Asfour Stah (1990)

AKA Halfaouine: Child Of the Terraces

Review: “Halfaouine, Boy of the Terraces” is a charming coming-of-age film from Tunisia that takes a rare look at the inner workings of Arabic culture — the stone- walled streets, alleys, rooftops and households of everyday Tunisia, where traditions seem little interrupted by the modern world.

With its focus on Muslim women, as seen through the eyes of a pubescent boy, this exotic production from African Arabic writer- director Ferid Boughedir is an amusing, poignant celebration of women in a culture where they are mostly veiled.

The straightforward story focuses on a 13-year-old boy named Noura (Selim Boughedir, the director’s nephew) in the summer when he still hangs around the house with his mother and aunts. His merchant father is off tending shop.

One of the delights of life for the Muslim women is to go to a bathhouse, and the mother takes Noura with her. Little does she know his eyes grow wider as he gapes at the bare breasts through the teasing veils of bath mist. He is soon overtaken by a sense of eroticism he can’t quite understand.

Noura’s awakenings bring to him an awareness of playful, sometimes lascivious sexual interchanges everywhere he turns. Two older boys he tries to befriend are constantly pestering girls, but they dismiss Noura as too “babyish” to understand why. The boy hangs around the shop of a local cobbler who is also a balladeer, and who seeks a fervent courtship with Noura’s recently divorced aunt. Even  Noura’s father sometimes seems a little overly affectionate toward his prettier customers.

The boy soon begins to regale his previously scornful buddies with tales from the baths, and they trade comic books for more voyeuristic details. But Noura is caught and banished from the baths.

The film maker takes none of it too seriously, which gives his tale a genuine sweetness, and the boy is a delight throughout.

Boughedir’s movie is radical, too, for its look at Muslim women, how they interact, how they gossip and in fact how they look without gowns and veils.

In a not-so-subtle subplot, the film maker interweaves the unrelenting work of political fundamentalists who are always on the prowl for violators of Muslim moral codes or for critics of the repressive, fundamentalist-driven political regime.

Starring: Selim Boughedir, Mustapha Adouani, Rabiah Ben-Abdullah, Mohamed Driss, Helene Catzaras, Fatma Ben Saidane, Abdelhamid Guayas, Jamel Sassi, Radhouane Meddeb, Carolyn Chelby, Zahira Ben Ammar, Fethi Haddaoui, Issa Harrath, Taoufik Chabchoub, Slah Msadek, Jamila Ourabi, Aziza Boulabiar