Robert Fisk: Why can't a Palestinian woman tell her own story?

Share
Related Topics

Ypres and Palestine, the Jewish Holocaust and Iraqi Kurdistan.

Spot the connection? As a schoolboy, Belgian author Erwin Mortier and his friends would play in the fields near his home on the old First World War Western Front. One day, Erwin and his best chum heaved from the earth two helmets, one with a bullet hole through the steel, the other undamaged. And they argued over which had the more value: the one which belonged to a soldier clearly shot by a sniper or the one owned by a soldier who might have survived the trenches of the Ypres salient.

Mortier, who has just published Divine Sleep, a novel about the Great War, spoke at Ypres not long ago about the way in which that terrible 1914-1918 conflict might be remembered now that its participants are all dead. With a photographer, he had visited current refugees in Belgium, almost all of whom, it turned out, were victims of the colonial rearrangements which the victorious European powers had agreed at Versailles in 1919, a year after the war ended.

There was a woman called Doris from Burundi, whose brother, nephews and nieces, aunts and uncles and many friends had been massacred. She was, ultimately, a victim of the Great War. Her land had once been part of the German colony of Ruanda-Urundi, ceded to a Belgian mandate after the Great War, whose colonisers reinforced the territories' original ethnic divisions. And then there was Amin, a 17-year-old from Iraqi Kurdistan whose father was torn to shreds by a landmine in the mountains close to the Turkish border, a victim, too, of the Great War's victors who originally promised the Kurds a homeland and then divided their lands between Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran.

Mortier also met Lisa Appignanesi, the British writer of Polish-Jewish origin who gave him some of the best advice I have ever heard. Appignanesi's mother, during the Second World War, managed to save herself and her husband from Nazi persecution through a complex play of identities. Her mother, she said, had been "a queen of deception", her parents striking a balance between remembering and forgetting. "Sometimes they would come across sensitive parts, whereupon they had to retreat and nurse their wounds. My mother's stories were so confusing to me because her 'negotiations' with the past essentially amounted to her not wanting to see herself as a victim... Her narrative was one of triumph." Thus, Appignanesi explained to Mortier, "Memory always takes the form of a negotiating table."

By chance, I read the text of Mortier's short but eloquent speech this week, a day before watching Julian Schnabel's new movie Miral, a feature film which follows the life of Rula Jebreal, a real-life Palestinian-Israeli woman who became a journalist, author and television presenter. Schnabel, who is Jewish, lives with Jebreal in New York. Their movie begins and ends with the death of Hind Husseini, a remarkable and courageous Palestinian woman who found orphans from the Jewish massacre of Arab villagers at Deir Yassin in 1948 and started a boarding school for girls that still exists in Jerusalem. Husseini died in 1994, but Rula was one of her pupils. Her childhood – losing her mother, choosing to be a well-educated woman, sucked into the intifada, arrested and brutalised by the Israelis – is the story of Miral.

It is not, frankly, the best Palestinian film – Paradise Now, the gloomy-cynical story of two Palestinian suicide bombers setting off on their mission dressed as funeral guests, remains the most potent symbol of mental and physical loss – and it got panned even by The Independent's critics. Not without reason. Its screenplay bumps at times – "Everything will be all right in the end" (said twice in the same scene, for God's sake) is one of the clunkiest, overused lines in cinema history, and there's a weird double-speak in which the same characters talk to each other alternatively in English, Arabic and Hebrew (an attempt, I fear, to "widen" the audience). Then there's the collage of archive footage inserted into the drama, black-and-white images jarring with picture-perfect cinema sequences. I like the idea, but not the art: cinema cameras produce a different kind of reality to old, scratched newsreels, a "negotiating table" that somehow doesn't work.

And yet... Israel's so-called "friends" in America and Britain also panned the film, primarily for two scenes. In the first, Rula is beaten into unconsciousness by an Israeli woman torturer. In the second, an Israeli bulldozer demolishes a Palestinian home. Crocodile tears on the floor, please. The Israelis have indulged in torture of both men and women for years – dozens of Amnesty International reports bear witness to this – and I have personally heard the screams of the tortured at what was Israel's proxy jail at Khiam in southern Lebanon. I have witnessed countless home destructions by Israeli troops in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Indeed, a day after I watched Miral, an al-Jazeera news broadcast showed real scenes of Israeli house evictions and bulldozing far more dramatic than the movie.

But that's not the point. The film has been abused as (of course) "anti-Semitic", the same old slander that's been spat at me for more than half my life. The real problem, of course, is that Palestinian cinema is slowly coming of age, and Israel's supposed "friends" want to stop it in its tracks. The sin of Miral is that it exists. The plight of a young Arab woman – ultimately another victim of the Great War (ergo, the Balfour declaration) – should not be told. All manner of spurious movies about Israel – including the awful Exodus – can be made and loved. I once watched a Hollywood film in which Israeli troops rushed to the Sabra and Chatila camps in 1982 to save the lives of Palestinians being massacred; in reality, the Israelis sent the murderers into the camps, watched while they slaughtered the innocent – and did nothing. I was there.

So I called Rula Jebreal in New York from my home in Beirut and told her frankly what I thought of Miral. But we both agreed that the real reason for the political/racial attacks on her movie was its existence. "Why can't a Palestinian woman tell her own story?" she asked. And she is absolutely right, even if only one cinema in New York is showing the movie. My advice to her was twofold: never apologise if you've done nothing wrong, and never, never, never, never, never give up. Thank you, Churchill!

It's that "negotiating table" again. Mortier ended his speech at Ypres with a disturbing, accurate thought. "The dead will be forgotten sooner or later, but who knows it might make a difference if by remembering them, we lose them properly... However profound the silence may be in and around the war cemeteries, we should not conclude too readily the dead are resting in peace at last." And so for Ypres, Auschwitz, Burundi, Kurdistan, Palestine...

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month  

General Election 2015: Politics is the messy art of compromise, unpopular as it may be

David Blunkett
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

Vote Tory and you’re voting for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer

Mark Steel
General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'