Theseus in Bezness

I would like here to re-visit the case of Bezness. Not the practice of it, no, but the movie by the same name as written and directed by Nouri Bouzid. But first let me explain my interest.

I was first introduced to the film in a class I took on Arab Film and Music. It wasn't until after already enrolled that I discovered the class was to focus specifically on Tunisian film (and some music), which at the time I thought had to have been some divine act of irony, considering I've had a long-standing interest in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco since first learning of the Alhambra in an AP art history class and later of morisco and Sephardic marran literature from a former Spanish professor of mine at FAU. However, a candid interest doesn't help on a quarter system where in three months one needs to review, dissect, analyze, and interpret enough information to comfortably fill a year-long class. Especially in the case of interpreting and analyzing both the information and the interpretation of it- activities which, for me at least, take quite a bit of sustained thought and time to digest- the convergence of worries around other classes, around my job, my living situation, starving, and the ever-looming question present in the minds of those at the end of one stage nervously looking backwards and forwards as they get nearer and nearer to change, "Where do I go from here?" all crowded out most deep thoughts and led to me superficially grasping in my papers at any topic I could glean from the overflow of ideas so as to get some grade and move on. However, like a puzzle whose solution remains so seemingly simple even as it hovers just around the edges of understanding, many of the movies stayed with me to prick me to aggravation from just under the surface. They stayed secreted away in my mind, the issues they addressed and the questions they raised wrapped away in some dark recess to ferment and digest like a caterpillar in a cocoon as I carried on the rest of my life. And so it is here, after re-visiting many of those movies that left the strongest impressions on me, that I would like to re-address certain topics of interest or parts that evaded my understanding in the initial milieu of information. Bezness is just one out of four- a quadruplet series of films all linked by the contributions of Nouri Bouzid- but it is the first one I'd like to take another gander at, to see if maybe this time around I can actually address certain points of interest and interpret their import in some beneficial way.

Now, for me, in literature, in movies, even in conversations, the parts that inevitably pique my curiosity the most and incite focused cryptography attempts are always those incongruous bits and phrases which seem to so conspicuously stand apart from the flow of things. Sometimes these are so-called Freudian slips- subconsciously brought up or added because they "feel right" or "seemed right" at the time- and on an intellectual level these are fascinating glimpses into the social and personal psyche of a person. However, sometimes they are intentionally added for the purpose of jolting the reader, viewer, or listener from the easy melody of plot or theme, inserted like railroad spikes into nodes interrupting the regular procession of events like "shards of metal dropped from eight-story windows." Bezness itself could be said to be a film where the nodes- per Ralph Ellison, "those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead"- in the sinusoidal progression of the movie become more apparent than the plot itself. I say sinusoidal progression because, instead of the well-known formula of introduction to a problem, development of the problem, crisis, denouement and conclusion, Bezness flows more in a rhythmical jazz pattern where the story itself is composed of multiple problems, crises and denouements, all with no real resolution. Yet, even within this syncopated ensemble there are still exceedingly off-beat moments that stand out in contrast and one of these is the allusion, about a quarter of the way through the movie, to Theseus.

In this scene Roufa and Fred- two of the film's tripartite main character- are arguing after Fred is caught eyeing some Muslim women and insists that the women have no problem with his advances, only the men. Roufa demands that Fred "proche pas nos femmes- c'est sacrée!" Amused, Fred looks over at him and replies "Tu resembles Thésé." Roufa looks confused and asks "Qui?" to which Fred smiles even more and says simply, "Thésé." Roufa pauses, then laughing it off tells him "Taissez-vous toi-même!" With this, the movie's continuity is restored again and they continue on their way, the bizarreness of the moment seemingly passed. However, three-quarters of the way through the movie, as Roufa is breaking down at the disappearance of Khomsa- the feminine part of the film's triumvirate- he enters an upscale hotel lobby with a decorative niche holding a small statue of Neptune. The niche and its votive are both so small they would be skipped over if not for Roufa's pause as he enters and his comment, "Neptune- toi aussi m'ambandonnes?"

As I watched the movie two, three, four times trying to piece together some analysis of it, this began to stand out to me more and more. Why Theseus? Of all the characters, why him? Of the many heroic ideals of Greek manhood, why Theseus- strong, wise, womanizing, intelligent, and adventurous Theseus with his illustrious genealogy, the ill-remembered founder of the Republican tradition in Athens- as a point of comparison (and for that matter why a Greek manhood)? Was Bouzid making reference to the millenia-long history of constant contact between North Africa and the countries along the Mediterranean, specifically ancient Greece, which since the Renaissance has been uncritically touted by Europe as the seat of their "superior" civilization? Was he highlighting that too-often overlooked reality of Arabophone Tunisia's history as a reminder? Perhaps he was utilizing the familiar rhetoric of just who exactly it was that disseminated throughout Europe those Greek and Latin texts that sparked that region's scientific advancements in the first place? But then, why the comparison to Theseus specifically? There is a scene in the middle of the movie where Roufa seduces a Frenchwoman by skillfully playing to Orientalist tropes of the insatiable Arab lover, and then, after a shadowy scene of her falling prey to this figment of her imagination, he returns home to Khomsa with the Frenchwoman's ring as a token of his sincerity. Sandwiched in-between Fred's comment about Theseus and Roufa's plea to Neptune, this scene began to scratch at my brain even more. Didn't Theseus, as a way of proving himself, descend into the ocean to return with a ring from Poseidon? Why this re-telling of it, though? What does Orientalism, struggles between retaining a sense of culture and Eurocentrism, and rampant misogyny- the tripartite themes of the movie corresponding to the triply divided main character's faces- have to do with ancient Greek myths of Theseus?

I couldn't even decipher my own thoughts on the matter at the time- there was too much to unpack, too much that might possibly be right but that had no feeling of certainty or definite backing to it. Even now there's still quite a bit that could be unraveled just from this line of ideas alone, but from this yarn I'd like to remove a single thread. Just one, and it was a lead that occurred to me while reading Octavio Paz's El Laberinto de la Soledad. Consider this: To navigate the twisting and turning vicissitudes of life, men often are raised to see their options of being divided into either the Bull or the Theseus of the labyrinth- but are these two things really so vastly different? The Minotaur, after all, is half man as well, and a similarly divine progeny. In the labyrinth of his own solitude what Theseus struggles with is- like Israel in the night, Buddha under the bodhi tree, Silver Fox with Coyote, or Gilgamesh and Enkidu- the jihad al-akbar, the struggle with the unconquered and (ultimately) unconquerable portion of oneself. But let me take this analogy a little further before I link it back to the film, and raise the question of the labyrinth itself. Certainly, the labyrinth is allegorical for the journey within oneself, what Paz alludes to when he claims, "A todos, en algún momento, se nos ha revelado nuestra existencia como algo particular, intransferible y preciosa.. . .Es cierto que apenas nacemos nos sentimos solos: pero niños y adultos pueden trascender su soledad y olvidarse. . ." This becomes the key of the Greek myth of the Minotaur and Theseus- but stop and wait a minute, think back and remember. Was it really Theseus who conquered the labyrinth? Who first, other than Daedalus (that tormented and selfishly paranoid genius inventor) intimately understood the nature and intricacies of the labyrinth, its secrets, its horrors, and was expertly skilled in manoeuvering through all of them? Who was it that knew so well of the Minotaur, his nature, his home and his habits? Whose sage advice and instruction was it that saved the day for Theseus and allowed him to return to tell the tale? It wasn't a man, en verdad, but a woman: Ariadne. Let it not be forgotten, either, the reward she received from Theseus for sharing her knowledge and for her assistance in helping him escape. The Minotaur would have been kinder than Theseus was. Which, then, is the beast and which the human being; who was it that really won out in that cavern hiding Minos' shame, and who was it that returned with Theseus' face?

Let's bring this back now to the issue of Bezness. If Roufa is Theseus- adventurous, clever, handsome Theseus who left Athens in the hands of his advisors to go roam the world and who was eventually stripped of all titles for his womanizing and reckless behavior unbefitting a king, eventually dying in disgrace- then it is not just the close-fit riddle of back alleys that confines him, but the labyrinth that makes up his mind. And certainly, the only person more alone than Roufa would have to be Khomsa. Roufa is surrounded by people, practically drowning in intimate closeness for his work, and yet, as he himself says, his life is empty of feeling, leaving him alone and- without the presence of Khomsa- feeling ancient. He works within the puzzle of survival, reality, and fantasy, selling dreams, as he calls it, in order to support his family. Fred, too, is lost within a similar maze, but intentionally chooses to remain deluded about his position in it while Roufa struggles between realization of it and refusal. Roufa's lashing out and thrashing about trying to make sense of this imbalanced tension in himself and the world around him tends to alienate him even further as he battles with himself and his place. As he does he becomes more and more lost and desperate, the cracks in himself becoming more and more apparent after losing the saving thread of Khomsa's presence.

In the movie both Roufa and Fred portray two sides of the same face, and in citing Theseus Roufa's emotional outbursts at the women around him become reminiscent of the Minotaur's bellowing wrath. Yet the distinction between the two- Roufa and Fred, Theseus and the Minotaur- is not so complete; as two parts of the same whole, Fred's constant scopophilia becomes as predatory and grating as Roufa's own interactions with women, and in relation to Khomsa both characters recall the uncertain quality of humanity referred to above that the heroic figure of Theseus embodies. Fred's personification of the Orientalist's desire to penetrate the veil of the "Other" is no less oppressive to Khomsa than Roufa and other men's demands to keep her closeted away and use her as a sacred figurehead. As such- caught on Pygmalion's pedestal as she is, alternately caressed, oggled, or physically repressed into cloistered silence- Khomsa, like Ariadne before her, is the master of the labyrinth of solitude that so wears away at Roufa and Fred. She is so out of necessity, and of the three main characters she alone seems to have the clearest vision of the trap that she is in and of the nature of the others involved in it. Following her monologue alone in her room- surrounded as she is by trappings that could either be displays of Tunisia's cultural expressions or exaggerations of them in a confused effort to piece together the real amidst distorted presentations of reality- and again in Fred's apartment- crowded and surrounded by blown-up photographs of her home, her country, her people, and herself out of place and on display- she reveals a clarity of vision in direct contrast to that of Roufa or Fred. Like both, she is looking for a way out. Yet while Fred fantasizes about the je ne sais quoi of exotic Tunisia and it's people and Roufa vascillates between dreams of conquering Europe like Tayyib Salih's Mustafa Sa'eed or settling down like the same character later did for a quiet life amongst his own, Khomsa has very little delusions about the ability of either Fred or Roufa to save her or themselves from their twisted predicament.

Perhaps this is why, then, with the end of the film comes her crowning victory, her escape. Like the light at the end of the tunnel she finds herself in a spiritualist- Sufi? traditionalist? something like a Hodoo-ist- gathering of women dancing to exorcise their demons and clear their hearts and minds. This area alone is bright with candles and light in the dark night, and this place alone is where Roufa and Fred cannot go to follow. Theseus won't save you, and the Minotaur will only eat you. Or, as the Trarza folktale of Mira and the lion has it, your brothers will only return you to danger, and the lion will still get his pound of flesh from you. In escaping from both Theseus and the Minotaur, from both brothers and the lion, Khomsa is able to escape, for a time, from the labyrinth while Roufa and Fred remain trapped within to face each other.

It's an incomplete analogy, and an even more incomplete analysis, of course. However, it's one that is far more interesting to me than following the overused notion that a movie from the so-called "third world" (and what a terrible label that is, so horribly telling about those that coined it) is obviously metaphorical for nation-state and the political. Despite having used this same formula in the past for papers myself, it's a stale idea that often feels like it falls extremely short of accuracy, and also appropriates the creative genius of the work in question for personal motives of re-representation. After all, Fred's camera is not the only weapon of distortion available to humanity.


How could you forget your ghosts?

Ghosts are memories from our past- collective and personal- that manifest when we forget them and the lessons they gave us.

Don’t tell me ghosts don’t exist- I’ve lived with ghosts for twenty-five years, and so have you, even if you refuse to admit they’re there.

They know you.

They fed you, they clothed you; they nurtured you in your lowest of moments and dragged you from Icarian heights of glory breaking your wings before they could melt and bring you soaring back to the ground like the Rock of the Kabbah.

They fed you tapas of delights from gardens of Jinnah and cursed you with tongues from Hell. For all of your life they’ve followed you, reminding you, and yet you still claim they’re not there?

Where I come from we bury our dead above water- which means we bury our dead above ground-burning them to ashes in their tombs just to make sure that with the first heavy rain we don’t find them back at our door.

Where I come from we live this close to death; we live this close to the ghosts of every sinful mockery of liberty our ancestors perpetrated. The Myrtles Plantation is just an hour away; one of the most painful reminders of the Evil of that place is that it resides by a town with the Natives’ name. And every corner of New Orleans groans with ghosts of the slave trade. Tour guides make profitable livings on the pain of the City by showing off old French Quarter mansions where slaveowners performed human experiments of such unbelievable cruelty even the racist police were forced to arrest them (but only for a little bit) and psychotic murderers resided scott-free until the moment they happened to kill a white man or woman (but most just stuck to the minorities which in this City are such a majority the true minority didn’t mind their decrease).

Don’t tell me ghosts don’t exist- have you ever walked in a City such as this? Have you ever felt the pain and the stink and the years in these streets, reaching up through stone and shattered cement to palpably grab at your feet and force you to stay-

Sit down.

Listen a while,

And watch.

The ghosts move about with the rest of us, and constantly reach out to touch us to make sure we never forget the past.

So how did you forget them?

Don’t tell me zombies aren’t real.

I’ve lived this close to them; I’ve even met a few. I’ve shaken their hands and looked into their deathly eyes.

You’re going to say you’ve never met someone who walked, talked, spoke, and acted alive but when you look inside it’s plain to see there ain't nothing there?

Where I come from zombies are a part of life- in fact, it is this life that makes them that. Not a Voodoo priestess summoning Papa Legba with an albino python sedately coiled about her neck watching for the moment of death- but the drain of living from check to check, the drain of living when you have nothing left, the pull of the Black Hole reality that makes up debt and life in a society where it costs too much just to survive; where you’re segregated first by your looks, and then by your goods, and then by your way of life.

Where I come from we know Saint Michael the Archangel is really Papa Legba, and Our Lady of Mercy Obatala; we understand without knowing how the significance of the Face of Death on All Hallows Eve and again the following All Saint’s Day. We pour out our liqour for lost soldiers and loa and light cedar incense and leave out sugar just to keep them away.

Where I come from we know what snakes are for and what pictures of the saints keep hidden. Voodoo and Hoodoo were the slave woman’s Genesis- her escape from patriarchy and liberation from white colonialism. The Marie Laveauxs of their day and age used their white female counterparts’ pettiness and wealth to increase their power and increase their station- always remaining Black, but with sly Understanding and Knowledge reversing their roles so instead they were the Masters, and their curses live on to this day in the dead weight of Louisiana’s masses.

Don’t tell me zombies don’t exist- I’ve seen them preen and prance down there on Miami Beach. I’ve passed them by avoiding their glance up in Oakland and San Francisco; I hitched a ride with one up in San Mateo and skirted the Evil Eye of several down in New Orleans and South Central. They’re everywhere you can find a warm body wrapping up the cold inside to keep the scent of Death that might scare off their next prey from coming through.

I know zombies are real-

and they’re waiting for you.