Dispossession; and the Consequences of Settler Colonialism: Palestinians in Salt of this Sea (Annemarie Jacir, 2008), Out in the Dark (Michael Mayer, 2012), and Omar (Hany Abu-Assad, 2013)

by Daniel Garrett Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 83 minutes (20596 words)

“Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography.  That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings.”
― Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (1993)

“In 1937, Polish-born Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, in a letter to his son, wrote: ‘We must expel the Arabs and take their places...And if we have to use force…to guarantee our own right to settle in those places (Negev and Transjordan)—then we have force at our disposal.’”

—Dr. M. Reza Behnam in “Trails of Deception: What Palestinians and Native Americans Share” (Palestine Chronicle, May 25, 2023)

“Because the exile sees things both in terms of what has been left behind and what is actual here and now, there is a double perspective that never sees things in isolation.  Every scene or situation in the new country necessarily draws on its counterpart in the old country.  Intellectually this means that an idea or experience is always counterposed with another, therefore making them both appear in a sometimes new and unpredictable light: from that juxtaposition one gets a better, perhaps even more universal idea of how to think, say, about a human rights issue in one situation by comparison with another,” said the prolific thinker and writer Edward Said in “Intellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals” (1993), collected in The Selected Works of Edward Said, 1966 – 2006 (Vintage, 2019; page 378).  Handsome, smart, tough, Edward Said (1935 – 2003) was a scholar and writer, a pianist, a cultural ambassador and a political diplomat.  He read Arabic, Latin, and modern European languages.  Said, offering a view of history and modernity regarding Europe’s relation to Arab countries, wrote and narrated the film The Shadow of the West (1986), directed by Geoff Dunlop, discussing the Crusades and Napoleon in Egypt, among other encounters; and Said was featured in Selves and Others: A Portrait of Edward Said (Emmanuel Hamon, 2003).  An exemplar of intellectual complexity and excellence, the cosmopolitan Edward Said was a famous thinker and a famous Palestinian—and controversial for some of his views on politics. 

Born in Jerusalem to businessman William (Wadie) Said and art-enthusiast Hilda (Musa) Said, a Christian family, Edward Said was reared in Jerusalem and Cairo (he had a taste for popular culture—American movies—his mother tried to contain), and he was educated at Princeton and Harvard.  Edward Said taught at Columbia University, published Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966) and other unique books, and he lectured around the world.  Said spoke and wrote about the work of Erich Auerbach, Jane Austen, Miguel de Cervantes, Noam Chomsky, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Frantz Fanon, Charles Fourier, Sigmund Freud, Glenn Gould, Antonio Gramsci, David Grossman, Soren Kierkegaard, Michel Khleifi, György Lukács (Georg Lukacs), V.S. Naipaul, Wole Soyinka, Arturo Toscanini, Giambattista Vico, and William Butler Yeats.  He had a gift for choosing subjects and themes, illustrious, illustrative.  Said’s book Orientalism (1978) considered how the western world saw the Asian and North African world(s), focusing on anthropologists and philologists, as well as painters, poets, philosophers, and politicians, examining the language used to describe lands, peoples, cultures, and practices, relating individuals to institutions, identifying essentialisms, illuminating prejudices, refusing mystification, and reordered a whole field of study.  The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983) examines classic texts with careful attention, and offered—with Said’s own rare eloquence—a critique of literary theory and practices, as informed by linguistics and the study of economic class and psychology, appreciating those contributions to knowledge yet seeing the adherence to theory as a subjugation of literature, as limiting references to the recognizable world, daily life, and diverse human experiences. 

Edward Said’s historical and political commentary in books such as The Question of Palestine (1979), Covering Islam (1980), and Culture and Imperialism (1993) was a corrective to a great deal of dishonest history and miseducation.  Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on Palestine and the Middle East Peace Process (1996) answered many questions about why solutions to conflict were so difficult to achieve, identifying as problems religious contentions, insensitive Israeli social policy, flawed Palestinian leadership, and biased media coverage.  Edward Said, like other Palestinians, was haunted by Palestine, by that West Asian land of plains, hills, valley, and desert, land bordering Jordan to the east and Egypt to the southwest, contested land; haunted by Palestinian history—by the United Nations Partition Plan of November 29, 1947; and the founding of the Zionist entity, the Israeli state, on May 14, 1948, a catastrophe (Nakba) for Palestinians; the 1967 Six-Day War (June 5 – June 10), after which Israel began to control Gaza and the West Bank; the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and much that followed—and yet Said, critical and practical, tried to keep alive possibilities for the future.  (In 1983, he acted as a consultant to the UN International Conference on the Question of Palestine in Geneva.)  His own sensibility, his sophistication, was a bridge between cultures, a comfort and guide to those of us whose lives were fragmented and frustrated.  He was heroic.  Out of Place: A Memoir (1999) helped to explain the man himself.  Edward Said, the husband of first Maire Jaanus and then Mariam Cortas, and father to Wadie and Najla, was even something of a filmmaker, as interviewer, narrator, and/or subject: Said made, with the BBC, In Search of Palestine: Edward Said’s Return Home (1998).  Said narrated a documentary film focused on the motion picture The Battle of Algiers and its director, Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth (1992) by Oliver Curtis.  He was featured as a subject in Edward Said: The Last Interview (2004) by Mike Dibb; and, also, in Out of Place: Memories of Edward Said (2005) by Makoto Sato.  When we are encouraged—through propaganda or pity—to think of Palestinians as merely terrorists or victims, it is important to remember the example of Edward Said and other distinguished Palestinians, such as poets Mahmoud Darwish and Maya Al-Hayat, scholars Nur Masalha and Rashid Khalidi, musicians Mohammad Assaf and Kamilya Jubran, and visual artists Manal Deeb, Sliman Mansour, and Laila Shawa.  And, of course, we can glimpse the gifts and griefs of our troubled humanity in Palestinian cinema—such as Salt of this Sea (Annemarie Jacir, 2008) and Omar (Hany Abu-Assad, 2014).

The past and the present, the personal and the political, are intertwined, and delineated in the documentary film In Search of Palestine: Edward Said’s Return Home (1998), directed by Charles Bruce for the British Broadcasting Corporation, beginning with Edward Said looking at family scrapbooks, identifying his young parents, and Said visiting Palestinian sites with his son Wadie, and speaking of his memory of the Jerusalem of his childhood as being full of different peoples, and there is a film clip of Edward and his sisters playing together; and Edward shows his son and his old friend Ibrahim Abu-Lughod the home Edward was born in, delivered by a midwife (the family lost the house in 1947, when Edward was 12).  Edward Said talks to poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941 – 2008), who has a similar story: born in Galilee, near Acre (Akka), Darwish says that Israel was built on the ruins of his childhood: “Our village was destroyed.  A settlement and a kibbutz were built on the ruins.”  One man Said meets has a key to his own lost property that he keeps for his grandchildren, for the possibility that they will return to Palestine.  The film In Search of Palestine shows Said lecturing diverse audiences, asking questions of young students, and attending a concert featuring his friend Daniel Barenboim.  The recounting of history, including the Jewish terrorism of the late 1940s from which many Palestinians fled, and the perpetual theft of Palestinian land and the impossibility of legal recourse, are irreducible.  Said looks and sounds pained, vulnerable, when he sees the contrived yet direct confiscation and despoliation of Palestinian land, despite Said’s attempt to inquire and intervene: it is a blunt demonstration of the limits of intellectual power and moral suasion.  Palestinians, despite all that has been set against them, want to maintain connections to their ancestral land—and they want the rights of citizens.  Said advocates civil disobedience to achieve the respected political and personal integrity they seek. 

“Watching this film, I got mixed feelings.  Should I consider it refreshing to watch Edward Said narrating this exceptional film?  Should I feel nostalgic seeing Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, a man who was a close family friend and used to bring me gifts when I was about 6 years old, alive and talking in this film?  Or should I consider it depressing to know that the current reality hasn’t changed at all during the last 14 years?” wrote Jalal Abukhater, an International Relations (Master of Arts) graduate of the University of Dundee, Scotland, about the film, whichdiscusses the Oslo accords, ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, settlements expansion, growing apartheid system, segregation within the Israeli state, and other aspects of occupation; all of this is in the 50 minute program,” in a brief article for the online The Electronic Intifada (March 13, 2012).  Years later, the reviewer Jeannette Catsoulis, writing in the New York Times, would describe Edward Said: The Last Interview (2004) by Mike Dibb as “a riveting record of Mr. Said’s 2002 conversation with the journalist Charles Glass.  Though visibly depleted by illness, Mr. Said speaks eloquently about his privileged upbringing (including his early love of the Tarzan movies, in which he admits to identifying with the colonialists), his teaching at Columbia University and his twin passions for music and language” (October 11, 2006).  

Palestinians encounter the same sorts of questions that many people do:  Can we identify and claim our inheritance?  Is it possible to build a life with someone we love despite the world’s disapproval?  Can we trust the people who claim to be our friends?  The characters in the feature films Salt of this Sea and Out in the Dark and Omar are seekers of answers, experience, fulfillment: Soraya in Salt of this Sea is on a journey for home and treasure; Nimr in Out in the Dark is on a journey for knowledge and love; and Omar is on a journey for liberation and love.  Yet, their circumstances may be intensely unusual, informed by the loss of Palestine—a betrayal, a catastrophe, an illegality.  What is Palestine?  A geography, a culture, a people?  “The name Palestine is the most commonly used from the Late Bronze Age (from 1300 BC) onwards.  The name is evident in countless histories, Abbasid inscriptions from the province of Jund Filastin (Elad 1992), Islamic numismatic evidence maps (including ‘world maps’ beginning with Classical Antiquity) and Philistine coins from the Iron Age and Antiquity, vast quantities of Umayyad and Abbasid Palestine coins bearing the mint name of Filastin.  As we shall see below, the manuscripts of medieval al-Fustat (old Cairo) Genizah also referred to the Arab Muslim province of Filastin (Gil 1996: 28-29).  From the late Bronze Age onwards, the names used for the region, such as Djahi, Retenu and Cana’an, all gave way to the name Palestine,” wrote Palestinian historian Nur Masalha, a member of the Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of London, in the introduction, full of scholarly citations, to Malsalha’s comprehensive book Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History (Zed Books/Bloomsbury, 2018; page 2).  “Herodotus not only mentions Palestine as an autonomous district of Syria but describes it geographically, as the country we know today, but also including some adjoining areas in the Sinai and the north, as well as the area east of the river Jordan.  Herodotus also adds that southern Palestine sea ports from Cadytis to Jenysus (or Ienysos, modern Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip) were occupied by Arabians,” wrote Malsalha in Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History (page 73), referencing the revered fifth-century historian and traveler Herodotus.  Palestine survived the reign of various powers—until the twentieth century. 

Here is the modern loss of Palestine, quickly explained: “Between 1918 and 1947, the Jewish population in Palestine increased from 6 percent to 33 percent,” notes Mohammad Haddad and Alia Chughtai in “Israel-Palestine conflict: A brief history in maps and charts” (Al Jazeera Media Network, online November 27, 2023), attempting to fill in the blanks for those of us who have not paid much attention to Middle East history and are stunned by current events—the October 7, 2023 Hamas attack on Israel, and Israel’s devastating retaliation.  The Ottoman empire had controlled Palestine, until the British defeated it, “ending 1400 years of Islamic rule over the region.”  (Islam is, ideally, the Abrahamic religion affirming peace, purity and submission to one god—Allah—and inspired by the teachings of the prophet Muhammad and holy scriptures, the Quran, a faith emphasizing prayer, generosity to others, the discipline of fasting, and the religious pilgrimage to sacred sites.  Islam, like other religions when guided by narrow fundamentalist interpretations, can be repressive, violently punitive.)  The British promised to establish a homeland for the Jews (with the November 1917 declaration of British statesman Arthur Balfour, during the twenty-first century’s first world war, part of plans—mandates—for what would follow the dissolution of the Ottoman empire and reassignment of territories).  Why did not the Europeans reform their own societies, making them more accepting of Jews?  The Jews, believers in an incorporeal and indivisible god, the descendants of Abraham and Moses, and followers of the Hebrew prophets and rabbinic tradition, often harassed and exiled, sought Zion: land, hill, home, fort, Jerusalem, the site of their god, Yahweh. 

Jews: people of the book, the Bible—of learning and debate, but also of creative literature and history, of Maimonides and Spinoza; people of music, of klezmer, nigun, and piyyut; people for whom challah and kugel, latkes, matzah, and brisket had a special appeal.  Great families had come through them, famous names: Rothschild and Berenson, Camondo, Dellal, Lehman, Sassoon, Schiff, and Warburg—people who contributed much to their surrounding society.  Yet, the Jews had suffered for centuries: the condemnation of Christian saints, forced conversion, exile, massacres, pogroms, the destruction of villages, quotas, and false accusations.  They had been ravaged by Hitler’s final solution: attempted annihilation.  Why did not the Europeans reform their own societies, making them more accepting of Jews?  (See: The Balfour Declaration by Jonathan Schneer, published by Random House, 2012; A History of Zionism by Walter Laquer, Schocken, 2003; The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand, Verso, 2009; and The Israeli Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008; and Jewish Terrorism in Israel by Ami Pedahzur and Arie Perliger, Columbia University Press, 2009)  Would the Palestinians be made to pay the price for European bigotry?  “The four great powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,00 Arabs who now inhabit the ancient land,” wrote Arthur Balfour in a 1919 memo quoted in linguist and political essayist Noam Chomsky’s book Middle East Illusions (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003; pages 46 and 47), a book in which Chomsky discusses the imperialist and intellectual causes of ongoing conflict.  

Chomsky, the author of Syntactic Structures (1957) and The Responsibility of Intellectuals (1967), yet suggests the possibility of a future democratic, socialist Palestine, one that might be part of a binational federation.  A very bloody past would have to be transformed or transcended.  In mid-twentieth century Palestine, Jewish terrorists—Zionists militias—harassed and attacked Palestinians; and, threatened by death, many Palestinians fled their homes and towns.  Wandering Palestinians.  Almost a million Palestinians became refugees, were forced into exile (some went to other parts of Palestine and many went to Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt).  Jews came to Palestine from Europe, escaping Nazis.  The United Nations, in 1947, called for partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, and gave 55 percent of the land to Jews.  West Jerusalem was mostly Jewish, East Jerusalem mostly Palestinian—and the Palestinians had Gaza and the West Bank, but Israel gained dominance of East Jerusalem after the 1967 Six-Day War, fought between Israel and Arab nations.  Visiting Israel in 1961 was James Baldwin, the author of Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and Notes of a Native Son (1955); and of the Palestinians, Baldwin said in a published October 8, 1961 letter “I cannot blame them for feeling dispossessed; and in a literal way, they have been.  Furthermore, the Jews, who are surrounded by forty million hostile Muslims, are forced to control the very movements of Arabs within the state of Israel.  One cannot blame the Jews for this necessity; one cannot blame the Arabs for resenting it.  I would—indeed, in my own situation in America, I do, and it has cost me—costs me—a great and continuing effort not to hate the people who are responsible for the societal effort to limit and diminish me” (“Letters from a Journey,” published in Harper’s magazine, May 1963, and republished in The Cross of Redemption, Pantheon Books, 2010; pages 192 and 193).  

Who could accept dispossession without complaint?  Israeli General Moshe Dayan, at the funeral of a murdered friend said, “We must beware of blaming the murderers.  Who are we to reproach them for hating us?  Colonists who transform into a Jewish homeland the territory they have lived in for generations,” comments published in Le Monde, July 16, 1969, and quoted by Noam Chomsky in Middle East Illusions (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003; page 43).  What was the nature of Palestinian complaints, of their rebellion?  Fateh, the Palestinian national liberation movement, an organization of theory and practice, began in the diaspora in the late 1950s, founded by Yasser Arafat and Khalil al-Wazir, with connections in various Arab states; and the movement affirmed armed struggle.  The Palestinian National Council, of which Fateh is a part, first met in Jerusalem in May 1964, establishing the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in June 1964.  The Camp David Accords of September 17, 1978, signed by Menachem Begin (Israel) and Anwar Sadat (Egypt), and ratified by their governments, did “prescribe ‘full autonomy’ for inhabitants of the occupied territories, withdrawal of Israeli military and civilian forces from the West Bank and Gaza, and the recognition of the Palestinian people as a separate political entity with a right to determine their own future, a major step toward a Palestinian state,” wrote Jimmy Carter in Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (Simon and Schuster, 2006; page 48).  Israel did not comply with the agreement.  Hamas, the militant political group, was founded with the first Palestinian rebellion (intifada) in 1987; and Hamas was elected to govern in Gaza in 2007.  By the 1990s, the PLO’s primary approach became negotiation rather than military campaigns; and the 1993 Oslo Accords allowed Palestinians (Yasser Arafat) and Israelis (Yitzhak Rabin) to meet to discuss the prospect of peace; but many Palestinians—Edward Said was one—were disappointed with the results, thinking Palestinians conceded too much and gained little: the subsequently constituted Palestinian Authority would control some of the West Bank and Gaza; but Israel remained in fundamental control of borders and security and offered no compensation for Palestinians’ lost property.  Yet, the Israeli settlement population “in the West Bank and East Jerusalem grew from approximately 250,000 in 1993 to up to 700,000 in September this year” (Haddad and Chughtai in Al Jazeera, November 27, 2023).  Israel constructed, beginning in year 2002, a barrier wall through Palestinian territory, an intrusion into the West Bank, something criticized by the International Court of Justice.  (That is the wall we see in so many Palestinian films: an insult, as well as land theft, rendered in concrete.)  More can be learned of Palestinian history by reading books such as Palestine: A 4,000 Year History by Nur Masalha (Zed Books, 2018), and The 100 Years War on Palestine by Rashid Khalidi (Macmillan, 2020).  Motion pictures such as Salt of this Sea and Out in the Dark, and Omar give us a sense of lived and living reality.

Salt of this Sea

The drama Salt of this Sea (2008), a feature film written and directed by Annemarie Jacir, begins with archival footage of bulldozed buildings, of Palestinians fleeing Palestine by boat on the sea.  We observe, decades later, a woman’s face entering the renamed Palestine—Israel—and she smiles, pleased to be in her ancestral home; but she, attractive and alert, encounters recurring and discomforting security personnel questions about herself and her family (requesting names and birthplaces, and her purpose of visit, and residence while there): a series of repeated interrogations—humiliating, irritating.  Her body and travel bag are checked for anything inappropriate. 

She, Soraya, takes a car to the border of Palestinian territory, and hires another vehicle.  Soraya (played by Suheir Hammad, a poet) arrives in Ramallah in the central West Bank, not far from the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, and she calls her friend Corinne, with whom Soraya, along with Corrine’s associates, has dinner in a restaurant.  That is a warm welcome.  Soraya, later, goes to a bank to retrieve her grandfather’s money from an old account.  Her grandfather had been born in Jaffa, the port city begun by Canaanites; and the account was opened and held before 1948, when the multicultural Palestine became Israel, a Jewish ethno-religious state advertised as a democracy despite the social segregation, the limited rights for, and discrimination against, Palestinians.  Soraya thought the bank account might be still active, or with some provision made for dormant funds, or, at least, that there would be a record of it; but the bank manager says that her documents and the account are no longer valid.  Soraya’s desire to claim her family’s lost property and resources is not unusual.

Annemarie Jacir’s Salt of this Sea, with production design by Francois Joset, cinematography by Benoit Chamaillard, edited by Michele Hubinon, documents the current impossibility of a satisfying return.  Annemarie Jacir, reportedly born in Bethlehem and educated in an international school in Saudi Arabia, studied literature and politics in the United States and received an MFA in film, and she has made documentaries and dramatic features.  Her film Salt of this Sea (2008) won, among many other prizes, the FIPRESCI Critics Award (FIPRESCI: the International Federation of Film Critics).  Jacir has made other features, When I Saw You (2012), about a Palestinian boy in a refugee camp in Jordan; and Wajib (2017), about a father delivering by hand invitations to his daughter’s wedding, accompanied by his estranged son.  Jacir, who has taught at various universities, has been the curator for the Dreams of a Nation cinema project, which preservers, promotes, and presents Palestinian film; and Edinburgh University Press has published a study of her work, ReFocus: The Films of Annemarie Jacir (2023).  “Originally from Bethlehem, Jacir is a central figure of contemporary Palestinian cinema.  In recent years she has established herself as an apt experimental filmmaker with such poignant shorts as like twenty impossibles (2003) and An Explanation (then burn the ashes) (2005), while demonstrating her talents as an exceptional cinematographer in the stunning documentary A Few Crumbs for the Birds (2005), a collaboration with Nassim Amaouche,” wrote Maymanah Farhat in “Finding a sense of home in Salt of this Sea,” for The Electronic Intifada (April 15, 2009).

Suheir Hammad, who is Salt’s Soraya, was born to Palestinian parents in Jordan, and her parents moved with her to New York when she was five, and she grew up absorbing the memories of her parents and the surrounding hip-hop scene; and Hammad won Hunter College’s Audre Lorde Writing Award and an Emerging Artist Award from the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University.  Suheir Hammad published Born Palestinian, Born Black with Harlem River Press in 1996.  In Salt of this Sea, her Soraya is lovely, bright, and impassioned.  Soraya’s early days in the Palestinian territory are full of beginnings.  Soraya sees someone about renting an apartment, a well-furnished place for $800.  Ramallah is a city of the arts, of business, and of government; and Soraya goes to an invitation-only theatrical event, and one of her restaurant dinner companions gets her in.  Soraya, subsequently, sees another bank official about her grandfather’s account, her father’s money, now her inheritance—who says the matter is complicated (obviously: historically, politically, financially), but there is nothing to be done; and he suggests she apply for a loan.  Soraya gets a ride with a restaurant waiter, Emad; and she tells him, Emad (Saleh Bakri), that she needs a job, as she goes with him to pick up his schoolboy nephew.  Emad’s mother invites Soraya in for refreshments.  (Family favors and hospitality to strangers—character and action—exemplify Palestinian culture.)  Soraya explains that her family is from Jaffa, before moving to Lebanon: her grandfather was born in Jaffa but her parents were born in Lebanon, and Soraya was born in Brooklyn.

Soraya (Suheir Hammad) goes sightseeing with Emad (Saleh Bakri), and recalls her grandmother’s vivid memories of Palestine, of places, streets, cafes and cinemas, of foods.  Emad said that he has been limited in his travel, but hopes to go to Canada with his scholarship.  Their pleasant adventure is not as simple as it might have been: driving at night, Emad and Soraya are stopped by Israeli army patrol, and forced to step out of the car, raise their hands, and Emad is asked to take off his clothes for inspection.  The powerlessness of a man, humiliated as a woman watches, might have been more terrible—and Soraya understands the Israeli display of power, suspicious and indulgent, and her sympathy is entirely with Emad, who might have said to the inquiring and insensitive officer, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?  If you tickle us, do we not laugh?  If you poison us, do we not die?  And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” as did Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (Act III, Scene 1).

One of Emad’s friends, Marwan (Riyad Ideis), later talks about making films, and he has filmed aspects of the Israeli occupation.  Marwan’s presence, like the theatrical production Soraya attended, is a reminder of the existence of Palestinian arts—of film and theatre and literature and music and painting.  Marwan’s faith and frustrations can stand for that of many.  Of course, we can learn—through visiting libraries and museums and theaters—more about such people: not only about filmmakers such as Hany Abu-Assad and Elia Suleiman, but also about writers such as Mahmoud Darwish and Susan Abulhawa, Refaat Alareer, Ahmad Almallah, Zeina Azzam, Saleem Azzouqa, Selma Dabbagh, Hanna Eady, Fady Joudah, Khaled Juma, Ghassan Kanafani, Ismail Khalidi, Sahar Khalifeh, Heba Abu Nada, Ibrahim Nasrallah, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mosab Abu Toha, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, and Fadwa Tuqan.  And painters and sculptors Abed Abdi, Alaa Albaba, Halima Aziz, Dana Barqawi, Shirien Damra, Manal Deeb, Nasr Abdel Aziz Eleyan, Narmeen Hamadeh, Ibrahim Hazimeh, Khaled Hourani, Sliman Mansour, Malak Mattar, Bint Quds, Ismail Shammout, Laila Shawa, and Hani Zurob.  Musicians Ramzi Aburedwan, Salvador Arnita, Hanan Alattar, Mohammad Jaber Abdul Rahman Assaf, Nai Barghouti, Kamilya Jubran, Muhannad Khalaf, Youssef Khasho, Umm Kulthum, Augustin Lama, Shadia Mansour, Zach Matari, Bashar Murad, Tamer Nafar, Rasha Nahas, Faraj Suleiman—and DJ Khaled (Khaled Mohamed Khaled).  However, I know that knowledge is only a beginning—and is not the answer to everything.  I recall reading an impressive book on Palestinians when I was much younger—I think it was David Gilmour’s Dispossessed: The Ordeal of the Palestinians (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1980)—and I, an American citizen, thought, “This is important, I have to remember this” but days passed, weeks passed, months passed, and it would be many years before I gave the Palestinians another significant thought.  Making the experience of others part of our own consciousness can be difficult; and doing so does not mean we have the power to change anything.

Is there a way to present Palestine without discussing politics?  How can we discuss such complicated and troubling politics without being specific?  (Are Europeans and Americans, as citizens or filmgoers, attuned to Palestinian reality, and to Palestinian art?  Are some privileged observers inclined to resent Palestinian resentment?)  “Ms. Jacir, who was born in the West Bank (in Bethlehem), effectively conveys an atmosphere compounded of frustration, anger, gallows humor and sun-baked lassitude.  The film, her feature debut, is best when it’s in observational mode; at other times it’s marred by a didactic approach to the questions it raises about history and human rights, and a plot that seems increasingly far-fetched,” wrote Mike Hale, reviewing the photoplay Salt of this Sea for the New York Times (August 12, 2010).  I, Daniel, a reader and writer, a lover of many different kinds of films, found the drama interesting—the politics, and the personal dilemma.  I doubt I am the only one (it did win all those prizes).  We are offered so much junk—why not see a film, such as this, that has more than once source of significance?  Salt of this Sea was shown at the Cannes International film festival in 2008; and was released in North America in August 2010.  “Benoit Chamaillard’s carefully-framed photography gives the film’s handheld aesthetic a tonal richness and depth, and the use of popular Palestinian music is nicely judged,” observed Lee Marshall of Screen Daily (May 18, 2008).  “The range of international co-producers—including Danny Glover’s Louverture Films—attests to the well-intentioned multinational desire to support Palestinian cinema, and Salt has received numerous pre- and post-production grants, including funding from San Sebastian’s Cinema in Motion 3 and the Hubert Bals Fund.  Too bad Jacir’s characters are written to explain a situation rather than enjoy an independence of personality,” declared Jay Weissberg in Variety (May 17, 2008), while admiring actor Saleh Bakri, the son of respected Palestinian filmmaker Mohammad Bakri (Jenin, Jenin) and the brother of actor Adam Bakri (Omar), but preferring films such as Rana’s Wedding (2002), Paradise Now (2004), and Private (2005) to Salt of this Sea.

In Salt of this Sea, the determined Soraya (Suheir Hammad) meets with another official, who sits before a portrait of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat; and Soraya notes that her father’s Lebanon identification card says that he is a Palestinian refugee, and that her own visa is for only two weeks.  Emad (Saleh Bakri) does not think that there is enough there for a life in the Palestinian territories—Soraya remarks that they were robbed—and that she has come to get her father’s money, her inheritance, now that he is dead.  She wants to be able to tell the truth, but Emad says that the truth will not help her, that Israelis knowing what she wants will make it easier to refuse her—Soraya wants to claim a right to return, and her family’s property.  Israeli Jews have claimed the land; they have invalidated Palestinian claims.  Soraya and Emad argue about what Palestine is—but he then apologizes by leaving her a box of oranges.  In another conversation, Soraya admits that she wants to rob the bank that held her father’s money (the bank guards are not allowed to carry guns).  Her desire seems an insane impulse—except for the fact that modern Palestinian history is illogical, nightmarish—insane: possibly insanity is the inevitable response to insanity.  Emad’s filmmaker friend Marwan (Riyad Ideis) is ready to help rob the bank, but not Emad, who says that he has enough problems.   

Soraya (Suheir Hammad) works in the same restaurant with Emad (Saleh Bakri), acting as a server; and she sees a bank official come into the restaurant.  Marwan (Riyad Ideis) talks about his cinema ambitions—probing, imaginative films—and complains that Ramallah girls will not go out with him.  Emad says that they will not be getting paid by the restaurant on time (but the manager still expects them to work—it’s a town problem, lack of cash).  Emad says that his visa application was rejected; and laments that he has not left town in 17 years.  That was his fourth visa application refusal.

The disenfranchisement of Palestinians is real and radical.  Soraya’s complaint may seem naïve but it represents something of the general Palestinian concerns regarding history and loss of personal property and rights.  “Through symbolism, through imagery, and—when it runs out of artistic inspiration—even through flat-out saying it, Salt of This Sea fervently waves the flag for human rights concerns in the Palestinian territories,” wrote New Orleans reviewer Mike Scott in the Times-Picayune (September 20, 2010), declaring that “makes it function less as an entertaining narrative than as a heavy-handed serving of propaganda.”  Is that a lack of political understanding and personal sympathy with the suffering of others, of Palestinians?  (Injustice calls for justice—and sometimes people are intimidated by that sense of responsibility, and blame the victim or the witness.)  Of course, the loss of personal property and possibilities is echoed in other Palestinian films, such as It’s Better to Jump (2013), set in an ancient walled Akka (Acre), once a city of trade, now a tourist draw, in which the longtime (Christian and Muslim) Palestinian citizens are being displaced by Jews, so startling a brutal fact, that it is a film that requires no symbolism, although it has it in its citizens’ ritual jumping off a forty-foot seawall, a challenge that is regularly met, and discussed here by a boxer, a fisherman, and performing rappers; a film directed by three California residents Gina M. Angelone, Mouna B. Stewart, and Patrick Alexander Stewart.

In Annemarie Jacir’s Salt of this Sea, Soraya (Suheir Hammad) asks about getting guns—Marwan (Riyad Ideis) says that now Palestinians are killing each other it is easy to get guns (American made, Israeli approved).  Soraya (Hammad) wants guns without bullets—she wants the perceivable threat without the actual danger—and Emad (Saleh Bakri) agrees to that, although Marwan (Ideis) thinks that is crazy.  Soraya goes shopping in Israel for things to help with a disguise, for the robbery; and, subsequently, she goes to the bank in very conservative dress (full body covering except for her eyes—she can be mistaken for a local religious woman); and Soraya asks for the balance of her inheritance, for $15,572.16.  Emad is with her, and he has the gun; and after the robbery they escape with Marwan driving.  Emad and Marwan have yarmulkes on, for walking in Israel—and Marwan has his film camera.  Soraya shares the bank money; and the three of them take a trip to the sea, although, as Soraya says, “I hate the sea.”

Soraya, Emad, and Marwan visit the Jaffa house where her family used to live—the young Jewish woman who lives there welcomes them.  “I think everyone wants peace except for the leaders,” says the householder, who has humane, liberal sentiments.  (“This scenario recalls the real life event of pioneering female painter Tamam al-Akhal who returned to her family home in Jaffa after being expelled in 1948 only to find that an Israeli female artist had converted it into a home/gallery,” informs Maymanah Farhat of the Electronic Intifada, April 15, 2009.)  Marwan says that he wants to make crazy love stories.  Soraya vomits outside, near the sea.  The three friends tour old furniture stores, and the ruins of long-gone establishments.  Soraya swims in the sea, then packs—the three friends leave the rented room for Soraya’s lost and occupied family home.  Soraya is troubled by the homeownership—and wants to buy the house (the woman says that the state owns it, and will not sell to non-Jews).  Soraya insists that it is her home, and has an argument with the householder.  Soraya wants the woman to acknowledge that it was all stolen.  The young Jewish woman says that is the past—but Soraya answers, “Your past is my everyday.”  (The argument seems both practical and allegorical.)  Emad tells Soraya not to let the occupation inside of her—an important admonition when one is insulted or oppressed, but very difficult to follow.  Marwan, who complained about Palestinian women not wanting to date him, is infatuated with the Israeli householder, and wants to stay there, while Emad wants to see Dawayima, where his own family is from: after a massacre, a dispersal of population, the place name had been changed from Dawayima to Amatzia.

Emad (Saleh Bakri) and Soraya (Suheir Hammad) discover wilderness and beautiful, stony ruins; and, after, they find a place to sleep in town.  While Soraya is shopping, Emad is questioned by Israeli security; and she, observant, shrewd, comes out and speaks Spanish, calling him Enrique—and then, the policeman assume they are Spanish tourists, and leaves Emad alone.  The friends return to their wilderness explorations.  The two imagine what it would be like to have a child.  They rest but are awakened by an Israeli teacher and his students (the man says that they are in a national park and are forbidden to sleep there).  Emad (Bakri) wants to go fishing in the northern port city Haifa, but the surveillance and suspicion are constant.  Soraya (Hammad) buys cigarettes in a store, while Emad waits in the car, and a police car stops near him.  Emad does not have any identification, is questioned by police, and Soraya tries to help but they are detained.  Soraya, with her suitcase, her expired visa, her rhetorical answers to questions, is being sent back to America.  “Soraya addresses Israeli forces with contempt and forthrightness, her honesty is at first partially naive, but essentially stems from a matter-of-factness that she presents as a sign of courage and defiance,” declared Electronic Intifada’s Maymanah Farhat (April 2009), an understanding of the character that rebuts the assumptions of others that Soraya is merely naïve or belligerent.  (I thought Soraya might be an archetype of a modern young Palestinian woman.)  Yet that sympathetic observer, Electronic Intifada’s Farhat, said, “Jacir’s basic premise is refreshing but because she employs an emblematic language rooted in the past the film stands as a reiteration when it could have been a groundbreaking contribution to contemporary Palestinian visual culture.”  Interesting—what might Farhat been imagining?  Something experimental?  Art assumes a grasp of experience and form—knowledge—but how much knowledge can art bring to the observer?  Is it not the cumulative effect of many works that brings knowledge rather than a single work?  Or is there one generative, radical work that would address all?

I relish having seen Salt of this Sea.  It is one of the films offering windows into Palestinian history, culture, and life: after the Lumiere brothers’ associate Alex Promio in the 1890s filmed in Palestine (Jerusalem and Jaffa)—street scenes full of walking Arabs, and scenes of Muslims at prayer—and after the 1935 short motion picture by Ibrahim Hassan Sirhan of King Saud’s visit to Palestine, there were some films made there, like the feature Holiday Eve (1947), but then there was the interruption of war, exile, and political repression; and following attempts at cultural retrieval, but preceding Salt of this Sea, were Zahir Mustafa Abu Ali’s Blood and Spirit (1971) and Scenes from the Occupation in Gaza (1971), and the work of Michel Khleifi, Rashid Masharawi, Mohammad Bakri, Nizar Hassan, Ali Nassar, and then the appearance of Elia Suleiman’s significant Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996), which suggested an artistic resurgence. 

Other Palestinian films of note, some factual, some fictional, include: Ambulance (Mohamed Jabaly, 2016), a first-person documentary focused on an ambulance crew after an Israeli attack, during the 2014 Gaza war; and Ajami (2009) by co-directors Palestinian Scandar Copti and Israeli Yaron Shani, about family, love, the economy and politics, illustrated by the struggles of different characters, of men, in Palestine and Israel; Amreeka (Cherien Dabis, 2009), in which a West Bank mother and son leave Israeli harassment for a supposedly better life in America, encountering prejudice following the September 11 World Trade Center attack; Bye Bye Tiberias (Lina Soualem, 2023), a documentary investigating actress Hiam Abbass’s family displacement after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war; Gaza Mon Amour (Arab and Tarzan Nasser, 2020), a love story featuring older people; Jenin, Jenin (Mohammad Bakri, 2003), a documentary on Israeli occupation and violence; Lemon Tree ( Eran Riklis, 2008), about the threatened loss of private property to an Israeli officer; Mediterranean Fever (Maha Haj, 2022), focused on a depressed Palestinian in Haifa, Israel, and his friendship with a petty crook; Paradise Now (Hany Abu-Assad, 2005), a restrained drama following two friends, mechanics, whose spiritual dedication and political grievances lead to violent commitment; Rana’s Wedding (Hany Abu-Assad, 2003), about a girl given an ultimatum—marry or emigrate; Tale of the Three Jewels (Michel Khleifi, 1995), featuring young love; 3000 Nights (Mai Masri, 2015), about giving birth in an Israeli prison; and, 200 Meters (Ameen Nayfeh, 2020), depicting the struggles of a man wanting to visit his sick son on the other side of a barrier wall.  In addition, there are The Idol (2016), by Hany Abu-Assad, about a Gaza teen entering a celebrated music contest in Egypt; and Slingshot Hip Hop (2008), about rap in the Palestinian territories by Palestinian-American filmmaker Jacqueline Reem Salloum.  Those films, about a place, about places, about people, about principles and passions, mean something; they matter.

Settler Colonialism

What does an Israeli think as she makes her home in the house of an exiled Palestinian?  When longtime native populations are replaced with invading strangers to the land, by settlers—when the native land, property, and resources are taken, when natives lose their right to citizenship, or when their citizenship is compromised, that is settler colonization: and that is exemplified by the move of Europeans into the Americas, Asia, and Africa, their imposition of presence and power, of their settlements, and their exploitation of land and resources.  The Europeans, becoming Americans, replaced Native tribes, the Algonquin, Cayuga, Mohawk, Nanticoke, Oneida, Onondaga, Piscataway, Powhatan, Seneca, and Tuscarora—names many of us do not know.  The Inuit and Metis were dispossessed in Canada.  Settler colonialism can be seen in different lands.  Russia annexed Siberia; and China colonized Tibet.  What happened in Australia, and what happened in Israel are also examples of settler colonialism.  Some books on the subject include Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event by Patrick Wolfe (Bloomsbury, 1998); and Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview by Lorenzo Veracini (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean (Monthly Review Press, 2018); and The Routledge Handbook of the History of Settler Colonialism by Edward Cavanagh and Lorenzo Veracini (Routledge, 2017).  The history of settler colonialism contains many terrors but the source of terror is not what we have been told.

“The emergence of Philistia on the southeastern side of the Mediterranean was a defining moment, and Palestine became the name used most consistently since the Iron Age to refer to the area stretching from as far north as Sidon to the Brook of Egypt, and from the Mediterranean into Transjordan with ever-changing borders.”

Decolonizing Palestine by Mitri Raheb (Orbis Books, 2023; page 60)

“Before 1948, Palestine was home to a diverse population of Arabs, Jews, and Christians, as all groups had religious ties to the area, especially the city of Jerusalem.  The land itself was under the control of various empires, such as the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and eventually the Islamic Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire.”

—The Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF online site, accessed March 2024)

“An equally significant commitment to Israel was embodied in a secret 1975 letter from President Gerald Ford to Prime Minister Rabin, which in effect made American diplomatic initiatives in future Middle East peace negotiations conditional on prior approval by Israel…”

—Rashid Khalidi, Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East (Beacon Press, 2013; page 8)

“In February, Amnesty International released a 280-page report showing how Israel was imposing an institutionalized regime of oppression and domination against the Palestinian people wherever it exercised control over their rights, fragmenting and segregating Palestinian citizens of Israel, residents of the OPT and Palestinian refugees denied the right of return.  Through massive seizures of land and property, unlawful killings, infliction of serious injuries, forcible transfers, arbitrary restrictions on freedom of movement, and denial of nationality, among other inhuman or inhumane acts, Israeli officials would be responsible for the crime against humanity of apartheid, which falls under the jurisdiction of the ICC.”

—Amnesty International in “Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories 2022,” alluding to International Criminal Court offenses

“Ever since the end of the 1948 war, Palestinians had frequently crossed the so-called ‘Green Line’ into Israel.  Most had been driven or had fled from their homes in what was now Israel and simply wished to return.  But some committed violence against Israelis.  Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had fixed on a policy of reprisals—military assaults, intentionally disproportionate, on local Arab populations—as a response to any such attacks…In March 1954, [I.L. ‘Si’] Kenen and his associates announced the formation of the American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs (AZCPA)—which would be renamed AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] in 1959—and thus launched the modern Israel lobby…Indeed, to some in the Jewish community, the more disturbing Israeli behavior was, the more Israel needed their ardent advocacy.”

—Doug Rossinow, “The dark roots of AIPAC, ‘America’s Pro-Israel Lobby’” in the Washington Post (March 6, 2018)

“As Soraya, Emad and his friend drive through the land—except for the last portion, the film was shot in Palestine—the beauty of the stones, hills, and sea is captured, accompanied by a haunting score.  For two nights, Soraya and Emad set up a make-shift home in a cavern, in the ruins of his old village Al-Dawayima.  In the discussion following the screening, Jacir revealed that the film is dedicated to Al-Dawayima, one of the approximately 500 villages destroyed by the Israeli Defense Forces in the 1947 – 48 War.  The film offers a poignant climactic scene when Soraya and Emad burn the map and other documents Soraya has cherished for years.  They realize that their makeshift ‘home sweet home’ cannot be reclaimed because the ruins are a part of the Biblical heritage, an Israeli tourist and archeological site.”

—Salam Mir, “Love and Tragedy in Conflict: Salt of This Sea (Boston Palestine film festival review published in Al Jadid: A Review & Record of Arab Culture and Arts (Vol. 15, No. 60, 2009)

“In many instances—as I hope to show presently—there is an unmistakable coincidence between the experiences of Arab Palestinians at the hands of Zionism and the experiences of those black, yellow, and brown people who were described as inferior and subhuman by nineteenth-century imperialists.  For although it coincided with an era of the most virulent Western anti-Semitism, Zionism also coincided with the period of unparalleled European territorial acquisition in Africa and Asia, and it was as part of this general movement of acquisition and occupation that Zionism was launched initially by Theodor Herzl.”

—Edward Said, “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims” (The Selected Works of Edward Said, 1966 – 2006, Vintage, 2019; pages 127 and 128)

“I really have to tell you that my jaw dropped at least 30 times in each interview.  But if you ask me what was most revealing, it was that as an Israeli and a citizen of Israel, in the educational system we are taught that Israel always strives for peace.  Israel is the one that is always striving for peace, and people around us are the ones that are refusing all the time.  But what you hear from [the Shin Bet leaders] is that that is not the case; many times, Israel could have done much more to work towards peace.”

—Dror Moreh, Israeli director of documentary film The Gatekeepers (2012), discussing Israeli intelligence officers, military leaders, and politicians, in the interview, “The Secret Sharers,” with Tom White of Documentary magazine (circa 2012; accessed online at different times, most recently April 2024)

“In the West Bank, borders and checkpoints mark the landscape and can, in a film, signal the beginning or end of a scene, as in Rana’s Wedding (2002) and more recently in The Present (2020).  In both films the narrative evolves and changes due to checkpoints and borders…The space in Gazan cinema is not interrupted by checkpoints.  Instead, there is a continuity within scenes that other Palestinians crave.  Yet, this continuous space is also a confined one.  Gaza is an open-air prison, and Gazan filmmakers do not miss an opportunity to illustrate the limitations of the space.”

—Nadia Yaqub (editor/writer), Gaza on Screen (Duke University Press, 2023; page 31)

“Certainly, Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s films stand out, including Rana’s Wedding [Another Day in Jerusalem], Paradise Now and, in particular, Omar.” 

—Joanne Laurier, “Important Palestinian films…” (World Socialist Web Site, January 5, 2024)

“For years, the various governments led by Benjamin Netanyahu took an approach that divided power between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank—bringing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to his knees while making moves that propped up the Hamas terror group.  The idea was to prevent Abbas—or anyone else in the Palestinian Authority’s West Bank government—from advancing toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.  Thus, amid this bid to impair Abbas, Hamas was upgraded from a mere terror group to an organization with which Israel held indirect negotiations via Egypt, and one that was allowed to receive infusions of cash from abroad…Most of the time, Israeli policy was to treat the Palestinian Authority as a burden and Hamas as an asset.”

—Tal Schneider, “For years, Netanyahu propped up Hamas. Now it’s blown up in our faces,” in The Times of Israel (October 8, 2023)

“Israel’s campaign to displace Gazans—and potentially expel them altogether into Egypt—is yet another chapter in the Nakba, in which an estimated 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes during the 1948 war that led to the creation of the State of Israel.  But the assault on Gaza can also be understood in other terms: as a textbook case of genocide unfolding in front of our eyes.  I say this as a scholar of genocide, who has spent many years writing about Israeli mass violence against Palestinians.  I have written about settler colonialism and Jewish supremacy in Israel, the distortion of the Holocaust to boost the Israeli arms industry, the weaponization of antisemitism accusations to justify Israeli violence against Palestinians, and the racist regime of Israeli apartheid.  Now, following Hamas’s attack on Saturday and the mass murder of more than 1,000 Israeli civilians, the worst of the worst is happening.”

—Raz Segal, Israeli historian and Stockton University genocide studies professor, in Jewish Currents magazine (online October 13, 2023)

“South Africa formally accused the country [Israel] of committing genocide against Palestinians and pleaded Thursday with the United Nations’ top court to order an immediate halt to Israeli military operations in Gaza” and “During opening statements at the International Court of Justice, South African lawyers said the latest Gaza war is part of decades of Israeli oppression of Palestinians” and “‘The scale of destruction in Gaza, the targeting of family homes and civilians, the war being a war on children, all make clear that genocidal intent is both understood and has been put into practice.  The articulated intent is the destruction of Palestinian life,’ said lawyer Tembeka Ngcukaitobi.”

—Associated Press (January 11, 2024), following the October 7, 2023 Hamas attack on Israeli villages and the ongoing Israeli response of collective punishment (23,469 had died in Gaza).

“Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have spent fifty-seven years as subjects but not citizens of the Israeli state.  Unlike Israeli settlers in the West Bank, they’re subject to military courts rather than regular civilian courts when they’re accused of crimes.  They can’t vote their rulers out of office.  They can’t even move around freely within the West Bank and Gaza—never mind to other parts of the country…But it’s also important to acknowledge the simple justice of the original demand for a real and unlimited right to return, as opposed to a merely symbolic one.”

—Ben Burgis, “Palestinians’ Right of Return Is a Basic Question of Justice” (Jacobin online, March 31, 2024)

“How can the U.S. government criticize the racist practices of Israel, when it has never really confronted its own history of genocide and wars of extermination against the Native tribes of North America?”

—Dr. M. Reza Behnam in “Trails of Deception: What Palestinians and Native Americans Share” (Palestine Chronicle, May 25, 2023)

“Israel has been the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign aid since its founding, receiving about $300 billion (adjusted for inflation) in total economic and military assistance” and “The United States provided Israel considerable economic assistance from 1971 to 2007, but nearly all U.S. aid today goes to support Israel’s military, the most advanced in the region.” 

—Jonathan Masters and Will Merrow, “U.S. Aid to Israel in Four Charts,” on the online site of the Council on Foreign Relations (April 11, 2024)

Out in the Dark’s portrayal of contemporary Israel was overall quite damning.”

— Sa’ed Atshan in “Media, Film, and the Politics of Representation” in Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique (Stanford Univ. Press, 2020; page 163)

Out in the Dark

Nicholas Jacob is Nimr and Michael Aloni is Roy in this remarkable film, Out in the Dark (2012) by Israeli-American Michael Mayer, at once a love story and a political film, which begins with a young man walking in the dark, trying to avoid police surveillance, making his way to a party in a Tel Aviv club where a male impersonator performs.  There, Nimr tries to get the attention of a bartender, and Roy tries to help, to no avail—they laugh about the indifferent server.  The party host, Mustafa, a friend of Nimr, is an effeminate guy, living on a roof, a squat; and Nimr introduces Roy, a lawyer, to Mustafa—and they take a photograph with a transgender performer.

Nimr is Palestinian, and Roy is Israeli.  The two men walk outside to talk.  Roy tells Nimr he works for his father—Nimr says his dad died when he was young, so he finds Roy’s familial association charming.  Nimr is a psychology student.  Homophobic comments are made by passing men who observe them together (Nimr and Roy’s quick and perceptible intimacy distresses the masculine bluster of the passersby)—and the bigots are surprised when Roy and Nimr begin to chase them.  Roy and Nimr return to the party, have a drink, and talk about what they would like to do with their lives.  The party host, Mustafa, notices their rapport but reminds Nimr that Nimr’s ride is leaving the coastline city Tel Aviv, formerly known as Jaffa, its Palestinian name, for Nimr’s home in the old mountainous city Ramallah, in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank.  Roy offers Nimr a ride; and gives Nimr his card.  Theirs has been a believably casual yet sweet beginning.

The two leads, Nicholas Jacob as Nimr and Michael Aloni as Roy, have a terrific rapport, friendly, familial, believably affectionate.  (Jacob’s girlfriend recommended the theatrically inexperienced actor for the part, whereas the trained performer Aloni had appeared on television and in film.)  Out in the Dark is a beautiful, efficient film, full of convincing characters and performances, intelligent, dramatic, persuasive, seeming truthful.  The personal is shadowed by the political: about politics and love and youth, about nation and moral character, the much acclaimed Out in the Dark is an admirable work (it was shown in more than forty countries, and won more than twenty-five awards).  Written by Israeli director Michael Mayer with Yael Shafir, photographed by Ran Aviad, and edited by Maria Gonzales, the motion picture offers some of the pleasure of a romance and the chill of rigid political oppression.  Michael Mayer’s second film was Happy Times (2019), a comedy of lust and violence focused on the dinner party of an Israeli-American couple in Hollywood.

In Out in the Dark (2012), the psychology student Nimr (Nicholas Jacob) attends a meeting at the clinic where he works, discussing how to respond to a troubled woman.  Nimr has sympathy for the distressed woman—her husband died, and her son is in an Israeli prison.  Nimr suggests support, hope (medication and biweekly visits), rather than punitive responses (taking her children from her) that might be the reflexive (and impersonal) institutional response.  Nimr at home, later, attends his mother’s cooking (she seeks his response).  He seems very much a boy, a young man, with a comfortable place in his own family.  Nimr mentions a school interview, and his plans to go to Tel Aviv to study before going to the United States.  Nimr visits his friend Mustafa’s rooftop dwelling, bringing an edible treat.  Mustafa (Loai Noufi) makes tea.  Nimr shows Mustafa his travel permit, a study permit, and Mustafa is glad for him, and mentions Roy—who has asked about Nimr.  Nimr, subsequently, visits Roy’s office, bringing food—Roy finishes his meeting (a client offers a favor in gratitude).  Roy tells Nimr that he feels compromised by his job—Nimr thinks that life is compromising.  Their intimacy continues: they make love in Roy’s apartment.

Nimr’s brother Nabil has a cache of guns at the family home—which Nimr discovers, and asks Nabil (Jameel Khouri) about, reminding Nabil that he, Nabil, used to fight for education and human rights.  They argue.  His brother says that Nimr only cares about himself.  (Is there more to life than politics?)  Theirs is a classic conflict between the personal and the political, the safe and the dangerous.  Yet, the political comes near to Nimr from more than one direction.  Nimr’s friend Mustafa (Loai Noufi) is detained by Israeli intelligence officers—they consider Mustafa “burnt,” compromised in the eyes of his family (thus, no longer of use as a native informant as he will not be trusted).  An officer says that Mustafa was offered help but refused.  They release him in Ramallah, where Mustafa, as they know, is in danger.  (Collaborators with Israel threaten the Palestinian fight for liberation.)

Nimr’s brother Nabil (Jameel Khouri) brings Nimr (Nicholas Jacob) along when Nabil goes to deal with an alleged traitor—not knowing that Nimr knows the traitor, Mustafa, who is held in a dark room in an old building and beaten.  Nimr (Jacob), sitting in the car, waiting for Nabil, hears noise, and goes inside; and Nimr sees the beaten Mustafa, asking why they think he is a collaborator, objecting to the abuse; but Mustafa is shot.  Nimr is a figure of cultural stress and political conflict, obviously.  Is his brother a freedom fighter or a terrorist, a dedicated soldier or a murderer?  How seriously should one take the scenario and its politics?  In an enthusiastic review of the film in the New York Observer (October 1, 2013), Rex Reed asserted, “Already a huge hit on the international film festival circuit, Out in the Dark catalogs the heartbreaking hurdles that await people who cross the border between Israel and the West Bank to fall in love,” and notes the contrast between the cosmopolitan and liberal Tel Aviv and the repressive Ramallah, the appealing performances and conscientious direction, before going on to conclude, “Filmed in Hebrew and Arabic, Out in the Dark is not a political film, but, in the way it chronicles the clash of ideologies in the Middle East and proposes amnesty through love, it’s one of the most powerful films about the Arab-Israeli conflict that has ever been attempted on the screen.”  Can an Israeli city be a genuine refuge for a Palestinian?  In the film The Invisible Men (2012), about three Palestinian gay men in Tel Aviv, directed by Israeli filmmaker Yariv Mozer, and in Oriented (2015), also about three Palestinian men in Tel Aviv, by a British filmmaker (and Cambridge student of the Middle East), Jake Witzenfeld, such a refuge is suggested. 

Is a separate peace possible among individuals who belong to warring tribes?  Feuding families and feuding tribes are an old story: in the 16th century Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the choral prologue notes that between two dignified households is conflict, “From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean,” and that even the innocent and loving are drawn into the battle, into tragedy.  Is a separate peace possible among individuals who belong to warring tribes?  Is it possible to build a life with someone we love despite the world’s disapproval?  Or does it all end with knife and poison, with death?  The Shakespeare play, beautifully written and wise, often staged, and many times filmed—I like Renato Castellani’s Romeo and Juliet (1954), and Aleta Chappelle’s Romeo and Juliet in Harlem (2017)—remains respected by scholars and popular with audiences.  It tells the truth—facts, experience, thought, understanding—about human nature, about social practices.  The confusion and conflict, the rhetoric and rage, of a feud that one did not begin but that yet overwhelms can lead one to say, like Mercutio, “A plague on both your houses!” (Act III, Scene 1).

Is politics divisible from personal life?  What are the ways in which people negotiate the personal and the political?  In the book Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism by Thomas E. Wartenberg (Routledge, 1999), the Mount Holyoke College philosophy professor, Wartenberg, explores love and its confrontation with, and transcendence of, social divisions, examining social expectations and prejudices (regarding class, culture, race, gender and sexuality) in films such as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The Crying Game, Desert Hearts, Mississippi Masala, and White Palace.  I love Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and Mississippi Masala, and it is wonderful to have these films get more of the attention they deserve in such an astute and necessary book (I think Wartenberg’s commentary on unlikely couples and what they signify is, at least, as interesting as Stanley Cavell’s 1981 commentary—Pursuits of Happiness, published by Harvard—on remarriage comedies).  In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Emmi (Brigitte Mira), a German cleaning lady befriends Ali (El Hedi ben Halem), an Arab immigrant and a mechanic, someone younger, and they listen to each other, are tender, and become lovers, to the dismay and disgust of her family and neighbors; and in Mississippi Masala (1991) by Mira Nair, Mina (Sarita Choudhury), a young Indian woman who cleans rooms at a family motel, and Demetrius (Denzel Washington), an African-American carpet cleaner, become infatuated, and despite growing misapprehensions and volatility between their families, they choose to have a relationship.  In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and Mississippi Masala the lovers see and value things in each other that their given communities (and the general society) do not, but those communities—motivated not by response to the individual but to the group to which he/she belongs—put pressure on the lovers to separate—and we can see the (hateful) limits of the communities by their response to the loving couples.

What are the ways in which people negotiate the personal and the political?  “When we are given a Palestinian man being portrayed as a terrorist who murders his own people we must understand that this is not reality but rather a story being told by an Israeli man who is receiving support from the state of Israel, a state that systematically violates human rights, international law, and kills Palestinians to further the zionist settler colonialist project that is Israel,” argues Brady Forrest of Mondoweiss (September 24, 2014).  Brady Forrest claims that the film Out in the Dark’s presentation of Israel as liberal, regarding homosexuality, encourages approval for the nation, a form of pinkwashing.  Yet, “Forrest does not acknowledge, however, the way Out in the Dark so poignantly illustrates how Israel’s entrapment of queer Palestinians exacerbates homophobia in Palestinian society,” said Sa’ed Atshan in the book Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique (Stanford University Press, 2020; page 163), a book at once intellectual, intimate, and intense.  Following Mustafa’s murder, the distressed Nimr (Nicholas Jacob) goes to Roy’s apartment, and tells Roy (Michael Aloni) about Mustafa, his illegal residence, his village murder.  They go to a small memorial for Mustafa (the death is more significant for Nimr than Roy—who is beginning an enjoyable love affair whereas Nimr is in crisis).  Roy likes having Nimr there, with him.  Nimr and his brother argue—Nimr says that you need more than an army to build a state.  (Who will imagine a complete life, a healthy culture?)

Nimr and his sister talk—their mother wants her to marry a freckled grocer (they joke about it).  Roy (Michael Aloni) and Nimr (Nicholas Jacob) go to a swimming pool after hours.  The intimate scene is edited out of order, effectively: they have a conversation sitting in the pool and during it we see the recall of their undressing.  Subsequently they have dinner with Roy’s parents.  (Roy has given Nimr an expensive watch, inscribed “love finds its way.”)  Roy’s parents ask question regarding Nimr’s studies, claiming to be impressed; but Roy’s mother is a little peeved at the lack of notice that Roy’s friend was coming.  Roy’s father recalls being greeted in 1993 with olive branches by Palestinian children (the time of an Israeli-Palestinian peace meeting with President Clinton).  For Roy’s parents, Nimr seems a cultural event rather than a personal experience.  “The family scenes in Tel Aviv are icy but effective; the domestic moments in the occupied territories are heartbreaking.  Director Michael Mayer takes great care not to make anyone on either side a caricature,” wrote David Lewis, commending the lead actors’ chemistry, the director’s restraint, and affirming this as more of a “superbly crafted” and “suspenseful” love story than a political drama, in the San Francisco Chronicle (September 26, 2013).

Roy (Michael Aloni) suggests looking into Nimr’s legal rights and opportunities as a “gay Palestinian”—but Roy’s legal consultant Daniel (Shimon Mimran) tells Nimr (Nicholas Jacob) that Nimr cannot claim refugee status or anything suggesting “a right to return.”  The consultant, Daniel, is realistic, but Roy is frustrated that his Israeli privilege has not yielded more.  Nimr’s crisis continues.  Nimr is accosted at school by Israeli intelligence officers—they revoke his academic travel permit and ask him to collaborate, asking about his brother Nabil, threatening to expose Nimr’s private life.  Nimr, at home, calls Roy, telling him that his permit was cancelled.  Distressed, Roy says that he will inquire into the matter, try to help.  Nimr, meanwhile, warns his brother about the interest of the Israeli security services; and says that Nabil is ruining his life.  (Nabil thinks Nimr is threatening him rather than trying to protect him.)  Their sister hears their argument, and says that Nimr is better off not going to that godless country.

Roy’s father tells Roy that Nimr’s permit was taken for security reasons—and says that he is worried that Roy’s association with Nimr may affect Roy’s career.  “You cannot forget where you live” his father says, the same thing Nimr’s brother told him.  Israel, where the government owns and controls most of the land, is an embattled and suspicious place to live, full of retaliations; and populated with two peoples, separate and unequal, it is a vigilant apartheid state.  (Thus, various organizations have supported a boycott of Israel, including the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Democratic Socialists of America, Harvard Crimson Editorial Board, Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, Jewish Voice for Peace, Latin American Council of Social Sciences, National Conference of Black Lawyers, National Lawyers Guild, and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees.)  Terra firma: firm ground?  Temperaments, tensions, and time: You cannot forget where you live.  “The result is a real nail-biter of a third act,” notes Gary Goldstein, finding the film believable and powerful, in The Hollywood Reporter, September 26. 2013.)

Nabil’s associate, a fellow rebel, shows Nabil a photograph of Nimr (Jacob) in the gay club with Roy (Aloni), and tells Nabil to take care of Nimr as soon as possible (an implication of threatening violence)—or political secrets (such as the stash of guns) might be spilled to Israeli authorities.  At home, Nimr’s brother has told his family of Nimr’s sexuality, and Nabil is angry and his mother and sister are distressed, with his mother saying that Nimr has been lying and has brought shame to the family.  His mother says that she wants Nimr out of the house (his sister is sympathetic).  Nabil, later, threatens Nimr with death, but lets him escape; and Nimr finds his way to Roy’s apartment.  (Michael Mayer, the film’s director has said—quoted in a Los Angeles Times, September 26, 2013, article by Susan King—that the motion picture was inspired by a friend who worked in Tel Aviv giving refuge to gay Palestinians.)  In Out in the Dark, Nimr seems very much alone—one would have to know more about Palestinian culture to know how alone he might be.  Certainly, prejudice is a weapon marshalled against—and within—minorities.  Books such as Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature by Stephen O. Murray (New York University Press, 1997), and Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique by Sa’ed Atshan (Stanford University Press, 2020) and This Arab is Queer edited by Elias Jahshan (Saqi Books, 2022) may offer other perspectives.  (I was pleased to stumble onto an online discussion, “Writing Palestinian Queerness,” part of the festival Palestine Writes 2020, featuring Sa’ed Atshan, along with Zaina Arafat and George Abraham—a joyous and thoughtful conversation affirming the diversity of Palestinians.)  Sometimes dramas emphasize isolation at the cost of community.  Did Nimr have any friends but for Mustafa?

For applying to Israel for political asylum, the legal consultant Daniel has official forms for Nimr to fill out, based on family eviction and his past scholarly permit; but it is only a short-term permit, and Daniel is not sure it would be approved anyway.  Nimr admits to Roy the circumstances of his cancelled permit—and his refusal of an official Israeli request to collaborate, surveilling other Palestinians, acting as a native informant.  Nimr calls home—but his mother does not accept his call (and she cries, suggesting her conflicts—disapproval and sorrow).  Nimr suggests to Roy that they leave Israel, go together to Europe or the U.S. (Nimr suggests no eastern country); and Nimr mentions Roy’s father’s connections and the mobsters they know. 

The Israeli security forces arrive at Nabil’s family home, arrest Nabil, get his guns—and the arrest is on television (Nimr and Roy see the broadcast—and there Roy learns about Nabil’s inclination to violence against Israel).  Roy, alarmed, suspicious, asks about the reported “stockpile of weapons.”  Is a separate peace possible among individuals who belong to warring tribes?  The two young men argue; and Nimr leaves, shortly before Israel agents arrive at Roy’s apartment.  Yet, Roy withholds information about Nimr, who roams, evading the police; and, hours later, Roy tries to reach him by phone—and Roy asks an associate for a favor, a boat on which Nimr can escape. 

Social Discrimination

Soraya, Nimr, and Omar, characters in Palestinian cinema, want justice, opportunity, as do most people in the world.  The quests for liberation, knowledge, friendship, love, and treasure are classical, timeless; and yet such quests rarely are recognized when they are pursued by marginal or minority populations, by people not themselves considered ideal.  Those who find their lives circumscribed by institutions designed to deny their freedom—those expected to survive suffering—are inclined to feel a complexity of anger, confusion, defiance, doubt, fear, pain, and pride.  What can they do?  Seek justice—and the quest for justice may be everlasting, universal.  “The Palestinians have not understood that Zionism has been much more than an unfair colonialist master against whom one could appeal to all sorts of higher courts, without any avail.  They have not understood the Zionist challenge as a policy of detail, of institutions, of organizations, by which people (to this day) enter territory illegally, build houses on it, settle there, and call the land their own—with the whole world condemning them,” explained scholar Edward Said in “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims” (The Question of Palestine, 1979), his examination of the transformation of Palestine into Israel, with Said recognizing the idealization of Jewish identity and aggression, and the ignorance (and disregard and displacement) of Palestinians, an article republished in The Selected Works of Edward Said, 1966 – 2006 (Vintage, 2019; page 152).  There Edward Said, fulfilling the responsibility of the intellectual to witness and write, notes America’s unique relation to Israel—and the difficulty of bringing an effective critique to bear: “One must admit, however, that all liberals and even most ‘radicals’ have been unable to overcome the Zionist habit of equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism” (119); and Said explores historical sources—literary and political—that describe plans to create—and propaganda to justify—the state of Israel: he considers everything from Zionist Moses Hess’s publication Rome and Jerusalem (1862), which discussed the founding of Jewish colonies with the help of the powerful western world, to Theodor Herzl’s advocacy; from the comments of Lord Kitchener to those of Stanley Cook; from George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda (1876) to the 1987 NBC series Holocaust

Edward Said wrote, “Until 1966 the Arab citizens of Israel were ruled by a military government exclusively in existence to control, bend, manipulate, terrorize, tamper with every facet of Arab life from birth virtually to death.  After 1966, the situation is scarcely better, as an unstoppable series of popular riots and demonstrations testify; the Emergency Defense Regulations were used to expropriate thousands of acres of Arab lands, either by declaring Arab property to be in a security zone or by ruling lands to be absentee property (even if, in many cases, the absentees were present—a legal fiction of Kafkaesque subtlety)” (page 161).  Edward Said was a great intellectual, and remains a great resource for clear thinking about Palestine, and his life and work are detailed in Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said by Timothy Brennan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Macmillan, 2021); but there are other impressive writers and works that can be consulted, too: Black Power and Palestine: Transnational Countries of Color by M.R. Fischbach (Stanford University Press, 2018); Decolonizing Palestine: The Land, the People, the Bible by Mitri Raheb (Orbis, 2013); Encountering Palestine: Unmaking Spaces of Colonial Violence by Mark Griffiths and Mikko Joronen (University of Nebraska Press, 2023); Gaza on Screen by (editor) Nadia Yaqub (Duke University Press, 2023) ; My Brother, My Land: A Story from Palestine by Sami Hermez (Redwood Press, 2024); One State: The Only Democratic Future for Palestine-Israel by Ghada Karmi (Pluto Press, 2023); One State Reality: What is Israel/Palestine? by Michael Barnett, Nathan J. Brown, Marc Lynch, and Shibley Telhami (Cornell, 2023); and Palestine: A 4,000 Year History by Nur Masalha (Zed Books/Bloomsbury, 2018).

“Both the United States and Israel began with conquest and with the goal of possessing and colonizing already inhabited lands—to cleanse the land of its Native inhabitants.  Both histories reveal trails of deception, broken promises, asymmetrical force and indigenous populations pushed to the margins of society by the conquerors.  The language of force, the rhetoric of justification, and idiom of violence used are strikingly analogous.  Both, for example, have portrayed their brutal colonization projects as ‘settlement(s)’ and the colonizers as ‘pioneers’ and ‘settlers.’

—Dr. M. Reza Behnam in “Trails of Deception: What Palestinians and Native Americans Share” (Palestine Chronicle, May 25, 2023)

“What was certain however was that the founders of Israel restored the lost respect of the Jews by their manliness.  They removed the curse of the Holocaust, of the abasement of victimization, and for this the Jews of the Diaspora were grateful and repaid Israel with their loyal support.”

—Saul Bellow, “A Jewish Writer in America: A Lecture” (1988), There is Simply Too Much to Think About (Viking, 2015; page 367).

“There are now dozens of antisemitism commissioners throughout Germany.  They have no single job description or legal framework for their work, but much of it appears to consist of publicly shaming those they see as antisemitic, often for ‘de-singularizing the Holocaust’ or for criticizing Israel.”

—Masha Gessen, “In the Shadow of the Holocaust,” The New Yorker (December 9, 2023)

“A prominent British Palestinian doctor said he was ‘forcibly prevented’ from entering Germany on Friday, with the Palestinian solidarity conference he was slated to speak at shut down by police who detained dozens of activists in the process…‘Today we saw how accomplices in a crime behave,’ [Ghassan] Abu Sitta said at a demonstration at the German Embassy in London after arriving back in Britain, referring to Berlin’s support of Israel’s war.  ‘Accomplices in a crime try to hide the evidence and silence the witnesses.’

—Loveday Morris, “Germany bars doctor who worked in Gaza, shuts down Palestinian conference,” The Washington Post (April 13, 2024)

“The Arabs were seen as synonymous with everything degraded, fearsome, irrational, and brutal.  Institutions whose humanistic and social (even socialist) inspiration were manifest for Jews—the kibbutz, the Law of Return, various facilities for the acculturation of immigrants—were precisely, determinedly inhuman for the Arabs.”

—Edward Said, “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims,” The Selected Works of Edward Said, 1966 – 2006 (Vintage, 2019; page 145)

Pukr (rhymes with cutter) is a common word in several South Asian languages, including Urdu, Hindi, Sindhi, Gujrati, and Punjabi.  Written as پکڑ in Urdu, pukr means to nab, capture, snatch and seize.  The antonyms for pukr are to release, liberate, return…PUKR also serves as an acronym for Palestinians, Uighurs [Uyghurs], Kashmiris, and Rohingyas.  These four peoples in various parts of the world are similarly situated in terms of pukr, that is, subjugation and suffering.  Furthermore, these four peoples are predominantly Muslims…In each case, the siege script takes away the lands and houses that belong to the PUKR people and uses questionable laws to transfer them to the ‘true natives,’ that is, Jews, Huns, Hindus, and Buddhists…Combining the stories of the Palestinians, Uighurs, Kashmiris, and Rohingyas bring out a common script of cruelty.”

—L. Ali Khan, founder of the Legal Scholar Academy, “Pukr: Palestinians, Uighurs, Kashmiris, and Rohingyas” in Counterpunch (December 11, 2020) 

“The byzantine bartering, dishonesty, evasion, cheating and relentless degradation of the Palestinian position that Israel indulged in throughout this process bears close study as an arch-demonstration of its demeaning and dismissive attitude.  For Israelis, Palestinians were still ‘non-people- and little had changed in that respect since the beginning of the Zionist project.”

—Ghada Karmi, “The Oslo Agreement” in One State (Pluto Press, 2023; page 61)

The case studies in this report show that discriminatory Israeli policies control many aspects of the day-to-day life of Palestinians who live in areas under exclusive Israeli control and that those policies often have no conceivable security justification.  For example, Jubbet al-Dhib is a 160-person Palestinian village to the southeast of Bethlehem that is often accessible only by foot because its only connection to a paved road is a rough, 1.5-kilometer-long dirt track.  Children from Jubbet al-Dhib must walk to schools in other villages several kilometers away because their own village has no school.  Jubbet al-Dhib lacks electricity despite numerous requests to be connected to the Israeli electric grid, which Israeli authorities have rejected; Israeli authorities also rejected an internationally donor-funded project that would have provided the village with solar-powered streetlights.”

—Human Rights Watch, “Separate and Unequal: Israel’s Discriminatory Treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories” (posted online December 19, 2010)

As the Israeli operation in Gaza started with a massive bombardment, we could already see hundreds and then thousands of Palestinian civilians dying.  And yet there was no policy debate, no questions about whether we were going to pause and take into account our regular policies and legal requirements.  It was just, ‘let’s rush these arms to Israel as quickly as we can, and consequences be damned.’”

—Josh Paul, diplomat (former State Department Director, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs), Voice of America interview “US Diplomat Resigns in Protest Over Arms Transfer to Israel” (October 26, 2023)

Many Black people who support Palestinian rights say they see the Palestinian cause in the context of the African American experience, as the displacement, oppression and deprivation of a minority group.”

—Clyde McGrady, “From Ferguson to Gaza: How African Americans Bonded with Palestinian Activists,” The New York Times (February 6, 2024)

Salt of this Sea is an angry movie.  It’s warm, bleak, tragic and beautiful.  A desperate search for identity in a divided land.  While it occasionally comes across as a bit too heavy-handed, its message is one not only worth hearing, but one that is a necessity.  Not merely for those horrified by the current genocide, but especially for Canadians living in a settler-colonial state.”

—Connor Campbell, The Aquinian (January 22, 2024)

“Although it is farfetched to portray gay Palestinians as imminently susceptible to becoming suicide bombers or even to portray them as living in such close proximity to militant activity, as the plots of many of these films require, other experiences depicted in this body of work—such as vulnerability, familial homophobia, and societal rejection—resonate with many, though sure not all, queer Palestinians.”

—Sa’ed Atshan on the film Out in the Dark, in book Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique (Stanford University Press, 2020; page 163)

“What constitutes the Gaza that filmmakers carry with them in the diaspora?  Certainly, family ties and connections to geography and history are important, but it also comprises the trauma of living through multiple Israeli attacks.”

—Nadia Yaqub, Gaza on Screen (Duke University Press, 2023; page 39)

The Anti-Defamation League “has permeated political discourse in the worst possible manner, using its moral authority to shield Israeli atrocities from criticism while offering the public misleading information about the nature and scale of contemporary Jew hatred.  By conflating critique of Israel with antisemitism, the organization obscures the actual threat antisemitism poses as part of the vast constellation of bigotries channeled by the global right and abetted by institutional power.”

—Noah Kulwin, “The Unbearable Ignorance of the ADL,” Jewish Currents (December 8, 2022) 

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Tuesday filed the indictment against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust with the Jerusalem District Court.”

—Raoul Wootliff, The Times of Israel (January 28, 2020)

Netanyahu, whom many Israelis simply call ‘Bibi,’ is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, holding the position on and off for some 16 years.  Now his chances of staying in power may be higher the longer the war lasts, some analysts and U.S. officials told me.”

—Nahal Toosi, Politico (January 8, 2024)

Emotionally, of course, I always feel disturbed by any human beings who are suffering.  Not just in Palestine or Israel.  I feel it when Africa is suffering, Ukraine is suffering, Russia is suffering.  Also in the United States, people are suffering.  Less than Africa, for example, but they are suffering also.  There is so much injustice.”

—Hany Abu-Assad to David Walsh, “Interview with Hany Abu-Assad, Palestinian filmmaker (Paradise NowOmar): ‘Gaza is the Bastille of our day … a lot is going to change’” on the World Socialist Web Site (January 24, 2024)


The handsome and thoughtful face, the troubled face, of Omar, begins the 2013 film named after him.  Omar (Adam Bakri) is young, attentive, watchful, as cars pass near a wall where he stands; and he crawls over the wall and is shot at.  The wall is the border separating Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank of Israel, once Palestine.  Omar runs, and he knocks on a door, which a girl opens, and Omar asks for the girl’s brother Tarek (Iyad Hoorani, aka Eyad Hourani); and Omar sits, talks, and jokes about taking a flight there.  (His travail to get there has been a flight.)  There are three friends in attendance (Omar, Tarek, and Amjad), and the young woman, Nadia (Leem Lubany), whom Omar apparently likes, serves refreshments.  The young men go outside, into the woods, and practice shooting a stationary target—they even practice disarming a man.  Such odd entertainments are no doubt practical for men whose lives are besieged by history and law.

One of the friends, Amjad (Samer Bisharat), says that he has seven sisters—and that not one is pretty.  Amjad later walks with Omar in town at night, and admits that he likes Nadia, Tarek’s sister.  Amjad is not as handsome, or as charming, as Omar.  What can Amjad do to win Nadia’s attention, fair or foul?  Who else might like Nadia?  “Tarek (Eyad Hourani) is the leader, Amjad (Samer Bisharat) is the joker, and Omar (Adam Bakri) is the sensitive one, handsome and athletic with the soul of a poet.  He and Amjad are both in love with Tarek’s sister Nadia (Leem Lubany), but their rivalry is kept in check by their affection for each other and by strict customs governing courtship and family life,” observed New York Times critic Anthony Oscar Scott of the “tightly plotted and cleanly shot” film in which country, city, and community are challenges to character (February 20, 2014).  Who and what is to be trusted?  The director Hany Abu-Assad, who made the film Omar (2013) with production designers Nael Kanj and Yoel Herzberg, cinematographers Ehab Assal, and editors Martin Brinkley and Eyas Salman, has constructed a remarkable film of questions and revelations.  The Palestinian-Dutch filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad was born in Nazareth, and as a boy he saw films from Egypt, India, Turkey, and he later studied in Europe (but apprenticed with Gaza filmmaker Rashid Masharawi); and he, Abu-Assad, is often inspired by matters of ethics.  Best known for Rana’s Wedding (2002) and Paradise Now (2005), Hany Abu-Assad did make a foray in mainstream western filmmaking with The Mountain Between Us (2017), starring Idris Elba and Kate Winslet; and more recently he made Huda’s Salon (2021).  Hany Abu-Assad, lamenting the current situation in Gaza, a besieged place of refugees, where Abu-Assad had filmed The Idol (2015), has said of the state of the world, “Artistically, what I can do is to encourage people to start thinking about what kind of system we want in the future.  Because the current one is not working at all.  I will make films to encourage thinking.  I don’t have the answers, I’m not a philosopher, I’m an artist” (World Socialist Web Site, January 24, 2024).

Is a better world possible?  Can we identify and claim our inheritance?  Is it possible to build a life with someone we love despite the world’s disapproval?  Can we trust the people who claim to be our friends?  Omar (Adam Bakri), a baker, works at a hot kiln, and saves his money for a better life.  Omar (Bakri) goes over the wall again, and visits the sewing factory where Nadia (Leem Lubany) works, and Omar declares his love—and asks Nadia if there is anyone else for her—and she jokes, “You mean Brad Pitt?”  Subsequently, Omar walks, and is stopped by an Israeli security patrol; and Omar explains that he is going to work, coming from seeing his girlfriend.  (Having one’s mundane habits questioned is challenging.)  The security men check Omar’s identification card, and tell him to stand on a nearby stone, pointlessly, a humiliation; and then Omar is hit in the face with a rifle butt.

The disrespect Omar encounters is not atypical, and can be seen in other Palestinian films, such as 5 Broken Cameras and It’s Better to Jump, two haunting, illustrative works: 5 Broken Cameras (2011) is a collaborative documentary by Palestinian farmer and new filmmaker Emad Burnat with the more experienced documentarian Israeli Guy Davidi, and features footage shot by Burnat of life, trouble, and protests in a West Bank village (Bil’in).  Israelis bulldoze a grove and build an obstructive barrier on Palestinian land for the benefit of a Jewish settlement.  Emad Burnat films Israeli military abuses and Palestinian civic protests; just as he documents his own growing family—but Burnat’s cameras, one after the other, are destroyed.  Another interesting, and genuinely revelatory, film is The Gatekeepers (2012), directed by Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh, shown at the Jerusalem Film Festival in 2012 and released in the United States in 2013; and it consists of interviews with Israeli government officials—whose view of Israel is more realistic than rhetorical, a film with impact in both Israel and America: “I also found that the emotional response to the film was far stronger among the American people because they are dealing with the same issues and subjects that Israelis are dealing with: morality, the means of getting intelligence, torture, drone attacks, the targeted assassinations of terrorists inside civilian populations...The Europeans are much more detached from that,” Dror Moreh told Documentary magazine (circa 2013; interviewed accessed online April 2024).

Life goes on.  Omar bakes, gets paid, meets a friend.  At a family meal, with Omar’s father, mother, and little brother, Omar’s sister talks about sports.  Yet, deeper and darker currents remain.  Omar (Adam Bakri) drives a car—the car is stolen—with his two friends, Tarek (Eyad Hourani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat), as passengers; and they, armed, go to an Israeli military camp, possibly in retaliation for their ordinary humiliations, part of the ongoing historical conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.  If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?  The target practice the young men have pursued is more than entertainment—that is part of their almost mundane commitment to political struggle (to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade?).  Shots are fired into the Israeli camp, and someone is injured.  If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?  The three friends are fired on, too.  Omar drives them back; and they torch the car.  “Reprisals have a certain logic within the framework of national conflict.  One who sees a national conflict between all Arabs and all Jews might well argue that any terrorist act by any Arab or Jew can properly be the occasion for a reprisal against any Jew or Arab.  In this way, the terror continues on its upward spiral, and the use of force is given a new legitimacy within each of the polarizing societies,” surmised Noam Chomsky in “Nationalism and Conflict in Palestine” (Middle East Illusions; page 53).

Rage then reason?  Omar prepares dough at work.  Omar, at leisure, tries on a suit.  He, again, climbs the barrier wall between Palestinian and Israelis, knocks on Nadia’s family door, asks Nadia where Tarek is.  Omar wants to talk to Tarek about marrying Nadia.  The three friends, Omar, Tarek, and Amjad, gather in a café; and one—Amjad—who also has a crush on Nadia, talks about how monkeys are baited with sugar cubes in Africa and caught, a haunting little tale.  Israeli agents enter the café, and the friends run.  Yet, Omar is caught, stripped, tied up, interrogated, and beaten.  Omar is put in a prisoner’s uniform, and placed in a dark jail cell.  Omar is there with other men, and is warned not to confess (so as to prevent being convicted and sentenced; or pressured into being a collaborator. a status without end).  Omar says that he will never confess—a statement that is recorded and taken itself to be a confession.  A lawyer tells Omar that he is facing a minimum of 90 years in jail.

An Israeli intelligence agent, Rami, talks to Omar, and asks him to collaborate, saying that if Omar does not collaborate his life will be hell.  The agent, Rami, allows Omar to leave the prison, giving him a month to provide the information they are looking for (the name and evidence of the soldier-killer).  Omar meets Nadia, hugs her (she, still a school student, does not know where her brother Tarek is).  Omar tracks down his two friends, Tarek and Amjad; and says that there is a traitor among them, but he does not know who.  Can we trust the people who claim to be our friends?  (“I follow him to serve my turn upon him,” says Iago of the Venetian general Othello to Roderigo in Shakespeare’s resonant Othello, the Moor of Venice, Act I, Scene 1, before going on to say, “We cannot all be masters, nor all masters / Cannot be truly followed.” Iago is an actor of variations, a director of confusions; and he manipulates a better man, Othello.  Laurence Fishburne’s Othello in Oliver Parker’s 1995 film of the play, and Orson Welles as Othello in his own 1955 film, are my favorites.  Is Iago to Othello a friend or a foe; or a friend and an enemy—a frenemy?)  Omar tells Tarek that he wants to marry Nadia but Tarek does not think it is a good time to ask.  Tarek wants them to focus on political liberation.  Yet Omar and Nadia meet to talk about their future (she has made a knit hat for him, a simple sign of care).

Adam Bakri (Omar), the son of actor-director Mohammad Bakri (1948 and Jenin, Jenin) and the brother of Saleh Bakri (Salt of this Sea and Salvo), has the fit and force of youth, and is compelling.  As Omar, “Bakri, a relative newcomer to the big screen, does a superb job of carrying a film in which he appears in nearly every scene.  With his baleful expression and chiseled good looks, he succeeds in winning near-instant sympathy from the audience, even when his actions are lamentably impulsive and thoughtless.  He also skillfully handles the dark humor that courses through Omar, whose characters can be relied on to respond to even the most infuriating indignities with mordant one-liners,” wrote Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post (February 20, 2014).  Adam Bakri appeared, also, in Asif Kapadia’s film Ali and Nino (2016), Ricky Nasser’s Slam (2018), and Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets (2019).  Bakri as Omar visits his family—and the Israeli agents track him there; but Omar evades them.  Omar observes Nadia with another young man, Amjad, and she says there are rumors Omar is a traitor.  (“Oh, I have lost my reputation!  I have lost the immortal part of myself and what remains is bestial,” says the once esteemed soldier Cassio in Shakespeare’s Othello, Act II, Scene 3, after being drawn by his supposed friend Iago into drinking and fighting, which inspires Othello to demote Cassio.)  Tarek tells Omar that Amjad—Omar’s friend?—has asked for Nadia’s hand in marriage, too.

The three friends plan an ambush, and have guns.  Amjad (Samer Bisharat) walks away; and Omar (Adam Bakri) and Tarek (Eyad Hourani) are shot at.  The agent, Rami (Waleed Zuaiter), is angry at Omar for planning the ambush.  Rami says that he knows Nadia’s secrets and can turn her into a whore whenever he wants, even imprison her.  Other men, Palestinian loyalists, think Omar is a traitor and beat him.  (Who is the source of the rumor?)  Omar asks the agent for one last chance; and the agent still wants Tarek’s head.  Omar (Bakri), later, sees Nadia (Leem Lubany), but she calls him a traitor, and blames him for four dead rebels: Nadia says that she loves Omar but doubts him; and he asks about Amjad but she says nothing.  Omar leaves a message for Amjad, and sees Amjad given a note by Nadia—Omar asks Amjad if he is the traitor.  Amjad says that he, Amjad, is—and that Nadia’s secret is that she is pregnant by Amjad.  Omar and Amjad meet Tarek—Omar tells Tarek that Amjad betrayed them but that it was a mistake, that Amjad got Nadia pregnant—Tarek is angry, and Tarek and Amjad fight and in the struggle, Tarek is killed.  Tarek’s body is delivered to a grateful Israeli agent.

Omar asks for Nadia’s hand in marriage, not for himself but for Amjad, whom Omar believes has impregnated Nadia.  She agrees.  Omar gives Amjad the money Omar has saved.  There is a funeral march for Tarek.  Omar eats with his family, works in the bakery; and after two years he is questioned by the local Palestinians political resistance about Amjad and Tarek.  At the bakery, the agent Rami stops by to see Omar, wanting to use Omar to track down a Palestinian rebel leader.  Rami threatens Omar, Amjad, Nadia.  Omar can see that he has no freedom as long as this man wants to control him, to use him.  Even with Tarek dead, the designated desired object as sacrificial lamb, none of them are safe.  What are the Israelis afraid of?  Disloyalty, rebellion, terrorism.  “It goes without saying that if a country is considered to be so vulnerable as to be confronting perpetual existential danger, and as having teetered on the brink of imminent destruction since the moment of its creation, almost anything is permitted to it, and much can be forgiven it,” wrote Rashid Khalidi, Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East (Beacon Press, 2013; page 78).  Khalidi, who graduated from Yale and Oxford, and is the author of British Policy Towards Syria and Palestine, 1906-1914 (1980) and The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood (2006), continued, “It is vital to emphasize that this trope, although it may be sincerely believed by many of those who incessantly invoke it, is based on an essentially false understanding of history” (page 78), noting the Israeli state’s significant military victories.  What do the Israelis want?  Domination.

Omar climbs the wall, the concrete fence, again; and he visits Nadia and Amjad, and sees their baby—they have two children, the older Tarek and the younger Abla.  Omar realizes that he was tricked by Amjad, that Nadia had not been pregnant before the marriage.  Omar had been charming, but Amjad had been cunning: “I am not what I am,” said Shakespeare’s Iago, a friend who was not a friend (Othello, Act I Scene 1); and as poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote, suggesting self-division or hypocrisy, “You are you and not you at the same time” in his book, a long prose poem, In the Presence of Absence (Archipelago Books, 2011; page 58).  Nadia realizes that Omar could not have been a traitor, that she had been foolish.  “We all believed the unbelievable,” Omar says.  Omar writes a letter for Nadia; and he asks the Israeli agent for a gun—and Omar tells the rebel leader that he will deal with Amjad.  Omar—who claims to have the sugar that the monkey wants—has a final meeting with the Israeli agent.  The film Omar “feels as trapped and enmeshed in hopelessness as the vicious political cycle it depicts,” complained Washington Post (February 20, 2014) reporter Ann Hornaday, who thought of Omar’s relationship with the Israeli agent Rami as central and too simple; but how much can art transcend political realities—land theft, exile, electoral disenfranchisement, surveillance, harassment, and violence?

Political Rebellion

Palestinians have rebelled by loving, by remembering.  They have rebelled by engaging in civil disobedience, in public protests, and in violent struggle.  They led boycotts and general strikes.  They threw stones and Molotov cocktails.  They have rebelled by making art.  The first intifada (rebellion) was December 9, 1987 through September 13, 1993, informed by longstanding frustration with Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, and inspired by an Israeli truck driver’s killing four Palestinians in the Jabalia refugee camp.  The second intifada lasted from September 28, 2000 through February 8, 2005, inspired by high profile Israeli (Ariel Sharon) incursion into the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a provocation of suggested claim that led to protest and retaliatory Israeli violence, including assassinations.  Some Palestinians became suicide bombers, and some had rockets and used them.  The occupation of Palestinian land has created cycles of violence.  “The first generation tried to create a revolution and attracted filmmakers from Arab countries and from around the world, but it failed.  Their slogan was that what was taken with violence had to be retried with violence.  With the second generation, Oslo, came peace, and it also failed.  So, we are the third generation.  As Abdelsalam always tells me, the burden on our generation has become heavy, and it gets heavier every day because of the two failed experiences, the experience with arms and the experience with negotiations.  So, I believe that we need, at this time, to enter a reflective mode, to reflect on what vanquished us, because any intellectual renaissance, and I believe the artist is the one who prepares for an intellectual renaissance, needs to clarify the reasons for those two experiences so that the next generation can see them without the slogans and jingoism that we were raised on.  Wisdom lies here: how to deal with these two experiences and how, at the same time, to build a bridge to the next generation with investigations into what happened”

—Ahmed Mansour in discourse with Abdelsalam Shehada and other Palestinian filmmakers, in “Gaza Filmmaking in a Palestinian Context: A Gazan Filmmakers’ Roundtable” in Gaza on Screen (Duke University Press, 2023; pages 47 and 48)

“‘Cinema never really achieves anything immediately,’ said Palestinian auteur Elia Souleiman during the Doha Film Institute’s Qumra workshop, held earlier this month in Doha, Qatar, where some of the cease-fire negotiations are taking place.  Paris-based Souleiman is known for work such as Cannes Jury Prize winner Divine Intervention, which depicts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in surreal tones.  At Qumra, he said the time has come to ask what must be done ‘to take responsibility, and a moral and ethical position, on what films enable us to discuss about genocides, massacres and horrible violence around the world.’”

—Elia Souleiman (aka Suleiman), “Palestinian Directors Overseas Watch the War at Home—And Wrestle with Cinema’s Role in Conveying the Turmoil” by Nick Vivarelli in Variety (March 29, 2024)

“The twenty-first century is in its third decade, at the time of writing, and the Palestinian situation could be judged to have deteriorated to its worst point since the Nakba.  Israel has successfully broken up the Palestinian people into fragmented communities living in different localities and under different conditions” and “Public opinion worldwide in 2018 was assessed to be overall more sympathetic towards the Palestine cause and less so towards Israel.  The BBC’s 2012 poll of 22 countries showed Israel to be near the bottom of those most negatively viewed, only just above Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea.”

—Ghada Karmi in “Toward the one-state solution” in One State: The Only Democratic Future for Palestine-Israel (Pluto Press, 2023; pages 82 and 84)

“In his 1923 essay, ‘The Iron Wall,’ Zionist leader, Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880-1940), argued that ‘Zionism is a colonizing adventure and therefore it stands or falls by the question of armed force,’ and that morality and conscience could not dictate Zionist policy.”

—Dr. M. Reza Behnam in “Trails of Deception: What Palestinians and Native Americans Share” in Palestine Chronicle (May 25, 2023)

“Some of the great Jewish thinkers who survived the Holocaust spent the rest of their lives trying to tell the world that the horror, while uniquely deadly, should not be seen as an aberration.  That the Holocaust happened meant that it was possible—and remains possible.  The sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman argued that the massive, systematic, and efficient nature of the Holocaust was a function of modernity—that, although it was by no means predetermined, it fell in line with other inventions of the twentieth century.”

—Masha Gessen, “In the Shadow of the Holocaust” in The New Yorker (December 9, 2023)

“From Washington to Milan to Paris, tens of thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators marched Saturday, calling for a halt to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza…In the U.S., thousands converged on the nation’s capital to protest the Biden administration’s support of Israel and its continued military campaign in Gaza.  ‘Palestine will be free,’ demonstrators donning black and white keffiyehs chanted as an enormous Palestinian flag was unfurled by a crowd that filled Pennsylvania Avenue—the street leading up to the White House.”

—Fatima Hussein and Oleg Cetinic, Associated Press / “PBS NewsHour,” November 4, 2023

“We are Jewish writers, artists, and activists who wish to disavow the widespread narrative that any criticism of Israel is inherently antisemitic.  Israel and its defenders have long used this rhetorical tactic to shield Israel from accountability, dignify the US’s multibillion-dollar investment in Israel’s military, obscure the deadly reality of occupation, and deny Palestinian sovereignty.  Now, this insidious gagging of free speech is being used to justify Israel’s ongoing military bombardment of Gaza and to silence criticism from the international community.’”

—“All Criticism of Israel Is Not Inherently Anti-Semitic: An Open Letter from Jewish Writers” in The Wire (November 6, 2023)

“Neither our government nor the Israeli government recognize the fact that what is happening there [Gaza] is causing this immiseration of over 2 million people.  And this could easily be stopped, and should be stopped.  I can’t— I can’t —I can’t understand how this country can allow this to continue.  The idea that going after Hamas entails the destruction of more than half of the housing in Gaza, the idea that going after Hamas entails the wounding of 50,000 people and the killing of 20,000, is just—it’s incomprehensible to me that our government can be so callous and can be so determined not to separate itself from Israel, as far as this basic—the basic nature of this war, which is really directed against the people of Gaza.  Over 2 million people have been forced to leave their homes.  This is the largest displacement in Palestinian history.  The killing of 20,000 people, almost half of whom are children, is unprecedented in Palestinian history.  So we are talking about traumatic events that are going to scar generations to come.  And this doesn’t seem to be a matter of concern to our government, let alone the government of Israel.”

—Rashid Khalidi, author of The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, in “This Is a Colonial War” on (radio / TV) Democracy Now!  (December 20, 2023)

“‘All of us are like deer caught in the headlights,’ says [Annemarie] Jacir.  ‘There are days when I’m completely overwhelmed and frozen,’ she adds, ‘and days when I actually have to stick my head in the sand and not look at all these images.  And then there are days where all I can do is look at these images and try to figure out what can we do?’”

—filmmaker Annemarie Jacir (Salt of this Sea), quoted in “Palestinian Directors Overseas Watch the War at Home—And Wrestle with Cinema’s Role in Conveying the Turmoil” by Nick Vivarelli, Variety (March 29, 2024)

“When Israel bombs and shoots civilians, blocks food aid, attacks hospitals, and cuts off water supplies, I remember the same outrages in Bosnia.  When people in a Gaza flour line were attacked, I thought of the Sarajevans killed waiting in line for bread and the perpetrators who in each case insisted the victims were slaughtered by their own side… What’s a Jew to do now?  Everyone makes their own choices, but my experience of war crimes taught me that being Jewish means standing against any nation that commits war crimes.”

—Peter Maass, Jewish author of the Bosnian war report Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War, in short essay “I’m Jewish, and I’ve covered wars.  I know war crimes when I see them” in The Washington Post (April 9, 2024)

Concluding, without a conclusion

“Unless we are able to perceive at the interior of our life the statements women make—concrete, watchful, compassionate, immensely poignant, strangely invulnerable—we will never fully understand our experience of dispossession,” wrote Edward Said, a surprising statement, in his essay “Interiors” (1986), from his experiential and experimental book After the Last Sky (Pantheon, 1986), done with photographer Jean Mohr; “Interiors” was an essay republished in The Selected Works of Edward Said, 1966 – 2006 (Vintage, 2019; pages 286 and 287).  Edward Said, a man of intellect and imagination, then thought of women (Palestinian women) as living a life of mediation, an obscured life of care and service.  Said recalled his mother speaking of her early life in Nazareth, and her wanting to return there late in life, when she was ill (she had told him that her passport had been destroyed by an official after her marriage, with the assumption she would be traveling on her husband’s passport).  Edward Said connected that with Michel Khleifi’s film The Fertile Memory (1981), in which an exiled woman, Farah Hatoum, expresses loyalty to her lost land, for which she still has the deed: she says, “I don’t have the land now, but who knows what will happen?” (Selected Works; page 289); and when she (Hatoum) returns in the film to see (though not claim) that land, “We see her step tentatively onto a field; then she turns around slowly with arms outstretched.  A look of puzzled serenity comes over her face” (page 290).

What does the future hold?  Is a better world possible?  Can we identify and claim our inheritance?  Is it possible to build a life with someone we love despite the world’s disapproval?  Can we trust the people who claim to be our friends?  Will there be war or peace?  “The alternative to the framework of national states, national conflict, and national interest is cooperation among people who have common interests that are not expressible in national terms, that in general assume class lines.  Such alternatives are open to those who believe that the common interest of the great masses of people in Palestine—and everywhere—is the construction of a world of democratic communities in which political institutions, as well as the commercial and industrial system as a whole, are under direct popular control, and the resources of modern civilization are directed to the satisfaction of human needs and libertarian values,” wrote Noam Chomsky, a friend of scholar Edward Said and the author of Aspect of the Theory of Syntax (1965), Deterring Democracy (1991), On Nature and Language (1999), in “Nationalism and Conflict in Palestine,” Middle East Illusions (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003; pages 59 and 60).  Is a better world possible?  Will there be war or peace?  “What future can be envisaged for this conflict?  There are today only three problematic outcomes possible: a) to allow the present situation to continue, b) to partition the land into an Israeli state and a collection of Palestinian enclaves named a Palestinian state, and c) to share the land in one unitary state,” wrote Ghada Karmi, a doctor and writer, and one of the many writers who has followed in the formidable Said’s wake, in “Conclusion: The Future” in the book One State: The Only Democratic Future for Palestine-Israel (Pluto Press, 2023; page 161).

“Politicians can talk all their usual nonsense and do what they want, and so can professional demagogues.  But for intellectuals, artists, and free citizens, there must always be room for dissent, for alternative views, for ways and possibilities to challenge the tyranny of the majority and, at the same time and most importantly, to advance human enlightenment and liberty,” wrote public intellectual and pianist Edward Said in the essay “Barenboim and the Wagner Taboo,” originally published in Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society (2002), Said’s book of dialogues with musician Daniel Barenboim, an essay republished in The Selected Works of Edward Said, 1966 – 2006 (page 491).  Parallels and Paradoxes discussed Beethoven and Theodor Adorno, Charles Dickens, and Mozart—range.  In his work, Edward Said (1935 – 2003), an admirer of Bach and Boulez, had analyzed the nature of literary authority and its correspondence with privileged cultures, and he explored geography, history, and philology, and criticized scientism, and his work is full of facts and ideas whether about the arts or politics, making it exciting to read.  (Said also appreciated Sinead O’Connor.)  Very recently, a collection of Said’s commentaries on music—including Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte and Berlioz’s Les Troyens—has been published: Said on Opera, edited by University of Göttingen researcher Wouter Capitain (Columbia University Press, 2024).  Said’s mind was full, as was his life. 

Edward Said fulfilled the responsibility of the intellectual to awaken and alert, to inform and inspire, to listen and learn, to witness and write.  He was as charismatic as he was curious.  He has been accused of contradictions and misinterpretations, of not appreciating popular culture enough—all of which seem no more than footnotes to a large legacy.  The scholar and traveler Edward Said, thoughtful, temperamental, and tough, published a trilogy of critiques: Orientalism (1978), The Question of Palestine (1979), and Covering Islam (1981); and in 1981 he summered in Tunisia, “where, in the friendly company of the poet Mahmoud Darwish, he and the family stayed in ‘an enormous house that had a pool and a grand piano’ that Said played every evening before dinner,” wrote Timothy Brennan in Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021; page 216).  Said had helped to work on a 1974 United Nations speech for Yasser Arafat, to which Mahmoud Darwish and others had contributed, as noted in Tim Brennan’s biography of Said, Places of Mind (page 146); and Darwish had tried to reconcile Said with another friend, Sadik Al-Azm, after disagreements regarding Said’s book Orientalism, without success (page 201).  Mahmoud Darwish (1941 – 2008) had been born in Palestine—in Al Birweh—and he, when young, was harassed and faced jail for his political activity and his poetry; and Darwish spent decades in exile in Beirut and Paris, before moving in the mid-1990s to Ramallah.  Mahmoud Darwish, as a poet, was “inspired by the incredibly rich social and cultural memories of historic Palestine” and for Darwish “the multi-layered conception of Palestinian identity is evident by the fact that it is the product of all the powerful cultures that have passed through the land of Palestine: the Hellenistic, the Persian, the Roman, the Byzantine, the Aramaic, the Arab, the Jewish, the Muslim, the Arab Jewish, the Ottoman, the British,” according to the University of London’s Nur Masalha in Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History (Zed Books, 2018; page 276).  Darwish was the subject of the film Write down, I am an Arab (2014), directed by Ibtisam Mara’ana.  Before dying in Houston, Texas, Darwish had published Leaves of Olives (1964), Memory for Forgetfulness (1995) and Unfortunately, It was Paradise: Selected Poems (2003), among other books.  Mahmoud Darwish, like Edward Said, was cosmopolitan, a connoisseur, and inevitably a citizen of the world; and in his long poem In the Presence of Absence (Archipelago Books, 2011; page 80), Darwish wrote:

Cities are smells: Acre is the smell of iodine and spices.  Haifa is the smell

of pine and wrinkled sheets.  Moscow is the smell of vodka on ice.  Cairo is

the smell of mango and ginger.  Beirut is the smell of the sun, sea, smoke,

and lemons.  Paris the smell of fresh bread, cheese, and derivations of

enchantment.  Damascus is the smell of Jasmine and dried fruit.  Tunis is

the smell of night musk and salt.  Rabat is the smell of henna, incense, and

honey.  A city that cannot be known by its smell is unreliable.  Exiles have a

shared smell: the smell of longing for something else; a smell that remem-

bers another smell.  A panting, nostalgic smell that guides you, like a worn

tourist map, to the smell of the original place.  A smell is a memory and a

setting sun.  Sunset, here, is beauty rebuking the stranger.

(DG, April 2024)

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 Essays