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Palestinian Narratives Enter the Mainstream

Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad says his Oscar-nominated film, 'Paradise Now,' is an attempt to create peace between the Middle East's many identities.
 
 
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Hany Abu-Assad's " Paradise Now," which won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, has been nominated in the same category for an Oscar, marking the first time the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has recognized a film from Palestine about Palestinian culture. (Several Israeli and Jewish groups have petitioned the academy to change the entry from "Palestine" to "Palestinian territories" to no avail as of this writing.)

With the recognition of "Paradise Now," a gripping tale of two young would-be suicide bombers from the impoverished town of Nablus, the entertainment industry has acknowledged that there is not just one narrative; that the Israeli-Jewish story must make room, finally, for Palestinian stories about themselves. And a just-published translation of the novel " Gate of the Sun" (Archipelago Books, 2006), by Elias Khoury, offers another opportunity to learn about how Palestinians see themselves as a people in exile, and how they view what happened to their country in 1948.

But questions of identity and identification are rarely without complexity, and the Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad is the first to recognize this. A former aerospace engineer who lived in Holland for 25 years, Abu-Assad began making films in the '90s, first coming to attention with the documentary "Nazareth 2000" and the feature film "Rana's Wedding" (2002), which described a day in the life of a young woman in Jerusalem trying to get married before 4 p.m.

A native of Nazareth, a predominantly poor Christian town in Israel, Abu-Assad, is a Muslim from a wealthy family who carries an Israeli passport. Palestinian Arabs --both Muslim and Christian -- number about one million in Israel and received Israeli citizenship in 1966.

Abu-Assad views his Israeli passport as just a "ticket to cross borders."

"I have an Israeli passport, yes," he says, "but that doesn't make me an Israeli, because as long as Israel wants to be a Jewish state, and I'm not Jewish, I can't be an Israeli."

Most Israeli Arabs speak fluent Hebrew, and many writers, including Said Kashua ("Dancing Arabs") and Anton Shammas ("Arabesques"), have chosen to express themselves in Hebrew, despite their Palestinian identity and native Arabic spoken at home.

"Why not have Arabs speak and write in Hebrew?" Abu-Assad says. "I have no problem with accepting the Israelis as fellow members of the land. I have no problem accepting the Israelis, their language, their culture, as a nation. I'm not in denial. Being a Palestinian is not in denial that Israelis have the right to be there and to be as a nation. But we are also there and we have the right to be there, and there are also people who have the right to go back. As long as the Israelis are not recognizing these facts and dealing with them in a compromise, and while they are controlling the land and want to be a Jewish state, I can't be an Israeli."

"Paradise Now" is a bleak depiction of the poverty that grips Nablus and the West Bank. The film shows the Israeli occupiers as the Palestinians see them. There is endless waiting at check points and border crossings, frequent arrests and the hopelessness that empowers Islamic extremists to recruit suicide bombers from among young Palestinians who see no future under occupation. The film was co-produced by Israeli producer Amir Harel, and several Israelis worked on the film, alongside its Palestinian cast and crew.

Hany Abu-Assad says that whether or not his film wins the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, the nomination itself means everything for the Palestinians "because part of our struggle is just to be recognized. This is the best the West can do to give hope to Palestinians."

Popular culture can largely be credited with creating awareness of an alternative Palestinian narrative.

However, Abu-Assad says, "I don't make films to create awareness. I make films to resist. There is a civilized way to resist, by using art to tell your story, or the uncivilized, violent way. I don't believe in bullets. I make films to tell stories and to have a dialogue, but without denying the rights of others to have their stories."

Abu-Assad says, "Israel as a state denies our stories; their leaders are using fear in order to make others inhuman and to continue this injustice. And you know, I don't understand this fear. When you are stronger than me, and you are afraid of me," he says, "you don't need politics to solve your problems, you need a psychoanalyst."

Abu-Assad is a moderate who dreams of a constitutional democracy where Israel and the Palestinian territories exist today. "I would like to be a national of a state that considers all the people as equals," he says; "a state that is not a national or religious state. If Palestine were to become an Islamic state, only for Muslims, I would also be against it. I want to see a state that respects and serves the civil and human rights of all its citizens, without discriminating between races and religions."

Abu-Assad understands what it's like to be a minority and says this condition is in part what drove him to become a filmmaker. "I am a Muslim in Nazareth. I come from a wealthy family in a poor society. I am a Palestinian in what is called Israel. In Europe I am an Arab, and in Holland I'm a foreigner. Always I'm the minority," he adds with a grin.

"I'm smiling, and I'll tell you why. This is a good way to understand life, in its complexity. Because you are all these conflicting things, you have to create peace between all these identities. In order to create peace, you have to look from all points of view, to get to know more about yourself, about others, about history, about humanity. I am privileged," he says. "I have all these conflicting identities at once, yet there is peace between them, harmony, not war."

Jordan Elgrably is artistic director of the Levantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles.