Framing Post-Third-Worldist Culture:
Gender and Nation in Middle Eastern/
North African Film and Video


Ella Shohat

CUNY-Graduate Center

Copyright (c) 1997 by Ella Shohat, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author and the notification of the editors.

  1. With the postwar collapse of European empires and the emergence of independent nation-states, the "Third World" and its diasporas in the First World have rewritten their own histories, taken over their own images, and spoken in their own voices, reclaiming and reaccentuating colonialism and its ramifications in the present. Feminists from Third-World countries, for their part, have participated in these counternarratives, while insisting that colonialism and nationalism have impinged differently on men and women, and that all the remapping and renaming has not been without its fissures and contradictions. For example, recent feminist film and video from the Middle East/North Africa functions as a simultaneous critique both of Third-Worldist anticolonial nationalism and of First-World Eurocentric feminism.[1] This cinematic work forms part of what I call "post-Third-Worldist" culture. Whereas the term "postcolonial" implies a movement beyond anticolonial nationalist ideology and a movement beyond a specific point of colonial history, post-Third-Worldism conveys a movement "beyond" a specific ideology--Third-Worldist nationalism. A post-Third-Worldist perspective assumes the fundamental validity of the anticolonial movement, but also interrogates the divisions that rend the Third-World nation.[2]

  2. Challenging the white feminist film theory and practice that emerged in a major way in the 1970s in First-World metropolises, post-Third-Worldist feminist works have refused universalizing discourses. Suspicious of a-historical categories ungrounded in the many different--often opposing--women's experiences, agendas, and political visions, rejecting Eurocentric formulations of "womanhood," even of "feminism," post-Third- Worldist feminisms claim a "location," arguing for specific forms of resistance in relation to diverse forms of oppression.[3] Aware of white women' s advantageous positioning within (neo)colonialist and racist systems, feminist struggles in the Third World have not been premised on a facile discourse of global sisterhood, and have often been made within the context of anticolonial and anti-racist struggles. But the growing feminist critique of Third-World nationalisms translates those many disappointed hopes for women's empowerment invested in a Third-Worldist national transformation into analysis and activism focused in the intersection of nation/race/gender. While still resisting the ongoing (neo)colonized situation of their "nation" and/or "race," post-Third-Worldist feminist cultural practices also break away from the narrative of the "nation" as a unified entity so as to articulate a contextualized history in specific geographies of identity.

  3. Rather than merely extending a pre-existing First-World feminism, as a certain Euro-diffusionism would have it,[4] post-Third-Worldist cultural work creates a more complex space for feminisms that do not abandon the specificity of community culture and history. To counter some of the patronizing attitudes toward post-Third-Worldist feminist filmmakers--the dark women who also do the 'feminist thing'--it seems necessary to situate them in national-racial discourses inscribed within multiple oppressions and resistances. Third-World feminist histories can be understood as feminist if unearthed from the substantial resistant work these women have done within their communities and nations, including the growth of women's grass-roots local organizing.

  4. Any serious discussion of feminist cinema must therefore engage the complex question of the "national." Third-Worldist films, produced within the legal codes of the nation-state, often in (hegemonic) national languages, recycling national intertexts (literatures, oral narratives, music), projected national imaginaries.[5] If, in contrast, First-World filmmakers have seemed to float 'above' petty nationalist concerns, it is because they take for granted the projection of a national power that facilitates the making and the dissemination of their films. The geopolitical positioning of Third-World nation-states continues to imply that their filmmakers cannot assume a substratum of national power. If their filmmakers are women, assumption of national power is even more problematic, due in part to the historical trajectories of Third-Worldist film itself. Revolutionary cinemas in places such as China, Cuba, Senegal, and Algeria were not generally shaped by an anticolonial feminist imaginary. During the first half of this century, a relatively small number of women directors and producers did play a role in film production: Aziza Amir, Assia Daghir, Fatima Rushdi, Bahiga Hafeth, and Amina Rzeq in Egypt; Carmen Santos and Gilda de Abreu in Brazil; Emilia Saleny in Argentina; Adela Sequeyro, Matilda Landeta, Candida Beltran Rondon, and Eva Liminano in Mexico. However, their films, even when focusing on female protagonists, were not explicitly feminist in the sense of a declared political project to empower women in the contexts of patriarchy and (neo)colonialism. In the post-independence, or post-revolution era, women, despite their growing contribution to diverse aspects of film production, remain less visible than men in the role of film direction.

  5. Here I examine contemporary work of post-Third-Worldist feminist film- and videomakers from the Middle East/North Africa in light of the ongoing critique of the racialized inequality of the geopolitical distribution of resources and power, and in relationship to the antecedent Third-Worldist film culture. These texts, I argue, challenge the masculinist contours of the 'nation' in order to continue a feminist decolonization of Third-Worldist historiography, as much as they continue a multicultural decolonization of feminist historiography. This essay looks at a moment of historical rupture and continuity, when the macronarrative of women's liberation has long since subsided yet sexism and heterosexism prevail, and in an age when the metanarratives of anticolonial revolution have long since been eclipsed yet (neo)colonialism and racism persist.

    Questioning Third-Worldist Nationalism

  6. Third-Worldist films by women filmmakers within and without the Middle East/ North Africa assume that revolution was crucial for the empowering of women, that revolution was integral to feminist aspirations. For instance, Heiny Srour's documentary Saat al Tahrir (The Hour of Liberation , Oman, 1973) privileges the role of women fighters as it looks at the revolutionary struggle in Oman, and her Leile wal dhiab (Leila and the Wolves , Lebanon, 1984) focuses on the role of women in the Palestine Liberation Movement. Sara Gomez's well-known film De cierta manera (One Way or Another , Cuba, 1975), often cited as part of the late 1970s and early 1980's Third-Worldist debates around women's position in revolutionary movements, interweaves documentary and fiction as part of a feminist critique of the Cuban revolution. From a decidedly pro-revolutionary perspective, the film deploys images of building and construction to metaphorize the need for further revolutionary changes. Macho culture is dissected and analyzed within the overlaid cultural histories (African, European, and Cuban) in terms of the need to revolutionize gender relations in the post-revolution era.

  7. In their search for an alternative to the dominating style of Hollywood, such Third-Worldist films shared a certain preoccupation with First-World feminist independent films that have sought alternative images of women. The project of digging into "herstories" involves a search for new cinematic and narrative forms that challenge both canonical documentaries and mainstream fiction films, subverting a particular notion of "narrative pleasure" based on the "male gaze." As with Third-Worldist cinema and First-World independent production, post-Third-Worldist feminist films/videos conduct a struggle on two fronts, at once aesthetic and political, synthesizing revisionist historiography with formal innovation.

  8. The early period of Third-Worldist euphoria has since given way to the collapse of Communism, the indefinite postponement of the devoutly wished "tricontinental revolution," the realization that "the wretched of the earth" are not unanimously revolutionary (nor necessarily allies to one another), the appearance of an array of Third-World despots, and the recognition that international geopolitics and the global economic system have forced even the "Second World'' to be incorporated into transnational capitalism. Recent years have also witnessed a crisis around the term "Third World" itself: it is now seen as an open-ended ideological interpolation that papers over class oppression in all three worlds, while limiting socialism to the now non-existent Second World.[6] Three-Worlds theory flattens heterogeneities, masks contradictions, and elides differences. Feminist critics from the Third World such as Nawal el-Saadawi (Egypt), Vina Mazumdar (India), Kumari Jayawardena (Sri Lanka), Fatima Mernissi (Morocco), and Leila Gonzales (Brazil) have explored these differences and similarities in a feminist light, pointing to the gendered limitations of Third-World nationalism.

  9. Although all cultural practices are on one level products of specific national contexts, Third-World filmmakers (men and women) have been forced to engage in the question of the national precisely because they lack the taken-for-granted power available to First-World nation-states. At the same time, the topos of a unitary nation often camouflages the possible contradictions among different sectors of Third-World society. The nation-states of the Americas, Africa, and Asia often 'cover' the existence of women as well as of indigenous nations (Fourth World) within them. Moreover, the exaltation of the national provides no criteria for distinguishing exactly what is worth retaining in the 'national tradition.' A sentimental defense of patriarchal social institutions simply because they are 'ours' can hardly be seen as emancipatory. Indeed, some recent Middle Eastern/ North African films criticize exactly such institutions: Assia Djebar (Between Shadows and Sun , Algeria, 1994) critiques religious divisions, Al Mara wal Qanun (The Women and the Law , Egypt, 1987) concentrates on legal discrimination against women, Mercedes (Egypt, 1993) satirizes class relations and the marginalization of gays, and The Extras (Syria, 1994) focuses on the intersection of political and sexual repression within a Third-World nation.

  10. All countries, including Third-World countries, are heterogeneous, at once urban and rural, male and female, religious and secular, native and immigrant, and so forth. The view of the nation as unitary muffles the polyphony of social and ethnic voices within heteroglot cultures. Third-World feminists especially have highlighted the ways in which the subject of the Third-World nationalist revolution has been covertly posited as masculine and heterosexual. The precise nature of the national 'essence' to be recuperated, furthermore, is elusive. Some locate it in the pre-colonial past, or in the country's rural interior (e.g. the Palestinian village), or in a prior stage of development (e.g. the pre- industrial), or in a religion and ethnicity (e.g. the Copts in Egypt or the Berbers in Algeria); each narrative of origins has its gender implications. Recent debates have emphasized the ways in which national identity is mediated, textualized, constructed, "imagined," just as the traditions valorized by nationalism are "invented."[7] Any definition of nationality, then, must see nationality as partly discursive in nature, must take class, gender, and sexuality into account, must allow for racial difference and cultural heterogeneity, and must be dynamic, seeing "the nation" as an evolving, imaginary construct rather than an originary essence.

  11. The decline of Third-Worldist euphoria, which marked feminist films like One Way or Another , The Hour of Liberation , and Leila and the Wolves , brought with it a rethinking of political, cultural, and aesthetic possibilities, as the rhetoric of revolution began to be greeted with a certain skepticism. Meanwhile, the socialist-inflected national liberation struggles of the 1960s and 1970s were harassed economically and militarily, violently discouraged from becoming revolutionary models for post-independence societies. A combination of IMF pressure, co-optation, and "low-intensity warfare" has obliged even socialist regimes to make a sort of peace with transnational capitalism. Some regimes grew repressive toward those who wanted to go beyond a purely nationalist bourgeois revolution to restructure class, gender, region, and ethnic relations. As a result of external pressures and internal self-questioning, the cinema too gave expression to these mutations, as the anti-colonial thrust of earlier films gradually gave way to more diversified themes and perspectives. This is not to say that artists and intellectuals became less politicized, but that cultural and political critiques have taken new and different forms. Contemporary cultural practices of post-Third-World feminists intervene at a precise juncture in the history of the third World.

    Engendering the Nation

  12. Largely produced by men, Third-Worldist films were not generally concerned with a feminist critique of nationalist discourse. It would be a mistake to idealize the sexual politics of anticolonial Third-Worldist films like Jamila al-Jazairiya (Jamila, the Algerian , Egypt, 1958) and the classic La Battaglia de Algeria (The Battle of Algiers ), for example. On one level it is true that Algerian women are granted revolutionary agency. In one sequence from The Battle of Algiers , three Algerian women fighters are able to pass for Frenchwomen and consequently to pass the French checkpoints with bombs in their baskets. The French soldiers treat the Algerians with discriminatory scorn and suspicion, but greet the Europeans with amiable bonjours . The soldiers' sexism leads them to misperceive the three women as French and flirtatious when in fact they are Algerian and revolutionary. The film thus underlines the racial and sexual taboos of desire within colonial segregation. As Algerians, the women are the objects of the military as well as the sexual gaze; they are publicly desirable for the soldiers, however, only when they masquerade as French. They use their knowledge of European codes to trick the Europeans, putting their own "looks" and the soldiers' "looking" (and failure to see) to revolutionary purposes. (Masquerade also serves the Algerian male fighters who veil as Algerian women to better hide their weapons.) Within the psychodynamics of oppression the colonized woman knows the mind of the oppressor, while the converse is not true. In The Battle of Algiers , the women deploy this cognitive asymmetry to their own advantage, consciously manipulating ethnic, national, and gender stereotypes in the service of their struggle.

  13. On another level, however, the women in the film largely carry out the orders of the male revolutionaries. They certainly appear heroic, but only insofar as they perform their sacrificial service for the "nation." The film does not ultimately address the two-fronted nature of their struggle within a nationalist but still patriarchal revolution.[8] In privileging the nationalist struggle, The Battle of Algiers elides the gender, class, and religious tensions that fissured the revolutionary process, failing to realize that, as Anne McClintock puts it, "nationalisms are from the outset constituted in gender power" and that "women who are not empowered to organize during the struggle will not be empowered to organize after the struggle."[9] The final shots of a dancing Algerian woman waving the Algerian flag and taunting the French troops, superimposed on the title "July 2, 1962: Independence. The Algerian Nation is born," have the woman 'carry' the allegory of the 'birth' of the Algerian nation. But the film does not raise the contradictions that plagued the revolution both before and after victory. The nationalist representation of courage and unity relies on the image of the revolutionary woman precisely because her figure might otherwise evoke a weak link, the fact of a fissured revolution in which unity vis-à-vis the colonizer does not preclude contradictions among the colonized.

  14. Third-Worldist films often factored the generic and gendered space of heroic confrontations, whether set in the streets, the casbah, the mountains, or the jungle. The minimal presence of women corresponded to the place assigned to women within the anticolonialist revolutions and within Third-Worldist discourse, leaving women's homebound struggles unacknowledged. Women occasionally carried the bombs, as in The Battle of Algiers , but only in the name of a "Nation." Gender contradictions have been subordinated to anticolonial struggle: women were expected to "wait their turn." More often, women were made to carry the "burden" of national allegory: the woman dancing with the flag in The Battle of Algiers is an emblem of national liberation; the image of the bride who deflowers herself in Urs fil Galil (Wedding in Galilee , Palestine/Belgium, 1988) allegorizes the failure of an impotent patriarchy to lead toward national liberation.[10]

  15. A recent Tunisian film, Samt al Qusur (The Silence of the Palace , 1994) by Moufida Tlatli, a film editor who had worked on major Tunisian films of the post-independence, "Cinema Jedid" (New Cinema) generation, and who has now directed her first film, exemplifies some of the feminist critiques of the representation of the "nation" in anticolonial revolutionary films. Rather than privilege direct, violent encounters with the French, necessarily set in male-dominated spaces of battle, the film represents 1950s Tunisian women at the height of the national struggle as restricted to the domestic sphere. Yet it also challenges middle-class assumptions about the domestic sphere as belonging to the isolated wife-mother of a (heterosexual) couple. The Silence of the Palace focuses on working-class women, the servants of the rich pro-French bey elite, subjugated to hopeless servitude, including at times sexual servitude, but for whom life outside the palace without the guarantee of shelter and food would mean the even worse misery of, for example, prostitution. Although the servants live under a regime of silence about what they see and know within the palace, the film highlights their survival as a community. They become a non-patriarchal family within a patriarchal context; their emotional closeness in crisis and happiness and their supportive involvement in decision-making show their ways of coping with a no-exit situation. Whether through singing as they cook for an exhibitionist banquet, through praying as one of them heals a child who has fallen sick, or through dancing and eating in a joyous moment, the film represents women who did not plant bombs but whose social positioning turns into a critique of failed revolutionary hopes as a seen in the postcolonial era. Information about the battles against the French is mediated through the radio and by vendors, who report on what might lead to an all-encompassing national transformation.

  16. Yet the period of anticolonial struggle is framed as a recollection narrative of Alia, a woman singer, daughter of one of the female servants; Alia's narrative illuminates the continuous pressures exerted on women of her class. (With some exceptions, female singers/dancers are still associated in the Middle East with being just a little above the shameful occupation of prostitution.) The gendered and classed oppression that she witnessed as an adolescent in colonized Tunisia led her to believe that things would be different in an independent Tunisia. Such hopes were encouraged by promises made by the middle-class male intellectual, a tutor for the Bey's family, who suggests that in the new Tunisia not knowing her father's name would not be a barrier for establishing a new life. Their passionate relationship in the heat of revolution, where the "new" is on the verge of being born, is undercut by the framing narrative. Her fatherless servant-history and her low status as a singer haunt her life in the post-independence era; the tutor lives with her but does not marry her, yet gives her the protection she needs as a singer. The film opens on her sad, melancholy face singing a famous Um Kulthum song from the 1960s, "Amal Hayati " (The Hope of My Life). Um Kulthum, an Egyptian, was the leading Arab singer of the twentieth century. Through her unusual musical talents--including her deep knowledge of fusha (literary) Arabic--she rose from her small village to become kawkab al sharq (the Star of the East). Her singing accompanied the Arab world in its national aspirations, and catalyzed a sense of Arab unity that managed to transcend, at least on the cultural level, social tensions and political conflicts. She was closely associated with the charismatic leadership of Gamal Abdul Nasser and his anti-imperial pan-Arab agenda, but the admiration, respect, and love she elicited continued well after her death in 1975.

  17. Um Kulthum's transcendental position, however, has not been shared by many female singers or stars in the Arab world. Alia, for instance, begins her public performance at the invitation of the masters of the palace. This invitation comes partly because of her singing talent but no less because of the sexual advances she begins to experience as soon as one of the masters notices that the child has turned into a young woman. The mother who manages to protect her daughter from sexual harassment is raped herself by one of the masters. On the day of Alia's first major performance at a party in the palace, the mother dies of excessive bleeding from medical complications caused by aborting the product of the rape. In parallel scenes, the mother shouts from her excruciating pain and the daughter courageously cries out the forbidden Tunisian anthem. The sequence ends with the mother's death and with Alia leaving the palace for the promising outside world of young Tunisia.

  18. In post-independence Tunisia, the film implies, Alia's situation has somewhat improved. She is no longer a servant but a singer who earns her living yet needs the protection of her boyfriend against gender-based humiliations. Next to her mother's grave, she articulates, in a voice-over, her awareness of some improvements in the conditions of her life in comparison with those of her mother. Alia has gone through many abortions, despite her wish to become a mother, in order to keep her relationship with her boyfriend--the revolutionary man who does not transcend class for purposes of marriage. At the end of the film, she confesses at her mother's grave that this time she cannot let this piece of herself go. If, in the opening, the words of Um Kulthum's song relay a desire for the dream not to end - -"Khalini, gambak, khalini/ fi hudhni albak, khalini/ oosibni ahlam bik/Yaret Zamani ma yesahinish " (Leave me by your side/ in your heart/ and let me dream/ wish time will not wake me up)--the film ends with an awakening to hopes unfulfilled by the birth of the nation. Birth, here, is no longer allegorical as in The Battle of Algiers , but concrete, entangled in taboos and obstacles, leaving an open-ended narrative far from the euphoric closure of the Nation.

    Situating Female--and National--Identity

  19. In contrast to the Orientalist harem imaginary, all-female spaces have been represented very differently in feminist independent cinema largely, but not exclusively, directed by Middle Eastern women. Documentaries such as Attiat El-Abnoudi's Ahlam Mumkina (Permissible Dreams , Egypt, 1989) and Claire Hunt and Kim Longinotto' s Hidden Faces (Britain, 1990) examine female agency within a patriarchal context. Both films feature sequences in which Egyptian women speak together about their lives in the village, recounting in ironic terms their dreams and struggles with patriarchy. Through its critical look at the Egyptian feminist Nawal el-Saadawi, Hidden Faces explores the problems of women working together to create alternative institutions. Elizabeth Fernea's The Veiled Revolution (1982) shows Egyptian women redefining not only the meaning of the veil but also the nature of their own sexuality. And Moroccan filmmaker Farida Benlyazid's feature film Bab Ila Sma Maftouh (A Door to the Sky , 1988) offers a positive gloss on the notion of an all-female space, counterposing Islamic feminism to Orientalist fantasies.

  20. A Door to the Sky tells the story of a Moroccan woman, Nadia, who returns from Paris to her family home in Fez. That she arrives in Morocco dressed in punk clothing and hair style makes us expect an ironic tale about a Westernized Arab feeling out of place in her homeland. Instead, Nadia rediscovers Morocco and Islam and comes to appreciate the communitarian world of her female relatives, as well as her closeness with her father. She is instructed in the faith by an older woman, Kirana, who has a flexible approach to Islam. "Everyone understands through his own mind and his own era." As Nadia awakens spiritually, she comes to see the oppressive aspects of western society. At the same time, she sees Arab/Muslim society as a possible space for fulfillment. Within the Islamic tradition of women using their wealth for social charity, she turns part of the family home into a shelter for battered women.

  21. The film is not uncritical of the patriarchal abuses of Islam--for example, the laws that count women as "half-persons" and systematically favor the male in terms of marriage and divorce. The film's aesthetic, however, favors the rhythms of contemplation and spirituality, in slow camera movements that caress the contoured Arabic architecture of courtyards and fountains and soothing inner spaces. Dedicated to a historical Muslim woman, Fatima Fihra, the tenth-century founder of one of the world's first universities, A Door to the Sky envisions an aesthetic that affirms Islamic culture while also inscribing it with a feminist consciousness. In this way the film offers an alternative both to western imaginaries and to an Islamic fundamentalist representation of Muslim women. A Door to the Sky uses all-female spaces to point to a liberatory project based on unearthing women's history within Islam, a history that includes female spirituality, prophecy, poetry, and intellectual creativity as well as revolt, material power, and social and political leadership.[11]

  22. A number of recent diasporic film/video works link issues of postcolonial identity to issues of post-Third-Worldist aesthetics and ideology. The Sankofa production The Passion of Remembrance (1986) by Maureen Blackwood and Isaac Julien thematizes post-Third-Worldist discourses and fractured diasporic identity, in this case Black British identity, by staging a "polylogue" between the 1960s black radical as the (somewhat puritanical) voice of nationalist militancy and the "new," more playful voices of gays and lesbians, all within a de-realized reflexive aesthetic. Film and video works such as Assia Djebar's Nouba Nisa al Djebel Chenoua (The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua , 1977), Lourdes Portillo's After the Earthquake (1979), Mona Hatoum's Measures of Distance (1988), Trinh T. Minh-ha's Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) and Shoot for the Content (1991), Prajna Paramita Parasher and Den Ellis's Unbidden Voices (1989), Indu Krishnan's Knowing Her Place (1990), Christine Chang's Be Good My Children (1992), and Marta N. Bautis's Home is the Struggle (1991) break away from earlier macronarratives of national liberation, re-envisioning the nation as a heteroglossic multiplicity of trajectories. While remaining anticolonialist, these experimental films/videos call attention to a diversity of experiences within and across nations. Since colonialism had simultaneously aggregated communities fissured by glaring cultural differences and separated communities marked by equally glaring commonalities, these films suggest that many Third-World nation-states were artificial and contradictory entities. The films produced in the First World, in particular, raise questions about dislocated identities in a world increasingly marked by the mobility of goods, ideas, and peoples attendant with the "multinationalization" of the global economy.

  23. Third Worldists often fashioned their idea of the nation-state according to the European model, in this sense remaining complicit with a Eurocentric Enlightenment narrative. And the nation-states they built often failed to deliver on their promises. In terms of race, class, gender and sexuality, many of them remained, on the whole, ethnocentric, patriarchal, bourgeois, and homophobic. At the same time, a view of Third-World nationalism as the mere echo of European nationalism ignores the international realpolitik that made the end of colonialism coincide with the beginning of the nation-state. The formation of Third-World nation-states often involved a double process of, on the one hand, joining diverse ethnicities and regions that had been separate under colonialism, and, on the other, partitioning regions in a way that forced regional redefinition (Iraq/Kuwait) and a cross-shuffling of populations (Pakistan/India, Israel/Palestine). Furthermore, political geographies and state borders do not always coincide with what Edward Said has called 'imaginary geographies,' whence the existence of internal émigrés, nostalgics, and rebels (i.e., groups of people who share the same passport but whose relations to the nation-states are conflicted and ambivalent). In the postcolonial context of a constant flux of peoples, affiliation with the nation-state becomes highly partial and contingent.

    Reframing Diaspora

  24. While most Third-Worldist films assumed the fundamental coherence of national identity, with the expulsion of the colonial intruder fully completing the process of national becoming, post-nationalist films call attention to the fault lines of gender, class, ethnicity, region, partition, migration, and exile. Many of the films explore the complex identities generated by exile--from one's own geography, from one's own history, from one's own body--through innovative strategies. Fragmented cinematic forms come to homologize cultural disembodiment. Caren Kaplan's observations about a reconceived "minor" literature as deromanticizing solitude and rewriting "the connections between different parts of the self in order to make a world of possibilities out of the experience of displacement"[12] are exquisitely appropriate to two autobiographical films by Palestinians in exile, Elia Suleiman's Homage by Assassination (1992) and Mona Hatoum 's Measures of Distance .

  25. Homage by Assassination chronicles Suleiman's life in New York during the Persian Gulf War, foregrounding multiple failures of communication: a radio announcer's aborted efforts to reach the filmmaker by phone; the filmmaker' s failed attempts to talk to his family in Nazareth (Israel/Palestine); his impotent look at old family photographs; and despairing answering-machine jokes about the Palestinian situation. The glorious dream of nationhood and return is here reframed as a Palestinian flag on a TV monitor, the land as a map on the wall, and the return (awda ) as the "return" key on the computer keyboard. At one point the filmmaker receives a fax from a friend,[13] who narrates her family history as an Arab-Jew, her feelings during the bombing of Iraq and the Scud attacks on Israel, and the story of her displacements from Iraq, through Israel/Palestine, and then on to the U.S. The communications media become the imperfect means by which dislocated people struggle to retain their national imaginary, while also fighting for a place in a new national context (the U.S., Britain), countries whose foreign policies have concretely impacted their lives. Homage by Assassination invokes the diverse spatialities and temporalities that mark the exile experience. A shot of two clocks, in New York and in Nazareth, points to the double time-frame lived by the diasporic subject, a temporal doubleness underlined by an intertitle saying that, due to the Scud attacks, the filmmaker's mother is adjusting her gas mask at that very moment. The friend's fax similarly stresses the fractured space-time of being in the U.S. while identifying with both Iraq and Israel.

  26. In Measures of Distance , the Palestinian video/performance artist Mona Hatoum explores the renewal of friendship between her mother and herself during a brief family reunion in Lebanon in the early 1980s. The film relates the fragmented memories of diverse generations: the mother's tales of the "used-to-be" of Palestine, Hatoum's own childhood in Lebanon, the civil war in Lebanon, and the current dispersal of the daughters in the West. (It should be noted that the cinema, from The Sheik through The King and I to Out of Africa , has generally preferred showing Western travelers in the East rather than Eastern women in the West). As images of the mother's handwritten Arabic letters to the daughter are superimposed over dissolves of the daughter's color slides of her mother in the shower, we hear an audio tape of their conversations in Arabic, along with excerpts of their letters as translated and read by the filmmaker in English.

  27. The linguistic play also marks the distance between mother and daughter, while their separation instantiates the fragmented existence of a nation. When relentless bombing prevents the mother from mailing her letter, the screen fades to black, suggesting an abrupt end to communication. Yet the letter eventually arrives via messenger, while the voice-over narrates the exile's difficulty in maintaining contact with one's culture(s). The negotiation of time and place is here absolutely crucial. The videomaker's voice-over reading her mother's letters in the present interferes with the dialogue recorded in the past in Lebanon. The background conversations in Arabic give a sense of present-tense immediacy, while the more predominant English voice-over speaks of the same conversation in the past tense. The Arabic speaker labors to focus on the Arabic conversation and read the Arabic scripts, while also listening to the English. If the non-Arabic-speaking spectator misses some of the film's textual registers, the Arabic-speaking spectator is overwhelmed by competing images and sounds. This strategic refusal to translate Arabic is echoed in Suleiman's Homage by Assassination where the director (in person) types out Arab proverbs on a computer screen, without providing any translation. These exiled filmmakers thus cunningly provoke in the spectator the same alienation experienced by a displaced person, reminding us, through inversion, of the asymmetry in social power between exiles and their "host communities." At the same time, they catalyze a sense of community for the minoritarian speech community, a strategy especially suggestive of diasporic filmmakers, who often wind up in the First World precisely because colonial/imperial power has turned them into displaced persons.

  28. Measures of Distance also probes issues of sexuality and the female body in a kind of self-ethnography, its nostalgic rhetoric concerning less the "public sphere" of national struggle than the "private sphere" of sexuality, pregnancy, and children. The women's conversations about sexuality leave the father feeling displaced by what he dismisses as "women's nonsense." The daughter's photographs of her nude mother make him profoundly uncomfortable, as if the daughter, as the mother writes, "had trespassed on his possession." To videotape such intimate conversations is not a common practice in Middle Eastern cinema or, for that matter, in any cinema. (Western audiences often ask how Hatoum won her mother's consent to use the nude photographs and how she broached the subject of sexuality.) Paradoxically, the exile's distance from the Middle East authorizes the exposure of intimacy. Displacement and separation make possible a transformative return to the inner sanctum of the home; mother and daughter are together again in the space of the text.

  29. In Western popular culture, the Arab female body, whether in the form of the veiled, barebreasted women who posed for French colonial photographers or of the Orientalist harems and belly dancers of Hollywood film, has functioned as a sign of the exotic.[14] But rather than adopt a patriarchal strategy of simply censuring female nudity, Hatoum deploys the diffusely sensuous, almost pointillist images of her mother naked to tell a more complex story with nationalist overtones. She uses diverse strategies to veil the images from voyeuristic scrutiny: already hazy images are concealed by text (fragments of the mother's correspondence, in Arabic script) and are difficult to decipher. The superimposed words in Arabic script serve to "envelop" her nudity. "Barring" the body, the script metaphorizes her inaccessibility, visually undercutting the intimacy verbally expressed in other registers. The fragmented nature of existence in exile is thus underlined by superimposed fragmentations: fragments of letters, dialogue, and the mother's corps morcellé (rendered as hands, breasts, and belly). The blurred and fragmented images suggest the dispersed collectivity of the national family itself.[15] Rather than evoke the longing for an ancestral home, Measures of Distance , like Homage by Assassination , affirms the process of recreating identity in the liminal zone of exile.[16] Video layering makes it possible for Mona Hatoum to capture the fluid, multiple identities of the diasporic subject.

  30. A discourse which is "purely" feminist or "purely" nationalist, I have tried to argue, cannot apprehend the layered, dissonant identities of diasporic or post-independence feminist subjects. The diasporic and post-Third-Worldist films of the 1980s and 1990s, in this sense, do not so much reject the "nation" as interrogate its repressions and limits, passing nationalist discourse through the grids of class, gender, sexuality, and diasporic identities. While often embedded in the autobiographical, they are not always narrated in the first person, nor are they "merely" personal. Rather, the boundaries between the personal and the communal--like the generic boundaries between documentary and fiction, the biographic and the ethnographic--are constantly blurred. The diary form, the voice- over, the personal written text, now bear witness to a collective memory of colonial violence and postcolonial displacement. While early Third-Worldist films documented alternative histories through archival footage, interviews, testimonials, and historical reconstructions, generally limiting their attention to the public sphere, the films of the 1980s and 1990s use the camera less as revolutionary weapon than as monitor of the gendered and sexualized realms of the personal and the domestic, seen as integral but repressed aspects of collective history. They display a certain skepticism toward metanarratives of liberation but do not necessarily abandon the notion that emancipation is worth fighting for. Rather than falling from contradiction, they install doubt and crisis at the very core of the films. Rather than a grand anticolonial metanarrative, they favor heteroglossic proliferations of difference within polygeneric narratives, seen not as embodiments of a single truth but as energizing political and aesthetic forms of communitarian self-construction.

  31. Since all political struggle in the postmodern era necessarily passes through the simulacral realm of mass culture, the media are absolutely central to any discussion of post-Third-Worldist multicultural and transnational feminist practices. The media not only set agendas and frame debates but also inflect desire, memory, and fantasy. The contemporary media shape identity; indeed, many argue that they now exist close to the very core of identity production. In a transnational world typified by the global circulation of images and sounds, goods, and peoples, media spectatorship impacts complexly on national identity, communal belonging, and political affiliations. By facilitating a mediated engagement with distant peoples, the media "deterritorialize" the process of imagining communities. And while the media can destroy community and fashion solitude by turning spectators into atomized consumers or self-entertaining monads, they can also fashion community and alternative affiliations. Just as the media can exoticize and disfigure cultures, they have the potential power not only to offer countervailing representations but also to open up parallel spaces for anti-racist feminist transformation. In this historical moment of intense globalization and immense fragmentation, the alternative spectatorship established by the kind of film and video works I have discussed can mobilize desire, memory, and fantasy, where identities are not only the given of where one comes from but also the political identification with where one is trying to go.


  1. An earlier version of this essay appeared as "Post-Third Worldist Culture: Gender, Nation and Diaspora in Middle Eastern Film/Video," UCLA Near East Center Colloquium Series , ed. Jonathan Friedlander (1995): 66-108; a broader version of this paper, dealing with post-Third-Worldist feminist films from the Americas and Austalia as well as from the Middle East and North Africa, appears as "Post-Third-Worldist Culture: Gender, Nation, and the Cinema," in Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures , ed. M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty (New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 183-209.Back

  2. See Ella Shohat, "Notes on the Post-Colonial," Social Text 31-32 (1992).Back

  3. For more on the concept of "location," see, for example, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, "Feminist Encounters: Locating the Politics of Experience," Copyright 1 (Fall 1987); Michele Wallace, "The Politics of Location: Cinema/TheoryLiterature/Ethnicity/Sexuality/Me,'' Framework no. 36 (1989); Lata Mani, "Multiple Mediations: Feminist Scholarship in the Age of Multinational Reception," Inscriptions (1989); and Inderpal Grewal, "Autobiographical Subjects and Diasporic Locations: Meatless Days and Borderlands ," and Caren Kaplan, "The Politics of Location as Transnational Feminist Practice," in Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practice (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1994).Back

  4. See J. B. Blaut, The Colonizer's Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History (New York and London: Guilford Press, 1993).Back

  5. In relation to cinema, the term "Third World" has been empowering in that it calls attention to the collectively vast cinematic productions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as well as the minoritarian cinema in the First World. While some define "Third-World cinema" broadly as the ensemble of films produced by Third-World countries (including films produced before the very idea of the "Third World" was current), others prefer to speak of "Third cinema" as an ideological project (i.e., as a body of films adhering to a certain political and aesthetic program, whether or not they are produced by Third-World peoples themselves). As long as they are not taken as "essential" entities but as collective projects to be forged, both "Third-World cinema" and "Third cinema" retain important tactical and polemical uses for a politically inflected cultural practice. See Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (New York: Routledge, 1994).Back

  6. See Aijaz Ahmad, "Jameson's Rhetoric of Otherness and the National Allegory," Social Text 17 (Fall 1987): 3-25; Julianne Burton, "Marginal Cinemas," Screen 26 (1985).Back

  7. See Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Refections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983); and E. J. Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983).Back

  8. The director, Gillo Pontecorvo, recently (1991) revisited Algiers to make Gillo Pontecorvo Returns to Algiers , a film about the evolution of Algeria during the 25 years elapsed since The Battle of Algiers was filmed; he focused on topics such as fundamentalism, the subordinate status of women, the veil, and so forth.Back

  9. Anne McClintock, "No Longer in a Future Heaven: Women and Nationalism in South Africa," Transition 51 (1991): 120.Back

  10. For more on this issue, see Ella Shohat, "Wedding in Galilee," Middle East Report 154 (September/October 1988).Back

  11. See Fatima Mernissi, The Forgotten Queens of Islam , trans. Mary Jo Lakeland (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993).Back

  12. Caren Kaplan, "Deterritorializations: The Rewriting of Home and Exile in Western Feminist Discourse." Cultural Critique 6 (Spring 1987): 198.Back

  13. The friend in question is Ella Habiba Shohat. The faxed letter in the film is based on my essays, "Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims," Social Text 19 (Fall 1988) and "Dislocated Identities: Reflections of an Arab Jew," Movement Research: Performance Journal 5 (Fall/Winter 1992).Back

  14. I further elaborated on the subject in "Gender and the Culture of Empire: Toward a Feminist Ethnography of the Cinema," Quarterly Review of Film and Video 131 (Spring 1991): 131, and in Unthinking Eurocentrism .Back

  15. Or as the letters put it: "This bloody war takes my daughters to the four corners of the world." This reference to the dispersion of the family, as metonym and metaphor for the displacement of a people, is particularly ironic given that Zionist discourse itself has often imaged its own national character through the notion of "the ingathering of exiles from the four corners of the globe."Back

  16. Measures of Distance in this sense goes against the tendency criticized by Hamid Naficy, which turns nostalgia into a ritualized denial of history. See "The Poetics and Practice of Iranian Nostalgia in Exile," Diaspora 3 (1992).Back

    Works Cited

    Ahmad, Aijaz. "Jameson's Rhetoric of Otherness and the National Allegory." Social Text 17 (Fall 1987).

    Alexander, M. Jacqui, and Chandra Talpade Mohanty. Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures . NewYork: Routledge, 1997.

    Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communites: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Natonalism . London: Verso, 1983.

    Burton, Julianne. "Marginal Cinemas." Screen 26 (1985).

    Blaut, J. M. The Colonizer's Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History . New York and London: Guilford Press, 1993.

    Grewal, Inderpal. "Autobiographical Subjects and Diasporic Locations: Meatless Days and Borderlands ." In Grewal and Kaplan.

    Grewal, Inderpal, and Caren Kaplan. Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practice . Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1994.

    Hobsbawm, E. J., and Terence Ranger, eds. The Invention of Tradition . Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983.

    Kaplan, Caren. "The Politics of Location as Transnational Feminist Practice." In Grewal and Kaplan.

    Mani, Lata. "Multiple Mediations: Feminist Scholarship in the Age of Multinational Reception." Inscriptions 5 (1989).

    McClintock, Anne. "No Longer in a Future Heaven: Women and Nationalism in South Africa." Transition 51 (1991).

    Mernissi, Fatima. The Forgotten Queens of Islam . Trans. Mary Jo Lakeland. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

    Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. "Feminist Encounters: Locating the Politics of Experience." Copyright 1 (Fall 1987).

    Naficy, Hamid. "The Poetics and Practice of Iranian Nostalgia in Exile." Diaspora 3 (1992).

    Shohat, Ella. "Dislocated Identities: Reflections of an Arab Jew." Movement Research: Performance Journal 5 (Fall/Winter 1992).

    ---. Gender and the Culture of Empire: Toward a Feminist Ethnography of the Cinema." Quarterly Review of Film and Video 131 (Spring 1991).

    ---. "Notes on the Post-Colonial." Social Text 31-32 (1992).

    ---. "Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims." Social Text 19/20 (Fall 1988).

    ---. "Wedding in Galilee." Middle East Report 154 (September/October 1988).

    Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media . New York: Routledge, 1994.

    Wallace, Michele. "The Politics of Location: Cinema/Theory/Literature/Ethnicity/Sexuality/Me." Framework 36 (1989).

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