The Band's Visit shows an Egyptian police orchestra striking a chord with the locals after getting hopelessly lost in Israel.
The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra is on a diplomatic mission: to go to Israel and play at the inauguration of an Arab cultural centre. Dressed in their full regalia, they wait in vain for their welcoming party at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport.
Stranded, they decide to make their own way. A linguistic cock-up, due to the fact that Egyptians have trouble producing the ‘p' and ‘v' sounds, conspires to land them in the remote, desolate and windswept desert town of Beit Hatikva, instead of Petah Tiqva.
Beit Hatikva (Hebrew for “House of Hope”) is so off the beaten track that you are unlikely to find it on any map – that's also because it exists only in the imagination of Israeli film director Eran Kolirin.
Ever since I first read about The Band's Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret), I have been eager to see it. It has only just been released here in Belgium but was well worth waiting for.
Kolirin wanted to make a film that looked beyond the politics of Arab-Israeli relations and to delve into the human aspect. “Everyone is a little bit lonely,” he said in an interview. “Everyone is a little bit lost.”
And The Band's Visit is all about loneliness and loss, delivered as a rather dark comedy, with much of the humour deriving from awkward silences and the mismatching of dysfunctional characters. Although their Egyptian accents are not convincing and the solemnity and reticence of the characters is uncharacteristic of the vast majority of Egyptians, I managed to suspend my disbelief and get into the story.
The first encounter between the inhabitants of the dozy town and the band of not-so-merry musicians is memorable. Hopelessly lost, the band approach a sleepy local café. The handful of bored punters regard the stiff and proper arrivals, dressed in their smurf-coloured uniforms, with the kind of miffed looks reserved for an alien landing.
Tewfiq, played by the veteran Israeli actor Sasson Gabai (who impressively delivers most of his lines in Arabic), asks the owner, Dina (Ronit Elkabetz, one of Israel's leading actresses), if she would be so kind as to provide them with directions to the Arab cultural centre. The wild and hard-as-nails proprietor replies that in this town there is no culture, neither Israeli nor Arab.
Dina exhibits the Israeli version of Middle Eastern hospitality (which I had the good fortune of experiencing first hand). She offers to put the men up, since the town has no hotel, and bullies two of her customers into sharing the load with her.
During the night the band spends in Beit Hatikva, its members and the townsfolk touch one another's lives in unexpected ways. For instance, Simon, played by the upcoming Israeli-Palestinian stage actor Khalifa Natour, provides comfort to his out-of-work host whose marriage is falling apart, and his host spurs him to finish the concerto of which he has only ever written the overture.
Dina takes in the unsmiling bandleader and ladies' man Khaled (the young Israeli-Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri). An unusual love affair develops between the feisty Dina and the reserved and regimented Tewfiq as they tour the town by night.
A romantic at heart, Dina tells Tewfiq of the Egyptian films everyone in Israel used to watch when she was younger, and their stories of passion, sacrifice, betrayal and blazing love. Perhaps hoping that this mysterious stranger will be her very own Omar Sharif, Abdel-Halim Hafez or Rushdi Abaza, and dispel her all-embracing loneliness, she opens her heart to him and tells him of all her disastrous relationships.
Dina's disarming frankness leads him, despite his reticence, to open up and articulate, albeit haltingly and in few words, the sadness and loneliness he has felt since his wife died. Uncomfortable with the unexpected intimacy, he withdraws back into his shell and Dina winds up sleeping with Khaled to try to bury her disappointment.
Describing the story as that of “a lost band in a lost town”, the film's opening sequence tells us that “not many people remember this. It's not that important.”
Another largely forgotten visit, which was both real and important, was that of Sana Hassan. Everyone recalls Anwar Sadat‘s famous visit to Jerusalem, but three years earlier, while Egyptian and Israeli forces were still deadlocked in the desert, Hassan caused a sensation and a scandal in Egypt by abandoning her diplomat husband and postgraduate studies at Harvard and moving to Israel – and Sadat forced her husband to divorce her.
Driven by fascination, her desire to embark on a personal quest for peace and understand the dynamics of the society behind the conflict, she wound up spending three years in Israel, where she met people of all political hues and from all strata of society – reportedly from Golda Meir and Menachem Begin to Kibbutzim workers and street prostitutes. She wrote a book about her experiences which, perhaps due to its ambiguities and fiercely independent refusal to toe the party line of either camp, has fallen into obscurity.
Unfortunately, Arab audiences have been deprived of the opportunity to see The Band's Visit. Kolirin's dream was to have the film screened at the Cairo Film Festival. However, Egyptian artists and intellectuals generally maintain an unofficial cultural boycott of Israel.
While I appreciate that Arabs should not normalise economic ties with Israel until there is peace with the Palestinians, there is a need on both sides to humanise the other – and cultural exchange is essential in this regard.
My own personal peace mission to Israel and Palestine last year provided me with a whole new depth of understanding. It enabled me to see the human face of Israel, which resembles their Arab neighbours in so many ways, to understand better why they think in particular ways and the complexity and ambiguity that political reductionism overlooks.
Unlike the Egyptian band and their Israeli hosts, there was no shortage of words during my visit – and the endless conversations and debates I had with the family I stayed with for part of my visit and other Israelis I encountered did us all good. If more Arabs and Israelis met face to face, then this conflict could be resolved faster.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 27 May 2008.