A filmmaker friend once asked me what inspired me to direct my first film Bawabet El-Fawqa (The Upper Gate). I replied jokingly that it was not an inspiration as much as it was a form of psychological therapy. The truth is that despite the sarcasm in my reply, it did describe the true and deep motive that helped shape this film.
The idea took me over the minute I set foot into my city, Sidon, only a month after the Zionist army had occupied it. I had left my city on 29 May 1982, leaving to Cairo with the intention of settling there for a while. I arrived to Cairo, met family and friends, and on 4 May we went to spend a quiet day by the sea at Ain Sokhna. We had a beautiful day up until five or six in the evening when I saw my husband approaching us, where we were dipping in the spring water, to tell us that there were talks on the radio of an Israeli air attack on the south of Lebanon.
That was the beginning of a fierce invasion that indiscriminately destroyed human bodies and matter alike, shattered human relations and memories, and forever changed the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people. During a disaster, people who are far from it talk of blood . . . but what about life? What about the destruction of life itself? That was the question that deeply concerned me when I returned to my city in September.
When I first crossed the Lebanese borders, I walked as though I were entering an unreal world, a suffocating dream—a distorted one that my mind could not fully grasp. Here were my streets, but now others walked upon them. Others who had always been our nightmare ever since childhood, and who forced the disappearance of the people I have always known, who are the very spirit of this place. It all felt strange, and internally I was overwhelmed. All my outward actions seemed normal, but deep inside I felt as though I were moving through a strange dream.
When I arrived, I was happy to see the home I had grown up in; it brought back a sense of balance. While I was still in Cairo on 26 June, I had been wrongly informed that my home had vanished in the airstrikes. This piece of false news was my second trauma after I was told that my childhood friend Rashid, his wife, my friend Soad, and both their children, Ghasan and Samia, were all killed in an airstrike. They all died at the same time. They were no longer there.
When I got the false news of my home, I had a surreal dream; I saw myself hugging the house. It was a bizarre dream and an unrealistic one in terms of geometrical ratios, but it was also strangely real. Standing in front of its doorstep again, I realized that the news was false: the damage was superficial, and the house still lived. I felt more solid and more relaxed.
My Trip Inside the City
“Grave robbers did not leave a trace for the historian to know me by.” These words of Mahmoud Darwish summarize what was happening inside of me during that time.
At home, I realized that life would never be the same again. My brother-in-law would never return to this house because he would not be able to enter Lebanon again (he did not return to visit until seventeen years later, during which time a great deal had changed). My nephew had to be sent to Syria for his safety. My sister remained in the city to continue her work and life, but her family had been scattered, and they had to get used to a life of intermittent encounters.
I wanted to go through my papers, but I discovered that my family had to destroy many of them to prevent them from falling into the hands of the enemies. In the rush and chaos, many of my memories were lost for the sake of protection. My letters disappeared, and with them many small, intimate worlds.
Things that were lost included letters from my brother and close friend Ziad and a small hair comb that I had gotten from Mohamed Ouda when he was on a trip to Vietnam. The brush was made of American phantom warplane debris. I still remember this brush and Mohamed Ouda, a Cairene very much like an uncle to me, who used to take me along as a child during his trips, thus shaping my memory of the Cairo that I love.
I lost my small things, and the places that I love were destroyed. In one brutal moment all these things have become part of the past, with no present or future. They no longer existed except in my inner memories. My inner memories, leftover stories, leftover pictures, leftover places—from all these threads I weaved my idea of rebuilding the city. To be here, for those who return only through stories and pictures. To let myself go with the flow of collective memory and regain the story.
The idea was not so clear at first. There were a lot of scattered thoughts and emotions, tension, anger, defiance, sadness, shock, and insistence to go on living as if nothing had happened. All these emotions and thoughts had caused me to lack focus.
I wanted to do something to stop the grave robbers in their tracks. I wanted to achieve something but did not know how. My return itself was an act of self-comforting. I wanted to tell myself that I could return to my city whenever I wanted. My tour of the city was a way of calming myself and establishing a sense of safety with the place, but what had been developing inside me was unidentifiable.
A week after my arrival something happened that lighted an idea inside me. I had agreed with my friend and philosophy professor Fatma Ghandour to meet in the morning, as we often did, and walk around the city’s streets contemplating the world through our chats. Fatma has always been an inspiration with her ability to calmly contemplate in the most turbulent of times. Our meetings always enriched my inner world and gave me a special kind of energy. Fatma’s contemplations were different from those of the clever people around her. Her cleverness was not a regular one: it was coupled with spiritual calmness and an ability to reach the heart of things without getting distracted by the details that dominated the minds and hearts of others. She always went straight for the heart, and that was inspirational.
As Fatma and I were walking, we heard a loud explosion nearby, and a state of chaos ensued. A young man had bombed an Israeli patrol and disappeared, and no one could find him. The Israeli forces did not manage to arrest him. Zionist forces started hysterically searching the area as people watched, including me and Fatma. Fatma then said “Nialoh,” which translated to something like “how happy he is” or “lucky him.” I looked at her inquisitively, and she replied, “This young man is the only one among us who feels free and is now living his own moment of freedom.” Yes, he is the only one among us who is free at this moment . . . he defeated the occupation and besieged its annoying presence. This young man brought meaning back to life and, in his own way, brought back balance to his own world and reclaimed space for himself.
This was not the first operation against occupation. These operations had already started in Sidon even before the fall of Beirut. They had made me realize how to regain balance with the world and how to “besiege our siege” as Mahmoud Darwish had advised us. This young fighter, Fatma, Mahmoud Darwish, every moment I lived during that time, and people’s stories all opened a door for me to reread the memory of my city through people I have loved so much.
My film did not reflect all that was inside me, but it gave me space for my revelations, which were still falling short and needed a lot more to be completed. With all its shortcomings it was, nonetheless, my first trial. The Upper Gate was my first trial, but not the beginning.
I was born in south Lebanon’s Sidon. Sidon is a coastal city located south of Beirut. It is the gate of the south and the north of Palestine. In this city I was born, and in this city my journey started.
In the beginning, the choices I made were not really personal choices but were more like fate.
Four things were fated to me since my childhood: The sea, politics, a world opened to a wide range of choices, and cinema. I did not seek these things because they were already present in my life ever since I was born. It was my own “special fate.” One cannot know whether I called for it or whether it called for me.
I was raised in Sidon, a calm coastal city, and our house was right on the beach. During my upbringing, I was convinced that every person in the world had a sea to grow up with. When I was seven years old, I cried when I heard that some children in other countries had never seen the sea. I cried out of pity for them. My child mind could not grasp this kind of deprivation. The small island located a thousand meters into our city’s sea used to offer me distant company, especially during winter nights when I entertained myself counting the time between the light and darkness of its semaphore. When we learned as children in our history class that the Phoenicians came to Lebanon in a wave of migrations from the Arabian Peninsula in an age of drought and desertification and settled in the fertile part here to create the Phoenician civilization, I imagined that our little distant but close island, empty of everything but rocks and sand, is the Arab Peninsula. The Arab Peninsula was that close to my child mind and to my imagination.
The sea was the world to me. From the sea, I saw the Arabian Peninsula, and from its shore, I once saw under the moonlight the goddess of beauty, Ashtar. She was being born from its waves and came close to the sandy shore of our city. I also watched the sun that used to come out in the morning from behind the mountain to swim in its water during sunset. As a child, I imagined that if we were able to go on a boat to wait there at the end of the sea, we could meet the sun (I used this story in a script of a short film about a child that goes to meet the sun, but the film never materialized due to objections by the censorship authority).
My city’s sea has many stories. I was the youngest of my family and I heard stories told by my siblings about boats that filled the sea in 1948. My older sister woke up one day in 1948 to find the sea full of small and medium boats approaching the city’s coast. She recalled that it was an enchanting scene and when she ran to ask our mother what was happening, our mother replied, “These are our people from Palestine.” This sentence marked the beginning of a long story that we have not finished narrating, hoping that it would reach a happy ending with “the return.” The more the story was complicated, the longer the narration has become; it has become an epic. (The scene of the boats was the opening scene of another, longer fiction film that has never materialized).
The Palestinian story is one that shaped the destiny of the Lebanese south, its people, and my own, being one of these people. The Palestinian story was not only about mass murder and the enforced displacement of “our people.” It was a conspiracy against the unity of our region; the region within which we were so accustomed to moving in freely. We were made to discover that barbed wire and fake borders have become a daily obstacle. We heard our parents comparing life before and after the Zionists, England, and France. It was an extended land with no end and no fully defined geographical borders.
The words I heard during my childhood accumulated inside me before I could even grasp their full meaning: “Colonialism,” “Zionist Conspiracy,” “the Stein mob,” “Sykes-Picot,” “Palestinian camps,” “the right of return,” “the Algerian Revolution,” “the Fidaeyieen” (resistance fighters), “The tripartite attack,” “Arab Unity,” “The People’s Liberation War.”
There are also names that until today I have a soft spot for despite their lack of connection to the Arab region. For example, Patrice Lumumba, who I will never forget for as long as I live; nor will any of the residents of my small city who lived during that time forget him. The city held a huge demonstration when Patrice Lumumba, the African activist and national liberation hero, was assassinated. I remember the story of a man who worked cleaning shoes. When he saw the demonstration, he asked one of the participants what it was about and who Patrice Lumumba was. He was told, “He is an African activist against occupation . . . he is like us . . . he wants the occupation out of his country.” The shoe cleaner gathered his equipment and joined the demonstration in memory of a human who carried our dream and was killed for it.
These stories shaped a fertile world in which I moved and added to my memories a richness that I have not seen elsewhere, not even in literature. I was amazed by the simplicity of the stories and their ability to influence through this very simplicity. I discovered through my journey with the stories how impressive and magical a story can be when it comes from the heart and touches upon the simple details of life without seeking to intrigue. This school of storytelling has shaped the works of many exceptional artists. One example is the great artist Najy al-Aly, the son of the Palestinian camp Ain al-Helwa who was embraced by my southern city. Najy is the son of small stories and popular wisdom, light stories made with little effort. He was born out of the torn and patched garment of the city, and instead of throwing the garment away he made Hanzala, his immortal child, wear it.
It was my fate to grow in a world full of events and stories. My family’s open nature helped me discover it without barriers or presumptions. Mine was an extended family, with my father, mother, siblings, uncles, aunts, and family relatives and friends. Having the freedom to move between them in a safe city helped me shape myself independently and gave me the ability to choose from each what I loved. My father and mother’s tolerance and openness to the world helped me move around freely. They had a passion for life, each in his and her own way, which they passed on to me and my siblings. I was lucky to have them in my life as I have never met a father and mother like them: free on all levels. They stood for women’s freedom, they embraced ideas of social justice and respect for diversity, respect for the other, opposed hate, and adored honesty. All of these were not ideas to be discussed, but to be lived and practiced daily.
Our home buzzed with ideas, interests, and hobbies. Knowledge, in its wide sense, was important. In our home, I learned to respect all types of knowledge no matter where it came from. Our home hosted all those who favored knowledge: academics, street intellectuals, political symbols, and people from all spheres of society. Literature, poetry, music, and cinema were woven in daily life and practiced by each according to preference. I moved around in this atmosphere and enjoyed its different aspects, without it meaning anything to me but pure joy and a discovery of life.
Cinema at the time provided its own special enjoyment, especially since television (to my luck) had not made its way to us before I was sixteen years old, allowing me a space to enjoy cinema with all its rituals. There were four main film theaters in our city: three of them were owned by my mother’s cousins and the fourth was run by my maternal uncle on behalf of a friend who lived abroad. This gave me the chance to go whenever I wanted, especially during holidays.
Being the youngest in a family interested in culture, I was given the chance to contemplate all the adults’ discussions, intellectual tendencies, and hobbies. They all blended in to shape the dream factory growing inside of me. I cannot remember which of them influenced my choices more. Each of them played a part in shaping my knowledge and my interest in the world. Each of them had dreams that enriched my own. My sister Maha and my brother Ziad played a huge role in shaping my human biases and the emotional and intellectual choices that I made in my life. As for my brother Khaled, poetry and history remained two meeting points for us to share. I enjoy hearing him recite poetry, and thanks to him I have developed a taste for Arabic poetry, old and modern, and an interest to dig deep into the ancient history of our region.
I was torn between many things when I had to choose, and my passions were a blend of a lot of influences. I cannot describe myself solely as a filmmaker, but it is certain that cinema has given me a vast space in which I express myself. It was not my only space, but has taken up a great part of my journey in life. My sister Nabiha had an important role to play in making me realize that I can be in filmmaking, not only among the audience at the theatre. Nabiha is sixteen years older than I am, and when she started her journey with cinema, I was only a child, and I was impressed to discover what cinema could offer. I always liked cinema as a world of magic, but with Nabiha I learned that we can become the magicians. That was a very romantic discovery.
I studied film and lived in its world but when the civil war started in Lebanon it dragged me to another area that is more emotional: the nation, life, and the fate of the world that we dreamed of changing for the better. The war years had cut me off from my work in cinema, but I never missed an opportunity, when life allowed, to be part of this world. At that time cinema was present in my life through my dear friend Yousry Nasrallah who worked in Beirut at the time as a film critic. Yousry and I shared a deep friendship full of cinema and many other details that shaped our mutual world. I witnessed many film projects, including Al Manam (The Dream) by Mohamed Malas. I lived part of this experience, and it was enjoyable for me to be part of the world of cinema, even if for brief moments. I also witnessed the shooting of Nabiha’s Because Roots Do Not Die, in addition to several small projects with Ghaleb Shaath and other colleagues who sought to document the war. But all of these projects were moments stolen from a time of civil war.
My real return to cinema was after the invasion. Even though I shot my first film The Upper Gate in 1989, the emotions and contemplations that led to it had started in 1982 with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the besiegement of my city. The time period between 1982 and 1989 was not only a time for preparation but also a time for doubt as to how and where to start. Upon my return, I worked for a while with director Mohamed Khan, during which I rediscovered cinema following a long pause. At first, I started by drafting a script for a feature film about the invasion, but then I got more gripped by the need to document memory. I was taken by the reality of the present moment that I sometimes found feature films to be weak in addressing, or lacking entirely.
The decision to start my film as a concrete project came with the withdrawal of Israel from Sidon and the stories that started coming in from the youths who were released from the Ansar prison in addition to the stories of those whose family members and friends were kidnapped. I started collecting material, and the stories flowed. That is when I entered my first project, The Upper Gate. My second film Jameela’s Mirror was about Palestinian resistance fighters from the seventies, and then came my other films with their variations.
If I analyze what the focus of my films are, I see that memory, popular narratives, and discovering the world are all common factors. I never claimed objectivity in any of my films, but I was always honest in my research and in the details that I chose to include. I never fabricated documents or misrepresented any idea given to me by the characters I met. I never claimed to know facts, but instead depended on open-ended questions and always sought to create a story of flesh and blood. I did not force false emotions or beg for sympathy, but I interacted emotionally with the world I recreated.
I never claimed objectivity. I despise the idea of being neutral, and I find the claim pretentious, but I try as much as I can to be biased, to be a human in the world: a fair one, an enjoyable one, and one that is not authoritarian. And so, I fell in love with popular culture because it gives space for a free mood and allows for discovering the essence of things.
Popular culture is a tool to resist institutionalization. Through their spontaneous movements and interactions, people have been able to recreate the language of storytelling, the sound of music, the taste of food, the colors of pictures, and to create an intimate and humane relationship between humans. They have been able to do all of this with simple spontaneity and innocence, and these acts have always struck a great blow to two main problems that have faced human civilization: racism and selfish possessiveness.
I have worked on this idea through film, especially in the areas around the Red Sea and the River Nile in my films Seven Nights and a Day, Rango, and Egyptian Wedding. My dream is now to finish a long journey along the Red Sea, one that I have sought for years, and I hope to talk about it after I finish filming it.
This article is translated by Salma Shukrallah with permission from the author. This essay is translated from an earlier version that appeared in Arabic in a special issue of Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, dedicated to the theme of "Trauma and Memory":
لطفي، عرب.”شهادة سينمائية من زمن الحرب". ألف مجلة البلاغة المقارنة ٣٠ (٢٠١٠): ص ص ٢٠٦-٢١٦.