This early piece of Mona Hatoum is jarring. The raw directness of the relationship between a mother and daughter is almost too much to handle. The video starts with close-up images of what appears to be body parts, behind a translucent drop, covered with Arabic script. Visually, these images are threatening to a Western observer viewing this video after 9/11. Arabic is associated with terror, the Other, the unknown. The juxtaposition of the intimacy of another person's body and the ominous nature of the script is puzzling. The combination is further complicated by the image of the female voice and body with Arabic. In our common perception, women of Islam, women associated with Arabic are behind veils, they do not speak out and nor show their body, they are not self-expressive yet the viewer is en face with a very intimate portrait of a woman. At the beginning of the video, there are two women talking in the background in what appears to be Arabic while the viewer is confronted with the images of the body and the script. A woman's voice takes over, reading letters. The letters are from Mona Hatoum's mother to Mona and the age of the voice identifies the reader as the artist herself. Hatoum reads the letters, slowly, clearly, without a trace of emotion.
The letters mention the war, the longing of the mother for Hatoum, sexuality, marriage and the father. The letters are not monotonous and are very layered in meaning. The mother misses Hatoum yet she is pleased by their newfound relationship through Hatoum photographing her and using the mother's videotapes in her work. The mother feels a guilty pleasure in sharing something with her daughter that her husband can't. The sisterhood achieved through their nakedness together is not comprehensible to the father and the mother acknowledges that he seems to feel that Hatoum has trespassed into his territory, claiming his object, as the nakedness of the woman belongs to the husband. Somehow, to the father, the bond between the husband the wife is more private, intimate and sacred than the bond between the two women.
The mother's tone borders on frivolous without ever losing the genuine love and care she has for her daughter. She acknowledges the "fun" in sexuality, claiming that this is one of the primary reasons she wants her daughter to get married. She wants her daughter to cherish her sexuality as men need to prove their manhood every day and a woman is reminded of her sexuality only once a month. These thoughts are obviously affected by the cultural background of the mother and yet do not fit a stereotypical representation of the Muslim female: the mother is outspoken, sincere, and articulate.
It is impossible not to think about Shirin Neshat's images, with provocative, posed portraits of women, juxtaposed with Persian script. I believe that Hatoum's work is visually in dialogue with Neshat's work and yet there is something about Hatoum's work that troubles me and attracts me in a way that Neshat's work does not. The immaculate aesthetic of Neshat's images does not leave room for me. Hatoum's work, on the other hand, turns the mirror to me, showing me what I think and believe through secretly sharing the intimate world between herself and her mother. There is something timeless, universal and beautiful about this gesture and I cannot help but think that the video becomes a means to close the distances, between Hatoum and her mother and between me and the work, rather than measuring those distances.