Who were the Sabians?

Published in Litro

That is the question posed to Wadjda’s eponymous girl protagonist by a Qur’anic quizmaster on a Playstation game called “The Qur’an Made Easy”. Audiences, like Wadjda, will be flummoxed, although classically schooled viewers may make the mistake earlier orientalists made in conflating the ancient Sabians of Arabia with the ancient Sabines of Italy.

It’s an interesting conflation. Poussin immortalised the Sabines in his painting, The Rape of the Sabine Women. In a curious way, Wadjda, the world’s first Saudi Arabian film, recalls in its tone and composition that renaissance masterpiece: they are both historic artistic documents of the brutalising effect of the laws of the ancients on the lives of women.

Wadjda is a film about the social violence such ancient laws still mete out, including polygamy (Wadjda’s mother battles the prospect of becoming a co-wife) and the enforced enclosure that stems from gender-segregation, the cornerstone of Saudi Arabia’s social architecture (even within their home, Wadjda and her mother dine apart from the patriarch and the menfolk).

Wadjda is a feisty schoolgirl with dreams of a bicycle of her own. To afford one, she flouts the rules to sell homemade jewellery at school. Then the young rebel changes her tune, literally: swapping illegal heavy metal for more sacred orations when, hearing of the generous prize money, she decides to compete in a Qur’an recitation contest. Like many of her compatriots, she realises she can make more money exploiting religious scripture than evading religious stricture. She invests in The Qur’an Made Easy as a learning aide (and finds herself wondering who the Sabians were).

As she eventually learns, the Sabians were a tiny sect of esoteric followers of John the Baptist. The comic esoterism and obscure contemporary irrelevance of this detail is part of Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour’s gentle critique of the uses of Islam in the kingdom, so gentle it is barely noticeable. Rather than moralising, she has artfully wrapped her critique in crowd-pleasing comedy, exposing the immaturity of a martyr’s motives when Wadjda wishes for 72 bicycles in heaven, or probing the precarious honour invested in a girl’s virginity, when Wadjda falls off a bicycle and starts to bleed from her knee as her mother melodramatically prays it’s nothing more grievous.

Wadjda manages to capture something of the sexual curiosity of coming of age in a country where one’s schoolteachers teach that “a woman’s laugh is her nakedness.” Two inseparable schoolfriends are disciplined for drawing football tattoos on each other, their lesbianism hinted at – at least the fear of it – in the school’s subsequent proscription of flowers, love-notes, friendship bracelets. On the cusp of adolescence – part-way through the film she must start donning the full-length abaya – Wadjda is luridly fascinated by male-female relationships, asking her mother whether she still loves her husband, or playfully mocking the rumoured relationship between her hard-nosed headmistress and a certain illicit lover.

Children, with their innate sense of justice, are particularly attuned to such hypocrisies, to which jaded adults have become accustomed. Wadjda struggles with this inconsistency. On the one had she sees an external kingdom where women are veiled, identical, self-expression limited to footwear – Wadjda roams in sneakers and in shopping malls one hears the pointed heels of otherwise abaya-attired women. On the other hand, there is the internal reality of the home or the school, where the headmistress leers over her desk in a blouse with the top-button undone, where Wadjda’s glamorous mother, played by the unofficial Miss Saudi Arabia, Reem Abdullah, sings (with her ‘naked’ voice) to her heart’s content, looking indistinguishable from any Western women Wadjda sees on television.

In one poignantly funny scene in a shopping mall toilet, Wadjda’s mother gets out of her abaya to try on a red dress. The juxtaposition of her alluring couture and her sanitary surroundings sums up the absurd double-reality with which Saudi women must contend. Wadja is a child’s-eye view of Saudi Arabia, which both excuses its simplistic vision and heightens the power of its critique – a critique made all the more impressive for the fact it was shot entirely legally in Saudi Arabia, financed by a Prince of the House of Saud, to boot.

Aside from the film’s quality, that fact – that it is the first and only Saudi film – assures its place in cinematic history. But it is in a fascinating dialogue with it, too. The sucrose Hollywood-ending follows 90 minutes of that quietly moral gaze now so distinctively Iranian. There are clear traces of Offside, Jafar Panahi’s story of female football fans, and The Apple, Samira Makhmalbaf’s tale of two girls who escape their parents’ cellar. To say nothing of the unmistakeable nod to Vittorio de Sica’s neo-realist classic, Bicycle Thieves, also about its protagonist’s search for a bicycle.

In de Sica’s quasi-Marxist vision, the bicycle Antonio Ricci needs to work represents his economic freedom. In keeping with the tradition, Wadjda’s bicycle is just as laden with significance. It is the elusive avatar of a girl’s social freedom, the scarcest resource in resource-rich Saudi Arabia.

Literary ADHD: review of Joshua Cohen at the London Review Bookshop

Published in Litro

In his classic textbook on The Principles of Psychology (1890), William James famously claimed: “Everyone knows what attention is.” That hasn’t stopped the emergence of an academic cottage industry of studies into attention, by cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, educationalists and, now, the postmodernist novelist Joshua Cohen, whose own hyperkinetic prose is symptomatic of a literary permutation of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. His most successful novel yet, Witz, with its exhausting shtick of cascading, Kafkaesque clauses, is a trial of attention-holding. It should come as no surprise that the three-time novelist should now turn his attention to that very subject.

He began his talk at the LRB bookshop, as he begins the book itself, with William James’s well-worn definition of attention: “the taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.” Already failing to hold his attention, Cohen, however, was more interested in James’s definition of its opposite, “the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction”. Curiously enough, his brother Henry, in his novel The Tragic Muse – also from 1890 – likewise alights on the Gallic character of ‘distraction’: “a new distraction, in the French sense, was what he flattered himself he had discovered.” And of course this fact, this sibling symmetry, is nothing more than a distraction from the subject at hand.

Cohen’s contempt for that subject soon became apparent. “I hate attention!”, he declared with gusto, adding: “Of course, you hate what you cannot hold.” He seemed fittingly ill at ease even talking about it, his bespectacled eyes literally lacking the “focalisation” William James defined as an attribute of attention. One gathered that his book is a sort of masochistic act of love, whose seminal result is a meditation on attention that, in fact, says more about attention when not paying attention to it, his Tristram Shandy-esque digressions a poetic pointer to the nowadays unattainable state of attentivity, or “apperception”. Cohen is fascinated by the soupçon of the brothers James that, precisely in 1890, distraction was still seen as “French”. Now, of course, in the age of the internet’s myriad possibilities, we have all become French, distraction the modern malaise.

In both his talk and his book, Cohen is too distracted to see the real significance of both James’ statements and the year they made them. Writing on the cusp of modernism’s efflorescence in the years to come, they were anticipating a movement that would, in part, be defined by that malaise, the futile search for meaning, the inability to find certainty among a multiplicity of competing sources, scriptures, narratives – Kafka’s long, tortured letters are not merely a matter of writer’s block, but a manifestation of the spirit of the age, the inability to focus, to focalise.

Cohen is almost there, typically remarking on its corollary instead, the frenzied state of attention to be come by in the premodern practices of all religions, from Zen to the zikr of the Sufis, the repetition of holy words, mantras, the attention of yeshiva students as they bob back and forth memorising meanings of words possessing absolute certainty. No wonder the first definition of ‘attention’ in English, by William Bonde in 1526, runs: “Attencion or intencion for our purpose here is onely the attendaunce study & diligence that man or woman gyveth to their dede as prayer.” Cohen’s theological erudition is a much-needed counterpoint to the philistine dismissal of that tradition in contemporary letters, only just recovering from the late Hitchens low point, Cohen’s wry dismissal of which (“If you’re averse to religion, skip directly to chapter 4”) is well taken.

That evening Cohen’s wide-ranging, hyperkinetic patter, only a little less barnstorming in person than in prose, threw up some resonant contemporary criticism, like his relation of the rise of attention-related psychometric studies to our broader capitalist climate. Psychologists’ construction of an entirely artificial commodity known as the ‘attention span’ represents, for Cohen, nothing less than the commodification of time itself. An artificial commodity can be manipulated to induce an artificial scarcity and in the ensuing marketplace attention can be purchased and bargained for, an abomination that admittedly resonated with theLRB audience more than it actually made sense.

This was often the case, but it matters little. The thrill consists in keeping up (he confessed that at least half of the book was written while on psychostimulants “both legal and illegal”); if you catch him out the thrill is all the greater. Cohen was distracted by arcane histories of writing systems, noting ancient South Arabic’sboustrophedon style, or “cow-path writing”, where lines alternate left-to-right and right-to-left. But the art of Cohen’s own meandering, boustrophedon digression lay either in a poetic truth about attention, at the very least about its amorphous ungraspability (“attentio” is Latin for “to grasp”) or, miraculously, bringing the digression back home. So after riffing on Semitic stone-chiselling, he explained that the Greek “stilus”, the pen avant la lettre, meant merely a “marker”. This became the Latin “stimulus”. What Greek understood as an instrument for marking, Latin understood as meriting attention. If Witz has already marked out his name, Attention shows he merits attention. Joshua Cohen is nothing less than a modern magus of free association, the very doyen ofdistraction. In the French sense, of course.