, Jaddo studied biology at the American University of Beirut with plans to become a medical doctor. She was nine credits shy when the Lebanese civil war broke out. Today, she can vividly recall ducking under desks while artillery shells rained down around her classrooms.
“For the next four or five months, we did whatever we could in order to go on living. Imagine if your work was on the other side of Florida Avenue, but you knew there was a sniper on the corner of Kalorama Road—then what would you do? So you say, ‘OK, he doesn’t start sniping until 9 o’clock. It’s 8:30 now, so I better not finish this coffee.’ It was constantly trying to squeeze through. Ironically, that was good preparation for filmmaking, because your mind is constantly trouble-shooting, just to get through the day. You’re constantly calculating and numbing your other feelings. There’s all these fears of all kinds—fears of being a woman, fears of being killed like your friends.”
Jaddo’s family fled Lebanon, but she stayed to finish her degree. An American couple from San Diego sheltered her in their house. “They were also going through a lot of difficulty because they didn’t want to leave Lebanon. It was a really hard period for all of us. They parented me, but in the end I ended up mothering them, because I think that, growing up in that environment, I was much more adaptive.”
After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Jaddo went west with a mere five Lebanese pounds in her pocket. “When I came to New York, that was when I learned about being afraid. Because I was alone for the first time. But then I discovered the other side of the coin—that I could be anonymous, [because] nobody knows me. I didn’t have to worry about who was going to say what about me, or who was going to hear it.”
At the post-screening reception at the Unconventional Theater on 9th Street NW—
hosted by indie arts impresario Sean Harris, who grew up in Beirut himself and helped Jaddo write the script, coaxing her to overcome her shyness—a dozen or so Arab women mill about. Some, including Jaddo, dance barefooted to Middle Eastern music, while the men stand around dipping pita bread into trays of tabouli and hummus. The women, without exception, agree that Aisha had a profound effect on them. Jean-Marie Yamine, a Lebanese-American woman, says that the film “touched a cord among us girls” and that it “created a dialogue around perceptions on many issues that confront our daily lives.” She adds that the film resonates beyond Muslim women to “convey facets of any immigrant’s experience.”
Jaddo’s husband, Ishac Diwan, says that he enjoyed her film and sees both sides of the immigrant experience: “America’s freedom reveals the East’s version of sex as oppression, where men try to control the minds of women with notions of shame and honor and enforce this with a brutal control over their bodies. At the same time, the familiar East reveals the loneliness of the free world,” he continues, “where the politics of sex gets mingled with corporate politics. In both cases, what comes out are similar architectures of sex as an instrument to yield power.”
Jaddo accepts the compliments but says that “two guys were very upset at the screening.” It’s not hard to see why. The abstract and nervy Aisha, which means “surviving” in Arabic, disses all men, from East to West, in broad strokes. Jaddo insists, however, that “I love men. I have great affection for them. My intention was simply to point a finger at patriarchy.”
Aisha opens with Nasrine washing her feet in the Mediterranean and then swimming, symbolically cleansing herself of her patriarchal past. In the next sequence, Tina is conducting a series of interviews with Nasrine’s ex-lovers. Tina prompts one man by saying that Nasrine has said that “at one time, you were the only man who turned her on. Your were on the balcony and you pulled her hair, and it really turned her on. What do you think about that?”
He answers, “Nasrine was a little timid about sex, I guess. I mean, she was good in bed. She liked to fuck, but….”
Next on Tina’s docket is a professor, who is a composite of the professors Jaddo studied under at the American University of Beirut, the School of Young Directors in Greenwich Village, and, later, in a graduate film program at Howard University, where she went on to teach filmmaking until this year. With the camera trained on him, the professor explains that he dumped Nasrine because “she was in love with me. And I was not in love with her.”
“But,” Tina probes, “I think she had one of the purest kinds of love because she loved you not physically, but as an intellectual. What do you think about that?”
“Look,” rejoins the professor. “Let me tell you what happened. Nasrine came over to my apartment one night. As she was about to leave, she gave me a look, a look that shimmered with erotic meaning.”
“Do you always use your power to seduce young students?” Tina jibes.
Jaddo describes the ex-lovers portrayed in Aisha as “archetypes of men, but they are men whom I have come across, who have influenced me—but, on the flip side, I wanted to hear them define me, or speak about the character Nasrine. I’m also Tina, who’s doing what she wants without concern for what her family or society would say or think. Part of me is like that, or would like to be like that.
“I felt that maybe I have something to say. But can I say it? Am I allowed to say it? I started to question why I was constantly censoring myself. The issue of self-censorship is huge. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t write. Every time I wanted to do something, I would think about how it would be perceived by my friends and my family. And I felt that if there was one thing I could deal with in this film, it was the crippling fear. Here I am in the United States, I can do anything I want, but I’m scared. I don’t know where to go with myself.”
Jaddo says that she traveled to Toronto, where her parents and sister live, to show them the film, but she admits that she couldn’t summon the moxie. Although her family is progressive, she says, any frank discussion of sexuality would “get me stoned to death in the Muslim world.”
She is speaking, of course, of so-called honor killings, the grisly Middle Eastern tradition in which murder is sanctioned when a woman “dishonors” her husband—or sometimes her father or brother—by having an affair. Jaddo says that she knew women who now lie buried, victims of a tradition that allows husbands to kill their wives in a jealous rage. “Many of these women are mistreated,” she says. “So, naturally, they have affairs.”
At the close of Aisha, Nasrine flirts with the idea of suicide. She is at the famous Corniche Rowshe in Beirut, a beautiful cliffside walk, over which countless Lebanese women have hurled themselves to their deaths in the Mediterranean Sea. Here, Jaddo depicts one of her memories: of a woman who tied her bra to the railing along the cliff to send a final, smashing message about the suicidal consequences of male oppression. It’s a scene resonant with meaning, says Jaddo, “because it’s a small association with the sexuality and the dangers involved with sexuality in society. In a sense, that’s how it’s presented in the film, but I could make a whole film about everything from honor killings to killing yourself for the honor of your family. Today, as we speak—every day—there is a woman lost to honor killing.
“More and more so every year, the situation of women has deteriorated a lot in the Arab world,” Jaddo laments. “Twenty years ago, a man would never have gotten away with killing his daughter. Today, they get away with it because the men are all trying to outdo themselves by being more Muslim. Who pays the price? Women are paying the price.
“These are not issues that are particular to me,” the filmmaker insists. “These are issues that concern every Middle Eastern woman when she speaks out. How is it going to affect my family? How is it going to affect my brother? I’m actually kind of scared that my brother, a practicing Muslim, will see my film. Actually, I still don’t know how I’m going to deal with it.”
Jaddo’s friends questioned the daring frankness of her film while it was in production. “I told them that there was no other way to say this,” she recalls. “I am punished for my desire, and there’s no other way to say it. They said, ‘Well, as long as you know these are very heavy words.’ A lot of them, people who are intellectuals, urged me to use a pen name.”
Jaddo complains about “a megastructure of patriarchy” that is reinforced by layers of Arab nationalism, U.S. dominance, and oil wealth, which “has been the kiss of death for my culture, in my opinion. All these things come together in a very complex fashion and culminate today in sanctions and economic difficulties, and all of this affects the women. Today, I can sit here and go to my screening and try to be together for it, but inside of me I know I am afraid of a fatwa”—death sentence—”upon my head.” CP