I made it to Beirut after spending a week in Sham and Halab. It was great seeing more of Syria, but it was insanely hot and difficult walking around during the day. Halab is beautiful with so many parks and green spaces in the city (picture to the left is a view of Halab from the Citadel). At night there are marble squares where kids play futball and ride bicycles while their parents smoke sheesha and chat. Of course there like in Lebanon everyone is obsessed with the Euro Cup games. We were staying near the Sheraton hotel in Halab and on the side of this building (which looks something like a Citadel complete with a moat surrounding it) they had a large screen projection of the game. Here in Beirut the last two nights people were glued to the TV to watch the Turkey-Germany match and last night the Russia-Spain match. My friends have strong allegiances to particular teams, mostly based on the country’s political/human rights records. But it’s a tricky thing. With the Germany-Turkey match everyone rooted for Turkey because Muslims are treated poorly in Germany. But what of the Armenians and Kurds in Turkey? And last night people rooted for Spain because of Chechnya, but what about the wall Spain has built to keep Africans out?
In the midst of all this futball fever from the moment I arrived there have been lots of activities here. My first night there was the beginning of a three night Palestinian film festival and three directors where here screening and discussing their films. Mustafa Abu Ali showed his films from the 1970s that he made for the PLO. Some people call them “propaganda” films, though I have a hard time understanding why. I think that the films are realistic portrayals of things like the Israeli bombing of the Palestinian refugee camp in Nabatiyeh in 1974. His black-and-white films portray the realistic horrors of Israeli bombings including children’s heads opened up with their insides spilling out or a dead child’s hand still clutching the shirt of another child next to him. You see children writing letters to the fidayeen who are fighting on the frontline. You hear political leaders making amazing speeches about the global fight against colonialism whether in Palestine, Mozambique or Vietnam about the relationship between parallel struggles in the context of Arab nationalism and the fight against fascism; it makes me yearn for a time when there were leaders who would make such connections. Most of his films are stark and silent, though there are moments, such as when we see the Israeli planes dropping bombs, when we hear western style classical music playing in the background.
The second night of the film festival Nizar Hassan showed his film Istiqlal (independence) which shows what internalized colonialism looks like in a small Palestinian village in 1948 Palestine (what is now Israel) near Nasra (Nazareth). It is a difficult film to watch because there are these leaders who completely capitulate to Israel and have an Israeli flag on their homes or offices even when it’s not required because it’s their independence day. But the one moment of this film that is inspiring is when he shows a scene from an elementary school and the teacher asks the students how they feel about being forced to celebrate Israeli independence day and all of them have very strong, inspiring responses. One child says that he will put up a black flag because it represents al nakba (the catastrophe). Another says she’ll put up a Palestinian flag. On the one hand it’s quite disappointing to see what happens to adults who have to tow the line because they want to be able to feed their families and just live their lives. On the other hand, it is good to know that the children still feel the possibility of resistance. Hany Abu Assad’s film Nasra was a really interesting documentary about the town in 1999-2000 when it was preparing for a visit from the Pope (for some reason this was my first time seeing or knowing that there was such a thing called the Pope-mobile). The people the film focused on were engaging and funny. I especially loved the parts of the film that featured two older men working as gas station attendants. I think these films, in general, though were difficult for people here to watch as life in 1948 Palestine is very different than life in 1967 Palestine. Apartheid, colonialism, occupation in 1948 is harder to see though no less oppressive. This is why I love Jonathan Cook’s book Blood and Religion so much in the way he talks about the “glass wall” as opposed to the very visible apartheid wall separating and confiscating land from 1967 Palestine.
The final night of the film festival featured another film by Nizar Hassan called Janoob (south). This film was really horrible. It is a film he made last summer (obvious by the pro-Lebanese army billboards featured several times in the movie as they drove from Beirut to south Lebanon, though no commentary or questioning of the meaning behind the pro-army billboards which were in reference to the war against the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr el Bared). The film seemed really haphazard and showed no understanding of the history or the context of life in south Lebanon or anywhere else. There were many people in the audience who were really disturbed by the way he represented Ashura in the film in particular. I was more curious about why he would spend so much time filming in Nabatiyeh and not have any discussion of the Palestinian refugee camp that Israel destroyed in 1974 or the PLO fighters who maintained a base in the crusader castle there. There were misrepresentations of history in the film too when he’d place slides up trying to contextualize things like the Amal massacre in Shatila refugee camp, which he states was against the PLO, but the PLO were forced to leave in 1982–which is why the camp was largely defenseless when Israel/Kataeb and later in 1985-87 Amal movement could wreak so much havoc on the camp. The film was so disjointed and disconnected and he was so obviously uniformed that it was disturbing. The final film was by a director who was not present, but it was quite good. It was Michel Khalife’s Maloul, another village in 1948 Palestine in which we see the destruction of that village from al nakba as well as the people who remained in a nearby village who resist celebrating Israel’s independence day.
I saw Mai Masri at the film festival and she gave me a copy of her last film 33 Days, about Israel’s war on Lebanon in the summer of 2006. I had been dying to see it because I love her films and because I have a friend featured in it. It is really quite good, and needs to be shown in the U.S., I think, as it really chronicles the events from that summer really well. The people she focuses on are connected, cohesive (Nizar Hassan should watch this to get an idea about how to properly contextualize and connect narratives) in the relief work or reporting they are doing during the war. But what struck me as I watched this film is that all of the books and films that have come out over the past couple of years about that summer’s war seem to forget that there was a war on Gaza first. A war that has not stopped. While people here are trying to rebuild their lives people in Gaza are still unable to do so because truce or no truce Israel continues to control the borders of the prison that is Gaza. Why is it that no one has made a film that connects these two wars? Even Hassan Nasrallah connects them when he spoke about it during that summer. I can never forget being in a 1948 village that summer that was somewhat near Gaza, with children from a refugee camp, and feeling the vibration of the bombings in Gaza while also watching/hearing the Israeli planes fly over our heads en route to bombing Lebanon. For me these two wars will always be connected.
And all of these conflicts and wars are interconnected here for people in refugee camps. The new Ghassan Kanafani Cultural Foundation kindergarten art exhibit is especially brilliant this year commemorating al nakba. I went to see the works in two camps the other day and I was so amazed by some of the new pieces. There are more of the found object art pieces that I love so much as well as some larger pieces telling the story of life in Palestine from before 1948 until the camps. The colors and images are fantastic. This is the second art exhibit I’ve seen from the camps since I arrived in Beirut just a few days ago. There is one sponsored by Save the Children that features photographs and narratives by children from Nahr el Bared refugee camp. All of this jam packed into my first few days here. The city seems the same. The same, that is, except for the extra bullet holes in shop windows and an extraordinary number of SSNP flags and graffiti in the streets of Hamra.