The vicious circles of love and cruelty in Poisonous Roses

A thin, somber looking woman wearing a veil walks through the narrow alleys of a tannery district in Cairo, carrying a packed lunch for her brother. After the protagonist, Taheya (Marihan Magdy), drops it off, her brother Saqr (Ibrahim al-Nagari), who works in one of the tanneries, is seen grumbling about his overbearingly doting sister.

The opening scene of Ahmed Fawzi Saleh’s Ward Masmoum (Poisonous Roses, 2018) establishes a tension between Taheya and Saqr that runs throughout the film, coming to the fore as the young woman’s obsessive attachment to her brother becomes increasingly apparent.

The film premiered in January 2018 as part of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR)’s Bright Future section for debut feature films, and was screened in the official competition of the Festival of African, Asian and Latin American Cinema, which was held in Milan in late March. Saleh also wrote the film, which is based on Ahmed Zaghloul al-Shiti’s novel Saqr’s Poisonous Roses (1990). According to the director, however, Taheya’s character is the only loyal aspect of his adaptation, while the rest of the film almost completely departs from the novel’s original premise.

One of the main tenets in Saleh’s version of the story is the creation of social attachment in the context of impoverishment, in a society where people literally work themselves to death. In this light, it is important to construe the psychological world of Taheya, and her social connection to the world as manifested in her relationship with her brother.

It is quite easy to explain Taheya’s story through the prism of political upheaval and poverty in contemporary Egypt, as the program organizers of IFFR have chosen to do in their billing of Poisonous Roses, describing the film as an “intriguing, skittish portrait of poverty in today’s Egypt.” While locating the theme of “poverty in today’s Egypt” within the broader, regional moment of contemporary political upheaval during the “Arab Spring” may make the film appeal to European audiences, it ducks a broader understanding of social formation in the country.

Restricting the social world of the film to the present undermines the more fundamental humanistic tropes it contains, prime amongst which is the brother-sister relationship between Saqr and Taheya. It also anchors the narrative to current concerns in a way that obscures historical structural inequalities, which are as relevant today as any other point in Egypt’s history. I choose to see Poisonous Roses as a more timeless story, not because life in the tanneries is removed and unaffected by the wider world, but because the story actually exemplifies a way to understand the social and political status of any economically unacknowledged segment of the community, regardless of the setting.

This, however, doesn’t negate the significant role that setting plays in Poisonous Roses. Throughout the film one has the sense that the tanneries—and Egypt more generally—are a hazardous place laced with ephemeral violence. Workers are shown operating unsafe industrial equipment and routinely collapsing from exhaustion and over-exposure to toxic chemicals. Even in the narrow, shaded and smoggy streets, the ghostly aura of death seems to be perpetually present. Working and living in this world leads to slow a death, a familiar kind of suffering that Taheya chooses for herself, and seeks to impose on her brother. Saqr, meanwhile, would rather risk his life  trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in a smuggler’s boat in order to scale “fortress Europe.” This is the basic binary the film establishes: two quite different responses to social subjugation.

This leisurely decay depicted in Poisonous Roses was examined more crudely, if also more pedantically, in Saleh’s 2011 documentary Geld Hayy (Living Skin). In this film, Saleh sketches the lives of five child laborers, exploring violence and familial disintegration, aborted education, exploitation and, above all, the dangers of living and working in the tanneries. Many of the boys have been coerced into leaving school and working in the tanneries by their fathers, who see this harsh life as natural and unavoidable. Yet the children themselves yearn to leave. “If you worked here for half an hour, you would curse the day you were born,”one of them says. “Here, it smells. Crap and noise. Outside is quiet and clean.”

Although the outside world is physically very close, it feels like a foreign country. A decent life beyond the tanneries is almost impossible for these youth. A life where people wear unstained clothes as opposed to dirty smocks all day, without putrid smells and forced labor—where children can make mistakes without being killed or permanently maimed. Living Skin shows the tanneries through the eyes of young boys and their fathers, who are forced to perform dangerous jobs, while their mothers and sisters are shown in the background, left at home to do the housework.

In Poisonous Roses, however, Taheya, who could easily be the sister of one of the young men in Living Skin, is the protagonist. She is an exception within the world of the tanneries, having found a job in the wider world as a cleaner of public toilets. This grueling work has earned her control over her household, and placed her, in the domestic hierarchy, above her mother, who does low-paid wage work in the tanneries. Because Taheya’s job has made her the only person with substantial access to the outside world, she has the final say on all matters at home, appearing as an arch-matriarch throughout the film.

While Saqr constructs an idea of life beyond the tanneries as clean and tranquil, for Taheya it is suffocating and hostile, and she sagely notes that neither she nor her brother can cope with its norms or social language. She becomes the pessimistic pragmatist, preferring slow death in the tanneries to the more alien cruelty of life in the outer world, which, we come to understand, has taken her father.

Saleh, with the help of cinematographer Maged Nader, successfully conveys the stark difference between the two worlds from Taheya’s vantage point. In the tanneries, the camera is patient. It lingers freely as though in its native land of light and colour and movement. It moves with Taheya, taking the audience along to discover her world in shots that are wide and loose. We see the alleys through her eyes, familiarly and intimately. Outside, on the other hand, the camerawork is stilted and strangled, as close shots show Taheya in a constant state of alertness; anxious to recoil back to the dank sub-district of the tanneries.

In her continuous attempts to avoid the seeming pattern of loss in her life, Taheya’s affection for her brother begins to assume abnormal dimensions. Her obsessive care for Saqr is expressed most conventionally in how she feeds and looks after him, but at other times she takes this to the extreme, seeking the help of a warlock (Mahmoud Hemeida) in an attempt to keep him all to herself.

In the context of the traumatized and traumatic environment Taheya inhabits, social taboos break down, allowing her to express her feelings in a primitive way. When her brother tells her “I love you,” she replies with “Would you marry me?” Emotions translate directly into actions for her. This partially explains her unusual attachment to her brother as the only tactic through which she can make sense of the world and fantasize about a decent life. It is “an attachment that might become a solidarity that could produce more and better traction in the world,” as expressed by affect theorist Lauren Berlant in her study Cruel Optimism (2011).

Berlant describes “cruel optimism” most basically as “a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic.” While, generally, attachments can be optimistic, if they bring something that cannot be generated on one’s own, this optimism becomes cruel when the “object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially.” Taheya’s attachment to her brother is tied to a persistent desire for an imagined good life, or what Berlant refers to as “the scene of fantasy.” She presumes that keeping her brother close will meaningfully improve her world. Such wishful thinking is cruel as it keeps her from pursuing an actual good life, trapping her in a circle of profound and constant threat: the precarity of existence in the tanneries.

Poisonous Roses marks the next step in Saleh’s development as a storyteller. In Living Skin, the people of the tanneries were shown as subjects of an artistic project with a clear developmental message. In this film, however, the director is aware of the complex imposition of  perceived political contexts on any modern art from the Middle East. Although Living Skin foreshadows  the realism of Poisonous Roses, the first can plausibly be seen as research for the latter, an enacted background study for a more sophisticated examination of misery and crisis at the economic bottom.


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