Thursday, July 27, 2006

Dunia (Kiss Me Not On The Eyes), Lebanon / Egypt-France, 2005

Director Jocelynne Saab is a person with a 1970s sensibility. She believes in liberal politics and liberal culture, and she is at odds with the system that has emerged in the last few years in the Arab world. That makes her a dissenter. So strong are her liberal beliefs, that she is unwilling to change them. Dunia or Kiss Me Not On The Eyes presents her worldview.
Dunia, the heroine, played by stunningly beautiful Hannan El Turk, writes poetry, wants to do research on Arabic love poetry, especially about Sufi love, wants to dance like her mother, who was a belly-dancer. She comes from Luxor, wants to participate in a beauty contest. So, she is almost a 1970s rebel living in the first decade of the 21st century.
In contrast to Yasmine and Jumana, the Cairo downtown girls in Mohamed Khan's Banat Wist El Balad or Downtown Girls, Dunia is ambitious, artistic, and even intellectual. She marries the man who woos her intensely and loves her though she is not sure whether she loves him or not. She tells him that he cannot kiss her, and that he has control over her beneath the face, and what is above her neck is her realm. She wants to be free in her mind, to think her own ideas. There is no doubt that it is a naive declaration of independence, but it is moving all the same.
Saab does not pause to consider the many contradictions in her heroine. She just shows how she has to struggle against the odds surrounding her. She shows Bashir, the professor of literature, who is also a liberal like Dunia, and who challenges the conservatives by his secular polemical essay, "Taking Scheherezade to Court", which is a reference to the narrator in the Arabian Nights. Arabian Nights is frowned upon by the right-wing reactionaries of Cairo society, and the newspaper is afraid to publish his article. Dunia and Bashir are drawn towards each other, and Dunia feels a sense of liberation after he makes love to her. No wonder, this film raised the hackles of the censorious orthodoxy in Egypt, and it evoked protests.
What must have provoked the reactionaries more was Saab's protest against female circumcission, which is a sub-plot in the film. Dunia delivers a peroration, condemning the practice, telling the grandmother that the little grand-daughter who has been subjected to the cruel practice, will never be able to live and love like a woman with all her passions because of the abominable custom. And the film ends with a UN statstic about female circumcission.
Dunia is the full woman as conceived by Saab. She is not the man-hating feminist figure of the modern West but the artist who wants to reach out to the soul heights of Sufi love. The weakness in Saab's portrayal of Dunia is that the opponents are shown as caricatures. There is no real contest of arguments and emotions between the heroine and those who are on the other side.

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