Halal Love (and Sex) (2015) follows three devout Muslim women in Beirut, Lebanon, as they navigate their love lives within the rules and expectations of their religion. Each central storyline explores a lesser-known aspect of what is permitted within the romantic lives of Muslim couples. Within the sensitive, light-hearted comedy, writer-director Assad Fouladkar manages to incorporate plots involving the practices of temporary marriage, multiple wives and verbal divorces. In all three instances, Fouladkar attempts to find an unusual or humorous twist in the way the characters interact within Islamic customs and allowances.

For many Western audiences and non-Muslims, Halal Love (and Sex) may be their first introduction to the concept of a temporary marriage. At Sundance 2016, ScreenPrism spoke to Darine Hamze, who plays Loubna, a divorcée who enters into a short-term marriage contract. Years earlier, Loubna’s parents arranged her marriage after rejecting a proposal from the man she loved as a teen, a greengrocer named Abu Ahmed (Rodrigue Sleiman). Now an adult determined to follow her heart, Loubna undertakes a temporary marriage with her sweetheart, who is already legally married with children. Within Islam, this is a permissible practice, but it is a secret, short-term contract because the man has a family. Thus, while the religion allows it, Loubna must hide the arrangement from her acquaintances to avoid harsh judgment and damage to her reputation.

Hamze said she was intrigued by the rules of the temporary marriage and did research to find out its origins. “I discovered that it comes from an historical event where women were left after men went to war and died,” Hamze told me. “So the women were still young, but at the same time they were widows at the age of 17 or 18. They had sexual drive, they needed a sexual life, and they couldn’t get that out of Islam because it was an Islamic state. So they created this temporary marriage, where a woman can marry, secretly, a married man. But they have to have witnesses. At the same time, you have to wait forty days after you finish the marriage until you can do another one, in case the woman is pregnant.”

This is not a practice commonly invoked in Hamze’s circles, but she added, “I guess it’s secret, so you never know. In modern families, it’s just one guy with one woman, and that’s it; if he wants, he can divorce, then he can marry another. But people who are more into Islamic rules and practicing Muslims, I guess they do it.”

Darine Hamze as Loubna in Halal Love (and Sex) (2015)

While this is a known practice, Fouladkar turns the common perception of the custom on its head: temporary marriage is sometimes criticized as a means to misuse women and damage their reputations, but Loubna manages to use it in an empowering way to explore a relationship with a man she doesn’t, ultimately, know. After her temporary husband criticizes her cooking and brings up his wife one too many times, Loubna comes to realize that he is not the man she imagined during the years they were apart. She ends their arrangement, explaining, “You were much more inspiring to me as a dream than you are now as a real person.” Without the option of a short-term contract, if she had been forced into a true marriage before exploring a sexual relationship with Abu, she could not so easily break the tie upon discovering her true feelings.

A second plot in Halal Love (and Sex) follows two newlyweds whose explosive, public fights lead them into an irreconcilable divorce neither actually wants. Passionate young Mokhtar (Hussein Mokaddem) is madly in love with his beautiful new wife, Batoul (Zeinab Hind Khadra), but his fits of irrational jealousy lead him to divorce her verbally in the throes of anger. In Islam, the verbal declaration “I divorce you” is sufficient to end a marriage on the spot. Still, reconciliation is allowed after the first two divorces.  

Fouladkar explained, “Religiously, people can divorce each other verbally. Then they have to go do the paperwork in courts and everything, but religiously, if he pronounces the divorce, then they are divorced. But it can come out of anger, because they are so upset and angry that they will pronounce this sentence. This is why if they meet again, if they have sex during forty days after they pronounce the divorce, they can get back, so they are married again. But they cannot do this more than three times. After the third time, they are really divorced, and they cannot get back to each other.”

This is exactly what happens to Mokhtar who, after his fateful third declaration of divorce, soon calms down and wants to reunite with Batoul. But he is told that this is impossible, apart from a strange loophole—if his wife marries someone else (and she must consummate the marriage), she can divorce that other man and remarry Mokhtar for the fourth time.

Fouladkar said there is strictly no way for the couple to reunite in these circumstances, unless the woman “goes and marries someone else, then she divorces that guy, then she can get back to the first husband. What happens is sometimes people do this very often. They try to find a husband for the woman.” Fouladkar confirmed that this problem of divorcing in anger and reaching the three-time limit does really happen to people, and "the subject [has been] tackled in Arabic cinema. But I took it in a funny way, sarcastically, using something that happens in society, but I use it in a different way.”

Fouladkar likewise tried to find a humorous twist for the third cultural practice he explores—the rule that allows Muslim men to marry up to four wives. Middle-aged mother of two Awatef (Mirna Moukarzel) has a loving husband who continues to desire her with such lust that she finds his nightly sexual needs exhausting. She decides to convince him to take a second wife to provide another outlet for his nightly passion.

 “In art and cinema, we are using reality, the things that are weird in reality, and we play with them,” Fouladkar said. “Men can marry four wives [under Islamic rules]. Everyone is expecting to see a movie where the man is looking for a second wife. I wanted to change this, and now the woman is the one who is looking for a wife for her husband. So that made it a bit interesting. And yes, sometimes it happens. Sometimes a woman feels she is so exhausted with work at home and work outside that she needs someone to help her.”

Fouladkar is looking forward to the film being viewed by both Western and Middle Eastern, especially Lebanese, audiences. But he notes that audiences will vary widely in how much context they bring to the film. “Definitely I will be very interested to have Western audiences watching this, but Arabs would know the whole story and the background,” he said. “Every story has layers. If you know more about the culture, you will know everything about the story and what’s behind it, what’s the background.” Fouladkar knew that if he were making the film purely for a Western audience, he would have to spend more time on cultural exposition, as Western viewers will undoubtedly have many questions about the plot points. Yet he also wanted to make a film that had subtle meaning and depth for Muslim audiences. Fouladkar’s approach was to make a film that explained just enough for the first category of viewers to follow without letting excessive exposition handicap the story. “Even if you didn’t know much about the culture, you would sense what is happening, and you would enjoy it. But if you know more about the culture, it will be more interesting for you,” he said. “So it was made for all audiences.”

Even with this balance, Halal Love (and Sex) illuminates much about the intricacies of Muslim customs relating to love and relationships. For audiences who cannot begin to imagine how it feels to be a woman dating in Beirut, the story will bring new texture and insight into a culture that becomes a little less foreign through the viewing experience.