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When and where was your first contact with other Arab countries?
My first encounter was in 1983 when I visited Egypt. That visit shocked me because I saw all that led to the defeat in the 1967 war, and that was the poverty, humiliation, oppression, and all that would lead to the recent revolutionary events there. Egyptians are a wonderful people. I loved everybody I met, from the man in the street to artists and intellectuals. “Hanna K.” was being screened as part of the 13th International Cairo Film Festival and I was invited to attend. While I was there a special screening was arranged for Mohamed Hassanein Heikal and his wife, that was followed by an exciting discussion about the movie and the life of Palestinians under Israeli rule. The meeting that I cherished most, though, during that trip was with singer Sheikh Imam and poet Ahmad Fouad Nagm, and the artists congregating around them.
One of my dreams was that if I ever visited Cairo I would meet the rebellious Egyptian singer Sheikh Imam. And so, instead of attending the screening of the film in which I was the lead actor, I spent the evening with Sheikh Imam in the Ghouriyya neighborhood at Housh Adam. That night Sheikh Imam sang for me his songs “O, Palestinians”, “The First Word is My Homeland, The Second Word is My Homeland”. Together with poet Ahmad Fouad Nagm, he sang “When the Sun Sinks in the Sea of Clouds” and “O, Night, This World is a Night That Opens Up for a Lover the Suspicions of Night”. That was back in 1983, and the whole evening was recorded and presented to me on a tape.
Did you know Emile Habiby personally?
At the time, I knew Emile Habiby, but we were not friends. After asking his permission to turn his novel into a play, we were in constant contact and he actively helped to realize the project. Emile travelled with me around the world for more than two hundred performances of the play. He really fell in love with that play, but was always worried at the beginning of each performance. It was the kind of concern a father has for his child, and I was no less scared at the start. When the play was performed at the venerable “Village Gate” in New York City, Emile was almost scared to death when he saw the large, crowded audience. After that, the play travelled to Rome, Budapest, Prague, East and West Berlin (in those days), Dusseldorf, Cyprus, Amman, Cairo, London, Paris, Lyle, Grenoble, Tokyo, Kyoto, and many other cities around the world, and always to rave reviews.
What recognition has your work received?
As for the awards I have earned, I received the Palestine Award for Cinema, The Carthage Theatre Festival Award for Excellence for “The Pessoptimist”, and the award for best documentary twice, one for “Jenin, Jenin” and the second for “Since You Left” from the Carthage Film Festival. I also won the Gold Tanit from that same festival for “Layla’s Birthday”. From the Locarno Film Festival I earned the best actor award for my work in “Private”(2006).
As an actor you worked in two films with the director Michel Khleifi. You are both very special in Palestinian cinema, so do tell us about this experience.
I worked with Michel Khleifi in 1993 in “The Tale of the Three Jewels,” and then in 2009 in “Zindeeq” (The Apostate). Working with Michel was a unique experience, especially with “Zindeeq.” However, from a technical point of view it was not an easy experience as most scenes were filmed during the night and in cold weather. In addition, the crew was Belgian and spoke neither Arabic nor English, so communicating with them was difficult for me. Michel acted as interpreter, making the situation much smoother. For me it was a tough movie because in every shot I felt I was carrying it on my shoulders.
I love Michel’s cinema because it is honest, deep and poetic. That’s why I was so happy with the way “Zindeeq” came out. I hoped it would be available to wider audiences, whether at film festivals or screenings around the world, but the distribution, sadly, was not up to speed, perhaps partly because it was an art house film. Michel is an auteur who makes the films he chooses. Commercial success is the last thing he thinks of, if at all, and I don’t blame him for that, although as an actor I would like my films to be seen by as many people as possible. I am always ready to work with Michel given the opportunity, because he is a master of the craft of cinema and, at the same time, as a person he is a mixture of child, poet and philosopher. Most importantly, though, he is honest in his emotions and in the way he works and deals with people.
Michel Khleifi is a beautiful soul and we do not have much of that kind of beauty in the film industry, which tends to be populated by show-offs and individuals seeking commercial success and personal fame. That is why Michel is not so prolific. He often finances his films from his own pocket so as not to have anyone dictating to him things that he does not like or believe in and that is something rare nowadays. Very few would do what Michel did to produce “Zindeeq”, where he took a huge risk by mortgaging off his house in order to make the film. That risk paid off when the film won the first prize in the 6th Dubai International Film Festival.
The closest people to Michel’s way of thinking that I have worked with are the Taviani Brothers who see cinema as an art and a message, not as a commercial enterprise. I cannot express how much I respect and appreciate people like that because we only live once and artists like those choose to live a hard life and to struggle to make their art rather than sell out for the sake of fame and fortune. Michel is a source of pride for the whole Palestinian people. He and I are very similar although we differ in that he grew up in a city and I grew up in the countryside; he is a director and I am an actor. But we are very much alike in our artistic and political views, awareness of our Palestinian identity, non-commercial interests, independent approach to filmmaking and stubbornness. Michel is more innocent and more sensitive to criticism than I am, whereas I tend to be more willing to defend my views when I have to. Both Michel Khleifi and Mahmoud Darwish chose exile while I chose to stay in Palestine. That’s perhaps because I am less of a risk-taker than they are. I am not judging, as some like to do, as if they were some high moral and aesthetic authority. I respect Michel and Mahmoud Darwish for their choices and, in the end, we all bear responsibility for our actions. It is as Mahmoud Darwish said “Who am I to tell you what I am telling you?”
In “Zindeeq”, Michel Khleifi’s semi-autobiographical film, I did not try to play “M” as if he were Michel although “M” is Michel Khleifi; but “M” is also Mohammad Bakri and every artist living in exile even when at home. Or as Sheikh Imam puts it in one of his songs “Closeness is a mile far and distance is a mile away”. We are both close and far from our stolen and occupied homeland – our homeland that has become estranged from us under influences totally alien to us and our society, whether they were brought about by the occupation, or by globalization.
This can be seen in the film, where the city of Nazareth is totally different from the Nazareth that I know and love and that embraced me and made me what I am. The Nazareth that gave me love and made me the person that I am now, that took care of me as a youth and taught me poetry and tenderness is different from the city in the movie, which rejects me and throws me onto cold and dark streets. This is not my country the way I knew it, imagined it or experienced it. Now my country is something I feel but I do not see.
It is as Mahmoud Darwish said: “I see what I choose.” Now what I see is totally the opposite of what I want or expect from my homeland. There is closeness and there is distance, there is exile and there is yearning for something that was but is no more. All of that is what we see in the persona of “M” in “Zindeeq”. The struggle within him is shown through what he sees on that cold, dark and violent night. People lose their inner vision and instead become possessed by madness, frustration, despair and the desire for revenge. Amidst all that, “M” searches for his childhood home, seeks the warmth of his mother’s lap not just to regain that lost childhood, but to ask his mother the question that has been on his mind for years and that is, “Why did they stay in Palestine when their countrymen and women were exiled?”
It is the very opposite of the question a Palestinian born in exile would ask his parents on a similarly cold night in a refugee camp in a strange land, “Why did you leave?” The zindeeq of the refugee camp asks his mother why they left and the zindeeq of Nazareth asks his mother why they stayed and in the end both places are exilic, here it is an exile and out there it is an exile. Or as the poet Imru Al-Qays said, “We here are strangers, and all strangers are relatives.” And that is why many of the scenes in the film that seem to be the product of chance, are not so. In cinema there is no place for chance, and if anything makes its way into a film by chance then there is something wrong with the film. In cinema everything is planned, every word, every move. It is almost like a mathematical equation.
How have the religious movements and sectarian strife in the Arab world affected Palestinian society?
What we see nowadays in Palestine is a reflection of similar divisions that are taking place in the Arab world. I always renounced Islamic extremism, while Emile Habibi always defended Islam and the Muslims even though he is not a Muslim. That is the Palestine I know. After the Nakba, I was a rudderless boat; the lighthouses on my journey to find myself and my identity were my schoolteachers, both Christian like Shakib Jahshan, and Muslim like Ahmed Darwish, and Palestinian intellectuals like Emile Habibi, who is Christian, Ghassan Kanafani, who was Muslim and Samih al-Qasim, who is Druze. In Palestine, the church and the mosque are one in deed, not only in words, and that is why I have never looked at our society or at Palestinian politics through the prism of religion. Even some of the names of my children were taken from Emile Habibi’s novel. I named my son Walaa, after one of the characters in The Pessoptimist. When my daughter Yaffa was born I was going to name her Yu’ad after another character, however, we were working on the play of the book at the time and I was afraid that if the play did not do well, my daughter’s name would be associated with a less than happy memory, so I called her Yaffa.
How do you reconcile the demands of your work with your family life?
I was twenty-two when I got married and I became a father at a very young age, although older generations married at even younger than I did. Early marriage has its good and bad sides although my own experience has been very successful with my children and my wife. I strive to meet my wife’s expectations, and she is my biggest supporter and most severe critic, so I always trust her judgment and seek her advice and blessing when it comes to my work. I will always appreciate her standing by my side through the tough times I have experienced and despite all the hardships the life of an artist entails. All our children are into film and theatre except for Hasan who is an avid fisherman so we call him “Al Shater Hasan” after a famous character from Arabic folklore. We are proud of them, of their work and their choices; proud to see them follow in our footsteps, putting their principles and artistic integrity ahead of materialistic considerations. My eldest son, Saleh, had a chance to appear in an ad for a major brand of men’s underwear, but he turned it down because, as he told me, he studied theatre to bare his soul, not his body.
What work opportunities are you getting these days?
These days, I see a lot of what is out there in film, and feel frustrated at not being able to make the films I would like to make due to lack of funds. I have to earn a living for my family and at the same time Israeli harassment never ceases. Everything about me and my work upsets them. The harassment reached my work as well: over the years I have been offered many roles in major films but when production starts, the filmmakers always apologize for not being able to hire me. One such movie was Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”. Mel Gibson asked to meet with me but the casting director, an Israeli, made sure the meeting did not happen. She told me I arrived late for the meeting, even though I was there well before time. Since “Hanna K.”, I have been kept out of many international films due to the fact that Zionist organizations labelled the film anti-Semitic because it deals with the question of the right of return for Palestinian refugees. At the same time, I would love to work in Arab cinema and television, but Arabs avoid working with me and other Palestinians like me because we live in Israel and so they think of us as Israelis. We are caught between a rock and a hard place, as the saying goes.
What kind of film do you like to make or be part of?
I love to make movies for the oppressed about the oppressed. That is why I worked in “The Lark Farm” about the Armenian genocide, and in “The Flowers of Kirkuk” (2010) by Iranian-born Kurdish director Fariborz Kamkari. The latter tells the story of an Iraqi woman who follows the man she is in love with, a Kurdish doctor, to Northern Iraq during the massacre of Kurds there in the 1980s. I play the doctor as an elderly man, thirty years after those events. I don’t like to see two different actors play the same character, except in the rare case when the other actor is one’s son, as it is hard for two people to play the same character, and be true to the character’s movements, mannerisms and very soul. In Elia Suleiman’s “The Time That Remains” I was considered for the role of the main character in his advanced years, and my son Saleh for the young role, but then the director opted, wisely I might add, to have Saleh play all the different ages of the character. I must add here that I love Elia’s cinema and think that “The Time That Remains” is his best film yet, whether in its story or in the way it presented the Nakba of 1948 and many of the catastrophes that were to befall the Palestinian people and the Arab nation.
How do you see current Palestinian cinema?
There are some current landmarks. “The Time That Remains” is one of the best films I have seen in years, both in terms of the story and its execution. I think it is a masterpiece, and if Elia’s career continues along the same lines, he will become a great director. I pray that he does for our own sake as a Palestinian people and for him as a professional. I pray for him and for all the talented people we have in the film industry, because their success is a big step toward the liberation of Palestine. But I also pray to be able, one day, to make the films that I dream of making, films like all those films that influenced me, that challenged me, and that instilled in me the desire to create. I would love to play Ghassan Kanafani or Mahmoud Darwish or Emile Habibi. Politicians and political figures are the group that I would least like to play on the big screen.
I do not have much respect for most politicians, including Che Guevera, or anyone of that ilk. Such figures are just symbols, but if you take a closer look, you would be shocked to discover how spiritually barren they were. For example, many consider Hugo Chavez a hero, but in reality he took the side of tyrants like Mubarak and Qaddafi against their oppressed peoples in Egypt and Libya. So how are we to know that other such symbols like Che and Castro are not similar to Chavez?
We think of them as champions of liberty and freedom when, in the end, they are nothing but cigar chompers. A politician is the total opposite of an artist. A politician is fickle and his performance tends to be obvious and phony whereas an artist or a poet or an actor is true in his emotions and is constant. That is one main reason why I do not like to play political figures. That does not mean that there are not political figures worth presenting on film, but what matters to me are the things that matter to the common people.
I seek to present the human frailty of people, including my people, more than their heroism. I gravitate towards ordinary people, as well as creative individuals like the artist Naji al-Ali, that beautiful soul who, in a few lines in his cartoons, was able to convey the suffering of Palestinians and Arabs everywhere. Naji, Darwish and Kanafani are a huge artistic presence in our lives, and I would love to play them in movies or on TV. I cannot see myself in action films filled with heroics. As an artist, I do not care much about the heroism shown by many of the young men of the Jenin refugee camp.
I care about the old man, the deaf and dumb man, the pregnant woman and everyone who lost his or her home, or his or her olive trees, in the siege of that camp. I respect the heroism of the young men who defended the camp, but I care about the effects of the destruction of Jenin on its people. I am not denying the importance of those heroic acts, but I find myself better equipped to tell the story of the weak and the helpless, and they are the majority of the people. I like the story of the collective struggle for survival more than that of individual heroism.
What are you up to these days?
Currently, I have an offer from a Broadway producer to play the lead in a musical based on the movie “The Band’s Visit” (2007) by Eran Kolirin. My son Saleh was in the movie, and it tells the story of the Ceremonial Police Band of Alexandria finding itself trapped in a small town in the middle of nowhere in Israel. If I get the part, I may have the chance to work with Saleh, who will most likely take on his role from the movie.
I am also working on a short film called “Eyedrops: Diaries of an Arab in Tel Aviv”. It is based on a true story that happened to me, and concerns Sarah, a Holocaust survivor who could barely see and who lived right next door to an apartment in which I and my sons Saleh and Ziad were staying. Every day she would ask one of us to help administer her eyedrops, all the while thinking that we were one and the same person. She used to tell us about the atrocities she experienced in the Nazi camps, and how now the Arabs wanted to kill the Jews. One day, while I was queuing with Saleh at the Qalandia Israeli checkpoint, which does not look much different from what Sarah witnessed in Europe during the Second World War, I had a call from Sarah asking me to go over and help her with her eyedrops. I will also be appearing in a dual role in a film to be shot in Bulgaria and in it I play King Herod as well as taking on the role of Satan.
I also have a TV talk show on Palestinian television in which I interview Palestinian personalities who left their stamp on our lives, whether through their art, literature, cinema or political and social activism. I have a long list of people I would love to interview including Michel Khleifi and many others, in Palestine and in the diaspora. I hope to be able to interview everyone on the list.
Besides that, I hear that the Israeli Attorney General might be yet again getting ready to re-appeal the Supreme Court decision and to reopen the case against me, so I am waiting for another round of legal harassment by the Israeli judicial system.
Translated by Ana Klicic and David Rigo
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