Showing love and desire in Arab films

MADRID — When the sun goes down and the heat lets up, Spaniards like to enjoy a film under the summer stars. This year, passions were burning high at one outdoor theater showing a series of films about love and sex.

Such a topic is not too surprising in progressive Spain, except that the venue was none other than Madrid's Casa Arabe, or Arab House. The summer theater installed on its patio showed a five-movie series during July called “Labyrinth of Passions: Love and Desire in Arab Films.”

Organizers say they are trying to challenge cliches about Arab and Islamic societies and that they believe Spain is uniquely positioned to promote relations with the Arab and Islamic world.

The Moors’ almost 800-year presence in these lands, a time of alternating peace and war, left a rich legacy in Spanish language and architecture. Many Spaniards have last names of Arabic origin and Morocco is only nine miles from the Spanish coast.

“In Arab and Islamic imagery, Spain is the most credible and friendly country in all of Europe," Casa Arabe's website states. "Spain refrained from participating in the colonial adventure of the great empires."

Casa Arabe's director, Gema Martin Munoz, said they wanted to show how Arab societies treat love and desire. "It may surprise some because the stereotype that the Arab world is monolithically puritanical and ultraconservative is widespread, but that’s only one aspect, though the most publicized in our societies,” she wrote in an email. “Often the tendency is to think that what is not known does not exist.”

The showings are free of charge and were standing room only. The movies — "A Cup and a Cigarette" ("Sigara wa kaz"), "Insomnia" ("La anam"), "Dunia," "Marock" and "Satin Rouge" come from Tunisia, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco and France. They explore love, desire, jealousy and complex relations.

“Satin Rouge” played to an audience that waited up to an hour in line for a seat. Once the movie started at 10 p.m., some unlucky souls stayed on to watch through the wrought-iron fence surrounding the complex.

“Satin Rouge” is a 2002 Tunisian film directed by Raja Amari which tells the story of a widow and strict mother, Lilia (Hiam Abbas), who rediscovers her sensuality while belly dancing in a cabaret. She leaves her house silently at night to conceal her dancing from family and neighbors living in a conservative society.

In an early dressing room scene, a cabaret friend recalls how her custom-made bra burst in the middle of her dance. “It must have been horrible,” Lilia says. “No way, men loved it. A piece of tit, 147 dinars,” quips her friend, laughing.

Spanish women fanned themselves as hushed comments passed from ear to ear among the moviegoers. A soft breeze shook the trees in the patio. The hum of traffic outside the gates droned in the background, broken occasionally by a passing siren.

The plot soon thickened. Lilia winds up having sex with her daughter’s boyfriend. No explicit nudity is shown, but the gasping of the passion scene silenced spectators’ whispers. Desire pouring out of the outdoor sound system enveloped the whole patio.

“The sex scene totally took us by surprise,” said 30-year-old Laura Chapado, after the movie. She and her friend, Paloma Gonzalez, also 30, said they liked the initiative so much they were planning to attend other movies that week. “This is a delicious environment. It’s so nice to watch a movie outdoors, in this beautiful patio, while having a tea to connect with the culture of the film we’re watching,” Gonzalez said.

Others went for the cold beer, which can be purchased in the cafeteria housed within the Casa Arabe’s ornate, neo-Mudejar brick building dating from the 1880s.

“The Tunisian society in the film is no different from the one I lived in here, in Spain, when I was a kid,” reflected 57-year-old Juan Goberna. “Spain has changed a lot in two generations, but our traditional Mediterranean society was very similar to the one in the movie,” he said. “This goes to show how a person can see a very deep change in society within his lifetime.”

Robert Batal, a Lebanese man here with his 18- and 20-year-old daughters, said the movie was “excellent.” He and his daughters sometimes attend activities at the Casa Arabe.

The Casa Arabe and the International Institute of Studies of the Arab and Muslim World was inaugurated a year ago as a meeting point for Arab and Muslim countries and Western nations — “a space of mutual awareness and shared reflection,” reads its website, to contribute to countering “stereotypes, bigotry, fears and suspicions [that] have all made inroads in the last few years, aided by such theories as the clash of civilizations.”

The house features an Arabic-language center, a sociopolitical observatory and a socioeconomic forum. With one center in Madrid and another in the Andalusian town of Cordoba, Casa Arabe and the institute do research, hold economic and business forums, teach courses and house exhibits and seminaries.

The 13-part documentary series “Nexos,” about Muslims around the world and inspired by the United Nations’ Alliance of Civilizations, was presented here a couple of months ago. Spaniards as well as embassy officials from some of the Arab countries that will broadcast the series attended. After the presentation, hors d'oeuvres were served. No Spanish cured ham in the canapes, though no shortage of wine and beer in this meeting ground of cultures.

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