Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher who wrote on a variety of
subjects, including his famous work Rabelais and his World, on the
French Renaissance writer
François Rabelais, where he discusses carnivalesque
and Carnival. By definition, according to Bakhtin, it is the period of
public gala that happens annually. Typically, the carnival is when the public
participate 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 displays
of grotesqueness. It is a type of communal performance, with no limit between
performers 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 is
not a performance, and does not make any difference between the spectators from
the performer. All participants in the carnival “live it”, but it is not an
extension of the “real world” or “real life” but rather “the world standing on
its head”, Bakhtin says. It is the event in which all rules, restrictions and
regulations which determine the course of everyday life are suspended, and most
of all the form of hierarchy in society.
The “carnival and carnivalesque” create an alternative space, presented
by freedom and equality; class and status are demolished, whereas everyone is
equal. People are reborn into truly human relations. In carnival, the body is
figured not as the individual but as a growing, where life manifests itself not
as isolated individuals but as a collective ancestral body. This is not, however,
a collective order, since it is also continually in change and renewal, the
self is also transgressed through practices such as “masking”.
Bakhtin states that the carnival penetrates the house and does not
exist merely in the public sphere or some square, but the town’s square and
streets are the central point of the carnival, for they embodied and symbolized
the carnivalesque idea of being universal and belonging to all and everybody.
The core of the carnivalesque sense of the world reflects the
change – the death and rebirth. The carnival is seen as a festival of time
which demolishes all, and renews all.
Carnivalesque imagery is always ambivalent. The carnival unites the
two poles of change, birth and death, old and young, up and down etc. Things are
reversed; cloths are worn upside down, household items serve as weapons, and
the clown is a king, and the king becomes the clown.
2. Bakhtin’s concept of Carnival and Carnival laughter
As I have mentioned previously in the introduction, in Rabelais and
his world, a focus is drawn into the images of folk carnival in the work of the
French Renaissance writer, Rabelais. He says that the carnival as a “ritual
based on laughter… (that) offered a completely different… extra political
aspect 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 some
isolated comic event. Carnival laughter is the laughter of all the people… this
laughter is ambivalent: “it is gay, triumphant, and at the same time mocking, deriding”.
Further, in, where “clowns and fools (characteristic
of the medieval humour culture)…were the constant, accredited representatives
of the carnival spirit in daily life out of the carnival season”. In Rabelais’ “idiom of carnival forms, symbols and system of
images”, the carnival idiom includes exaggerated pictures of the “body”, where
the principle of “material bodily” degrades, resulting in a “lowering of all
that is high”.
Bakhtin traces the “grotesque” in literature and finds that
‘pre-Romanticism and Romanticism witnessed a rebirth of it, but a radically distorted
image. The conversion of the “laughter” turned
into numerous differences between Romantic grotesque and medieval folk
What I am trying to say here is that on one hand, the romantic
grotesque in literature involves an everyday world that “becomes senseless, questionable
and aggressive, as reconciliation takes place in a subjective, lyric, and
mystic sphere”. On the other hand, the folk grotesque represents elements of
terror “by comic monsters that were defeated by laughter”.
The characteristics of Romantic grotesque present fear of the world
and crave to inspire with it, whereas, the images of folk culture are fearless
and communicate this fearlessness to all. Fear is an “extreme expression of
narrow-minded and stupid seriousness, which is defeated by laughter… Complete
liberty 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 function
of the medieval carnival, and this is exactly what I will discuss further in this
paper, applying Bakhtin’s carnival to the Syrian case, embodied first Syrian
film The Border, then selecting specific
rituals of Syrian Kurds and pilgrims in Syria to scrutinize and analyze according
to Bakhtin’s carnival and Carnivalesque, where the experience would be related
to the romantic grotesque, fearlessness and freedom.
The film to be discussed is The
Border, written by the Syrian dramatist and poet Mohamad al-Maghout and produced
by 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 the
several borders controlled by two different military sides. Wadoud becomes a
victim of border control due to the loss of his passport, as he is neither
allowed to return nor advance, and without any identification documents he
cannot be recognized. Wadoud decides to settle in between the two borders where
he 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 the
fatal 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, the
audience will ultimately be “outside” and so the carnival will therefore be “seen
by them, the audience”.
As I mentioned before, the carnival is a “a festive laughter” that
is “gay”, “triumphant”‘ and “mocking” with an “extra political aspect of the
world, of man, and of human relations” is depicted in a scene of The Border where soldiers of the
opposing parties at war rejoice for the opening of Wadoud’s new café. Even
though there is a line marked in the middle of the café to ensure that the
opposing soldiers do not cross into each other’s land, the men drink, feast
with laughter and sing mockingly, all together, happily.
Wadoud, in one of the scenes sits in blue shirt, playing on a Syrian
traditional instrument, within his café, which is a modest, simple, built of
earthy colored straws, and of his car parts such as the yellow windows and
wheels for seats. This successfully and spontaneously creates a carnival spirit
that opposes all that is official, normative and serious.
In one of the scenes, mini tables are located on each side, seating
three military personnel on each side, as the space is furnished and the table
is well-presented with food, while the military personnel are seen eating and
drinking – bringing out the “grotesque realism”.
Soldiers can be seen in an exaggerated bodily gestures particularly
the waving of hands and shoulders, adding more comic effect. This is resulted
in “lowering of all that is high”. Besides, everyone rejoices to sing in
unison, the music and singing renders a festive carnival spirit, a member of
each side is also playing an instrument, and the whole atmosphere reinforces
how carnival laughter is the “laughter of all people”.
To turn the carnival into one that is “extra political” of the
world and human relations, Wadoud interrupts the mocking and encourages the
soldiers to sing about fraternity and love. He interrupts with singing: “these
two flowers are of one stem, love in tough times can erase the borders.”
A spectator can realize that the aspect of the carnivalesque
where everyone is involved is well depicted in The Border where the “festive spirit” is successfully communicated
to the audience. The way of the carnival spirit embodied in defeating the
opponent with laughter or subverting hierarchies of power through derision, can
be employed by an “isolated-comic-event”.
In fact, this is indeed the issue of the very film that deals with
politically tensioned environment, set in troubled land such as Syria, where “political
actors” are represented and questioned. The carnival transforms into a tool for
presenting the liberation of the oppressed through laughter where the oppressor
cannot be part of the experience of a group of people or an individual
resisting the harmful effects of power through laughter.
Carnival was described by Bakhtin as an event where “everyone
participates” 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 an
extra political space or second unreal world, detached from the official sense,
was created. However in the ending, reconciliation of terror takes place in the
romantic grotesque. The terror is represented by an officer watching the border
who repeatedly refuses Wadoud from crossing back to his home without finding
his lost passport. Wadoud is deeply frustrated with his repeated failed
attempts and despite the public support he got, from all around the (real
world), because of one female reporter who shed light his case on a regional
level, he is still not allowed to cross without a passport.
Eventually Wadoud lets out his farm animals from the car, holds his
wife by the hand and crosses on foot with a defiant glare forward at which
point the camera freezes as the final shot, Wadoud did it, he crossed to the
The audience is left skeptic; whether the officer who points a gun
back will shot him or not. In this very crucial moment, a question is raised if
Wadoud 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 military
officer was pointing the gun at him. In other words, “Images of romantic
grotesque express fear of the world and seek to inspire the reader or viewer
with this fear,” Bakhtin states.
The events occurred in The
Border are deeply close to real life where laughter cannot free victims
from oppression, as in the case of some Syrians under the oppression by radical
and 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 realistic
struggles, on a daily basis.
4. Syrian Kurds and the concept of Carnival
perhaps the best, if not the only way to describe what goes on every March in
Syria’s Newroz; the ancient Persian festival, commonly known as Iranian New
Year – the occasion that is also celebrated by Syria’s Kurds, differently.
Main events of Newroz start on the eve before holiday at spring
equinox, mostly on 21th of March. People gather at fires and perform
traditional dances (e.g. Dabke). In Aleppo, Kurds gather at shores of Midanki
Lake where they perform traditional music, dances and expose national symbols
as 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 and
different religious backgrounds for thousands of years. It is rather a secular
holiday for most celebrants that are enjoyed by people of several different
However Bakhtin says that “the carnivalesque sense of the world
penetrated language and literature” Moreover, the carnivalesque form was
manifested in a language of artistic imagery that retained the sensual nature
of the carnival.
For instance, the carnival’s familiarity was transformed into
certain types of prose and is reflected in certain plot structures, situation,
narration style and language. Concerning this specific idea presented by
Bakhtin, Newroz has been mentioned in works of many Kurdish poets and writers
as well as musicians. One of the earliest records of Newroz in Kurdish
literature 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 claim
And here come Newroz and the New
When such light is rising
5. Shia pilgrims in Damascus
“Carnivalesque” can be traced back in the heart of the oldest inhabited capital
in the world, Damascus, the capital of Syria. Every year, Damascus, in specific old
Damascus, witnesses huge waves of pilgrims, Shia pilgrims mostly, coming to the
very 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.
after having visited the Prophet’s “friends and family”, Shia pilgrims pay a visit
to one of Prophet’s “friends”
grave in order to curse him. Sometimes,
they even stone his grave, while his corpse rests underground. Concerned about
the reaction of local Sunnis, officials from the Syrian government ordered to
build a fence around the grave, for protection.
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.
far 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 of
Syria’s most historically and religiously significant cemeteries, makeshift
vendors sold an array of sex-related items, including lingerie!
Concern 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 many
religious pilgrims might consider the sale of Viagra and the arrangement of “pleasure”
relations a sinful aberration, considering it a corrupt practice. In a way or
another, these practices could be seen as modern incarnations of traditional
aspects of shrine visitation.
legally speaking, prostitution in Syria is illegal, for now at least, earlier
it was (before 2000). The sale of
sex-enhancement medication is generally restricted to pharmacies and other
medical places, as I mentioned before. These practices were symbolically
related to death rites because they resembled Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the carnival.
to Bakhtin, “medieval societies celebrated the carnival as a time outside of their
everyday, structured lives.” It allowed people to exist briefly beyond the
control of the state and the church. It
relativized institutionalized authorities and inverted social norms.
such sense, Shia pilgrims in Syria, mainly in Damascus, constituted a
Bakhtinian carnival. Invisible
from and beyond the surveillance of their strict and traditional societies, pilgrims
were temporarily “liberated” in Syria.
other words, the conservative Iranian women, for example, do not travel long
distances without a male escort.
However, for this reason, meaning the purpose of pilgrimage, thousands
of Iranian women move hundreds of miles, alone.
In such case, no one cares. These women advertised, organized, and
negotiated the logistics of the journey, they are fully independent now.
some 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 in
cooking and cleaning up after female pilgrims.
brief, pilgrimages were “carnivalesque” because they allowed for
inversions in gender roles and hierarchies, “an attitude towards the world
which liberates from fear,” Bakhtin says.
crowded streets and cafes, houses and fast food shops encouraged men and women
to mingle. For example, on Ashura,
in Iraq, bare-chested men march around the shrine. Accompanied by the rhythmic
beating of drums, hundreds of men hit their chests and wound their bodies with
sharp tools. Even pious women did not refrain from “ogling” the men. Like Bakhtin’s carnival, death rites included
the public parading of grotesque bodies.
The flagellants’ bleeding bodies drew everyone’s attention to carnal
matters: pain, death – and implicitly to
life and sex.
6. Result and Conclusion
grotesque, exaggerated body and the bringing down-to-earth of systemic abstractions
are present even in such small, apparently apolitical gestures. They signify
what is missing in the official picture – much as those who perform such acts
are often excluded from the “official world”. Therefore, carnivalesque remains
a potential counter-power in everyday life and activism, but is “cramped” in
its potential by the repressive construction of spaces of monologue. Medieval
carnival was possible because the spaces it inhabited could be carved-out and
defended through the “arts of resistance” and the power of the weak. There is a
need to recompose such powers to resist, in order recreating spaces where
alternatives can proliferate.