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.


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.

Peace, My Friend – Shalom Sahbity

19 03 2009


At the All Angel’s Church, on the Upper West side of Manhattan, two girls from a Middle Eastern background gave a moving and mesmerizing performance about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Shalom Sahbity (or Peace, My Friend) is a theatrical performance with only two actresses: Israeli-American Simnia Singer-Sayada and Egyptian-American Catherine Hanna. The two girls had first met in a class at New York University while doing their Master’s degrees in Educational Theater. Gradually, they became best friends with a common goal. In this performance they bring almost all the problems we have in this conflict, from frustrations to violence to experiences,  and finally to finding that simple common ground.

They wore black sweat-pants. Simnia had put on a light blue sleeveless tank top and Catherine wore the same one but in red. With their curly hair and slender bodies, they looked more alike than you’d expect. They danced, moved with grace, talked, argued and laughed. They handled themes like violence, immigration, culture and even food. It is refreshing to see them perform together and come together despite what we’re told to believe from childhood.

Some of my favorite quotes were those that Simnia uttered while Catherine acted.

“When it comes to war,” Simnia said, “we’re not talking about people, we’re not seen as people.”

As Catherine flipped through newspaper pages and said with frustration that Gaza had been under siege, Simnia said, “It’s like they were looking for who had the right to kill.”

 “The violence ,” she said, “is being played in my and my family’s name.”

This performance takes you on an emotional ride. From light to serious to light again. At the optional workshop that the girls held after the performance, we worked together to create something similar to Shalom Sahbity, with movement, sounds and storytelling.

I said this there and I say this now, you would be surprised at how well people can tell your story if only you let them. In so many times, people can tell your story better than you can, even if they come from the “opposite” background. So share your stories and experiences and believe that people can always understand you if you give them the benefit of the doubt.

Catherine & Simnia

NYU-Tel Aviv, Partnership Protest

9 03 2009

In a spacious room at the Kimmel Center for student activities at New York University, a panel was held to discuss the perils of a partnership between NYU and Tel Aviv University (TAU). The lecture was titled, “NYU-Tel Aviv University: A Partnership in Occupation,” responding to a new study-abroad program in Israel. Three panelists sat at a rectangular table at one end of the room. Two of them were NYU professors: Elias Khouri from the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Department, and Andrew Ross from the Social and Cultural Analysis Department. The third panelist was a young Israeli man, called Nir Harel, representing “Anarchists against the Wall,” a group in Israel that campaigns against the constructed wall and house demolitions, among other policies. Harel was touring the U.S. to fundraise for the organization as they face debt and financial problems. The panel was moderated by a member of Students for Justice in Palestine.

The turnout was quite impressive, filling a large number of the chairs set up. Most of those who came seemed to belong to the view that this partnership is truly one in occupation, as evident during the Q&A later. Professor Ross discussed TAU’s violations of academic freedom, using correspondences with his colleague professors at the university who have said that the university doesn’t tolerate those who disagree with Israeli policies, making it difficult for them to find jobs and get tenured. Professor Khouri argued that Israel is an occupational force regardless of what other names it may be called.

Despite some organizational and technical problems, emotions were running high in the room, as the Middle East topic normally does. There wasn’t much diversity in opinions in this panel. I suppose it wasn’t its intent to do so. Many things were said, far too complicated for a simple blog entry. I was, however, drawn to a couple of questions asked by a small group of Jewish students clustered together at the end of the room. One female student asked professor Khouri what he thought of terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah. That naturally provoked some chaos. “According to who? Israel?” jumped in another female student in the audience. “According to facts,” the first one said, at which point the audience voiced more disapproval, even sarcastic laughter. Another Jewish student whom I had seen an hour earlier at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life, directed a question to Professor Ross. It went along these lines, “I’m wondering if your views about NYU-Tel Aviv are strong enough to make you resign if this partnership takes place, or are you just a liar and a hypocrite?” I emphasize here that I’ve modified the original version.

A liar and a hypocrite? Break… Huh? There is no doubt that it takes much courage to ask any combative question among a Palestine-supporting audience. Calling a professor a liar and a hypocrite, however, wasn’t the smartest argument tool. If anything, that Jewish student gave Professor Ross the biggest favor, proving Jewish and Israeli intolerance to dissent in opinion, not to mention making the other Tel Aviv supporters look intolerant as well. In this student’s opinion, it seems, you either agree with Israeli policies or you’re a liar and hypocrite. If you can’t argue about these policies in New York, then forget about it in Tel Aviv.

I admit my discomfort about the one-sidedness of opinion the panel portrayed. I wanted to ask about the advantages of such a partnership. Nothing can be completely negative. I belong to the opinion that encourages any effort that might, in some way, create better understanding among the sides of this conflict. If we are to cut all ties with all universities in locations that violate human rights, then why do we have an NYU study-abroad program in Shanghai? Better yet, why are we building a whole other campus in Abu Dhabi with its problematic labor laws, women’s laws and a bunch of others? If we delve into this slightly more, then we shouldn’t send students to Cairo either, given Egypt’s violations of academic and social freedoms. I agree that this wasn’t the purpose of this panel, but these are points to consider.

I have no doubt that going to NYU-Tel Aviv has its disadvantages. If a student wants learn about this particular conflict in the Middle East, as the brochures and ads mention, going to Jerusalem would be a far better idea. At least you’d be exposed to some Palestinians and Arabs here and there, instead of mainly Jews and Israelis. But, again, I’m up for any idea that makes us understand each other slightly better. Going to Israel might open our minds a little more, even if it’s a tiny little bit more. Those who are rational and truly interested in the conflict won’t rely on one side to hone their views anyway. Right?

What is Israel Apartheid Week?

5 03 2009


This week marks what many call “Israel Apartheid Week,” a seven-day global campaign around university campuses and other areas, organized for Palestine and “Palestinian solidarity.” This is the fifth year of the program, and it seems to be gaining a lot of momentum among youth. This year, more than 40 cities are participating in this campaign around the world, up from only 25 last year. What do people do during this week? They attend lectures and panels, go to art performances and watch documentary screenings about Palestine. The big message here, if you haven’t gotten it already, is comparing Israeli policies toward Palestinians to those British apartheid policies towards South Africans. Around the New York University area, Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) is quite loud and aggressive, if not plain old angry.

Despite my years in New York, this is the first time I hear of this campaign (you can blame my past nonchalance). The first thing I did when I heard about IAW was to search for the word “apartheid” in my old-fashioned, yet dirt-less, Webster’s dictionary. Here is what I found: “Apartheid” is an Afrikaans word that got integrated into English. It means separateness in its original language. Today it is used to describe the official policy of racial segregation that was practiced in South Africa between 1950 and 1991. It stretches out to mean any policy of racial segregation forced by the oppressor on the oppressed.

I thought it was odd, at first, to bring such deep South African experience to this conflict. After Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip this past January, however, it seems that more people find a resemblance between the Palestinian situation and that of South Africa during the British days.

Jewish and Israeli students and organizations have launched a counter campaign against Israel Apartheid Week. There were many events at New York University. The Cantor Film Center, for example, screened the documentary “The Case for Israel: Democracy’s Outpost,” based on Harvard University professor, Alan Dershowitz’s, bestseller book. The David Project, an organization for Jewish leadership with a center in New York, posted a response to the IAW on its website, instructing Jewish youth on how to refute the claims against Israel in a smart and civilized manner.

Not all of the David Project’s ideas are convincing and truthful, just as some of Israel Apartheid Week’s claims are hot-headed and aggressive. All this week has accomplished, it seems, is radicalization; pulling further away from moderation and towards extremes. The pro-Palestine folks begin to point the fingers again, and the pro-Israel folks begin to defend their country across the board. In some of the events on campus, anger at Israel was very apparent. In many ways, this Israel Apartheid Week takes us backwards instead of moving forward. As a young Rabbi told me during a casual chat, you can’t have an Israel Apartheid Week and still want dialogue. What if Jews and Israelis began a “Palestinian Terrorism Week”? Or “Suicide Bomber Who Kills Civilians Week”? How would Palestine supporters think and react to that?

You must understand here that I’m not taking sides. The IAW has done a great job in telling the Palestinian part of the story, educating people about the people’s struggle. But the story is so very complicated, and education comes best when it’s in an environment of tolerance and understanding, not hostility and blame. Being inclined to one side than the other is natural, if not encouraged, but the problem is when you get blinded and can only see one side.

This year is shaping to become one of further seperation and dispute among youth in the conflict, away from moderation. We need to continue to resist that easy temptation.

An Orthodox Reading of a Torah Passage

20 02 2009

In a small hall on the second floor of The Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University, a casual lecture was held by Rabbi Hayyim Angel, the rabbi for Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan, New York. The talk was about certain passages in the Torah pertaining to biblical wars. Rabbi Angel wanted to challenge the student audience about the meaning and reasoning behind these texts. This is an especially important topic in today’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The first passage introduced was from Devarim (or Deuteronomy), the fifth of the five books of the Torah, commanding the annihilation of the Canaanite tribes and their likes when the Jews came to the holy land. It is a loaded passage. It lays out the code of conduct in wars with the enemies. To towns and nations in general, you first offer peace, if they don’t surrender to your monotheistic ethics; you fight them and kill all their men. You can take their women, children and livestock for your benefits. With the Canaanites and the specified others, you will kill everyone so they don’t lead you astray from the rule of God. Here is the text in full:

Devarim 20:10-18

“When you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace. If it responds peaceably and lets you in, all the people present there shall serve you at forced labor. If it does not surrender to you, but would join battle with you, you shall lay siege to it; and when the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, the livestock, and everything in the town –all its spoils –and enjoy the use of the spoil of your enemy, which the LORD your God gives you.

    Thus you shall deal with all towns that lie very far from you, towns that do not belong to nations hereabout. In the towns of the latter peoples, however, which the LORD you God is giving you as a heritage, you shall not let a soul remain alive. No, you must proscribe them –the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites –as the LORD your God has commanded you, lest they lead you into doing all the abhorrent things that they have done for their gods and you stand guilty before the LORD your God.”


A Jewish student, wearing a black kippah, asked the Rabbi if this command is applicable to Jews today. His concern was in the ethical problem with this text, wiping out an entire people, with no exception to children, women and elderly, and no religious tolerance. The Rabbi responded that it isn’t applicable, seeing that there are no Canaanites today, and expressing his own discomfort with the text from a human perspective. (He later introduced another text from Devarim 7:1-5 and 2:24-30 that challenge this first text)

In the Quran, there are certain verses that imply or indicate an action similar to this, such as the enslavement of the fallen enemy’s women (Jariya is the Arabic term for a slave woman) and the issuance of tax obligations to non-Muslims (also known as Jizya in Arabic) indicating much intolerance. From my learning, those who do not accept the rule of Islam will be fought until defeated. One of the ideas of the Islamic Jihad is particularly based on that; defeat those who will lead you astray.

I have had many arguments with a Muslim friend about this topic, the wisdom, or lack-of, in these verses. Interpretations vary, of course. There are texts in the Torah and the Quran that contradict each other. But the similarity across the three main religions when it comes to war and survival remains strong. These laws, if you call them so, provoke ethical and moral questions that we should be asking.

Although the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has more than just a religious aspect to it today (e.g. political, economical and plain old human arrogance), its religious portion remains significant. If we are to build the future of tomorrow, this issue must always be on our minds.

Israeli Consul General at New York University

17 02 2009

On Monday February 9, 2009, the Israeli Consul General in New York, Asaf Shariv, paid a visit to New York University, in an event organized by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) of NYU.  There had been a big fuss about the outcome of the Israeli elections this year, with close competition between Kadima, led by Tzipi Livni, and the Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu. Shariv had come to give his opinion.


The majority of the 40-some audience at the King Juan Carlos Center was young, between 18 and 30 years old. After half an hour to 45 minutes, the floor was opened for questions from the audience. A young female NYU student, and a member of the AJC, stood up to ask the Consul General about what she sees as indifferent Israeli youth towards politics in Israel, especially compared to the recent mobilization of many young Americans for the latest Presidential Elections.


I found this question particularly surprising. My perception has always been that Israelis are very much involved in politics. During Operation Cast Lead, the recent military action led by the Israeli Defense Force on Hamas in the Gaza strip, I read many comments on Israeli newspapers online posted by Israelis and Jews. Even on the English version of Al Jazeera website, many of the readers’ comments came from Israelis and Jews, all around the world, admirably voicing their opinions and views. There is no doubt in my mind that the majority of these commentators are young. On the website YouTube, videos of demonstrations in Israel for and against the war on Gaza showed large numbers of youth who were not the least bit indifferent. Among my Israeli acquaintances and friends, politics has always been a topic of conversation.  


The Consul General’s response was, “We don’t have a Barack Obama.” His more important point, however, was that some people are fed up with politics in general. Many young people in Israel, he said, are more concerned about selling their internet start-up companies than politics. The bottom line was, people are moving on.


An Israeli friend once told me that Tel Aviv is sometimes referred to as “the bubble,” with people tanning on its sandy beaches as the Lebanon War was in mid-heat in 2006. Hamas and Hezbollah rockets rarely have the parabola or the speed to reach many parts of Israel. I thought about this as I heard this lady’s question. I suppose people can get detached in some parts of the country. “Out of sight, out of mind.”


I wondered if this could be the case for some Palestinian youth. My gut feeling tells me it’s not, but that is another topic of discussion.