by Nurith Gertz
and George Khleifi
“We are a people that has forgotten its history,” wrote Emil Habibi after the 1967 war, in his book Sextet of the Six Days. Yezid Sayigh (1998) provided the opposite version, “We are a people whom history had forgotten.” Today, with the advent of a Palestinian historical narrative, neither of these seems true. And yet, there seems to prevail amongst writers and researchers the idea that the Palestinian story has yet to be told or, at the very least, to be given adequate artistic expression. Many reasons are offered to explain why this story has not yet been told. It may be due to the transience inherent in refugeehood, a state that may discourage the setting down of any fixed history, or because this transience discourages remembrance beyond the fleeting moment. It may also be because the Israeli narrative had not only removed the Palestinian entity from its former villages and cities, but from history, as well, and the Palestinians themselves have found it difficult to present a counter-narrative because, among other things, they were “not aware of the power of narrative to move people.”1
The question that must be addressed, however, is how to construct a history of a series of cataclysmic, destructive and horrendous events, and how to understand this series as a clear and coherent continuity in which the causes and effects are logically organized. It is possible that a psychoanalytic account of trauma may provide some explanation for the problematic Palestinian historical narrative. Trauma is an event that is not grasped by the conscious mind, is unrelated to prior knowledge, is not describable and leaves no traces.2 Therefore, after a period of silencing and repression (a period of latency, in Freud’s words), it returns in various forms and guises, appearing not as a memory of the event itself but as a reconstruction of the event that eludes direct access, one that can be monitored only through its effects and traces (LaCapra, 1998). It reemerges to haunt the present as an “acting out”, as though it was fully present and not merely a representation in memory (LaCapra, 1997; Caruth, 1991). The trauma brings back to life not only the traces of the horrible event but also the object that was lost in this event. It reemerges in the present in different variations as if it still exists, as parapraxis in Elsasser’s reading (forthcoming), following Freud (1974 , 1951 ).
The traces of the traumatic event and what has been lost by it therefore lives on in the consciousness as if it still exists, thus making time stand still. The past replaces the present, and the future is viewed as a return to it. The more difficult the present, and the more violent the reality that repeatedly rears its head to strike those who have still not forgotten the initial trauma, the harder it is to be free of this cycle of repetitions.3 Perhaps such a psychoanalysis can describe and even shed light on the Palestinians’ narrative, constructed around three pivotal points: The memory of a lost paradise, lamentation of the present, and a portrayal of the anticipated return (Kimmerling and Migdal, 1993, Tamari, 1999).
So, then, how can a coherent, systematically organized history be constructed on the basis of a series of destructive, cataclysmic events? Jewish history has provided a centuries-long testimony to the impossibility of doing just that. It is a timeless history, in which the lost past in the ancient Land of Israel, and the destruction that precipitated that loss, is repeatedly reenacted in the present as a traumatic neurosis (Freud, 1955 ). Yerushalmi (1982) explains this in the following way: “There is no real desire to find novelty in passing events.... There is a declared tendency to attribute even important new events to familiar archetypes, since even the most horrific catastrophes will loose some of their terrible grip if observed through old models rather than in their astonishing uniqueness. Thus, the last oppressor is likened to Haman and the court Jew attempting to prevent disaster is Mordehai. The Christian is Edom or Esau and the Muslim is Ishmael” (p123). In this manner, Jewish history had been completely obfuscated: “Everything registered in Jewish memory was never a recollection of any particular event as such” but, rather, a reification of the past and, primarily, a reification of the polarity seen in the two great exodus experiences - from Egypt to freedom, and from Jerusalem into exile (Yerushalmi, p65).
Zionism tried to return the Jews to history by changing this perception of time. It endeavored to construct a causal, coherent narrative that would endow meaning to the traumatic events of the past and place them within a continuum of “construction and renewal.” This continuum was supposed to mold the distant past and use it as a source for constructing the future without reiterating it, over and over again, as though it was a permanent present. But the Jewish return into history and the healing of the Jewish trauma has pulled another people out of history and has created another national trauma - that of the Palestinians. Rather than enabling the Jewish people in Israel to create a new historical narrative, the Palestinian trauma brought them continuously back to the past. Each violent event in the area served to enhance the Jewish discourse that views the present as another cycle, and yet another repetition, of the same early events of destruction and redemption.
Such cycles exist in the Palestinian culture, and the Palestinian cinema (among other media) recreates them. It tells the traumatic tale of the Palestinian loss - in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1982 - and revives what preceded it. Each new violent event returns this story to the first trauma, that of 1948, and stages, in the present, both its outcome and what preceded it. A study of the Palestinian cinema will reveal how intricately connected the Jewish and the Palestinian histories are, and how they nourish one another.
In Michel Khleifi’s film Wedding in Galilee, the different elements of the lost reality - the pre-1948 space, its relationship with nature and the soil, the then-dominant traditional way of life, freedom of movement and action - all of these are elevated to the function of surrogates that superimpose the past on the present, events of then and there on events of here and now. In this way, the film constructs “the invisible within the visible” (Elsassar, ibid.). Throughout the plot, a struggle is taking place between the Israeli control of space and the camera and gaze of the Arab heroes, who create a different relationship with the same space.4 The camera restores to the Arabs the space that the Israelis have seized and allows it to expand past the fields and orchards to the horizon, which it captures in long shots.5
However, the vast space depicted in the film is but a site of nostalgia and yearning. At first glance, the events are presented as if they are taking place in the present, but this present is actually a reenactment of the recent past during which the military government ruled the Israeli-Arab population, and the more distant past when the Arab villages were built of small stone houses surrounded by gardens and orchards. The Israeli military government ended in 1964, and Arab villages such as the one depicted no longer exist in Israel.
Life in the Israeli-Arab village is partitioned into squares of time between curfews. These squares are breached by a wedding, in which the traditional ceremonies, rarely performed in the modern reality in which the film is set, are reenacted. Like the restoration of the landscape of the village, its pre-State of Israel, pre-modernization past is restored through a reenactment of these ceremonies.6 They thus constitute a kind of parapraxis: the past breaks into the present, and that which has been lost is retrieved.7 The acting of the past in the present is a sign of a traumatic memory and of the impossibility of accepting a loss. The camera’s taking possession of space is a way of overcoming the trauma, and of controlling reality.
Unlike the cinema of Michel Khleifi, that of Rashid Mashrawi does not revive, either directly or indirectly, the past of the old villages and cities in the present. On the contrary, it presents the dream of return to these places as mad folly or a joke. Instead of a reenactment of a fantasized and beautiful traditional past, it depicts the traumatic moments of the expulsion. His heroes live and fight in a present that has neither a future nor a way out. The hope for a change in the present explodes in disaster and calamity, followed by an even greater disaster and an even more painful calamity - a series of catastrophes that aggravate the protagonists’ situation, which goes from bad to worse, and from worse to even more terrible. The films focus on the present lives of the camp dwellers, and neither past nor future exists. And yet, beyond the harsh descriptions of the present, there are echoes of past events; the traumas of war and expulsion, that are not expressly portrayed, are evoked indirectly as an “acting-out,” that is, an imitation, through an action in the present, of a traumatic experience of the past, a stubborn repetition that brings the past to the present, as if it occurred now.8
In Michel Khleifi’s films the cinematic camera was used to rebel against the Israeli “closures” and to depict a lost, non-existent world. The reality in Rashid Mashrawi’s films is a true-to-life portrayal of oppression and siege, of recurrent calamities, and of hopelessness. In this reality the trauma of the conquest is revived, and not an idyllic past. And yet the protagonists in Mashrawi’s films rebel against this reality by stubbornly clinging to and enduring their harsh life, and by ignoring the Israeli oppressor. In this respect, the film The Milky Way sums up the two types of past that appear in the other films. It returns in various persistent ways to the moments of trauma, but it also returns to the golden time that preceded it. The film depicts an Arab village in the year 1964. “It’s the same village,” says its director Ali Nassar, “that stood in 1948. Nothing has changed in it” (private interview, 2001). It is depicted in a tranquil harmony with nature that is harshly disrupted by the Israeli army, but the film continues to portray that tranquillity as something not yet lost, as a palpable entity to cling to, and thus fulfills the idea of summed, of attachment to the land.
The landscape is a central feature in this film, as in Palestinian cinema, in general. It is used to bring the past back to life and to expand it over space and time. Time spread across this space is mundane time: people walk to work and return from it, a shepherd grazes his flock, and children go to and return from school. This is the time of routine that gives a stable and fixed existence in the ongoing present to what has already become the domain of the past. This breadth of time parallels the breadth of space. The filmed village is a reconstruction of an old village the likes of which no longer exist in Israel, and for large portions of the shooting the director was constrained to use El-Mujeir, a non-modernized village located on the more barren eastern slopes of the hills of Samaria. Thus, the landscape expands the little village into an entire country, comprising both the Israeli and the West Bank parts. It seems, therefore, that as in Khleifi’s films, here, too, the landscapes conquer what had been taken and expand it into a wider space and time, a space and time that belong to the past.
While life in the village is revived as a rural harmony of the distant past, which has endured despite both corruption and occupation, the trauma of destruction and loss is repeatedly reenacted, either by the protagonist’s hallucinations or by the film’s structure itself. This is done through several successive house break-ins. The house in this case, as well as in other films and stories, is both a private and a public-national space. “It’s not the house itself that is destroyed,” a Beit Jalla resident whose house had been demolished by an Israeli missile said recently in a TV interview, “It’s an entire history.” In a society whose national symbols had been taken away, the house, like the village, serves as a symbol that unites the public and private spheres, both of which are transferred as a single entity from the past into the present. In this way, then, the house break-ins in the film are invasions into the private and national space, and together they echo the first break-in, the demolition of the first national and private house in 1948.
The break-ins in The Milky Way are not all alike. Israeli soldiers break into the house of the village teacher, who is suspected of having forged a work permit, and destroy all that is in it. The reprobate son of the mukhtar, the village’s leader, and a friend, break into the dispirited Mabrukh’s house in order to engage in illicit sexual activities. He then breaks into the home of Mahmud, another of the film’s protagonists, and attempts to burn it down, thus reenacting the destruction of the village teacher’s house by the Israeli soldiers. The mukhtar’s son is killed in a fistfight with Mahmud, following which the village people break into the house of the woman with whom Mahmud is in love, where he is hiding, in order to seek blood revenge for the killing of the mukhtar’s son. At this stage, the film makes a transition from the present into the past: Mahmud escapes to the ruins of an abandoned village, one of many destroyed in 1948. In this way, the village destroyed and abandoned in 1948 appears as the primary source, the event that led to all the later break-ins. It is both a reconstruction and an echo of something that cannot be described as it happened and when it happened.
It is the break-ins into the different houses, located in the heart of a village deeply rooted on its land, that evoke a tone of exile. The home, the village and the homeland are transformed from a well-known and dearly loved environment into a menacing entity. The film set out to bring back to life, as it were, the halcyon days of the past - but the relationship to those days is constructed after the fall, and after the break; it is the aftermath of the trauma.
Palestinian history, then, is torn between reenactments of the past. It is a history of trauma, of an event that cannot be worked through in the conscious mind and can therefore hardly be organized within a systematic chronology of events, with rational causes and results. Nonetheless, both Palestinian literature and cinema do not surrender to the trauma but, rather, they attempt to “work it through” and to construct a narrative that leads forward, into the future. They do this by an imaginary repossession of the lost space, as in Khleifi’s and Nassar’s films, by means of depicting the stubborn, day-to-day struggle for survival, as in Mashrawi’s films, or through the drama of hostile encounters between Palestinians and Israelis that is woven into the plots of all of these films.
For decades, Hebrew literature depicted a society immersed in trauma, living in its past and perpetually reenacting two key moments of destruction and redemption. And yet, particularly in the last few years, some Israeli films and literary works are offering various possibilities of an alternative history, in which national boundaries are broken and the hitherto-erased memories of others, including those of the Palestinians, are expressed.9 Caruth (1991) assumes the way out of trauma is in the formulation of a narrative, in finding “a way to tell your story.” However, “your story” never exists in isolation, it is interwoven with the stories of others. In the Israeli case, it is the story of those silenced and oppressed by the Zionist story. The possibility of placing the Jewish trauma within a redemptive historical narrative, in Friedlander’s (1994) terms, or within a causal narrative, in Caruth’s, is intertwined with the possibility of including within that history those who were its victims. Though Israeli’s hegemonic discourse has not yet reached this point, some Israeli writers and filmmakers are looking for it.
The response to the Palestinian trauma, in Palestinian literature and film, is not far removed from the response of Jewish texts to Jewish trauma: the transfer of an idyllic past into the present, and the repeated reenactment of its destruction. Yet, at the same time, there seems to be a trend in Palestinian literature and cinema that proposes a different course for breaking free of the trauma and looking toward the future: to struggle to regain the rights that were lost.10 At this stage - in a situation in which one people is the occupier and the other people is the occupied, in which one people has won recognition and has constructed its national narrative and the other people remains uprooted and dispersed without a recognized national story, in which the film and literature of the one can subvert the mainstream politics and ideology by deconstructing the national history and the film and literature of the other is still committed to its shaping - there seems to be no symmetry in their future prospects.
1 According to Edward Said (2000) new literary pieces create a historical narrative of this nature. Anton Shamas (in Huri, 2002) doubts this: “We may certainly find parts of this narrative in particular literary works -The Optimist, Arabesque, The Return to Haifa, Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?- but an inclusive story is missing: The uprooting, the deportation and the crime, the absence.” The explanation for this is reminiscent of Hamza An’aim (2000): “The ideology of refugees ruled Palestinian culture for many years, i.e., the transient: Despite being a fighter, the Palestinian remains transient. And in transience, there is no room for memory that is more than a passing moment” (p. 17). According to Adel Mana’ah (1999), “Palestinians... whose connection to their homeland’s vistas is organic and intimate, never saw the Europeans, and the Zionists after them, as being the strong winners in the national conflict over the Holy Land.... The importance of history as a valid argument for their national rights...The victors of the national conflict over the Holy Land... usually ignored the existence and the rights of the land’s natives... The Palestinians were described as nomadic tribes, fellahim, as various different groups lacking any national consciousness” (pp. 9-10). Anton Shamas (in Huri, 2002) describes the guilt and shame for 1948 as a part of the explanation for the lack of a Palestinian history.
2 Freud, 1974 (1909), Caruth, 1991; Friedman, 2002.
3 And see Freud (1955 ) on the way the Jewish people dealt with its trauma through the idea of chosenness.
4 For the importance of space in Third World cinema see Gabriel, 1989.
5 For a discussion of this issue see B’resheet (forthcoming). For a discussion of how the cinema depicts the Israeli, see Pinhasi, 1999.
6 On this, see B’resheet (forthcoming), who asks, “How do you make a film about a nonexistent space?” and answers, “By telling stories - by replacing the house-place with narrative icons of the lost homeland.” The wedding ceremony in Wedding in Galilee uses such icons.
7 See also Gabriel (1989) for a discussion of the role of folklore in restoring what the official memory attempts to erase.
8 Or, in Kaes’ (2002) words, a mask that hides the traumatic experience ... that could not yet be visually articulated. See also Kaes, 1992, 1998; Freud, 1909, ; see also LaCapra, 1997; Bhabha, 1990.
9 For examples see A.B. Yehoshua’s, Mr. Mani, Amos Gitai’s Kedma (2002), Avi Mugrabi’s Happy Birthday Mr. Mugrabi (2000), or Nurit Kedar’s Borders (2000).
10 Exceptions are many. Among them Elia Suleiman’s films and some of Michel Khleifi’s films.