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Two blushing pilgrims: A Palestinian love story

'Omar' is Hany Abu-Assad's latest contribution to the rich and effervescent Palestinian cinema.

Last updated: 28 Feb 2014 05:33
Hamid Dabashi

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
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A still from Hany Abu-Assad's latest film "Omar" [AP]

Can Palestinian filmmakers afford telling a love story, in the midst of their historic trauma of dispossession and national liberation, without appearing to belittle or compromise the historic fate of their people? 

Hany Abu-Assad has built a towering career as a Palestinian filmmaker by trying to do precisely that: Young Palestinians falling in love, sharing their innocent dreams, while struggling to liberate their homeland.     

In "Rana's Wedding" (2002), "Ford Transit" (2002), and finally in "Paradise Now" (2005) he has tried with varying degrees of success to navigate a critical path between the personal and the political, the creative and the critical, the courageous and the foolish, the amorous and the brutish. The result has dwelled on his uncanny ability to map out the moral tapestry of blossoming innocence that is so entrenched in the overriding conditions of a national liberation movement that it scarcely allows for a smidgeon of reality. Hany Abu-Assad's singular contribution to the rich and effervescent Palestinian cinema is precisely this luscious topography of human feelings punctuated by a defiant struggle.  

Other Palestinian filmmakers like Najwa Najjar in her "Pomegranates and Myrrh" (2008) or Michel Khleifi in his film "Zindeeq" (2009) have also tried to navigate this same critical path. Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman is a breed apart. In films like "Divine Intervention" (2002) or "The Time that Remains" (2009), Suleiman has managed to craft a filmic language in which everything he does  - at one and the same time -  is so personal that makes the political drop its guard and do as he says. The result is a kind of cinematic thinking transmuting into an allegorical language that dismantles reality as we see it.

Master craftsman

In his most recent work, "Omar" (2013), Hany Abu-Assad has so finely perfected his cinema that we can now look back at his oeuvre and see the confident hands of a master craftsman looking for and finding the timber of a Palestinian life too tightly held in the embrace of its political fate. As he did in "Paradise Now", he manages, with a gentle and confident hand, to squeeze out a personal story - Palestinians falling in love - from the greater cause of the Palestinian struggle for liberation. 

How can Palestinians fall in love, you may wonder, when they are so busy trying to liberate their homeland? They liberate their homeland precisely by falling in love, liberating their arrested bodies in manners no Zionist occupation can imprison behind any apartheid wall.

How can Palestinians fall in love, you may wonder, when they are so busy trying to liberate their homeland? They liberate their homeland precisely by falling in love, liberating their arrested bodies in manners no Zionist occupation can imprison behind any apartheid wall.

 

Central to "Omar" is the love story between Omar (Adam Bakri) and Nadia (Leem Lubany), while he and two of his friends, Tarek (Eyad Hourani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat) are plotting to ambush an Israeli army post. They manage to do what they had plotted with their limited means, consequently, the Israeli security forces are now doggedly after them.

They capture Omar, and now the torturous zigzag between the personal and the political begins. Omar and Nadia are in love and want to marry, but Omar needs to muster the courage to ask for her hand. He hesitates because first he has to prove himself worthy of the woman he loves by proving himself worthy of the Palestinian national liberation cause.

Omar has to endure the indignity of being suspected of treason and in that struggle he begins to lose Nadia's trust, and unknowingly he becomes the final cause of their doomed love. The plot is simple, compelling, real, palpable. 

At the end, Omar's predicament is to witness the loss of the woman he loves, and a suicidal task he has to perform to prove himself a man worthy of the love of a woman he has already lost to a treachery of a more immediate and common sort - one of a personal and not political character.  

I once asked a leading Palestinian filmmaker how far one could push with the personal follies of being simply human, while carrying the unbearable weight of being a "Palestinian filmmaker". Her response was personally courageous but politically compromising. It is a fine line that no artist should ever be asked to observe. 

The existential terror that you have to prove yourself worthy of a national liberation cause every single day of your life while under occupation is best captured in a central visual trope of "Omar" when we see the protagonist climb the apartheid wall Israelis have built around Palestinians with a rope to drop himself from the other side to go to meet the woman he loves. At a critical moment of the film, when he thinks he has lost the love of that woman, he can no longer climb that wall and collapses in desperation and despair.    

Cinematic courage

Palestinians have sacrificed much and endured even more and resisted beyond any measure of heroism. But the cinematic courage and imagination, and the directorial elegance and poise with which Hany Abu-Assad has made "Omar" opens a whole new chapter in that heroic saga.

He is deftly teaching his people that the follies of being human - vulnerable, tempted, fragile, furious, and ruptured - are the very sacrifices his people have made to hold on to their homeland. This deeply moving and empowering tale does not compromise the Palestinian cause - it further ennobles it.   

Palestinian cinema is the extraordinary artistic component of the Palestinian struggle for liberation, without having yielded the authorial audacity of the filmmaker to any political parameter.

"Omar", when all is said and done, is a love story between two star-crossed lovers. Imagine a love affair in which she constantly has to prove to her people that the man she loves is worthy of that love because he is a Palestinian hero, and that he has to prove himself on the same unenviable pedestal he is worthy of that dignity.

 Tensions are high, and so are the stakes, and thus messages are bound to crisscross, feelings misinterpreted, the budding flower of an innocent and beautiful love choked at its very inception by the grand narratives of history, when even a precious, innocent first kiss becomes the sign of a metahistorical account of what it means to be a Palestinian. 

Years ago, when Hany Abu-Assad was on location scouting in Nablus for his "Paradise Now", I was with him as he walked the nooks and crannies of a bazaar labyrinth where a central sequence would be shot. (For an account of my trip to Nablus on this occasion see here). 

As a filmmaker, his command of the exterior shots are perhaps the most compelling indication of using his homeland for the main visual register in most of his films. The same applies in "Omar", in a number of chase scenes which he has masterfully shot and edited, as Omar runs away from Israeli security forces. Omar is at home in those alleys and backyards - pulling behind him not just the sore thumbs of the security forces and Hany Abu-Assad's camera, but a whole world now sitting to watch a Palestinian show his home and habitat and tell the story of a woman he loves. 

In a piece on Aljazeera America when the film was about to be released in the United States, the writer asks the critical question: "What is a Palestinian film?" After decades of teaching, archiving and writing on Palestinian cinema, I have called the mode of cinematic force operative in this extraordinary artistic adventure "traumatic realism", faced with a crisis of mimesis, when the Palestinian filmmaker faces the challenge of representing the un-representable.

Each Palestinian filmmaker comes with a different cinematic vocabulary in trying to address that question. But the question ultimately is too critical to be left to some political or bureaucratic decision by the Academy of Motion Pictures in Hollywood to decide. Palestinian cinema is the extraordinary artistic component of the Palestinian struggle for liberation, without having yielded the authorial audacity of the filmmaker to any political parameter.

As I have always said, the day that Palestinians will finally gain their homeland they will see a rich and ennobling cinema is already there waiting for them. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and the founder of Dreams of a Nation:  A Palestinian film Project based at Columbia University and the editor of Dreams of a Nation:  On Palestinian Cinema (Verso, 2007).  

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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