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Displaced Intentions

[Still image from [Still image from "Write Down, I Am an Arab"]

Write Down, I Am an Arab, directed by Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin. Israel/Palestine, 2014.

Borrowing the opening line of one of Mahmoud Darwish’s most famous poems, “Identity Card,” filmmaker Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin titled her latest documentary Write Down, I Am an Arab. The film, which had its world premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival in April of this year, is described as a biographical portrait of the poet who became the voice of Palestinian people. However, in her director’s statement, the filmmaker discloses an ulterior motive behind making the documentary. She writes, “The film reveals for the first time, the story of Mahmoud Darwish’s first love—a Jew…‘If Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet and refugee, fell in love with a Jewish girl and wrote her poetry, then so can I.’ That was what I said to legitimize my love,” Mara’ana-Menuhin writes, referring to her Jewish-Israeli husband.

Perhaps the filmmaker could not find a more straightforward approach to treating such a personal issue, but one thing is certain: in framing Darwish’s experience through her own, Mara’ana-Menuhin has unjustly appropriated Palestine’s most beloved national poet. The director’s failure to account for her reflexive process when reading Darwish’s life and text results in a film that is reductive and unsettling. 

Using excerpts of archival interviews with Darwish along with his poetry and letters, as well as interviews with his friends, his family, and the women he loved, the filmmaker attempts to untangle Darwish’s romantic life. Tamar Ben-Ami, a Jewish Israeli woman, is introduced in the film as his first love. Tamar reads the love letters Mahmoud wrote to her in Hebrew, and describes how she and Mahmoud fell in love at a communist party gathering when their eyes met.

Building its case, the film cites the poem “Rita and the Rifle,” in which Darwish wrote:

Between Rita and my eyes is a rifle
And whoever knows Rita, kneels and prays
To the divinity in those honey-colored eyes

The poet is then heard saying, “Every love song that I write, they say it’s about the land, the homeland. Rita is a name…that I chose. Rita in all my poems is a Jewish woman. Am I revealing a secret?”

In its discussion of the poem, the film leaves out the “rifle,” which essentially describes love during a militarized reality. The “rifle,” a clear poetic metaphor for the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, is ignored. The poem is depoliticized and stripped of everything that stands against love between the occupier and the occupied, the colonizer and the colonized. The paradox is that the filmmaker is politicizing her own relationship with her Jewish lover by depoliticizing the love between Mahmoud and Tamar.

In the film, Mahmoud and Tamar drift further and further apart, as Darwish is arrested at the age of twenty-three for reading his poem “Identity Card,” while Tamar joins the Israeli Army at eighteen in an attempt to reclaim herself and reconnect with her community. Tamar is given ample space to reminisce over her love for Darwish, while her position in the power dynamic between herself and Darwish is left unquestioned.

In meeting the other women who have influenced the poet, the filmmaker begins by interviewing a Jewish teacher who was sent in the 1960s to teach Hebrew in Kufr Yasif, where Mahmoud was attending school at the time. In Darwish’s young mind, this teacher challenged the sole image of the Israeli as a “military governor.” Darwish himself has lovingly talked about his teacher. But he also talked about the Palestinian teachers that the film leaves out, like Nimer Murqus, who encouraged him to write at an early stage of his life and shaped his political thought as a young man.

After meeting Tamar, we are introduced to Darwish’s first wife, Rana Kabbani, who explains why her marriage to the handsome poet failed. We do not hear about Darwish’s second wife, the Egyptian translator Hayat Hinneh, or any of the other Palestinian women who influenced him, such as his mother. Absenting them is a political act, or rather a political failure.

“This work is the first film about Mahmoud Darwish directed by a Palestinian-Israeli (which Darwish was himself),” the filmmaker explains in her director’s statement. Darwish, who was a humanist poet with a universal message against oppression, is reduced to an identity that was forced upon him by a colonial state that he abandoned for a life in exile.

In looking at Darwish as a “Palestinian-Israeli,” Write Down, I Am an Arab positions the poet and his work as Israeli products, or more specifically, Israeli cultural products. The film looks at Darwish through Israeli eyes: his life is examined through his relations with Israeli-Jews, such as his Hebrew teacher or his Jewish Israeli lover; he is heard speaking more Hebrew than Arabic throughout the film; and finally, he is mostly discussed by members of the Israeli media. In doing all this, the filmmaker ends up unwittingly mimicking Darwish’s colonizers by “Israelizing” what is Palestinian.

"I think that every poet dreams of being the voice of others. Sadly, or gladly, every Palestinian thinks that I represent him," Darwish says in the film. “I barely represent myself.” The classical documentary crisis of representation is brought up, but the idea is neither conceptually developed nor artistically addressed. The filmmaker fails to reflect on her own role in representing Darwish. Instead, it is his relationship to the Palestinian people, and their freedom to relate their national struggle to his writing, that is under question.

By way of contrast, in Simone Bitton’s film As the Land is the Language: Mahmoud Darwish (1997), we see an intricate treatment of Darwish’s life and language, which demonstrates a contingency and complexity. In lengthy conversations Bitton conducted with the poet, we learn about the space that paradoxes occupy in Darwish’s work. In the film, Darwish describes eloquently the significant role poetry and poets take in a nation’s capacity to imagine its rootedness to the land. He says:

My poems do not deliver mere images and metaphors, but deliver landscapes, villages, and fields; they deliver a place. It makes that which is absent from geography, present in its form that is able to reside in the poetic text, as if residing on his land. I don’t think that a poet is entitled to a greater happiness than that some people seek refuge in his lines of poetry as if they were real houses.

In Write Down I Am an Arab, on the other hand, archival excerpts of audio and video interviews with Darwish are repeatedly cut short and taken out of their original contexts. For example, the film takes an excerpt from an interview with Darwish by what seems to be an Israeli television channel in which he is asked about his relation with his Israeli citizenship. He responds that he does not want to “develop the tension between identity and citizenship,” and that he does not know if he is an Israeli citizen anymore. The context of this quote is not identified in the film and the ideas in it are not given space to fully develop, which makes its position, as a rhetorical device in the documentary, problematic.

In his poetry, Darwish explored deeply the complexity of his engagement with the newly formed Jewish state, which violently absents him and predicates itself on his absence. In Absent Presence, Darwish writes about the new king of Israel who takes his tranquilizing pills and remembers, “Without an absence, their absence, I wouldn’t be present. Their non-being is my being.”[1] Darwish also wrote specifically about the position of Palestinian citizens of Israel in Journal of an Ordinary Grief. He feels that as an “Arab Citizen in Israel” you are faced with two choices: either to accept an identity that was violently forced upon you by your colonizers, or to practice the identity of your choice, your native identity, and invite state violence against you.[2] Speaking of his Palestinian identity, he continues: “This identity is not a mere point of view or an opinion subject to debate. It is a historical fact. Yet, suddenly, you register a moral contradiction. The most you can achieve from your struggle from within can only be done under the banner of Israeli nationality that is in contradiction to a national identity with roots in history.”[3]

In Write Down, I Am An Arab, Mahmoud Darwish is positioned as a dissident citizen, a side effect of Israeli culture, or a poet on the margins of Israeli nationalism. The result is a film that also feels more Israeli than Palestinian. The film’s narrative seems more informed by a leftist Israeli discourse than by an indigenous Palestinian one. If we wish to position the film in a larger debate on cultural production in colonial contexts, we would say that the filmmaker has created an image of a “post-colonial” poet rather than a poet who lived through colonization and whose life and writings can only be described as “anti-colonial.”

NOTES

[1] Mahmoud Darwish, Absent Presence, translated by Muhammad Shaheen. London: Hesperus Press Limited, 2010, p. 48.

[2] Mahmoud Darwish, Journal of an Ordinary Grief, translated by Ibrahim Muhawi. New York: Archipelago Books, 2012, p. 112.

[3] Darwish, Journal of an Ordinary Grief, p. 113.  

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