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An illness of her own
A review of "Crystal"

May 6, 2004

"... it is hardly possible to take up one's residence in the kingdom of the ill unprejudiced by the lurid metaphors with which it has been landscaped." -- Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, New York, 1978.

"Crystal" is a documentary, by Mania Akbari and Mahmood Ayden, about a young Kurdish woman with a most unusual illness. Ayshe Pirooz lives near a snow covered, remote village in Kurdistan, Northwestern Iran, where everyone refers to her as, " the sick girl". In her village the unusual nature of Ayshe's malady gives her celebrity, if not freak, status.

We first meet Ayshe standing with her mother on their balcony. She is young and willowy with doe-like, green eyes and the bad complexion of a teenager. Her mother, in traditional Kurdish clothes and scarf, has the rugged face of mountain dwellers. She looks solid and strong, like the vestige of a time, not long ago in this remote region, when only the very strong survived.

Inside their humble dwelling, Ayshe and her father describe her condition. Her body produces glass-like rocks that come out or have to be extracted from her vagina, eyes, throat, palms of her hands and feet. Like so many war trophies, the father shows us the different sized pieces, taking for granted that this is a story that needs physical evidence to be believed.

Ayshe, serving tea, reveals, in a matter-of-fact manner, that most of the crystals come out of her uterus. It is obvious that this nineteen-year old has repeated her story many times-- her illness is uniquely hers. The doctors have given her condition a name, "Crystal." But no one has been able to figure out its cause.

Mania Akbari asks about the more intimate details of her life. "Did you like your husband?" The quick "no" leaves no room for doubt. "Why did you marry him?" Mania asks next. "My father gave me away when I was twelve," Ayshe answers. The camera moves on the faces of her two brothers, not much younger than twelve, as if to show how young twelve can be.

She got her period a year after going to her husband's house. Her illness also appeared at the same time, but she was too ashamed to divulge it to her father. When the pain became unbearable and her husband refused to help her, she told her father, who took her to a hospital. She never returned to her husband's home after that.

She comes to stay with Mania in order to seek medical help in Tehran. What makes this film work so beautifully is the relationship that Mania forges with Ayshe. The way the friendship exposes Ayshe's vivacity provides the much-needed relief from the subject of the illness itself. We watch as the latter becomes increasingly familiar with the camera and the filmmaker, exposing her natural and upbeat character. A city woman and a villager, from completely different backgrounds, share the grammar of their female selves. Mania teaches Ayshe how to use make-up and dress like a city girl.

It is when Mania makes her up that we first see a giggly teenager rather than a sick villager. With a refreshing lack of self-pity, that is the stuff of youth, Ayshe opens up to Mania. When telling the grueling tale of her suicide attempts she has the look of an excited child recounting a playground feat. She seems too happy to have found a friend, to be sad.

They go through tests and hospital visits. We watch as Mania takes out small pieces of crystal from Ayshe's eyelids with a tissue. The screen blacks-out when they extract a rock from her uterus, and we are left alone with the sound of her pain.

In one telling scene, she describes her condition to a doctor, "it started a year after my marriage -- the doctors tell me that I should not get upset, that is what causes it. When I am happy I don't produce so much, when I am upset the crystals increase."

Here, we have her own reason for the malady: unhappiness, triggered by her marriage. Those crystals that come out of her body are the tangible offspring of a forced marriage. Not a source of guilt or shame just the physical result of a bad marriage. A certain rural pragmatism, the no non-sense view of those who live close to nature, keeps Ayshe from becoming a tragic figure. Her love for life shines through her problems endearing her to us even more.

When she leaves for her village we are no closer to uncovering the enigma of her illness. Yet we have come to glimpse a soul so full of life that her pain seems like a foreign intrusion. Like the crystals growing in her body, or the husband who has been forced on her, the pain, both physical and emotional, that she has come to suffer, has no place inside her.

"Crystal" will be screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in NewYork City this spring: 5 May in Tribeca Grand 3 p.m.  6 May in UA Theater V 6 p.m.  7 May in Tribeca Cinema Theater / 9.30 p.m.  For information about Tribeca film festival go to

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