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Note: There are several spoilers below; read at your own risk.
Yes, another movie about Palestinians that focuses on terrorism. The concept of suicide bombing is cinematically compelling for many reasons. But given how few feature films are made about Palestine, it is painful to see this fringe theme—isolated in time, within a certain context, and since abandoned—recycled over and over again, as if it somehow defines the Palestinian experience.
Leaving that aside, an individual film can potentially handle this subject with sensitivity and balance, using it as a vehicle for understanding the Palestinian context, when and how certain things go off the rails of civilized behavior (hint: it’s not a one-way street), how and why Israeli society reacts, and what can be done to ease tensions sustainably.
I hoped the new movie The Attack, made by Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri, based on a novel by an Algerian living in France, would be such a film. It’s in the news now mainly because the Arab world has boycotted it, supposedly because it violates the economic boycott of Israel and portrays Israelis as human beings. I wanted to see if that was really the case, or if there were deeper reasons for rejecting the film.
What I found was that, frustratingly, it was almost a good and potentially powerful film. The set-up is promising. A prominent Palestinian-Israeli surgeon, Dr. Amin, is receiving a prestigious award from his peers in Tel Aviv, speaking graciously in front of a room full of Jewish Israelis, apparently oblivious to the fact that he’s been tokenized.
Being jarred out of his complacency when the unthinkable happens could lead to all kinds of fascinating revelations. It’s even hinted at some point that he’s been used to bolster Israel’s image of multiculturalism and tolerance. But it’s never explained what that fig leaf is trying to cover up.
And therein lies the problem. Virtually no context is given for anything Palestinians do. So a casual viewer will leave the theater no more educated than when he walked in, except perhaps with a slightly more sympathetic view of Israelis.
This might be fine if the film were made primarily for entertainment about a conflict long-since resolved. But one can only imagine how distasteful and destructive it would have been to make a movie during the days of Jim Crow or Apartheid, supposedly about black characters, in which the lives and motivations of black people and their political context are glossed over, caricatured, or left inscrutable, while most white characters are portrayed as reasonable, compelling, sympathetic, and relatable.
Several details also ring false, not least of which is the main premise—that a happily married upper middle class Christian woman living in Israel inexplicably commits a suicide bombing. (I’ll leave aside the fact that she’s apparently from Nablus, and it isn’t explained how she acquired Israeli citizenship in the first place. In reality, “family reunification” is nearly impossible when it comes to Palestinian-Israelis marrying Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza.) To my knowledge, no Christians or middle-aged married women have committed suicide bombings in Israel, and only two Palestinian-Israelis early on in the second Intifada.
Furthermore, a Palestinian man from the West Bank is shown driving freely from Nablus to Tel Aviv, as if this is a normal and easy thing. It’s later revealed that he switches his license plates each time, but a person new to the conflict would likely miss the explanation and assume all Palestinians are allowed to travel freely to any Israeli city.
It’s also not clear which year the narrative takes place. Which is important. These things don’t happen in a vacuum. If it took place in the 90s, it would be one thing. In 2002, quite another. In 2005, a totally different situation. And in 2012, it would be preposterous. As far as I’d know from watching this film, Palestinians just do suicide bombings whenever (even up to the present day), most Palestinians (Christian or Muslim) always support them, and nothing ever changes.
It’s also strange that Israeli commentators in the film claim suicide bombings are for publicity for various militant groups, yet no group ever takes responsibility for this bombing. An obvious contradiction that is never resolved.
Also puzzlingly, when the identity of the bomber becomes known, and Dr. Amin, suspected of being a co-conspirator, is taken in for interrogation, the questioning is not nearly as tough or prolonged as one would expect in reality—and then he is simply let go to wander freely around both Israel and the West Bank.
When Dr. Amin finally becomes convinced that his wife did the bombing, he travels to Nablus searching for clues about who sent her on her mission and why. He doesn’t learn much, other than that her family is proud of her for doing what she did, and a fiery sheikh named Marwan is a cartoonish dolt and a thug. When he finally figures out who put her up to it (another cartoonishly creepy character), it’s not believable to anyone who knows the region well. And even if you intimately understand the Palestinian situation, his sloganistic justification sounds hollow. If you don’t, it sounds absurd.
While the Palestinian context is hinted and talked about occasionally, it’s done in a shallow way. At one supposedly climactic moment, Dr. Amin walks by a bunch of destroyed buildings, and we’re supposed to feel some kind of stirring emotion. But while the crumbled masonry is disturbing, it’s nearly meaningless without any context, and it packs very little emotional punch. (Nothing at all like the scene and aftermath of the suicide bombing, for example.)
But the worst part comes at the end, when Dr. Amin decides not to turn anyone in for this crime (which doesn’t seem in line with his character and won’t make sense to the average viewer), and an Israeli woman chides him, essentially saying with a genuinely hurt expression on her face, “And after all we did for you!”
One could easily walk away thinking of Israelis as benevolent and Palestinians as ungrateful, fanatic screw-ups who support terrorism by default, at all times.
There are good things to say about the film. The cinematography is lovely, and parts of it were shot in Nablus, which is beautiful as always. The filmmaker creates some memorable characters (mostly Israelis but also a Palestinian niece who’s fun to watch). A lot of the acting is phenomenal, including that by Ali Suliman. He does as much as he can with the source material.
If this film had been sensitive enough to the perspective of the oppressed, and had all these great Israeli characters, it might have been moving for many in the Arab world and a balm for the region. Simply seeing a relatable Israeli character in a film that didn’t insult Arabs could have been revelatory for people who’d never encountered such a thing.
Sadly, the opportunity was lost.
One might wonder why a Lebanese filmmaker would create a film like this, especially the man who made the wonderful movie West Beirut. You can hear him speak in his own words here (interview with Al-Arabiya, translated by the Israel lobby group MEMRI), here (interview with Anthem), and here (article in The Jewish Week).
Incidentally, a sneak preview of the film took place in the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. A Jewish friend who attended said it was well-received, though he was angered by it for similar reasons to the ones outlined above.
P.S. I’ve heard from a reliable source that the book on which the movie is based is much more thoughtful and realistic than the film. She advises people who read this review not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” I haven’t read the book, but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, and I hope I’ll have time to read it soon.
The Short Version of the Story
My dear friend Rania, a major character in my book (Fast Times in Palestine), needs help. Her husband was arrested a few years ago by the Israeli army on bogus charges, putting all their hopes and plans in jeopardy. He’s out of jail now, but they’re still struggling to pay off debts and find a way to make a living in the devastated West Bank economy.
Rania, a college graduate, took the initiative to find meaningful work as a psychological counselor for the people who need it most in her community. Unfortunately, there’s no funding for it yet. She does it on a voluntary basis, hoping that when funding comes through, she’ll be first in line for her dream job.
Simply put, without outside help, she can’t continue her work and continue to feed, clothe, and educate her two beautiful children (older brother Karim and little sister Lusan).
I raise money every year to send the family $300 per month, which helps not only the family but also the community at large because of Rania’s incredible work. I just used the last of the money I raised from my last appeal, and a donation to help replenish the stocks would make a terrific wedding gift. 🙂
The kids are growing up fast, asking many difficult questions about their situation and learning songs and English words and all the other things kids learn as they color in this big world and start to figure out their place in it. They’re so smart and cute and funny, and it’s exciting to watch them grow, and sobering to think what might have happened to them if their family had fallen into true poverty with no help.
As always, all money goes directly to the family, and I pay the Western Union fees each month.
I set up an IndieGogo campaign, but I only asked for one-third of what I need (I’ll need $3,600 for the year) because I’m hoping to raise most of the money directly from donors so IndieGogo doesn’t get a 4% cut of all of it. But even if you don’t go through IndieGogo, I’ll be happy to send you any perks you qualify for.
Here are the various ways to donate:
- My Paypal email is firstname.lastname@example.org
- Email me for details about how to send a check (pamolson at gmail)
- I can send you an invoice via Paypal, which you can pay with any major credit card
- If you’d prefer to send the money directly to her via Western Union, I can send instructions how to do it — it’s very easy
- Here’s the link to the IndieGogo campaign if you’d rather donate that way
Even $5 helps and adds up quickly.
Thank you for reading, and for any help you can give. I can’t do it alone, but together we can do something amazing for two sweet kids and all the people helped by one extraordinary Palestinian woman.
Fundraising and donating aren’t nearly as hard as raising two kids while trying to be a rock for a society under brutal, strangling occupation. But the one makes the other possible, and it’s an honor to be a small part of it.
The Longer Version
Shortly before graduating from college, Rania married a man named Sharif, a poor but kind man who lost his parents when he was young and never finished high school. He was incredibly supportive of Rania’s education, and they had a beautiful baby boy named Karim in 2007.
Two years later she was pregnant with a little girl, and Sharif secured a permit to work in Israel so he could finish building their house and support his growing family.
Then… disaster struck. Before her husband had a chance to use his permit, he was brutally arrested in the middle of the night by armed Israeli soldiers who beat him in front of his pregnant wife and child and took him away without explanation. (The harrowing story is told here.)
He was held without charge, trial, or telephone call, and it was days before she learned the reason he had been arrested: He was accused of stealing cars in Israel. Rania could only laugh when she found out. He had never even been to Israel. But she wasn’t laughing when they handed down his sentence: one year behind bars.
A full year without his wife, without his son, without being there for the birth of his daughter. Even worse, a year without being able to provide for his family.
I visited Rania a few months after her husband was taken. She said her savings were almost finished, and she had no idea what she would do when they ran out. Every social safety net had failed her one way or another.
When her husband was finally released, he was a changed man. In bad health, in bad spirits, angry and unstable. The only job he could get was tough physical labor. Prices is Palestine are inflated due to the occupation and being tied to Israel’s currency and economy, and his small and unstable wages aren’t nearly enough for a family of four in debt from a year of no income, legal fees, etc.
Meanwhile, in 2010, Rania took the initiative and found meaningful work with the Syndicate of Psychological Social Workers, an organization that sponsors activities, classes, and counseling sessions to improve the psychological health of the community. It’s a desperately needed service in a town suffering so badly from the occupation (violence, vicious arrests, land expropriation and unemployment) and other stresses (the usual societal problems like spousal abuse and mental illness).
Unfortunately, it’s not a paid position. The Syndicate has been trying to get funding for years, but for various reasons — the latest of which is Israel’s withholding of Palestinian tax funds to try to prevent the formation of a Palestinian unity government — it has never materialized. The office doesn’t even have working phones.
So, for the past couple of years, I’ve been sending Rania $300 per month to live on while her husband’s wages pay down their debts and she continues working (and paying for child care), in the hope that if and when funding for the Syndicate finally comes through, she’ll be first in line for her dream job.
When I visited Palestine in September 2011, Rania invited me to visit her in Tulkarem and see the work she did on a daily basis. It was a whirlwind tour. We met several women who came to the Syndicate a few times per week as part of their university training, and another volunteer was taking them through the day’s lesson. One of the male volunteers was a music teacher. Another was a policeman, most of whose family is in Israeli prison. One of his sons was unable to finish high school because the Israelis took him when he was 16.
They all had the disarming, earnest friendliness I’m used to in Palestine, the same direct and matter-of-fact way of talking about their hardships, the same undying hope that telling their story just one more time will somehow make a difference. And they all spoke of Rania as if she’s indispensable.
Next we visited a home for the mentally handicapped. Most of the patients had Down syndrome. Many of them recognized Rania, and their faces lit up when they saw her. A teacher showed us the different classrooms, from the one for people who could barely function at all, who basically just played or danced all day, to a class for more advanced students who could learn to read and write and perform other basic skills.
Finally we went to a UN school for refugee children, where Rania and several other women organized an after school program for girls through the local YMCA. About a hundred high-spirited first-graders showed up, all of them girls, and we set up games of tug-of-war, sack races, hop-scotch, hula hoops, and best of all, the game where everyone grabs the edge of a parachute cloth and jumbles it around with balls on top so that the balls jump around everywhere. Everyone was laughing the whole time we did it.
Rania whispered to me, “When the girls are doing this, they forget all their stress!”
Afterwards we handed out juice boxes and cakes and did face-painting and drawing on a giant piece of butcher paper. The girls were engaged the whole time, their eyes shining, supporting each other through every challenge. Without these women, and the smattering of funding from the YMCA for the supplies, these girls would simply be trudging home to crowded cinderblock alleys and small rooms that may or may not have electricity.
It was incredibly humbling to see so many volunteers, who had hard and busy lives of their own, and barely enough money to survive, spending their time helping others instead of throwing up their hands or ignoring their even-less-fortunate neighbors.
On the way back to the office, Rania said to me, “You see how I am known in Tulkarem? Before I did this volunteering, no one asked about me. No one knew who I was. The important thing is not to stay in the house all day. If you stay in the house, the people will forget you. But if you know the people and society, in the end you will succeed.”
I have no doubt she’s right. I don’t know when that time will come, but I do know that I’m proud to support the work she does in her community, and I hope I will be able to continue (with your help) until better fortune comes to the occupied city of Tulkarem.
A gift of support is not just helping Rania. It’s also helping her beautiful children and the dozens — probably hundreds by now — of people Rania helps with her work. It’s an investment that is guaranteed to grow many times over. You can’t say that about many investments these days.
All money goes to the family, and I pay the Western Union fees every month. If you’d rather send money directly to the family, please be in touch and I’ll let you know the details: pamolson at gmail.
Thank you so much.
Well, not so much bells as tornado sirens… But still it was a lovely wedding!
We were worried all week it would rain out our vineyard venue (it did, with torrential rains the night before the wedding), and our out-of-town guests learned what it was like to get up in the middle of the night and put on shoes and socks and gather in the middle of the house as tornado sirens blared.
But no tornadoes touched down, and the weather cleared up by morning and left us with a gorgeous day to get married in. The vineyard was too soggy, so we did the ceremony and reception in our backyard. It was quite a party. Here are a few of the pictures people have posted so far…