Interview
01 Mar 2019

I am a woman who loves men -- an interview with Algerian film director Rayhana

I fight for women’s rights because...if things are so good for men, why would they change things on their own? 

Wysokie Obcasy
Anna Pamuła Wysokie Obcasy, Global
 I am a woman who loves men -- an interview with Algerian film director Rayhana  - NewsMavens
Rayhana, YouTube

The following selections from Anna Pamuła’s interview with Rayhana originally appeared in the Polish weekly Wysokie Obcasy in July 2017.

Anna Pamuła: I’ve read that you have two mothers.

Rayhana: I don’t know which one is my real mother. My father belonged to the mujahideen fighting for Algerian independence from 1954-62. After the war he lost an eye and met a Dutch physician named Connie in the hospital. They became close and likely got drunk one time and landed in bed together. She became pregnant, but he was already married to an Algerian woman.

Each woman told me that I was her daughter and both told me in detail about the process of my birth.

So I have two mothers, and I love them both enormously. I wouldn’t want to know which one lied to me, which is why I’ve decided not to have a DNA test, and I tell myself that they did this out of love.

AP: How far back does your memory reach?

I spent my first years with my Algerian mama, but for school I moved in with Connie. My Algerian family was illiterate, but they cared about my education, so they sent me to be raised by the doctor.

Both mothers were very affectionate toward me, though they also beat me. My father, too. I remember how he once caught me with my hair down after leaving school. I didn’t have to wear a veil, but my hair always had to be tied up. He had no mercy. He dragged me home and cut it short.

But my worst memory is of how my mama punished me by putting hot pepper paste into my vagina. I was eleven years old. She told me to do some shopping and it was a hot day, so I went outside in shorts. When I got home and she saw my bare legs, she started to scream. She grabbed me and told me to sit on a chair and then pried my thighs apart and put harissa in there. I don’t even remember how much it hurt.

AP: Your film, “I Still Hide to Smoke” (2016), is based on a play that you wrote and directed. There is a scene in the play in which the heroine retells the same story.

When I was young, it was normal -- mothers grabbed their daughters between their legs or put harissa in there. I wanted to put it into the film, but the French producer didn’t agree, so we left it out. It was very important to us that we be able to show the film in Arab countries.

AP: How else is the film different from the play?

Unfortunately, I had to censor myself. I was afraid that someone would accuse me of stigmatizing Muslims. I added a line to the screenplay in which one of the heroines says to a radical Muslim woman, “Your Islam is not our Islam.” That wasn’t in the play.

I didn’t want anyone to accuse me of “Islamophobia.” Islam disturbs me as much as any other religion, and it is not the film’s main topic.

AP: Your film tells the story of about a dozen women who meet at a Turkish bath. [In your work, you've] covered almost every important topic in a woman’s life: marriage, pregnancy, confinement after childbirth, death, masturbation, her period, orgasm, virginity, love, sex, etc. Why do these things seem important to you?

Once I showed my work at a theater on the Champs Elysées. A discussion followed. I stood alone on the stage, when suddenly I heard tapping from off to the side: tap, tap, tap.

I could see a woman of around eighty years old, an elegantly dressed white French woman. She definitely had her hair done before the play, rouged her cheeks, and put on green eye shadow -- a beautiful older woman in a perfectly cut suit. She walked with a cane.

She came up to me and said, looking me straight in the eye, “Madame, I came to the theater thinking I would see Arabs, but instead I could see myself.”

And she walked away, tapping her cane on the wooden stage. Silence fell, and then all at once, everyone stood up in an avalanche of applause. The director of the theater signed a contract with me for twenty more performances.

AP: What did the French woman see?

I am sure she had experienced violence. Maybe her husband beat her. I regret that I didn’t manage to speak with her.

Lately during discussions following film screenings, someone always says, “It’s really bad for women in Algeria.” This bothers me, because, in my opinion, injustice toward women is happening all over the world, only in different degrees. Every two and a half days, a French woman is killed by her husband.  But there also exist leftist French feminists who assert, for example, that female circumcision is just cultural difference, so they cannot be opposed to it. This also irritates me.

AP: Why didn’t you use Algerian actresses?

At the beginning I sent the screenplay to actresses whom I trusted. But even for them, to show a scene at a public bath was too much. The bath is a sacred place where women are naked. I was also counting on the film being shown at festivals in Algeria, and that would have been impossible. The director of one of them even told me that the film was vulgar and filthy.

AP: Do you remember visiting the baths in your youth?

I rarely went, because I lived with my Dutch mama, who did not have that custom. As a result, it was an exotic place for me. But I went there often enough to see that Arab women were not embarrassed about anything at the baths.

AP: Women are naked, touch each other, but I would not call this a sensual film. You show the whole body as it is.

Some critics have even accused me of making a film that lacks sensuality, but I don’t want to dazzle people with the female body. They see it that way, because they are looking from a European perspective.

This is precisely a problem of Orientalism -- a group of naked women in a bath means automatically that something is going to happen, but these women are going there simply to bathe.

AP: Why did you choose a female cinematographer?

I wanted the actresses to feel free. That aside, I was counting on having a woman’s gaze. A male cameraman would definitely do more closeups of the body, the skin. He would show a woman washing another woman in a sensual fashion, but I wanted to have Fatima scrubbing her friend’s back so hard that her skin would be all red. I didn’t want the camera to be ogling the women. I specifically chose women who are not models, who do not have perfect bodies. They have cellulite and sagging breasts. Even the most beautiful among them, Hiam Abbas, shows stretch marks on her belly from several births.

AP: Do you like being a woman?

I love men and I adore my own womanhood! Now I don’t wear makeup anymore. Before, I was a real coquette. I had long curly hair and wore dresses.

AP: “I am a woman who loves men.” That’s what you said in one of your interviews.

We can’t love each other, truly love each other, if we don’t have equality. I fight for women’s rights, because without them we will not be able to change our mentality. After all, if things are so good for men, why would they arrange things differently on their own? The law must be forced upon them.

Once an Algerian woman could not leave the country without her husband’s permission; now this law no longer applies. A year ago, a law forbidding domestic violence came into effect, all thanks to the work of female political activists. A man can be punished now. I am certain that our struggle is right, though it takes a great deal of time. More and more women work, and more women study at universities than men. On the other hand, Islamists have grown in power, so more and more women are also moving backward, radicalizing.

***

Rayhana (b. 1964) – Algerian actor, director, and playwright. She has lived in France since 2001. Her play, “At My Age, I Still Hide to Smoke,” in which she made her debut as an actress and director, achieved great success in French theaters. In 2017, she made a film under the same title.

Translated by David A. Goldfarb

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