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My entire life has consisted of having to enlighten others on what being Palestinian means; having to re-educate my classmates, co-workers, and others on the geography (Palestine is not Pakistan), the history (it is not a centuries-old conflict), and the true nature of the struggle (indigenous people’s land rights and not a religious war)
This is especially difficult here in the us, where we are often portrayed as terrorists—backwards, hateful people who love to blow themselves up, send their children to die, and want to push the Jews into the sea. This is such a common portrayal that for any Palestinian, even hearing it explained is redundant.
Enter Annemarie Jacir and her breathtaking 2008 feature film Salt of This Sea. It tells a story of a Soraya, a Palestinian-American (played by the fabulous poetess Suheir Hammad), who heads to Palestine for the first time in her life to recover her deceased grandfather’s frozen savings and fulfilling her dream of “returning” to Palestine. During her quest, she meets the handsome Emad (played by Saleh Bakri), born and raised in Palestine but longing to leave. Their attraction to each other combined with their reverse experiences and desires leaves you wondering where they will end up. Things take an interesting turn when the bank refuses to return the funds; a heist ensues and the viewers find themselves rooting for the bank robbers—Soraya and Emad in disguise.
The two, along with friend Marwan, escape across the “border” and travel to Soraya’s family’s home in Yaffa, only to find it settled by a liberal Israeli woman who claims to be a peace activist. The activist cannot confront her own role in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine or even the stolen home she lives in. She ultimately calls the police, and Soraya and Emad once again have to leave and find refuge in Emad’s destroyed village of Al-Dawayima. Upon being discovered by Israeli campers, they are again on the run. I won’t spoil the rest.
<b>“Told our way”</b>
I waited anxiously for this film to be released, because like many Palestinians, I was thrilled that the real Palestine and Palestinians would be projected to the world. The world would finally see that we too can be beautiful and ambitious lovers and adventurers, multi-dimensional complex characters. Jacir, a brilliantly talented and uncompromising Palestinian director, gives our people the humanity so often missing in other films in which we are either terrorists or voiceless victims.
Jacir addresses the Palestinian right of return with impressive artistic finesse, without limiting her lens to the West Bank. With skillful cinematography, she captures landscapes from all of historic Palestine including, of course, the sea. What a treat, especially for those who have been exiled for many years or in many cases have never seen the beautiful scenery of our homeland their entire lives, so benevolently shared by Jacir. It is a nostalgic gift that no film critic can identify without understanding the deprivation of the Palestinian diaspora.
At the Houston Palestine Film Festival, I witnessed the reaction of the older generation of Palestinians first hand, and also had the opportunity to meet Jacir. I was impressed and humbled by her attentiveness to the sentiments of our elders and by her perspective on the film in general. She told me the response in Houston “was absolutely amazing.”
“The way the audience reacted to the film, stood on their feet and clapped for ten minutes straight like that, and then bombarded us on stage to talk about it, was so moving,” she said.
“This film was also intended to break stereotypes and present a different kind of narrative—not a classic narrative with a classic, sympathetic protagonist,” she explained. “The film was not at all made for a mainstream or commercial audience in the US. It was made for us. Our story, told our way, no compromise.”
She told me she “wanted to question our own ‘fantasy’ of Palestine as Palestinians, both in exile and at home.” “It wasn’t made to be a ‘sweet’ story palatable to mainstream audiences,” she continued. Otherwise it would have been a very different story, a different film, and even a different cast.”
It may seem like a challenge for Jacir even to balance her vision as an artist with the sense of obligation for her community. However, she and other Palestinian filmmakers face many other obstacles. There is no Palestinian state entity that can fund such films as many other countries have, and distribution is a challenge due to the excuse that it is “controversial.” Also, many filmmakers take for granted the privilege of site access, as Jacir is no longer allowed into Palestine by the Israeli government (which controls all borders and crossings) and is now yet another Palestinian living in exile. But Jacir has not been deterred. She is already working on her next project in Jordan, the location of millions of Palestinians exiled from their homeland.
Jacir’s steadfastness with Suheir Hammad’s stellar performance as Soraya was truly a prize-winning combination. For many young Palestinian women, it is a much-needed empowering experience to watch a Palestinian woman on screen in a tasteful and powerful lead role. Soraya has a romanticized dream of her homeland, one many of us share until hit by the harsh reality of the limitations imposed by both the Zionist occupation and Palestinian society itself. The latter is the most difficult to stomach and confront: the growing conservatism to government corruption to the internalizing of internal divisions. These divisions are also touched upon in the film.
Palestinians have found themselves in various situations: being forced out during the Nakba in 1948 and becoming Palestinians in diaspora, living in refugee camps, being forced leave because of economic hardship, or managing to stay within the borders of 1948 (historic Palestine) with Israeli citizenship, or trapped in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip with very limited mobility. It is imperative for us to remind ourselves that we did not choose the fate we found ourselves in. Salt of this Sea manages to effectively highlight these imposed divisions that we have admittedly allowed to divide us and cause resentment toward one another. The differences between Soraya and Emad is one example, or in another scene where they are at a restaurant being waited on by an “Israeli Arab,” a descendant of those who stayed in ’48 Palestine. The waiter had to remind Emad that he too is one of us, and faces a different kind of oppression. This subtle reminder reaffirms Jacir’s target audience.
A chance encounter I had with the late Palestinian poet and icon Mahmud Darwish afforded me the opportunity to ask him what we as Palestinians should be doing to support our distressed situation. His response was, “Simply to succeed. Whatever you do, be the best.” His wise words took time to sink in, and have been accelerated by witnessing the success of Palestinian filmmakers like Jacir. The recent emergence of Palestinian women filmmakers, the increased presence of Palestinian cinema at prestigious film festivals around the world, and the growing film budgets and numbers of distributors catching on are only signs of changing times. Hopefully this positive trend will continue to build momentum for a much-needed Palestinian film industry to aid the redefinition of Palestine on our own terms.
<i>Hadeel Assali, a Palestinian-American, is the director of the Houston Palestine Film Festival.
“Salt of This Sea” debuted in May 2008 as an Official Selection at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), has won a variety of cinematic and critics awards, and is currently screening at festivals internationally. For more information about the film, visit www.philistinefilms.org</i>