Beneath the veil: Atiq Rahimi's 'Patience Stone' charts an Afghan woman's awakening


When director Atiq Rahimi applied for a permit to film in his native Kabul, he told Afghan authorities he was making a documentary about quail fighting, a popular and longstanding pastime among the city’s male population. Actually, he was on location for The Patience Stone, the story of a woman caring for her unconscious husband in a neighborhood engulfed in sectarian violence. As for the quails and the men who bet on them, they do appear in the movie, and play a role in the life of Rahimi’s female character.

The Patience Stone, to be released by Sony Pictures Classics in August, is Rahimi’s second feature. Like his first, Earth and Ashes (2004), it is based on his published work, in this case a novel of the same title. Rahimi co-wrote the screenplay with Jean-Claude Carrière (Goya’s Ghosts, Birth, Valmont), known for his decades-long collaboration with Luis Buñuel. A Tribeca Film Festival screening of the movie brought the director to New York City in April.

“The novel grew out of the idea that the comatose husband becomes his wife’s ‘patience stone,’” Rahimi explains. An object of Persian folklore, the stone absorbs the woes of a troubled soul. When replete, it shatters, and frees the person of their unhappy memories. In Rahimi’s movie, the nameless woman, unsure whether her husband can hear her, confesses her many disappointments in their loveless marriage.

Rahimi speaks French during our interview, but his native language is Dari, a dialect of Farsi spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is also the language of The Patience Stone, and the one Rahimi used in writing his novella, “Earth and Ashes.” Set in 1979, it draws upon his memories of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. By that time, his parents had left Kabul, his father having served jail time as a political prisoner, but Rahimi remained in the city to complete high school. During the Russian occupation, life soon became unbearable, and the director, along with a group of friends that included his future wife, escaped to Pakistan. There, he was granted asylum by French authorities, and went to Paris to continue his education. The Patience Stone, an indictment of Afghan customs and Muslim practices that oppress women, was written in French. “There was too much self-censorship when I tried Dari,” Rahimi says.

The screen adaptation allowed the writer-director to reimagine his story in his native tongue. “The question then became,” he says, “what actress would say these things?” Traditional values prevent Afghan women from speaking the lines of Rahimi’s character, even in intimate relationships. The role also carried the risk of condemnation from religious authorities, the kind that Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani (Body of Lies) encountered in 2009 when she appeared in public bareheaded. Like Rahimi, Farahani found refuge in Paris. Her work is now banned in Iran, the result of her posing nude for a French magazine, declaring it a protest against the restrictive garments Iranian women must wear in public. Farahani, who is well-known to Afghan audiences, seemed a natural choice for The Patience Stone.

Rahimi says he began their collaboration by explaining the character’s predicament. “The starting point of my contact with Golshifteh was the same as the starting point for my direction of the film, of my intentions for the mise en scène,” he explains. “I told her she was to play the role of a woman who regrets never having loved the man who was lying there in this coma.” At the beginning of the movie, the woman is desperate because without her husband, she and her two children are impoverished, but before long she begins to reflect on the irony of continuing their past relationship in which, for instance, she required her husband’s permission to venture outdoors.

As the nameless woman divulges a succession of increasingly shocking revelations to her husband, she exposes a litany of injustices committed against Afghan women by patriarchal authorities. In the end, the woman frees herself of innumerable constraints through the simple yet revolutionary act of speaking aloud, especially about her sexuality.
While the confessions of Rahimi’s protagonist are tinged with remorse, Farahani’s performance also reveals flashes of anger, and a sense of triumph, over the shameful things she endured in order to preserve her marriage. “Golshifteh exposed all of the contradictions that emerged from the character,” Rahimi observes.

Farahani, whose breakout film was The Pear Tree (1998) by iconic Iranian director Dariush Mehrjui, mastered the Dari dialect in rehearsal. “She also had to practice the movements of an Afghan woman,” Rahimi says, referring in part to becoming accustomed to the restrictive garments the actress is so disparaging of in real life. Farahani’s understated performance is the centerpiece of The Patience Stone, and it is especially sublime in a sequence in which her character recalls her father’s quails. The woman, who has never discussed her childhood with her husband, recounts the time her father lost a great deal of money in a quail contest and was unable to pay his debt. His resolution sacrificed her older sister, and marked her rather violent coming-of-age.

Quail fighting is legal in Afghanistan, although the requisite gambling is not. “I sent my actor, the father, to a real quail contest,” Rahimi explains. “He is a man who raises quails. Besides my DP, he was the only person there who knew he was being filmed.” Rahimi’s cinematographer, Thierry Arbogast (The Lady, The Fifth Element), was disguised in Afghan clothing, and filming was accomplished with a very small digital camera. About 30 percent of The Patience Stone was shot on location in Kabul where, the filmmaker says, he encountered fewer problems than he expected. Farahani was left behind in Morocco to shoot the interior scenes, which comprise the remainder of the movie. “She would have attracted far too much attention on the streets,” Rahimi says, “and we could not risk that.”

The Patience Stone suggests that the unnamed woman’s realization of her desire for tenderness in her sexual relationship with her husband is the first real step toward her liberation. At one point, she admonishes him for never having kissed her. “Of course, a man and a woman, when they are making love in Afghanistan, they kiss each other,” Rahimi says, “but it is not that kind of passionate making out that Westerners seem to have. The woman had seen this in movies, and it is that sort of a kiss that she was missing and that she wanted.” Rahimi says his inspiration for the scene was the haiku-like recitations of Pashtun women. “The one I wanted to reference goes like this: ‘Put your mouth on mine, but let my tongue be free so that I can tell you that I love you.’”

Having envisioned a liberated feminine spirit through his fictional character, Rahimi then proceeds to remind Muslims of the importance of women in Islamic practice. “In Persian mystical tradition,” he observes, “God is always a woman.” In the course of his character’s ruminations, Rahimi introduces a hadith, one of a collection of stories attributed to the founder of Islam. This one is about Mohammed’s first wife Khadija, widely understood in the Muslim world as the woman who fostered his calling. “Khadija is the one who says to Mohammed: ‘You are a prophet,’” Rahimi explains. “Muslims forget this. The most important feminine figure is banned from Muslim practice.” In the movie, the woman’s aunt (Hassina Burgan), a prostitute, explains the hadith to her. “That will rouse a traditional audience,” Rahimi says.

The Patience Stone will not be screened widely in Afghanistan, although it will open in Kabul. For now, Rahimi jokes, he is content with being thought of as female. “Apparently, everyone has asked if I am a woman,” he says, referring to the New York press who could not distinguish gender from his given name, and who assumed that Rahimi’s feminist perspective could only be that of a woman filmmaker. “It is quite a compliment,” he remarks.