FICTION: Escaping terror firma, Part 1: Hell from the heavens

 
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By Khaled Diab

Poetry and song talk of soaring free as a bird, but the heavens are where hell resides. People talk of taking wing, but, me, I’d rather take fin, be free as a fish.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 17 August 2016

Part 1: Hell from the heavens and taking fin

The sun setting over the Mediterranean is a magnificent sight. It is also the perfect optical illusion. When I feel I need a moment of escape, I often return to this very spot, about as secluded as you can get around here, and watch the fading light as it shifts from a hot, unforgiving yellow, to a warm, caressing orange.

Looking out to sea, I feel myself transported from the land-bound misery on terror firma behind me, that land of fear, misery and hopelessness. For a few, short, glorious moments, I can even imagine myself as someone else, in another time, another place, the product of a different accident of birth – one that involves relaxed holidays with my best friends, cocktails at sundown, selfies of our other selves, rather than the salafis constraining our current selves, and even kissing and telling. I can see myself on a beautiful Mediterranean island, idling on the beach roasting my olive skin until it’s almost ebony, dressed in the bikini that I have only ever worn in the bathroom, but which I now have on under my wetsuit, and which my mother bought me during a rare trip abroad to attend a medical conference.

“I couldn’t book you that holiday you’ve been dreaming of but I got you the next best thing,” she giggled conspiratorially as she passed me the package, her emerald eyes twinkling in a beam of sunlight that had entered the room. Despite her evident fatigue, she reminded me of those gorgeous Red Sea lagoons I also fantasised of floating on and under, like a carefree mermaid and good friend of the rainbow nation of the nearby coral reef.

The sea is my tormenter. Like its illusionary promise of quenching the thirst of the parched desert dweller, it rubs salt in the wounds of my longing to be free. The vast oceans in their depths and breadths contain the prospect of liberation, of release from this fenced-in prison. For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of being carried away by an irresistible current to a far-away land where people live in peace of mind and body, where the only ruins are those being conserved by the antiquities authorities. Or better still, plunging into a submerged world, an aquatic Atlantis.

Poetry and song talk of soaring free as a bird, but the sky for me has lost its allure. The heavens are where hell resides, our infernal graveyards, where death rains down, where a superhuman force greater than ourselves keeps watch over us, its numerous eyes droning high above our heads, buzzing intolerably like giant wasps.

People talk of taking wing, but, me, I’d rather take fin, be free as a fish, return to the waters from which we came, even if some sheikhs say it’s haram to believe in evolution. Perhaps I don’t wish to devolve into our scaly ancestor but to evolve into a mermaid, with the boundless ocean my oyster, instead of this land-bound coffin in which I dwell.

Once, during a particularly intense bombardment of the last war, I cracked like the plasterwork in my room and something inside me snapped. The winds of blind rage carried me in a hurricane of hysterical screams to the nearby beach where I pummelled my fists and mocked the killing birds ripping through the darkness above. With explosions sounding from every direction and the cool sand vibrating, sometimes violently, under my bare feet, I saw a phantom emerge from the shadows and, at that moment, I was ready for it to snatch my soul. Instead, it snatched desperately at my arm, like the hopeless life I lead, trying to keep me away from the dark clutches of death. In the moonlight, I saw my father’s panic-stricken eyes search my face for a clue to my dark madness. “Maha, have you been possessed by jinn?” he said, shaking me angrily in a way that simulated an exorcism.

But you don’t believe in jinn, baba, was the involuntary thought that infiltrated my deranged brain, which was knocking about inside my rocking skull.

When I burst into tears, baba regained his senses, even though the mayhem in the sky was growing. Unrushed and apparently unperturbed by the missiles and shells, he gave me the kind of deep cuddle I could never get enough off as a child, the kind that crushed love deep into your bones.

Then it hit me. How did baba get here? Since the war before last, he has hardly been able to move his left leg, whose calf is sore and swollen, causing him bursts of excruciating pain every time he tries to walk on it, often flooring him. No doctor has been able to find anything wrong with him. A psychologist friend of my father’s suggested that it was in his head, caused by unprocessed trauma and depression – and urged him to seek professional help. Needless to say, baba refused. He has a stubborn streak that is bone-headed even by Gazan standards. On top of that, he believes psychology and psychiatry are bourgeois dark arts, indulgences for the rich and pampered, not legitimate medical disciplines to cure the underprivileged and destitute. I think he also secretly feared the traditional “you’re crazy” stigma attached to the field.

“Baba, your leg?” I yelled over the explosions, breaking loose of his embrace.

Surprised, he looked down at his swollen calf ballooning out of his trouser leg, and laughed in astonishment. “You know it doesn’t hurt. The pain of my fear for you is stronger than physical pain,” he said, taking me back in his warm embrace.

As he did so, I looked out towards the Mediterranean, hearing only the rhythmic waves, obliviously lapping away, unaware of the inferno metres away on the land.

The sea taunts me. Despite my deep azure love for it, it waves at me from afar, swishing and swooshing derisively in the distance. But today I will conquer you. I will ride your tide and your blue jinn will not be able to stop me. During the last war, I regularly felt the urge to take flight, to flee, that is, into the oblivious embrace of the sea. But the invisible hand of family and community held me back. Though I could not protect my parents and kid brother from the missiles, bombs and shells shaking the foundations of our lives, again, I was determined to shield them from the emotional shrapnel ripping away at their hearts and shredding their minds.

Though the world sits up and pays attention when the explosions are audible and death dramatic, it turns its gaze away when the implosions are emotional and the deaths are of the soul, not the body. Of course, war is traumatic, everyone knows or can imagine that. But what comes after can be far worse, especially here in Gaza, where our looped history has repeated itself so much that hope too escaped from our particular Pandora’s jar, to soar into the heavens, which have become our hell, unlikely ever to return.

And deprived of external hope, I have decided to create my own, to fashion it out of the abundant radioactive elements of despondency all around me, to modify genetically the DNA letters which spell despair and engineer them into hope.

I stand waist-high in water, dressed in my wet suit and a life jacket for the rest stops I’ll inevitably need to take, with a lightweight waterproof bag containing snorkels and some supplies. In a bright corner of my darkened brain, the scheme I have devised strikes me as preposterous, suicidal even. I silence my doubts and fears by telling my limbs, which stand frozen in the still-warm water, that death awaits us anyway – better to die pursuing your dreams than to die pursued by your nightmares.

Read part 2: Breaking out of the fish bowl

Read part 3 – Shipwrecked delusions

Read part 4 – Drowning in a sea of dashed dreams

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Egyptian Jews, love triangles and conspiracy theories

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite outlandish conspiracy theories, a Ramadan TV drama about Egypt’s lost Jewish community is not a missive to Israel but an ode to pluralism.

Haret al-yahoud

Wednesday 8 July 2015

Love triangles, unrequited love and the torment of separation are staples of Egyptian soap operas. This is especially the case during Ramadan, when fasting and piety dominate during daylight hours and feasting and revelry kick off once the sun goes down.

But one Ramadan drama stands out for a love story with an unusual twist. Leila and Ali are the classic boy and girl next door who have been madly in love since childhood, with Ibtihal their jealous neighbour, representing the obtuse angle of this triangle. So far so ordinary.

However, Leila is an Egyptian Jew and Ali is an Egyptian officer deployed to the Palestine front during the 1948 war. To complicate matters further, her brother is one of the few Egyptian Jews who has gone to Palestine to help the Israeli effort.

The Leila-Ali affair makes up one of the central storylines of Haret el-Yahoud, which is set in Cairo’s Jewish Quarter, the controversial historical drama that is currently airing in Egypt and across the Arab world.

I have watched the first few episodes of this slick production and have generally been impressed by the quality of the acting and the period mood it evokes of 1940s “belle epoque” Cairo.

Most of all, I am pleased that a largely forgotten and distorted period of Egypt’s recent history, that of the demise of the country’s once-vibrant, 80,000-strong Jewish community, has been made accessible to a broader public – and in a humane and sympathetic light.

Though many Egyptians have welcomed the series, it has also provoked inevitable anger and allegations of “whitewashing history” in some quarters, especially among those who seem convinced that Jews, Israelis and Zionists are the same thing.

One example of this is Ahmed Metwali, described as a professor of history at Cairo University, who claimed that Jews in Egypt isolated themselves socially and worked exclusively in trade and business.

Obviously, the good professor’s grasp of his own country’s history is shaky at best, or ideology has blinded him to reality. Though a small community, Egypt’s Jews were prominent in every walk of life, including culture and politics – and many were ordinary, working class folk.

In fact, it might surprise the learned professor to learn that Jews played a central role in awakening Egypt’s modern national consciousness. A good example of this was Yaqub Sannu. Though almost totally forgotten today, in the 19th century, Sannu established one of the country’s first anti-imperialist and anti-royalist publications, The Man in the Blue Glasses. He was also possibly the creator of the quintessential Ibn el-Balad (Son of the Country) character who stood for native virtue and the anti-imperial and class struggle.

Jews in Egypt felt so apparently comfortable that they not only made films, but some made films about Jews. At a time when German Jewish filmmakers were fleeing Hitler, Togo Mizrahi, one of the founding fathers of Egyptian cinema, made numerous films which had Jewish protagonists and main characters  – something that was rare if unheard of in 1930s Hollywood.

Even more unbelievably, Metwali claims that there were no love affairs between Muslims and Jews.

Has the history professor really not heard of perhaps the most famous on- and off-screen couple in Egyptian cinematic history, Leila Murad, who was once everyone’s favourite silver screen beauty with the golden vocal chords, and the debonair Anwar Wagdi? Out of love, Murad converted from Judaism to Islam to marry Wagdi (three times), who ruined their relationship by insisting on owning her entire career.

The character of Leila is done up in such a way as to pay tribute to her legendary namesake, while Ali, with his Clark Gable moustache, bears more than a passing resemblance to Wagdi.

Some critics have gone even further and taste the ingredients of a conspiracy by the al-Sisi regime to appease Israel and engineer a rapprochement by “narrowing the psychological gap between the two peoples”, according to Hossam Aql of the al-Badeel al-Hadari party.

But again, this strikes me as a case of conflating Jews with Israel. While the series portrays Egyptian Jews in a sympathetic light, the only Israeli I have seen so far was a two-dimensional sadist army officer who tortures Ali.

For Muslim Brotherhood supporters, it is Haret al-Yahoud’s less-than-flattering portrayal of their founding father, Hassan el-Banna, that seems to have provoked the greatest fury. “al-Sisi’s TV serials are a misrepresentation in favour of the Jews,” Anas Hassan, a prominent activist and the founder of Rassd, a pro-Brotherhood grassroots news site, wrote on his Facebook page, eliciting more than 2,000 likes. “al-Sisi is a complete Zionising project.”

The flimsy evidence for this is that the Israeli media has praised al-Sisi repeatedly. But if that is an indicator of being a “Zionist stooge”, then the Brotherhood’s very own Mohamed Morsi deserves that accolade just as much, given the acclaim he got in Israel and the love letter he sent to former Israeli president Shimon Peres.

In other posts, Hassan accused al-Sisi of being an “apostate” who was “raised by Jews”. Since al-Sisi’s rise to power, many Muslim Brotherhood supporters and activists have subscribed to outlandish ­– and frankly anti-Semitic – conspiracy theories about the Egyptian leaders ancestry, alleging that he is a Jew.

The damning case against him? According to a popular YouTube video, al-Sisi was born and raised in el-Gamaliya, in an alleyway which lies on the edge of the Jewish quarter. “Only Jews resided in the Jewish quarter,” the narrator tells us untruthfully, as the area, despite its name, was always a mixed one.

Though not all Muslim Brothers entertain such feverish fantasies, this kind of hate-filled, intolerant, sectarian discourse does little to counteract the image of el-Banna and his men, who set off a deadly campaign of bombings against Jewish targets in 1948 just because they shared the same religion as the enemy, presented in Haret el-Yahoud as violent fanatics.

To my mind, there is no pro-Israel conspiracy behind Haret el-Yahoud, but perhaps an alliance of convenience and some co-option. Many artists in Egypt feel threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist intolerance in general, and this has, sadly, made many staunch or hesitant supporters of the ruthless military regime.

The series’ uncritical veneration of the army is a case in point. Even though al-Sisi hadn’t yet been born at the time of the 1948 war, the makers’ decision to set this drama in al-Sisi’s old neighbourhood and to make the main star a handsome, principled and sensitive army officer to whom women are instinctively drawn is a powerful subliminal message to audiences. Of course, any resemblance to real or living presidents may be entirely coincidental and unintentional.

For audiences and programme makers alike, the main draw to Haret al-Yahoud, in these tumultuous times, is nostalgia. Many look back wistfully to an Egypt that was once perched on top of the Arab and developing world. It was the wealthiest and most advanced Arab country, and a place where modernity and progress seemed to be on an unstoppable onward march.

In a contemporary Egypt where intolerance towards Christians, not to mention anyone who is different, many Egyptians feel that their country seriously lost its way in the second half of the 20th century, when it was supposed to have been liberated.

Haret al-Yahoud is not a missive to Israel but an ode to pluralism. By coming to terms with the injustice it committed against its Jewish minority, Egypt may be able to save its soul.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 29 June 2015.

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Reel life in Palestine

 
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By Raya Al-Jadir

Filmmakers are moving away from the headline conflict to shed light on real life in Palestine as lived by actual Palestinians, both real and fictional.

photo (12)

Monday 19 January 2015

A scene from 'Eyes of a Thief'.

A scene from ‘Eyes of a Thief’.

The recent London Palestine Film Festival featured more than 40 works of film and video by Palestinian and international artists. What struck me the most is how many of the films screened shed a new and refreshing light on Palestine, showing that there is more to Palestinian society than war and occupation – there are people with stories to tell and lives to live.  As an outsider, it was also the first time I was exposed to the natural beauty of Gaza and the West Bank, something we rarely see on news report.

The UK premiere of Najwa Najjar’s West Bank thriller Eyes of a Thief (‘Eeyon al-haramieh) opened the festival. Set in a rather desolate location in the valley between Nablus and Ramallah, it stars the Egyptian actor Khaled Abol Naga, who needed a special permit for the four-week filming, and Algerian singer/songwriter Souad Massi. The film tells the story of a father searching for his lost daughter in the city while keeping a dangerous secret to himself.   Najjar’s psychological drama humanises the Palestinian resistance, showing the hero as a sensitive person who is seeking to find lost family, with hints of a forbidden love story, which makes him much more complex and much more human than the two-dimensional portrayals of Palestinians either as terrorists or as heroes. Najjar does not try to embellish Palestinian life, nor does she attempt to show the entire breadth of modern Palestinian history in a single film, but provides a glimpse of some aspects of Palestinian life.

A scene from 'Ramallah'.

A scene from ‘Ramallah’.

This was a common thread linking the films shown at the festival, as could be seen in a special triple-bill of films set in Ramallah. Flavie Pinatel’s Ramallah gives the audience a different perspective on the city we often see in the news. Ramallah, the administrative capital of the Palestinian territories, is portrayed as city that has many contradictions: the humour of its inhabitants, traditional crafts that rub shoulders with an intense nightlife of revelling youth. In this bustling city, a trace remains of its recent past as a pastoral village, and like many urban areas in the Middle East, Ramallah is a 21st century city torn between two worlds. Pinatel takes up the counterpoint to shoot an everyday portrait without drama. She reveals a city through funny, serious or unusual portraits of Ramallah’s inhabitants, in an attempt to depict it beyond its tragedy.

Roy Dib’s Mondial 2010 is a film on love and location. A Lebanese gay couple decides to go on a road trip to Ramallah which is recorded with their camera as they chronicle their journey. The viewers are invited through the couple’s conversations into the universe of a fading city, yet we never actually get to see the faces of both characters. Mondial 2010 is a discussion of borders in the modern-day Middle East, employing video as an apparatus to transgress boundaries that are imposed on people against their will. Essentially, it is a travel film in a trajectory that doesn’t allow travel, starring two male lovers in a setting where homosexuality is a punishable crime. Shot with a hand-held camcorder, Mondial 2010 borrows the aesthetics of a video travelogue. It normalises the abnormal in Palestine, and by doing so creates its own universe of possibilities, offering an alternative shift from the mainstream passive view of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that places the victim/oppressor at the forefront of the produced imagery. This video glides over this conflict with an upper hand.  The couples in the film are not only defying cultural and religious norms through their homosexual relationship but they are also breaking the law by entering Ramallah. The relations between Israelis and Lebanese are governed by the 1943 Lebanese Criminal Code, which criminalises any contact with citizens of enemy states,  and the 1955 Lebanese Anti-Israeli Boycott Law.

A scene from 'Pink Bullets'.

A scene from ‘Pink Bullets’.

The rather strange Pink Bullets by Ramzi Hazbou stars Ali, who wakes up confused by the construction noise coming from outside and the disturbing dream he’s just had, which is the ultimate theme of his day as it continues to shudder along. The film failed to grab my thoughts and I could not see anything beyond a simple idea that it was trying to convey: that Ramallah is not just about politics but has a life of its own too.

The second triple bill of the night on Gaza proved to be more interesting. For most of the media, the Gaza Strip is a source of the most apocalyptic images from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Striplife, produced by a group of Italian and Palestinian video makers is an extraordinary depiction of the everyday life of Gaza’s inhabitants prior to the latest escalation of violence. The film is a fresco of Gaza. We see men and women who resist, determined not to succumb to conditions of life that appear impossible, go about their day in Gaza.  The film begins with an inexplicable event that occurred overnight: dozens of manta rays washed up on the beach, with fishermen flocking to the shore to grab as many as they can. Meanwhile, the city wakes up. Antar a singer who dreams of rapping (prohibited in the streets) urges his brother to wake up. It’s a big day for him; he will be recording his first album that afternoon. Noor is putting her make up on; she will be appearing in front of the cameras. Jabber is already in the field, surrounded by gunfire. A demonstration is marching down the streets. Moemen Faiz, who was confined to a wheelchair due to an Israeli offensive, is a photographer who is there to do his work as a journalist.  The muezzin’s call to prayer echoes in the air, multiplied by the loudspeakers on the minarets. The members of the parkour team twirl around in a cemetery like in a dream. The film is a collective observational documentary that requires no commentary. It is not a film about Gaza, but with Gaza.

A scene from 'Tendid'.

A scene from ‘Tendid’.

Filmed in the wake of the 2008-9 war, Tendid (Condemnations) by Tunisian filmmaker Walid Matar takes place in a struggling corner café which gains an overnight popularity boost with the televising of the war.  The café becomes the melting pot and meeting point for the community’s men who are just as quick to pick sides for football as they are for religion, politics and war. The film, which has to be my favourite one out of all the films that I saw, takes satirical aim at the hollow nature of the many public and political statements of solidarity and condemnation issued at the time.

The final and shortest film of the night Shuja’iyah: Land of the Brave by Hadeel Assali was made during the recent war on Gaza, combining the artist’s images of home and community life in the district of Shuja’iyah with audio recorded in July 2014, as the neighbourhood came under devastating attack. The film shows Assali’s personal reflection on the meaning of “crimes against humanity” in the context of Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’, using footage of her family filmed in the summer of 2013 juxtaposed against audio from the summer of 2014.

Although the quality of the films was variable and some were not great, the festival succeeded in presenting Palestine’s human, social and cultural diversity. The featured works tackled daily issues and recognised the Palestinian people as individuals – as human beings with their own stories and circumstances – rather than a vague collective, an occupied nation.

 

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The power of Palestinian literature to write wrongs

 
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The power of Palestinian literature lies in its ability to make a word of difference, gradually shifting perceptions and, through them, reality.

Palfest

Wednesday 11 June 2014

The annual Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest), which took place last week, was held in five different cities: Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nablus and Haifa. Into its seventh edition, this year’s PalFest, despite being run on a shoestring, attracted prominent Palestinian, Arab, European, American, Asian and African names.

PalFest has managed to skirt around the movement restrictions imposed by the Israeli military to field a diverse programme including readings, theatrical performances, music, panel discussions and workshops.

The festival’s slogan is “the power of culture over the culture of power”. This echoes the ancient adage “The pen is mightier than the sword,” which has been recycled in various forms since at least the Assyrian sage Ahiqar in the 7th century BC.

But in a world where the sword – or more accurately the gun, the missile and the jet fighter – so often silences the word, it is easy to view literature’s power to write wrongs with scepticism and, hence, regard it as a preoccupation people living under occupation can ill afford.

Even the late Mahmoud Darwish, widely regarded as Palestine’s national poet and one of the main architects of modern Palestinian consciousness, was not immune to such doubts. “I thought poetry could change everything, could change history and could humanise,” he said in a 2002 interview. “But now I think that poetry changes only the poet.”

Despite these misgivings, the culture of power does sometimes feel insecure in the face of the power of culture.

Although Israel, alongside Lebanon, probably has the freest literary scene in the Middle East, this freedom often does not extend to the Palestinians. This was on ample display during the second edition of PalFest in 2009, when Israeli police tried to stop the Jerusalem leg of the festival from taking place, prompting the French Cultural Centre and British Council to step in to save the day.

This demonstrates that the pen can sometimes intimidate the sword.

In my view, the power of literature lies in its ability to make a word, rather than a world, of difference. It doesn’t cause dramatic, immediate change in the real world, but it can gradually shift perceptions and consciousness and, through them, reality.

Literature can and does play a number of vital roles in the context of the Palestinian struggle. For instance, whether in the form of fiction or non-fiction, it is a peaceful means of resisting Israel’s military machine, both by boosting morale and highlighting the plight of Palestinians.

Traditionally, Palestinian literature has served the function of chronicling the dispossession of the Palestinian people and of keeping their memory and identity alive. This is epitomised not only in the poetry of Darwish but also in the defining short stories and novels of Ghassan Kanafani, who was assassinated in 1972 in Beirut by, many suspect, the Mossad.

Literature is also, as Darwish pointed out, a vehicle for humanising the Palestinians. This is not only in the eyes of those who regard them as two-dimensional villains but also those who see them simplistically as superhuman heroes or poor victims.

A new generation of writers and other artists has taken it as their mission to highlight this ordinary human experience, albeit in extraordinary circumstances. Such run-of-the-mill Palestinians “need to be fictionalised,” in the view of Selma Dabbagh, a British-Palestinian lawyer-turned-novelist and playwright, because “the media, if it saw them at all, would be more likely to see them as victims, which is a flattening vision.”

Literature can also be a conduit for self-reflection and criticism of the shortcomings of Palestinian society itself. An example of this was presented at PalFest by Palestinian-American poet Susan Abulhawa when she recited a poem from her collection My Voice Sought the Wind, in which she reflects on the equal sacrifices women must make for the cause but the unequal returns they receive:

The first time your husband hit you

It nearly knocked the country off your back

Literature is also a means of displaying solidarity. “Your very presence here signifies your support in these times of isolation,” Michael Sansour, the executive vice-president of Bethlehem University, one of the venues of the festival, told the assembled writers and journalists.

Caught between the walls imposed by the Israeli occupation and Arab reluctance to scale them, Palestinians have been incredibly isolated not only from the wider world, but even their own neighbourhood. PalFest, which is the brainchild of the acclaimed Egyptian-British author Ahdaf Soueif, was created partly to remedy this.

But literature is not just about resistance but can also pave the way to coexistence by bridging the chasm of perception and misconception between the two sides.

“[Elias] Khoury’s Bab al-Shams influenced my thinking lots, as did Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks,” observes Shuli, an Israeli acquaintance. “They further fleshed out things that I sensed but couldn’t prove with statistics and history, filled gaps.”

This bridge-building potential is well embodied in the unlikely friendship and intellectual companionship between the late Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz and Sasson Somekh, the Iraqi-Israeli poet and academic whose research brought Mahfouz into the international limelight.

But, above all, the writer can imagine a better tomorrow. “I dream of the day when,” Mahfouz once confided in Somekh, “thanks to the co-operation between us, this region will become a home overflowing with the light of science, blessed by the highest principles of heaven.”

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 4 June 2014.

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Reimagining Palestine: Inserting the human dimension

 
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By Khaled Diab

The outside world primarily see Palestinians as two-dimensional heroes or villains. A new generation of artists and writers is adding a vital third dimension, the human. 

East Jerusalem provides the backdrop for a comedy drama about a Palestinian family. Source: NossBalad

East Jerusalem provides the backdrop for a comedy drama about a Palestinian family. Source: NossBalad

Monday 3 March 2014

The Arab-Israeli conflict has cast such a long shadow over the Palestinians that it sometimes seems the outside world can only view this dynamic and diverse people through the prism of the conflict. This tension between the image of the Palestinian as freedom fighter, in one narrative, and as terrorist, in the other, distorts the far more important picture of the Palestinian as human being.

But recent years have witnessed the emergence of a new generation of artists and writers who are challenging this superficial hero/villain dichotomy by delving deeper into the ordinary human experience, albeit under extraordinary circumstances.

In so doing, they are making the conflict the backdrop, rather than the central focus. “I have met people, many Palestinians, whom I have found quite heroic in a quotidian, no-glory kind of way,” reflects Selma Dabbagh, a British-Palestinian lawyer-turned-novelist and playwright. “They need to be fictionalised, as the media, if it saw them at all, would be more likely to see them as victims, which is a flattening vision.”

And despite the temptation to communicate a “message,” Dabbagh has striven to avoid such two-dimensional flatness in her work. “I did start writing thinking [I have] a mission… but the more I wrote fiction, the more I realised that the message was dangerous,” she notes. “The characters have to live and breathe in a writer’s mind and rub off each other with love and conflict.”

Selma Dabbag. Photo: Jonathan Ring

Selma Dabbag. Photo: Jonathan Ring

And “love and conflict” are the themes of Dabbagh’s latest work, a BBC radio play. Although The Brick, which is set in Jerusalem, features checkpoints and permits, these provide the background scenery to a personal story of mundane routine pierced by shattering family revelations.

In Dabbagh’s well-received debut novel, Out of It, she also attempts this difficult juggling act of making the human speak louder than the sometimes deafening background drone of conflict.

Partly set in Gaza during the second intifada, the book strives to rise above the cacophony of conflict to delve into the human experience of a family of “returnees” trying to find escape, each in their own unique way – in England, in the Gulf or inside their minds.

Escapism, exile and return are, unsurprisingly, recurring themes in contemporary Palestinian literature, whether fictional or factual, as brought vividly and poetically, and sometimes humorously, to life by Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah and I Was Born There, I Was Born Here.

But for real laughs, both tragicomic and absurdist, one should turn to architect-cum-writer Suad Amiry. Set during the second intifada in Ramallah, her debut autobiographical work blends dry, unvarnished humour with a sharp talent for storytelling.

Sharon and my Mother-in-Law hilariously juxtaposes two authoritarian figures restricting Amiry’s freedom: one a 91-year-old matriarch, the other a ruthless general-turned-politician in his 70s. “I ended up with two occupations, one inside the house, in the form of my mother in law, and another outside the house with Sharon’s army. And don’t embarrass me and ask which one was more difficult,” she joked on a long bus journey during which she reflected on life, architecture, politics and writing.

As if to answer her own question, Amiry adds, “Perhaps one day I may forgive you, the Israelis, for all the atrocities you have committed against us, but I shall never forgive you for having my mother-in-law stay with me for 40 days under curfew – which felt like 40 years.”

sharonAs the Israeli army locked down Ramallah in 2002, Amiry’s mother-in-law was largely oblivious to the war zone around her, retreating into the protective shield of her marmalade-making routine. “In spite of the fact that we were under curfew, with no electricity and no TV, she still wanted to lead a normal life: dress up as if we were going to a party, set the table nicely and eat on time as if there was no war around us,” the perplexed daughter-in-law recalled.

To escape the fighting and curfew on the streets, Amiry mined this rich comedic material in e-mails sent out to her niece and friends which eventually became an unexpected hit when turned into book form, and not just in Europe but also in Israel.

The surreal moments Amiry recounts include a spontaneous outdoor “party” during which all her neighbours took to their roofs to bang on pots and pans in peaceful, if noisy, defiance of the curfew, and an incident in which she posed as her pet dog’s chauffeur to get into Jerusalem because Nura, the canine, had a Jerusalem pass while her mistress did not.

As if to prove that this was no beginner’s luck, Amiry, who is not only an architectural conservationist by profession but is also dyslexic, has followed up this success with highly innovative, original works.

In Nothing To Lose But Your Life, Amiry disguises herself as a man and embarks, with a group of illegal Palestinian workers, on an improbable, funny, dangerous and self-deprecating adventure into Israel in the dead of night. For her third book, she casts off her male disguise to explore life for middle-aged Palestinian women of the “PLO generation”, intriguingly titled Menopausal Palestine.

Efforts to reimagine the Palestinians through humour do not end with literature. A group of enterprising young Palestinians and Europeans is working on a humorous television soap opera, a genre long dominated by Egypt and Syria. “It’s a way of putting Palestinians on the map,” explains Pietro Bellorini, the director of the series. He adds that the production, which revolves around the lives and antics of an East Jerusalem family, will go beyond the serious but superficial Arab preoccupation with the occupation and familiarise the region with the funny and absurd side of life in this troubled and incredibly complex city.

Speed Sisters watermarkedLike Monty Python revolutionised the way we look at the crucifixion by reminding us to “always look on the bright side of life”, humour can play a powerful role in changing people’s consciousness through laughter. “We use humour because it is a very powerful tool,” Bellorini stresses. “It is a tool that allows you to say things that wouldn’t be accepted in a serious conversation.”

Beyond television, the visual and audiovisual arts are also doing their part to challenge prevalent perceptions. One recent example of this was a photographic project titled Occupied Pleasures, which attracted significant international media attention.

“Pleasures” is not a word most people associate with occupation. But the series features pleasurably unexpected images that shatter clichés, from hijabi women doing yoga on a West Bank mountaintop, to a tête-à-tête between a young man and his sheep in his car, to Ramallah girls getting ready for a night on the town, to Gazan bodybuilders striking poses, to a girl surfer waiting for a liberating wave to ride.

Speed Sisters Trailer (in Production) from SocDoc Studios on Vimeo.

Challenging prevailing stereotypes about Palestinian women has become a regular theme in numerous works. One prominent example is the documentary-in-the-making about the Speed Sisters, Palestine’s first all-female motor racing team.

“The first time I sat behind a steering wheel, I felt in control,” one of the Speed Sisters confessed to me. “Now every time I push down on the accelerator, I feel like a bird: free and fast. I feel like I want to move towards the future and break free of all the oppression and repression.”

Omar-posterThis longing to “break free” is, as you might expect, a common theme in Palestinian filmmaking, as captured in Elia Suleiman’s bleak and beautiful black comedy Divine Intervention, on love in the time of checkpoints.

Recent years have seen a surge in creative, critically acclaimed and award-winning Palestinian films. Even Hollywood seems to have, at least partly, overcome its traditional bias toward “reel bad Arabs” and has nominated the same Palestinian director, Hany Abu-Assad twice for an Oscar: for Paradise Now in 2006 and this year for his thriller Omar. Both delve into the human aspect of political violence, exploring the dark and the ironic.

“If you look at any time in history when politicians have failed, it’s the artists who have come forward to try to make sense of the world,” Abu-Assad told the audience at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 25 February 2014.

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حرية السينما الحقيقية في القدس الشرقية

 
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بقلم خالد دياب

هل تستطيع حرية الأفلام السينمائية مساعدة الفلسطينيين على تحقيق الحرية الحقيقية؟

الأربعاء 7 مارس 2012

أثّر الاحتلال في القدس الشرقية كثيراً على الخريطة الثقافية للمدينة. كان من آثار انعدام الاستثمار المزمن وتوسيع المستوطنات والجدار الهائل، الذي تقول إسرائيل أنها بنته لأهداف أمنية ويدّعي الفلسطينيون أنه يهدف إلى اختطاف المزيد من الأراضي، امتصاص الحياة من الجزء الفلسطيني في القدس وتحويل مركز الثقافة إلى رام الله في الضفة الغربية. إضافة إلى ذلك، يبدو أن العديد من الفلسطينيين المقدسيين لم يتمكنوا من التخلص من عقلية منع التجول التي سادت الانتفاضة، والتي انتهت قبل أكثر من سبع سنوات.

إلا أنه في السنوات الأخيرة، تم إطلاق جهود لإحياء وإغناء خريطة القدس الثقافية المتواضعة. آخر هذه الجهود إعادة إحياء سينما القدس القديمة، التي أغلقت أبوابها قبل ربع قرن أثناء الانتفاضة الأولى (التي استمرت من عام 1978 وحتى 1993). وهي الآن، رغم أنها لم تكتمل بعد، مركز يابوس الثقافي. إضافة إلى عرضها للأفلام، تستضيف السينما أحداثاً فنية ومسرحية وموسيقية، بما فيها عرضاً للصور الفوتوغرافية عن الثورة المصرية وحفلات لموسيقى الجاز.

استهل مركز يابوس إعادة افتتاحه بأسبوع أفلام الحرية. العنوان مناسب إذا أخذنا بالاعتبار العطش للحرية السياسية والاقتصادية والاجتماعية، الواضحة ليس فقط في أوساط الفلسطينيين وإنما للشعوب عبر المنطقة، بما فيها إسرائيل، حيث ثارت حركة احتجاج اجتماعي واسع الصيف الماضي. أعلن المحتجون الإسرائيليون جادة روتشيلد في تل أبيب “ميدان التحرير” الخاص بهم، كما أطلق المعلّقون العرب اسم “الربيع الإسرائيلي” على الحركة.

ومن الأفلام التي عرضت في يابوس فيلم “لن نترك”، الذي يعرض نضال الفلسطينيين ضد النزوح الإجباري في القدس، وفيلم “فليجة”، الذي يوثق الاعتصامات الملهمة والابتكارية التي نظمها الناشطون التونسيون بعد سقوط الدكتاتور زين العابدين بن علي، وفيلم “القاهرة 678″، الدراما التي حطمت الممنوعات عن التحرش الجنسي في مصر.

تقول ريما عيسى، منسّقة سينما يابوس ومسؤولة المهرجان أن الفلسطينيين المقدسيين عانوا من “غيبوبة سينمائية”. وهي ترى المهرجان ومركز يابوس الثقافي على أنهما “جسر لإعادة العلاقات التي انقطعت منذ وقت طويل بين الجمهور الفلسطيني في القدس ودور السينما”.

ولكن هل تستطيع حرية السينما مساعدة الفلسطينيين على تحقيق الحرية الحقيقية؟

“دور الثقافة حاسم”، تقول ريما عيسى، “وشعبنا يتوق إليها”. وهي تؤمن أن باستطاعة السينما المساعدة على الربط بين جيل جديد من الفلسطينيين المقدسيين الشباب مع المضمون العربي والعالمي الأوسع، الأمر الذي يمكنهم من نقل وضعهم وكفاحهم إلى العالم الخارجي وإنهاء سنوات طويلة من العزلة.

وقد تمكنت العديد من الأفلام والمخرجين الفلسطينيين في السنوات الأخيرة من زيادة الوعي بكونهم بلا دولة وسعيهم للحصول على الحرية وإنشاء الدولة، والاعتراف الدولي بهم. ومن الأمثلة البارزة على ذلك مخرج الأفلام الفلسطيني الإسرائيلي إيليا سليمان الذي أصبح فيلمه السوريالي الهزلي الأسود “تدخل إلهي” الذي أخرجه عام 2002، عن قصة حب عبر الحواجز بين فلسطيني وفلسطينية يقيم أحدهما في إسرائيل ويقيم الآخر في الضفة الغربية، أصبح ذو شهرة عالمية وصيت ذائع. كما حصل فيلمه الأول الطويل “قصص الاختفاء” (1996) على سمعة واسعة في أوساط النقاد السينمائيين.

إلا أن ريما عيسى، وهي مخرجة أفلام وأول فلسطينية تتخرج من أشهر مدرسة سينمائية إسرائيلية هي “سام شبيغل”، لا تؤمن أن باستطاعة السينما بناء الجسور بين الفلسطينيين والإسرائيليين بسبب عدم المساواة الكبير بين الطرفين.

يخالفها صانعو أفلام آخرون الرأي. على سبيل المثال، تشارك الفلسطيني عماد برنات والإسرائيلي غاي دافيدي في إخراج فيلم “خمس كاميرات محطّمة”، وهو فيلم يوثّق الكفاح اللاعنفي لسكان قرية بلعين الفلسطينية، المسلّحين بالكاميرات فقط، لوقف سلب الأراضي.

ومن الأفلام الرئيسية المثيرة للاهتمام دراما الجريمة “عجمي” الذي يخرجه صانعا الأفلام للمرة الأولى اسكندر قبطي وبارون شاني، والذي يصف بشكل واقعي الحياة في حي العجمي المحروم في مدينة يافا، وليتعمق في تعقيدات الحياة الإنسانية بين المسلمين والمسيحيين واليهود في إسرائيل. وقد حصل كذلك على جائزة “أوفير”، وهي أعلى جائزة إسرائيلية للأفلام وترشح لجائزة الأوسكار في الولايات المتحدة.

ولكن قوة الأفلام لا تتوقف عند قدرتها على تحويل أساليب الناس في التفكير وتحدي ضمائرهم. تساعد مسارح السينما نفسها على إيجاد شعور بالتماسك المجتمعي. على سبيل المثال، تستذكر جارتي الفلسطينية التي يقارب سنها التسعين عاماً فترة ما قبل التقسيم والحرب عندما كان جيرانها اليهود “أصدقاء” يجلسون أحياناً جنباً إلى جنب في دور السينما وعندما كانت الممثلة المصرية اليهودية الأثيرية ليلى مراد هي المفضلة بشكل خاص بين المجتمَعَين.

في المضمون الحالي المقسّم بشكل لا يخلو من المرارة، تظهر هذه الصور على أنها خيال سينمائي بعيد التحقيق. ولكن ذلك كان صحيحاً في يوم من الأيام، وقد يصبح كذلك في يوم قريب.

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International Women’s Day: Empowering the average Mo

 
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By Khaled Diab

Arab men who do not fit the traditional ideal of manhood are often regarded as inferior, and this stereotype holds back the emancipation of women.

Thursday 8 March 2012

The feminist cause in the Arab world has generally progressed less than in the West, particularly in the last few decades of rapid Western emancipation.Last year, the egalitarian mass protests that marked the eruption of the Arab Spring looked like they might finally change all that. In Tunisia and Egypt, women from a wide range of backgrounds and walks of life stood shoulder to shoulder with men as equals in the battle against tyranny and for dignity and freedom. “Attitudes toward women are better among the young generation, particularly the middle class, to which most of the politically active women belong,” notes Egyptian feminist and activist Gihan Abou Zeid.

Although women are treated as relative equals by the revolutionary youth movement that has orchestrated the two revolutions, the Muslim conservatives that have made the greatest gains in parliamentary elections in Tunisia and Egypt do not share such enlightened views, although Tunisia Islamists are more progressive than their Egyptian counterparts. And in Egypt, the most troubling development for women has been the unexpected success of the ultra-conservative Salafists who tend to believe that women should neither be seen nor heard.

The reasons that the Arab Spring has not yet blossomed into a summer of gender equality are many and complex. They include the conservative Islamic current that has swept society in recent decades, the discrediting of the Arab model of secularism and suspicion of “Western imports”, and the fact that revolutionising deeply ingrained social attitudes takes far longer to take hold than instigating changes to the political structure.

In addition, one oft-overlooked cultural factor is that, in the bid to invent the new Arab woman, her complement, the new Arab man, has often flown beneath the radar. While independence-seeking Arab women often have clear and positive role models to aspire to in their quest for emancipation, the men in their lives are often left swimming against the tide of popular perception.

Over the years, I have met legions of Arab men who resist female emancipation not out of any abstract objection to gender equality but out of peer pressure and fear of what their families, workmates or neighbours will think of them. Where progressives have failed to capture the imagination of the masses, conservative myth-makers have worked tirelessly to idealise and idolise the vision of invincible, insurmountable manhood. With some brilliant exceptions, television soap operas tend to be the Arab world’s strongest bastion of traditionalism and overt, unsubtle moralising, particularly during the fasting and feasting month of Ramadan.

One hit series which took the Arab world by storm was the Syrian soap opera Bab el-Hara (Alleyway Gate). Set in French-mandate Syria between the two world wars, it paints a sentimental and nostalgic picture of a society peopled by brave and gallant men and their dutiful and obedient women. Director Bassam al-Malla said he intended to create nostalgia for “a world with values, honour, gallantry … and the revolutionary spirit”.

But the world Bab el-Hara attempts to recreate never existed in the first place. “The series conceals all those women who had a political and cultural presence in the Syrian street at that time,” writes Juhayina Khalidiya, in a feminist critique of the TV programme, published in as-Safir newspaper (in Arabic). She notes that expunging such revolutionary women from the narrative is, first and foremost, unfair to their legacy.

This same airbrushing of the heroic and pivotal role women have played in the transformation of society is occurring as we speak among the conservative forces, particularly Islamists, working to hijack the Arab Spring. “The attitude towards women has not been impacted by the historic victory,” says Marwa Rakha, and Egyptian author, broadcaster and blogger. “Men chanted slogans against them like: ‘Men want to topple feminists’ and ‘Since when did women have a voice?’ They were asked to go home and obey God. They were let down by the average Egyptian man and woman alike.”

In addition to the undoubted insult to women this denial of their role represents, the gap between the Arab man, the “average Mo”, and the Arab myth of manhood is bound to breed feelings of inadequacy, because the chasm between fantasy and reality is a yawning one. In the more secular Arab countries, women make up their fair share of the labour force, hold top professional and political positions, often perform better academically than their male peers and refuse the deferential role their grandmothers and great-grandmothers took for granted.

This gap between ideal and reality carries echoes of England from the 19th and up to the first half of the 20th century. In his book The English, Jeremy Paxman writes that British men were “uneasily aware of the injustice of denying women a full role in society”. As if commenting on Bab el-Hara, he notes that: “The stronger the challenge [to the male order], the more vociferous the evangelism about how the family was the cornerstone of the safe and ordered society.”

In contrast to the idealised “real men” of the past in Bab el-Hara, another hit Ramadan series distorts the contemporary reality by depicting the modern man as weak, indecisive and dominated by the women in his life. Yehia el-Fakharani, one of Egypt’s most accomplished actors, abandoned his normal roles of the sophisticated lawyer, MP or professor, to play that of a 60-year-old mummy’s boy in “Yetraba fi Ezzo”.

In the series, his character, Hamada Ezzo, is completely dependent on his mother for direction in every aspect of his life. “This kind of negative character is one of the causes of our falling behind the technologically advanced nations … We see his type frequently in our midsts as Egyptians and Arabs,” the London-based Arabic daily, al-Hayat, quoted el-Fakharani as saying.

He went on to express his belief that the coming generation had to be more hardworking and conscientious to keep up with the times and not depend on past glories. While it is hard to fault this sentiment, the choice of a man living under his mother’s thumb as a parable for the times is telling.

This soap is an odd way to inspire the young generation. If that was truly the writer’s aim, why not, instead of fixating on a nearly-retired man’s subservient relationship with his mother, challenge the rigid and stifling pecking order that keeps the young from reinventing society or the prejudices that keep the female half of the population from fulfilling their full potential?

In real life, Yehia el-Fakhrani is quite an admirable picture of the modern man, a middle-aged “metrosexual”, which makes his pandering to this warped view all the more confounding. He is gentle, caring, considerate and tolerant, while the women in his life are intelligent and successful. His wife, for instance, wrote a critically acclaimed TV drama chronicling the reign of King Farouq.

As long as conservative circles continue successfully to equate female emancipation with male emaciation, the quest for gender equality will stall. Although Arab cinema and literature have carried plenty of examples of modern, progressive men, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, the problem is that these tend to be quite westernised, and hence alien to your average Arab man on the street.

What we need are mainstream, “average Mo” role models who demonstrate that believing in gender equality squares with being a man, and that empowering women also empowers men and society as a whole.

More articles on gender issues can be found here and here.

This is an updated version of a column which appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free on 26 October 2007. Read the related discussion.

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‘Reel’ freedom in East Jerusalem

 
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By Khaled Diab

The reopening of a landmark East Jerusalem cinema could provide local Palestinians with a much-needed dose of ‘reel’ freedom.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

In East Jerusalem, the occupation has affected the city’s cultural landscape. Chronic underinvestment, expanding settlements and a massive wall – which Israel says it has constructed for security purposes and Palestinians allege is a land grab – have had the effect of squeezing the life out of the Palestinian quarter in Jerusalem and shifting the cultural centre of gravity to Ramallah in the West Bank. In addition, it seems many Palestinian Jerusalemites have not been able to shake off the curfew mentality of the intifada, which ended almost seven years ago.

In the past few years, however, efforts have been launched to revive and enrich East Jerusalem’s modest cultural topography. The latest of these is the reincarnation of the old al-Quds cinema, which closed down a quarter of a century ago during the first intifada (which lasted from 1987-1993). Now it is the state of the art, though still unfinished, Yabous Cultural Centre. In addition to film screenings, it hosts artistic, theatrical and musical events, including a photo exhibition about the Egyptian revolution and live jazz concerts.

Yabous marked its reopening with Freedom Films Week. The theme is appropriate given the thirst for political, economic and social liberty, evident not only amongst Palestinians but peoples across the region – including in Israel, where a broad-based social protest movement erupted last summer. Israeli protesters declared Rothschild Avenue in Tel Aviv their own “Tahrir Square” and Arab commentators dubbed the movement the “Israeli Spring”.

The films featured at Yabous included We Won’t Leave, which chronicles the Palestinian struggle against forced displacement in Jerusalem; Fallega, which documents the innovative and inspirational sit-ins organised by Tunisian activists following the fall of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali; and Cairo 678, a taboo-breaking drama about sexual harassment in Egypt.

Rima Essa, Yabous’s cinema coordinator and the festival’s curator, says that Palestinian Jerusalemites have been in a “coma when it comes to cinema”. She sees the festival and the Yabous Cultural Centre as “a bridge to restoring the long-interrupted relationship between the Palestinian audience in Jerusalem and cinema theatres”.

But can ‘reel’ freedom help Palestinians achieve real freedom?

“The role of culture is crucial,” says Essa, “our people crave it.” She believes that cinema can help connect a new generation of young Palestinian Jerusalemites to the broader Arab and global context, enabling them to relate their situation and struggle to the outside world and end their years of isolation.

Love at a checkpoint. A scene from Divine Intervention

And numerous Palestinian films and directors have, in recent years, managed to raise awareness of their statelessness and their quest for nationhood, leading to international acclaim. One notable example is the Palestinian-Israeli film director Elia Suleiman, whose 2002 surreal black comedy Divine Intervention about a love affair across checkpoints between two Palestinians, one living in Israel and the other in the West Bank, became an international hit. His first feature film, Chronicles of a Disappearance, (1996) received widespread critical acclaim.

However, Essa, who is a film director and the first Palestinian to graduate from Israel’s foremost film school, Sam Spiegel, does not believe that cinema can build bridges between Palestinians and Israelis because of the stark inequality between the two sides. “I am in favour of a complete cultural boycott of Israel,” she opines, though she admits that she would not stop Israeli Jews who come to the cinema of their own accord.

Essa, who dreams of a single democratic state for Jews and Arabs, is convinced that engagement between the two sides in the current status quo “would not constitute a discourse of peace… because there is no balance or equality”. In addition, she believes that dialogue not only leads nowhere but provides Israel with a political smokescreen behind which it can continue to push ahead with its settlement enterprise. “You can go to as many debates as you like about water or land, but the occupation carries on unchanged,” she says.

But other filmmakers recognise the power of collaborative art to build bridges. For instance, Palestinian Emad Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi were co-directors of Five Broken Cameras, a film which documents the nonviolent struggle of the residents of the Palestinian village Bil’in – who are armed only with cameras – to stop the seizure of their land.

One landmark co-production is the crime drama Ajami, directed by first-time filmmakers Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, which realistically depicts life in the deprived Jaffa neighbourhood of the same name. The film not only manages to challenge Israeli stereotypes about the neighbourhood Ajami and delve into the complexity of human relationships between Muslims, Christians and Jews in Israel, it also won Israel’s top film accolade, the Ophir Award, and was nominated for an Academy Award in the United States.

But the strength of film does not stop at its power to alter people’s ways of thinking and challenge their conscience. Cinema theatres themselves help create a sense of community. For instance, my Palestinian neighbour, who is almost 90 years old, recalls a time before partition and war when her Jewish neighbours were “friends” and often sat side-by-side at the cinema, with the ethereal Egyptian Jewish actress Leila Murad a particular inter-communal favourite.

In today’s bitterly divided and segregated context, this image may appear like a far-fetched cinematic fantasy, but it once held true – and may again.

This is an extended version of an article which was published by the Common Ground News Service on 6 March 2012.

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TV’s desperate Muslim romantics

 
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By Khaled Diab

Sexual relationships among ethnic minorities offer richer dramatic pickings than cliched stories about arranged marriage.

5 August 2009

The prevalence of Muslim characters on television is growing steadily. In fact, last week I was treated to two on a single evening and both dealt with questions of the heart, and one with the risqué subject of gay Muslims.

Holby City – that fantasy land NHS hospital where all the doctors and nurses are beautiful, and patients are not usually a virtue of the plot – took poetic licence to an extreme when one of its patients nearly died quite literally of a broken heart.

The patient in question had neglected to take his prescribed medication and his transplanted heart was in danger of conking out. His motivation eventually emerged when this young Muslim – probably a Turk or a Cypriot – confided to his sister that he didn’t want to enter into the marriage their parents had arranged for him because he was in love with an English woman.

Admittedly, arranged marriages remain a pertinent issue for many Muslims, particularly among more conservative families and for women, whose destinies tend to be more closely controlled by their families. The number of young women, for instance, who have marriages arranged for them with extremely unsuitable boys from their families’ countries of origin is fairly high.

But parentally imposed couplings of this kind bedevil young people from many minorities. It is even common among groups with a fairly liberal reputation, such as Sikhs. “There is much less coercion in marriage than there used to be. But I think it is very socio-economically based. Village mentality families will still find girls their partners and will more or less push them into that marriage (emotionally usually),” fellow CiF contributor  Sunny Hundal told me. “More cosmopolitan families will try and find suitable partners and introduce them, but will respect a firm ‘no’ if a guy is rejected.”

A similar situation exists among Muslim communities. Despite it being true in many instances, what this hackneyed “arranged marriage” storyline overlooks is how this practice has fallen out of fashion in many parts of the Muslim world, particularly among the urban population.

In Egypt, most of the people I know chose their own spouse. Even those who employed traditional or modern matchmaking services decided to do so of their own accord. In fact, as Egyptians increasingly marry later, mainly due to financial constraints, many are flocking to the Muslim equivalent of online dating, online marriage sites and marriage offices – which are also increasingly being used as a cover for prostitution or as informal immigration services.

That doesn’t mean that everything is rosy. Parents still possess an inordinate amount of control over their children’s lives, particularly girls, and often torpedo what they see as unsuitable matches – a staple of soaps in Egypt and, I believe, other Arab and Muslim lands.

Interestingly, arranged marriages can even be subversive. Although ultra-conservatives are traditionalist at most levels, some Islamist groups are surprisingly progressive in others, and contract marriages between their members that are more egalitarian than the mainstream – with little regard to the material wealth or the class of the spouses-to-be. In fact, one surprising lure of Islamist groups is ‘romantic’ because they not only help members find spouses; they even help them set up a home.

Other fascinating angles which Holby City hinted at but failed to explore fully is that of mixed relationships and premarital sex. The Muslim patient was obviously terrified to tell his parents about his English girlfriend. This was probably for two reasons: the difficulty of admitting a premarital romantic or sexual liaison, and the fact that she is a non-Muslim.

Whether Muslims should marry non-Muslims is a prickly, vague and controversial issue. My personal take is that anything goes, and people should hitch up with whoever they love, whatever that person’s background – but then I’m secular and a-religious.

But even from the orthodox Islamic perspective, the answer is far from straightforward. In her book,  Sexual Ethics and Islam, Kecia Ali argues compellingly that marriages to non-Muslims are not only halal (or kosher, if you prefer), and were practised widely in the earlier centuries of Islam, but are equally acceptable for men and women.

However, the more common view is that it’s only acceptable, but not desirable, for a Muslim man to marry a non-Muslim woman, because Islam is passed down through the male line. Even in my more liberal circle of friends, where many Muslim men and women live with or are married to non-Muslims, many non-Muslim men have had to go through a bogus conversion.

Other religious communities are grappling with similar challenges. “I don’t think there is that much tolerance yet [for mixed marriages among Sikhs],” Sunny reflected. “Some take a grim view – my parents wouldn’t really mind… but I do think the number of mixed race relationships is increasing.”

And such cross-cultural relationships offer a goldmine of dramatic possibilities – and opportunities to challenge stereotypes – that has not been explored sufficiently, aside from the nightmare scenarios of kids caught in the middle of two warring cultures.

Better still, why can’t we have more Muslim characters without the Muslim themes? I have discovered, for instance, that Holby used to have a Muslim doctor, Prof Zubin Khan. Why can’t they reintroduce this character, or even better a hijabless woman Muslim doctor, to the hospital’s already diverse staff? When can we look forward to the first Muslim detective, say a cultured and sophisticated Inspector Mo?

Although we still have some way to go before Muslims are fully mainstreamed, British film and television are leagues ahead of their American counterparts, which still tend to depict Muslims as one-dimensional villains.

In the next exciting instalment, join me to see how British television has veered off the beaten track to a place not visited since My Beautiful Laundrette by exploring what happens when Muslim boy meets boy – but ends up marrying girl.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 3 August 2009. Read the related discussion.

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