Salt of This Sea ملح هذا البحر

2 05 2009

I had been looking forward to this film for quite a while, and when the Tribeca Film Festival announced that it was showing it, I bought the tickets weeks in advance.

It didn’t disappoint.

Director and Writer: Annemarie Jacir

Stars: Suheir Hammad (as Soraya)

             Saleh Bakri (as Emad)

             Riyad Ideis (as Marwan)

First Release Date: May 16, 2008 (Cannes Film Festival)

 

There was much hype about this movie: it was filmed in the Palestinian territories (something not always easy to do), it was directed by award-winning Bethlehem-born Annemarie Jacir, its female star is the famous spoken-word poet Suheir Hammad, and it was going to talk much about the lost land, identity, Israeli-imposed restrictions, Israeli-imposed occupation.

The hype was not all exaggerated. The film was an emotional drain in many ways, but it gave a visual to what Palestinians go through every day in the West Bank, not to mention what it means to be a Palestinian, or a Palestinian-American, or a child of a refugee. It has a French style to it. Long silent scenes, really-focused dragged shots, an emphasis on thoughts and emotions rather than words; a stillness that sits deep instead of moving forward.

 

The Actors

Suheir, playing the role of Soraya, gave a great performance. She has real charisma and presence in the film. Her eyes: wide, dark, Middle-Eastern and deep, was all I could see in the movie. These eyes captured all the thoughts and feelings that her mouth didn’t utter. At times, however, I could see the real Suheir, the spoken-word poet that I watched diligently on YouTube. In one scene where she argues with Emad, she easily slipped into her poetry mode, her hands flailing in the air, her body bent forward, her neck jerking at every strong, broken word. She was the Brooklynite that she really is.

I also doubted her accent at times. In some lines, she seemed to speak “fos-ha,” the proper Arabic, not the colloquial Palestinian dialect. At other times, I couldn’t understand her attachment to this land. It seemed a little exaggerated, surreal. But I am in no position to cast a judgment on that.

Saleh Barki was the second important half to this movie. He embodied much of what Palestinian men look and act like. He seldom smiles. He seems broken yet strong and dignified at the same time. The first time you see him laugh or show any real happy emotions is nearly half the way through the movie.

In one scene, after Soraya yells at the Israeli girl who now owns the home that her family was evacuated from, Emad goes to Soraya and asks her why she lets them (the Israelis, the Jews) make her “crazy” like that, as if it’s occupation. She responds, “But it is occupation!” But Emad answers, “Not from the inside.”

That, I believe is the heart of this movie: dignity, resilience, and endurance. One line that I heard more than once in the film is, “Keep your head up.”

 

Meeting Suheir and Annemarie

Suheir Hammad and Annemarie Jacir came to speak to us at the movie theatre after the movie ended. There was a short Q&A session.

A member of the audience said that the airport scene was not exaggerated at all: the searches, the questions “for your own security,” the humiliation. This commentator was a Christian who had gone to Palestine, and because of her last name (she did not mention what it was) the Israeli authority put her through a worse ordeal. Director Jacir said that what we saw in the movie is really sugarcoated. It is a nicer version of what many people go through.

The checkpoints in the film were shot in real checkpoints until the Israeli authorities stopped that. That’s when the crew had to actually build checkpoints.

Another member of the audience asked Jacir about rumors that she was not allowed to enter Israel. Jacir, in fact, was denied entry. It wasn’t because of the film, she said, but due to an Israeli policy. Many Palestinians in the diaspora are not allowed to enter Israel or the Palestinian territories anymore. There is a movement today, she said, called “Right to Enter,” tackling this same problem

As a result, the last scene wasn’t shot in Palestine, but somewhere in Europe. I believe she said Switzerland.

The inspiration of the film, she said, was a mixture of things: news about a robbery in Bethlehem and the argument of characterizing these robbers as criminals or not, her own experience and life, her close relationship with a man (I’m not sure if it’s a grandfather or a friend) who mentally lives in Jaffa where he’s really from, but physically lives in Ramallah. That sense of belonging, of wanting, of being.

One of the problems the movie is facing today is distribution. Although it has been sold out in all of the film festivals they’ve shown in, no carrier in the U.S. is willing to distribute it nationally. It tells you something, doesn’t it?

This film is going to show in 40 different Palestinian villages and towns within the next month and a half.

Suheir said that they all miss Palestine. Most of the cast was from the West Bank.

“We miss the people,” she said calmly, “and really their commitment to nonviolence.”

 

My Friends’ Responses

I went to see this screening with two girls. One Palestinian-American and one Indian-American.

My Palestinian-American friend vouched for almost everything in the movie. She has been going to Palestine and Israel for the past several years and she knows it to be true almost all the problems: the airport, the scenes in Ramallah, the family, the identity dilemma, the Israeli checkpoints and restrictions.

In one scene, where an Israeli police officer approaches Emad and suspects him of being an illegal Palestinian in Israel, Soraya comes to save him by speaking to him in Spanish, and the officer backs away. My friend cried, “That’s so true! You can speak any language in this land but Arabic and you’d belong.”

The only thing that she said was unrealistic was that Soraya and Emad would’ve been caught in Israel long before they actually were. That, to her, was the fantasy movie-like aspect of the film.

My other friend had only known the Israeli side of this conflict until now. She had come because she loves Suheir Hammad and her poetry. When I talked to her after the film, she spoke with much shock. It was unfathomable to her that a man had not seen the sea for 17 years, that Palestinians have to get permits to go everywhere. She was, at the same time, confused about the history of the conflict. She said she doesn’t really know what happened and the movie doesn’t explain that well. She wanted to go read a book immediately after the film.

“Forgetting all the scores and who did what,” she told me, “This is about human condition, and humanity. And that’s where my loyalty lies.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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Play It from the Heart, Play It for Change

30 04 2009

 

How many times have I said in this blog that art heals? That when politics fail, art can bring people back to the light? I think I’ve said it a little too many times. But I’m going to bring it up again in this post.

Playing for Change is a multimedia organization, with a non-profit branch, that believes in unity through music; peace through music.

The idea came up four years ago by a few Californians. Today, they roam the streets of the world looking for musicians from all different backgrounds to join their movement, putting together CDs and DVDs and donating money to music advancement (whether through schools or just a helping hand for individual musicians).

Here are some powerful words from the organization:

“The idea for this project arose from a common belief that music has the power to break down boundaries and overcome distances between people. No matter whether people come from different geographic, political, economic, spiritual or ideological backgrounds, music has the universal power to transcend and unite us as one human race. And with this truth firmly fixed in our minds, we set out to share it with the world.”

Bono is one of the 40 musicians and participants that are part of this project. They have musicians from so many countries: from Nepal to India to South Africa to Ghana to Italy to Spain to Argentina, all the way to Michigan, U.S.A.

And guess what, there is beautiful Tula from Tel Aviv, The Edward Said Conservatory for music in Bethlehem and the Nazareth Orchestra from Nazareth

The curious thing is that most of these musicians have never actually met. How about a joint concert in all areas of conflict, seriously? 

You can buy their album “Songs Around the World” on iTunes, Amazon and their official website.

Check out their video.. really. And if you want HD videos, go to their website. This is really cool stuff.





Game Over – Faith Fighter Off the Web

29 04 2009

 

faithfighter_450x250

 

This is another mess, really. Italian game developer, Molleindustria has taken its one-year-old Faith Fighter game off the internet after complaints by religious leaders and the Islamic Conference that it offends many people, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists. It has deities from different religions, and even God himself fighting against each other.

The game isn’t really the most violent out there. From what I see, it’s almost caricature-like. If we are to talk about game-incited hatred, the list is really long and Faith Fighter is probably far down this list. 

 

Provoking Intolerance

Here’s the game’s pitch on the company’s website:

“Faith Fighter is the ultimate fighting game for these dark times. Choose your belief and kick the shit out of your enemies. Give vent to your intolerance! Religious hate has never been so much fun.”

It’s quite funny, really. The complaint that this provokes intolerance is probably valid to some extent. But remember also that players can choose their faith. Not all users will follow their real-life faith. It’s a game and the point is to have fun and go wild. People don’t play video games to imitate reality, but rather quite the opposite, to get away from reality.

Molleindustria already has a new game called Fight Fighter 2, a sequel, more modified version of the first one. And here’s part of the pitch:

“We regretted the use of irony and violence and this time we want to offer a positive, nonviolence educational game that teaches the universal values of tolerance and respect.”

 

From the Bloggers

Some bloggers pointed out that most complaints came from Muslims. This, again, reflects badly on all of us Muslims out there who don’t really care for religious insensitivity. I’m secular so my views are clearly different. What the Islamic Conference should have figured is that this would be another free speech fiasco; another stab at Islam and another proof that our religion is intolerant and backwards.

Jonathan Simeone wrote this on his American Reality blog:

“By giving into the demands of the Muslims that company was contributing to the world-wide program of allowing Muslims to determine what is and what is not protected speech…. If Muslims want to settle in the West they must understand that the West is under no obligation to go out of its way to accommodate the aspects of Islamic culture and law that limit the liberties and freedoms that define Western society.”

Profreedan wrote this on Mediasnoops:

“How about the religious lobby groups who are calling for this game to be banned get their own houses in order and sort out the nutjobs in their ranks who are creating fear of their religions before they start pointing the fingre at computer games?”

 

My Brother

My brother loves video games and internet games and now Xbox. He’s played them ever since he was in the one-digit age. He’s pretty experienced now, up-to-date with latest games. If you’re in my house, you would hear him screaming through his microphone, attached to his head with an ear piece. He would be yelling at my cousins at the other end of the line, or people from across the world, depending on whom they’re shooting at on Call of Duty or some other game.

Granted he gets rattled up easily. He faces accusations from my mother that these games are making him violent. But he’s no idiot. He knows that when he shuts off the game he’s in a difference world. It doesn’t carry on to his relationships with other people.

Really, people are much smarter than what these religious leaders think.





Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow: Islam and the Media

28 04 2009

 

Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow - Copenhagen, 2006

Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow - Copenhagen, 2006

At the Interchurch Center on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, only a few blocks away from Columbia University, and untraditionally, inside a Christian chapel, seven distinguished journalists sat across from the audience for about an hour and a half, discussing several issues about Muslims and the portrayal of Islam, particularly in the Western media.

It was only this past weekend that the Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow conference was held here in New York. Organized by the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) and the Cordoba Initiative, the focus this time was on an absolutely crucial topic: Islam and Muslims in the media today, in a post 9/11 world.

The panelists were all journalists; distinguished with varying backgrounds, from major and minor news outlets. Here’s the list:

Rachel Zoll (Associated Press)

Deborah Amos (National Public Radio)

Mohamad Bazzy (Newsday’s Former Mideast Bureau Chief)

Noreen Ahmed-Ullah (Chicago Tribune)

Neil MacFarquhar (New York Times)

Bobby Ghosh (Time Magazine)

Maria Ebrahimji (CNN)  

 

There were some interesting things said in the panel. I noted what I liked down and I will write them as a list because they’re many and cool:

  • We always hear and see in the media the extreme guy; the angry one who marches down the streets with aggressive signs. But we never hear about those who criticize their community, those moderates who are not angry. Why? Not because they don’t exist, but because they’re mainstream, they’re the norm. And the norm is not a story. I believe this to very true. In my journalism school we are pressured to find a story, something different, something unique. Mohammed Bazzi, one of the panelists said: if my newspapers tomorrow ran a front-page story that all planes landed at JFK airport safely, would you read the newspaper? Perhaps not.
  • Bobby Gosh was a guest several times at a radio show somewhere in Southern America (I missed the name of the state and I won’t venture to guess).  After 9/11, many callers became curious about Islam and they were asking him many question, among which was: Do people in Baghdad wear shoes? It’s funny and it’s true. I recall some of my fellow students at my boarding school in New Jersey, asking me whether we still live in tents and get around by camels. I’m not kidding. This illustrates that there is still much ignorance and stereotyping. And we need to battle that.
  • Neil MacFarquhar of the NYTimes said, “We need to focus less on the violence and more on the [Muslim] activists who are trying to change their lives.” This was a point that hit home in so many ways. There is too much focus on violence by Muslims, and this focus is importance for the sake of the victims at least, but there isn’t enough emphasis in the media about Muslim activism. Most stories get brushed off. A member of the audience voiced this when reporters came to her school and refused to publish anything about the great activities they’re doing in terms of Muslim education and interfaith dialogue.
  • Neil also said, “Muslim American sensibility is so bruised by 9/11.” This is also very true. Many Muslims have become so skeptical of anything Western after 9/11 and after the blame and scrutiny they experienced. They have turned to the defensive mode.
  • A good, very good point was noting that although the media after 9/11 began to focus more on extremists, they still labeled them as “extremists” and “fanatics,” not mainstream. Despite these negative stories, for the first time in American media, there was more, much more coverage of other Muslim activities, such as the fasting month of Ramadan and Eid celebrations. You walk into WalMart today and you’ll see a book about Islam. The point was: there was good and bad stories about Muslims after 9/11.
  • One of the biggest problems of the Muslim world is that Muslims resent extremists and those who lump all of us together, but there isn’t much done to reshape that image. Resentfulness must be turned around to more emphasis on educating the rest about Islam, really mainstream Islam that doesn’t involve the Taliban or the Muslim Brotherhood.
  • Mohammed Bazzi pointed out that perhaps it’s not effective to respond to non-Muslims by saying “This is not real Islam,” or that these extremists are not “real” Muslims. Instead of dismissing the perpetrators of violence, we need to delve into why they’re doing this. I couldn’t agree more to this statement. Bazzi was my former professor at journalism school and he taught me to look into the “why” more often.

So what’s the solution to the bad image of Muslims in the media? Time and repetition. It’s better for mainstream Muslims to talk about these issues than to keep quiet.

I heard mixed reviews about this panel. Some thought it was good, others thought it wasn’t. I liked it particularly because we talk about these issues everyday in my journalism classes. It is an issue that is close to my heart and close to what I read and write every day.





Arts Briefing

27 04 2009

 

Mohammed Ali on the BBC

Mohammed Ali on the BBC

Because art always captures my attention, and because I know in my heart that when politics fail, arts become the alternative, here’s a list of some arts news:

1. The Palestinian Festival of Literature is going to take place in May, from the 23rd to the 28th. This is going to be in the form of a roadshow in the West Bank, highlighting the many problems that Palestinians face today. There will be 20 participants, not only Arab but from across the world. I would go to each and every event if I were there.

2. Third Generation is a work-in-progress form of play that is now featuring in Germany, combining young German, Israeli and Palestinian (Palestinian-Israeli) actors. It explores one of my favorite issues: identity, especially in the context of history. You can read Gal Beckerman’s review on the Forward, that was also on the Haaretz.

3. Palestinians filmmakers get a stage in London, and as CNN says, beating all the odds and difficulties of filming in a place that lacks cinematic infrastructure. There has been several Palestine Film Festivals, in Chicago, Toronto, even Texas. So much can be gained from art exposure. I will see “Salt of This Sea” this Friday through the New York Tribeca Film Festival and will let you know what I think.

4. Stanford University professor, Ronald Levy, becomes the first Jew to win a King Faisal International Prize (regarded as the Arab Nobel Prize), in Medicine. The prize consists of $200,000, a medal, a certificate in Arabic and English and dinner with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. I realize that this is not an arts update but it’s worth the mention. I wonder if Levy was super thrilled.

5. This is an old article that I kept in my records. Jerusalem art comes out to combine homosexuality and religiosity, called Out of the Sacred Closet – Beauty, Belief and Identity.” This is interesting and juicy. Reactions vary but artistic expression is always commendable.

6. Muslim graffiti in the UK by artist Mohammed Ali gets the attention of the BBC





What is Tolerance?

27 04 2009

“Tolerance is an attitude, a way of thinking, and a lifestyle, all in one.

Tolerance means that you are free to adhere to your own convictions, and accept that others adhere to theirs. Tolerance involves rejection of dogmatism and absolutism.

Tolerance is taking responsibility for your contribution to society and the impact of your actions on others.

Tolerance is not to ‘simply endure the presence of others’, nor does it mean you have to embrace the other’s beliefs.

Tolerance is harmony in difference.”

Youth for Tolerance homepage, a Lebanese NGO (non-governmental organization) with a mission of acceptance and tolerance for Lebanese youth in a diverse and religiously colorful society.





Ahmed & Salim: The Funny Terrorists

23 04 2009

 

I’ve grown quite fond of Ahmed and Salim, the two funny and stupid young terrorists that look much like South Park characters. I keep playing the episodes over and over again.

I understand the controversy surrounding these series. Their creators are Israelis: Tom Trager and Or Paz. They depict quite a stereotypical image of Arabs and Muslims: living in a cave, having multiple wives in black, wanting to kill all the Jews, condoning suicide bombings… etc. The show has been blocked by the UAE from showing on YouTube, and there are some bloggers out there who truly believe that this represents real life and all Muslims and all Arabs, all throughout.

If you are a sensible person, you’ll see and understand that the cartoon paints an extreme case, even when it comes to the Jews (for example the curly-haired, freckled Jewish hostage in episode 2 who happens to look geeky and have a long nose).

The six online episodes are smart, funny and bitterly sarcastic. In some way, people have already started to love the two characters. They are not malicious. They’re just young and stupid.

In one episode you see their father, Palestinian arch-terrorist Yasser Mijhayeff, reading them a hateful bedtime story about the Jews. Yet, the two youngsters are far from interested in this hate. They want to play games like Grand Theft Auto and Guitar Hero. They want to watch Frasier, fall in love, and have facebook friends.

On the show’s website, the two creators wrote, “In contrary to what you may think we do not think bad of Arabs, we simply dislike people in general.”

I agree that it gets slightly more gruesome from the 4th episode on, but going over the edge is part of the fun. The characters say “George Michael” for “gay.” They say “banana” and “winker” quite randomly.

And my personal favorite line is when Salim says to his father, “Baqlawa, baba?” The translation: “Why not, dad?”

The music also reminded of old Egyptian game shows, especially during Ramadan (what was called “fawazeer”)

***********************

Satire can heal in so many ways, and in abnormal situations, a lot of people find it easier to make fun of things rather stay grim and have the weight of the world on your shoulders.

A commentator on YouTube called “GreatnessMyNamels” wrote this:

“people need to stop taking this thing so seriously its just a cartoon about terrorists and plus it has nothing to do with islam because before islamic terrorists there were irish terrorists and russian terrorists so no that doesnt mean all terrrorists are islamic just at the moment the ones we hear about are islamic”

I absolutely agree. To my fellow Arabs and Muslims who felt really offended, I say in a loving way, get over yourselves. To be offended by these episodes indicates that you see these characters as a representation of you. They don’t represent me or my thinking, so why should I be offended?

I’d love to see more of these episodes and their likes.

Really, check them out if you haven’t already.

 

-P.S.: I chose Episode 2 because I it’s my favorite.