- The Veil as National Allegory:Cinema, Visual Arts, and the Epistemological Trope of Fabric
For many decades, cinema has been the predominant modern medium for constructing national self-images, according to Ella Shohat and Robert Stam ("Introduction" 9). One may assign this role, by extension, to other types of audiovisual culture. Since the Iranian revolution, the trope of the (Islamic) veil, particularly in cinema and on TV, has been considered a national allegory defining Middle Eastern cultures. Shohat, Hamid Naficy, and Faegheh Shirazi, among other scholars, have critiqued discourses on the cinematic veil, which they view as either exoticizing or patronizing Middle Eastern women. This criticism can be extended to representations of the veil in visual arts and in popular culture. This article will not engage with readings of the veil as a sign of male oppression and/or oversexualization. Rather, this essay discusses instances in which the agency of the veil is more complex than merely a propaganda icon to rally conservative Muslims or mobilize groups wary of the increasing presence of "non-Western" visual signs in the public sphere.
The veil is defined here as fabric used in conjunction with the human body in order to enhance or control its eroticism, to organize a social space, to produce a national self-image, or to metaphorically stimulate a particular experience of knowledge. Taking various examples from cinema and visual arts, I argue that the veil is not an exclusive Islamic paradigm, nor a female-only issue. It defines a specific experience of knowledge and hence specific "national" cultures. The first part of this article surveys several aspects of the cinematic agency of fabric as a major cultural-specific trope; in other words, as a veil in the broad sense outlined above. The second part focuses on the particular case of the trope of fabric in the cinematic manufacturing of Palestinian identity. The third part is centered on visual arts, specifically photography, exploring the motif of the veil as an epistemological metaphor, both as an interface with the Sacred and as a postcolonial marker of identity. [End Page 243]
This article proposes two hypotheses about the cultural agency of the veil. First, I argue the existence of a repertoire of the functions and effects of the trope of the veil in cinema, in terms of its eroticism, and its roles as an organizer of cinematic space and as an icon of Middle Eastern national identities embodied in their respective national cinemas. Second, I propose that the veil is an epistemological metaphor that defines two opposed paradigms: the Greek and the Semitic. One represents the total unveiling and total exposure of truth, transcendence, and knowledge; the other represents the dialectic of covering/uncovering, in which knowledge is always defined by a positioning towards transcendence and the dialectics of veiling/unveiling are the complex play that leads to knowledge. The veil, therefore, is not only about uncovering, but also about covering in order to know better.
The veil refers here not only to the Islamic hijab, but more generally to fabric, or the visual effect of fabric, that is used to articulate either the modesty or the eroticism of the human body, of any gender. It is fabric that articulates space, filters light to produce various effects and affects, functions as meta-skin for erotic or anti-erotic purposes, and signifies social segregation or hierarchialization. In this broad understanding of the trope, the veil can be transparent muslin surrounding beds, fabric covering the female body, belly dancers' outfits revealing the thighs and the abdomen, or curtains separating the ruler from the rest of the court. What all of these veils have in common is the agency or the effect of fabric, not the particular use of fabric in one conservative understanding, among many others, in a particular culture. In fact, the argument of this paper is not a widening of the veil's semantic scope, but rather a restoration of the diversity originally expressed by the word veil in English and voile in French, as opposed to hijab in Arabic. Where the European words imply both hiding and revealing at the same time, the Arabic word stems from a...