“Refracting an Orientalist Lens
The instability and performance in Moufida Tlatli’s The silences of the palace”

Author: Laura Rice

DOI: 10.1080/07407700701246299
Publication Frequency: 3 issues per year
Published in: Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, Volume 17, Issue 1 March 2007 , pages 37 – 57


In her 1994 directorial debut, The silences of the palace (Samt al-qusur), Tunisian filmmaker Moufida Tlatli invokes various modes of representation—traditional oral performance, Western theatrical conventions, filmic modes—in telling a multilayered, retrospective story of cultural and gender oppression/expression. The contemporary moment of the film, circa 1962, demonstrates the complicated nature of gender politics in post-independence Tunisia. The flashbacks record a moment in the early 1950s when the country was on the verge of independence, ridding itself of both the rule of the decadent beys who had become disconnected from the people, and of the French colonial ‘protectorate’ which confiscated land, conscripted men, and marginalized women. The reverberations of likeness and difference that Tlatli sets up between upstairs and downstairs, rich and poor, male and female, conservative and revolutionary, past and present, individual and communal, private and public, local and global are largely accomplished through visual mirroring, musical echoing, and narrative repetitions that block binary interpretations and create analogical sympathies across the divides. While many critics have viewed the film through an Orientalist lens, The silences of the palace resists stereotypical readings: no myth of colonial progress, no escape or rescue from the harem, no pre-colonial nostalgia, no miraculous revolutionary change. Tlatli has created a space visualized largely through female performances and perceptions, and this alteration in perspective calls patriarchal, colonial, masculinist and Western frames of reference into question as the traditionally male, Western ‘task of the translator’ has been shifted to women, and especially to a young girl who struggles to interpret the performance of daily life she witnesses.

In her 1994 directorial debut with The silences of the palace (Samt al-qusur), Tunisian filmmaker Moufida Tlatli invokes various modes of representation—traditional oral performance, Western theatrical conventions, filmic modes—in telling a multilayered story of cultural and gender oppression/expression in the era of Tunisian national independence. The story is set in a palace inhabited by relatives of the last Tunisian beys—Si Bachir, his wife La Memia and their children Salim and Sarra; Sid Ali and his wife La Jneina, an elder Bey (father of Si Bachir and Sid Ali), and various unnamed relations. Events in the palace are seen from the point of view of the servants who inhabit the ground floor of the palace—Khalti Hadda (the senior servant), her son Houssine, and a group of women servants (Khadija, her daughter Alia, Mroubia, Habiba, Schema, Fella). The main protagonist, Alia, is played by two actresses who depict her as a young woman of 25, and as a girl of about 15. The story of the ‘silences of the palace’ is told in retrospect by the adult Alia who has come back to the palace she fled ten years earlier. Through flashbacks, Alia remembers the moment when the country was on the verge of independence around 1952, ridding itself of the rule both of the decadent beys who had become disconnected from the people, and of the French who had confiscated land, conscripted men, and marginalized women. Although official independence was won in 1956, the contemporary moment of the film in the early 1960s demonstrates the complicated nature of gender and cultural politics in post-independence Tunisia: gender equity has not taken hold in practice, a nouveau riche bourgeoisie imitates, with less elegance, the decadence of the beys, and the Orientalist biases of the French protectorate have been reincarnated in a more widely deployed Western imperialism. Tlatli creates doubled and self-contesting meanings in the film by showing that this revolution involves no unidirectional, linear movement from oppression to expression for her characters: not for the Tunisian beys who ruled under the thumb of the French colonial protectorate, not for the Tunisian male revolutionaries, not for the servants of the palace kitchens, not for the women living in a patriarchal society. While many critics have viewed the film through an Orientalist lens, The silences of the palace resists this reduction through its complex texture. Tlatli’s film creates what Foucault has called a heterotopic space that, by virtue of its very existence, exposes the normative smokescreen that has allowed the West to perceive its own received ideas as essentialized realities, to mistake a Western metaphor of the Orient for the orient itself. The Oriental architecture and decor of the film provide a seductive environment for these misreadings and even encourage them. But Tlatli has created a space visualized largely through female performances and perceptions, and this alteration in perspective calls patriarchal, colonial, masculinist and Western frames of reference into question as the traditionally male, Western ‘task of the translator’ has been shifted to women, and especially to a young girl who challenges the received ideas she finds about power, gender and agency.

In The silences of the palace, the female servants who inhabit the kitchens and lower rooms of the palace embody, in their interactions, the Tunisian traditions of popular performance. During much of the film, they carry out their chores in a halqa. As Moroccan performance artist Fatima Chebchoub comments, halqa defines not only ‘a group of North African performance forms that take place in a circle or demi-circle of spectators’ in public squares but ‘also the open space on each floor of a traditional Arab home that is surrounded by covered galleries’.1 The interior space of the palace kitchen, ringed by enormous arches of white stone and bare plaster, centers around the low wooden tables and benches where the servant women sing irreverent popular love songs, chop vegetables, prepare couscous, brew tea over charcoal in clay kanouns, gossip, fight, and weep. Upstairs in the ornate salons where the architecture of space is somewhat similar to yet far more rigid and stylized than downstairs, the beys and their wives lead lives that are highly formalized and deeply hypocritical. They play their social roles as dignified married couples charged with ruling the country and providing models of male honor and female modesty, while behind this façade the politically impotent beys long to rid themselves of their complicity with the French invader, the men cheat on their wives, and the wives suffer indignities and seethe with jealousy. We observe their aristocratic performances as the female servants often do, with the distance of a spectator looking through the 4th wall. Using a mode of representation available to her through film—montage—Tlatli moves repeatedly between the popular circle in the kitchen and the elite ceremonial space on the floor above. The reverberations of likeness and difference that Tlatli sets up between upstairs and downstairs, rich and poor, male and female, conservative and revolutionary, past and present, individual and communal, private and public, local and global are largely accomplished through visual mirroring, musical echoing, and narrative repetitions that block binary interpretations and create analogical sympathies across ideological, class and gender divides. Her deft handling of three modes of representation maintains the instability of interpretations. If Western-style theater tends to colonize the space of representation, popular performance rather serves the interests of decolonization by pulling representation into a space of contestation where particular representations or enactments are always destabilized by what they have excluded. It will be argued here that Tlatli has composed her film in such a way that she can, at one and the same time, both critique the gender politics of the region and destabilize the neo-Orientalist readings of her work that this gender critique might inspire. She achieves this dynamic of contestation within the film by building architectures of interpretation. Outside and beyond the narrative of the film, Tlatli engages in a second level of contestation as she addresses the wider frameworks of creation and reception impacting the film.

Tunisia, similar to the other countries of the Maghreb and the Middle East, has a long history of performance traditions, as Deborah Folaron explains:

the storyteller-oral narrator in Tunisia, known as rawi, fdawi or meddah, was highly respected and appreciated by both the traditional Islamic elite (including caliphs and walis) and the popular classes. These narrators were often itinerant performers, wandering on foot from city to city . … Their narrating performances—highly theatrical by virtue of their techniques of imitation and impersonation of a variety of characters—usually took place in sessions or ‘circles’ (halqa).2

The circle of observers, attracted by the music of bendirs and flutes, would gather around two or three narrators and their puppets who, in turn, engaged the public by provoking them with questions, making them participate in the recounting of the story. ‘Theater’, on the other hand, at least proscenium theater, as Tunisian writer Mohamed Aziza (aka Chams Nadir) has pointed out, ‘is often seen as a genre imported from the West along with colonization’ (Aziza 1975, 7). In the tradition of halqa, the spectator is part of the circle; this form of spectacle ‘closes the gap between the gaze and the object of the gaze’ (Ibid.). Western-style theater, on the other hand, lacking the instability and dynamism of performance, is characterized by an aesthetic distance and a reification encouraged by practices such as the 4th wall convention. Tlatli’s film plays on the disjunctions between the conventions of traditional performance and Western theater in order to complicate and enrich the interpretative range of her film about Tunisia and about the ways the public sphere and private lives intersect.
While Deborah Kapchan in her study of the halqa-style performances of market women in Morocco defines this discourse as limited to the public sphere—’the hybrid quality of marketplace genres (the intertextual and intergeneric borrowings between religious quotation, bargaining, hawking, swearing, storytelling, and divining) set them apart from the more intimate, mono-sexual, and ritualized speech events of the private domain’3—Tlatli complicates that reading of the halqa by transferring its operation to the private sphere. The performances of the women in the kitchen of the palace are highly variegated, as they include vulgar jokes and repartee, popular songs, heart-breaking soliloquies told through intimate close-ups of particular narrators, political commentary, life histories, and shifting communal narrations typical of halqa performances. Several key observations Khalid Amine makes about the halqa as a pre-colonial tradition and a post-colonial form of theater in Morocco are germane to a reading of Tlatli’s film. As Amine notes, ‘the circle is deeply rooted in the morphology of Moroccan architecture as well as the social imaginary of the Moroccan [and North African] people’ (Amine 2001, 56). The geometry of space in North Africa gives the circle pride of place: the nomad’s douar is a circle of tents; the Arab house is a series of rooms that all facing inward around a central courtyard.4 Inside the palace of the beys where the film was shot, the communal spaces are ringed by arches, and/or windows from other rooms, looking onto the central space. At times Tlatli also films scenes in mirrors which also create a heterotopic space that reflects back on the central space. While the halqa found in the market place has one or several actors in the center who engage the audience, the halqa in Tlatli’s domestic space tends to be a circle where the performance shifts from one member to another. When Tlatli’s camera focuses on the semi-circle of women singing, joking, or grieving, as they put their life experiences into words, we become members of the circle given we see only half the table filling the foreground of the shot; we find ourselves sharing the table with them. ‘The audience of a [halqa] performance maintains a dual focus,’ Amine explains:

attending to what is said and done, and how it is accomplished . … No fourth wall with hypnotic field is erected between the stage and the auditorium . … [The halqa] is ‘characterized by the making of a spectacle as a process in motion rather than a final product presented to a passive consumer. (Amine 2001, 58)

Amine argues that because the halqa is built around a need to implicate others and negotiate relationships, it is a process that ‘reformulates cultural values and self-knowledge as it engages its audience in constant role-playing’ (2001, 57). The ‘ritualized speech events of the private domain’ Kapchan speaks of actually take place upstairs in the beys’ salon where ‘public appearances’ must be kept up. Just as the public halqa, according to Amine, ‘functions as an entertaining social commentary—that sometimes amounts to parody—on what is going on inside the circle [of power in the medina]’ (2001, 56), the performances down in the palace kitchens provide ample commentary on the lives of the beys above them. In a similar reversal, Tlatli also destabilizes unselfconsciously Orientalist readings of the film by giving viewers an overstated exoticism upstairs in the palace and an unadorned look at the servants quarters down below. We see performances that play out in the palace mainly through the eyes of young Alia who is innocent enough not to have internalized the normative operations of power, old enough to be in danger from them, and stubborn enough to be continually sounding the silences of the palace in order to understand what has been excluded.

Architectures of Interpretation

Already in The silences of the palace, I felt a need to speak of the past and the present. I think there is a deep bond, a secret, mysterious thread between generations. I use flashbacks because this is something which is part of my way of understanding the world. Our desires and fears secretly come from our parents and our grandparents who transmit their traditions and sufferings to us; and we carry the latter like a wound or a force throughout our lives. (Moufida Tlatli)5

The narrative of The silences of the palace, told in strict chronological order and linear fashion, appears to be a straightforward ‘escape from the harem’ tale. One of the two main female protagonists, Khadija, is brought to the palace in La Manouba where some relatives of the Bey of Tunisia reside. At age 10 she has been sold to the beys by her family who promise to come back on Friday, but every Friday they fail to show up at the gate. An older servant, Khalti Hadda (Aunt Hadda), hides the beautiful girl from the roving eyes of the men upstairs. The sons of the family, Sid Ali and Si Bechir, marry. Sid Ali’s wife Jneina is barren. Si Bechir’s wife Memia gives birth to a son, Salim, and a daughter, Sarra. The same night Sarra is born, Khadija gives birth to her daughter, Alia, as Sid Ali paces around in the servants’ courtyard outside her door.

Sarra and Alia are good friends; the former is rich, privileged, and lives upstairs, while the latter is poor, illegitimate, and lives in the kitchen. Alia is as beautiful as her mother. As she enters puberty, she attracts the attention of Sid Ali who is proud of her beautiful voice, and the attention of Si Bechir, his son Salim, and Khalti Hadda’s son Houssine, all of whom look upon her as sexual prey. When Khadija tries to protect Alia from the predatory Si Bechir, he rapes her within sight of the girl. Alia becomes mute, but the ethic of care among the female servants, the friendship of Sarra, and Khadija’s gift of an oud (lute) return her to life. At this time, she falls in love with a young revolutionary, Lotfi, who is the tutor of Salim and Sarra. Lotfi is being hidden from the police by the servants of the palace. On the evening of her wedding engagement, Sarra, dressed in traditional white satin, gold-embroidered keswa—a short bodice and harem pants gathered at the ankle—sits on a raised platform while the bride’s maids, including Alia who is wearing a beautiful dress that is a hand-me-down from Sarra, sit on the stairs. The beys are in a separate room that looks onto the central salon; they are playing poker and smoking, dressed in ceremonial jibbas and red fezzes. Sarra and Salim’s tutor Lotfi, dressed in a suit, is watching them. Sarra asks Alia to sing for her, and by extension for the beys and their guests. Alia’s rendition of Umm Khalthoum’s ‘Sing for me, a little, a little, and take my eyes’ causes the crowd to fall silent and listen attentively:

I sing songs to inebriate my listeners
To make the branches on the trees shake
And the narcissus and the jasmine
To attract sailors from village to village …
I’ll display the wonders of my art
Men will explain it to the djinn
Those who leave shall tell those who arrive
Song is the life of the soul …
The darkness of the night becomes
The light in the eyes of lovers.

When the song ends, the palace is silent except for the sound of a fountain.

Confronted by the cruel stares of the elaborately dressed and bejeweled women and by the admiring gazes of the men, Alia assumes agency for her performance by singing the forbidden anthem of the revolution, ‘Green Tunisia’:

Green Tunisia seems in a daze
Its sadness bursts out in flashes that shake the sky and extinguish the stars
Cherish the suffering of those who have fallen so that the illumination may spread
On their foreheads, after torment, a light appears
On yours was written shame and defeat
You have handed Tunisia over to the enemy.

At this point the camera focuses on Sid Ali, who sympathizes somewhat with the revolutionaries and is amazed by Alia’s daring, then on Lotfi, the revolutionary who has encouraged her to take agency, and finally on the crowd of aristocratic guests who stand up and walk out enraged. As Alia sings the lines—

Plunged for a long time in darkness the despair of the doves obscures the domes
But under the ashes, an ember burns for every loving heart

—the camera shifts to Khadija who is aborting a child (fathered by either Sid Ali or Si Bechir). Khadija dies, but Alia escapes from the palace with Lotfi. Upon hearing of Sid Ali’s death ten years later, Alia (played now by an older actress) returns to the palace for the funeral.

By opening her film with a scene that echoes Alia’s earlier ‘escape from the palace’, Tlatli denies stereotypical ‘rescue paradigm’6 readings of her film. From the first shots, we are encouraged to draw parallels between Alia’s life as a ‘free’ woman and Khadija’s life as a captive of the palace. Alia, a woman of 25 who now defines herself as a ‘failed singer’, has been hired to sing at a bourgeois wedding being held in the rented space of the Chalet Vert; the event is a pale imitation of the engagement celebration mounted by the aristocratic beys. Faced with a sea of indifferent female faces and overwhelmed by the ironies, Alia stops singing Oum Khalthoum’s ‘Hope of my life’ and leaves the stage. She dons her fur coat and goes outside to a waiting car where she reports to Lotfi, with whom she lives outside of wedlock, that she has faced the usual sexual harassment while performing. She is pregnant, and Lotfi wants her to get yet another abortion. Instead of going to the scheduled doctor’s appointment the next morning, she returns to the palace, which she left ten years earlier, because she learns that Sid Ali has died. There, as she wanders through the corridors, stairwells, rooms, courtyards, and gardens of the palace, she remembers her childhood and her quest for answers about her father’s identity. She finds Khalti Hadda, now old and blind, in the servants’ quarters, and together they explore the past. The story we learn about life in the palace in 1954 or so, is actually a composite memory interwoven by Alia and Khalti Hadda and seen through their eyes. In the final scene of the film, alone in the empty palace garden, the adult, pregnant Alia says: ‘I thought Lotfi would save me. I have not been saved’. She then addresses her late mother, telling her, ‘like you, I have suffered . … This child has taken root in me. I feel it bringing me back to life, bringing me back to you. I hope it will be a girl. I’ll call her Khadija’. The power of relationships among women, rather than merely their powerlessness, is at the heart of Tlatli’s film.

The images of women as they appear in films directed by Tunisian women, sociologist and filmmaker Sophie Ferchiou argues, deny simple escape and rescue stereotypes. While male directors who claim to be making ‘realist’ films ‘present Arab women as passive actors’ and as ‘female victims’, female directors are able to ‘cast a critical eye on their culture’ while avoiding the female victim stereotype in their characters:

In their films, one certainly finds ‘female victims,’ but one discovers as well the systems of compensation and the strategies of resistance in the subaltern cultures used to oppose the dominant ideologies.

What makes Moufida Tlatli’s film The silences of the palace powerful is the discovery of the familiar universe of women, their forms of solidarity and their specific systems of defense.7

In shifting the traditionally male, Western ‘task of the translator’ to women, and especially to a young girl who has just reached puberty, then, Tlatli opens a space of inquiry about the logic of normative social relations. The series of flashbacks that tell the story of Alia’s birth and her coming of age focus on the community of women whose songs, laughter, and stories of pain, fear, desire and hope suggest a resilient, resistant world. Tlatli’s sure-handed camera captures the beauty of the architecture of Tunisian interior spaces as they are seen through the eyes of Alia. As she walks around the palace, the camera cuts between the opulent upstairs apartments of the Beys with their painted ceilings, gilt mirrors, and tiled walls, and complicated carved plaster designs, and the servants’ quarters where furniture is at a minimum, the mirrors are mere shards, the rooms relatively bare. These flashback scenes foreground Alia’s relationship with her mother. As a child and an adolescent bent on discovering the identity of her father, Alia engages in acts of reconnaissance. In these scenes, the camera often puts us looking over Alia’s shoulder as she slips down hallways, peers from behind curtains, and or skirts along walls to spy on her mother. We see the seductive, dangerous and privileged world of men with power both through her adolescent eyes, and through our own knowledge of sexual predation and of the adult Alia’s struggles with her personal life. Shots of mirrors, stairways, arches, and doors become liminal spaces between past and present, between the Alia that was and the Alia that is. Other visual echoes undercut binary readings of the film. For example, the bey Sid Ali and the revolutionary Lotfi use exactly the same body language at key moments in the film: Lotfi gently puts his arm around Alia in bed when he is trying to convince her of the wisdom of yet another abortion; Sid Ali gently puts his arm around the barren La Jneina in bed following the birth of Khadija’s illegitimate child Alia. In both cases, the gesture is caring and sincere, despite the gender issues involved. The oud and its music are associated with Alia’s self-expression in twin scenes where Khadija, and then much later in the film, Sid Ali watch Alia play it in the attic where she has gone to be alone. But the oud is not a simple symbol of self-expression, as it is also the focus of a scene where Alia, clasping Sarra’s forbidden oud to her chest with the pregnant gourd of its belly protruding in front of her, is intercepted and verbally threatened and harassed by Sarra’s older brother, Salim. In another echo, both the young Alia and the adult Alia share a body language in the film (rubbing their temples, for example) but the gesture is overstated and the actresses do not really resemble each other very closely. They are, and are not, represented as the same person. Similarly, while Khadija and Alia are clearly represented as different people, much of the films’ dramatic power is based on the fear that Alia will suffer the same fate as her mother, and this is reinforced by a number of parallel scenes in their lives. Khadija’s mother love is clearly both a ‘wound’ and a ‘force’ in the life of the child who resembles her so closely. The composed nature of the film (the use of montage, striking decors, artistic transitions between past and present, quiet melodies played on the oud as a kind of musical overvoice in the narrative) heightens our awareness that we are watching a performance, but the riveting acting, especially by young Alia (Hend Sabri) and Khadija (Amel Hedhili) continually pulls us back into the fictional world of the film.

Spatializing the representation in this way allows Tlatli to condense the lived experience of the servants into compelling narratives while at the same time providing the distance needed to examine the social order. As Marc Brosseau and Leila Ayari note in an essay on place and gender in novels by Tunisian women, artistic works (literature in their analysis) are built on a cultural geography that simultaneously condenses experience and destabilizes interpretation:

On the one hand, literature condenses: indeed, it absorbs, recreates, sorts, constructs, reproduces, and distorts various aspects of our experience of the social world . … On the other hand, literature also disperses, a notion that points to its social and cultural relevance and significance. Literature … reveals the beauties and atrocities of the human condition, critiques the social and political order, and disseminates alternative understandings of what constitutes the ‘established reality,’ all of which are open to reinterpretation in different cultural contexts. (Brousseau and Ayari 2005, 275)

Tlatli foregrounds, in intimate detail, the emotional lives of the female servants, but simultaneously, her carefully orchestrated mirroring of scenes, events and sounds continually remind us that we are witnessing a performance.8

Tlatli’s questioning of a reductive ‘cycle of oppression’ reading of the film is achieved by her depicting male privilege through the female gaze, by her exposition of adult dramas through adolescent understandings, and by her reflection of exterior politics by means of a poetics of interior spaces. She often pairs scenes so that they become refractions of one another. For example, one of the first flashbacks happens when the adult Alia goes down to the deserted kitchen and suddenly it fills with song. She is a child on the edge of menarche, sitting around a large, round, wooden table in the evening, drinking tea, singing a folk song, and enjoying the warmth and mutual support of the kitchen. The scenes that follow seem to be generated by the song as they echo its lines:

The nightingale sang on the tree.
I fell asleep at its feet.
Love pangs took hold of me.
I jumped out of bed
to look for my [wine] glass.
I called the servant to prepare the feast.

At this point, Cherif, a short fat man who is the husband of one of the women, comes stumbling in drunk. One of the women tells him to ‘hang onto his beard’ (for example, walk a straight line), to which he retorts: ‘I hang onto God’.9 The irreverent repartee then moves to sexual innuendo with Cherif trying to snuggle up to one woman after another and his wife begging them to please take him. The laughter and joking awakes Khalti Hadda’s son, Houssine, who is the main disciplinarian of the lower floor. When he tells the women to quiet down, one replies: ‘So Khalti Hadda, your son is a bey?’ He, in turn, asks if she’ll be ready to wake him up at 6 am. She shoots back: ‘Even earlier if you like. I’m a living alarm clock’. ‘Just for the first floor,’ he retorts. ‘Ass,’ she replies. Houssine no sooner takes Cherif off to sober him up than Sid Ali comes downstairs and observes: ‘It’s lively in here. That’s good’. Then he asks Khadija to bring them a drink upstairs. After he leaves, one of the women comments: ‘I envy them’. Under Alia’s suspicious eye, Khadija prepares some bowls of nuts and goes upstairs. A silence has fallen in the kitchen, because the command to ‘bring us a drink’ is often the signal to be available for sexual intercourse. Alia doesn’t quite understand the silence. She shadows her mother as she walks down a dark, long, red-carpeted hall and spies on them from behind heavy curtains. Khadija, whose eyes are downcast throughout the scene, pours glasses of wine for Sid Ali and his guest, both of whom fix her in their gazes.

Implicated as well in the destabilization of meaning, the Oriental interiors of the film are, at one and the same time, both real and aestheticized; they encourage and resist easy Orientalist explanations. The opulence of the upstairs, with its empty formalities, decadence and unspoken emotional resentments, is juxtaposed to the animation of the barren kitchen. Luxury is upstairs; life is downstairs. The servants envy the beys their wealth and power; the beys envy the servants their spontaneity and mutual support. These paired scenes and architectural symmetries make us question whose interpretations are exercising dominance, whose realities are being forced into the service of others. Condensation occurs in a number of the scenes concerning the personal life of the servants. Khadija’s despair is palpable when she discovers she is pregnant after being raped by Si Bechir and sleeping with Sid Ali. When Khalti Hadda asks her if she wants to chew on some coal (to control the nausea), she erupts and shouts at the others in the kitchen: ‘Leave me alone. I hate myself. Everything disgusts me. I hate my body’. Alia, the first illegitimate child, watches from the shadows as her mother tries in various ways to abort the fetus. Alia is watching as a girl on the brink of womanhood who is in danger of the same fate, watching as a girl who hasn’t been able to get her mother to say who her father is. Dissemination occurs as well especially in those scenes where the beys’ power is revealed as a façade. The French have compromised the beys by repressing and killing the local population, so the beys are planning to run away to a farm to escape the revolution, but even their servants are listening to ‘Green Tunisia’ down below in this kitchen.

These fragments of memory invoked by the adult Alia and Khalti Hadda include an architecture of performance: in addition to the scenes at the beginning and end of the narrative when Alia sings at weddings, scenes where the female servants sing folk songs as they work, and scenes where Sid Ali, Sarra or Alia play the oud, there are interventions by radio—Egyptian news reports about the revolution going on in Tunisia, old love songs, Umm Kulthoum singing ‘Do you remember’ and the forbidden anthem ‘Green Tunisia’, there are paired scenes where Khadija and Sid Ali listen to Alia perform her music in the attic, and there are paired scenes when Khadija and Alia are asked to perform for the beys. When Khadija is made to perform a belly dance to entertain the guests of the beys, including two French dignitaries, she forbids Alia to go to the ‘party’, telling her to go to bed instead. Alia disobeys. Clad in her nightgown, she sits with Sarra in a recessed window overlooking the salon. They both are enjoying the festivities from afar when the belly dance begins: Sarra continues to enjoy the scene, but Alia is overwhelmed by shame and runs away. She goes to the bedroom of Sid Ali’s wife and puts on her make up and negligee, until Jneina catches her and throws her out. As soon as the dance ends, Khadija slips away to check on her daughter, who pretends she has been asleep in bed. Later, Sid Ali asks Khadija to have Alia come up to sing Umm Kalthoum’s ‘Do you remember’. This scene reverses their roles, and Alia borrows a dress from her mother, puts make up on at her dressing table, and later returns to find Khadija in bed. Their talent and beauty is what will cause their downfall.

Tlatli’s film, set as it is in a Tunisian palace, both encourages this stereotypical Orientalism and challenges it. Through her insider’s familiarity with the dissonances and echoes of this décor, Tlatli undercuts Orientalist interpretations in two ways: she encourages an Orientalist lens on objects that are clearly embedded in other cultural traditions, and she provides subtle references to Tunisian culture that may be lost on outsiders, but not on Tunisians. While at first sight the architectural symmetries and the exquisitely complex designs of the upper floors tempt viewers to see the film as exotically Orientalist, a more careful look reveals other sartorial, political, and aesthetic echoes. The female servants, when they go upstairs to serve at the ‘party’, are dressed as typical French maids in black dresses with short white ruffled half aprons. The beys wives are often dressed in sleeveless dresses and wear jewelry from Europe. The beys themselves alternate between Western suits and Tunisian jibbas. This sartorial ambivalence captures the larger political instability of the era. By the time the French forced ‘protectorate’ status on Tunisia in 1881, the Tunisians already had a sense of being a nation. While the beys were obliged to cooperate with the French (and by the end of the 19th century they were leading a bourgeois lifestyle in their houses built in Manouba, la Marsa, Carthage, and Sidi Bou Said), they resented the loss of power to the externally imposed French Resident G n ral. Nasser Bey (1906-1922) encouraged nationalist efforts to overthrow the colonial powers. His son, Moncef Bey (1942-1943) already had the reputation of being a prince of the people when he came to power. He formed a government sympathetic to the nationalists. During WWII when the allied forces ‘liberated’ Tunisia in 1943, Moncef Bey was accused of collaborating with the Germans and was exiled to Algeria and later died in Pau in 1948. He became known as ‘martyr-bey’ by his people.

Al Amin Bey (1943-1957) who was placed on the throne was called a usurper, but by the 1948, he too had contacts with the nationalists. Upon independence in 1956, he became King of the Tunisian monarchy—a status that lasted only until the Republic was declared in 1957. So the historical moment of The silences of the palace includes these ambiguous relationships between the last Beys, the nationalists, and the French colonial officials. The resentment of domestic servitude is not felt only by Khadija, then sold into service to the beys as a child, but by the beys as well who have lost their autonomy through indebtedness to the French. They too felt the violence of servitude that replaced the relation of equal sovereign states with one of economic and military domination. Like the servants in the basement, the beys played their parts and performed their roles, but as The silences of the palace suggests, the idea of revolution against the French was just beneath the surface of the beys’ cooperation with and cooptation by the French officials.

The aesthetic references in the film are also dissonant, although they seem uniformly Orientalist at first. For example, the bedroom of Si Bechir with its oval mirror above the bed and its satin bedcovers encourages every sort of stereotype about forbidden lustful practices taking place amid exotic décors; its exaggerated cultural stereotyping makes it a gloss on itself. The bedroom of Sid Ali’s wife Jneina seems, on the other hand, quite straightforwardly mimetic, but the Orientalist portraits of women that hang on either side of the bed are quotations from the world of nineteenth-century European art that jar the viewer back out into the world of representations rather than verisimilitudes. More strikingly, sets that seem at first to fit right in with the architecture of the palace and the mixed patterns of Orientalist paintings, are on second glance quite austere. Instead of gazing into the world of a Delacroix or a Matisse, we suddenly realize we are being faced with a Rembrandt. The series of flashbacks that compose the main body of the film are framed by a conversation between the adult Alia and Khalti Hadda in her room after Sid Ali’s death. The women are seen in profile, illuminated by a dim light. The wall behind them is sepia. Khalti Hadda’s black scarf contrasts sharply with the white pillow, and both are outlined against the earthy tones of the blankets and barren walls. A bowl of red apples on the bedside table in the lower left corner of the screen adds to the feeling that we are looking at a well-composed Dutch interior. Toward the end of the film as the political unrest outside the palace becomes more pronounced and Khadija has been raped by Si Bechir, the halqa performance space of the kitchen is punctuated by scenes where the lives lived in the kitchen condense into stories of individual tragedy. With the camera focused on her worn face, Mroubia (a name which suggests ‘domestic servant’), who has been embroidering her trousseau in many of the earlier scenes, delivers what seems to be a soliloquy: ‘I’ve been waiting so long. I’m getting old. I have roots all the same. My cousin came from far away and they slammed the doors in his face. He called before dawn and no one answered’. The braceleted hand of another servant appears from outside the frame and pats her shoulder: ‘He’ll come back. The next time, they’ll let him in’. The silences of the palace include these scenes of quiet desperation. When Khadija exclaims that she hates her body, her feelings of alienation and isolation are echoed in the close ups of women’s hands soaping clothes, scrubbing clothes, and kneeding dough. The silence is amplified by the dull repeated thud of dough on a board and by the absence of the singing that has filled the kitchen in other shots.

Some references in the film put Orientalist stereotypes to rest by their specificity. One Western reviewer of the film noted that Alia’s memories are ‘told in flashback—as she opens closets, drawers, and old wounds’. Many in a Tunisian audience would understand that Alia is not just rummaging around in a closet when she returns to the room she occupied with her mother in the past. One sign of women’s power in Tunisia, even the poorest of women, is that they often keep the keys to the large armoire that contains valued goods. Tunisian writer Hélé Béji captures the way the armoire serves as a repository of memories and reservoir for the imagination in her story L’oeil du jour, a memoir of sorts about returning to her grandmother’s house after having lived abroad:

After having opened the armoire, she disappears between the two open panels, bending inside, only her buttocks visible. I hear rustlings, the sounds of clasps, latches, keys, shufflings, boxes, silences, an extended confabulation between the armoire and old age, watching over one another without fail. Every day they indulge themselves with their treasure trove of organizing, linens, flounces, aromas, things forgotten, they inundate themselves, talk to themselves, become confused. I watch them secretly, unable to imagine the armoire without my grandmother or my grandmother without her armoire, leaning on one another, bent over as if in prayer amid the mute regularity and tranquility of linens, the indispensable and pointless rearrangements in infinite combinations, objects seen a thousand times that remain mysterious to me, brought out from the armoire during the night as if from an anti-Pandora’s box, remedies for all the ailments in the house, small priceless objects, useless scarves, handkerchief folded in triangles, curiosities, eau de colognes, slippers, spools, matches, small soaps, remnants of cloth, odds and ends, ashtrays for guests, crochets, devotional articles, weighty seals, over which she bends each day, inhaling their faithful and well-kept odors, and which she easily fashions in her own manner, lending them their extravagant allure, their unique style, as if in a potter’s workshop in a tower, my grandmother’s moving universe of comings and goings, of a thousand new beginnings. (Béji 1993, 12)

Khadija has an armoire in The silences of the palace, but one of the silences, the losses, that happen in the film is her loss of ever being a grandmother like this. This loss is underscored when Alia sits with the closest person she has to a grandmother, Khalti Hadda, and also by her reexamination of the silent artifacts in the armoire that tell the story of her past and her mother’s. While critics tend to pick up on the larger issues of performance such as the parallels between Khadija’s performance of the belly dance and the long Orientalist tradition of painting almehs, who dance to entertain, or the parallels between Alia’s singing to entertain and the qayna, a slave versed in music,10 many smaller performances expressive of the vitality of everyday life of the women in the kitchen, their jokes, their songs, their teasing, their charms and local medicines, their empathy for one another, get passed over. Like the silences of the palace, they are flattened out, reduced to one story: the story of the silence of oppression, the story of victimization behind closed doors. Tlatli’s film resolutely refuses this reductive reading.

Moving Outside the Frame

While the film is generally discussed only in terms of the end of the era of the Husseinite Beys (1705-1957) and beginning of the era of independence from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, Tlatli herself locates the origin of the film in the post-colonial present. In interviews, Tlatli has explained that the genesis of the film was a contemporary event. Tlatli was working as a film editor, a job that took her to Paris to edit films and to Algeria to be on location for filming. Her husband had no problem with her traveling alone and working outside the house.

But one day, she says:

‘with a child in my belly, I came home and realized how much easier it would be for my work if I could get someone to help with my child. When the child was born, following tradition, I gave her to my mother. She was a silent woman, incapable of saying no, although she already had to take care of four sons and a husband.’ Then one day her mother fell ill with Alzheimer’s. ‘It was a terrible shock for me’, Tlatli continues. ‘She went from one mutism deeper into another. I was riven with guilt. I am convinced she decided one day to end her life, it was so insupportable, exhausting, suffocating.’ … ‘It was only when she became ill that I realized the gulf between us,’ says Tlatli. ‘I abandoned my film career and spent seven years taking care of my mother and, by now, two children’.11

Given this explanation of the genesis of the film, it is interesting that a number of reviewers and critics have tended to reduce it to the theoretical metonyms (patriarchal kinship, harems, Islam) which Abu Lughod noted were so often applied to Arab societies by the West. In his ‘rescue paradigm’ review of the film, for example, critic Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle writes of Tlatli’s very Tunisian, very historically located, very secular film: ‘[Loss of childhood is] a wretched price to pay, and it’s just one of the tolls, Tlatli suggests, that Arab Muslim society demands of its women’ (my emphasis).12 In other reviews of the film, this patriarchy is described as being transferred from father to son, from Bey to revolutionary, we might say. Tunisian women are depicted as the powerless victims of this violence, a violence transferred from mother to daughter, from the woman who lives in virtual slavery to the woman who is only nominally free. While there is some truth in this gloss on the film, the silences of the palace do not translate mere passivity as some critics have claimed. Critic Mike D’Angelo says of the film:

The silences of the title are those of women, and this absorbing and affecting Tunisian film … is frequently silent itself; like its protagonist, it spends most of its time cautiously observing. A simple story of oppression and repression, set in Tunisia both during and following French rule, it’s most effective when simply contemplating the remarkably contemplative face of Hend Sabri, whose performance as the young Alia is both assured and riveting . … A passive protagonist can often be rather frustrating to watch, and the lack of dramatic momentum does occasionally make Silences seem longer than its 127 minutes, but both the characters and the palace’s architecture—and especially the ways in which the two relate—held my attention more often than not.13

The silences in the film are, at different times, strategic, exclusionary, protective, traumatic and tactical as well as being the product of enforced repression. Outside the film’s gender frame, as Tlatli pointed out, the suffering of our forebearers are carried within not only as a wound but also as a force in our lives: the silences that surround them are not only traumatic but protective as well. Outside the film’s cultural frame, a larger politics of interpretation is at work involving strategic and exclusionary silences of imperialism that the film encourages us to deconstruct.

In his groundbreaking analysis of colonial power relations, Edward Said observed that ‘the relation between the Middle East and the West is really defined as sexual’ (Said 1978, 309). In the colonial period, the Arab male was presented as a being ‘whose libidinal energy drives him to paroxysms of overstimulation’ (1978, 312). The Arab female, in French colonial ethnography, was seen as a Bedouin drab or an urban odalisque:

Some are of the opinion that woman among the Moslems is only an object of luxury, a sensual being, indolent and often bored, a bird whose aviary is the harem; others believe, on the contrary, that she is but a miserable servant condemned to the most laborious tasks, the slave of her husband, a convict whose penitentiary is the tent. (Daumas 1943, viii)

The Arab body politic, seen as combining the family traits of both male and female, is conceived of in colonial literature as so degenerate it could only, at best, learn to serve the interests of empire by becoming domesticated enough to provide the manual labor for the West’s civilizing mission. Tlatli demonstrates that during the nationalist period, independence did not lead to personal liberation; rather, patriarchal practices and attitudes continued to define woman’s place as in the domestic sphere, a fact that only becomes clear in the refracted violence impacting those who live outside the bonds of marriage and motherhood. Defining the civil status of women in terms of marriage and family signaled both advances in the rights of women, and continuities with the earlier Islamic and French colonial eras. Yet Tlatli’s own postcolonial positioning demonstrates that simply redefining domestic relations in terms of Western feminism, with its focus on individualism, does further violence to the more relational concept of identity that is at the heart of the halqa performance.

Tlatli set her film in one of the actual houses of the beys in Manouba, a suburb of Tunis. The play of mimetic representation and overt fiction is complex in her script. Hichem Rostom, who played the role of Si Bechir, recalls that the film contains an interesting mixture of fiction and fact. While Sid Ali is based on a real character who lived in the house and who had a number of brothers, the character Rostom played, Si Bechir, is a composite fictional character. Some of the more overtly fictional elements of the story—for example, the birth of two children, one legitimate and one illegitimate, on the same day—are, in fact, fact.14 The plot of the movie emerged in a very indirect way, according to Tlatli. After her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and came to a point where the only person she recognized was her daughter, Tlatli would drive her around the countryside and hold disjointed conversations with her. When her mother would grow tired and fall asleep, Tlatli would park by the sea and read a book or magazine until she woke up. One day, she brought a notebook instead:

I began writing down my thoughts about my mother. I then realized while my mother was sleeping beside me that she was in many ways a stranger to me. There were so many things about her life that were now closed off to me because it was too late to ask.15

Thinking about her childhood, Tlatli realized that even as a child she had been aware of the act of silence and silencing:

I noticed that when my father left in the morning, the entire house became animated. All of the women in the house had all kinds of interesting things to say. As soon as my father returned in the evening, silence once again fell over our house like a shroud.16

In an effort to understand her mother’s life, a mother who could no longer be asked directly, Tlatli asked those around her about what her life had been like:

That work was rewarding, and it was very useful for my characters. But I didn’t translate her life scrupulously because it would have pained me, I just tried to retranscribe it through the character Khadija, her joys, her pain, her difficulty in being a woman.17

Tlatli transposed her personal memories of growing up in a modest family in the seaside suburb of Sidi Bou Said into a tale of Tunisia emerging from colonialism at the time of the last beys as seen through the eyes of a young girl, a girl who embodies the future.

In his review of The silences of the palace for the British journal New Statesman and Society, Jonathan Romney opened by saying that the two recent films that came to mind as he watched were:

Chinese and Vietnamese—Zhang Yimou’s Raise the red lantern and Tran Anh Hung’s The scent of green papaya. All three are about women in servitude in enclosed, cellular societies on the brink of destruction—the Tunisia of the Boys [sic], feudal 1920s China, pre-war Vietnam—and all three are austere and measured in a way that’s generally alien to Western cinema. There’s the temptation to make the leap here into some spurious generalization about third world cinema and images of repression, yet these films do share important structures that shape their portrayal of the world. All set in huis clos households, they involve a literal inside and outside, a literal or figurative upstairs and downstairs—oppositions that their respective heroines (Vietnamese maid, Tunisian servant’s daughter, Chinese bride) have to resolve for and within themselves.18

The silence that is striking in this review is not the silence of the palace, but rather the silence about empire. Sticking only to the French empire here, both Vietnam and Tunisia, during the historical periods covered by these films, were suffering not merely from forms of internal degeneration but from the corruption of the French colonial system as well. The hothouse atmosphere of the upstairs of the beys’ palace, for example, is resting on a foundation permeated by the excitement of revolution that enters through news on the kitchen radio, popular ballads, news brought in from the streets by male servants, and finally by the hiding of Lotfi, who has a triple role as tutor to the bey’s children, revolutionary, and lover of Alia.

Tlatli is clear that she intended the narrative of Alia’s ‘escape from the harem’ to remain ambiguous. She has not escaped from patriarchy, she has not escaped from the larger pressures put on Tunisian society from conservative traditions that limits domestic society, she has not escaped from the outside pressure of Westernization. The singing that provided her way out of the palace has now trapped her in the role of public performer in a society that looks down on women who expose themselves in this way. As in the other countries of the Maghreb which faced the double challenge of decolonization and modernization, Tunisian civil status was based on two relatively different conceptions of the self. On the one hand, the constitution recognized the individual; on the other, the Code of Personal Status (CPS) rather conceived of the citizen as a partner in civil matters such a marriage, divorce, inheritance, child custody, etc. When a new CPS was promulgated under the leadership of Habib Bourguiba in 1956, it was handed down from above, and it granted Tunisian women many expanded rights and protections. It outlawed polygamy and repudiation while allowing women to file for divorce and increasing women’s custody rights.19 Women themselves were not expected to be critiquing the CPS. Laurie Brand has noted: ‘What is clear is that [Bourguiba] did not envision a Tunisia in which women themselves would make demands for further changes not first proposed by the president’ (Brand 1998, 180).

What this will mean for Alia is captured in the flashback when she first meets Lotfi. He is teaching her to write her name in Arabic on the blackboard. Once she has written Alia, he asks her what her last name is, and she bolts out of the room. The simple point is that she is illegitimate. The more difficult point is that she will continue to have no civil status even once the new nation wins its independence and endorses a CPS that is not only the most liberal in the Arab world, but which will rival the Equal Rights Amendment which the United States still has never adopted. Throughout the film Alia asks ‘Who’s my father?’ but the more crucial issue for Alia’s future is actually ‘what does it mean to be without kinship status?’ In Tunisian law, until quite recently, nationality could only be passed down through the father. In addition, partly as a prohibition against polygamous arrangements, children born out of wedlock had no civil status, even when the father wished to claim paternity. In Alia’s case then, having been born out of wedlock, she can claim no civil rights. Common events such enrolling in school or getting married required one to produce a birth certificate.20 So, Alia in the mid-1960s would have been a woman without a country, so to speak. And she would pass that status on to her unborn child, and knowing the identity of the child’s father will not rectify these things. So, while Lotfi is roundly criticized for not marrying the woman he encouraged to run away from the palace, the pressures on them both are not merely emotional or personal in nature.

Tlatli’s films tend to resist colonizing interpretations in order to leave room for her characters to negotiate their identities in relation to those around them in their community. Her approach to social change does not envision society as a contract between autonomous individuals—in the way that Western civil rights are often conceived. As demonstrated in her use of the traditional form of the halqa, Tlatli valorizes oral narration and the collective identity it negotiates:

the orally narrated text has the capacity to act either as a stabilizing force (consolidating, reaffirming and reinforcing identity and ‘roots’) or as a force of disruption, capable of change in order to deal with foreign elements encountered by the community.21

The halqa performances in The silences of the palace root gender and social justice in an ethic of care that is a defining characteristic of Tunisian social life.


1. From an interview on October 14-17, 1997 with Laura Chakravarty Box. See Chakravarty Box (2005, 17).

2. See Folaron (2002). See also M. El Houssi (1982).

3. Kapchan (1996, 2).

4. See Amine (2001). For discussion of the centrality of the circle to Bedouin life in Algeria and Tunisia, see Rice (2002, 2003).

5. See the MCM page: For an interesting discussion of Tlatli’s use of flashback and of sound and silence in the film, see Martin (2004).

6. See Cooke (2002). The rescue paradigm, concisely put, is about ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’ (Cooke 2002, 227). As Cooke explains, the ‘rescue paradigm’ is deeply political and not really about women’s rights in the end. The British invoked of the horrors of sati in India to achieve their political ends, and the Bush administration invoked the horror of the burqa in Afghanistan as an excuse for invasion. These rescue paradigms, Cooke notes, involve ‘the 4-stage gendered logic of empire: (1) women have inalienable rights within universal civilization; (2) civilized men recognize and respect these rights; (3) uncivilized men systematically abrogate these rights; and (4) such men … thus belong to an alien (Islamic) system’ (227).

7. Ferchiou, S. 1997. Image de la femme dans le cin ma feminine. Credif info (11) (March): 17.

8. As Elin Diamond has suggested performance is both a being and a doing: it must enact normative constructs such as gender, class, or cultural origin in such a way that an audience recognizes them. However, the very invocation of the conventions associated with social constructs simultaneously suggests that reality could be constructed otherwise. See Diamond (1996).

9. Tlatli’s secular depiction of gender relations in Tunisia in her film blocks the Western tendency to pass that happens in a Muslim country through what Marnia Lazreg has called the ‘reductive (and misunderstood) categories of religion’. See Lazreg (2000, 31).

10. Martin, F. 2004. Silence and Scream: Moufida Tlatli’s Cinematic Suite. Studies in French Cinema 4(3): 175-185.

11. See Lennon (2001).

12. Guthmann (1995, C5).

13. Mike D’Angelo, Review of The silences of the palace (Moufida Tlatli) on ‘Rotten tomatoes’:

14. Personal conversation, Tunis, December 2005.

15. ‘Moufida Tlatli, celebrating Tunisian life in film’,

16. ‘Moufida Tlatli, celebrating’.

17. ‘Autobiographie et fiction’ in the dossier de presse for La Saison des Hommes, Les films du Losange et Maghrebfilms Carthage.

18. Romney (1995, 33).

19. Charrad, Mounira M. 2001. States and women’s rights: The making of postcolonial Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Berkeley: University of California Press.

20. Largely through efforts by Tunisian women, the CPS now includes recognition of children born out of wedlock, and they have civil status through their mothers. Likewise, children now are eligible for citizenship through both male and female parents.

21. Folaron.


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