The Wait of Djerba’s Women
Laakri Cherifi - 12/07/2012
The title that the director has given to her film “The Season of Men” is a satirical metaphor that dedicates men a season, a cycle in the world of women. In fact, the phenomenon of immigration and the rural exodus to cities in search of work, in the case of Djerba men leave their families for eleven months, leaving their wives the task of raising their children conceived during the month of rest, is a satire and provocation of this man's world.
We realize that this return gives little order to the lives of their women cloistered in the Island of Djerba under the authority of their stepmother. The reunions with their husbands are less important than the preparations for the return to their workplace in Tunis. The solidarity between these women is very touching. They suffer the same fate, that of waiting. They know that after a month, they will plunge back into this world of women, under the tutelage of their mother-in-law who rules order in a very tiresome way for her daughters-in-law. However, what is striking in this women’s world is this spirit of awareness and responsibility that these women have for their homes and their loyalty to this heritage that they have to pass from mother to daughter.
Moufida Tlatli’s film describes a particular situation describing more a form of matriarchy than an abusive masculine power. Aïsha’s stepmother represents a variant of violence built on the absence but also on the alleged weakness of men.
Mythical Characters of the “Season of Men”
The film begins with Aïsha’s departure from the city of Tunis, in order to return to the island of Djerba where she comes from with her autistic born son. By opening the door of the great house in Djerba, Aïsha seeps into the past, remembering her marriage to Saïd who is absent from home for eleven months, her family life, with her sisters-in-law, regimented by the authority of her mother-in-law.
Aïsha, the film's heroine portrays the Penelope of modern times. She embodies the quest of a woman condemned to live under the tutelage of her dominating mother-in-law, to weaving carpets that her husband sells in Tunis. She signs a pact with her husband, according to which she will leave the island of Djerba only if she produces enough carpets for him to make a fortune in Tunis and especially if she gives him a son. Aïsha refuses her fate and over the years, she is not resolved to wait for a husband who forces his wife to give him a boy in order to be able to join him in Tunis. Instead, she wants to change. Traditional customs require a woman to give birth to a male under penalty of repudiation. She wants to have a boy so that he liberates her and allows her to go to Tunis. At the same time, she does not want to have a boy because this is also a symbol of the domination of men over women.
While enjoying a legal status in the Maghreb countries, these women cannot drive the fact that they are considered as inferior beings, dominated by men and traditions out of their minds. The status of women in the Oriental world is not easy to live. Even if she is rebellious, the woman can only express her pain through inner promptings, and by the mortifications she transmits to her offspring. So are we are sometimes witnessing a terrible description of the lives of these women who are forced to oppress their desires, their sensuality as well as their sexual fulfillment. When Aïsha asks her husband to give her more attention, to be more caring, he revolts.
In traditionalist Muslim culture, women should never reveal their feelings or any sensual desire as they fear being repudiated.
The men are filmed from a very critical perspective. The filmmaker has given them the role of men that are very committed to their professional world, despite their inconstant economic system. They provide their wives with a financially stable live and yet, they lack the essence. All their wives feel insecure and unhappy and it is certainly not a month with their husbands who come back that will wash away their pains and their solitude.
It is only time, trust and communication that may bring these men out of this scourge they never take the opportunity to become aware of. As soon as they arrive, they are harassed by their mothers. In “The Season of Men”, the power of the mother-in-law is explained by the special authority that our societies provide a mother vis-à-vis her son.
The character of Zeineb, Aïsha’s sister is very significant. She sees her husband leave as from the day after their wedding and never sees him again. For nine long years, Zeinab has been living with her parents, locked in a chastity she tolerates with difficulty. When her mother asks her to stop weaving carpets with Aïcha advising her to return to her conjugal home, Zeineb refuses.
Absorbed by the upheavals that are triggered in the character’s soul by such despoliation, Tlatli’s eye indulges us in terrible scenes of turmoil and hysteria. According to her hidden autobiography in the film, the filmmaker said: “These figures are made out of bits of my life. Thus, my aunt remained an old maid. My aunt lived in our house when I was a child ...” (*)
Aïsha and Zeinab are two female warriors fighting for their claim against a traditional [matriarchal] regime built on oppressive and inextricable hierarchical codes. As is it always the mother-in-law who holds the reins of power over her children and daughters-in-law, marital conflicts are ended with the son's inability to stand up to his mother, leading to the daughter-in-law’s submission and blind obedience.
Meriem and Emna
The film starts in Tunis, showing two young girls who are gradually moving away from their mothers in order to lead their own lives. Through them, we note a desire for emancipation and a real hope to overcome these ancient traditions. After the birth of their autistic brother Aziz, the two modern young sisters Meriem and Emna are the only ones to be assisted and supported by their mother. They pay dearly the price for their freedom and independence.
Married to a doctor for the past six months, the eldest sister Meriem, is still a virgin. She is lost in a hard-to-forget childhood memory, the one of an attempted rape, while the youngest sister, Emna, is caught in a complicated romantic relationship with her violin teacher who is a married man.
The filmmaker masters the art of “flashbacks” which she uses skillfully. With great subtlety, she builds parallels between Aïsha’s life of submission a decade ago and that of her daughters that want to live another life today.
Aziz is the child who carries all the cultural and mythical loads of the Arab world. He was born autistic. He is the product of desire and un-desire that replaces Aisha in her original space. The culture of the unsaid is now expressed through the image.
In the last shot of the film, Aziz focuses on the red yarn used for weaving. The end symbolizes the confinement and frustration of Tunisian women. The director chooses neither a victorious nor a tragic end.
Tlatli’s eye-camera is not only there to film the bodies of these frustrated women of today. She addresses the condition of Arab women and the conflicting coexistence between the weight of tradition and the breath of freedom to which they aspire. With strength and simplicity, she builds a moving account of women's emancipation and paints a pretty chronicle that mixes periods of time recounting the fate of different women of the same family. An uncompromising mother-in-law, two wives and a sister-in-law, two very different sisters of the next generation and a so-coveted autistic boy, form a community where desires and spoliation, impulses of rebellion and loyalty to tradition intertwine.
Is making films that are based on a distanced memory one of Moufida Tlatli’s characteristics? In her first feature film called “The Silences of the Palace,” the young girl, Alia, now a wife, recalls the life she had led among princes and concubines. In her second film, “The Season of Men” it is the Aisha’s multiple thought and her entourage who lead the audience. The events that occurred in the past are evoked through a point of view that starts from the present time. Thus, Tlatli’s films are true allegories of the memory of Tunisian women.
(*) Gamas, N., “Portrait d’une réalisatrice: Moufida Tlatli met en scène le monde intérieur de l’émancipation des femmes” [Portrait of a filmmaker: Moufida Tlatli depicts the inner world of women's emancipation] The Gardian Africulture, n°56, septembre 2000.
Translated from French by Elizabeth Grech