It's one of our favorite words, a way to smile at the confusion that sometimes swirls around us.
Arabic teachers searching for that perfect visual aid to illustrate the fawda that can come to inhabit life in places like Algeria could do no better than show the hilarious opening sequence of Lyes Salem's Mascarades, released in 2008 in Algeria and shown last night at the Middle East Studies Association film festival in San Diego.
The MESA screening, with the director/star Lyes Salem providing commentary, was sponsored by TALIM's mother organization AIMS, the American Institute for Maghrib Studies. Amidst very serious presentations of papers ("Revisiting Modernity and Heteronormativity in the Nineteenth-Century Middle East," just to cite one with a 50 dollar word), Mascarades provided welcome comic relief.
Not that Lyes Salem does not take his film making seriously. First of all his choice of colloquial Algerian Arabic (vice the French that often, unrealistically but more commercially, shows up in otherwise excellent Algerian films vying for European financing and audiences). Such choices are "political," according to Lyes Salem, though Mascarades cannot be said to be overtly political in tone.
There is, however, that running joke of the unseen "Colonel," who provides employment to the principal character Mounir (played by Lyes Salem), and whose convoy of high-powered security SUVs can be rented out for marriage cortèges. Anyone familiar with Algeria, and with the privileges meted out to those in power, will spot this sly wink at the presence of le pouvoir at the village level. It's just biznes.
Mounir himself is not above using some 50 dollar (or maybe 500 dinar) phrases. He's a "horticultural engineer" (using the French ingénieur instead of the Arabic), but his friends know that he means gardener. Mascarades is a good-natured romp through the life of a somewhat dysfunctional but lotsa-fun family, from the six year old son with a soft spot for tortured toads to the narcoleptic bride-to-be sister of Mounir.
Lyes Salem's description of Algerian humor as self-deprecating is on the mark, and he has said that he's tired of the repeated depictions of the difficulties of life in Algeria in much of Maghrebi cinema. For Mascarades, the director has found inspiration from the zany cinema of Emir Kusturica and the incredibly funny story of life in Italy's shanty towns from 1976, Brutti, sporchi e cattivi, one of the classics of Italian comedy.
Lyes Salem, with such inspiration, is on to a good thing. I look forward to his next films.
(This commentary also appears on TALIMblog).