The Electronic Intifada – 21 July 2005
Maybe I should learn to be less sensitive but when director Eran Riklis arrived in Nazareth last month for the screening of his much-garlanded film “The Syrian Bride”, he got off on the wrong footing the moment he walked through the door.
A handful of Nazerenes had been invited to a film studies workshop, keen to see an Israeli movie that has won universal praise, as well as more than a dozen awards, for its uplifting and supposedly non-partisan message: that we must never let go of our humanity or our dignity, even in the face of the brutalitising effects of the Middle East conflict.
“The Syrian Bride” boasts another innovation: it is a genuinely cooperative production between Israelis and Palestinians. Riklis, its Israeli director, co-wrote the screenplay with a Palestinian woman, Suha Arraf, set it in the Druze village of Majd al-Shams in the occupied Golan, and used a largely Palestinian cast speaking mainly in Arabic.
But as Riklis walked into the Nazareth hall where his film was to be screened, trailing some 30 American and Israeli film students in his wake, he did not appear quite the emissary of coexistence and understanding the locals were expecting.
Accompanying him and his group was a “security guard” – a young Israeli man with a rifle slung casually over his shoulder. It was hard to see why Riklis thought he needed a paid armed escort to enter the Israeli city of Nazareth, or what kind of impression he thought he was making on the city’s film enthusiasts at the screening.
(In the last few years it has become common to see coach parties of Israeli teenagers wandering around Nazareth, the capital of Israel’s one million Palestinian citizens, on a school outing with their teachers, a “security guard” in tow. Not a few local shopkeepers can be heard muttering under their breath that, if Israeli schools really think Nazareth is so dangerous that armed protection is called for, why not simply keep their precious charges away from the place?)
Unfortunately, however, Riklis’s choice of company was far from my only concern.
The Israeli director has chosen an unusual subject for his film: the tiny Druze community of the Golan Heights, a moutainous wedge of territory belonging to Syria until 1967, when it was occupied by Israel during the Six-Day War and then illegally annexed, along with what remained of its Syrian population.
Today the Golan’s Druze can speak to relatives on the other side of the border, in Syria, only by approaching the northern limits of Majd al-Shams and shouting through loudhailers across a strip of no-man’s land under the control of international peacekeepers.
The one small concession made by Israel and Syria is an agreement to allow the passage of brides across the border, from Israel to Syria and the other way. Once the crossing has been made, however, there is no going back: the bride is not allowed to see again the family she has left behind.
As I and several Palestinian friends sat through the film, our initial surge of pleasure in seeing a humanising portrait of Arab life inside Israel – even if Syrian Druze rather than Palestinian – gave way to a sinking feeling, followed by a mounting queasiness at the movie’s soft but nevertheless insidious racism.
The dark cloud of despondency was punctured only briefly near the film’s end by an uncontrollable guffaw of disbelief from the Palestinians in the audience as the one villainous Jew in the film, the manipulative Israeli police commander, is given his comeuppance by the Druze family.
As they struggle at the border with the paperwork needed to get Mona, the bride, over to Syria, the police captain arrests her father, Hammed, a veteran pro-Syrian political activist who has recently been released from jail. Hammed has broken the law by entering a closed military zone.
The police commander, however, is forced to leave empty-handed after one of Hammed’s sons challenges him to produce an arrest warrant.
Riklis was apparently concerned only that the movie appear credible to Israeli Jews and an international audience. He must have known that no Palestinian would ever swallow the idea that the decision of an Israeli security official could be successfully opposed in a closed military zone.
Or maybe Riklis himself does not know that his government has been operating a state of emergency for nearly six decades, with draconian powers inherited from the colonial era of the British Mandate. Not only can Israeli officials arrest anyone they please in a closed military zone – and declare pretty much anywhere they please such a zone – but they can jail them too using an administrative order. Such an order does not require that charges be laid and the detention cannot be contested in court.
But back to the film. “The Syrian Bride” has many virtues, including the fact that it gives a flavour of Israeli society’s complexity and diversity, and offers us an inspiring character, a strong and principled Arab woman, in the shape of Amal, played by the excellent Hiam Abbass. Riklis also wrings genuine pathos from the desperate situation of the bride facing Israeli and Syrian bureaucratic intransigence.
But these successes, and the sympathy he wins from the audience, make Riklis’s major misjudgments all the more disturbing, as was suggested by the feverish round of applause he received from the Los Angeles and Tel Aviv film students at the end of the screening.
During the talk afterwards, Riklis said he had cut one early scene set in Damascus from the film because whichever way he presented it the Arab characters looked like racist Arab stereotypes from Israeli TV of the 1970s and 1980s.
Maybe he should have cut a few more scenes. The Syrian characters are either lazy jobs-worth, mustachioed officials or overweight comic figures, including Mona’s cousin, the man she is due to marry in Syria. The contrast with the sympathetic and complex Druze characters in the Golan suggests, even if only subliminally, that nearly four decades of Israeli occupation have helped “civilise” the Druze there, separating them not only physically but also culturally, intellectually and socially from their relatives.
The Israelis, by contrast to the Syrians, are far more sympathetic, apparently trapped by circumstances into making arbitrary and sometimes unfair decisions but never maliciously. Our “pair of eyes” in the film is the bumbling Jewish cameraman there to record the wedding, who brings with him ignorance of the Druze way of life but also a warm human curiousity and, later as he starts to befriend Mona, a great sensitivity towards the family’s predicament.
While one empathetic Jew in the film might have been considered reasonable balance, we end up with a string of compassionate soldiers, one of whom warmly congratulates the family as they turn up at the border and another who gives up his seat at the crossing point when it is clear Mona will have to wait.
Even the balding bureaucrat who arrives from Jerusalem to approve the documents needed for Mona to cross into Syria eventually bends over backwards to help. He agrees to erase an offending Israeli exit stamp with correction fluid, thereby single-handedly altering official policy, even though he cannot reach any of his bosses for authorisation.
Whereas the Israeli Jews in the film are always compassionate and creative in the face of official obstructions, the Syrians are clearly not. Israeli failings are never intentional or malign, only signs of incompetence or caution.
Similarly, although the figure of Amal is an inspirational one, her ambitions for self-betterment are framed entirely in terms of the opportunities offered to her from her belonging to Israeli society. She has the chance for self-improvement, the film suggests, only because of the offer of a place studying at Haifa University, in “Israel proper”.
Conversely, the limitations placed on Amal are entirely derived from her membership of the Druze community, and the deadening hand of tradition. The obstacles thrown in her way come from her husband, who fears her behaviour will lose the family respect in the eyes of the rest of the community.
The film seems to forget that Amal, who demonstrates courage and independence from the opening scene in the film, did not learn these qualities in Israel but from from her life in Majd al-Shams, as a Druze woman living under a repressive military occupation.
Riklis’s treatment of the character of Amal encapsulates in microcosm the faults of this film. Rather than concentrating as he does on the internal failings of Druze and Arab society, he could have given equal, if not more, weight to the damage inflicted on the Druze community by Israel’s occupation, and the ways in which that factor in itself shapes and reinforces the limitations imposed on Druze women.
As one of the characters observes in a different context, but which could equally have been spoken by Amal to her husband: “You do to me what the Israelis did to you.”
Riklis is an Israeli director. His responsibility as an artist and as an honest human being is to criticise his own, Israeli Jewish society before he starts blaming the victims of long-standing Israeli policy. He should put his own people’s considerable responsibility for the tragedy of the Middle East under the spotlight at least as much as the well-known weaknesses of Arab society.
Riklis referred to himself during the talk afterwards, to murmurs of approval from his American and Israeli audience, as “a man of peace”. But peace in the Middle East requires a great deal more soul-searching than Israeli artists like Riklis currently seem capable of.
The fact that he has won international acclaim for his film suggests another depressing thought: just how far those living outside the region are from understanding what is required of them to help bring peace to the region.