Turban Decay deals with images of Arabs in the cinema, as observed by Front Row Central staff writer and actual Arab Jordan Saïd. The column deals with stereotypes and changing perceptions both before and after 9/11.
As of this writing, the recent terrorist attacks in Paris have claimed over 100 lives and left over 300 people injured.
Pols and pundits have already come out of the woodwork to use this tragedy as an excuse to spread their own agendas, to spread otherization and hate. But as Martin Luther King famously said, “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” More to the point, by hating Muslims, we give ISIS exactly what they want. Like any person with an ounce of humanity, my heart goes out to the victims, their families, and the city of Paris (as well as the victims of the bombings in Beirut). In that spirit, let’s counter that hate with love, as embodied in the anthology film Paris, je t’aime.
Paris has always had a mythic image as the city of love. Paris, je t’aime (French for “Paris, I love you”) consists of a celebration of that spirit of love. The film’s eighteen vignettes, each with a different crew, taking place in a different arrondissement, tell stories about the transformative, life-affirming power of love: romantic love; familial love; even a generalized love of humanity. Of course, in keeping with Turban Decay’s raison d’être, I’ll center on the second of Paris, je t’aime’s vignettes, the one that directly involves Muslims. Quais de Seine, directed by Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chadha, details the beginning of a friendship between a white adolescent and an Arab Muslim woman.
Quais de Seine starts in the 5th arrondissement along a bank of the Seine, where two teenage boys, Arnaud (Julien Béramis) and Manu (Thomas Dumerchez), catcall anyone who walks by, as they tease each other about their inability to get laid. (Gee, I wonder why.) Their quiet friend François (Cyril Descours) gradually notices Zarka (Leïla Bekhti), a Muslim girl sitting quietly alone. When Zarka trips over a rock, everyone in the area laughs, but François helps her up. He follows her to her Mosque (the Grand Mosque of Paris), where he sees Zarka with her grandfather (Salah Teskouk). After some initial awkwardness, François befriends both.
For its runtime of about 6 minutes, this little short does an impressive job with the “never judge a book by its cover” theme. Several other vignettes turn out to have twist endings, which highlights Quais de Seine’s straightforward story and simple but important themes. Despite his poor taste in friends, François turns out to have a good heart and an ability to resist peer pressure. Zarka seems at first like the mute, subservient Arab/Muslim woman stereotype that predominates western film, but she turns out to have a strong will and the ability to make her own choices. Even Zarka’s grandfather looks at first glance like the stereotypical stern, provincial, domineering Arab patriarch, but as soon as François gets to talking with him, we see a wise man who genuinely supports his granddaughter’s career ambitions and praises François for his interest in history. Only Arnaud and Manu don’t seem to have anything going on under the surface, perhaps because all that pathetic harassing hasn’t left them enough time to look.
The film goes out of its way to show why women would want to wear the hijab. When Zarka has her hair covered, the catcallers don’t even notice her, let alone bombard her with the unwanted sexual advances they give to anyone else who appears to have a vagina. I lost track years ago of the amount of whitesplaining and mansplaining I’ve heard about how no woman could ever want to wear such a thing and how hijabs inherently oppose gender equality and feminism. I see more wrong with that attitude of, “We have to tell women what to wear to make them equal to us.”
As a passerby walks by Zarka, he mutters, “You’re in France now,” as if to say that wearing a hijab makes her less French. Arnaud warns François, “Fool, you touch her and Osama will personally bomb your ass!” But Zarka has no discernible accent and no apparent sympathy for terrorists. There should exist no reason that her faith should make her any less French. She explains, “When I wear this I feel part of a faith, an identity.” Zarka’s hijab makes her feel like part of something bigger than herself. To her, that constitutes true beauty more than any thong or lip gloss.
Significantly, Emmanuel Benbihy, who produced and assembled Paris, je t’aime, follows Quais de Seine with Le Marais, a gay love story directed by Gus Van Sant, set in the neighboring 4th arrondissement. As with Quais de Seine, Le Marais centers around a young man awkwardly flirting with someone he barely understands. Communication barriers and cultural differences play a role in both stories. The juxtaposition of these two shorts makes for its own statement on the potential of coexistence and the universal truths of human lives. We don’t need to view Islam or Muslims as inimical to western values. Not all Muslims have homophobia in their hearts. (LGBT people who identify as Muslim and socially-progressive Muslims absolutely exist.)
In a country with a Muslim population of upwards of 15%, this remains a lesson worth remembering.
Muslims coexist with the rest of Paris. They have hopes and struggles and fears, just like everyone else. They desire liberty, equality, and fraternity as much as any of the other ethnic or religious groups that make Paris… Paris. In the wake of these tragic, senseless killings in Paris, I hope more than anything that lessons like those in Paris, je t’aime remain relevant, that Paris forever remains the city of love.
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