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The Patience Stone – An Afghan woman’s awakening
16 September 2013. A World to Win News Service. By Fatemah Hosseini. The film The Patience Stone opens a window to some forgotten aspects of women’s oppression in Afghanistan, revealing the internal and external forms of ruthless suffering for women. It discloses the depth and shocking aspects of the brutality of backward relations and the chains that crush women’s spirit.
Atiq Rahimi, director of the film as well as author of the best-selling novel on which it is based, left Afghanistan in the 1980’s during the Soviet invasion and has been living in Paris since then. The film opened in Paris last February and has been travelling to various European cities and recently opened in the U.S.
The Patience Stone is the story of a nameless woman (memorably played by Golshifteh Farahani) in her late 20s. Her much older husband (Hamidreza Javdan), lying in a coma, is a nameless ex-Mujahadeen with a bullet in his neck. He was not wounded in a war but in a fight for honour: someone said to him, “I spit in your mother’s pussy.” He has been abandoned by his whole family and fellow fighters. The couple live in an unspecified location in Afghanistan during an unspecified war, a constant and continuously threatening presence in their lives. Knowing the war is coming to the village, her in-laws depart for a safer place, leaving her with no income, two children and a comatose husband to care for.
The film is a long monologue in which this nameless woman unburdens all her suffering in front of a “patience stone”, in this case her husband. In Persian mythology, a “patience stone” is a magic stone that absorbs all the confessions and secrets that you don’t dare tell anyone. When the stone crumbles, we are told in the film, “You are set free from all your pains, all your suffering.”
In the beginning the woman is doing her best to nurse her paralysed, mute husband. She buys liquid nourishment to insert in his feeding tube, cleans him, pays a Mullah to pray for him, moistens his eyes – all to do her duty to a man she never loved. When her money runs out, the pharmacy no longer gives her the serum, the water-delivery man stops bringing drinking water and the war is getting closer and closer as the roar of cannons and tanks becomes dangerously louder. She is torn between helping or abandoning him. Her patience comes to an end, her complaints begin to pour out and she begins talking to her husband.
She has no relative or friends to help except an aunt whom she is finally able to locate after a few unsuccessful attempts. The aunt (Hassina Burgan) gives her advice, agrees to take care of her children and sometimes gives her a little money.
As the monologue continues, the woman reveals her shocking life story to the husband who is her “patience stone”. We see that the immediate suffering of this young woman is only the surface layer over a deep-rooted suffering.
We learn about her now ten-year-old arranged marriage. Her husband was too busy fighting to come to the wedding ceremony, so she wedded his picture. During all those years he only occasionally appeared. She hardly lived with him and never felt loved, or even allowed to express her feelings. In their sexual relations her desires never counted. Now she can kiss him and touch him as much as she wants. Now she talks without fear. Her simple but sharp words issue forth sometimes in whispers, sometimes in cries, but from a mountain of untold secrets all formerly locked in her heart.
Sometimes she feels that someone – Allah – is present to punish her for the “sin” she is committing in speaking freely, and rushes to the Koran to demand forgiveness. But she cannot stop the flow of locked-up feelings. In fact, she enjoys the freedom to liberate herself from secrets accumulated over the years.
The only person she can consult is her aunt, who was also a victim of a strong and brutal patriarchal relationship. The aunt tells her own story. After marriage she was rejected by her husband because she was sterile and was sent to her in-laws, in fact to be their servant. When her father-in-law realised she was sterile, he would rape her every night. Finally one night she decided to kill him and run away. Having nowhere to go she became a prostitute. The aunt’s advice to her niece encourages her to go home and continue with her confessions.
She tells her husband how his brothers cast a lascivious eye on her. They would watch her naked body through the holes whenever she was taking a bath.
The war gets closer and closer and finally enters the home. A group of Mujahadeen break in, loot the house, and kill a neighbour. She survives by hiding in a shelter. But later an armed commander enters, seeking to use it as a fighting post. When he is informed of a ceasefire, he turns on the woman. Trying to escape being raped, she tells him she is a prostitute. “They never rape a whore, you know why? Because that kind of man doesn’t put his dirty thing in a hole that’s been used thousands of times. But raping a virgin makes them proud, it shows their virility,” her aunt later explains to her. The commander makes a gesture as if to kill her, but then leaves.
A young fighter who was with the commander and overheard the conversation secretly returns with money in hand to buy her body. She tries to resist but he overpowers her. Although a rape has occurred, this turns out to be the start of a relationship between them, because the young fighter keeps coming back. When she learns that he has been abused by the commander she feels closer to him. Furious, she goes to her husband and calls him a dirty bastard because he was also a Jihadi commander. “The commander who spate on me and wanted to kill me, by day he puts a Kalashnikov in his (the young fighter’s) hands and, at night, puts bells on his feet. The boy’s body is covered with burns….”
Her most shocking and difficult confession is about her children. It brings out all the shameful nastiness of a patriarchal relationship. She says not only did she not want her first baby, but she even wanted “to suffocate her” between her legs.
She continues with her confession to the “patience stone”: ‘Do you want to know why I didn’t want that child?… She wasn’t yours… I wasn’t sterile. You were!… Nobody knew it. Your mother didn’t want to know. Remember? She wanted you to take another wife. What would have happened to me?” Her aunt found a solution at that time.
All the confessions and secrets in dealing with a patriarchal system by this nameless Afghan woman are somewhat universal. They could be those of any woman.
Women’s situation in Afghanistan is nothing new. Even the imperialist occupiers, who created a big share of women’s suffering in this country, have admitted this and use the issue as an excuse to justify their invasion and occupation, while in reality they are pursuing their own global imperialist interests.
But the film goes well beyond the common exposures about beatings and domestic violence against women and tries to show some of the invisible aspects of suffering that women endure and more deeply explore the relations between the sexes and the dominant influence of patriarchy over every aspect of these relations. It shows the loneliness of women in a hostile environment fed by class antagonisms and how they are sometimes forced to take dangerous and painful decisions to survive. The film gives us an opportunity to see and understand more of these internal secrets. The monologue skilfully exposes how traditions poison the relations between the sexes.
Brought up under the Islamic Republic of Iran and now having difficulty with the regime because of her other performances, Farahani’s own life experience prepared her well to superbly bring out the depth of the character she portrays.
However the film has important shortcomings artistically and politically. It fails to combine the hardship and suffering with happiness and joy, the sadness with the hope of the people. It tries to picture the contradictions of life through her confessions and daily life, but it does not give enough attention to the hope of the people. No doubt, in a country that has been dealing with successive destructive wars and foreign interventions and has suffered so much pain, there is little room for happiness, but this is not all there is to life. There is no sadness without joy, the masses are more dynamic and can find hope even under the worst kind of misery. The oppressed often find beauty in life in spite of their conditions. They look for the smallest sign of hope and happiness in the depth of darkness. The absence of this aspect in the life of the people lessens the dynamism and liveliness of the film and reduces it to a story of pain and suffering.
It is true that the weight of the war increasingly overshadows the daily life of the people, but all we hear or see is sirens, cannon and the tank fire of the Afghan Jihadi commanders and fighters and their brutalities. There is no indication as to where the war is coming from or how and why it has been imposed on the people. There is a tendency to oppose war in general as if it were an abstract question, without taking into account that this particular war is the result of an invasion and occupation. At some points there is an attempt to show the antagonism between the war and love. The aunt says, “Those who cannot make love, make war.” This is a wrong explanation for this war and wars in general. Further, it is important to distinguish between reactionary wars and wars through which the people resist and seek their liberation.
As the cause of this nameless war is unclear, one may conclude that the cause of the war and the misery it unleashes is all internal, arising from the culture and tradition – “our own behaviour” and “our own backwardness”. This idea is reinforced by the fact that all the fighters are Afghan. However, the Jihadi warlords and Taliban were encouraged, trained and financed by foreign reactionaries. Without the role of the U.S. and its ally Pakistan, things might have developed differently. It is extremely misleading to talk about Afghanistan and the wars and all the suffering they have caused without mentioning the brutal invasions and occupations that have made life hell for the people in this region especially over the last three decades.
The reality of the relationship between the sexes in Afghanistan and similar countries imprisoned by backward relations is intolerable, but these relations are not only deformed by tradition and culture, but also because of the role that the big powers’ political and military intervention has played throughout their history.
Despite these shortcomings, Rahimi’s film powerfully depicts all the ugliness of the relations between the sexes and goes well beyond the usual exposures. The film succeeds in making you want to break all the chains that oppress women.
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