|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
2 - 8 May 2002
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Passion sharedThe suffering of the Palestinians, the Passion of Christ: both receive homage in Alexandria, writes Amina Elbendary
Judging from Palm Sunday, the celebration of Easter is likely to be subdued in the Arab world this year, arriving in the midst of a war that has also involved holy sites, including the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. And in the much garbled discourse of "The Palestinian Question" the fact that Jesus Christ was a Palestinian, in one definition of the term or another, is deliberately ignored. It is too sensitive a point to be made often, or in too outspoken a tone.
Orthodox Christians will be honouring Christ's Passion this weekend. But what about the human suffering taking place in his hometown? Shouldn't that too be recognised?
And, as is often the case, the surprising link came, quietly, from the Jesuit Cultural Centre in Alexandria, venue of a week of activities under the title Darb Al-Alam, Darb Filastin: Usbu' Al-Alam Ala Khuta Al-Masih... Ala Khuta Kull Filastini (Via Dolorosa, A Palestinian Path: The Week of Passion in Christ's Footsteps... In the Footsteps of Every Palestinian).
The centre usually marks Easter with a break from cultural activities and total dedication to religious services. This year things are different. It is the essence of human suffering, more than anything else, that has prompted Brother Fayez Saad, director of the Jesuit Cultural Centre, to think of a novel way to mark this Easter.
"One would not like to force religious overtones on the issue. But there is an element of human suffering, a similarity in human experience, that is worth recognising and shedding light on," he explains. "We thought of linking the experience of Christ's passion to that of man's experience in general and the Palestinian experience in particular, without the religious colouring. The two experiences have similarities, but they are not parallel. I am against the historical analogy that argues "Jews killed Christ" and so on... it is the human question that is most important, it is the experience of humanity living through injustice that needs highlighting."
Starting Monday and ending tomorrow, Good Friday, the programme includes activities hastily brought together under the circumstances and intended to highlight the link Brother Fayez had in mind. At the entrance the visitor is greeted with reproductions of drawings by the late Palestinian Nagi El-Ali, making a decidedly Palestinian -- and hence political -- statement. Books on Palestine have been culled from the centre's library and put on display.
The centre's staff have also devised a creative way to bring to Alexandria the pioneering exhibition held at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre in Ramallah: 100 Shaheed, 100 Lives. The exhibition honours a symbolic number, 100, of the Palestinians who have fallen since the outbreak of the Intifada in September 2000. In an effort to humanise those martyrs, the exhibition gives each a name and a face by displaying a personal photograph, a favourite object that belonged to him or her, along with a short paragraph introducing the person.
Twenty-five of the photographs, alongside personal belongings, have been scanned on CD and were screened on the Passion week's opening night, while the accompanying entries from the exhibition's catalogue were read out.
Two evenings of poetry were included in the programme with members of the centre's staff reading selections from the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish and Samih Al-Qassem.
The most striking component of the programme however, are probably the films screened throughout the week. In reference to the religious element of the week (this is, after all, the Jesuit Cultural Centre) came the Canadian production Jesus of Montreal, which won a prize at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival and which depicts a theatre company's attempts to reenact Christ's passion only to have its lead actor killed in the end -- a sharp critique of modern society. The better known Jesus of Nazareth, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, was screened in four parts after the days following the sequence of the events of Christ's life. Other films shown during the week include the documentary Israeli film Izkor, which criticises the Israeli educational system which, it argues, perpetuates a sense of persecution across generations of Israelis.
Of particular interest were three short films by the young Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman: Al-Hilm Al-Arabi (The Arab Dream), Takrim Bil- Qatl (Homage by Assassination) and Cyber Palestine. The three -- as far as this reviewer is aware -- have not previously been screened in Egypt. They are ideally suited to the idea of the Passion week. Suleiman's films are replete with biblical references, direct and indirect. All seem intended for an English speaking audience with much of the limited dialogue in English.
The profound sense of alienation and abandonment that is the Palestinian predicament, of being suspended between various levels of existence (like Christ?) is at the heart of the three films, particularly so in Homage by Assassination, full of textual references, biblical and otherwise. In The Arab Dream the narrator/filmmaker tells us: "I don't have a homeland to say I live in exile... I live in postmortem... daily life, daily death."
"I miss myself," he tells us as he goes through a daily existence that parodies normal life.
We watch a virtual computer game in which tanks fire at figures in Arab robes and carrying rifles. The "Arabs" keep shouting "Kill the Jews," only to fall like flies before the tanks. "You don't even live once," we read on the screen.
And,"Lord forgive them, for they know what they do," we read across the screen at another point.
In Homage by Assassination the camera spies on the protagonist/filmmaker, often from the safe distance of another room. He never utters a word. Instead he is "waiting;" he makes a life out of killing time. In the background is a perpetually ticking clock. There is hardly any direct contact with the outside world. The film begins with an American TV anchor trying to get through to Elia Suleiman to interview him live; the call never gets through. A friend calls and we hear his almost hysterical message through the answering machine. The friend tells him a joke: "In the afterlife the Palestinians come up, the angels object to God's sending them to hell and they object to His sending them to heaven. 'Build them a refugee camp,' He orders."
The narrator puts a bunch of roses on the photocopier and faxes the image to his girlfriend who also replies by fax. In her letter she explains the identity crises that face Arab Jews; she is of Iraqi descent herself. She longs for Baghdad: ironically, for a Jew, she feels her identity repressed in Israel. While we hear the letter narrated we also see images of Arab Jews leaving for Palestine, and they seem too similar to Palestinian refugees. In the background are pages from an English-Arabic dictionary: "terror, terrorism, territoriality" are all on one page.
But he is waiting. And the clocks, one adjusted to Nazareth and the other to New York time, keep ticking.
In one scene he stands in his kitchen before the stove waiting for water to boil. It does. It spills over. He just stares at it.
He sits at his computer typing phrases, proverbs and quotes: "Holy Land," "Promised Land," "Occupied Land" we read off his computer screen.
The final scene shows the filmmaker in the studio, editing his film. On all the screens is a Palestinian flag and the sound is adjusted to a continuous beep. And then "coming soon" are scenes from Story of Jesus, with Jesus pronouncing "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," and then cut to footage from the Intifada, of youth actually throwing stones at Israeli occupying forces... And in the background we hear the song "Wa Ghab Nahar Akhar" (Another Day Has Gone By).
The human similarities between the Christian experience and that of the Palestinians that Brother Fayez is anxious about are quite palpable in both The Arab Dream and Homage by Assassination. Equally full of biblical references, though with perhaps a different message, Cyber Palestine depicts a couple named Mary and Joseph. It begins with Joseph staring at his computer screen typing "cyber palestine" on an Internet search engine, only to get a page with the image of ancient colonnades and the message "under construction" underneath.
Pregnant Mary is in labour and the couple hurry to the hospital. They quickly pack a bag and Mary gets an old key out of a wooden box, obviously a key to her family's home, lost in some Arab-Israeli war, 1948, or even, perhaps, 1967. Obstacles are in their way; the car doesn't start, they take a motorcycle and then spend all day trying to get through the checkpoint. The film is silent.
What little narration there is via sub-titles: "Joseph! Take Mary back to Bethlehem where she will give birth." "Now our world is a good place. Rejoice... Exile is no longer." When they finally make it through the endless line at the checkpoint, at midnight, the young Israeli officer looks through their papers and checks them insolently. "Ah, so you are Mary?" flashes across the screen, and then, "And who's the father of the child?" at which point Joseph slaps the soldier across the face, a row ensues in which Joseph is heavily beaten by officers, the old key falls on the ground. These beating shots are rapidly interchanged with ones from the Intifada of Palestinians throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. Next we see Mary at the laptop, she too searches for "cyber palestine," clicks the Home key and takes out the old key from the wooden box. This time the "under construction" message does not appear. Next she is on the motorcycle with a scared look on her face, a child in her arms, riding along the highway.
Produced in 2000 this film, though ending on an ambiguous note, still had some hope -- there was a child and a road leading perhaps to a constructed, real, not virtual, Palestine.
What will Elia Suleiman's next film be like?
This week's programme at the Jesuit Cultural Centre of Alexandria ends on Friday, when Christ was crucified.
Will the Palestinians rise this Easter? Will they overcome?
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