I probably won’t live long enough to bring into being a film I’ve thought about making in Nablus, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, from the time the Women’s Press sent a preview copy of Palestinian poet Fadwa Tuqan’s memoir, A Mountainous Journey (and that was a long time ago). But I do hope to live long enough to see a Palestinian director tackling this rich subject.
Fadwa Tuqan was born in Nablus in 1917, the year the British army defeated the Ottomans and the British government promised Palestine to the Zionist movement (even though it wasn’t theirs to give away). Tuqan spent her entire life under British Mandate rule, then in a West Bank flooded with refugees driven out of their towns and villages by the Israelis in 1948, then in a West Bank conquered and occupied by Israel in 1967.
One of the things that’s stunning about her memoir is her emotional honesty. “I emerged from the darkness of the womb,” she says, “into a world unprepared to accept me. My mother had tried to get rid of me during the first months of her pregnancy. Despite repeated attempts, she failed. I have listened to her relating this from my earliest childhood.”
She came from a family of Nablus notables that lived in a vast eighteenth-century mansion (it’s still standing, though very dilapidated): “One of the most ancient of the old Nablus houses,” she says, “with wide courtyards, gardens, water fountains, upper chambers and spiral staircases.” But after a boy in the street gave her a sprig of jasmine when she was twelve years old, her oldest brother ordered her confined in the house “’till the day of my death” – a confinement that nearly destroyed her: “In this house, within its high walls that shut off the harem society from the outside world, where it was buried alive, my oppressed childhood, girlhood and a great part of my youth were spent.”
Last few details from her memoir (though I could go on): her brother Ibrahim, who became a celebrated nationalist poet (as did she), brought books back into her stifling domestic world, and taught her how to turn her feelings into language that scans: “Poetry,” she says, “became the sole preoccupation, awake or asleep, of my spirit and mind.”
Into this stern household Ibrahim also brought a phonograph, and records – “tango, foxtrot and Charleston dance music.” Among the vaults and arches of the Tuqan palace, Fadwa and the Kurdish girl from next door cranked up the phonograph and practiced the Charleston. Can’t you see this sequence in a film?
Fadwa also writes about Hind and Sareena, professional singers and dancers in Nablus, whom Fadwa longed to join because “these women enjoyed a freedom unknown in the world in which I lived.” And she writes spectacularly well about visiting the public bath-house as a child with her mother: the steam, the noise, the overwhelming presence of naked bodies created, she says, “an atmosphere that overpowered my eyes, my soul, and my senses.” The film writes itself on the page. But I never managed to make it.
In 2009, however, I did get a chance to make a very short film in Nablus. It’s the film pasted in below here, Nablus: Naseer Arafat’s City. It didn’t get near the Fadwa Tuqan memoir, other than that its aim was to give a glimpse of the Palestinian world that existed before the State of Israel tried to extinguish it (and its history).
The British Empire & Commonwealth Museum in Bristol planned an exhibition about Mandate Palestine, for which curator Anne Lineen wanted short films that captured something of the Palestinian past. But the Museum pulled its plans; Anne carried on as a freelance with a much smaller budget; and only one of the films got made, for an exhibition that went up in SOAS as “Britain in Palestine.” I was grateful to architect Naseer Arafat for agreeing to do this film with me.
It’s less than five minutes long. “No politics,” said Anne, though the situation is of course drenched in politics anyway. People were pretty exhausted, I thought – an economy throttled by the Occupation; a “peace process” that is no such thing; the Israeli army in the hills surrounding the city, raiding at night (there’s a sequence in David Osit’s wonderful documentary Mayor, about the mayor of Ramallah, that conveys what this is like) – decades of this would exhaust anyone.
I shot the film on tape with an ancient VX1000, and did the whole shoot, I’m astonished to see from my invoice, for thruppence. This version still has the Museum’s name at the front: contending parties, don’t sue me! Prizes to come for identifying the music on the track. The sound here runs out before the end, which it wasn’t doing when the film left editor Duncan Harris and me.
There’s so much more to say, of course. We filmed in an olive grove just outside the city; Israeli colonists (usually called “settlers,” but that can suggest something cuddly and benign, which these people are not) have been attacking fiercely since last year’s harvest, as this piece describes. I don’t know if our village is active in the very determined resistance people are putting up (and getting killed for). Palestinian-Dutch photographer and film-maker Sakir Khader has been documenting this strikingly; for instance, these young men against a background of burning tyres, and this pic he calls “the mourning mothers of Beita.”
Naseer has a book, Nablus: City of Civilizations.
I can only find copies of Fadwa Tuqan’s memoir shipping expensively outside the USA.
This student project for renovating the Tuqan Palace by (then student) architect Rashdi Mabroukeh doesn’t convey the scale of its dilapidation; the Tuqan family are quoted somewhere I now can’t find saying they can’t begin to afford to repair and renovate it.
But honestly – tango in the Tuqan Palace. Who could resist? Maybe Spielberg can rebuild the mansion, and the streets, shops, schools, mosques and churches around it, in that studio in Brooklyn where he so lovingly re-created the Manhattan that Robert Moses pulled down…
For more information about Jenny Morgan, see http://jennymorganfilmswrites.wordpress.com