Guardian Weekly – 19 December 2003
Weekends in Nazareth, the capital of Israel’s one million Palestinian citizens, are often a dismal prospect. For more than a decade a night out has entailed either leaving town or visiting a pub known locally as the Frank Sinatra, housed in a drab building paid for by the singer after a performance he gave in the Galilee.
Disappointed that Jews and Arabs had nowhere to meet, Sinatra provided them with a neutral venue in Nazareth. But since the intifada, Israeli Jews are too frightened to visit Arab areas, and the local Arab population is happier to stay at home to watch movies on satellite television. The place occasionally opens for the town’s few public drinkers.
It was not always like this, says 60-year-old Souheil Banna. He owned two huge cinemas in Nazareth until they closed in the late 1980s. He opened the first on June 26 1960, at the age of 18, while Israel’s Palestinian citizens – distrusted as much then as they are now by the Jewish majority – were ruled by a strict military government, making it impossible for them to leave their towns and villages without an army permit. Cut off and isolated, Nazarenes turned to the 500-seat Diana cinema to provide them with a desperately needed window on the rest of the world.
Paradoxically the view they were offered was only of the West. Israel’s Arab population suffered not only from military rule but also from a boycott imposed by the Arab states, which viewed the minority as collaborators with the Zionist enemy. Unable to import Arab movies, Banna did a deal with Britain’s Rank organisation, taking American blockbusters and James Bond movies.
“Epics and musicals were the biggest hit with audiences,” he says, “especially movies like the Sound of Music, Guns of Navarone, King of Kings and Ben Hur.” The films came with Hebrew subtitles, forcing Banna to develop his own primitive translation system – he would project Arabic on to a white board by the side of the screen using a hand-turned machine.
Paradoxically, things only improved following Israel’s conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, which re-established links between the two Palestinian communities. It also coincided with the ending of the military government for Israel’s Arab population.
Finally the Arab states’ boycott could be circumvented by importing films from cities like Nablus and Tulkarm in the neighbouring Palestinian territory of the West Bank or from Arab East Jerusalem. Nazareth’s audiences were exposed to Egyptian musicals, comedies and melodramas for the first time in a generation. “They lapped up everything we showed,” he said.
Such was the success of Nazareth’s cinema that by 1970 Banna needed to expand. He bought the neighbouring building and spent three years converting it into a 750-seat movie palace. With two venues he was able to diversify. His new cinema, the Nazareth, showed American and Arab blockbusters. The old one catered to other interests, mainly martial arts movies and late-night porn films, possibly explaining why so many men of a certain age in Nazareth have a working knowledge of German.
The cinemas’ success wasn’t to last. Television arrived, followed by video. Audiences dwindled and by 1988 Banna had to close both cinemas. He retrained as an alternative medicine practitioner and is today the only Arab acupuncturist in Israel.
Nazareth’s continuing lack of nightlife isn’t to everyone’s taste, however. Nearly 15 years after the Diana and Nazareth closed, a group of graduates has converted an old vaulted stone warehouse in the old city into a small cinema. Self-consciously traditional, “Kapt” (Repression) has an interior painted in natural hues made from cinnamon and cumin seeds and the walls are decorated with Egyptian cloth prints.
The team has had to take into consideration changing social and political tastes too. None of them wants to show porn films but they also have to be sensitive to a new conservatism that reigns in the city, as in much of the Middle East.
Those changing mores have been made more confusing by Nazareth’s increasing domination by Muslims: in 1948, Nazareth was a Christian town but following the war inhabitants of the surrounding villages, mainly Muslims, flooded into Nazareth seeking protection. Today they are 70 per cent of the population. This is evident on the streets where the hijab, the Islamic headscarf worn by women, once a rare sight, is now commonplace, an important marker of difference from the Jewish majority.
Local Muslim hardliners are not keen for Nazarenes to be seeking their entertainment, or knowledge, from foreign shores. Kapt does not publicise too loudly its diet of films from Brazil, Iran and Serbia, nor the fact that single men and women rub shoulders together on its benches.
But the Islamic devotees and the young intellectuals would doubtless be agreed on one thing. There is one country’s output that should never makes it on to the screen: America’s.