copyright 2011, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 53, summer 2011

The Nakba and the construction of identity in Palestinian film

by Inez Hedges

The trauma of Palestinian displacement in 1948 (the “Nakba”) and defeat in 1967 have been watershed moments in the construction of Palestinian identity. Palestinian cultural expression, whether in film, fiction, poetry, or art, returns again and again to these two historical moments. The work of memory is described here as “performative” in the sense that it creates a shared world and ultimately helps to forge a collective identity.

2008 was the 60th anniversary of the war between Arab nations and the newly established State of Israel. Israel commemorates it as the War of Independence; Palestinian Arabs, both Christian and Moslem, know it as Al Nakba, the catastrophe. Over 700,000 people became refugees, fleeing or being driven out into the desert, many with only the clothes on their backs. Before the Nakba, Palestinian society was organized along feudal and tribal lines; its coherence had been successively challenged by the British mandate, Zionist colonization, and the beginnings of modernization. It shared the Arabic language with many other countries. The violence and trauma of the Nakba, and subsequent military victories won by Israel against Arab attacks in 1967 and 1973 have all been instrumental in forging what did not exist so strongly before: a Palestinian identity. The second- or third-generation descendants of those original refugees, whether living in the diaspora, or languishing in refugee camps, in Israeli prisons, in the West Bank, in Gaza, or in Israel itself, identify themselves as Palestinians.[1] The idea of Palestinian nationhood is now increasingly associated with cultural manifestations—in film, in literature, in art, in music—that serve to bind together the sense of a community with common goals.

In a poster exhibition commemorating the Nakba in 2008 (that traveled to Harvard University and other places) many of the art works incorporated images of house keys denoting the lost dwellings, of clocks indicating historical time, of the landscape. An art exhibition in Houston in 2003—the first exhibition of contemporary Palestinian art in the United States—also featured a refugee tent inscribed with the names of the lost Palestinian villages, many of them razed to the ground by the Israeli occupiers and renamed in Hebrew.

The repeated stories of loss that appear in Palestinian cultural manifestations serve to create a "living memory" of displacement and exile. This theme, whether expressed in art, in fiction, in poetry, or in film has strengthened the Palestinian sense of a shared communal history. As Edward Saïd notes in The Question of Palestine, it is through the experience of suffering that a stronger sense of identity has been forged:

“No Arab community has in so short a period of time—a little less than a generation—reflected so deeply and so seriously as a community on the meaning of its history, the meaning of a pluralistic society given the dismal fate of multiethnic communities in the world, the meaning of national independence and self-determination against a background of exile, imperialist oppression, and colonialist dispossession” (176-177).

Culture as “performative memory”

There is a sense in which the languages of art in all of these cultural manifestations can truly be called “performative,” in the linguistic sense of the word. They are “speech acts” in that they do not merely describe the state of things but rather actively engage the process of redefining the world or creating a new awareness.

I am referring here to the ideas of the linguist J.L. Austin, who writes that, in the study of “ordinary language” one should look

“not merely at words (or ‘meanings,’ whatever they may be) but also at the realities we use the words to talk about: we are using a sharpened awareness of words to sharpen our perception of, though not as the final arbiter of, the phenomena.” (Philosophical Papers 182).

In Must We Mean What We Say?, philosopher Stanley Cavell develops the idea further, stating that the philosopher who proceeds from ordinary language needs to remind himself of “what we should say when.” (Cavell, 20). The discussion of their positions by James Loxley in Performativity offers a useful summary:

“ordinary usage is … not an aggregate of individual appellation; it is the very attunement of signification that gives us language in the first place, and that enables us to have a shared world in which we live.” (my italics; Loxley 32).

In his introduction to Nation and Narration, Homi K. Bhabha analyzes the importance of discourse in the emergence of a national culture (Bhabha 2-4). His use of the term “performativity” in discourse comes close to the way I am describing the uses of memory, in the sense that the recounting or preservation of memory often takes the form of narrative. What I am calling “performative memory” is similar to philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s “instrumental memory,” namely a memory employed in order to establish a claim. This claim, he writes, is always a fragile one because it is assailed by three countervailing forces: that of time, of the counterclaims of others, and of the heritage of its foundational violence (Ricoeur 97-99).

As for time as a countervailing force, how can a culture claim to have remained the same across time? And if not, how can it justify the claim to exist as a unique identity? In point of fact, all that anyone can say is that they have remained true to a certain version of themselves that they promise (to themselves, to others) to fulfill.

On Ricour’s second point, my claim to be different from others must come from my exclusion from them, perhaps the suffering that is imposed on me from outsiders; therefore my claim to be uniquely human paradoxically comes from the intolerance of others toward me and my own sense of being different from them.

Thirdly, Ricoeur writes that “there has never been a historic community that has not originated from the experience of war.” One people’s victorious celebration depends of the defeat and humiliation of those they have vanquished. Collective memory archives real and symbolic wounds and becomes linked to the ideological projects of a given society. Narration is put into the service of instruction, of the commemoration of the originating violence (Ricoeur 104).

Ricoeur’s discussion can clarify the way that the ongoing memory project of the emerging Palestinian culture plays an important role in the intifada, or awakening/revival of Palestinian identity. By embodying the experience of exile, loss, oppression, and diaspora, Palestinian cultural manifestations create the shared world that have helped to define what it means to identify oneself as Palestinian today. The outpouring of works in all media can be seen, also, as a vast “memory project.” In the words of cultural sociologist Iwona Irwin-Zarecka, such a project defines “how the past is made to matter: by whom, to whom, when, where, and why” (Irwin-Zarecka 7-8). The forging of collective memory often takes the form of a struggle against others who challenge the new vision; it also creates social bonds, legitimizes claims of authority, and mobilizes action (Irwin-Zarecka 67).

I would argue that both of the strategies I have outlined so far—the use of the languages of art in the performative mode that serves to define and create Palestinian reality, and the project of forging a collective memory through these very cultural expressions—have uniquely contributed to strengthening a sense of Palestinian national identity as well as individuals’ self-identification within it. To quote Saïd again:

“The central fact remains of course: We are a people without a land of our own. But for the first time in our history, one can see Palestinians as Palestinians in a sense producing themselves as they go about their work in a new environment of Palestinian self-consciousness affecting everyone” (Saïd, After the Last Sky, 108).

Palestinian film aesthetics

Film has been at the forefront of the Palestinian struggle for self-representation and self-definition. In the process, a unique aesthetic has developed, out of the limitations of space (the freedom to move about) and time (the limited future that many young Palestinians see for themselves). This aesthetic has two contrary movements. On the one hand filmmakers have found original ways of portraying the amputation of time and space in their daily life. On the other hand, the films often represent transgressive strategies of liberation, both in their cinematographic qualities and also often through their female characters.

The term “Palestinian film” can be variously defined. There are Palestinians living in the diaspora (Michel Khleifi from Belgium and Mai Masri from the United States), in Israeli-occupied Gaza or the West Bank (Alia Arasoughly), in refugee camps, or as Arab Israelis within the borders of Israel as they are currently defined (Elia Suleiman and Kamal Aljafari). Then there are films made about the Palestinian situation by filmmakers from other places and backgrounds, some of which will be touched on here. The burgeoning number of Palestinian film festivals all have to deal with these issues of definition—like the Palestinian identity itself, the idea of “Palestinian film” is constantly evolving.

The discussion of a specific Palestinian film aesthetic usually starts with Michel Khleifi, born in 1950 in Nazareth and now living in Belgium. He was among the first to argue for a merging of the genres of documentary and fiction, and has long been a key figure in contemporary Palestinian cinema. Khleifi has stated that in either mode (fiction or documentary film), he aims for the primacy of narration, to integrate “drama, theatre, action, and reportage all into one work” (Khleifi in Dabayashi, Dreams of a Nation 49). Drawing on the documentary tradition of direct cinema and the idea, first expressed in the French new wave, that the director uses the camera as a form of writing (the “camera pen”), he has developed a cinema of personal vision and subjective expression.

In the 1980 Fertile Memories, the first film to be shot within the disputed Palestinian West Bank “Green Zone,” he portrayed two women: a grandmother, Farah Hatoum, who clings to the hope that her confiscated land will be restored to her by the authorities; and the divorced poet and mother Shahar Khalifeh whose work makes a strong claim for Palestinian identity. In this first work Khleifi already displays what will become a signature of his style, incorporating the landscape by sweeping camera movements that refuse to acknowledge political boundaries. The roaming camera accompanies the poet’s voice, laying claim to the land, and also follows the grandmother who, in old age, sees for the first time the land that has been confiscated from her. “Fertile Memory” refers to the fact that these are memories with a purpose—to move forward into a newly forged Palestinian identity. As such the film contributes both to the project of reinforcing collective memory and of embodying an active, performative memory.

In a film Khleifi produced in 1985 with Perrine Humblet and the Belgian group Marisa Films, Ma’loul Celebrates its Destruction (Ma’loul fête sa destruction) the filmmaker finds a group of elders who gather around a mural depicting their destroyed village—a village they are able to describe in great detail from memory. Once a year on Israeli independence day, the generation of the Nakba and their descendants are allowed to return to the site of the ruined village. There, they try to pass their memories on to their children and grandchildren. Images of the present are intercut with ghostly images of past village life, with documentary shots of fleeing Palestinians in the Nakba, with shots of the refugee camps in 1948, and with shots of the ruined village after the Israelis destroyed it. Here again Khleifi not only documents the creation of collective memory; his film is also a work of performative memory—the film is widely distributed in the DVD package of his award-winning feature made in 1987, Wedding in Galilee (Urs al-Jalil).

In Wedding in Galilee, the camera pauses in documentary fashion, arresting the progression of the plot to pay homage to the interiors of houses, to the domestic space, even as that space is invaded by the Israeli authorities who have insisted on attending the wedding of the Mukhtar’s (village elder’s) son. At other times the camera traverses closed space in a gesture of liberation. In one memorable scene, an Arabian horse breaks from its stall and gallops into the hills where the Israeli army has planted land mines. The Israeli commander and the Muhktar must then work together to save the animal, in a scene that metaphorically evokes the multiple checkpoints that fragment and divide the Palestinian territory. In this work, Khleifi has stated that he wanted to present multiple points of confrontation: “Israeli/Palestinian, soldier/civilian, power/emotion … old/young, men/women, sexuality/tradition, symbols/needs.” (Khleifi in Dabayashi, Dreams of a Nation 52).

Several scenes combine many of these elements at once: we gain entry into the women’s space when a female Israeli soldier faints and is attended to by the Palestinian women; the broken doll that is presented to the Israeli military guests is a symbol of the Palestinians that they have humiliated and broken but also brings in an ominous note as it is passed from hand to hand before being finally presented to the Israeli guests. The bridegroom who is unable to consummate the marriage on the wedding night symbolizes his feeling of shame at his father’s capitulation to the military governor, while the bride who takes her own virginity portrays the power of resistance that Khleifi has always identified with Palestinian women.

In a three-part work made in 2004, Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel, Khleifi traveled with Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan along the path of the original border proposed by the UN partition plan in 1947—the proposed border between the two states that has never been implemented. The “road movie” thus documents the erasure of memory rather than its recapture, as all the territory lies within the present Israeli state. Toward the end of the journey, the filmmakers come upon some Arab children who have lost the connection to the Palestinian past and who simply define themselves as Israeli. The film captures a loss of memory, but does so in order to restore it.

Geographies of fragmentation and a time out of joint

The Palestinian experience in the occupied territories today is one of spatial fragmentation (checkpoints, roads that are open only to Israelis, settlements that intrude on Palestinian land, and now the separation fence/wall/border) and temporal disjunction: without the ability to travel freely in their own country or even get routine access to educational and medical facilities, time is interrupted and even the idea of “the future” is in suspension. This places a special burden on memory, which, paradoxically, has to be oriented toward the future in order to be meaningful—performative memory is instrumental and forward-looking. The work of the new generation of filmmakers, such as Elia Suleiman in Chronicle of a Disappearance (1997) and Divine Intervention (2002), sets forth a seemingly endless repetition of meaningless gestures and actions carried out by a terminally bored and frustrated population. What Edward Saïd wrote 30 years ago still holds true:

“In a very literal way the Palestinian predicament since 1948 is that to be a Palestinian at all has been to live in a utopia, a nonplace, of some sort…One redeeming feature of the cubistic form of Palestinian life is that it is focused on the goal of getting a place, a territory, on which to be located nationally.” (Said, Question of Palestine 120).

The merging of the fictional and documentary modes is apparent in Chronicle of a Disappearance (1997), which presents its scenes with intertitles that flag the events being portrayed as simply occurring on “The Day After” (or in one case, “Days Went By”). Despite the apparent presentation of anodyne, everyday events, the film has many comic elements: the owner of a “Holy Land Souvenir Shop” patiently fills from a tap little bottles of “Holy Land Water” topped with small crosses; the owner and his friend spend hours just sitting outside the shop while arguments take place in front of them, Japanese tourists walk by without a look (except to take a photograph), and a postcard stand rotates aimlessly in the wind. Israeli policemen arrive en masse with sirens blaring, only to stop against a wall and relieve themselves in an ordered row; one of them loses a radio and a young woman, Adan, uses it later to send out orders that manage to get the police cars scrambling from one end of the city to another. When she is arrested she escapes during a fireworks display and the police stuff a mannequin into their trunk as a replacement. The gun on Adan’s desk turns out to be a candle lighter and the grenade-like object is a mug. Her friends are building a “bomb” that also turns out to be a harmless fireworks toy. The director begins a public lecture on Palestinian film (in a section introduced with the intertitle “The Hidden Conscience of Estimated Palestine”) but the microphone won’t work and the audience begins to leave. A chair is upholstered in the colors of the Palestinian flag and a whole room is defiantly decorated in its colors. A swimming pool is dominated by the smiling face of Arafat.

What then, is the “disappearance” that is chronicled? The film begins and ends with a close-up of the filmmaker’s sleeping father; at the film’s conclusion, he slumbers to the accompaniment of the Israeli national anthem on television. The irony is that the Palestinians are invisible to the Israelis, if not to the world. One of the intertitles reads “To Be or Not to Be Palestinian.”

In his next film, Divine Intervention, the main character (played by the filmmaker) and his beloved can meet only at checkpoints where they are regular witnesses to the arbitrary harassment to which Palestinians are subjected by Israeli soldiers. The only escape is a ninja-like battle fantasy in which the filmmaker’s beloved confounds her Israeli attackers—or practical jokes like the red Arafat balloon that he inflates and that traverses the militarized space to the astonishment of the Israeli border guards. In another memorable scene, the filmmaker’s companion stares down the border guards and causes their control tower to collapse.

Suleiman’s last film, The Time That Remains (2009), is another semi-autobiographical film that relates his parents’ early history and his childhood. In an interview segment that accompanies the DVD release, the director explains that he intends the film as a warning sign about today’s global ambiance, in which the Palestinian issue plays an important role. The film begins with the adult Suleiman’s return to his parents’ house, in a taxi driven by an Israeli who becomes completely lost in the tempest that breaks out during the ride to Nazareth. He calls upon Eli (a Hebrew name for God) to no avail, while his passenger Elia remains impassive in the back seat. The taxi driver’s panic attack initiates a flashback to the events of 1948, what the director characterizes as “ the big bang of tragedy for the Palestinian people.”

In the flashback, Elia’s father is blindfolded and subjected to a mock execution, during which he listens to the sounds of the landscape and sniffs the odor of the olive trees; here again, as in Kheifi’s Wedding in Galilee, the connection to the earth is asserted over the claims of the occupying Israelis. Suleiman’s talent for black comedy surfaces in the scene where a class of Arab students is awarded the prize for the Hebrew singing competition, and another scene in which the young Elia is being berated by the school principal for claiming that America is a colonial power. When the flashback ends and we are back to the present, Israeli soldiers try to impose a curfew on dancing Palestinians youths even as they shake to the rhythm; it is the young Israeli soldiers who are captive in their vehicles while those they seek to control ignore them. Toward the end of the film, the protagonist polevaults the new Israeli separation wall.

Suleiman’s humor has precedents in Palestinian literature. Emile Habiby (1922-1998) wrote the satirical novel The Secret Life of Saeed, the Pessoptimist in 1974. As in Suleiman’s films, the author’s voice underscores the ironies of the Palestinian situation. The story is in the form of a letter addressed to an unidentified recipient to whom Saeed initially reports how his life in Israel was all due “to the munificence of an ass” (when Saeed’s father was shot and killed in 1948, a donkey intercepted the bullet meant for the surviving storyteller). Travelling to Israel, Saeed is befriended by an extraterrestrial being, and has a brief love affair with Yuad, before she is arrested and deported as an “infiltrator” from the territories, living in Israel without permission. The second part of the novel finds Saeed living with his extraterrestrial friend in the catacombs of Acre, frightened and on the defensive, much like the underground creature in Franz Kafka’s story “Der Bau.” At the same time the narrator himself compares the situation of the Palestinians to scenes from Voltaire’s Candide in which the illogic of “revenge justice” is played out. Voltairian irony abounds; Saeed’s former school principal, asserts, for instance,

“There is nothing on earth more holy than human blood. That is why our country is called the Holy Land” (Habiby 24).

Saeed later fathers a son who becomes a guerilla fighter in 1966, one year before the 1967 war. Cornered by the Israeli authorities, he escapes with his mother into the sea. The novel’s third section allegorizes the Palestinian sense of belonging no place: Saeed finds himself on top of a huge stake in the middle of the ocean from which he can’t climb down. His extraterrestrial friend explains that this, in fact, is where he has been all along: stuck in space and time. The circularity is reinforced by the reappearance of yet another Yuad, daughter of the first one, and her brother Saeed.

The representation of spatial constriction finds its visual equivalent in Palestinian film. In a recent film by Rashid Mashawari, Laila’s Birthday, there is an additional element of suspense because of the temporal deadline—the protagonist’s need to get back home in time to celebrate his daughter’s birthday—the protagonist has to get back home in time to celebrate his daughter’s birthday, after dealing all day with the absurdities of daily life in the West Bank. This film presents us with another aspect of the Palestinian dilemma: how to behave ethically in an unethical situation. The director has chosen a judge as his main protagonist—someone whose profession is to make ethical decisions. At the same time judge Abu Leila is compelled to make his living as a taxi driver, and hence represents the everyman character as well.

Like Farah Hatoum in Fertile Memory who refuses to sell her land even though it has, effectively, been confiscated, Abu Leila embodies the principle of sumud, of endurance in the face of all obstacles and indignities, of holding on to the land and to one’s identity. According to Saïd, the concept of “sumud” was first defined by Raja Shihadeh shortly after 1948, as the determination “to stay put, to cling to our houses and land by any means available” (Saïd, After the Last Sky, 100). The judge/taxi driver refuses to travel to checkpoints or to carry passengers with weapons, but he accepts to help those in need. In the process he gives up some of his own goals—such as buying a cake for his daughter’s birthday. At the end of the day he is totally frustrated and grabs a microphone from a truck and begins to try and create order out of the chaos in the streets. He starts out by railing against the drivers in the street and the pedestrians but finishes up by yelling at a helicopter manned by the Israeli occupying forces. He is overpowered and sent home, seemingly in defeat; but when he parks the taxis he finds that the day’s events have left behind their own residue that allows him to save the situation at home. This optimistic ending suggests that “sumud” is the right way. The film is “performative” in that it shows a succession of impossible situations that paradoxically lead to a positive outcome. The protagonist ultimately triumphs over all of the indignities of occupation by behaving in a manner fitting to a just person.

In one of the chapters of Palestinian Cinema that he wrote with George Khleifi, film critic Nurith Gertz has proposed the genre “checkpoint films” as a special type of cinematic rendering of the Palestinian experience. From Divine Intervention to Hani Abu Assaf’s Rana’s Wedding (2002), in which the wedding party resorts to marriage at the Al-Dahia roadblock in Jerusalem, to Alia Arasoughly’s This is Not Living (2001) and Birth at Checkpoint (made for the UN in 2003), this pervasive aspect of daily life in Palestine is frequently addressed in film and video. Films made by non-Palestinians also often focus on the checkpoints, which constitute one of the most disruptive and destructive aspects of life for Palestinians under occupation, separating the population from their families, from access to health care and schools, and fragmenting attempts at cultural expression.

To mention a few works by non-Palestinian filmmakers:

The short films collected in Hebron Stories: From Bustling City Center to Ghost Town, made by B’Tselem, the Israeli information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, documents the daily travails of Palestinians trying to remain in Hebron despite the activities of the settlers who have moved right into the city center. Six hundred settlers are protected by thousands of Israeli soldiers, who have closed the main streets and the central market to Palestinians. In one of the videos, a middle-aged woman whose front door has been welded shut by the Israeli authorities traverses stairways and rickety ladders, negotiating a perilous and burdensome passage between the rooftops of her neighborhood to get access to the street.

In The Zoo (2005), New Zealand filmmaker Hayden Campbell follows veterinarian Sami Khader as he tries to move two baboons from a run-down facility in Nablus to his zoo in Qalqiliya, a town entirely surrounded by the Israeli separation wall. The hapless protagonist gets denied entry at one checkpoint after another, and is forced to make long detours around the city, all the while fearing that the tranquilizer he has injected into the animals will wear off before they can be put into their new cages. At the end of the film the audience realizes that it is the Palestinians themselves who are also caged.

Finally, the soon-to-be-released film Roadmap to Apartheid by South African director Ana Nogueira graphically illustrates how the policies of the Israeli occupation have created a worse situation than that of the reviled system of apartheid in South Africa.

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 US 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.


1. There are approximately six million Palestinians living in the area comprising the current State of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza strip; and another six million in the diaspora.


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