A testament to the pull between duty and independence that plagues many youth today, but especially those in the East, Sand Storm is not the rom-com it pretends to be.
The film opens up on a shot of fallow land, the family’s Toyota pickup truck bustling down the road. A similar shot is seen near the end of the film, and the film itself has an overwhelming sense of continuity, unfortunately to the detriment of its characters (or victims). Jalila is the first, a 42-year old mother of four girls who is busy with the usual stress of hosting guests- only worse, since they’re there for her husband’s second wedding. Already wracked with anger over Suliman’s choice to take a second wife, her day grows worse when she discovers her daughter Layla’s dalliance with a fellow university student. Layla is a headstrong young girl who is at odds with the tradition of her Bedouin village. Failing her exams as she meets in secret with her boyfriend, she’s an inexplicable obstacle in Jalila’s path. Meanwhile, all the while her little sister Tasnim runs along the perimeter of the village, not yet old enough for hijab.
Tasnim is nosy, to the point where she watches her father’s second wedding night through the grate in the wall, laughing and scurrying away when the bride breaks the bed Jalila painstakingly built with Layla that morning. Tasnim is a mocking memory of Layla’s past freedom, watching curiously as her father arranges for Layla’s marriage in the wake of the minor scandal that is her secret boyfriend. Tasnim even laughs at her mother when Jalila gives her a headscarf, declaring that she’s “gone crazy!” before slipping it off and hanging it along with the rest of the clothes.
Woven into the fabric of Jalila’s marriage with Suliman is their crushing sense of duty to the tribe and their daughters. Jalila, however, decides that she cares for Layla’s happiness over how well she will fit into the tribe- to the point where she yells at Suliman in public. Suliman, buckling under the weight of his repeated mantra to do what he must, banishes her, all the while shrinking before the weight of her truth. Layla attempts to run away with her boyfriend but is dragged back by the force of this sense of duty and tradition- she cannot do this to her father. Finally, she decides to marry.
Unfortunately, marriage is pretty much the end. It is why her father held off betrothing her for so long, allowing her to continue the studies that might have gotten her out. And it is the final shot that gets you. Tasnim meets Layla’s eyes through the grate. And it is not that Munir is a bad guy. It’s just that marriage means no more studying, no more chances. From this moment forward, she is a wife and mother, nothing more. Tasnim can see her own future reflect in Layla’s sad eyes. Marriage, the tradition, the duty, is giving up. And sooner or later, Tasnim will have to don the hijab. Sooner or later, she too will be wed.