Carpet, Cinema, Capital & Colonialism

The massive carpet (c.850 sq.ft.) that adorns the famous Morning Drawing Room of Holyrood House (the Queen’s residence in Edinburgh) was made in a weaving village near Mirzapur in northern India. It took seventeen months to make and was put together by 12 workers, all males, each paid about 600 rupees a month (equal to roughly £25 in 1987 when the carpet was commissioned). OCM (Oriental Carpet Manufacturers), which received the commission (and well over a million pounds for it??), had for decades had no presence in the Mirzapur carpet industry and only established one when it took over E.F. Hill’s business in 1944. By the late 1980s OCM had become a division of Ralli Brothers, having been acquired through a City investment firm whose partners were directors of Rallis; this happened between 1969 and 1972. The gap between the royal sum received for the Holyrood carpet and the wages that went into its Indian manufacture seems staggering, but of course it was and is typical of the carpet industry worldwide.

In 1972 the Moroccan film maker Souheil Ben Barka made a stunning feature film, Les Mille et Une Mains (One Thousand and One Hands), that revolves precisely around the relations between capital and labor in this industry. What makes the film so powerful is that Ben Barka chose to depict those relations without the least hint of allegory. The characters on either side of the class divide do not “personify” the social functions they embody, there is nothing “empty” about their passionate subjectivities, rather the film works as a condensed and searing image of the lived relations between groups that are poles apart both economically and culturally (as with the royal establishment at Holyrood & the weavers of Mirzapur). This is the world depicted in Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, except here, in the film, the employer is a wealthy Moroccan carpet manufacturer (married to a European), part of a culturally hybrid economic élite, which may well be why the film never received proper distribution in Morocco. Ben Barka built the aesthetics of his film around what he called “the opposition of which the carpet is a symbol—it is a very beautiful piece of furnishing but its manufacture is based on the most frightful exploitation of workers. It was essential to have this antagonism expressed at a purely formal level as well”, which he did in part through his controlled use of vivid colours. “I want to make the kind of cinema that is grounded essentially in the image”, he said at the time.

There is scarcely any dialogue in the film. This is deliberate. I love cinema that refuses any abusive recourse to words
Berber songs and the sounds of the medina punctuate the soundtrack.

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One Thousand and One Hands is practically a silent film, but one where a revolt of the oppressed rumbles beneath the silence. It is the story of a family of Marrakesh carpet dyers. When the head of the family Moha sustains a severe back injury that leads eventually to his death, the doctors react with pure indifference, as the merchant-employer Jamal does when the old man’s son Miloud tries twice to meet him only to be rebuffed. All this leads to the violent climax that follows when Miloud breaks into the employer’s home and murders his French wife by strangling her. “Captured, tried and condemned, he languishes in prison for the rest of his life”. (Sada Niang’s book Nationalist African Cinema has a brilliant discussion of the film’s “aesthetics” in a chapter called “Neorealism and Nationalist African Cinema”, esp. at pp.41ff.)

It was extraordinary that any filmmaker should make a political film about class in the repressive climate of the sixties and seventies, but Ben Barka had trained in Italy, was strongly influenced by neorealism, and had worked closely with Pasolini. Soon after Ben Barka’s film was made, an official from the Ministry of Information in Rabat asked another director Mostafa Derkaoui what his film About Some Meaningless Events (1974) was about. When Derkaoui replied “Unemployment”, the film was promptly banned!

In the second longest chapter of The Wretched of the Earth Fanon drew attention to the disillusionment that sets in soon after decolonization because the masses understand that little has changed. He refers there to the bourgeoisie of the Arab world as a “caste”, foregrounds their rapacity, says they are “not even the replica of Europe, but its caricature”, and describes the leaders of the newly independent nations as “a screen between the people and the rapacious bourgeoisie”, someone who simply closes his eyes to the “insolence”, “mediocrity” and “fundamental immorality” of that “caste”.

Frantz Fanon

There is no doubt that Ben Barka was strongly influenced by a reading of Fanon, but equally clear that he must have known that a critique of capital was easier than a critique of the leaders who acted as a “screen” between the masses and the bourgeoisie. But Fanon’s critique doesn’t only apply to the repressive regimes of the middle east, it works with equal force for “democracies” like India, except that here the “screens” are even more opaque and more heavily laden with cultural garbage and meaningless political bombast.

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Jairus Banaji Written by:

Jairus Banaji is a well-known historian and Marxist intellectual

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