L'Aube du monde (Dawn of the World) (2008)




Director:      Abbas Fahdel. 

Starring:     Karim Saleh (Riad),   Hafsia Herzi (Zahra),  Hiam Abbass (Mastour's mother),  Sayed Ragab (Hadji Noh),  Waleed Abou El Magd (Mastour),  Mahmoud Nagui (Zingi),  Mohamed Ali Keshta (Abou Ali),  Nabil El Deeb (Cheik Jassim),  Soheil Abdel Wahab (Iraqi officer),  Mostafa Wagih (Hussein),  Injy Ashour (Zingi's wife),  Mina Soheil (Zahra - child),  Amr Ossama (Mastour - child),  Abou Baker Nounou (American soldier),  Reem Rafaa (Oum Zoheir).

multiple impacts of the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War and the 1991 uprisings in Iraq seen through the eyes of a Marsh Arab in Iraq


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

The Village of Hufaidh, Southern Iraq, 1983.  A boy, named Mastour, and his cousin, a girl named Zahra, sit down next to the marsh.  The girl is playing with a small mirror.  The boy wants to see the mirror, so the girl tells him he can see it if he gives her a cookie.  Mastour's mother comes with another lady to talk with Hadji.  Hadji says that he brought a letter for Oum Zoheir from the army.  Neither of the women want to accept the letter. In fact, they back away from Hadji.  Mastour's mother asks Hadji if the letter concerns Oum's son?  Hadji only says that Oum must summon her strength and take the letter.  He says:  "It's God's will."  Mastour's mother replies:  "No.  It's the will of the tyrants."  The two women walk away from the letter. 

The housing is rather unique among the marsh Arabs.  The small houses are made of reeds tied together and the houses sit on marshy ground a top of a bunch of bundles of reed grass or on top of built up earth and reed platforms.  People get around on boats. 

At night Zahra comes into the home of Mastour's mother to see Mastour.  A jet airplane flies low over the marsh and Zahra wonders if they can send Mastour off to war?  Mastour says he's too young to go to war.  And, he says, he would refuse to go if they told him to go.  He will stay home to take care of mother and Zahra.  Mastour says that Zahra is his fiancÚ.  She responds that she would never marry Mastour, but he replies that she is going to have to marry him, because they certainly are not going to let her marry an outsider.

Seven years later.  Mastour marries Zahra.  Zahra does not appear to be happy about marrying her cousin.  On her wedding night she keeps moving away from Mastour.  She runs out of her reed home and bumps right into a felow named Zingi who likes Zahra.  Zingi shoots his rifle into the air.  Mastour comes out and picks up Zahra to take her back to his home.  Back home he asks if Zahra is deliberately trying to make him look like a fool in front of everybody? 

The next morning a boat filled with soldiers comes to the marsh.  They put up a  large, framed photograph of Sadam Hussein in one of the homes.  The captain asks a boy, named Hussein, his age and Hussein says he thinks he's 15.  The captain tells the boy to stand up.  He then tells the boy to lift up his tunic.  The captain says:  "He has body hair and he's hung like a horse."  An elder says that doesn't prove the boy is of age because:  "Our children mature fast because of the harsh life here."  The captain now turns his attention to Mastour Al-Dayan.  The elders don't want anything to do with the army and its recruitment.  The captain says:  "You Ma'dans have no sense of duty."  One elder says:  "Our sacrifices during the war with Iran got us nothing.  We live in the same poverty."

Zahra is upset that her husband has to leave.  She says she knows he'll be killed.  In fact, she urges him to desert like Zingi did.  Zahra says:  "I want to be yours now."  She is ready for sex.  Mastour asks her:  "Why did you refuse me till now?"  She says she was afraid.  But now the army wants to see Mastour out front.  And away goes the young Mastour on the boat.  Zahra is left behind, alone in her home. 

Mastour walks by a dead soldier with the upper part of his body buried in the sand.  He and anther fellow look very tired.  He drops his submachine gun.  In fact, there are half-buried soldiers all over the area.  The fellow with Mastour has now dropped his own weapon.  The two men are going to walk across a mine field.  The friend named Riad starts walking and Mastour walks in his footsteps.  Mastour is not paying attention to what he is doing and steps on a mine, which explodes.  Mastour tells Riad to give the magic mirror to Zahra.  Then he hopes that Riad, like a brother, would marry Zahra and take care of her.  He has one other request.  He wants Riad to put his body into the river so that the river may take him back to his village.  Riad carries his body over to the river and sets it in the water. 

Riad walks back out of the river and collapses on the riverbank.  When Riad starts to awaken, he sees someone waking toward him.  The figure gets real close and Riad sees that it's a black American GI.  At the side of the river, the GI collapses.  Riad checks the GI out and finds that he is dead.  Riad now sees a marsh Arab coming up to him in a boat.  He asks the men if they can give him a ride to the village of Hufadih?  One of the fellows tells him: "That's not our way."  So he says he will give them his watch if they'll take him.  Again they say that's not their way, but they say they can drop him off close to the village.  The men use poles to push the boat forward.

The boat stops at a village. Hadji is there and he welcomes the soldier.  Hadji has a store there.  He has turkeys and chickens and a cow.  Riad has told him that Matour is dead.  Riad now tells him that he must see Zahra to tell her about her husband.  So Hadji takes him to the village by his large boat.  He tells Riad that Zahra is the one hanging up the laundry.  Riad gets off the boat to walk over to Zahra.  He walks very slowly over to her.  Mastour's mother and wife give Riad and Hadji something to drink.  Hadji asks Riad if he wants him to drop him off somewhere?  The mother tells Hadji not to take him away so fast.  She wants to hear about her son from him.  So Hadji says that he will come back for Riad at sunset. 

Riad looks out over the water. Zahra walks up to him and tells him that he can wait for Hadji Noh in the guest house.  She tells Riad that she remained worthy of Mastour in his absence.  Zingi comes riding up in his boat powered by a gasoline engine. He tells Zahra he heard about what happened from Hadji.  He tells her not to worry for he will take care of her.  Zahra nods and leaves.  Now the friend asks Riad how did Matour die? 

Two elders, one boy and one young man and Riad, sit together at night and talk around a fire.  The boy asks if the Americans will ever get out to them?  One elder says may Allah make them blind so they cannot find their way.  He asks why do they come over to ruin other people's homes?  All of a sudden, they hear a helicopter overhead.  The helicopter drops leaflets to the village people.  The leaflet has a picture of Sadam living in splendor.  The caption says:  "He lives in splendor".  There is another picture, this one of a poor Arab woman with her baby, with the caption:  "As you struggle to survive."  On the back side it says:  "Do not risk your life and the lives of your comrades."

Riad walks over to where a boat is laying in wait.  Riad gets in and starts poling away.  He goes over to check out the wreckage of an airplane.  After awhile he lays down in the boat and goes to sleep.  He dreams of seeing Mastour speaking to him about how he envies Riad for living in the same world with Zahra. 

Riad returns to the village in the morning.  Zahra and her friend are washing clothes.  He comes up and talks to Zahra.  She tells Riad that she does not need his compassion.  What she needs is peace. 

Baghdad, 1991.  Two months after the Gulf War.  Men with crutches and a missing leg walk along the streets.  Riad returns to his apartment.  He sees Zahra's mirror on his night table. 

Riad comes to the marsh in his own boat powered by a gasoline engine.  He visits Hadji.  He tells the man that he wants to marry Zahra.  An Iraqi army boat shows up and Hadji tells Riad to hide, because they may think he is a deserter or a rebel.  The boat docks and the captain comes over to speak with Hadji.  He tells Hadji that Zingi got away from them once again.  Hadji says they burned Zingi's house down.  The captain says they could burn down Hadji's house too.  He knows that there's nothing that happens in the area without Hadji knowing about it.  Just about the time that Riad is going to leave, Hadji gives him a little package and tells Riad to give the package to one of the elders, Abou Ali, who has waited for it for a long time. 

Riad walks over to Zahra.  He giver her back her mirror he got from Mastour.  He then tells her that it was Mastour's last wish that he marry Zahra and take care of her.  This makes Zahra step back a few steps.  She responds:  "He must've been delirious to talk such insanity."  Riad answers:  "No, it sprang from love."  He wants to marry her because of his promise to Mastour and since he has seen her. 

Mastour's mother meets with Riad and Zahra. She tells Zahra to go get Mastour's jacket and give it to Riad.

Later Riad goes over to the elders and gives the little package to Abou Ali.  There are false teeth in the box.  The elder is happy to get the teeth, for as he says, he now can eat something more than just soup. 

Zahra walks over to the home of Abou Ali.  When Ali comes out of his home, she turns around and goes back.   Hussein had told Riad that the family had promised him Mastour's jacket.  Riad had told him to take it, but he declined.  Now Riad tells the young fellow to take the jacket because Riad wants him to have it.  Now Hussein takes the jacket.  Hussein is an orphan but lives in the home of Abou Ali.  Riad tells the boy that one day he will have his own family for he will marry when he grows up.  Hussein asks him why would he want to grow up, just to be killed in the war?   Riad says the war will be over by then.  Hussein says it won't.  All his life he has been living with war.

In the morning, Riad walks over near where Zahra is gathering reeds.  She poles over to him.  Zahra says that Zingi asked her to marry  him.  He has a wife, but he has the right to have four wives.  He also wants to flee to Iran and he asked her to go with him.  Riad asks her if she would go with him to Baghdad?  Zahra says he will be laughed at because he has a wife who is a Ma'dan. Riad says then he will stay here with her.  She asks him if he could stand their way of life and their poverty?  He says yes.  She says he would tire of her way of life after awhile and leave.  He replies:  "As long as I'm with you, I'd languish for nothing."  And he says that no one in Baghdad will miss him. 

Hadji comes for Riad in his boat.  Riad tells Zahra that he won't leave without first hearing her answer.  She says the people here also have to approve of Riad.  They would not like it if she married an outsider.  She says they would need the help of Hadji Noh.  She tells Riad to go speak with Hadji for him and for her. 

Zahra looks at her wedding gown, while Riad talks with Hadji.  Hadji tells him that that the marsh life is very hard.  And he must have many children just to make sure one survives into adulthood.  Nothing seems to phase Riad.  Zahra combs her hair.  Zingi returns home.  He asks his wife about marrying Zahra.  His wife becomes angry.  She starts hitting him.  Suddenly, he sees Riad with Hadji on the boat.  Zingi goes to talk with Hadji about getting Hadji to help with his fleeing to Iran.  Hadji warns him that life there for Iraqis is very difficult.  Zingi ignores Riad. 

Zingi and his wife, Hadji and Riad talk at night.  Around a corner of the marsh comes the army very quietly in small boats.  The captain and his men just suddenly show up.  To escape, Zingi jumps out of a back window.  Riad is taken to prison. 

Riad comes racing in his boat like a madman.  He has come back to see Hadji, who is tied to a tree.  His house has been burned down and his animals are either gone or dead.  Riad realizes that the man is dead.  He buries Hadji near  the small tree where he died.  Riad then destroys the small tree by knocking it over.  He rushes to now check on Zahra.  He sees a dead body in the marsh.  At least Zahra's village is there.  He pokes his head in, but only sees Mastour's mother.  She thinks that Riad is her son Mastour.  Her eyes have gone bad and she has a hard time seeing things.  Riad asks her where's Zahra, but the mother just recoils from the question. 

Riad checks on Abu Ali's home and finds it deserted.  On the ground are Ali's false teeth.  He walks over to Sadam's framed photo and sees Ali's dog dead on the floor. 

He looks into another home and finds the bodies of the two elders outside on one side of the home covered up.  But Zahra is alive.  She sits with her back to one of the homes.  Riad walks over to where he heard the sound of something falling into the water and finds Zahra.  She tells him that she thought he had forgotten her.  She says the army came by helicopter.  They said they were looking for rebels and when Abou Ali and Cheik Jassim started protesting against the way the army was treating them, the soldiers shot them.  She goes on to say that everyone started fleeing for Iran.  Only she and Mastour's mother stayed behind.  And now Mastour's mother is no longer the same.  She has lost it to a certain degree.  Then she says that a soldier raped her, but Riad tells her that she must forget about these things.  

Riad and the two women bury the two elders.  The three sleep in the same house. 

The next morning Hussein comes back to the village.  He still has Matour's jacket on.  Hussein tells the three survivors that he got away from the soldiers.  They ripped his jacket.  So all four now go into their shared home.    

Good film  It was interesting partly because it dealt with the life styles of the marsh Arabs.  The viewers get to see how different and how difficult are the lives of the marsh Arabs.  These people are a definite minority within Iraq and are subject to lots of prejudice and discrimination.  This is less of a problem for them than for many others because they are very segregated from the rest of Iraq.  And they don't like accepting outsiders into their midst.  They don't want their people to marry strangers/foreigners.  They mostly get around by boat in the marshes.  These people, however, are not totally isolated.  Members of the Iraq army come to grab young marsh Arab boys to serve in the military.  Marsh Arab families have lost sons to the conflicts in which Iraq engages.  If these Arabs don't cooperate and give over their sons, but instead hide them, then they can have their houses burned down and worse, they can be executed on the spot.  Yes, it's a rough life. 

Against this backdrop are two loves stories.  The love story between Zahra and Mastour, and after the death of Mastour, the love story between Zahra and Riad.  Mastour and Riad were buddies in the Iraqi army.  When Mastour is dying he asks Riad to go to his marsh village and marry his widow Zahra.  Riad says he will.  But it is not so easy for Riad because of all the difficulties before him in facing a somewhat different culture and way of life.  He has to do a lot of negotiating with people to win them over so he can be accepted into the community.  Only then can he marry Zahra.   And Zahra herself is not so easy to win over, but Riad really does love Zahra and he is nothing if not persistent.

Hafsia Herzi (as Zahra) is very young and pretty and Hiam Abbass (as Mastour's mother) is older and also pretty.  Hima Abbass has been in a lot of the films I have seen from the middle east area.  She is Palestinian but plays different Arab roles.  And she is a very good actress.  In this particular film, she does not have the main role, but she has enough of a role to show her acting abilities. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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