When my mother speaks of her early life in Nazareth – her immensely strict father’s special gentleness with her, her closeness to her mother and her subsequent alienation from her, the (to me) rural authenticity of their life there, an authenticity with which I have had no contact – I have always sensed in her an apprehension of the regretted and unbridgeable gap separating her from that life. Not that she was driven from Nazareth in 1948 – she wasn’t. She left with my father in 1932. But she tells this story. Immediately after she and my father were married at the mandatory government’s registry office, a British official ripped up her passport, “You will now travel on your husband’s passport” he said. To her remonstrations and queries he replied, in effect, “this negation of your separate identity will enable us to provide a legal place for one more Jewish immigrant from Europe.”
Too symbolic, and too definitive perhaps a tale of woman’s disenfranchisement in a colonial situation. I do not know how frequent such practices were, and whether there was some absolute correspondence between the disappearance of my mother’s distinct legal identity and the appearance of a Jewish settler. The experience itself of the ripped-up passport is too searingly painful and graphic not to have remained vivid for over fifty years in my mother’s life, and she tells the story with great reluctance, and even shame. As her son I have sympathetically preserved the episode, a tender hurt endured in consequence of her new identity as my father’s wife, my mother and the closest companion of my early years. I have therefore interpreted her trauma as the sign that she passed from full immediacy of being – the fullness of being that comes from her person as a young Palestinian woman – to a mediated and perhaps subsidiary person, the wife and the mother.
Later I realized that being such a mediated person, distributed among a number of important but secondary roles, is the fate of all Palestinian and Arab women; this is the way I encounter them, and the way they exist in our various societies. Certainly these are general social and historical facts, but their particular meaning in Palestinian life, given our special situation, is unusually intense. The question becomes how to see the woman’s predicament: Is she subordinated and victimized principally because she is a woman in Arab, Muslim society, or because she is Palestinian? However the question is answered, there is an urgent need to take stock with equal precision of the woman’s negation and the Palestinian’s dispossession, both of which help to constitute our present situation.
The sense of my mother’s story as a just representation of the Palestinian woman’s plight struck me with great intensity when I saw a documentary film by the young Palestinian director Michel Khleifi. Like my mother, Khleifi was born and grew up in Nazareth. Now a resident of Brussels carrying an Israeli passport, he, too, is an exile. In a number of ways his film, Fertile Memory, responded to the need I feel for restitution and recognition when I think of my mother’s experience and all it implies.
Khleifi puts before us two Palestinian women who live as subjects of Israel. One of them, his aunt, Farah Hatoum, is an elderly widow who remained in Nazareth after 1948. We see her working in an Israeli bathing-suit factory, riding a bus, singing to her grandson, cooking and washing. The sequences of her at work show a combination of very close detail and highly concentrated repetition, especially in household chores of the sort normally taken for granted by other family members. The impression one gets of this almost frighteningly concrete expenditure of energy is that it sustains life in ways that are just below the threshold of consciousness. One feels a peculiar respect for its protracted discipline, a respect that the effusively male character of Palestinian nationalism doesn’t ordinarily permit. The woman’s loneliness, the menial offices to which she is consigned, the essentially tending nature of her work, the fineness of her tasks (sewing among them), all suggest a truer condition of Palestinian life than our articulate discourse normally discloses.
The centerpiece of the film is a dramatization of the old woman’s relationship to the land. This is done in the two connected scenes that build her into a potent symbol for what has been called “internal exile,” a condition already in evidence during the period of the British mandate, when my mother was stripped of her passport. Farah is first shown in conversation with her adult children, both of whom are trying to convince her to sell land that she owns but that in fact has been “repossessed” by Israelis. Although she still holds the title deed, she well knows it is only a piece of paper. Now her children tell her that legal advice has convinced them that despite the expropriation by the Israelis, there is an opportunity to sell the land to its present tenants: Apparently someone wants to legalize her dispossession by giving her money in return for final entitlement.
She’ll have none of it. A large, jowly woman, she sits rocklike at the kitchen table, unmoved by the logic of financial well-being and peace of mind being offered her. No, no, no, she says. I want to keep the land. But you don’t actually have it, is the rejoinder which makes those of us living in exile quietly feel even more sympathy for her, since she at least continues to assert the value of some, any, connection with the land. But just as quickly, the woman’s stubbornness reminds us that our mementos, memories, title deeds, legal claims simply accentuate the remove at which we now live. In the various cocoons provided by exile there may be room symbolically to restore discrete parts of our heritage; and yet, the discrepancies between symbol and reality remain, as when the finest collection of Palestinian dresses is preserved, catalogued, and reproduced by Wadad Kawar in Amman, published in Japan, ignored and overlooked by American columnists who instead trade in the easy coin of “terrorist couture.” Of course, the land is not truly ours.
Farah resumes her statement thoughtfully and feelingly, “I don’t have the land now, but who knows what will happen? We were here first, then the Jews came, and others will come after them. I own the land. I will die. But it will stay there, despite all the comings and goings.” This is a logic that defies understanding on one level; on another, it is deeply satisfying to her. Thus we also remember the many instances of a repeated stubbornness that makes no sense, such as proclaiming “here I stand” surrounded by the icons of our glorious failures – Abdel Nasser chief among them – or that makes only enough sense to distinguish our side of the line from theirs.
Later in Fertile Memory Farah is taken to see her land for the first time in her life. This is perhaps a curious thing but, as Khleifi once explained to me, not so unusual for a woman of that generation whose late husband had owned the property, cared for it, and willed it to her when he died. When she came into it she had already been dispossessed, and for all that her title deed has done for her, she might have been in Syria displaying pictures of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Somehow, Khleifi has managed in his film to record Farah’s first visit to her land. We see her step tentatively onto a field; then she turns around slowly with arms outstretched. A look of puzzled serenity comes over her face. There is little hint on it of pride in ownership. The film unobtrusively registers the fact that she is there on her land, which is also there; as for the circumstances intervening between these two facts, we remember the useless title deed and Israeli possession, neither of which is actually visible. Immediately then we realize that what we see on the screen, or in any picture representing the solidity of Palestinians in the interior, is only that, a utopian image making possible a connection between Palestinian individuals and Palestinian land. Farah’s reconnection with her land, merely formal though it is, called up, and even calmed, the painful memory of my mother and the identity taken from her in 1932. An aesthetic experience a generation later, partially healing the wound.
The other major figure in Fertile Memory is Sahar Khalifeh, a successful young novelist and teacher from Nablus. Her presence is by no means nostalgic or inarticulate. Of a younger generation than Farah, she is more self-aware, both as a woman and as a Palestinian. She describes herself as a militant, though with considerable irony. But even Sahar’s life is more impressive than Farah’s – she too is dispossessed, her identity undercut: as a nationalist, by the structure of Israeli power holding the West Bank; as a divorced working woman, by the conventions of the predominantly Muslim and traditional community of Nablus. She expresses alienation from political and, to a degree, sexual fulfillment; both have been denied her, the first because she is a Palestinian, the second because she is an Arab woman. Nevertheless, Sahar is securely in place. One feels about her, and other Nabulsis, that – Israeli occupation, and political and social tensions notwithstanding – they are securely in place, their lives are led where such lives have always been led.
It is Khleifi’s achievement to have embodied certain aspects of Palestinian women’s lives in film. He is careful to let the strengths of Farah and Sahar emerge slowly, even if at a pace that risks losing the film the larger audience it deserves. He deliberately disappoints the expectations engendered in us by the commercial film (plot, suspense, drama), in favor of a representational idiom more innovative and – because of its congruence with its anomalous and eccentric material – more authentic. Each of us bears fragmented memories of the experiences of the generation whose culminating tragedy was dispossession in 1948. To these experiences Farah Hatoum is allowed to speak. Each of us senses the subtle undercutting that takes place on the shadow line between two worlds. To this, Sahar Khalifeh gives expression.
But Khleifi does not give in to the editorial manipulation that, for example, Farah’s real situation – and his, as her compatriot – might have provoked. Her daily existence is not portrayed as taking place directly against the standard scenes of Israeli domination. There is barely a glimpse of Israeli soldiers, none of Palestinians being rounded up by police. He even resists the temptation to italicize the significance of Sahar’s more militant, if still subdued, position. No cuts to scenes of Palestinian activism, tire-burning, or rock-throwing.
Instead, Khleifi has given the women’s lives an aesthetic clarity which, for me, a male Palestinian, sheds new light on our experience of dispossession. Yet because I am separated from those experiences by time, by gender, by distance – they are, after all, experiences of an interior I cannot inhabit – I am reconfirmed in my outsider’s role. This in turn leads me, defensively perhaps, to protect the integrity of exile by noting the compromises of life in the Palestinian interior – the forgetfulness and carelessness that have historically characterized the losing battle with Zionism, the too close perspective that allows thoughts to be unthought, sights unrecorded, persons unmemorialized, and time thrown away.
This text is an excerpt from Edward W. Said, Jean Mohr, After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1986).
This text was also part of the publication Michel Khleifi, MÉMOIRE FERTILE / FERTILE MEMORY, compiled, edited and published by Courtisane, CINEMATEK and Sindibad Films, published on the occasion of the Michel Khleifi retrospective in Brussels (26 September - 5 November 2019), an initiative of CINEMATEK and Courtisane. Copies available via Courtisane.
With thanks to Omar Al-Qattan and Mariam C. Said
© Edward W. Said, used by permission of The Wylie Agency (UK) Limited.
Milestones: Fertile Memory takes place on Thursday 18 March 2021 at 19:30 on Sabzian. You can find more information on the event here.