‘Crossing the border’
An Israeli Director reflects upon her recent visit to the international Film Festival in Cairo
By Sigalit Banai
Publishel in "Haaretz" November 21,2003
The author is a film director and teaches film at Tel Aviv University.
The Israeli Academic Center in Cairo. It is the fourth day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. From the wide window, you can see the Nile at night; people strolling on the bridge; the luxurious hotels; brightly lit boats, loaded with passengers dancing to Arabic pop songs; while inside, the darkness is pierced by the voice of Faiza Rushdi. A Jewish songstress from Cairo who became Israel’s queen of Arabic music. And here she is, singing in black-and-white archive footage. She is watching herself on the television screen in a senior citizens’ home in Or Yehuda, the same television screen on which she saw the movie a month before she passed away. She never went back to Cairo and today I have returned her, her voice, to the sources of its wellspring.
The lights come up and I am standing before an Egyptian audience – journalists, and foreign students. I thank them for their having come to see my film, “Mama Faiza.” I answer their questions, talk about the Arab component in Israeli culture, about my need to reinforce my ties with that component. I am excited that the audience also includes recent Egyptian friends with whom I became acquainted over the past few days during the Cairo International Film Festival, although this is an ISRAELI academic center and although security personnel recorded their names at the entrance.
In the evening, back at the living-room in my pension, over a cup of tea with milk, I review the listings of the films that will be screened the next day. I mark the films from Arab countries that one can never hope to see in Israel. Egyptian television is broadcasting a classic Egyptian film. Even before the film’s title is shown, the night guard and the young man who brought me my tea exclaim\» “It’s ‘Arla Min Hayaati’¨‘You Are Dearer to Me Than Life Itself’). Az A-Din Do-Alfakar is the director.”
They recount for me the entire plot of this marvellous female melodrama. This is so Egyptian: In this country, every hotel employee knows the name of the director of a movie made in the 1940s and anyone you stop in the street can recite for you by heart whole classical poems sung by Um Kalthoum.
The next morning I go to the Ataba marketplace. I buy a black blouse, an elegant pair of slacks and high heels. I gather my hair, looking in the mirror. When people see me, where do they think I am from? Do they take me for a Westerner? Or an Arab? The saleswomen are curious: “Beirut? Beirut? Gazair (Algeria)?” Blushing, I reply, “Sort of.” My Palestinian Arabic gives away the fact that I am neither Egyptian nor North African. My accent shows that Arabic is not my mother tongue. “But you are from here,” people always tell me. “You look like you’re from here.” And that’s true. I am from here. Where am I from? No specific country of origin. Ethnically I am a total mix. Iraq, Yemen, Russia, a few generations in the Holy Land on both my mother’s and father’s side. “But, regardless, you’re a sharkiya (Easterner).” Yes, that is true. I am from the Middle East. The spicy look in the eyes, the body language, my knowledge of the regional language. Yes, I definitely am from here.
I hurry off to the Cairo Opera House for the film festival. One of the world’s ten largest international film festivals. In the same category as Cannes and Venice. In this huge, sophisticated complex of sand-colored super-modern Islamic architecture, I feel almost at home. Nevertheless, I am a foreigner. I take a seat, sitting by myself among the – mainly local – members of the audience, for this screening for journalists of the Syrian film “Whatever the Listeners Ask For.”
The film begins with Israel Air Force jets circling above a small village in a mountainous landscape. The audience sighs in empathy. Only a few days earlier Sharon ordered the shelling of an area not far from Damascus. Two days ago, Egyptians marked the Sixth of October, the anniversary of the 1973 War, which, this year, coincides with Yom Kippur on the Hebrew calendar. Thus, the film immediately becomes identified with recent events, and I crunch up in my seat. I do not want to be identified with these Israeli aircraft, I do not want to be identified as an Israeli, I do not want to identify.
The cinematography is fabulous, and the characters are like the ones you meet in an Italian movie. A universal village whose residents are addicted to a radio program that asks listeners to choose the Arabic songs they want to hear. The mute village idiot gets inside a barrel, which begins to roll down a green slope. The camera turns in a breathtaking display of cinematic poetry. A young girl who is very much in love has tied her hair with a string to a tree and is awaiting the return of her beloved from the army. He returns, gently pulls on the string, shouts out his love in the night. Something about the sweet love for humanity in this film reminds me of the movies of a popular Syrian comedian who is also a favorite among Israeli devotees of Arab films – Doraid Laham, or, as he is often called, Rawar. In one of his films, “The Border,” he finds himself between two countries. He builds a home in the middle of nowhere in an area that has no boundaries.
Despite his love, the young man is forced to leave the village and return to the army. The Israeli planes shell the area. His bleeding body falls over the anti-aircraft gun he has been operating. The villagers carry his coffin, draped with the Syrian flag. His body is lowered into the grave, his beloved weeps. Only the voice of Fairuz, the Lebanese princess of Arabic music, is heard in the background. I know that song by heart, I admire this singer. I soundlessly sing the words along with the rest of the audience. In front of me, beside me, people are crying openly, and I cry along with them, although not for precisely the same reasons. Or perhaps for those same reasons, I don’t know.
The director, Abdel Latif Abdel Hamid, ascends the stage, but, instead of a question-and-answer session, people go up one by one to the microphone. They thank him with tears in their voice: “You have restored our faith in Arab cinema. In Arab identity. You have spoken to all of us, to our hearts.”
I do not get up from my seat. I wait for the screening of the next film. “The Olive Harvest,” by Hanna Elias. A film I saw twice in the editing room. Hanna, a native of the village of Jish in the Galilee, who, after spending several years in San Francisco, returned to direct this film, a love story about two Palestinian brothers who compete for the heart of a young woman. And here is Hanna, poor Hanna. The audience ruthlessly rips him to shreds. “Is this how you portray Palestinians? This is a folklore film. Is this the important message you want to convey today? A sweet little love story?” An Egyptian woman in Western attire raises her hand, proclaiming emotionally, “This isn’t the way Palestinian women look. I’m an Arab woman. Perhaps it’s OK for American women to see your film and think that this is the way we look.” The members of the audience wonder who was the American who funded this movie and why Israeli names appear in the credits. Hanna explains, trying to defend himself. Suddenly he sees me in the audience. He is surprised, nods his head in greeting. For a moment, I get the feeling he wants to say something to me in front of this audience. I reject the idea, with a nod of my head.
During intermission, I try to organize my thoughts and impressions in the opera house’s coffee shop. I have a conversation with some friends, colleagues in the film industry. Some of them have studied in Europe and are familiar with Israeli cinema, especially the director Amos Gitai. One of them even has a copy of Gitai’s “Kippur.” “Kippur,” of all things. We talk about the difference between festival films and popular movies and about whether festival films perhaps offer an exotic picture of a given culture, a picture intended for foreign eyes, for the members of a different culture.
I am reminded of a bus trip I made to the Bahariya Oasis. The bus is very crowded. The passengers are mainly fellahin, peasant farmers. On the screen at the front of the bus a film is being shown. Indian. The passengers are hypnotized. Action, love, songs. dances. It reminds me of a scene from a favorite film of mine: “Ahlam Hind Wakamilia” ¨“The Dreams of Hind and Kamilia”© – a sort of Egyptian “Thelma & Louise.” Hind and Kamilia are running away from men and life, and seek the shelter of the movie theater. Together they cry over a melodramatic Indian movie. Maybe what the Egyptians call an “Indian movie” is equivalent to what Israelis call an “Arab movie.”
And here the Cairo film festival has made a special gesture to India’s popular movie industry, Bollywood. A third-world country’s film industry with an illustrious history is showing its respect for a sister-industry. I think about Israeli filmgoers, not the critics, and not the devotees of film festivals. No, I am thinking about those people who grew up on Indian and Egyptian movies.
I decide to escape the festival for a while to catch a popular film at a local movie theater: “Elly Baly Balak” ¨“What’s on Your Mind Is Also on Mine”) playing at the Rivoli. The movie stars comedian Mouhamed Saad. His first hit was Egypt’s box-office blockbuster of recent years, “Al-Lemby.” A completely off-the-wall comic figure, Al-Lemby is a stuttering down-to-earth person who manages to pull the wool over everybody’s eyes and to extricate himself from every mess by virtue of his naïve stupidity.
The Rivoli is a reminder of the golden age of Egypt’s film industry: wide staircases on either side of the entrance, chandeliers, mirrors and decorations whose glory has rusted. This movie house returns me to my childhood: Giant auditorium, large screen, the excitement before the movie begins. This is perhaps the most subversive film I saw in Egypt. In what pretends to be a wild-eyed comedy, that crazy fellow Al-Lemby returns. This time he is the inmate in a prison where the guards are corrupt officers who work hand in glove with the underworld and where the prisoners are the “sha’ab” – the common people. In the wake of a traffic accident, Al-Lemby’s brain is transplanted into the corrupt warden’s body. This turn of events supplies an entire chain of comic situations. Only when the prisoner in the warden’s body realizes he has the power to change everything, he declares war on the corruption inside the prison. What connects Al-Lemby to the prisoners, to himself, to the people, is an old, devout prisoner who takes him to a traditional Egyptian wedding. On his way to the prison where he will initiate the dramatic change, he passes a mosque where he hears the declaration, “Allah hu akhbar!”¨“God is mighty!”). He then reaches the prison and shouts “Iftakh al zinzana!” ¨“Open the prison door!”
I read the film as an allegory of the situation of the Egyptian people who feel that those very same officers who freed them have turned into a corrupt, oppressive social class. The alternative to the ideas of the revolution that failed is a return to Islam, to roots, to Egyptianness.
Beside me is a couple that has managed to find refuge in the darkness. A young girl with a black veil and black gloves leans against her boyfriend, a young man in jeans and a T-shirt. She hugs him, hits him, and they both laugh at scenes in the movie. In a country where the law prohibits kissing in public, the movie theater has reassumed an historic role: A shelter for lovers.
I return to the bustling city street. Nearly every woman I see is wearing a head-covering (hijab). The nation is protesting through the hijab. In a country that has shifted from colonial cinematic dreams of actresses in revealing European dresses to the disillusionment with the ideal of “Egypt for the Egyptians” – the slogan of the days of Nasser’s vision – perhaps this is a return to a clearer Arab identity.
I proceed to the conference of female directors from the Arab world. One of the themes of the Cairo film festival is “Arab women directors.” Eight female directors whose movies are being screened at the festival are seated on the stage. With great excitement, I look at them and the phrase “sisters” comes to mind. Am I as well a woman film director from the Middle East? None of these women covers her head with a hijab. On the other hand, the heads of most of the women in the audience are covered. Actresses and women directors approach the microphone and ask questions with a high tone of excitement in their voice. I would also like to approach the microphone. But I do not express my “voice.” I only listen.
In the opera house, I see a Lebanese film “Taiarat Warek (“The Kites”) by a female director, Randa Thahal Sabbag. A young girl and a small boy are flying a kite close to the border fence. Every Arab viewer would immediately associate this scene with one of Fairuz’ songs, “Tiri Ya Taiara Tiri” ¨“Fly, Kite, Fly”). The film is suffused with Fairuz’ voice, although she herself does not sing in it. Her son, Ziad Rahbani, composed the music and also has a role in the film. Ziad Rahbani is a Bohemian, a Communist, a gifted musician and the creator of radio skits featuring a sleepy-eyed character who continually uses puns. In this film, Ziad plays, of all things, an Israeli soldier. The audience utters an audible “hmm” of pleasure every time he appears on the screen. I simply do not understand. The audience was not prepared to accept Hanna Elias but here – I have never before seen an Israeli depicted so sympathetically in an Arab film.
The narrative takes place on the border with Israel, at the Gate of Shouting, which I remember from the period of my military service. Signs in Hebrew, uniforms of Israeli soldiers. A polished, breath-taking piece of direction in a Lebanese co-production with France. The marriage of a young Druse woman from Lebanon with her Israeli cousin. When she crosses the border in a wedding gown, you hear on the soundtrack a woman singing to the accompaniment of a guitar. Once again I am crying profusely over this beautiful film, over the moment that the border has been crossed, over myself.
When she meets her cousin, she brazenly states: “Ma bikhibak. Bahib thani (I don’t love you; I love someone else.” And that “someone else” is an Israeli Druse soldier stationed atop the tower. the film’s story is told from his viewpoint. “The clothes the Jews wear are funny,” she tells him. “Not Jews. Israelis,” he corrects her in Arabic.
I think to myself, beyond my tears: “This film must be screened in Israel, it must be screened in Israel.”
I close my eyes and imagine that I as well, like the young girl in the film, am crossing the border, that I feel that I belong on both sides of the fence, that there is no fence, that there are no borders.