Most depictions of war are told from the perspective of the men who fight them. Little attention is paid to the lives of the women who so often have to face the worse consequences of any violent conflict. Atiq Rahimi’s award winning novel and now feature film, The Patience Stone, addresses this omission.
The Patience Stone looks at the life of a young Afghan woman who struggles to care for herself and her two young daughters as her husband lies in a comatose state, while the war rages just outside her garden door. The film is set roughly after the Soviet Union’s military withdrawal from the country, a military decision which precipitated the country’s civil war. The Patience Stone is a harrowing look at the effect this war had on the lives of the women who lived there.
The title, The Patience Stone, is taken from a Persian legend, which states that at times of turmoil the patience stone acts as an object to which you can tell all your sorrows and these worries would, in turn, be taken away before the stone would eventually shatter. In the beginning of The Patience Stone, the wife played by the luminous Iranian actress, Golshifteh Farahani has been abandoned by her husband’s relatives who have fled the fighting, leaving her to care for her sick husband and their two young daughters. She struggles to find food for her family as well as the medication needed to keep her husband alive and also begins to battle with the silence this isolation has imposed upon her.
Her isolation is broken only by irregular visits from the local imam. He gives the young woman spiritual advice but little in the way of concrete help. Every trip she is forced to make outside her garden door, in order to buy food and medication, is fraught with danger. She also desperately searches for an aunt who is her only surviving relative and does this while trying to somehow avoid the conflict which rages constantly in the streets surrounding her home.
Each day the fighting moves a little closer and threatens to engulf her and her family.
At one point the young woman is forced to abandon her husband and hide with her children in a neighbour’s cellar to avoid the heavy shelling. They emerge to find the house has been ransacked by passing fighters who have taken all the remaining food, leaving her comatose husband unharmed.
The woman eventually finds her missing aunt, working as a prostitute in order to survive and, after her neighbours are massacred, she sends her children to stay with her. However, she decides to stay behind, to care for her husband and try to protect him from the violence which is now on their doorstep. To relieve her boredom the young woman begins to talk to her silent spouse and tell him all the secrets of her life, this long monologue forms the basis of the film. Ironically, the conflict has presented the woman with an unexpected opportunity to speak openly for the first time to a husband she hardly knows. A husband who we later learn has mostly brutalised his wife during their 10-year marriage. Now though for the first time she has the opportunity to make her voice heard.
The Patience Stone is Atiq Rahimi’s fourth novel. The author was born in Afghanistan but fled the country after the Soviet invasion and now resides in France, where he received political asylum. The Patience Stone was written in French, a decision Rahimi says he made in order to have the freedom to write honestly about the most intimate feelings of his female protagonist and not feel the need to censor himself. The novel won French’s most prestigous literary prize, the 100-year old Prix Goncourt and has since been translated into 33 different languages around the world.
Despite the book’s success Atiq Rahimi was in no hurry to adapt it to the screen and, before even considering doing so, he sent a copy of the book to his friend and subsequent co-writer of the screenplay Jean Claude Carriere. Rahimi states ” In 2008, when my book first came out in France, I sent a copy to Jean-Claude, as I always do. When he finished reading it, he called to congratulate me, saying it would make a very beautiful script for cinema, but I was so far from that idea. I had already adapted one of my own works, Earth and Ashes and I saw that it wasn’t so easy. Moreover, everybody was telling me that this book would make a great stage play. But I was curious about what Jean-Claude was seeing and what he envisioned doing with a cinematographic script.” Rahimi goes on: ” He knew to what extent I am influenced by the great Scandinavian director Ingmar Bergman and he knew what I was trying to get at. “
As the film progresses the audience, through flash- backs increasingly sees the sad reality of the woman’s life with her husband. A husband who was even absent on their wedding day, a day when his knife was placed beside the seated bride, a disturbing representation of her future husband. The film suggests that the loneliness the woman speaks of in her current isolation has largely been there throughout their marriage, a union where feelings of love and tenderness were mostly absent.The husband’s incapacity allows his wife a freedom she has never before known. A freedom she now uses to make decisions, which affect her life and the lives of her two young daughters. This freedom also offers the young woman an opportunity to explore her own sexuality when she meets a young fighter. Ironically he is the victim of a severe stammer so that he too is no great conversationalist.
Ingmar Berman’s influence on Rahimi’s work is clear to see as although The Patience Stone is set during Afghanistan’s civil war, the film never shows scenes of soldiers fighting but rather focuses on the interior life of its feisty female heroine. It highlights not only her struggle to survive but also her determination to carve out a new existence for herself and her daughters. This determination to establish an independent life though is fraught with dangers as Amnesty International’s recent report on the position of women in post war Afghanistan highlights. “Millions of Afghan women and girls have seen progress in their lives since 2001: two and a half million girls are enrolled in school, women can work outside their homes, while the constitution grants women and men equal rights. Yet Afghanistan remains one of the most difficult and dangerous places in the world to be a woman. Women’s rights in Afghanistan are rarely enforced in practice and access to basic services like education and healthcare remains extremely limited. As well as living in an international conflict zone, women are likely to face the risk of domestic abuse.
Women who are active in public life are especially subjected to intimidation and the daily threat of violence. Ten years ago the international community promised it would bring freedom to Afghan women and men.
As the Afghan government and the international community begin to plan their country’s future, however, many Afghan women fear that they will be abandoned and their hard earned rights sacrificed in the search for a political deal.”
In many ways Atiq Rahimi’s film echoes this pessimism. The film suggests that a country in which violence has become a way of life and one where, as the wife’s aunt states: “men kill because they do not know how to make love”, will continue to be one in which it is extremely difficult for women to enjoy independent lives. The Patience Stone’s conclusion shows how, ultimately, the wife’s honesty, courage and determination in her quest for freedom comes at a very high price.
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