Language is a precious thing for writer and film-maker Atiq Rahimi, the bearer of Afghan and French passports: witness the process he followed to adapt his 2008 novel Syngué Sabour, translated into English as The Patience Stone, for the screen. After writing three novels in his native Dari – one of the two main languages of Afghanistan – Rahimi turned to French for this fourth book, which won France’s top literature award, the Prix Goncourt.
He found that the story of an Afghan woman who cares for her much older husband after he is paralysed by a bullet required an earthy language anchored in reality, such as French, as opposed to a lyrical, unworldly one, such as Dari. As the wife confides her years of pent-up frustrations to her prone, speechless husband, her language is by turns loving, crude, determined and fearful. It is all French. So it’s interesting that Rahimi decided to revert to Dari for the film version.
“When it was in novel form I started to translate The Patience Stone from French into Dari, but I just couldn’t do it,” says Rahimi, whose carefully studied appearance – goatee beard, wide-brimmed felt hat and flowing foulard – gives him a swashbuckling air. “Cinema was a way for me to translate my novel, not only into images but also into my mother tongue,” he continues. “By using images I found myself able to sidestep my reserve regarding the language and what it can express. Even my actress, Golshifteh Farahani, who is incredibly open-minded, would say to me ‘No, Atiq, I can’t say something like that in Dari.’ So I used images to say things that I couldn’t say with dialogue.”
We are sitting in Rahimi’s work den in Montparnasse, a place of “solitude” to which he can escape. “As I’m an insomniac, it’s very difficult for my family [his wife and two children] to see me still up at four or five in the morning ... ”
He wrote much of the script for The Patience Stone here, aided by the veteran French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière who was Bunuel’s writing partner for many years. “We work well together,” he says, alternately munching from a bowl of sesame seeds and sipping on a Scotch. “I came up with the structure and he is terrific with the details. One of the things we discussed at length was how to transform the present into the past in the way Bergman does in Wild Strawberries. Jean-Claude was very adept at incorporating flashbacks without making them too obvious.”
Initially Rahimi was worried that Farahani, an Iranian actress who starred in Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly (2009) and appeared with Leonardo DiCaprio in Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies (2008), might be wrong for the main part. “I didn’t want her beauty to detract from the character’s story,” he says. “But when I’d done some tests and she told me about the things she’d experienced in Iran, I knew I’d found the right actress. Apparently at one time she used to walk around the streets of Tehran with her head shaved, disguised as a boy, so that she didn’t have to cover up.”
Rahimi’s green eyes twinkle as he recounts Farahani’s rebellious behaviour. In his captivating film, where myth and reality are constantly in flux, we discover the sadness of a culture in which women are reduced to a question of sexuality not personality. “In Afghan society there is the idea that if a woman’s ankle or her hair is visible then it is enticing,” he says, momentarily evincing the hint of a stutter now all but mastered. “You have to be sexually obsessed to think that way. So yes, indeed, a woman is reduced to her sexual function.”
While many have compared The Patience Stone to the story of Scheherazade it was Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel of a fallen woman who dared act out her fantasies, Madame Bovary, that Rahimi says was “a huge indirect influence”. Rahimi has had a long love affair with French literature. Born in Kabul in 1962, he was educated at the elite Franco-Afghan Lycée Esteqlal, which still operates in the Afghan capital today. “My father was a germanophone, my brother, sister and mother were anglophones,” he explains. “They wanted someone from the family to be a francophone.” Later, as a university student in Kabul, Rahimi was censored by the dominant communist youth committee for giving a talk on Albert Camus, whom they accused of being a “bourgeois intellectual”.
“For the communists who held power at the time, Camus, Sartre, even André Malraux were all held to have been in foreign pay,” he says. “I didn’t want to ally myself with the young communist movement, or the royalists who my father supported, I was perturbed by all that.” Instead Rahimi sought asylum in France, where he arrived in 1985. After completing his film studies at the Sorbonne he joined a Paris-based production company for whom he directed several documentaries, including one about Afghanistan’s exiled former monarch, Mohammed Zahir Shah.
In 2000 he published his first novel Earth and Ashes, a Beckettian tale of thwartedness about an old man and his grandchild set during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which he also crafted into a compelling film in 2004. Two years before that, after the fall of the Taliban, he had ended 17 years of exile by returning to Kabul. There he employed a primitive box camera left behind by the British 150 years earlier to take photographs of his war-wounded city: last year the Victoria and Albert Museum in London purchased six of these pictures for their permanent collection. And his latest novel A Curse on Dostoevsky, which revisits Crime and Punishment in an Afghan setting, has recently been translated into English.
His current projects include another screenplay with Carrière, which is set between Brussels and India, and a Paris exhibition of his photographs and calligraphy, some examples of which he proudly shows me. “When I’ve written a novel it’s very hard for me to throw myself straight into another one,” he says. “Yet I can’t not work, I have to find something to do. I’m excited by each different art form for the way it can reveal a different dimension of a reality or a thought.”
Throughout Rahimi’s novels and films we encounter characters who have lost their power of speech or are somehow stymied in the way they express themselves or understand others. It is a theme that Rahimi believes will continue to absorb him. “For centuries there was a pressure, a form of dictatorship which emanated as much from religion as it did from tradition and politics,” he says. “The goal was to forbid people from speaking up. Even today in Afghanistan our lips are sealed, our ears and our bodies are sealed. Our problem is not to be or not to be, but to say or not to say.”
‘The Patience Stone’ is released in the UK on December 6