Images from The Color of Olives:

Going through the checkpoint to get to the family fields

Monira Amer in her window

A Palestinian child’s view of everyday reality

Images from This is Not Living:

A Palestinian home ...

... after being hit by an Israeli shell

The slingshot of the martyred child

The child’s funeral

The victim’s sister

The ruined landscape of Ramallah

Images from The Roof:

A house in Jaffa “accidentally” destroyed by a bulldozer

Tel Aviv seen from the ruins of Jaffa


Sumud films

The “checkpoint films” made by non-Palestinians often read like expressions of outrage rather than of sumud—the determination to remain on the land despite everything. One exception is The Color of Olives (El Color de los Olivos) directed by Carolina Rivas and produced and shot by Daoud Sarhandi with the help of Mexican solidarity groups with Palestine in 2006. The documentary depicts the family of Hani and Monia Amer living in Masha, in a house completely cut off by a military road, a checkpoint, and electrified fences. The father and his six children wait every day by the gate for the Israelis to open it; the children need to go to school and Hami needs access to his orange trees. Nevertheless, they refuse to move elsewhere. Shots of Monira through the window frame add to the theme of imprisonment. The Color of Olives was criticized by The Village Voice and others for its lack of dialogue, as though the filmmakers were objectifying the family and not allowing them to speak for themselves. Understood as a statement of sumud, however, the family’s quiet endurance speaks volumes. The spectator is invited to identify with the family members as they wait for the gate to be opened, to experience time with them.

In her 2001 film This is Not Living (Hay mish eishi), Alia Arasoughly portrays the idea of sumud in another way, presenting interviews with eight different women living under occupation. The women rarely talk directly into the camera; instead the filmmaker shows them going about their daily routine while they narrate in voice-over. One of these women is a shopkeeper who is seen decorating her store for Christmas and enduring long waits at checkpoints each day in order to get to work. No customers are ever seen but she keeps up this routine anyway. In another episode a drama director speaks with a woman whose house was shelled during the night; the shell exploded in the washing machine, sparing her children. The mother explains that each night the family must calculate where the safest place in the house will be. The final episode is an interview with a young woman whose younger brother was shot (martyred) while throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. The film ends with earlier home footage of the same child playing outdoors in a rare snowstorm, as if to say that if peace comes, it will be like the surprise of that falling snow. This film exemplifies the way that sumud can become an element of performative memory by representing endurance and perseverance in spite of all suffering and external obstacles.

The Nakba and 1967 as cultural markers

Contemporary Palestinian cultural expression since the Nakba has achieved a remarkable coherence. Saïd has written that the characteristic mode of Palestinian fiction is “broken narration, fragmentary composition, and self-consciously staged testimonials, in which the narrative voice keeps stumbling over itself” (Saïd, After the Last Sky 38). Furthermore, he argues that this very disjunction comes from a lack of a coherent vision of the past:

“There is no great episode in our history that establishes imperatives for our future course; our past is still ragged, discredited, and unassimilated … We have no dominant theory of Palestinian culture, history, society. We cannot rely on one central image (exodus, holocaust, long march).” (Saïd, After the Last Sky 129)

Despite Saïd’s disclaimer, the two historical experiences that emerge again and again in fiction as well as in film are the Nakba and the war of 1967. Ghassan Kanafani, who was killed by a bomb planted in his car in 1972, wrote many stories about the memory of the Nakba and about the tragic circumstances of the Palestinian struggle for survival. The three protagaonists of “Men in the Sun” who are being smuggled from Basra to Kuwait are all, in some way, victims of 1948; Abu Quais, married and with a son, has lost his house and olive trees when his village was destroyed; Assad, a refugee from Ramleh (a town occupied by the Israelis), has obtained the money for his passage from an uncle who expects him to marry his daughter; the father of sixteen-year-old Marwan has divorced his mother to marry a woman who lost a leg during the bombing of Jaffa in 1948—the motivation being the house that the woman’s father has provided. All three have become economic refugees because of the war and occupation and hope to find better living conditions in Kuwait. In the story, they die by suffocation when the overheated truck has to make a stop at the border. In the 1972 film version directed by Tawfik Saleh, however, the men beat against the side of the truck and are saved.

Another story, “The Land of Sad Oranges,” describes how many Palestinians left their homes during the fighting, expecting to return in a few days—only to find that their departure was definitive. “Return to Haifa” describes a couple who were caught up in the bombardment of that city in 1948 and were unable to retrieve their 5-month-old son from their apartment. Twenty years later, when the borders were opened after the 1967 war, they return to the apartment to find that it looks much the same as when they left it, down to the peacock feathers in a vase. Their uncanny feeling that the Arab past and the Jewish present have collided and are superimposed as in a palimpsest is a concept forcefully conveyed in a poem by Arab-Israeli poet Laila ’Allush in “The Path of Affection”:

“My fragmented self drew together to met the kin of New Haifa…
The earth remained unchanged as of old,
With all its mortgaged trees dotting the hills,
And all the green clouds and the plants
Fertilized with fresh fertilizers,
And efficient sprinklers…
In the earth there was an apology for my father’s wounds,
And all the along the bridges was my Arab countenance […]

Everything is Arab despite the change of tongue,
Despite the trucks, the cars, and the car lights…
All the poplars and my ancestors’ solemn orchards
Were, I swear, smiling at me with Arab affection…”
(in Handal, The Poetry of Arab Women 78-9).

In Kanafani’s story, the erstwhile home of the returning Palestinians is inhabited by a Holocaust survivor, a woman who has raised their son as a Jew. The son comes in wearing an Israeli uniform and refuses to acknowledge his birth parents. The father ends up hoping that his second son, raised as a Palestinian, will become a freedom fighter (in the film version this is indeed what happens). In this story, the abandoned son, now called by his new Jewish name Dov, expresses the critical view of an entire generation which blames the Palestinian fathers for their failure, for acquiescing too easily to their displacement and exile:

“You should not have left Haifa. And if that was impossible, you should have avoided at all cost abandoning a baby in his crib. If that too was impossible, you should have done everything to return…You want to tell me that that too was impossible? Twenty years have passed, sir! What have you done in all this time to get back your son? In your place, I would have taken up arms. Could there be any stronger reason than that? You are incompetent! You are bound by underdevelopment and inertia!” (Kanafani, “Retour à Haifa” 123).

Exile in this story is presented in all its layered complexity, since the parents are not only physically separated from their previous home, but also in some sense exiled from their very sense of selfhood and identity—their son refuses to acknowledge them as parents. The Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish has described these many layers of exile:

“The idea of “foreigner” can be understood at many levels. First of all and very simply, we are treated as foreigners in our own country. The Jewish majority, victorious and dominant, considers that we are not at home, but in their country that they have recuperated after two thousand years of exile. At another level, I am considered a foreigner because I no longer live in my village (which no longer exists), but with my Arab neighbors. It’s an exile inside a society, inside an identity. Then there is a more complex notion of foreigner, inherent in the human condition. We are all foreigners on this earth … The foreigner is not just the Other. He is in me as well.” (Darwish, La Palestine comme métaphore 17-18)

The house as metaphor

“Return to Haifa,” which was made into a film by Kassem Hawal in 1982, powerfully represents the idea of home, or rather the exile from home, that is so central to the Palestinian narrative. Along with the olive tree, which often appears as a symbol of rootedness and belonging to the land, the home is both a real place and an imagined recovered space. In Michel Khleifi’s Wedding in Galilee that space is still intact though temporarily invaded by the Israeli occupiers. With the increased deterioration of life under occupation, a new generation of Palestinian filmmakers focuses on fragmentary details of houses, on physical deterioration, spatial disjunction, and the ruin. In these dilapidated and threatened spaces daily life continues but in a condition of hardship and reduced liberty. Repetition is used to denote a time that stretches out without a sense of future perspective—these films often convey the sense of life lived in a labyrinth with no exit. George Khlefi, brother of the filmmaker, notes in his comprehensive and illuminating study of Palestinian film (co-written with Nurith Gertz) that this new cinema often portrays a “fragmented and blocked geography in which the home is cut off from the land and both are diminished and divided by borders and barricades.” (Palestinian Cinema 173.) French philosopher Gaston Bachelard has written about the way that one’s house has deep psychological associations:

“The house if one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind […]Without it, man would be a dispersed being. It maintains him through the storms of the heavens and through those of life. It is body and soul. It is the human being’s first world […] And always, in our daydreams, the house is a large cradle.” (Bachelard 6-7)

The latest addition to this geography of the house, as it has become fragmented by the Palestinian experience, is constituted by two remarkable personal essay films by Kamal Aljafari, The Roof and Port of Memory. The title of The Roof comes from the experience of the filmmaker’s family in 1948: fleeing Ramle from the port of Jaffa, they were forced to turn back due to high seas, Returning a week later, they found the city in ruins and their house destroyed. Since then, Aljafari’s parents have lived in an unfinished house abandoned by other Palestinians—one whose second story is only half finished and therefore functions as roof. Port of Memory (2010) follows the uncle’s family in Jaffa as they try to recover the house that was confiscated during the Nakba. The camera pans over the debris of the ruined port, and shows the visit of an Israeli woman who assumes that the family’s current home is for sale.

Both films present aspects of daily life—again, Austin’s “ordinary”—in a way that “performs” the remembered past in interrelated visual themes. Inside the homes of The Roof, everyday scenes—family meals, cooking, sitting around—are shown with multiple layers of background street sounds, television soap operas, popular songs, and in one instance a montage of current events on a television screen that includes a shot of the Twin Towers on 9/11. When the scene moves to the house of the grandmother and uncle’s family in Jaffa, the filmmaker is on hand to witness the “accidental” destruction of a home by an Israeli bulldozer. The astonished and outraged Hamati family who are victims of this outrage are filmed standing in what is left of their formerly beautiful home, where a clock still keeps time next to a wall open to all the elements. On the beach of Jaffa, the detritus of homes destroyed in 1948 forms a mountain of junk while Tel Aviv gleams in the background.

Meditative and poetic in its structure, the film is bracketed by a conversation in front of a rain-drenched window between the filmmaker and a young woman, followed by slow tracking shots of a crumbling concrete wall, exposed wire, an empty and rusting bird cage. In a conversation that opens the film, Aljafari is telling her about his brief stint in prison during the first intifada. In the conversation that comes near the film’s ending, she is telling him about her ambition to become a lawyer and a judge. The film thus expressly links the Palestinian past with the young woman’s dreams for the future, though it is up to the audience to decide whether the slow tracking shot of ruins that ends the film is an ironic comment on those dreams.

In an interview with Lebanese poet Abbas Beydoun conducted in 1995, Mahmud Darwish criticizes the Israeli attempt to brand Palestinians as the “other,” and the Jewish insistence on the primacy of the Biblical text as the keystone of their identity formation. He argues for a more ecumenical approach, one that embraces the totality of cultures that have left their mark on the land:

“This land is mine, with its several cultures: Canaanite, Hebrew, Greek, Roman, Persian, Egyptian, Arab, Ottoman, English, and French. I want to live all these cultures. It is my right to identify with all these voices which have resonated in this land. For I am neither an intruder nor a passer-by” (Darwish, La Palestine comme métaphore 28).

If Darwish asserts “I am my language” (34-35), he makes it clear that this language embraces all of human culture. Palestinian identity is a memory project because it must constitute itself without an original myth (like the book of Genesis); it is a linguistic project:

“ Whoever writes his story will inherit the land of words, and possess meaning, entirely!” (Darwish, Why Did you Leave the Horse Alone? 126)

Darwish emphatically asserts the notion of culture as performative. Like Austin he advances the idea of the ordinary as a muscular affirmation of the real, describing his autobiographical collection as “ a long epic and mythic song that speaks the everyday.” This affirmation is linked to his project of recuperating the past in the face of the attempt by the Israeli State and others to deny the existence of a Palestinian identity by trying to erase the past (Darwish, La Palestine comme métaphore 28). Darwish has often stated (notably in Jean-Luc Godard’s 2004 film Notre Musique) that he is the poet of a defeated nation—he sides with the Trojans, about which little is known since they were conquered by the Greeks.

Writing in 1990, Hanan Mikhail Ashrawi described two apparently contradictory strategies embraced by the emergent Palestinian culture as a result of external challenges. On the one hand, there has been an emphasis on the particularity of the Palestinian experience and a revival of its folk traditions, its symbols, and those qualities that make it unique. On the other hand there is a move toward the universal, toward modernism as an escape from too narrow a definition of Palestinian identity (Ashrawi 77-8). I think that the preceding discussion has shown how both tendencies are present in a poet like Darwish or in the films of Khleifi, Suleiman, Arasoughly, and others. What shines through all of these cultural expressions is what Ashwari calls the “emergent nature” of Palestinian culture: in this historical moment, what we can perceive is a culture in the active process of becoming. In a way this can be said of all national or ethnic cultures; as Stuart Hall notes, we should always think of identity as “a ‘production,’ which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation” (Hall 222). Nevertheless, the unique political and historical challenges occasioned by Israeli and U.S. hegemony in the region have contributed to making the Palestinian experience one in which the processes of cultural formation are intensified and accelerated.

In the title essay of his collection Death as a Way of Life, Israeli writer David Grossman expresses his understanding that the jailer also becomes the jailed—occupation corrupts the occupier. Elia Suleiman conveys this beautifully in The Time That Remains when the dancing young Palestinians ignore the curfew while the Israeli soldiers are trapped inside their vehicle and cannot join the fun. Israeli youth are forced to blunt their emotions in their enforced domination over the Palestinian population. In a similar vein, Mahmud Darwish asks why the prisoner sings while the prison guard remains silent. The prisoner sings to keep himself company in his solitude, while the guard does not feel solitary because he is in the constant company of the prisoner, and so doesn’t even realize that he, too, is alone (Darwish, La Palestine comme métaphore 31). The image of the singing Palestinian prisoner can stand here for the counter-hegemonic strategies of Palestinian cultural practices.

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