Elia Suleiman’s cinema as the premonition of the Arab revolutions

Exploring the emotive universe from which the Arab Spring finally blossomed.

Elia Suleiman's is the cinema of the suspension of belief [GALLO/GETTY]

New York, NY – What if Bashar al-Assad does not fall and all these heroic Syrian sacrifices are for naught? What if Omar Suleiman becomes the next Egyptian president – or any other former aides to President Hosni Mubarak come back to power? What if “the Islamists” take over Tunisia, or Egypt, or succeed in Syria? Is Ali Abdullah Saleh really deposed? Maybe he is still running Yemen from behind the scene? What about Bahrain – why is scarcely anyone talking about the brutal repression of the Arab Spring in that tiny island, the home of the US Fifth Fleet? Aren’t the Saudis and the Gulf states in cahoots with the US, the Europeans and the Israelis to repress these revolutions where they can or else hijack them where possible? There are reports that prominent Bahraini activists, such as Nabeel Rajab, are barred from entering Egypt by security forces for fear of collaboration between regional revolutionaries. 

Has “the Arab Spring” turned into a winter – already? Did the counter-revolutionary forces – the Saudis, the US, the Russians, the Islamic Republic, Israel, the remaining Arab potentates – turn the tide and kidnap the people’s revolution? There are folks on the left who think so, already, and there are people on the right who are doing their damnedest to make sure that it is indeed the case. 

There are many discouraging signs – only if we cling to a linear conception of history, of reason, of progress and if we measure the events we witness in tandem with that invisible line – Ben Ali fell, then Mubarak, then Gaddafi, then Ali Abdollah Saleh, and now Syria is in trouble. So, one after the other – and if this linear order were not to be followed, or followed on the model of a total revolution that will, tomorrow morning, result in free and democratic socialist republics – from one end of the Arab world to another – then, for sure, the counter-revolutionaries have turned the tide, succeeded and revolutions are lost.

But Arabs – like all other people – have been dreaming of these revolts for a long time, and like all other dreams, their interpreters have been the Arab dreamers themselves – their visionary artists, poets, critical thinkers, philosophers and filmmakers. 

Dreams are not dreamt on a linear trajectory – nor should their interpretations be drawn along such lines. 

Dreams of many nations

About a decade ago, I helped organise a major Palestinian film festival at Columbia University in New York, where I teach. Soon after that festival in January 2003, we took our festival to five major cities in occupied Palestine; and about a year later, I went for a tour of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria, showing Palestinian films to Palestinians in rather difficult (nearly impossible) circumstances. Based on a number of essays I had solicited from colleagues on Palestinian cinema on these occasions, I subsequently edited and published a volume, Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema (2006). For this volume, I had written an essay on the leading Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman, at the conclusion of which I had said: “Tomorrow, when Palestine is free: Elia Suleiman is already there.” This was in 2006, half a decade before the blossoming of the Arab Spring. 

Palestine is not free – yet. But the Arab world has awoken to a spring of democratic will, a Palestinian-style intifada, you might say, beyond our available words and beyond the horizons of our limited imagination. We must go back, for creative and critical sustenance, to our poets, artists, dramatists and filmmakers for them to help us to come to terms with what it is we are witnessing – for they were there dreaming for us, when we all thought history had forsaken us. 

More than a year into the unfolding of Arab revolutions, and when counter-revolutionary forces have steadfastly gathered force, we must refer back to those enabling dreamers to learn how to read these revolutions, endure the treacherous road ahead and navigate beyond the temporary setbacks and hurdles.

In a previous piece for Al Jazeera, I offered a particularly poignant sequence in Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention (2002) as generous and rich fertile ground to imagine the creative disposition of the Arab Spring. But there is more, much more, that needs to be rediscovered in the oeuvre of the ingenious Palestinian filmmaker. 

Central to Elia Suleiman’s joyous and defiant cinema is an endearing character we only know as ES, played by Elia Suleiman himself. ES is autobiographical to Elia Suleiman, and yet he is an entirely flatbedded, autonomous narrator of solid and surreal events in the no-mans-land that is occupied Palestine. Chief among the iconoclastic features of ES is that he never talks. He just looks. He occasionally may gesture to talk. But he never speaks. Strange man, he is. We have known him for quite some time – from Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996), to Divine Intervention (2002), to The Time That Remains (2009). We have thus grown accustomed to his strange appearance and quiet disposition.

Odd with his habitat, and yet, strangely he is at home. He is neither dumb nor does he suffer from any other kind of speech impediment, to the best of our knowledge – for we have no way of knowing. He just never talks, or at least on those occasions that he appears on the screen he never finds a reason, a need, an occasion, and an urge, to speak. He goes through the most harrowing daily experiences of Palestinians in their occupied homeland, and yet he just watches them in total silence and never as much as utters a word. He just looks. It may sound annoying to you, as I describe it.  But if you were to see him on the screen, he is perfectly natural. He just has nothing to say. He is a hole, a void, an absence, a vacancy, a subtraction, a negation, a nullity. Very strange – very strangely he makes sense: in Palestine, now standing for the world that all Arabs and all Muslims inhabit, a world frozen at all the moments of its incredulities. Those moments never gel – Elia Suleiman’s time is the un-time of our being-in-defiance, permanently, open-endedly.   

Dreams are nonlinear

In many respects, ES’ silent witnessing of atrocities he faces is reminiscent of the legendary Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali’s (1938-1987) creation Handala. Handala too is a silent witness. His back turned to the world, to us, to those watching what he is watching, Handala fixes his gaze on the event: an Israeli bulldozer uprooting a Palestinian olive tree, an Israeli tank rolling into a Palestinian village, corrupt Arab potentates gathering for yet another useless summit. Handala (also known as Hanzala) occasionally joins in action. He is a fighter. He picks up a stone and joins the intifada. Handala survived after the death of his creator Naji al-Ali, who was assassinated in London in the summer of 1987. To this day, you will see Handala adorning the walls of Palestinian refugee camps, asking the residents to keep the camps clean, while cursing the corrupt Arab leaders. When we screened Rashid Masharawi’s Tazkirat illa al-Qods [“Passport to Jerusalem”] (2002) at Baddawi refugee camp in northern Lebanon, we projected the film onto a rooftop wall, on which Handala was painted, proclaiming for the wall and for the whole world to know: “al-Qods lana [“Jerusalem is ours”]” 

What Elia Suleiman does with ES is to be more than just a witness to criminal atrocities. Naji al-Ali’s Handala is a trope for witnessing, for testimony and for recording a history that the conquerors want forgotten, hidden, denied. ES’ task is different. ES forces the magnetic field of Elia Suleiman’s cinema towards a terra incognita where not just politics but above all, ethics are suspended, time folded and narrative reversed. Pure form here takes over and leads towards a silent site of the real, stripped of all metaphysical claims to reality, right where the ground zero of time and being reveal themselves. In such hallmarks of his ingenious cinema as Divine Intervention (2002) and The Time that Remains (2009), Suleiman maps out a world that is unreal in its reality, palpable in its irreality. 

As a Palestinian filmmaker, born and raised inside his occupied homeland, Elia Suleiman is the manifest denial of not just politics as usual, but, in fact, the very terms of the history that is thereby denied any ethical foregrounding. For more than half a century, Palestinians have been systematically abused, disposed of, beaten, tortured, maimed, murdered, their homes blown up, farms destroyed, lands stolen, their very existence denied – and the world has stood by and, by and large, sided with their brute conquerors. For Palestinians, that has been far more than a mere political predicament, a national trauma, or a historical catastrophe (Nakba) – it has been a moral suspension of belief, a state of being on the ground zero of history, where their lives are yet to begin. Palestine and Palestinians are the tabula rasa [“blank slate”] of Arab history, of all history. With Palestinians, we experience the force field of being beyond the politics of despair, in the midst of the dream of a better world, yet to come, yet to start.

The formal destruction of linear narratives

For Palestinians at the receiving end of one of the gravest injustices in human history, the calamity they have faced as a people, as a nation, has eventually become a matter of the defiant suspension of normativity, morality, normality. What morality? How can ethics and morality have any place in the face of a barefaced banality that steals other people’s homeland, murders its inhabitants, ethnically “cleans” their country and then denies their very existence. “Palestinians do not exist”, one of their colonisers once said. Palestinians are “invented people”, another said recently. The cinema of Elia Suleiman elevates the fact and phenomena of bearing witness in defiance of that barbaric cruelty to an entirely different register. Through an act of cinematic genius, it pulls the very metaphysical rug – upon which stands humanity at large – from under its feet. You become airborne, suspended, in Elia Suleiman’s cinema. 

No Saudi patriarch, no Israeli warlord, no US general – and certainly no IMF or World Bank economist – can rob a people of that history of their revolutions writ large.

Elia Suleiman’s cinema is the ground zero of the emotive universe from which the Arab Spring has finally blossomed. What we have been witnessing in Elia Suleiman’s cinema, somewhat unbeknown to ourselves, is the systematic dismantling and joyous defiance – not just of the politics of despair from which corrupt potentates such as Hosni Mubarak or Ben Ali have arisen, but of the landscape of desolation upon which Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri – the George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld of the Muslim world – had built their nasty and crooked sandcastles.     

Elia Suleiman’s is the cinema of the suspension of belief – when nothing gels, everything comes to pieces and the world is in slow motion, history dis-inaugurated – where disbelief becomes the fertile ground of a renewed pact with history. By his nonlinear, disjointed, staccato storylines, Suleiman forces time and narrative back into the force field of history, where things are reduced to the renewed alphabetical audacity of infinity of possibilities – where history has not even started, let alone ended. 

At a moment when the right is incessantly plotting how to steal the peoples’ revolutions, and the left is stuck against a tasteless, soulless and entirely pathetic cul de sac of discounting Bashar al-Assad’s atrocities, or else fearing the phantoms of an Islamist take over here, or a military coup there, or a US/Israeli/Saudi plot to dismantle and roll back the whole project, it is imperative to go way back upstream, where these revolutions started in the indomitable spirit of a people and their visionary dreamers. 

The Arab revolts are not following a linear course towards a total revolution. They are an example par excellence of nonlinear narrative paving the way towards an open-ended revolution – unfolding more like a Bakhtinian novel than a Homeric epic (I have developed this theme more extensively in my forthcoming book on the Arab Spring). But whichever way the events unfold – counter-revolutionaries plotting to steal it, neoliberal Islamists seeking to appropriate it, military juntas seeking to derail it, or US/Israeli plots to short-circuit it – the revolutionary uprising will continue to appropriate more and more of the public space, transform it into active formation of voluntary associations and fine-tune the machinery of societal transformation beyond anything we have seen before. The combined power of US counter-intelligence, Israeli expertise in creating distractions (such as the Iranian nuclear programme) and Saudi money comes nowhere near the revolutionary synergy of what is unfolding right in front of our eyes. 

To learn the courage to face the nonlinear unfolding of these revolutions – the gushing forth of a massive rally here, punctuated by a treacherous plot there – we must revisit visionary masters of Arab dreams, learn their joyous defiance of pain and disappointment and bear witness to our moment in the sun. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.  He is the founder of the Dreams of a Nation, a Columbia University based Palestinian film project dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Palestinia cinema.  His Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism is scheduled for publication from Zed in May 2012.