Back in the beginning of May I attended two showings at the Alwan Film Festival in New York City. Alwan for the Arts is a city-based nonprofit which seeks to promote Arabic film, art and music. The film festival, which was held in the brick Anthology Film Archives building in the Lower East side, showcased a fine collection of films from around the Arabic world, from Morocco to Jordan, to Egypt to Iraq. Interestingly, my husband pointed out something I hadn’t noticed, saying that he’d heard of none of the films before and that they definitely weren’t shown in Egypt. “So why care?” He asked.
He had a fair point: the films were what Americans might deem “art films.” It’s a bit hard to imagine the average Egyptian audience, which loves its melodramatic, funny, ‘action’ films, fawning over a film focusing on human rights. But maybe that’s because their government wasn’t very supportive of human rights, so human rights becomes something shoved onto a backburner where it flames up occasionally but is never dealt with. However, there is no possible way that audiences wouldn’t be able to connect with the war film Son of Babylon, which is set in Iraq right after the American bombings in 2003.
Mohamed Daraji’s 2011 film leaves one asking why….the world is so cruel, why man is so heartless to one another. One leaves disoriented, feeling lost; being lost and uprooted is a central but subtle theme to the story. As we watch 12-year old Ahmed (‘Hamed’ as his grandmother calls him in her Kurdish accent) and said tough but serene grandmother inch their way south in post-American-invasion Iraq, their helplessness and the hopelessness of the situation is overwhelming. Here they are with little money, trekking across Iraq’s dry, arid landscape, dependent on the kindness of strangers such as Musa, (Bashir al-Majid) a kind man who takes a shining to Ahmed and proceeds to help Um-Ibrahim and Ahmed in their quest to find Ahmed’s father Ibrahim, who they believe to have been kept prisoner in a jail in Northern Iraq. Ibrahim was arrested by Saddam Hussein’s regime, and upon reaching the prison only to find out that there is no record of Ibrahim ever being there, Ahmed and his grandmother are forced to try the mass graves which keep popping up like unwelcome sink holes across the region, filled with the bones of Saddam Hussein’s victims. They, along with other families seeking to find loved ones, shuffle from pit to pit, trying to find a skull or anything belonging to Ibrahim in the most despicable and sad search.
Yasser Taleeb and Shezhad Hussein (both acting for the first time) play the roles of Ahmed and his grandmother, or Um-Ibrahim, respectively. According to The Gaurdian UK, Director al-Daradjii stumbled upon both first-time actors: Hussein, an illiterate widow, he found in a Kurdish village; Taleeb he spotted on the steps of a school, and yet both play their roles excellently, probably because, as al-Daradjii is quoted as saying, ” There’s a thin line in Iraq today between fiction and reality.” Yasser Taleeb is not a professional actor handpicked from Lebanon or Jordan to play the role of Ahmed, he actually lived through Saddam and the American Invasion of Iraq. Shezhad Hussein isn’t faking the loss of a fictional son; she actually lost her own husband to Saddam’s forces. Couple that with filming in Iraq, and not another Arab country, and one has an unflappably realistic film.
The character of Ahmed is forced to act like an adult and at times take over for his grandmother, who is clearly ailing mentally and physically and becomes worse as the story progresses and her son has still not been found. Ahmed’s strikingly adult looks, attitude and knowledge-he has to act as an interpreter for his grandmother, who only speaks Kurdish, and he is constantly forced to re-read aloud the letter from an inmate of his father for Um-Ibrahim-contrast with his outbursts (“I’m going home!”) and ill-judgement. He joins a little ragamuffin in the Baghdad bus station in selling cigarettes and is pulled away by his scolding grandmother; in one scene she tenderly washes his face and feet and helps him dress into clean clothes on floating bridge.
Two observations I made while watching: one, the lack of religion and two, female rights. Ahmed’s grandmother is seen praying several times throughout the film; at one time she pulls out a prayer rug and prays right alongside the road. And while all of the women who pass by the camera’s lens are heavily veiled in niqabs, no one else seems to be praying; a truck driver who gradually softens to the duo as he drives them to Baghdad makes several comments about how praying to God is not going to help. Often in times of distress people turn to religion for comfort, but, if the general attitude toward religion in Son of Babylon is any indication, it appears that the people of Iraq felt rather abandoned by Allah.
The second observation I made was also regarding Um-Ibrahim and her status as an older woman. If a younger woman was in her position, the journey would have been likely much more difficult. Because Um-Ibrahim is past her childbearing age, she is able to freely converse with men of all ages, to be helped by strange men as she climbs onto the bus, to sleep near men like Musa as the duo camps under the stars. Her status as ‘female’ is largely ignored, which only underscores another recent observation I’ve made that, when it comes to rape and harassment older women in the Middle East (hell, even in America) are less likely to be assaulted and are granted more freedom because of their inability to produce children.
For a Westerner, this family journey is unthinkable. They don’t have cell phones. All of their belongings are tied up in a cloth sack his grandmother carries on her back. There are no bus schedules, no one seems to be in charge; there are no police. It would be unthinkable for a 12-year old to assume the responsibility Ahmed does, and yet here he is, supporting his grandmother as she cries and they walk from one grave to another. The characters are wholly dependent on fate; they are unable to control their journey and are instead buffeted along in a wind of emotion. There are no plans. Jobs seem beside the point, as are creature comforts: the duo sleeps outside on the ground. What will happen to Ahmed?
For an Iraqi, this film would undoubtedly elicit pain and sadness, as well as anger. Anger at Saddam for putting Iraq through his dictatorship, anger at America for invading and causing utter chaos. An Iraqi viewer would likely also focus on the family aspect of the film, the bond between grandmother and grandchild, the importance of family, which is the central theme of the film. Yet as an American viewer all I could see were the human rights aspect of the film and the poverty. In one scene the bus takes off before Um-Ibrahim can get on; Ahmed is already sitting in the back. Although the driver finally pulls over and Um-Ibrahim, running, manages to get on, for a few seconds one is left with a barrage of questions. What will happen to Ahmed and his grandmother? What will Ahmed do when he gets to the prison? Where will he go? Where will he sleep? Does the grandmother have enough money to get on another bus; will there be another bus? Will she find Ahmed when she finally arrives at the prison? Such an incident happened to my husband and I recently on the subway, but in our case I was able to mouth through the window to him to get off at the next stop. He did, and even if he hadn’t, we would simply see each other when we got home. We could even text each other once the train reached 125th street. Nevertheless, I felt a momentary sense of helplessness.
Human beings can be stretched beyond all dignity, but it is something that we as mankind should not try to push.