Between Lebanon and Persia…

Watched a couple of movies yesterday to hasten the cue along: Towelhead and Persepolis. The first I had meant to see on what I figured would be a very short run in Michigan (I think it was at the big theater for all of a week), and missed. The second I had been meaning to see last year, pretty certain it would win the Oscar for best animated feature but Ratatouille won instead.

As far as Towelhead goes, I can’t remember a “mainstream” American movie with an Arab-American protagonist. It’s pretty obvious that it was directed and written by the guy who wrote American Beauty; music, editing, general theme of desiring something young and forbidden is similar. The movie’s ok, but not good enough to overcome some ickiness, including Aaron Eckhart’s creepy relationship with the young girl (she’s beautiful but not much of an actress) and a scene where her father pulls a used tampon out of the toilet, which probably raises some kind of new squeamish bar. But really, we’ve seen all this before, except for the fact that we’re dealing with an overbearing Lebanese father (as opposed to an overbearing Indian or Greek or Slavic or whatever father).

Persepolis is terrific, an animated autobiography about growing up in Tehran at the time of the Shah’s ousting. When I went to college in the same time period (1978-80), for some reason Weber State in Utah (I was there my first two years) seemed to have a huge number of young Persian women – there were about 5 in my dorm, and there were only about 40 women in the dorm total. I never got to know any, to my regret. One, Mojdeh – she went by Mary as a sop to western laziness – was extremely beautiful. She never wore a hijab (the others in my dorm did) and seemed more aloof from the regular abuse that the other Iranians dealt with daily. I was a mess at this period in my life, but I’m still not sure why I didn’t ever strike up a conversation. I’ve always been fascinated by other countries, particularly those of the middle east. From the time I was a little kid I was drawn to Arab and Persian cultures with their gorgeous abstractions, rich colors, and general sexiness. But it was fashionable to rag on people from this part of the world. So while I had been raised to not indulge in outward baiting (thank you Mom and Dad), I wasn’t going to rock the boat with an open friendship with one of “those people.”

Another woman, Farzineh, did wear a hijab – I of course had no idea it was even called that until I made friends with Muslims in Michigan, for which there’s ample opportunity. One night, a friend whispered to me, “What do you think would happen if she took that thing off? She’d probably have a baby.” I laughed. Later that night, Farzineh pounded on my door with rage in her face. “What did your friend whisper to you? I know you were talking about me!!” I played dumb, then finally said, “Look, he said he wondered what would happen if you took your veil off.” (Yes, I called it a veil.) “And I laughed, because I’ve never seen you without it. That’s all.”

Later I did see her in the bathroom hijab-less. She was completely transformed, not a beauty but pretty and with beautiful hair. The low hijab that doesn’t show any hair, like a nun’s wimple, only flatters a few very specific face types. Longer faces tend to look awful in it; I had to play a nun once, and can testify. I told her how pretty she looked, partly because I was startled but also, I’m sure, out of guilt; I may have been a young jerk, but I really hadn’t wanted to hurt her. From then on, we always greeted each other with smiles, but I never did get to know her.

Persepolis does a brilliant job of taking away that layer of exotica and painting a great portrait of childhood and adolescense in turmoil. I’m sorry I never got to see Tehran back in the day. It must have been something, and the movie hints at that lost time. But what the movie shows in full force is show that raw emotion – parents’ love for children, childrens’ belief that somehow things will be ok, and true free-falling terror of being a teenager – is universal. Not an earth-shattering thesis, but one so true that, when stated well, can be stated again and again.

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