1. Introduction Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher who wrote on a variety ofsubjects, including his famous work Rabelais and his World, on theFrench Renaissance writerFrançois Rabelais, where he discusses carnivalesqueand Carnival.
By definition, according to Bakhtin, it is the period ofpublic gala that happens annually. Typically, the carnival is when the publicparticipate in a sort of public gatherings.Carnival, however, is when everything (except violence) is allowed.It exists on the “borderline of life and art”.
It is often marked by displaysof grotesqueness. It is a type of communal performance, with no limit betweenperformers and audience. It creates inverse cases and breaks down conventions.It creates the chance for a new perspective and a new order of things.Bakhtin’s “Carnival and Carnivalesque” notes that the carnival isnot a performance, and does not make any difference between the spectators fromthe performer.
All participants in the carnival “live it”, but it is not anextension of the “real world” or “real life” but rather “the world standing onits head”, Bakhtin says. It is the event in which all rules, restrictions andregulations which determine the course of everyday life are suspended, and mostof all the form of hierarchy in society. The “carnival and carnivalesque” create an alternative space, presentedby freedom and equality; class and status are demolished, whereas everyone isequal. People are reborn into truly human relations.
In carnival, the body isfigured not as the individual but as a growing, where life manifests itself notas isolated individuals but as a collective ancestral body. This is not, however,a collective order, since it is also continually in change and renewal, theself is also transgressed through practices such as “masking”.Bakhtin states that the carnival penetrates the house and does notexist merely in the public sphere or some square, but the town’s square andstreets are the central point of the carnival, for they embodied and symbolizedthe carnivalesque idea of being universal and belonging to all and everybody.The core of the carnivalesque sense of the world reflects thechange – the death and rebirth. The carnival is seen as a festival of timewhich demolishes all, and renews all.Carnivalesque imagery is always ambivalent. The carnival unites thetwo poles of change, birth and death, old and young, up and down etc.
Things arereversed; cloths are worn upside down, household items serve as weapons, andthe clown is a king, and the king becomes the clown.2. Bakhtin’s concept of Carnival and Carnival laughterAs I have mentioned previously in the introduction, in Rabelais andhis world, a focus is drawn into the images of folk carnival in the work of theFrench Renaissance writer, Rabelais. He says that the carnival as a “ritualbased on laughter… (that) offered a completely different… extra politicalaspect of the world, of man, and of human relations”. The “folk carnival humor”involves a festive laughter. Therefore it is not an individual reaction to someisolated comic event. Carnival laughter is the laughter of all the people… thislaughter is ambivalent: “it is gay, triumphant, and at the same time mocking, deriding”.
Further, in, where “clowns and fools (characteristicof the medieval humour culture)…were the constant, accredited representativesof the carnival spirit in daily life out of the carnival season”. In Rabelais’ “idiom of carnival forms, symbols and system ofimages”, the carnival idiom includes exaggerated pictures of the “body”, wherethe principle of “material bodily” degrades, resulting in a “lowering of allthat is high”. Bakhtin traces the “grotesque” in literature and finds that’pre-Romanticism and Romanticism witnessed a rebirth of it, but a radically distortedimage. The conversion of the “laughter” turnedinto numerous differences between Romantic grotesque and medieval folkgrotesque.
What I am trying to say here is that on one hand, the romanticgrotesque in literature involves an everyday world that “becomes senseless, questionableand aggressive, as reconciliation takes place in a subjective, lyric, andmystic sphere”. On the other hand, the folk grotesque represents elements ofterror “by comic monsters that were defeated by laughter”.The characteristics of Romantic grotesque present fear of the worldand crave to inspire with it, whereas, the images of folk culture are fearlessand communicate this fearlessness to all. Fear is an “extreme expression ofnarrow-minded and stupid seriousness, which is defeated by laughter… Completeliberty is possible only in the completely fearless world”, Bakhtim says. That is said, certain contemporary cultural forms such as TV shows,reality TV, costume parties, Halloween and festivals retain the nature and functionof the medieval carnival, and this is exactly what I will discuss further in thispaper, applying Bakhtin’s carnival to the Syrian case, embodied first Syrianfilm The Border, then selecting specificrituals of Syrian Kurds and pilgrims in Syria to scrutinize and analyze accordingto Bakhtin’s carnival and Carnivalesque, where the experience would be relatedto the romantic grotesque, fearlessness and freedom. 3. The borderThe film to be discussed is TheBorder, written by the Syrian dramatist and poet Mohamad al-Maghout and producedby the Syrian director and actor Duraid Lahham.
The Border is a film about a character named Wadoud (i.e. friendly),who is a good hearted and simple man, travelling around the country through theseveral borders controlled by two different military sides. Wadoud becomes avictim of border control due to the loss of his passport, as he is neitherallowed to return nor advance, and without any identification documents hecannot be recognized. Wadoud decides to settle in between the two borders wherehe invites soldiers of each side to rejoice in his new café house.The movie shows the frustration and isolation of a man without recognition,leading to his outburst of crossing by force on foot, later on leading to thefatal consequences of his breaking the laws and rules.
Bakhtin explained that “Carnival is not a spectacle seen by people;they live in it”, whilst the actors are immersed “in” the carnival on screen, theaudience will ultimately be “outside” and so the carnival will therefore be “seenby them, the audience”. As I mentioned before, the carnival is a “a festive laughter” thatis “gay”, “triumphant”‘ and “mocking” with an “extra political aspect of theworld, of man, and of human relations” is depicted in a scene of The Border where soldiers of theopposing parties at war rejoice for the opening of Wadoud’s new café. Eventhough there is a line marked in the middle of the café to ensure that theopposing soldiers do not cross into each other’s land, the men drink, feastwith laughter and sing mockingly, all together, happily. Wadoud, in one of the scenes sits in blue shirt, playing on a Syriantraditional instrument, within his café, which is a modest, simple, built ofearthy colored straws, and of his car parts such as the yellow windows andwheels for seats. This successfully and spontaneously creates a carnival spiritthat opposes all that is official, normative and serious. In one of the scenes, mini tables are located on each side, seatingthree military personnel on each side, as the space is furnished and the tableis well-presented with food, while the military personnel are seen eating anddrinking – bringing out the “grotesque realism”. Soldiers can be seen in an exaggerated bodily gestures particularlythe waving of hands and shoulders, adding more comic effect. This is resultedin “lowering of all that is high”.
Besides, everyone rejoices to sing inunison, the music and singing renders a festive carnival spirit, a member ofeach side is also playing an instrument, and the whole atmosphere reinforceshow carnival laughter is the “laughter of all people”. To turn the carnival into one that is “extra political” of theworld and human relations, Wadoud interrupts the mocking and encourages thesoldiers to sing about fraternity and love. He interrupts with singing: “thesetwo flowers are of one stem, love in tough times can erase the borders.
“A spectator can realize that the aspect of the carnivalesquewhere everyone is involved is well depicted in The Border where the “festive spirit” is successfully communicatedto the audience. The way of the carnival spirit embodied in defeating theopponent with laughter or subverting hierarchies of power through derision, canbe employed by an “isolated-comic-event”. In fact, this is indeed the issue of the very film that deals withpolitically tensioned environment, set in troubled land such as Syria, where “politicalactors” are represented and questioned.
The carnival transforms into a tool forpresenting the liberation of the oppressed through laughter where the oppressorcannot be part of the experience of a group of people or an individualresisting the harmful effects of power through laughter. Carnival was described by Bakhtin as an event where “everyoneparticipates” and “since carnival lasts, there is no other life outside”. So far, in The Border,the feast in Wadoud’s cafe depicted a scene of Bakhtin’s carnival where anextra political space or second unreal world, detached from the official sense,was created. However in the ending, reconciliation of terror takes place in theromantic grotesque. The terror is represented by an officer watching the borderwho repeatedly refuses Wadoud from crossing back to his home without findinghis lost passport. Wadoud is deeply frustrated with his repeated failedattempts and despite the public support he got, from all around the (realworld), because of one female reporter who shed light his case on a regionallevel, he is still not allowed to cross without a passport.
Eventually Wadoud lets out his farm animals from the car, holds hiswife by the hand and crosses on foot with a defiant glare forward at whichpoint the camera freezes as the final shot, Wadoud did it, he crossed to theother side. The audience is left skeptic; whether the officer who points a gunat Wadoud’sback will shot him or not. In this very crucial moment, a question is raised ifWadoud will achieve “complete liberty”? His fearlessness was not achieved as a result of “carnival laughter”but rather of “frustration and despair”.
In case of Wadoud, he did not express fear of the military officer,but on the contrary, he was oblivious to the expected and potential consequences,yet the final cut still inspired the audience with fear because of the militaryofficer was pointing the gun at him. In other words, “Images of romanticgrotesque express fear of the world and seek to inspire the reader or viewerwith this fear,” Bakhtin states.The events occurred in TheBorder are deeply close to real life where laughter cannot free victimsfrom oppression, as in the case of some Syrians under the oppression by radicaland extreme ideologies. This leaves for a conclusion that the carnival laughter may achieve”ultimate liberty” for the characters but for the viewers who face similar realisticstruggles, on a daily basis. 4.
Syrian Kurds and the concept of Carnival Carnivalesque isperhaps the best, if not the only way to describe what goes on every March inSyria’s Newroz; the ancient Persian festival, commonly known as Iranian NewYear – the occasion that is also celebrated by Syria’s Kurds, differently. Main events of Newroz start on the eve before holiday at springequinox, mostly on 21th of March. People gather at fires and performtraditional dances (e.g. Dabke). In Aleppo, Kurds gather at shores of MidankiLake where they perform traditional music, dances and expose national symbolsas flags and Kurdish traditional dresses.In addition to its being a holy day for Zoroastrians of Syria,Nowruz is celebrated as well by people from diverse ethnic communities anddifferent religious backgrounds for thousands of years.
It is rather a secularholiday for most celebrants that are enjoyed by people of several differentfaiths.However Bakhtin says that “the carnivalesque sense of the worldpenetrated language and literature” Moreover, the carnivalesque form wasmanifested in a language of artistic imagery that retained the sensual natureof the carnival.For instance, the carnival’s familiarity was transformed intocertain types of prose and is reflected in certain plot structures, situation,narration style and language.
Concerning this specific idea presented byBakhtin, Newroz has been mentioned in works of many Kurdish poets and writersas well as musicians. One of the earliest records of Newroz in Kurdishliterature is from Melayê Cizîrî (1570–1640): Without the light and the fire of Love,Without the Designer and the power of Creator,We are not able to reach Union.(Light is for us and dark is the night)This fire massing and washing the Heart,My heart claimafter itAnd here come Newroz and the NewYear,When such light is rising5. Shia pilgrims in DamascusBakhtin’s”Carnivalesque” can be traced back in the heart of the oldest inhabited capitalin the world, Damascus, the capital of Syria.
Every year, Damascus, in specific oldDamascus, witnesses huge waves of pilgrims, Shia pilgrims mostly, coming to thevery city to pay tributes. Until the very moment of writing these lines,hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit Syria annually. They come to visit Shia religious places,such as the shrines of Zainab and Ruqaia, the Great Mosque, and the Small Door Cemetery,which is a historic graveyard and houses the remains of the Prophet’s wives.
Often,after having visited the Prophet’s “friends and family”, Shia pilgrims pay a visitto one of Prophet’s “friends”grave in order to curse him. Sometimes,they even stone his grave, while his corpse rests underground. Concerned aboutthe reaction of local Sunnis, officials from the Syrian government ordered tobuild a fence around the grave, for protection.
Ironically,situated near the graves of the Prophet’s wives, right exactly near the cemetery,outside of the wall encircling the Old City of Damascus, Shia pilgrims can buy Viagra,sex- enhancement creams, and massage oils.Asfar as I do know, sexual “stuff” has been strictly guarded in the Republic of Syria,and medicines were normally available only at pharmacies. Yet, there in one ofSyria’s most historically and religiously significant cemeteries, makeshiftvendors sold an array of sex-related items, including lingerie! MyConcern in this part of the paper is not -at all- sex objects or other “stuff”needed by pilgrims coming to Syria, but to focus on the very phenomenon of how manyreligious pilgrims might consider the sale of Viagra and the arrangement of “pleasure”relations a sinful aberration, considering it a corrupt practice. In a way oranother, these practices could be seen as modern incarnations of traditionalaspects of shrine visitation. Well,legally speaking, prostitution in Syria is illegal, for now at least, earlierit was (before 2000). The sale ofsex-enhancement medication is generally restricted to pharmacies and othermedical places, as I mentioned before. These practices were symbolicallyrelated to death rites because they resembled Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the carnival.
Accordingto Bakhtin, “medieval societies celebrated the carnival as a time outside of theireveryday, structured lives.” It allowed people to exist briefly beyond thecontrol of the state and the church. Itrelativized institutionalized authorities and inverted social norms.Insuch sense, Shia pilgrims in Syria, mainly in Damascus, constituted aBakhtinian carnival.
Invisiblefrom and beyond the surveillance of their strict and traditional societies, pilgrimswere temporarily “liberated” in Syria. Inother words, the conservative Iranian women, for example, do not travel longdistances without a male escort. However, for this reason, meaning the purpose of pilgrimage, thousandsof Iranian women move hundreds of miles, alone. In such case, no one cares. These women advertised, organized, andnegotiated the logistics of the journey, they are fully independent now. Tosome extent, and in some cases, they bossed around male tour guides and bus drivers,whose jobs have been reversed from the conventional gender role; embodied incooking and cleaning up after female pilgrims.
Inbrief, pilgrimages were “carnivalesque” because they allowed forinversions in gender roles and hierarchies, “an attitude towards the worldwhich liberates from fear,” Bakhtin says.Moreover,crowded streets and cafes, houses and fast food shops encouraged men and womento mingle. For example, on Ashura,in Iraq, bare-chested men march around the shrine. Accompanied by the rhythmicbeating of drums, hundreds of men hit their chests and wound their bodies withsharp tools. Even pious women did not refrain from “ogling” the men. Like Bakhtin’s carnival, death rites includedthe public parading of grotesque bodies.
The flagellants’ bleeding bodies drew everyone’s attention to carnalmatters: pain, death – and implicitly tolife and sex. 6. Result and Conclusion Thegrotesque, exaggerated body and the bringing down-to-earth of systemic abstractionsare present even in such small, apparently apolitical gestures.
They signifywhat is missing in the official picture – much as those who perform such actsare often excluded from the “official world”. Therefore, carnivalesque remainsa potential counter-power in everyday life and activism, but is “cramped” inits potential by the repressive construction of spaces of monologue. Medievalcarnival was possible because the spaces it inhabited could be carved-out anddefended through the “arts of resistance” and the power of the weak. There is aneed to recompose such powers to resist, in order recreating spaces wherealternatives can proliferate.