Omar, directed by Hany Abu-Assad. Palestine, 2013.
Omar, the most recent film by Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad (of Paradise Now fame), opens with a traversing of obstacles—a prefatory homage to the resilient Palestinian spirit. Exuding youthful vigor, the titular character scales the portion of the separation wall isolating his West Bank neighborhood from that of his childhood friends, his resistance brigade, and his love interest. Omar fearlessly scurries along the edges of buildings and leaps across rooftops, exercising what has, by now, become his routine refusal to accept the limits on life, work, and love imposed by the Israeli occupation. We watch him practicing his regimented unwillingness to allow a concrete barrier to dictate his movements and, more importantly, to prevent him from carrying out his duties as a resistor—this, the movie tells us, is the stuff sumud is made of.
Those of us who champion the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom and self-determination praise regularly this ineffable, untranslatable quality that the Arabic lexicon terms sumud—steadfastness, for lack of a better English rendition. It has transcended geographical, social, economic, and political differences to fashion its Palestinian practitioners into a territorially and experientially divided but viscerally united people who, through a stubborn, collective engagement in this contagious perseverance within the diversity of contexts in which they find themselves suffering, have been able to construct and maintain an anchor for the shared identity that politics has been threatening to wash away for decades.
We also speak often—as we should—of the destruction of bodies, lives, properties, and memories wrought upon the Palestinians by the state of Israel. We deplore this relentless aggression, these ceaseless, abhorrent crimes against an entire people, while remaining awed at the inability of this immaculately maintained atmosphere of oppression to break the Palestinian will to resist.
Paradoxically, we observe, Israeli efforts to physically undermine the notion of a Palestinian people—confiscating their land, killing their members, destroying their homes, arresting their leaders—has enabled their non-violent resistance. It has allowed them to shape themselves into samidun, as they celebrate the discovery of cherished family photos amid the rubble of their homes; as they designate their dead to be martyrs rather than victims; as they drag, wheel, and carry one another to hospitals instead of hiding individually in shelters; as they plant flowers in spent grenades.
The colonist’s goal, Frantz Fanon wrote, is to dehumanize its subject, to deform him into an animal. By practicing sumud, Palestinians resist this metamorphosis. They cling to the banal tasks, the personal possessions, the friendships, the poems, which help them preserve their humanity, making the cause they are not simply hanging on to but living for palpable and tangible.
It is easy to assume, however, that sumud has become second nature to the Palestinian people, that it has become so deeply ingrained in their being that no Israeli action can force them to abandon the practice and, through it, the humanity it allows a nation of otherwise perpetually humiliated people to hold onto.
While Abu-Assad’s Omar does extol the virtue of sumud, it concentrates primarily on its precariousness. Rather than focus on Israel’s destructive capabilities, the film draws attention to the productive power of its intelligence arm in particular. In doing so, it focuses on the transformative effect that manipulating Palestinians into collaborating with the state, into becoming the “enemy within,” can have on their subjectivities, on their ability to practice sumud.
Omar and his childhood friends Tarek and Amjad plot what, for many of us who have never experienced life in the West Bank, might appear to be a senseless operation—the murder of a random Israeli soldier. What could the Palestinian cause, what could these boys even, gain from this sort of attack? The three young men, we are shown, are persistently humiliated by the IDF. For example, after an encounter with a patrol team on the street, Omar is forced to stand on a rock with his hands fixed behind his head while the officers laugh at and mock him. Killing a soldier becomes a means of releasing pent up aggression, of momentarily redeeming the humiliated self, of asserting some degree of control over the antagonistic forces that have denied them the ability to influence even the most banal aspects of their existence.
Amjad takes the fatal shot, setting in motion an investigation that lands Omar in prison. An interrogator tries to break him through violent means: hanging him by the wrists, naked, from the ceiling of a dark room, shining a bright light aggressively in his eyes, hitting him repeatedly in the face with a large book, and burning his testicles with a lighter. Omar, however, refuses to confess or to implicate his friends. His silent resolve guards him against the humiliation the interrogator is trying to introduce into his naked body with each successive blow.
Internally untainted by the physical abuse, Omar even manages to embarrass the interrogator, summoning the strength to instruct him, through bloody lips and teeth, to wipe his runny nose. Battered and bruised, Omar nevertheless remains steadfast, unaffected by the lingering promise of further punishment, proud of his righteous silence and also aware that it will soon set him free, since the Israelis do not have enough evidence to keep him imprisoned.
Unfortunately, an undercover intelligence agent tricks him into stating that he will never confess which, in Israel, is tantamount to a confession. “There is no going back from being a collaborator,” he warns Omar while still in disguise. “There is no end to it.” Fluent in colloquial Arabic and unsettlingly charming and tender, Rami the agent offers Omar two impossible choices: carry out a life sentence or deliver Tarek, the leader of his brigade and his lifelong friend, to the Israelis.
At first, Omar agrees to collaborate only to warn Tarek and Amjad, hatching a plan to ambush Rami’s forces, which he hopes will both clear his name among the Palestinians and allow him to escape the Israelis’ grasp. The ambush fails after someone within the brigade tips the Israelis off, and Omar is arrested yet again. In a telling scene, Omar meets with Rami in his office. Their conversation is interrupted by a phone call from Rami’s wife, who appears to chastise him, and is followed by one to Rami’s mother, during which he implores her to pick his daughter up from school.
Omar—and the film’s audience, for that matter—cannot help but recognize the humanity of the agent, to develop an uncomfortable, if temporary, sympathetic feeling towards him and the near universal work versus family dilemma he, like so many ordinary individuals, is burdened with. There is something about the conversation—which, for all we know, was staged—that imbues him with trustworthiness, that hints at a good nature or a purity of intentions.
Omar knows better, the audience knows better, but still we are all, to some degree, seduced—at least enough to believe Rami when he says, brow furrowed with concern, that Omar’s fiancée Nadia is harboring damaging secrets, and that the Israelis are aware of them. They do not want to reveal them—secrets should remain secrets, Rami says—but to protect Nadia and to rid himself of his life-annihilating sentence, to ensure they can have some semblance of a future together, Omar must hand over Tarek. “It’s out of your hands and it’s out of my hands,” Rami seems to be suggesting. Both he and Omar are victims of circumstances greater than themselves. Both have no choice. For a minute, it seems, Omar believes Rami is as helpless as he is.
It is never quite clear what Omar intended to do. He emerges from prison into a hostile environment, labeled a collaborator before he has even collaborated, distrusted by all, even Nadia. He discovers that Amjad had also been recruited, was responsible for sabotaging the ambush, and had dragged Nadia into the whole affair by, supposedly, impregnating her. Betrayal, mistrust, and paranoia rip Omar and Nadia apart, and corrode his friendship with Tarek and Amjad, leading to a climax that leaves Tarek dead, his corpse delivered to the Israelis, and a confused Nadia married to Amjad.
We eventually learn that, prior to their arranged marriage, Nadia and Amjad’s relationship had never evolved beyond friendship, and she was never pregnant. The details remain unclear, but we can assume that Amjad was coerced into lying to Omar to save his own life. Amjad betrayed Omar, Omar and Amjad betrayed Tarek, Omar abandoned Nadia, and the brigade crumbled under the crushing weight of what is revealed to be a justified paranoia—all of its members suspected of being collaborators, or of at least harboring the potential to become ones.
At some point in the midst of all of these developments, Omar attempts to scale the wall again, but this time he is unable to. He grabs hold of a rope and tries to drag his feet up the concrete, to no avail; his failure leaves him devastated. Collaboration, regardless of its roots, of how noble or necessary its whys, is the ultimate humiliation.
The collaborator can no longer express solidarity. He can no longer stand steadfast. These virtues, through the act of collusion, become impossibilities, and that which once made the Palestinian “Palestinian” is undermined, his will to resist stifled, a desire to serve himself cultivated in the soil where his devotedness to the collective once bloomed.
By creating the conditions that facilitate collaboration, by convincing the solicited that he should save himself and sacrifice the nation, that nothing will come of serving the whole, Israel enables the emergence of a tragic subjectivity among the Palestinians: the docile traitor loathed by his own, who has sold his perseverance to the devil in exchange for nothing. As the film makes clear, the Israelis will simply keep coming back for more.
Sumud is the Palestinian x factor that has allowed them to weather countless Israeli assaults, raids, arrests, land grabs, and calorie counts. No amount of Israeli destruction, it seems, can eradicate Palestine, preserved as it is within dispositions, expressed at as it is through shared, sedimented sensibilities. But by reconfiguring Palestinian subjects, by weaving a context that directs them towards collaboration, Israel is able to obstruct their ability to practice the sumud that keeps them human, that gives substance to the label “Palestinian,” that conserves their collective cause.
Perhaps that is why the film ends with a seemingly suicidal act; Rami returns two years after the depicted events to “request” Omar’s services once again—this time to help him trap the newest leader of his former brigade. Omar tricks Rami into loaning him a gun to carry out the task, only to shoot him with it. We know that Omar will be found and imprisoned for his actions, but through them, the character is paradoxically able to save and redeem himself by asserting a total refusal to live a false freedom as a collaborator, choosing incarceration and possibly even death over the repeated betrayal of his national cause. Declining to become a tamed beast, he reinstates his humanity through this sacrificial move, giving himself over to Palestine, hoping it will forgive him.