'Imperial Wife' Trains Its Spotlight On Powerful Women, Past And Present

Aug 7, 2016
Originally published on August 7, 2016 8:14 am

With Hillary Clinton having made history last month by becoming the first female presidential nominee, could it be that today's gender roles are not as egalitarian as we think?

Irina Reyn's new novel, The Imperial Wife, raises such questions. The dual-narrative follows the marriages of two ambitious women immigrants: one, a rising Russian art expert in a high-end Manhattan auction house set in the present day; the other, a young Catherine the Great in imperial Russia.

You'd think the marriage set in contemporary New York is the modern one, but Reyn says she saw flashes of modern life in Catherine the Great's story.

While digging through the empress' memoirs, the author — a Russian immigrant herself — saw flashes of both her own biography and that of another contemporary figure. She says a thought occurred to her: "The way that we talk about Hillary Rodham Clinton is not so different, have we really come that far in 300 years?"

The modern woman, Tanya Kagan, is a bright, confident Russian immigrant, about to go into the biggest auction of her career — a glorious medal worn on a sash by Catherine the Great. But it's Catherine who rejects marital expectations and gives birth to kids who aren't Peter's, while Tanya longs for her husband's approval.

Even though centuries separate their worlds, the two female protagonists find themselves in a similar difficult marital dynamic: Both women wrestle with having an ambitious nature, while being tied to expectations within the confines of marriage.

Or, as Reyn puts it: "They were both women who had these innate strengths and partly because they had to overcome these obstacles of coming to this new place and adjusting. And more than adjusting — flourishing."

Interview Highlights

On the Catherine the Great character as a more modern woman

Yes, which is very ironic, isn't it, 300 years later, that we're sort of in a more conservative place? I mean the reason I was conceiving of this Catherine the Great story, it was in 2008 after my first book came out and I was just watching Hillary Rodham Clinton and her bid for the Democratic nomination, and I have to say I was reading Catherine the Great's memoirs and was thinking, my goodness, the way that we talk about Hillary Rodham Clinton is not so different, have we really come that far in 300 years? And just thinking about the distrust, the threat of the powerful woman, was something that just spurned the first sort of germs of this book.

On whether the stronger, married woman needs to make an effort to protect her husband's ego

It's certainly hard to speak about this globally and I think that that's why in the book I made her an immigrant because, well, I can't speak for how this would work with women who are even more American than I am, born here, but I just knew that protecting male egos is something that is very much ingrained in a patriarchal culture. There's something to be thought about, evening out the power structure a little bit more, and interestingly enough, in the Catherine the Great section, she doesn't really do that. ...

But these are women facing similar situations in their marriages, but I think they're so much more competent than the men around them. But it's the men who are being handed all these opportunities, whether they're worthy of them or not. And I think that these two women are dealing with that issue in their own way.

On which of the two female protagonists is a role model

I don't think I could write fiction with the idea of a role model. I think that they're both women that are so much of their own time that are grappling with having these innate strengths. And what I found really fascinating about Catherine is when I realized, wait a minute, she's kind of an immigrant like me. She came at 14 years old; I came when I was 7. She's also had to sort of assimilate in this new culture and learn a new language, a new religion. Of course I only had to learn a new language and make friends at school, she had bigger problems, but sometimes being an immigrant means you have to tap into certain kinds of strengths.

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Depictions of the Prophet Muhammad have led to violence, most recently last year when Islamic radicals killed 12 people in attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. So imagine trying to make a movie on the life of Muhammad. Yet, it was done. "Muhammad: Messenger Of God" was released 40 years ago in both English and Arabic versions. It was condemned at the time, but is now considered a classic. And the filmmaker's son is restoring it for a new release. Reporter R. H. Greene tells us the story of how it got made.

R H GREENE, BYLINE: In 1962, Moustapha Akkad saw "Lawrence Of Arabia." He was riveted.


MOUSTAPHA AKKAD: To me, the scene that I admire most of my life is David Lean's scene when Omar Sharif was introduced.

GREENE: Omar Sharif emerged from swirling sands like a wraith on horseback, an Arab-screen hero.


MOUSTAPHA AKKAD: I was so moved by that scene, and I tried to really kind of do similar.

GREENE: Akkad was a Syrian-born, Hollywood-based filmmaker. He began a quest to create a truly Arab-screen epic. "Muhammad: Messenger Of God," a spectacle about the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the birth of Islam. In a 1976 interview, Akkad explained his motive.


MOUSTAPHA AKKAD: Being a Muslim myself who lived in the West, I felt that it's my obligation, my duty to tell the truth about Islam.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Arabic).


MOUSTAPHA AKKAD: I thought I should tell the story that will bring this bridge.

GREENE: With money raised from Middle Eastern sources, Akkad set to work on a Quranic film on the scale of Bible spectacles like "The Ten Commandments" and "Ben-Hur." Filming began in late 1974 to make "Muhammad: Messenger Of God" accessible to both the Islamic world and the West. The movie was shot simultaneously in two versions. The Arabic version featured some of the biggest stars of Muslim cinema.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, speaking Arabic).

GREENE: The English version starred Irene Papas and Anthony Quinn.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Muhammad is a fraud.

ANTHONY QUINN: (As Hamza) I am for my nephew's religion, and I say what he says.

GREENE: In accordance with Muslim custom, Muhammad was not shown. Actors spoke to the camera directly as if to a vision of revelation.


QUINN: (As Hamza) Muhammad, when I hunt the desert at night, I know God is not kept in the house.

GREENE: Akkad's close friend, Islamic scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl.

KHALED ABOU EL FADL: To figure out a way to have the prophet to come in person without even showing him - it was brilliant. It's genius. He wanted people to feel the prophet as a human being, but respect the fact that most Muslims don't want the prophet to be personified by an actor or another.

GREENE: London-based actor Garrick Hagon played Ammar, a revered figure in the Islamic faith.

GARRICK HAGON: At that time, we didn't know much about Islam. Muhammad was a name, and that was about all. So it was all pretty much of a revelation.

GREENE: Moustapha Akkad's vision is of Islam as a great world religion in harmony with other spiritual traditions.


NEVILLE JASON: (As Jaafar) God has spoken to us before through Abraham, Noah, Moses and through Jesus Christ.

GREENE: In a key scene, Muhammad's followers are interrogated by the Christian king of Abyssinia and must justify their beliefs under pain of death.


JASON: (As Jaafar) Muhammad teaches us to worship one God, to speak truth, to love our neighbors as ourselves.

GREENE: Moustapha Akkad's son, Malek Akkad.

MALEK AKKAD: That was definitely the scene that he would point to most often as his favorite scene.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As King Negus) What Christ says and what your Muhammad says is like two rays from the same lamp.

MALEK AKKAD: What he was trying to achieve in that film is that we're really not far apart in these beliefs.

GREENE: But Akkad knew he faced critics. The script was vetted by Cairo's Council for Islamic Research. The word Muhammad was eventually removed from the title, but the Saudi government turned against "The Message," as "Muhammad: Messenger Of God" came to be called. Saudi political pressure cost Akkad his expensive Moroccan sets and locations. He resumed filming with the controversial support of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

MALEK AKKAD: My father was of one mind that he was going to finish this film. And so where he could get assistance from, he did.

GREENE: The controversy mounted. The Cairo scholars who had approved the shooting script withdrew their support, calling the completed film an insult to Islam. More backlash followed. Khaled Abou El Fadl.

ABOU EL FADL: He was confounded by the controversy that exploded right about the movie. It was banned all over - banned in Saudi Arabia, in Kuwait, banned in Egypt.

GREENE: In America, things turned tragic. Members of the Hanafi movement, a militant black nationalist Muslim group stormed several buildings in Washington, D.C., taking a hundred hostages and killing two. Their demands included banning the message on grounds it was sacrilegious.

ABOU EL FADL: I'm sure they have not seen the film. As Moustapha described it, it's a sign of the tragedy of our cultural weakness.

GREENE: Tragedy found Akkad again in 2005. Akkad and his daughter Rima were injured at a wedding in Jordan during a wave of al-Qaida bombings.


STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: The suicide bombers who killed dozens in Jordan this week also injured Moustapha Akkad, and today he died of his wounds. The attacks also killed Akkad's American-born daughter.

GREENE: A surviving bomber had no idea who Moustapha Akkad was.

ABOU EL FADL: It's as if some demonic power was mocking all our dreams because Moustapha represented a hope.

GREENE: In the West, Akkad isn't remembered for "The Message." He's known as the executive producer of the "Halloween" slasher films, a mantle his son Malek has now assumed. But 40 years on, "The Message" is now a touchstone in the Arab world, where it has circulated widely in pirate editions.

ABOU EL FADL: I think Moustapha is going to enter the history books as a hero and a pioneer. If we could fast forward a hundred years from now, we would be amazed.

GREENE: "The Message" is currently being restored by Moustapha Akkad's son for a high definition re-release. For NPR, I'm R. H. Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.