The Silences of the Palace


The Silences of the Palace, a Tunisian film co-written and directed by Moufida Tlatli, transports viewers to the 1950s, when the Beys ruled Tunisia. Tatli situates the action of the film in this historical context. Alia is a 15-year-old maid in 1955, the year when the revolution broke out. She lives in seclusion with her mother Khedija and other maids in the palace of a family governed by The Beys. Ten years later, she is a 25-year-old singer and lives with Lotfi. Beyond focusing on the repression of women in Tunisia in the second half of the 20th century, Tlatli also carries out a portrait of women living in community. The Silences of the Palace is an incursion of a particular setting, where women did not abandon their sensuality despite abuses and developed their own systems of comfort and support.
When Alia visits the palace where she was born, to present her respect to the family of Sidi Ali, she remembers her past. This visit provokes a strong emotional reaction in Alia, who decides to affirm her independence of Lotfi. For Alia, there is the world of the servants, the kitchen and the lower parts of the palace and, at the other extreme, the world of the Beys and their families in the upper rooms. As she grew up, Alia discovered the ruthless and cruel domination exercised by the Beys over servitude, as well as the rivalries between the princesses and the servants. For Alia, the return to the past is a mental and emotional journey at the end of which she discovers herself, understands her mother and decides to affirm her independence.
Presenting the Beys’ lives and their activities is a strategy that allows Tatli to remind viewers that Tunisia was a colonized country, and that the French had a strong presence in Tunisia. Thus, Tatli introduces the two worlds: that of the servants where the women follow the Tunisian customs, and that of the Beys, whose tastes and culture are molded by France and the western world. The relationship between the using of the female servants and the abuse of the Tunisian population by the French colonists is strengthened since the beginning of the film until the liberation of Tunisia and Alia is achieved. Also the conversations between the French leaders and the Beys about the rebellion are reminders of France’s authoritarian rule over Tunisia. The French ask the Beys to take part in their favor, and to declare criminals the nationalist freedom fighters.
Servant women were never alerted about the things that occurred in the outsides of the palace, which means that the Beys controlled their lives all the time. It is quite obvious that the Beys in the palace discriminate the rights of the Tunisian women by obligating the women to work for them and prohibiting them to know what happened in the outsides. The servant women recognized this discrimination, but they didn’t have any way to resist or fight for themselves. Tatli focuses on patriarchy while displaying the lives of these servant women who are not able to leave the palace.
Between the servitude and the Beys there is desire and sexual attraction. At night, Khedija goes up when Sidi Ali calls, and during the day, Sidi Ali goes down to Khedija’s room. When Sidi Ali asks Khedija to bring him tea, he, Khediya and everyone else knew it was a euphemism for “come up so we can make love.” Alia witnesses the way her mother and other young maids are wished and used by princes as sexual partners. As an adult, Alia recalls that at 15 she attracted the attention of Sidi Ali and Sidi Bechir, the young princes and even Houssine. Soon the young woman became the object of desire of all the men around her and they would have taken advantage of her as well as her mother. With all that, Tatli seeks to denounce the sexual exploitation, selfishness and aggressive brutality of men, but it is also a strategy that allows her to focus on the plea of women. Gendered violence is shown in the nationalist figures imposed inside and outside the palace, and is obvious in the separation and segregation of the female servants of the palace.
Tatli also uses the character of Alia to criticize the unjust status of female singers in the Arab society. These women were held in low esteem, since they were associated with drinking, gambling and prostitution. Except when she singings the revolutionary song in front of the Beys, Alia sang songs by Um Kulthum, the legendary Egyptian singer known in the Arab world. Um Kulthum is considered a singer who represents the conservatism of the Arab bourgeoisie, but her name also denotes the strength, determination and intelligence of a woman of the lower class who gets fame and power. In referring to Um Kulthum, Tatli proposes a powerful woman model.
The director of the film commits an act of nushuz, which is female insubordination in front of men, by breaking the silences of the palace. In the past, Tunisian women only talked to each other about the secrets of bedroom, intrigue, suffering and abuse. Khalti Hadda says to Alia: “it is better not to say these things”. But Tatli exposes them, and in doing so, she is a pioneer in exploring an important area of investigation: the silence of women who hide the violence against her and tacitly accept it. Thus, Tatli conveys a powerful feminist message because it positions viewers strategically to witness the depth and emotion generated by the portrait of the feminine space, of female intimacy, of the bond between mother and daughter and of solidarity among women.
Throughout the entire film, Alia’s battle for independence against the abuse of at the palace, and Tunisia’s battle for freedom from the French people gives importance to the oppression of women in the film. It also helps the viewers understand the different types of gender violence that women in those times had to face. Due to the Beys’ oppression of the servants and manifested violence of the patriarchy, women’s actions, bodies and choices were delimited by the assumptions of others. Alia does not let the memories of her younger years destroy her life. At the end of the movie, the viewers get to see Alia keep her baby, which encourages her to be certain that she will have a new life of her own and will also be able to leave back her abusive past. She obtains independence in the Tunisian society and she is no longer a victim of sexual oppression. She is her own savior of the sexual oppression that defined her entire life. If women are exposed to be victims of sexual oppression, it is not because they are not able to act against it, it is because of the oppression that prohibits them to speak out.

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