This article was written on 08 Jan 2016, and is filled under Film & TV, Sexualities.

“Much Loved”: Souk of Pornography

Much LovedNabil Ayouch’s latest film, Much Loved (Zine Liffik 2015), is like no other movie the Arab world has ever seen. A semi-pornographic account of the lives of three prostitutes in the city of Marrakesh, it can easily mislead the viewer by the profusion of cheap and expensive sex, scenes of a nightlife brimming with sex parties in private homes and orgies in lavish villas, all in a medieval town turned into a modern hub of sex tourism; fun times with call-girls, homosexuals, and transvestites. Today’s Morocco and much of the Arab world is a tale of many cities, the most mediated of which shows cities in turmoil, in destruction, in despair, children crying, women wailing, parading young men Kalashnikovs in one hand and brandishing the Koran in the other. The other tale, the concealed one, is what Ayouch purports to show; Much Loved constitutes a filmic rendition of a social phenomenon that, to some, is nothing more than cheap pornography with the ultimate aim to tarnish the image of the country. Even before its release, a version of the movie circulated quickly on the internet and drew the wrath of many Moroccans who denounced the movie, its producer, and cast and, as if the denunciation was not enough, the government joined in with a ban against its commercial distribution. Things did not stop there; Ayouch would receive death threats and the “heroine” of the movie, Noha (Loubna Abidar), suffered beatings by a street mob and fled to France. It is no surprise that a movie of this type occasioned so much drama; it aimed to put an end to a cycle of masquerades and denials. It forced a mirror to a cultural system that evades introspection and self-mirroring. Things exist but their realities are repressed by a society still ashamed of its own body, presumably protective of its so-called dignity and honor, and resolute in disguising the hard truths to the world. Ayouch had a different opinion and he knew, well enough as a repatriate to the country of his Moroccan father, that unquestionable norms and taboos define the work of artists and infringe on their donnée. He had to practice his art with this caveat in mind.

Without the deployment of figurative tropes or a literary technique that would have served to mitigate the intensity of the narrative, as it is customary for artists facing adversity in inimical environments, Much Loved hits, and hits hard at the beginning of the opening scene. It lays out the scourge of prostitution bare-naked, without prelude or introduction, and with a complete and yet calculated disregard for social conditions or reasons that may have accounted for it. This is no Moll Flanders. The first scene strikes like a thunderbolt and it is meant as much to fluster as to jolt the viewer in her comfortable seat. Around the dinner table, three young women are sitting, rolling joints, cracking jokes about their male clients, gulping Vodka, pouring it in water bottles to carry with them for later on at night. Other than showing women in this way in a country deeply entrenched in its religiosity, it is their language, the dialogue unimpeded and free flowing, full of profanities and foul words that stun the viewer. To add to the intensity of the scene, the discussion is ongoing in the presence of their male driver, Said, a stout middle-aged man, taciturn and with downcast eyes, the hen-pecked type of guy who will go the extra mile to please his partner; he is the one who is waiting on them and serving them dinner. In a country supposedly ruled by men, the roles have suddenly been reversed, or so it seems. Not quite, at least not for Ayouch who entertains a different view of society, a daring view informed by the social and cultural upheavals that have shaken, to the displeasure of many, the cultural pillars that kept impervious the hierarchical order of millennial traditions.

It is this calcified order that has become one of Ayouch’s target in almost all of his films to date. In Much Loved, the women appear to be in control; in a society that expects of them to be subdued and silent, they speak their minds, express their love; they are on a mission to strike it rich, quickly before their prime fades away. “A prostitute resembles a candle,” said Noha, “it’s slowly dying out day by day.” Everything they do is done with the intention to make money, a lot of money; they are the bread winners not solely by selling their bodies to the highest bidder, but also by selling drugs, and setting up each other for deals and encounters with potential clients.

By comparison, Said appears to be a dwarf. He is dependent on their perversion and generosity; his taciturnity conceals his disagreement with everything they do, including when they flirt with him, but that concealed sentiment of a relegated male who has lost the privilege of oriental virility and masculine superiority is redeemed at the time of payment. In Said’s world things have changed, fallen apart and other realities have taken their place. Since the death of his mother, he admits that he is a loner and the three prostitutes are his family. The days of severe morality, chastity, and abstinence have since long gone. He has no qualms losing his true self for the sake of easy-earned cash. He knows he is much better off financially offering his services as a taxi driver and a pimp to “his” women than if he were one of the many disgruntled hacks burnt by the sun in interminable waits for passengers.

The other Moroccan male, Kattib, Soukaina’s “boyfriend,” does not fare any better. Although he truly loves Soukaina (Halima Karaouane) and dreams of a future together with her, he lacks the financial means to make his dream come true. As it turns out, it is Soukaina who provides for him and tips him; ironically this happens once after he has his way with her. Unable to relieve her from the world of prostitution, he has to accept the little attention he gets from her if he still hopes to see her. Eventually Soukaina falls in love with Ahmed, a Saudi businessman she met in a party; he shows her love and “respect” and promises to take her as his second wife until, to her misfortune, she finds male porn on his laptop. Suddenly, she is able to solve the puzzle of this man who has been so much drawn to her but only in platonic ways.

Randa, a cocaine sniffer, seems to be the unhappiest of the three and lives on a dream to join her dad abroad who abandoned her at age four to her mother, now incapacitated and alone in a village in the outskirts of the city. Noha’s story is no less tragic. Aside from leading a life of debauchery, she has a toddler out of wedlock in the custody of her mother; she pays them occasional visits in a house deep inside the old quarter of town where her sister and her brother also live. Like Soukaina with her boyfriend, Noha dispenses money to her needy mother and promises to move them to a better place. When finally one of Noha’s French clients/boyfriends buys her a spacious apartment in a good neighborhood in the ville nouvelle, her mother snubs her offer, requesting her to stop visiting them.

As an interpreter of the social dynamics of a culture under multiple threats, Ayouch avails himself of prostitution as a taboo theme in order to draw attention to the status of a country in pursuit of the values of western modernity. He had to create two cultural worlds and pin one against the other; their values naturally clash in their fight for power and legitimacy. The world of tradition still sacredly preserved inside the walls of the old quarter, as if protected from the so-called material culture of the West, is what Noha’s mother represents, and the other world, out there in the open, intentionally in the new quarter, or ville nouvelle, is what the three prostitutes symbolize. Prostitution provides here the occasion to mediate a relationship between two worlds, usually antagonistic and suspicious of each other, and there can be no better example to characterize this relationship than to invest it with a forbidden element, licentious sex, that Islamic orthodoxy usually associates with what it calls the “decadent” West.

Harshly sanctioned, prostitution is the symbol of the unattainable ideal of modernity, the taboo that is actively seeking a space in an inhospitable cultural field. The women who symbolize the nation offer themselves as guinea pigs, as a field of experimentation that enables an intercultural dialogue of sorts to take place and through which also appears the unequal standing from which third world subjectivity negotiates with the supposedly superior Other. In a world ruled by global interests and material currencies, women are used here to show what it is like to navigate the hazards of modernity and the world of wealth and power. They go in and out of the old quarter, as mediators between two spaces, in search of a hybrid identity that can harmoniously unite the values of abnegation and restraint with those of self-spiritedness and adventure. The transfer of the cultural and financial capital that they acquire is where the problem lies; Noha cannot penetrate the old quarter with her skirt; instead, she has to wear the traditional Moroccan garb and veil her head; her mother shuns her help that only brought shame and unwanted attention and gossip to the family; her brother ignores her despite her reminder that she provides for him through the tips she gives the mother; her sister Sarah avoids her, although she is also on her way to becoming like Noha. On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have the world of the ville nouvelle, the world of endless possibilities, the space that allows Ayouch to show the viewer a glimpse of repressed realities, realities that everyone knows exist but defiantly denies, realities that acquire even more power when transformed into artistic representation. It is those realities, which have angered the masses, that truly convey the civilizational quandary facing a country torn between its unavoidable legacy and the exigencies of the modern world.

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