I'm Leaving, No Matter What
“This is out central heating system,” explains Rafea Anad. She’s leaning over a pile of fiberboard chunks, a cupboard now put to more immediate use. She and her four daughters, aged 13 to three, huddle over the pile as she lights it, the older one focused on the book she’s reading, the younger children helping to clear the rug away on the dirt floor inside their tent, twirling their arms in little-girlish diversion.
Rafea also smiles as she works, a cigarette in one hand, like her children apparently at ease with the camera observing her for Rafea: Solar Mamas. Introducing this family unit, living in a traditional tent in Jordan, the documentary by Mona Eldaief and Jehane Noujaim focuses on their daily chores, from cleaning up to preparing food, as well as Rafea’s aspirations. The girls “mean to the world to me,” she asserts, which means that she worries for them too. “I have had a fifth grade education. A girl is not supposed to continue school past ten, because it’s shameful.” A couple of her daughters watch her work, smiling shyly at the camera as they lean on a tent pole. “I would love to have a career and succeed,” Rafea says at last, “to help all the women in the village who are in the same situation.”
Screening on 12 February at Stranger Than Fiction, followed by a Q&A with directors Eldaief and Noujaim, the film follows Rafea’s next step, as the entrepreneur Bunker Roy recruits her to attend his Barefoot College in India. “I tell her that I can see it in her eyes,” he insists, “that in six months, she will become the best engineer in Jordan.” Proud of his own work—“It’s the only program in the world where an illiterate woman can become an engineer”—Roy hopes to allay Rafea’s initial reluctance to go, as she worries especially over leaving her children behind for nearly six months.
The film reveals some background for her concerns, as her husband Aliyan, has his own fears. He keeps another family in another tent (“I am number two,” Rafea says), and a change in Rafea’s fortunes would mean a change in his own. Told this might be change for the good—Rafea’s girls would have a house, with bedrooms for each—he’s set in his fears. His wife’s education and a livelihood might affect his routine, the life he’s grown up expecting to have. “He kills my spirit,” Rafea reports, “I don’t have a problem, my husband is the problem.” Before the camera, Aliyan appears a gentle man, his complaints uttered quietly. But still, even as he’s intrigued by the promise of an improved income for his own household (they’ll have a house, and the children might have their own rooms), the very idea of a woman feeling independent, making decisions for herself, is unnerving.
Once Rafea agrees to go, life at school is also unsettling. She can speak with the girls by phone, but when she hears that one is sick, she determines to go home immediately. This panic passes, and she resolves to complete her term’s worth of classes. Nervous about an upcoming test of one of her projects she ponders the possibility of failure, sharing her feelings with a friend. They sigh, “No one is satisfied with their life,” but knowing this doesn’t stop them from deciding to move forward, to pursue some satisfaction in a way they haven’t imagined before.
If Solar Mamas makes an argument beyond the obvious one—education is good, for everyone—it’s that overcoming fears is part of that process. Change is built into schooling, and as Rafea sees herself and her world from a new perspective, she’s able to translate that new view for her friends back home, her husband, and her daughters. “Men and women are created equal,” she learns at school. “No difference between them, tell your husband you want to work.” If his initial assent is based on self-interest—that house—it is yet a step forward.
This and other steps appear on screen, the camera quietly observing in the classroom or in Rafea’s work to construct a means to solar power back in Jordan. Rafea works together with her fellow students, earns commendations from her teachers, and impresses her family back home. As she steps into a world she hasn’t yet imagined, she embodies both hope and risk. Leaving her family behind, however temporarily, is traumatic, as are her husband’s fear and disapproval. Still, she presses forward. In her classes, learning to develop solar power for her community, Rafea’s enthusiasm and talents help her to stand out, but at the same time, she sees herself as representative more than exceptional. “We can change this village,” she says, “We can change this life.”