Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 January 2005
Issue No. 725
Culture
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

To begin at the beginning

Already, before its Cairo premiere next Wednesday, Bab Al-Shams (The Gate of the Sun), Yousry Nasrallah's magic realist retelling of the story of Palestinians, has generated a hubbub in the cultural sphere. Amina Elbendary talks to the director after reading the book and sneaking a coveted preview, while Mohamed El-Assyouti, fresh from a press screening, explores the theory behind this brand of history making

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Top: Nahila (Reem Turki) and Younis (Orwan Nyrabieh) at the cave of Bab Al-Shams, magical encounters that take place against the odds, investing the first part of the film with unsuspected romance; above: the exodus of the Ein Al-Zaytun villagers; right: Nasrallah with the French actress Béatrice Dalle, who plays Catherine

In the beginning there was a novel -- a good thick novel. Elias Khoury's Bab Al-Shams came out in 1998 to all kinds of acclaim. And Yousry Nasrallah, filmmaker and friend of Khoury's, loved it. An ambitious book, Bab Al-Shams left Nasrallah wishing he could shoot some of the situations Khoury conceived. It offered a very human account of Palestinians, but one that was panoramic in its scope, packed with narratives and counter-narratives, various perspectives on the same reality, yet with a level-headed focus on a handful of very recognisably human lives.

And though good novels often make bad films -- the mistake filmmakers make with a good novel, Nasrallah tells me on a rainy evening in his warm Zamalek home, is that "they kneel, they bow; they are crushed by it" -- for him it was a matter of living Bab Al-Shams, integrating it into "one's sensual makeup". And he was not about to be crushed. But who would produce a film about Palestine? Not foreigners, he thought. Yet only the French satellite channel ARTE thought to propose a family saga on Palestinians in January 2001, as part of a larger project that included the Balkans and Algeria as well. And Nasrallah, wary at first, finally agreed on condition that it be an adaptation of Bab Al-Shams and that Khoury collaborate on the script.

One striking feature of the novel is its play on the Alf Layla structure. Like the formative text, Bab Al-Shams has a frame story told by the protagonist Khalil (Bassel Khayatt), out of which dozens of stories and characters emerge. And like Sheherazade, Khalil narrates for his older friend Younis (Orwan Nyrabieh), a father figure who lies dying in his hospital bed, in order to preserve life.

It is the men who narrate in Bab Al-Shams: Khalil starts off by retelling Younis's life to him, then Younis tells, then Khalil tells his own life. And what is told is the story of Palestine simultaneously lived and imagined; retelling is a form of rewriting history based on the real enough material of oral and written histories compiled over decades. The Alf Layla effect is something Nasrallah tried to keep in the script, he tells me, as he collaborated with Khoury and Lebanese filmmaker Mohamed Soueid, both friends since he lived in Beirut in 1978. Conceived as a film in two parts -- The Departure and The Return -- it incorporates the two frame stories of the novel: Younis's and Khalil's.

Interdependent, the two parts were nonetheless conceived as separate. And Nasrallah passionately recounts how he opposed cutting part two to focus on the 1930s and 1940s. That it be told from the point of view of the present, the point of view of someone like Khalil (or Nasrallah) who never experienced Palestine first hand but through the prism of the refugee camps in Lebanon and to the backdrop of the Lebanese Civil War, was essential to the story.

"Besides, you cannot tell a story unless you have a story of your own, right? What is your relationship with the founding narrative? How does one see one self and one's history as an individual?" The story of Khalil and Shams legitmises the story of Younis and Nahila.

Part I: The Departure -- or the Exodus -- revolves around Younis and his marriage to Nahila (Reem Turki), whom he leaves behind to join the resistance, returning periodically to meet her, in secret, at the cave of Bab Al-Shams. It is a narrative about the genesis of the Palestinian predicament, incorporating those narratives of the 1948 Nakbah that Arabs accept while at the same time questioning them and offering a distinct point of view, that of Palestinian peasants. Younis, his parents (Hiam Abbas and Mohtasseb Aref), Nahila, Om Hassan the midwife (Nadira Omran), their relatives and neighbours are all peasants; they are individuals on their own, abandoned in the face of overwhelming power. References to notables are scant; political leaders appear merely as portraits on the walls of security offices. One dominant Israeli narrative that resurfaces in Arab circles holds that Palestinians sold their land or were encouraged to do so by Arab leaders. And the beauty of Bab Al-Shams is how it circumvents this argument, for it is not about landowners but peasants who choose life over death. They have no refuge, no support. While the novel makes some room for the landowners the film mentions them only in passing. The Arab Army appears briefly, only to expose and ridicule itself. In a beautiful, idyllic scene, the families of Ein Al-Zaytun are collecting the olive harvest when suddenly the Israeli armed forces appear, forcing them to flee for their lives.

Yet the film is all too conscious of such idyllic constructions. As we see in young Younis's relations with his parents, all was not perfect before the Nakbah. Discrimination against women is discussed in reference to girls' access to education, a right Nahila strives for. A passing reference is made to the landowner's illicit, abusive relationship with Nahila's mother and her sisters. At school when the teacher asks the children, "What is our country?" they consistently reply, "Ein Al-Zaytun" -- unable to imagine a nation beyond. Even in its idyllic scenes, the film questions that blissful founding myth.

"But it does so without cynicism," Nasrallah insists. "Though we know it can only taste like water," he goes on, the film allows for empathy with Om Hassan stating that the water in her old village home tastes like honey. The exodus scenes are real even as they remain epical: families caught between burnt out homes and unforgiving neighbours. Nasrallah was keen not to use documentary footage, or footage that could metamorphose into documentary, he says: every scene should include his characters; for the film is about individuals, not nameless peasants. Palestinians may disagree with the way the exodus was depicted, he says, but he hopes that such contention will empower the Diaspora to reveal narratives shrouded in shame. Similarly, in his attempt to relive Younis's life, Khalil strives to recapture an image of the father he lost as a child, searching for his own genesis -- his individual history. He is obsessed by the drive to bring his father to life (or keep Younis alive) by narration.

But is Younis's story -- the story of that generation of Palestinians -- one of love or struggle? Echoing the novel, the film makes room for both versions: a magical tale of lovers meeting at the cave, recounted by Khalil, and a realistic one of fighting -- brief glimpses of which are allowed in the film -- told by Om Hassan; both agree that, every time he is defeated, Younis stamps and announces Minel awwal (From the beginning); both the struggle and the narrative start over. It is in the second part of the film that Khalil's own story emerges: his search for his mother, from whom he was separated as a child, in Amman; and his problematic love affair with Shams (Hala Omran), who turns out to be in love with another man whom she kills for refusing to marry her, only to be lured into the camp of his family and brutally murdered herself.

Shot to the music of Tamer Karawan, with the Egyptian singer Zein performing the lyrics of Al-Akhtar Al-Saghir, the murder scene is as epical as the exodus of part one. Only at the end does Khalil let go of Younis.

Nasrallah questions the notion of the hero through both parts -- something that the casting of the chubby Orwa Nyrabieh in the role of Younis reflects. Equally subversive is the fact that narration is undertaken by men, the heroism left to women like Nahila and Shams, who struggle to live as they imagine life should be, in defiance of convention and reality. And they come out on top, somehow: Nahila and the parents end up living in Palestine, where she gives birth to and brings up half a dozen children, while Younis and many young militants become refugees in Lebanon. Shams could be seen as a whore, but she too heroically rebels against an abusive husband and dies refusing to be abandoned. Khalil too could be seen as a cuckold, but there is more to his love for Shams. In an axial scene he is being questioned by an interrogator (Bassem Samra) about his role in the murder of Shams's other lover, and humiliating details of his life are brought up to suggest incrimination. But he too, improbably, refuses to be crushed. As Nasrallah puts it, he becomes an individual who can love and therefore also return: "This is not about victims."

For Nasrallah concedes that, yes, he does identify with Khalil. Like him, he knew Palestine via Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s; and the whole second part of the film, without which the first part loses its force, is his generation's take on the Nakbah. The filmmaker has an axe to grind vis-à-vis Younis's generation too; whether to political leaders or famous filmmakers of the 1950s, the relation, he says, is "ambivalent". The film is thus equally a statement about the ability of the filmmakers' generation to champion its own form of heroism, "by telling the story, owning our history and our memory" -- heroism as narration. Reflecting this dynamic, the two parts of the film, though formally connected to each other, remain in sharp contrast, both in the kind of narrative they put forth and in cinematic style -- "they complete and clash with each other". Many Arab viewers prefer the first part, Nasrallah remarks: they find it comforting, easy somehow -- "it caresses them" -- whereas the second part is rough, modern, shocking -- more like Nasrallah.

One positive aspect of the film is how fleshed out it is in human terms -- Nasrallah's "most sensual" film to date, according to his own testimony, in which fascination with the human body finds expression away from any Arab context including the "super mediocre" discourse of Egyptian cinema, in a kind of cinematic counterpoint to Bab Al-Shams. This liberation from inhibition -- the ability to shoot a 20-minute close up of a monologue of one actress, for example -- was aided by a cast of courageous actors. "I never did that before because I was simply too scared," he says, but now that he has done it, he doubts he will be able to hold back in the future. "It would be difficult to accept half said things again, having tasted freedom. I can't keep my self respect if I compromise on that."

The release is likely to disorient, to shock -- there is something very raw about the film. Both parts open colourfully, in brightly lit surroundings, with Younis and Khalil peeling, and ravishing, oranges; Om Hassan has brought back a fruit-laden branch from the orchard of her old house in Palestine: Palestine is there to be eaten, not revered like an icon on the wall. One's national history should be part of one's body, one's physical sense of self. The sensuality is helped further by Nahed Nasrallah's simple but brilliant costumes and Adel El- Maghrabi's sets. In one carnivalesque scene the peasants return to their abandoned village to find their clothes piled up, sorted by colour; they throw them orgiastically into the air, choosing what they will -- their collective property. At this moment roles are reversed and boundaries come down. The clothes are a throwback to idyll: where they were part of everyday life before becoming "folkloric" as they are now. In the exodus scenes the actors are literally dressed in rags, emphasising the calamity that faced the characters. All is beautifully wrapped up in Karawan's music.

Shot in Syria and Lebanon with a multi- Arab cast and crew -- from Syria (Hala Omran, Orwa Nyrabieh, Bassel Khayyatt), Tunisia (Reem Turki), Lebanon (Hanan Haj Ali) and Egypt (Bassem Samra and Maher Essam) as well as the Palestinians Nadira Omran, Mohtasseb Aref and Hiam Abbas, who coached all the actors in the Palestinian dialect -- the film is an affirmative pan- Arab gesture. Although Nasrallah tried to cast more Palestinians, many living under occupation and with Israeli passports would not have been allowed on location.

Part two also features French actress Beatrice Dalle in the role of the French actress Catherine, who visits the refugee camps in the course of the action. Nasrallah wanted a total misfit -- "an alien in high heels", a "super-star" -- no leftist sympathiser with the Palestinian cause, if only to drive home the irony of one telling scene in which Catherine is more understanding of Khalil's predicament than a Lebanese bartender who rejects everything Palestinian. By letting Khalil use her mobile phone to call his mother, Catherine unknowingly drives the narrative to its conclusion, bringing the search that dominates part two to a close. But not until he has a hallucinatory dream in which both Nahila and Shams appear as a single ghostly figure does Khalil stop narrating and let Younis die. Nasrallah explains how it was necessary to rework parts of the novel to arrive at this end. It is as if the two women work together to free both men of their bond, releasing them and effecting a long-in-the- coming culmination.

Its Cairo release scheduled for this week, the two-part film promises to be a classic of Arab and international cinema. Perhaps unintentionally, Bab Al-Shams is a collective Arab project about the Palestinian predicament at a time when the Palestinian cause -- long the focus of Arab discourse -- is being stripped of its Arab dimension and its grand meta-historical significance. Yet Nasrallah downplays the enormity of the project. It was hard work, he concedes, but there was a lot of magic and fun. "It was not as overwhelming or overpowering as it seems," he tells me, very matter-of- fact. Bab Al-Shams proves it possible to produce an ambitious, delicate film with the budget of a well-funded commercial Egyptian feature. This is all the more significant in that it coincides with developments in the Palestinian and Arab art scene that place more emphasis on the individual, his relation to history and to a larger context that threatens to crush him -- themes that preoccupied Nasrallah in his previous films, from Sariqat Sayfiya (Summer Thefts) to Subian wa Banat (On Boys, Girls and the Veil) to Al-Madina (The City). The transformation of Palestinians from the object of a grand narrative to individual subjects is the culmination of a project begun by Palestinian filmmakers like Elia Suleiman, Nizar Hassan and Tawfiq Abu Wael, Nasrallah suggests. "They were the ones who did that," he insists, "which is why we can now talk about Palestinians not from the perspective of a qadiya (cause) . "

Improbably yet convincingly, the film ends on an optimistic note. Khalil, child of the camps, now freed from the yoke of his father, decides to return. He just walks back. Nahila leaves a letter with instructions to her grandsons to seal off the cave of Bab Al- Shams. It is a space that has been reclaimed, sacred ground that has not been violated by occupation, a space of love, magic and fertility. Likewise the film: a space for memory that Khoury and Nasrallah have opened up for contemporary generations -- Palestinians and Arabs alike; a space waiting to be reclaimed and re-narrated -- from the beginning.

For the love of resistance

One relatively easy way to label Bab Al-Shams is to describe it as an audiovisual account of the Palestinian struggle from 1943 to 1994. The film begins on the eve of the Oslo Accords, with Younis, an old fedayi, in a coma, and Khalil, his adopted son, reminding him of the former's life story while he nurses him, thus setting off an engaging string of narratives that speak of resistance and love.

Based on an eponymous novel by Elias Koury (the script was produced by filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah in collaboration with Khoury and Mohamed Soueid), the 278-minute-long feature is not so readily defined. Such an interpretation, indeed, would be reductive, for it overlooks, among many other things, an essential aspect of the endeavour: Nasrallah's insistence, shared by his protagonist Khalil, that neither description nor metaphor is an adequate way to tell the tale at hand. "Description is forgetfulness," Khalil declaims, "and I don't want to forget." Nasrallah resorts instead to non-chronological narration: he fragments the temporal unity of the "history" he deals with, groping for as immediate an experience of its human dimension as possible. Such a strategy may also be necessary given the enormous magnitude of the subject, reflected in the film's unusual length.

Yet Nasrallah still employs temporal frameworks, if only to suggest structure, or rather to reflect the inner scheme of the work's conception: a disproportionate, fecund duality. The first episode is formally framed in the period 1943-48, the year of the Nakbah; the second spans the Lebanese Civil War and extends all the way to Oslo. There is in the progression a kind of schism, a two-sided wrangle in which present and past engage in dynamic dialectics -- something reflected in, though perhaps secondary to, the two love stories the film sets out to tell.

The first of these concerns Younis and Nahila, whose connection with the homeland is still earthy and organic: they revel as much in local food and drink as in their own libido -- to which their offspring testify -- embodying a collective myth of counter-occupation idyll, where life in the homeland was as yet still possible despite persecution and injustice. The second, between Khalil and Shams, seems doomed precisely because of its remoteness from the homeland. Yet following Shams's murder and Younis's death, when Khalil is visited by a phantasmagoric messenger, a hybrid version of both Nahila and Shams, the viewer feels that the umbilical chord connecting the young man to his people has not been severed by distance; his return to the homeland is as natural, as effortlessly meaningful, as the flow of a stream or the growth of an olive grove. Such is the human will to dream, Nasrallah seems to be saying, to imagine a better future, that nothing stands in its way.

But such is not a collective will, not in any straightforward way. A character in the film remarks that, while Palestine is the cause of all Arabs, no Arab wants to deal with Palestinians. Nasrallah attempts to address this failure by presenting individual characters, circumventing both official and media positions on the cause. In a Cahiers du cinema review, Mia Hansen-Lve describes how Nasrallah, much like Khoury in the novel, manages to place himself on the borderline of collective and individual narratives; the characters, she says, represent not Palestine but their personal destinies. This is integral to any understanding of what Nasrallah set out to achieve: he speaks of individuals.

In opposition to the kind of sensational cinema epitomised in the pseudo-documentary style of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993), moreover, Bab Al-Shams questions the veracity of even documentary footage -- even though the second part of the film, "The Return", opens with a scene shot with a hand-held video camera operated by Om Hassan's nephew, who is filming her 1983 visit to her former house in Galilee, thus setting the magic realism of the first part in relief -- a space moulded by the will of the allegedly impartial journalist if not the subjectively motivated filmmaker. In a more graphic duplication of atrocities, the shock value would have detracted from the memory of tragedy. And in this sense Nasrallah's film belongs in the tradition of Alain Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), in which the closest one gets to understanding the calamity is sharing a personal memory of it.

It as much out of artistic preference as budget shortages that Nasrallah forgoes mimetic dramatisation in favour of story telling -- a strategy that proves successful in that Khalil's accounts ring a truer note. The film focusses on the twists and turns of the characters' lives, with the rest of Palestine furnishing an undifferentiated backdrop -- a quality reinforced visually by the use of selective focus.

Yet despite Nasrallah's aversion to symbolism, his tale of Palestinians often assumes mythological proportions of Biblical import. Palestinians are like early Christians fleeing from Roman wrath, dwelling in caves, preserving their sense of identity against all odds. Nahila is an androgynous adolescent, 12 years old, a virgin for the first five years of her marriage to Younis; abruptly she turns into a kind of Jean D'Arc urging her people to return to their land, drive away the invaders, cease what is rightfully theirs; finally she becomes a matriarch challenging the Israeli authorities. She is both Mary Magdalene and the Virgin, a remarkably earthbound embodiment of Palestinian female energy in all its forms. Yet here again it is individual women who play out the story.

According to Khoury, who spent seven years interviewing refugees, men like Younis lack an effective organ of love while the whole of the woman's body constitutes such an organ. Women, he believes, hold the repositories of memory, with Nahila and Shams -- the one bearing children, the other leaving behind a widower -- acting as incarnations of Sheherazade and challenging patriarchal power by confronting Younis and Khalil with their inability to get the story straight. The notion is found in pre- Islamic poetry: Imru' Al-Qais comparing the beloved's breast to a mirror in which to see the world. As Shams points out in criticising the autoerotic connotations of making love in the mirror, the male version of the story is always solipsistic; the female, by contrast, is organic and fecund. Intercutting two versions of Nahila reading her last letter -- in one she addresses Younis, in the other she looks straight at the camera lens -- Nasrallah plays out this difference, stressing duality further.

Yet there exists another cue for disentangling the complex fabric of the narrative. Khalil, the film's narrator, is like Telemachus, unravelling his way through a web of oral tradition, and asking, in effect, whether Younis, a comatose Odysseus, is really a hero or a reactionary patriarch disguised as a freedom fighter. And Younis's exotic encounters with Nahila (the Penelope of this arrangement), after he fled the homeland and she stayed on, were they real or imagined? How could displaced villagers find enough food to survive? Perhaps the whole point of the film is to divest any answers to these questions of relevance.

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