Table of Contents
GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ once defined magic realism as the way in which his grandmother told stories to him; even when nothing made sense, he believed her every word, first because she was his grandmother, second because she told her story with such conviction that he didn't dare question her. In
Women Without Men
, Shahrnush Parsipur too becomes the master of ceremonies. She creates her own universe where no outside rules apply. She makes you believe the unbelievable with such ease, subtlety, and grace that you don't dare doubt her. She unleashes a dead woman and brings her back to life; she plants another woman to grow as a tree; the men in a
brothel suddenly become headless; a woman gives birth to a flower and they fly off to the skies.
It's difficult to summarize my personal journey, the six years I spent in the process of adapting this magnificent and majestic novella into a feature film. This exhilarating and, at times, painful experience became my entry into Shahrnush's wild imagination. I was first drawn to this novella because of its visual, mystical, and allegorical force. Unlike in any other contemporary Iranian literature, Shahrnush's style of writing achieves a universal significance while remaining fully authentic to its local cultural context.
Essentially, I found that at its core,
Women Without Men
has a powerful and paradoxical arc that traverses various notions of opposites: magic/realism, nature/culture, local/universal, men/women, mystical/political. Shahrnush situates the city of Tehran as a point of entry to all sorts of cultural, sociopolitical, and historical realities, while the orchard functions purely on a metaphoric level. Not unlike the Garden of Eden, this orchard becomes a utopian island, a place of exile where women may take refuge, as long as they respect its rules. When in the city of Tehran, fully conscious of time and place, we delve into a specific country's cultural and collective political crisis. But once inside the orchard we abandon all logic of time and place, and face the deeply existential and personal crisis of a few women.
Women Without Men
into a screenplay and balancing the allegorical versus the sociopolitical tendencies of the narrative proved to be a lengthy and complicated
process. Together with Shoja Azari, and in consultation with Shahrnush herself, we discussed and analyzed the novella's characters, symbolic intentions, and narrative plots endlessly, and how we might best translate them into a film. We faced many barriers, including the fact that magic realism is notoriously difficult to turn into a screenplay. Among other obstacles were how to develop the stories of five main characters with equal importance into a single narrative. Each female protagonist was unique in her socioeconomic background, and emerged with a radically different emotional and moral predicament. Even more challenging, some of the characters were fully realistic while others were highly allegorical. So along the way, we had to make difficult decisions such as eliminating one of the characters, Mahdokht, who was the most magical protagonist among the women. (In 2003 I made a video installation devoted to Mahdokht). We also took other liberties and expanded the historical and political aspects of the narrative, most specifically the CIA-organized coup of 1953, which remains in the background in the novella.
But the difficulties didn't stop there.
Women Without Men
had been banned in Iran, and Shahrnush herself lived in exile. Therefore, we had to abandon the idea of shooting the film in our native country. We took on the challenge of recreating Tehran and Karadj in Casablanca, Morocco, where our wonderful team took meticulous care to bring Shahrnush's fantastic images to life and beautifully captured the life of Iran in the 1950s. Ultimately
Women Without Men
became a genuinely international effortâa
German, French, and Austrian production, directed by Iranians, and shot in Morocco.
Most important of all, this beautiful journey brought me the gift of deep friendship with Shahrnush Parsipur. Throughout the six years we worked together on the film, I often wondered whether my motivation behind making
Women Without Men
was due to my devotion to the novella or to Shahrnush herself. I have always taken inspiration from Iranian women writers, and have often inscribed some of these writers' texts onto my photographic images. But my encounter with Shahrnush touched me profoundly, not only on an artistic, but on a personal level. The more I learned about her, the more I idolized her, her courage, strength, and ability to endure the hardship that life had imposed on her. In many ways Shahrnush embodies her own characters' anguish and pain, as well as their will to transcend suffering. With
Women Without Men
, Shahrnush reaffirms the simple truth that fragility and strength live side by side, and these attributes are volatile, precious, and endlessly female.
New York City
THE ORCHARD, VIBRANTLY GREEN and with adobe walls, backed up against the village at one end and bordered the river at the other. It was an orchard mostly of sweet and sour cherries. The villa, a mixture of rustic and urban architecture, sat in the middle of it. It had three rooms that looked onto a small reflecting pool, now green with algae and occupied by frogs. A gravel path flanked by willow trees surrounded the pool. In the afternoon the light green of the trees noiselessly competed with the dark green of the pool, a struggle that disturbed Mahdokht who had no tolerance for conflict of any kind and simply wished for a universal harmony, even among all shades of green in the world.
“It is a soothing color, but still . . .”
The bedstead was under one of the willows, two of its legs on the ledge of the pool. There was the possibility that they would slide off the slimy ledge, pulling the whole bedstead into the pool. In the afternoons Mahdokht would perch herself on this bed and contemplate not only the rivalry between the green of the trees and the pool water, but also the way the blue of the sky imposed itself, like the verdict of a divine judge, on the green of the orchard.
It was in the winter months that Mahdokht thought of engaging in knitting projects, or taking French lessons, or going on a guided world tour, because the winter air was pure and breathable. In the summer, on the other hand, the air was laden with smoke, dust, pollutants from cars and people, and a depressing feeling from large windowpanes unable to keep out the heat of the sun.
“Goddamn, why don't these people understand that those windows are no good in this climate?”
Such thoughts brought on a wave of sadness, making her prone to accepting the invitation from Houshang Khan, her elder brother, to join the family in the orchard where she had to tolerate the children who screamed all the time as they gorged themselves with cherries giving themselves diarrhea and eating yogurt at night as antidote.
“The yogurt is from the village,” her brother would say to indicate its high quality.
“It's outstanding,” she would concur.
The children always felt cold to the touch and looked
pale, although they ingested more food than appropriate for their age, and later “barfed,” as their mother said.
Earlier on, when she was a teacher, Mr. Ehteshami would say, “Miss Parhami, please file this form there . . . Miss Parhami, ring the bell . . . Talk to this janitor, whose language I don't understand.” As principal, Mr. Ehteshami seemed to enjoy having her as assistant principal. She did not mind the arrangement either. But then one day he turned to her and said, “Miss Parhami, Would you like to go to the cinema with me tonight? There is a good movie playing.”
She went pale, not knowing how to deal with this forwardness. What did the little man think? Who did he think she was? What was his intention?
Now she understood why the female teachers suppressed their smiles and pursed their lips every time Mr. Ehteshami talked to her. They must have sensed something. But they were wrong about her. Now she would show them who she really was.
She quit the job without notice. However, when she heard a year later that Mr. Ehteshami had married Miss Atai, the history and geography teacher, she felt such a tightness in her chest as if her heart was about to burst out.
“My problem is that Father has left too much money behind.”
That was the case. The next winter she knitted for the first two children of Houshang Khan. Ten years later she was knitting for five of them.
“I wonder why people produce so many children.”
“I can't help it,” returned Houshang Khan. “I love children.”
Really, what could he do? He can't help it, she thought.
She had recently seen a movie with Julie Andrews in it. Julie's character had become involved with an Austrian man, the martinet father of seven children whom he ordered around by blowing a whistle. Julie had first intended to join a convent but had thought better of it and married the Austrian since she was expecting his eighth child, especially since the Nazis were marching on Austria and there were many uncertainties.
“I am as tender-hearted as Julie in the movie.”
She was right. She wouldn't hurt a fly. Besides, she had fed four hungry dogs in the street and had given her brand-new topcoat to the school janitor. When she was a teacher, in compliance with the Public Centers Program, she had visited the orphanage three times, on each occasion she had taken several pounds of pastries for the children.
“What nice children!”
She wouldn't mind if some of them were her own. They would always have clean clothes and no snot running down their faces. They would also use the proper term to refer to the bathroom.
“I wonder what will become of them.”
This was a tough question, especially since the state radio and television had made statements on the need to do something about them. Both Mahdokht and the state were concerned about the orphans. What if she had a
thousand hands and could knit five hundred sweaters a week?
“Two hands per sweater,” she figured, “so one thousand hands would equal five hundred sweaters.”
But a person cannot have a thousand hands, especially Mahdokht, who loved the winter and took daily afternoon walks during the season. It would take five hours or so to put one thousand gloves on one thousand hands.
“No,” she reasoned with herself, “with the first five hundred hands I would put gloves on the other five hundred hands and then repeat the process. Three minutes or less. That's all.”
This is not the real problem. It is up to the government to set up a factory and produce sweaters as needed.
Mahdokht dipped her toes in the pool water.
The first day of her visit she waded in the river. The ice-cold water made her muscles ache. She immediately withdrew, fearing that she might catch a cold. She put on her socks and shoes and strolled toward the greenhouse. The door was open and a rush of muggy air greeted her. Several years ago Mr. Ehteshami had said that breathing greenhouse air is salutary as plants generate oxygen during the day. But that day there were no plants in the greenhouse as they had all been taken out to the orchard and planted in flowerbeds. She walked in the narrow passageway looking at the dusty panes of glass enclosing the greenhouse. She heard a struggle and heavy breathing, something feverish, hot, and scorchingâand sensed the smell of bodies.