What to Read, What to Watch about Palestine

Well, this is Palestine Day – in my blog: “Another Ruined Dinner Party.”

I’ve just finished Salt Houses by Hala Alayan.  This 2017 novel skilfully weaves the last 50 years of a Palestinian family’s life with the familiar tugs of exodus, loss, resettlement – and a dabbling of life in Boston.

In June 1967, Israeli troops in their Six Day War are poised to “conquer” and occupy the West Bank and Gaza strip.  At the time, no one realized that Israel’s brutal and illegal occupation was going to last 50 plus years.  Israel’s claim to fame would be that it is the last military occupier of another nation anywhere in the world – even well into the 21st century.  In Nablus, one of the main Palestinian cities in the West Bank, Atef, Alia and her brother Mustafa become best friends.  Atef is a graduate student who aspires to be an academic;  he marries Alia.  Mustafa, a 25-year-old school teacher, is active in the resistance to Israel’s invasion.  Suddenly he vanishes – the reader knows little else about what happened to him till later in the book.  His disappearance and the fear of what befell him at the hands of Israeli torturers and jailers hangs over the family for decades. 

The novel sets out life for the dispossessed, albeit ones with professional jobs and some money.  First, the family flees to Kuwait, but after the excesses of Saddam Hussein, which were dwarfed by the US invasion in ’91, the family flees to Amman, then to Beirut.  It’s in Beirut we get a sense of how the now extended family tries to forget Palestine.

Author: Hala Alayan

For me, the most original part of the novel was when two 14-year-old cousins, grandchildren of Atef and Alia, sneak out of their family’s comfortable apartment to buy a pack of cigarettes at the corner store.  This is at the height of Israel’s bombing of Beirut in July 2006.  Israel bombed the city for 34 days because it allegedly hosted a base for Hezbollah.  More than 1200 Lebanese died, and 165 Israeli soldiers.  The airport and whole sections of town became smouldering ruins. 

Archive: Out of Beirut 2006, courtesy of modernartoxford.org.uk

At the store the children see the  shopkeeper excoriating a dark-skinned woman, who wants to buy a small wheel of cheese, spicy nuts and pita.  The groceries cost 48,000 lira [$41.00]; she has only 10,000 lira.  The owner taunts her and yells to tell her “madame” the store is not a charity.  She blurts out that she no longer has a madame—and says “they leave” in broken English.  This is our first glimmer about what it’s like to be a foreign domestic in Beirut.  She said,

“They leave five days ago…I wake up, they gone. I wait. Wait for lunch, then dinner, the sun goes down. I stay awake one night, two nights.  I wait. I take the laundry down, soak the rice. But they no come back.  They hear the war and they go … They leave me behind. Here. I look everywhere for passport, no find. I try to call embassy, they say no one can help … I cannot call my children. I cannot go home. The food is finishing. There is no electricity.”  

In Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, domestics’ passports are routinely confiscated by the employer – so the maid can’t go home, or go to live somewhere else.  In Salt Houses, the maid is lost – no money, no phone, no food, no help… The shopkeeper shows no sympathy; he takes her 10,000 lira ($8.80) and hands her only the bag of pitas.  The children understand somehow that they too, as Palestinians, are refugees. But their status is unlike the housemaid’s.

The book is remarkable, and in many ways subtle yet shocking.  I borrowed it from the Halifax Public Library.

The film: Jenin, Jenin

During the second Intifada, in 2002, within weeks of Israel flattening Jenin, a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank during “Operation Defensive Shield”, Arab actor and Israeli citizen Mohammad Bakri visited what was left of the camp.  In 50 minutes, his film Jenin, Jenin shows residents from age 10 to 80, who explain what happened to them when their homes, their dreams and their loved ones were killed. Bakri calls his film “the Palestinian truth” about what happened in the “Battle of Jenin.”

Scenes from the film Jenin, Jenin — a 10 year old girl speaks out, a man with his baby going home to his tent in what’s left of Jenin, the rubble, and the UN tent homes after Israel’s rampage in 2002.

To say Jenin, Jenin is controversial is an understatement.  As soon, as the film was released in late 2002, Israel moved to have it censored, in effect banned.  The state contended the film was untrue and maligned the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces).  The Israeli high court lifted the ban, saying that “however false and distorted,” it should not impinge on democracy and free speech.  The facts are that 50-54 Palestinians – half of them civilians – died during the nine-day siege.  Amnesty International called what happened “unlawful killings and torture”.  A useful article in part about the Jenin “massacre”  published a month later is here: https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/a-tale-of-two-massacres-jenin-and-racak-by-david-edwards/

Then five Israeli reserve soldiers filed a libel suit in 2003.  They claimed Jenin, Jenin made them look bad.  This was rejected by the court, and the soldiers appealed to the Supreme Court. Though the court found against filmmaker Bakri, it was overturned on a technicality, which was that an “unidentified public” is not allowed to sue.

Another lawsuit against the filmmaker was filed in 2016, when the IDF chief of staff claimed “Freedom of speech must not allow for freedom of debasement.”

However the Mohammad Bakri Defense Committee maintained that the filmmaker’s refusal to show “both sides” of a story was not grounds for censorship.  And none of the plaintiffs (the five soldiers)  are mentioned by name or even shown in the film.

(Below: Filmmaker Bakri on left; Illustration for the film Jenin, Jenin)

Though this lawsuit is ongoing, the film itself is very engaging and worth watching.  Jenin suffered through 6 days of fighter planes and helicopter gunships launching missiles at many civilian targets.  Tanks rolled over houses and cars parked on the streets.  13,000 people live in the camp, which is half a square kilometre in size.  As one resident of Jenin said in the film, “Not even Viet Nam was as bad as this.” Here is the trailer.

The Israelis fired 11 missiles into the hospital; one wing was destroyed, along with surrounding houses. In an interview one doctor at the hospital recalled a colleague was reduced to 10 kilograms mass when a missile hit his car.  on his way to the hospital.  Several of the interview subjects broke down when they recalled snipers killing the old, the mentally disabled and even a 12-year-old child who could not walk.  Perhaps the most shocking line (to me) was one Palestinian who commentd, “ Dogs bark in order to express themselves; they won’t even let us bark.”

You can watch Jenin, Jenin on Vimeo here

The film: Arna’s Children

For another look at Jenin, you want to watch Arna’s Children.  Arna Mer-Khamis, once a Jewish Zionist and a kibbutznik in Israel, moved left and because a Communist.  She married a Palestinian and first settled in Nazareth, then went to Jenin late in life.  From 1989 to 1996 she operated a theatre in Jenin which  involved children in the refugee camp in plays, and self-expression. Here’s the trailer.

Her son, Juliano, a well-known Israeli actor, made a film about her theatre.  The film focused on three Palestinian teenage boys – and their struggles as young adults against the Israeli occupation.  Arna’s Children was released to critical acclaim in 2004.  It won the Tribeca Best Documentary Feature Film prize in 2004.  After the film, Juliano established the Freedom Theatre in Jenin to build on his mother’s creative legacy.  I attended the theatre, and met Mer-Khamis in 2010 — an incredibly aware, and passionate artist.

Shockingly, in April 2011, Juliano Mer-Khamis was shot and killed by masked gunmen after he left the theatre one night with his infant son. 

I highly recommend this film; you can see it on Kanopy – you just need your Halifax Public Library card to register.  It’s free.  

Featured photo: A runner passes the Israeli barrier during the annual Palestine Marathon in Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank, March 23, 2018, from REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

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