An evening at the splendidly refurbished Cinema Renaissance in Avenue Mohamed V, to see Nabil Ayouch’s new documentary, My Land. As anyone who has not slept like Rip Van Winkle for the last few months knows, it is a film exploring the attachment to the same land, in northern Israel, of the Palestinians who were driven out in 1948 and the Jews who settled by force after 1948. Ayouch is unusually well placed to make this exploration, with a Tunisian Jewish mother and a Moroccan Muslim father – as a child, he says, he was known as le fils de juive – and he has a clear empathy with all those he interviews.
The film has aroused spurious outrage in Morocco; but the only people who could really take against such a sensitive exploration are those who believe that simply talking to Israelis is a bad thing – an attitude that echoes with balefully accuracy the decapitated history which My Land is all about. In that sense My Land is a film about closed minds wherever they are to be found, and of course the blindness to history that blurs and elides the history of a shared land is also, in a different way, Moroccan. I thought, as I listened to old Palestinians talking of good Jewish neighbours and friendly relationships in pre-Zionist days, of similar conversations in Morocco; and of an extraordinary exhibition of photographs, a couple of years back, at London’s Jewish Museum. The photographs of Jewish life in the Atlas in the 1950s were poignant and revelatory, both unimaginably distant and very close at the same time; and it reduced my Muslim Moroccan companion to silence, and then to moist eyes.
Ayouch’s film is a series of interviews with elderly Palestinian refugees in Ain Helwa and other camps in southern Lebanon, intercut with more interviews with younger Israelis who have taken their places in the white-stone hilltop farms and villages close to the border. They speak of the past in very different ways, and I was left with a sense of two quite separate histories which don’t touch each other, or cross, or interact. Two entirely encapsulated worlds seem to exist in remarkable ignorance of each other, history captive in each, struggling to get out like a moth behind glass.
For the Palestinians in the claustrophobic lanes and rookeries of Ain Helwa, time has stood still. One old man after another told how he can still see in his mind’s eye each stone of his house, each fig tree, each turn in the road; and they all expressed a terrible yearning to return before they die, and see their home one last time. There is a feeling of suspended animation, a rugged refusal to move on – because memory is all that is left, and all that gives meaning to the empty existence of the camps where, as one put it, “even when you whisper, your neighbour can hear every word.”
The young Israelis don’t want to remember. Their sense of history is attenuated and unexamined. They seem to have accepted conventional, and generally pretty dubious, accounts of 1948. They don’t reflect on the pre-1948 past, but begin their account of the land they love with the War of Independence, and a backward glance to the horrors of Europe. Were they selected to give this impression of Israel? Asked afterwards, Ayouch said No – that he had found this ahistoricism to be very generally the case amongst Israelis he interviewed. Each of them agreed to watch on screen some of the Palestinian interviews from Lebanon; each reacted differently, but with visible emotion at what appeared a revelation. It seemed, watching many of them, that they had made their peace with themselves by not knowing, by leaving the book of the past closed, by not asking themselves difficult questions.
How could it be otherwise? To have any kind of human sensitivity and to live comfortably with the utter loss, or the complete gain, of land that both Palestinians and Israelis described as a ‘paradise,’ requires careful story-telling and the avoidance of candour. I thought, as I watched, of an extraordinary novel by China Mièville, called The City and the City, a finely imagined fable of two cities occupying the same physical space but quite different moral universes. The cities overlay and interpenetrate, they are dimly and sometimes clearly visible, one from the other, but the people of each is carefully self-trained not to notice the people of the other. All live in cities that have areas exclusively theirs, but others, ‘crosshatched,’ where they must avoid eye-contact with the Others, refrain from any kind of acknowledgement and move briskly along. The novel is about the penetration and breakdown of this invisible barrier.
A year or so ago in Marrakech I heard the Palestinian artist Steve Sabella describe the way an Israeli looks at a Palestinian as ‘the Dead See,’ the same look that the denizens of Mièville’s two cities keep for each other. The glance that makes no eye-contact, the noting of physical presence that slides glibly across the person. That is what it seems to me the two parties in the film did, and what the Israelis began – just a little – not to do. But there isn’t a ‘solution’ to this awful dichotomy, at least not a practical, political one. Solutions – as Ayouch implies – lie at a personal level, within each person who is affected by these events, and they are about acceptance, honesty, self-awareness and an admission that encapsulated, self-referential histories are not histories at all, but justificatory myths, rationales for not thinking about fellow human beings with whom one has complex relationships of violence, loss, seizure and triumph.
A rather wonderful little book called Histoire de l’autre, published in 2003 by the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East lays alongside each other, unglossed, parallel Israeli and Palestinian narratives of the turning-points of Israeli/Palestinian history since 1917, from the Balfour Declaration to the Intifada. The epigraph, by Liana Levi, reads in part as follows:
Deux récits des memes événements sont ici déroulés en parallèle. Deux récits dissonants car les vérités de l’un ne sont pas celles de l’autre. Accepter de les rapprocher c’est déjà faire un pas vers le dialogue et donner, dans le chaos actuel, une extraordinaire preuve de tolérance …