DUBAI: One day in 2003, Ramallah-based Palestinian writer and illustrator Hasan Hourani and some friends secreted themselves into 1948 Palestine. They didn’t go to perform a suicide mission. They went to Jaffa to spend a day by the sea.
Hourani died that day. As the story goes, he looked up to notice his nephew was in trouble in the water and went to help him, though he didn’t know how to swim himself. Both Hourani and his nephew drowned.
The artist’s end was doubly tragic – not only because of his youth (he was 29 years old) but because his work was so well regarded. The circumstances of his death also made it sadly poetic. Enjoying a day at the beach is the sort of mundane pleasure that the occupation’s travel restrictions make impossible for many Palestinians, unless you’re willing to break the law.
Palestinian-Jordanian filmmaker Mais Darwazah says that when she discovered Hourani’s book “Hasan is Everywhere” in 2007 it was unrequited love at first reading. It’s a sentiment she has channeled into the execution of “My Love Awaits Me by the Sea,” her lyrical first feature.
The film was warmly received at the Toronto International Film Festival a few months back, where it had its world premiere. It has had its Middle East debut at the Dubai International Film Festival, where it’s screening in the feature-length documentary competition.
The film is, at root, a travelogue of the filmmaker’s journey of discovery through the land of Palestine – one made naturally more poignant by her having never seen her ancestral country before. The voyage takes her from Amman to Damascus’ Yarmouk refugee camp, to Jerusalem, Nazareth, Al-Khalil (also known by its Hebrew name, Hebron) and, ultimately Jaffa.
In Jaffa, she seeks out a seaside neighborhood called “The Bride of the Sea,” an old photograph of which she carries with her.
There, one resident tells her the Jaffa that The Bride of the Sea signifies has been erased. Another reassures her that, though Israelis call it “Street 60,” The Bride still exists in memory.
Intimate as it is, “My Love Awaits” is more than an autobiographical portrait set against a Palestinian landscape.
The film’s language is highly poetic – from Darwazah’s voiceover sampling of Hourani’s poetry and vignettes of her efforts at rendering the Palestinian landscape in watercolor and charcoal drawings (often juxtaposed with black-and-white landscape photos), to the cinematography of Arlette Girardot and Joude Gorani and the score of Lebanese composer Cynthia Zaven.
Lyrical as the filmmaker’s personal voyage is, her film is straight-up documentary, one that benefits enormously from the intelligence of her subjects – whose coherence stands in sharp contrast to the voices of despair usually called upon to represent Palestine in the international media.
In the end, “My Love Awaits” is a film about Palestinians – regardless of where they happen to reside. These figures are not masters of the universe but neither are they merely desperate. The sentiments they inhabit for the camera range from eloquent defiance to quiet confidence.
“Being Palestinian,” observes Mohammad, a Palestinian from Yarmouk, “means that our lives are controlled by everyone and everything but ourselves – from God to the mukhabarat [Syrian state intelligence].”
Mohammad laments the fact that his uncle, once a celebrated PFLP fighter, is now reduced to selling cigarettes in the camp. When Syria’s civil war came to Yarmouk and Mohammad’s house was destroyed in the fighting, he fled to another refugee camp, this time in Sweden.
In a cast of well-spoken figures, among the most cogent are Muhannad, Ammar and Samer, who style themselves as The Kings of Jerusalem.
“I want an occupation that leaves its marks on my face every day,” says one of the lads. “I hate Yousef far more than the Ethiopian man [in an Israeli army uniform] who checks my papers every day ... Every day rich Jews come [to Jerusalem] to buy our houses and find legal loopholes to have us removed. Why is it rich Arabs don’t come to prevent this happening?”
“Palestine is ours,” remarks another. “I know that these settlers will never feel the way I do walking through this city.”
In Nazareth, Darwazah spends some time with Nael and Leila, a young couple, and their kids Maryam and Yaseen.
“You build your own livable world, whether it’s on the outside or inside,” Nael says, explaining the challenges of living inside the state of Israel. “But outside there are a lot of defects and many things one can’t control. It’s not easy for someone to live with his occupier, as the encounters are not very pleasant.”
The land of Palestine, he goes on to observe, is the focus of two different national dreams – one Zionist, the other Palestinian. “The difference between [the two] is that ours is natural. Theirs isn’t.”
“I think many Israelis know they’ve lost,” Leila says. “They’ve lost Israel. The utopian dream has been used up. It’s outmoded, based on a 19th-century model of nationalism. I know people will cease to be Zionists. I worry more about us.”
The analogy of Palestine being like an abused woman is, Leila observes, apropos, and she personally finds the challenge of living though this trauma positively to be daunting. “There’s so much that’s been lost,” she says quietly, “so many things in our culture that have been destroyed, so many people separated from each other. But there are still people trying to hold onto the pieces of the mosaic.”
Near Al-Khalil, meanwhile, in Aroub refugee camp, a young man named Hazim has an imaginative way to overcome the suffocating weight of occupation. He goes to the roof of his house, inserts a CD recording of the sound of the Mediterranean washing up on shore and sits, his bare feet in a pan of water.
DIFF continues until Dec. 14. For more information see: http://dubaifilmfest.com.