The Palestinian-Dutch director Shariff Nasr tries his hand at his debut film El Houba the silence surrounding homosexuality in MENA culture – Middle East and North Africa – to break through. But where frustration, anger and incomprehension are usually emphasized in the media, the focus is inside El Houba precisely on love, hope and rapprochement.
After Moroccan-Dutch Karim is caught by his father with a man, he feels the need to start a conversation with his parents and younger brother. But how do you discuss such a thing in a society that invariably avoids difficult subjects? Karim confronts his family to break the painful silence.
El Houba (‘De Liefde’) is the first feature film to discuss the sensitivity of coming out in Moroccan-Dutch society. The story is partly inspired by the experiences of the protagonist Fahd Larhzaoui.
Director Shariff Nasr: ‘I think it would be terrible if I couldn’t walk down the street with the love of my life because I would feel like not everyone gets to do that. That there is a stain on that love. Who else is to judge that? This is pure love between two adults who choose it.’
El Houba is not only about Karim’s outcome, but above all about the lack of dialogue in our contemporary society. Nasr is convinced that communication can solve countless problems in the world.
‘When you watch talk shows, for example, you hear one extreme opinion against the other extreme opinion. There are two monologues, no dialogue. The conclusion is that it is very difficult and that the two parties cannot cope. The image that is painted is very black and white. The gray area is not searched. Today, people find confirmation in their own thinking on social media. No matter how extreme your opinion, you will always find like-minded people. But when you start a conversation with each other, the nuanced picture emerges.’
It is striking that you show several sides in the film. Not only Karim is torn by his emotions, but also his brother and his parents. It’s a roller coaster of emotions, from anger to shame to love and finally acceptance.
‘I wanted to show all sides in the film, everyone has their own point of view. Difficult topics aren’t discussed, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t love. There is a lot of love in the film, from the parents, from the sons, from Kofi (Karim’s Ghanaian lover, ed.) but also from the neighbours.’
And where there is love, there is hope?
Love and hope are important elements in El Houba. I wanted to open the door quietly, so as not to kick in. It is an important nuanced difference, which is why there is so often no dialogue. I also hope that people from the community go to the film and are more open to the dialogue after watching it. There isn’t even a respectful Arabic word for ‘gay’ or ‘queer’, so the language isn’t opening up yet.’
Where do you feel the urgency to bring this issue up? You are not Moroccan yourself, but Palestinian, and you are heterosexual.
‘I wanted to present a nuanced picture with this film, but above all I wanted to offer guidance to others. That people, families and local communities who are now suffering in silence feel that they are not alone and that together they can find a way out of it. I hope we can begin to create a safe place to talk about personal struggles. El Houba had its world premiere at the Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco. After the screening, a Moroccan-American boy approached us. He told Fahd that he was going to take his parents to the movies as a way to get out. It was very nice. If our film can do that for someone, then our goal has been achieved.’
There isn’t even a respectful Arabic word for ‘gay’ or ‘queer’
How did you come up with the idea for the film?
‘Actually, the idea came about when I was with the family in the Middle East. As always, I was warmly and lovingly received. I then wondered what would happen if I fell for men. It might be hard for my family, but I don’t think they would love me any less. The picture painted in the media of LGBTQIA+ stories in MENA culture is one-sided: ‘You choose your family or you choose your sexuality.’ I wanted to show a more nuanced picture and also start the investigation myself. Is it really that black and white? What if you want to embrace both, your family and your sexuality? How is that conversation going? Where’s the problem?’
And what did you find out? Where is the problem?
“I think the most important thing is that it lacks dialogue. In MENA culture, sensitive topics are less talked about because of the shame. The silence does not only apply to homosexuality, but also to personal struggles such as depression or suicide. In fact, it’s seen as disrespectful to even talk about it, even if it hurts you. Breaking the silence is therefore not easy. Even saying you like men is seen as a slap in the face to your parents. If you don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist. While speaking is key.’
It is not the first time that someone has tried to break this taboo Strange fruit and the book Djinn from Tofik Dibi to the first Moroccan boat at Gay Pride, the solo performances Shine Shirt out Fahd! from Fahd Larhzaoui and the documentary The M word by Haroon Ali. Does that still make sense? Or is the taboo too persistent?
“I definitely think we’re making progress. All the pinpricks are helping, but we still have a long way to go. Research shows that 80 percent of Moroccan-Dutch people indicate that homosexuals should be able to live their lives the way they want, and 9 percent believe no. But we also see that 56 percent of Moroccan Dutch consider it a problem if their own child has a permanent partner of the same sex. So there is a huge discrepancy between the numbers. To bridge this, dialogue is necessary. I really hope and believe that something like this helps.’
But is this a typical Moroccan story? The acceptance of homosexuality in the media is regularly linked to Islam. Do you see it that way? To what extent is it different from acceptance in, say, Orthodox Jewish communities or Orthodox Christian circles?
“The community and family ties have a big influence. I think that the culture of silence applies in many local communities, on the Bible band but also in the sports canteen. In the Netherlands, acceptance is much higher than in Moroccan society, but even here 8 or 9 percent indicate that they would find it difficult if their own child turns out to be gay. The same research shows that 25 percent of the Dutch themselves find it offensive when two men kiss in the street. A quarter of the people!’
Self-acceptance is a big part of the problem in MENA culture. IN El Houba We see that with Karim. The lack of self-acceptance pushes people into hopeless situations, right up to suicide. What can be done to support this group?
‘I think the most important thing is to start a dialogue, otherwise there is only an internal dialogue left. But whose is the other inner voice? If we keep quiet about a problem, it doesn’t go away, it just gets bigger until it can assume monstrous proportions. That’s why we have to talk, and by that I mean above all: listen to the other’.
To El Houba shown at the Rabat International Film Festival in Morocco seems to me to be a victory in itself. Did it feel that way to you too?
– It was definitely a huge boost for us. Both there and in Istanbul go El Houba to spin. I couldn’t have dreamed of that. It means that a new era has indeed arrived and that we seem to have told the film in the right way. We wanted to make a film that is also seen from the inside as recognizable and loving.
‘In Rabat and Istanbul go’El Houb’ to spin. It means that a new era has come’
‘You would expect that El Houba a heavy seat, but nothing could be further from the truth. There is a lot of humor in the film because it is also characteristic of Arab culture. Humor is the cure for many ailments in those parts. This ensures that the film is accessible, regardless of your point of view. The film brings new insight and hopefully understanding, both within and outside the Dutch-Moroccan community.’
El Houb can be seen in Dutch cinemas from today. Nassiri Belaraj, founder of the Moroccan-Dutch LGBT foundation Pink Marrakesh, already saw El Houb: ‘I watched the movie with a smile and a tear. El Houb gives a realistic picture. I watched most of my life pass me by. It really touched me, but there’s also a lot of humor in it.’ Does the future look brighter? ‘We’re not there yet. The culture of shame and taboo is persistent, but it certainly helps to be and remain visible.’
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