Sunday, April 10, 2011

Miral, A Palestinian Disappointment

Susan Abulhawa reviews the film "Miral" in the Palestine Chronicle

I didn’t get a sneak preview nor was I among the VIPs who attended the premier of Miral at the UN General Assembly. I had to wait for its release in a nearby theatre, which luckily turned out to be only an hour away in Philadelphia. That means I had read and heard plenty of reviews of the film before I actually watched it. They were mixed and varied reactions, but I think I was able to leave them outside the theatre before I entered so I could decide for myself. There was one thing, however, that I couldn’t leave at the door: my Palestinian-ness. So, I went in wanting to like the film. I was holding my breath hoping to see a compelling Palestinian narrative, told by a Palestinian woman who lived at Dar el Tifl, the orphanage where I too had spent years of my adolescence in the early 80s.

Miral is the story of four Palestinian women of different generations and circumstances: Hind el Husseini, an unmarried heiress from a prominent Jerusalem family who founded Dar el Tifl and devoted her life to empowering young Palestinian girls; Nadia, a 1948 Palestinian (Palestinians with Israeli citizenship) who leaves home to escape persistent rape by her stepfather but was never able to outrun her own demons; Fatima, Nadia’s cellmate in an Israeli prison; and finally, Miral, Nadia’s daughter who goes to live at Dar el Tifl after her mother, Nadia commits suicide.

I knew that Israel and its various American lobbying wings had protested the showing of this film at the UN, claiming it to be anti-Israel. That gave me even more hope that I was about to watch the first honest portrayal of life as a Palestinian growing up under Israeli military occupation. By the time the film was over, however, the only reason I could fathom for such protestations was that Miral is perhaps the first semi-mainstream film to show Palestinians as something more akin to human rather than monsters to be reviled or pathetic and destitute refugees to be pitied. Indeed, Miral succeeds in showing a human face to Palestinians. Pittance and basic as that might be – to be recognized as fully human, even if only in a film – it is perhaps a feat after six decades of little more than the damaging and painful stereotypes.

My reaction to the film was mostly cerebral because it failed to pull me in emotionally. If I were to depict the film graphically, I’d draw a more or less flat line. There was one exception and it is this scene: Miss Hind is standing alone by the gates of the orphanage and then the film cuts to her funeral. The abrupt transition knotted my throat with the realization that I never got a chance to say good bye to that incredible woman who took me in when there was no other safe place in the world for me. I never got a chance to thank her, or tell her how profoundly she touched my life. So I cried in the theatre for the loss of el Sit Hind, as we called her. Although my waterworks have more to do with my own memories and regrets, credit must also be given to Hiam Abbas, whose portrayal of Miss Hind was authentic and brilliant. In fact, it was Hiam’s acting that made Hind Husseini’s story shine above the stories of the other three women.

There were a few “insider” bits in the film that only those who knew Miss Hind would have noticed. When a baby left by the mosque door is brought to her, she takes it and remarks that the name “Hedaya” might be suitable. Hedaya means “gifts” in Arabic and it happens that that baby was a real little girl whom Miss Hind later adopted. Hedaya was a headmistress of sorts when I lived at Dar el Tifl. She was a student when my mother lived there many years before me and the rivalry between the two of them meant that Hedaya didn’t like me much. I smiled and silently thanked Rula Jebreal for writing her into the script. In a way, it seemed a gift from Rula to Hedaya, who looked after us, even if she wasn’t always very nice.

In addition to Hiam Abbas’ excellent portrayal of Miss Hind, Alexander Siddig, who played the role of Miral’s father, was also believable and well-done. On the other hand, why Frieda Pinto was chosen to play Miral eludes me entirely. Every time she opened her mouth, all I heard was a Hindi accent. Her acting, too, fell far short of the role. For example, what could have been poignant or emotional points in the film – when she thanks “Mama Hind” or when she learns that the father she has known her whole life was not biologically related to her – ultimately felt insincere and contrived. The role of Fatima was even more badly done that at times it seemed she was merely reading from a teleprompter. I can’t blame the actor solely. The script was awkward and Fatima’s story seemed incomplete. The character tells us that she decided to plant a bomb in a crowded theatre to ‘make them suffer like they make us suffer.’ Yet all we see of her suffering is that she lost her job as a nurse after helping wounded Jordanian soldiers escape back to Jordan. As a Palestinian, of course, I know the suffering she’s talking about, but someone just watching the film will have no idea. Herein are the two biggest problems with this film, both of which have to do with the political aspect. On one hand, there was too much politics; and on the other, there was too little of it.

By too much, I mean that the political story overshadowed the human one such that it often felt like the characters were created to serve as mere vehicles to deliver a political message. While the use of art to illuminate a political reality is an honorable literary and artistic tradition, I feel that the artist’s or writer’s foremost loyalty should be to his or her characters, not the political, social, or historic backdrop. A writer’s mandate is to tell the story of their characters with honesty, humanity, and authenticity; in doing so, the backdrop and back stories emerge. Unfortunately, Miral gave center stage to the political situation, from which characters emerged as a supporting cast. That said, I do understand how easy it is to fall into that trap as a writer. When the political reality has defined your whole life, created wounds and kept them bleeding for as long as you can remember, that is the part you want the world to know about. You want to scream about a system of oppression that sees you as less than human. It’s hard not to and I can understand this shortcoming of the film. But it’s the reason the film does not succeed as a work of art.

This brings me to the worst and most unpalatable, even unforgivable, aspect of this film. I’ve saved the bad for last; it’s the ‘too little’ part. Someone with no background on the realities of this wretched conflict will walk away from Miral with the sense that it’s a dispute between two essentially equal sides who simply don’t see eye to eye. There was no real hint of the gross imbalance of power or the racially motivated destruction of life that inches deeper and deeper every day into what little remains of Palestine to Palestinians. No hint of the apartheid system employed as a means of slow ethnic cleansing. Even when it came to the bloody orphans of Deir Yassin, we are told that “soldiers” killed their parents. Anyone with knowledge of history or the social circumstances of the time would have known that the residents of that village would have likely been screaming warnings to others to run because “the Jews are here”. The word “soldier” then referred to the British and I can’t help but believe that the use of that word was meant to tiptoe around the fact that terrorist Jewish gangs butchered civilians in home after home in that village. At one point we see the British flag lowered and the Israeli flag raised, perpetuating the idea that Palestine was never there. These are just some examples of a fundamental dishonesty that underpins Miral.

Moviegoers watching what little is shown of this reality will likely judge Israeli actions as justified, however distasteful. In other words, the minimally negative light in which Israel is shown is contextualized. Not so for Palestinians. Take for example Schnabel’s treatment of what could have happened to Israelis in a movie theatre when Fatima leaves a bomb under the seat [it never goes off, btw]. We see their innocent faces, one by one. They’re just like us, ordinary people just going to see a film. We see an unsuspecting couple making out, kissing in their seats. It’s not an emotional scene at all. But it does set the stage to give soldiers justification later on to beat Miral. The actions of the Israeli soldiers thus have context. On the other hand, Fatima seemingly decided to blow up a theatre full of people because she lost her job.

Another striking failure of this film is the scene of a home demolition. Schnabel shows us a random family being told to leave their home and then we see the walls of that home crumble as an unseen soldier demolishes it. Racially motivated demolition of Palestinian homes is a constant and lately accelerated reality for Palestinians. There are plenty of real footage of these evictions and subsequent destruction of homes that could have been rendered in the film. The reality of this monumentally traumatic racist policy is that children are often seen scrambling to save what little they can of their books and toys. Israeli soldiers rip people from their homes kicking and screaming. Neighbors come out to help and are met with brutal suppression by soldiers. Women cry, they raise their prayers to the heavens for mercy. The despair of the families contorts their faces into expressions that shatter a human heart with outrage and sadness. There was none of this in that in Schnabel’s interpretation. His treatment of what could have been an immensely emotional scene was nearly comatose. We see the stoic patriarch of the family clearly upset and the viewer possibly feels pity for him. There are no scattered personal belongings. The home seems empty when it’s destroyed. There are no traumatized children and next to nothing of the true human reaction to the intentional destruction of one’s home, one’s only refuge.

Footage of the first Intifada looked like street rioters faced with good police doing their job to restore order. There was nothing of Israel’s “break their bones” policy, or of their specific targeting of children, who were left with nothing to do but roam the streets when Israel enforced a “no school” ignorization policy for Palestinian children. This context – of the sheer brutality and racism of Israeli policies toward Palestinians – was largely missing. I’m not saying that a Palestinian film must incorporate all of these elements. But if you’re going to include it, do it with honestly, not obfuscation. To the extent that any of the realities on the ground were shown, it seemed almost like a preemptive framing of Israel’s ethnic cleansing, which is increasingly being recognized around the world. Ultimately, Miral is a Zionist’s cinematic rendering of a Palestinian story, replete with leftist Zionist messages. And this reviewer is frankly tired of other people telling our story for us, especially of Zionists framing who we are and what our motivations might be. I haven’t read the book or the screenplay to know how much of the film was Rula and how much was Schnabel. But I do know that there are Palestinian films that far exceed Miral in artistic expression, honesty, and authenticity. Salt of the Sea, by Annemarie Jacir, comes immediately to mind.

Finally, watching Miral was an important lesson for me personally because I am now looking at a contract that will potentially turn Mornings in Jenin into a film. I feel more strongly now that I must have a greater role in writing the screenplay.

All we have now is our story, our heritage and history, our humanity, and the truth of how we are being wiped off the map as a people. It is not appropriate to compromise our truth so the West might inch closer to seeing us as fully human. I feel this is what happened with Miral. It compromises our collective narrative to appease and it lacks the essential human dimension we expect to compel and provoke emotion. The excellent acting of Abbas and Siddig, the new ‘human face’ of Palestinians, and the inspiring life if Hind el Husseini just aren’t enough to redeem Miral.

A Voice for Her People: Susan Abulhawa's Writing Life Interview

by Matt Rees

Susan Abulhawa is a unique voice in contemporary fiction. She’s a Palestinian, born in Kuwait to a refugee family. She spent some years in an orphanage in East Jerusalem, her ancestral city, before university education in the US and she now lives near Philadelphia. She’s the founder of a wonderful charity, Playgrounds for Palestine, which aims to bring merry-go-rounds, slides and see-saws to the children of the West Bank and Gaza, as well as to refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon. As you’ll see from this interview, Susan’s writing life revolves around a leap she made at which many would balk. So that she could write her wonderful novel Mornings in Jenin, she mortgaged her house, went to a war zone, and returned with a passionate drive to write. What she wrote is a wrenching portrayal of a Palestinian family from 1948 – the foundation of Israel, which Palestinians call the “nakba,” the catastrophe – on through the civil war in Beirut and the second intifada. Mornings in Jenin is a bestseller whose poetic prose carries the resonance of the best Arabic fiction (writing which, due to the relative paucity of translation into English, we rarely get to enjoy; Susan wrote her novel in English). This many-faceted book has at its heart the most profound and tragic love-story imaginable. As a depiction of a violent history and of the bonds between lovers and siblings, Abulhawa’s novel gives a human voice to a people so often cast as a stereotype. How does she do it? Here’s what she has to say:

How long did it take you to get published?

It felt like forever. There was an 8 years span from the time I started writing Mornings in Jenin until it was finally published in 2010.

Would you recommend any books on writing?

I’ve never read a book on writing. I’m told that I should and I probably will one of these days. When I was writing Mornings in Jenin, I did get one as a gift. But I didn’t get beyond the first chapter. I don’t think my hesitation had anything to do with the book’s merits though. I just put it down when it talked about developing an outline or sketch of the story. I knew that I would never do that – write an outline or think ahead. So I just didn’t invest any more time in something that was going to lead me in a direction that my brain would not appreciate. I’m not a planner by nature. I follow my heart, usually into disasters and heartaches. But sometimes it takes me into miracles. Regardless, I’m just not very good at following instructions. The book I got was more or less that, or at least that’s how I perceived it and that’s why I put it down. That said, I just read Tony Parson’s answer to this exact question and he mentioned writing at least 1000 words a day. Apparently he got that advice from a book and I’m taking it from him. It’s a good bit of advice and has served me well for the past few days since I read it.

I’m sure Tony will be glad to hear it. What’s a typical writing day?

I would get up at 5am, make coffee, and sit at my keyboard and write straight through until it was time to wake my daughter up for school at 8am [she was in elementary at the time; now she’s up at 6 so that timing doesn’t work as well]. Then I’d start again from 9:30 until noon. The rest of the day I spent helping out at my daughter’s school, running or yoga, and a million other things single moms do.

That was then, when I had mortgaged my house for its full value so I could afford not to work and concentrate on writing. Now I’m paying off that mortgage and have to work a full time job as a medical writer, putting those biology degrees to some use. So I write when I can. Usually in the wee hours of the morning, in rare moments of blissful quiet and solitude, on trains, or when I’m depressed and therefore don’t care if everything else piles up.

How would you describe what “Mornings in Jenin” is about? And of course tell us why’s it so great?

It’s a story of love, and how that love is shaped by violence and persistent oppression – Love between a farmer and his land; between siblings; between a man and a woman; a mother and her children; a father and his children; love between friends. I think it’s up to readers to decide if it’s great or not. I’ll say that I put my heart into it. That ultimately my intentions in writing this story distilled to a single purpose – to be true to the characters by telling their stories with honestly, authenticity, and humanity.

“Mornings in Jenin” was written in English, but the style is much more poetic than a typical American novel. Were you aiming to capture something of the style of Arabic prose?

I wasn’t aiming for that at all, but I do think that it seeped in because Arabic poetry was my first exposure to literature. Arabic was the first language I learned to read and write and my early writings were Arabic poetry. I came to the US at the age of 13 and from then on, my education and social environment was all conducted in English. Now, my command of English is more sophisticated than my command of Arabic; but it seems my “literary foundation” is Arabic poetry; and that came through my English writing.

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?

There are so many sentences that I read and re-read just to savor and contemplate their beauty, both in English and in Arabic. I don’t have a single favorite. But when I read this question, the first thing that came to mind was a passage from One Hundred Years of Solitude. So I looked it up to quote it accurately, and here it is: “…and that is how in the ripeness of autumn she began to believe once more in the youthful superstition that poverty was the servitude of love….Madly in love after so many years of sterile complicity, they enjoyed the miracle of loving each other as much at the table as in bed, and they grew to be so happy that even when they were two worn-out old people they kept on blooming like little children and played together like dogs.”

What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?

Again, while there are many perfect and beautiful descriptions, what comes immediately to mind is a line from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. He describes the austerity of Puritan society as “accomplishing so much precisely because they imagined and hoped so little.” In that same novel, when Hester Prynne is standing on the scaffold, Hawthorne writes that “the world was only the darker for this woman’s beauty, and the more lost for the infant that she had borne.”

There are profound truths in each of these sentences. You can follow them straight into the human soul.

How much research was involved in your book and how did you carry it out?

40 years of life. A lot of books, oral histories, documentaries. A lot of watching people, observing, contemplating. And of course, the internet.

Where’d you get the idea for your main characters? Is there an autobiographical element to Amal’s life?

Although Amal is a very different person than I am, I suppose there are some parallels between Amal’s life and mine. She attends Dar el Tifl orphanage in Jerusalem and that chapter is essentially autobiographical. I put Amal in my life for the three years when I lived there. Amal also ends up in the United States, alone with a daughter. That is another aspect where our lives are similar. Otherwise, she is not me.

You’re also an activist. What makes you want to write a novel, rather than devoting the time purely to activism? Does creative writing make you a better activist?

I’ve been called an activist and may have even accepted that label at times, but I’m not entirely comfortable with it because it’s a word that resonates with others in vastly different ways. I’m a person who opposes injustice when I see it. I write about it, expose it, and work against it however I can. I’m also a person who looks for beauty. I write about it, expose it, and work to promote it. I think we’re on this planet to lift each other up and leave gentleness in our place when we leave. That’s how I would describe my “activism”. Both that, and my first novel are made from love. Both are true expression of who I am. I don’t know if one aspect feeds the other, nor do I think it matters. What matters to me is that I continue to learn, grow, and give to others through both ‘activism’ and literary endeavors.

What’s the best idea for marketing a book you can do yourself?

I’m really not very good at marketing at all. I suppose some book sales have come from my activism, specifically from people who knew of me through a children’s NGO that I founded years ago, called Playgrounds for Palestine.

Most of the book sales have been generated by word of mouth, I think. I do make it a point to write back to any reader who takes the time to write to me. I’m also happy to add them as Facebook friends when they request it. So, I suppose being more accessible to readers is a plus. Sometimes readers learn of my book when I write an opinion piece online or op-ed in a newspaper on current affairs. Other than that, I’ve not done much myself to market Mornings in Jenin. That might explain why I still have to keep a day job. 

What’s your experience with being translated?

Mornings in Jenin is now in 26 languages. Arabic is due to be released in October of 2011. That’s the only one I can personally verify. Overall, I have a lot of respect for translators – the good ones who really make an effort to render the intended meaning of a text and not just the literal translation, which as you know can be very different. I heard a funny thing about the Dutch translation. When Amal is in the orphanage, the girls warm their hands on a steel pipe that vents steam from the kitchen. It was their only source of heat and the girls would scramble just to put their hands on it. The scene was: dozens of girls reaching over each other to get a moment’s worth of heat. The translation was literal; so the “hot pipe” that girls clamored to touch ended up having a very phallic connotation that had nothing to do with the meaning of that passage in the book.

Did you write other books or published fiction before “Mornings in Jenin” was published?

No. I had contributed to anthologies and a scientific textbook. Other writings were single publications of literary nonfiction, political commentary, and scientific or medical papers. Mornings in Jenin is my first novel. It actually marks the first time I even thought of myself as a writer.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?

A local orthodox Jewish community in New York protested and harassed the bookstore into canceling my book signing. When they did, other members of the community held a counter protest and lobbied the bookstore to honor their invitation to me. So the store “compromised” and asked me to come, but only for a signing, not a reading. I was downgraded.

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?

A book on the relationship between Muslim people and dogs. I come from a Muslim family and I love dogs. These two identities can be irreconcilable because the dominant belief among Muslims is that angels do not enter a home where dogs dwell. While there are scriptures and Hadith to back this up, there is also evidence that Muslims have it all wrong…or at least they don’t have the whole story, according to history. That said, the risk of being misunderstood is quite high compared to the low chance of actually changing attitudes toward dogs – those loyal, self-sacrificing, love machines.