Sabah Commentary

One of the 17 films written and directed by Ruba Nadda, Sabah: A Love Story (2005) is a romantic comedy that treats a major issue confronting most second generation Muslim immigrants: how to respect traditional family values, while fitting in to the new culture. Nadda knows that, these days, Canadian-born female children of Muslim parents are as likely, if not more likely, to rebel against limits to their physical and social freedom than are their male siblings. Females simply have less to lose if the old order changes, because it affords them less power than it does their brothers.

Sabah (Arsinée Khanjian), the 40-year old, unmarried daughter of the household, is just learning that lesson. Her widowed mother (Setta Keshishian), her younger brother, Majid (Jeff Seymour), sister-in-law, Amal (Kathryn Winslow) and sister Shaheera (Roula Said) all expect Sabah to stay at home and look after Mother. They don’t want her to do anything else, because then Mother will become their responsibility.

The movie opens with a celebration of Sabah’s fortieth birthday at home with the family. As they come in off the street, Sabah and the other women remove their headscarves and colourless, drab overcoats to reveal beautifully styled hair and form-fitting clothing. They dance provocatively to wild applause and laughter. Clearly there is one rule for the outer world and another for the family home. This disjunct between public and private, traditional and modern, behaviour is embodied by the women. They know the rules and flout them continually in ways that give them a sense of individual and collective power.

As a present (even though Arabs don’t give birthday presents), Majid gives Sabah a photograph of her as a little girl, standing beside their father at the seashore; she is in a bathing suit. Sabah remarks that she doesn’t remember the last time she went swimming. Majid replies that good Arab women don’t allow themselves to be seen “naked.” Her mother’s present to Sabah is a hand-held vacuum cleaner. Seeing her father reminds Sabah of how much fun they used to have when he was alive and how life under her brother is not much fun at all.

Unfortunately, Majid has become the despot their father never was: in his efforts to manage everyone’s lives, he is actively looking for a suitable husband for his niece,  Souhaire (Fadia Nadda). Souhaire is third generation and is not about to accept an arranged marriage. She tries whatever she can to avoid what she sees as the ultimate disempowerment, going to far as to dress head to toe in the most traditional black garments she can find on the day that Mustafa (David Alpay) comes to meet the family. Souhaire drags out every stereotype of the religious zealot to put Mustafa off the idea of marrying her, including kneeling on a prayer mat while everyone else is drinking tea. Mustafa, a young university student, leaves in confusion. Infuriated, Majid tells his niece that she will fall in love with the person who is chosen for her and that, if she doesn’t marry Mustafa, she will no longer be part of the family.

None of the women in the family works outside the home. Majid, who has taken over the family antiques business after the death of their father, has taken over his role as patriarch as well. He manages all their money; he even makes Sabah account for every expense she makes. Clearly she has had enough and begins a series of subterfuges. Her story is couched in a middle-aged, female, coming-of-age narrative in which she breaks free, from her brother and the expectations of her family, as well as from the racist limitations of her religion and culture. This narrative type has gained increasing ground, at least since Pauline Collins’ BAFTA-winning performance in Shirley Valentine (1989) and the highly acclaimed Bread and Tulips (2000), which won 23 awards across Europe. The conventions of the genre normally centre on a wife or mother who is tired of being taken for granted and simply leaves her family in search of herself. In Sabah, the lead character has the additional burden of fighting her way through cultural proscriptions about what good Arab women should and shouldn’t do.

Coming-of-age stories for children and youth always involve a guide character, a friendly adult who is nearby, but not in the way, providing advice, but not stricture. The character undergoes a series of tests and trials. Each of these events changes the character to some extent; s/he matures, grows more self-aware, more self-confident. These changes of state are often signaled by immersing in water, or by a change of clothes. When the central character is an adult female, the coming-of-age is often a matter of re-gaining freedom lost through marriage and parenting. Many women go straight from their father’s home to a home maintained by the husband with no opportunity to experience life on their own terms. In middle age, these characters can feel stifled or lost. Sabah doesn’t realize how much she has lost until the day of her birthday. The next day, she goes to a store, purchases a very modest swimsuit, and goes to a public swimming pool. She is frightened that anyone will see her, but loves her newfound freedom.

Of course, the inevitable happens. Sabah meets a man at the pool: a divorced, Christian, carpenter sort of a man. What could be worse. They embark on a tentative relationship. She cannot imagine letting her family know about this; but, each day, she employs another subterfuge in order to meet him. Every time Stephen (Shawn Doyle) tries to get close to Sabah, she withdraws. He begins to confront her, telling her that she has to make her mind up about what she is going to do; these challenges force her to take decisions, lead her irrevocably toward confrontation with her family. Finally, she decides to spend the night with Stephen and face the music the next day.

In the end, it is the women who decide what will happen with the family. Sabah’s mother goes to Stephen’s woodworking shop to meet him. She crosses the threshold and looks at his current project, remarking, “What’s with all the crosses?” (he has been working on a series of very large rough-hewn wooden crosses). Corny as it is, this comment breaks the cultural tensions and we discover that Mother just wants her kids to be happy.

Although the plot of Sabah is as predictable as any other genre plot, the movie is beautifully shot, offers a great sound track and a thoroughly engaging performance by Arsinée Khanjian. Sabah was nominated for two Genies (for Best Achievement in Music and Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role). The movie was a hit with audiences at over 20 international film festivals, has sold to over 20 countries, and ran in Canadian theatres for 13 consecutive weeks.

Evelyn Ellerman