Coloured Cliché, Moving Language

Posted on Jan 6, 2016

Coloured Cliché, Moving Language

Nefise Özkal Lorentzen

Gender me_English_TSNEF_Balloon_iTunes_Poster_ENGLISHManislam_English_TS

As I was just about to rush out for a film application for Norwegian television, I had a feeling that I had forgotten all the necessary documents at home. I had no time to rummage through my bag, so I ran towards the bus with all my strength despite my high heels slowing me down, and caught the bus just in time. All I wanted was to check whether I had left the documents or not. I stormed through the bus and collapsed on an empty seat next to an old woman. When I unzipped my bag, I saw my son’s Norwegian grammar notes instead of the documents and the pilot DVD of the film. As if she mapped out the whole chaos breaking out inside of me, the woman looked at me with a sweet smile as if to say, “These things happen”. Although we didn’t know each other, these grammar notes that brought the woman and me together, were about to take both of us on a new journey.


The poor woman felt the urgent need to talk to me about how she immigrated to Oslo at the end of World War II, and that her mother tongue was Sami. “I don’t know why but I cannot sing along when they sing Norwegian lullabies to my grandchildren. Melodies take me to my first tongue, Sami,” she sighed. The voice of the woman sighing reminded me of mothers of patients, sighing in pain at my mother’s consulting room. She was keeping the days of immigration of the 1950s in the shadow of her eyes while I was working out my route on the dusty streets of Erzincan, in eastern Turkey in the 1970s.


I was only six when we moved from Ankara to Erzincan. The family pictures I was drawing suddenly changed into new ones. The father figure had gone far away. I started drawing only my mother and myself at home, adding a few children with IV lines attached to their heads. I welcomed my new family, my mother and me and sick children.


One day, I heard my mother complaining to a friend: “The people in town want a male doctor. They are not used to a female doctor. We might have to leave the city.” These words frightened me deeply. Patients abandoning us meant drawing new pictures, and I had no idea how to cope with this change. I dashed out to the street to hunt down patients. To make my hunt easier, I was ready to use the small, sweet-smelling ladybug, watermelon, apple, pear, ball and triangle-shaped erasers my aunt had bought for me.


I approached women walking in the streets with their children and told them how sick their children looked. I showed them my mother’s consulting room, telling them that a new doctor had arrived in town who could cure every disease. Most women didn’t get a word of what I said because they spoke only Kurdish. Some of them patted me on the head, some smelled all of my erasers and pocketed a few of them, others bit on an eraser and spat it out, bewildered; while yet others told their kids to pick their fortune as if they were fortune erasers. Just as I was losing all hope, one of the mothers in the street said: “Show me where the new doctor is.” I felt that I was undertaking the greatest job of my life. I showed her the way and took her to my mother. The daughter of the woman was a redhead. She had a purple patterned robe and was my age. I was talking nonstop while she didn’t speak a word. I gave my spring-smelling ladybug eraser to her.


Years later, my mother told me the story of this patient. The girl with the purple patterned robe was an only child. Four sons born before her died of a disease. The family thought that it was the evil eye that caused their death. They came to think that everybody envied these baby boys because women mostly gave birth to daughters in the village. When the fifth baby also turned out to be a boy, they kept his hair long to keep him away from the evil eye and dressed him in a girl’s clothes. And they called him İmdat (Help!). Growing up with all these protective rituals, İmdat stifled himself to silence and did not speak until age seven.


There were many things that I failed to understand in this city. All the relatives of patients called my mother “Mr. doctor” while the beautiful-haired İmdat was disguised as a girl. They were masculinizing my mother within their discourse in order to benefit from her knowledge. It was impossible for a woman to know this much and cure diseases even Allah cannot help with. Or, from the perspective of the townsmen: A husbandless female doctor is to be taken into a jeep from her home in the dead of the night to cure a child with a temperature soaring up to forty degrees. They drive next to this woman for half an hour in pitch-black until they reach the village, and tell her about the patient on their way. What about the morals and the customs of the region? The best way was to not look this doctor in the eye and address her as if she was a man. This pragmatic solution had given my mother a new identity, but it wasn’t easy for me to make out this complex system at the time. The most important thing I learned in Erzincan was the volatility and diversity of the concept of gender.


When I finally arrived at the office of the Norwegian television company, the absence of my project file had opened up a wide new horizon for me. I now knew how to build this trilogy on Islam and gender. The films were going to speak a language far from that of a documentary, blending dreams and reality and constantly asking questions like an innocent child. I decided to mix up clichés and metaphors glued in our minds and make use of animation to further accentuate the mystery of real life.



The first film of the trio, Gender me, is on Islam and homosexuality. The story is told by Shahrazad. One Thousand and One Nights is a common reference point for both the East and the West. But the Shahrazad in my film is telling a tale we have never heard. A Tale of One Thousand and Two Nights! This tale is about the real-life experiences of those who are both Muslims and homosexuals. Shahrazad is an animation character, but the stories woven with her are real-life stories. The film offers a rich variety from the story of the black American homosexual imam to the mother who enfolds in her arms her son who works as a drag queen, welcoming his sexuality.



The second film is about women and Islam. The cliché that I came up with this time was the colour green. The link between green and Islam is an unavoidable fact in Islamic art. It was as if emeralds in the Topkapı Palace, the delicate green leaves on miniatures and green cloths in mausoleums, were all telling me to do something that seeks out green. When I was a child, I wouldn’t weep when my helium balloons slipped out of my hand, thinking they would now take my wishes to Allah. It was as if balloons carried a secret bond between Allah and me. I named the film early on: A Balloon for Allah. I had interviews with prominent scholars such as Nawal el Saadawi, Gamal al Banna and Asma Barlas.


Just as I was thinking that the scenario of the film was set, I was invited to a party organized by Norwegian left-wing writers. Most Norwegian women were moaning about Norwegian men. One of them said precisely this: “We Norwegian women are so strong that men cannot stand us and therefore marry foreign women to assert their masculinity. Many Muslim women are already used to being told off, so our men look like they are sent from heaven to them.” All of a sudden, I realized that there was no other Muslim woman married to a Norwegian in the room, feeling a cutting pain in my heart. Whatever I did would be of no avail. No matter what I did, I would still belong to a group of oppressed women deprived of their sexuality and libido, unable to use their mind. Under the influence of wine, the white feminist discourse took a turn into power talk, moving far away from women’s solidarity. I was just about to join the conversation, but realized that I didn’t have enough acid adjectives to use.


I had similar experiences among immigrants as well. Even if I got blood out of a stone, they would say, “Blood came out of the stone because you are married to a Norwegian.” Meaning, I did not exist. I had no mind, language or capacity to succeed in my work. Inspired by all of these knotty emotions, I wanted to create a tool to measure the suppressed sexuality within, destroyed mind, rubbed out soul and battered personality.


In this film, the tool would be animation. I was ready to make use of my own body to measure every cliché surrounding Muslim women in the East and the West. I usually make the utmost effort to respect ethics in fictionalizing the stories of people I interview for my films. But I had no intention of taking such pains for myself. My purpose was to mirror clichés, not be angry, and develop a friendly approach to easterners or westerners who don’t think before they speak and who are unable to produce new stories out of those clichés. This annoying dinner invitation had silenced my words but stimulated my creativity.



In traditional film plots, there are “good” characters whose stories we want to tell and “bad” characters who put obstacles before them and who also spice up the story. Dramaturgies for both of the previous two films, Gender me and A Balloon for Allah, were laid before me like an open book. Everybody was out there, the good and the bad characters and those who twisted the knife in the wound that had been bleeding for so many years. The fate of women and homosexuals was one and the same, but the problems they had to solve were created by men. However, when I started the film Manislam, I realized that there was no predefined plot to help me easily communicate with the viewer. The reason was that the shooter and the shot, the ostracizer and the ostracized, the weeper and those who make others weep, were of the same gender. They were both men. I had never been challenged this much with any film.


The preliminary work took a very long time. At the end of a long-term research, I started to work with four very special men I found in Bangladesh, Kuwait, Indonesia and Turkey. My aim was to present their reformist activities to the public. Juxtaposed with heads cut off by the recently spawned ISIS, what my Bangladeshi friend İmtiaz Pavel did looked unreal. However, İmtiaz has been working selflessly for years to raise awareness among sex workers, and among men to curb the rising number of child brides.


Indonesian Syaldi Sahude was no different from İmtiaz. He dedicated himself to educating men and to peel off the hidden and hardened crusts of violence one by one. These two men focused on grassroots education, while Kuwaiti psychologist Naif al Mutawa continued to work on an upper level. The characters he created for the comic books called The 99, inspired by the 99 names of Allah, were in a way the Muslim brothers of Superman and Batman. The main goal of Naif was to present real human values to the young Muslim generation. During the shooting of the film, Naif drew criticism from both Islamists and right-wing extremists. Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa against his comic book characters in The 99. For the first time in history, fictional characters were threatened with death.


I started to tell the Turkish story in the film to theologian İhsan Eliaçık. I was really intrigued by the Anti-Capitalist group founded under his leadership as well as his definition of Islam and power relations. I immediately turned towards Istanbul when I heard that the group also included Deists. Unlike the exclusionary discourse, they were highlighting an inclusive concept of Islam that welcomes diversity.


All of a sudden, I found a similarity between what these four different men did: The story of David and Goliath told in all three holy scriptures, which helped dissolve all of my worries about the film. I now found a new cliché and was ready to retell the cliché from a different perspective. David manages to stand out from the herd and rebels against the despotic power Goliath with a sling stone. He started to enter my life through the twenty-minute meditations I practiced in the middle of the day.


I started to write about all the pictures I had seen, and built Manislam on this cliché. The David I was going to include in the animation section of my film was one of the many men living inside embryos. Men with an undeveloped consciousness were unborn babies to me. So I connected these unconscious men to an imaginary ship through their embryonic cords. The image I wanted to create was actually a mixture of a carriage and a ship. This ship was so different from traditional ones because it drew all of its energy through its embryonic cord. The ship created catastrophe everywhere it sailed. The mini men were moving like slaves, not looking back inside their bags or questioning where they were going, hence unaware of the disaster they caused behind. One day, David sees a butterfly. He follows the butterfly only to turn his head around and bear witness to all the injustice committed behind. This epiphany forces him to break out of his embryo and try to stop the calamitous ship.


In this trilogy I tried to illustrate with clichés. I wanted to reinterpret the never-heard-before 1002 tales of Shahrazad, the yet undiscovered emerald of Islam, and the awareness demonstrated by David. Actually, the primary resource of this creative process was the grammar notes of my son, which I accidentally put in my bag instead of the project files. On the bus I sat next to a woman of Sami origin who talked about her mother tongue with a sigh. She took me on a journey of a decade in a trilogy of language, religion and gender.


You never know who will inspire whom, where and when.

Translated from turkish by Merve Pehlivan

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Nefise Özkal Lorentzen is a Turkish-Norwegian writer, filmmaker and producer. She holds a B.A. in political science, and a M.A. in media and communication from the University of Oslo. She has written and directed numerous documentary films, often touching upon controversial issues related to Islam.