The Palestinian cause has been a central facet of Arab conscience since the mid-20th century, functioning as the gauge of a citizen’s connection with political culture in general and their position on the Arab-Israeli conflict in particular.
Following the 1952 Revolution the regime was supportive of the Palestinian cause as a natural ally whether since the Tripartite Aggression of 1956 or after part of Egypt itself was occupied on the 1967 defeat.
That defeat made the Palestinian cause part of Egypt’s political and national identity. And in 1972 a mass movement calling for democracy and a popular war of liberation placed pressure on Anwar Al-Sadat’s nascent regime.
Catalysed by a student group named Supporters of the Palestinian Revolution, the movement continued to exercise influence until the peace treaty with Israel in 1979. The notion of normalising relations with Israel expressed in the treaty, though it was unanimously rejected at the popular level, became state policy.
Trade unions added terms to their regulations prohibiting members from “normalising with Israel” — something that remained in place even after Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords in 1993.
A campaign was launched to boycott the screening of Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri’s latest film The Insult (2017) at Zawya Art House in downtown Cairo, prompted by Doueiri’s previous film The Attack (2012) having been shot in Israel, with the story set in Tel Aviv.
Last September, Doueiri was stopped at the airport on his return to Beirut; he was held for a few hours and transferred to a military tribunal to be tried for visiting Israel without permission, but the next day he was released without charge on the grounds that he did submit a request to the Lebanese government (which he was neither granted nor refused) and it had been longer than three years.
Prior to the screening of The Insult in Beirut, also in September, Doueiri was subjected to an anti-normalisation campaign staged by activists, rights campaigners and Palestinian cause supporters. The Insult had its Egyptian premiere at the El Gouna Film Festival in the same month, but it wasn’t until its current screening that it generated social media arguments and reopened the normalisation debate.
No doubt a natural and positive response to the issue, the discussion nonetheless veered into insults and accusations of treason. For days now statements against the screening and calls to boycott the film, including a tweet by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement in Egypt, have not stopped.
For this writer supporting the Palestinian people is an ideal to be aspired to, imposing sanctions on an essentially racist state is part and parcel of the call for justice and equality the world over. However, it is hard to see how this might include accusing anyone who might want to see a film by Doueiri of normalisation or (as has happened in some cases) calling for a boycott of Zawya as an entity that embraced a director who at some point filmed in Israel; this, despite the fact that Zawya remains the sole outlet for art house cinema in Egypt, catering to cinephiles of every political persuasion.
Nor is Doueiri an unimportant director. His debut, West Beirut (1998) was screened at Cannes and won a FIPRESCI at Torino as well as the debut prize at the Carthage Festival in Tunis among other awards.
West Beirut documenting the first few years of the Lebanese Civil War as of 13 April 1975 through the experience of a teenager named Tarek who witnessed the Ain Al-Rummaneh massacre — the clash between Christians and Lebanese nationalists — the right, and Muslims, Palestinian refugees and freedom fighters — the left, which marked the actual outbreak of the war — from his classroom window.
The film is remarkable for the seamless, humane way in which it recounts the eruption of madness across Beiruti society at this early stage of the 15-year conflict while Tarek and his friends are trying to develop and print an 8mm film from before the war.
Film still from West Beirut (1998)
The Lebanese-Palestinian conflict at the centre of the Civil War remains an essential part of Arab awareness and it seems to constitute one of Doueiri’s fundamental concerns as a filmmaker.
But while West Beirut deals with it in a humane and profound if still simple way, The Insult is artistically naive, direct and full of rhetoric. The conflict between the two groups that bore arms against each other in the war takes the form of a legal battle between Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a Lebanese young man, and Yasser Abdallah Salameh (Kamel Al-Basha), a refugee camp resident who works as a contractor.
The Insult opens with Tony attending a Lebanese Forces conference where someone like Samir Geagea is praising the pro-Israeli Phalanges leader and former president Bachir Gemayel (killed on 14 September 1982).
Those not familiar with Lebanese politics might not understand the implications, though it soon becomes clear that Tony, a car mechanic who owns a garage, is unsympathetic to Palestinians, since when Tony’s drainpipe accidentally soils his the clothes of a Palestinian who works in the area and Yasser draws his attention to it, Tony responds with an otherwise inexplicable coldness. In the ensuing, public altercation Yasser directs a common insult at Tony, and the latter decides to take him to court, turning it into a national debate.
The debate is played out in the courtroom as the celebrated pro-Forces lawyer Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh) defends Tony while a young female rights lawyer named Nadine Wehbe (Diamond Bou Abboud) — who in an in-your-face twist eventually turns out to be Wajdi’s daughter — takes Yasser’s side. The film does provide background stories for the two contestants: the reason Yasser works as a contractor is that, being Palestinian, he cannot find work as an architect in Lebanon; Tony is expecting a child.
But none of this is brought to bear with sufficient depth, and the script (written by Doueiri with Joelle Touma) ends up having too weak a structure, with what might have been a personal conflict with political implications taking on the form of a full-blown rhetorical war between the two sides in which the director at least twice returns to events in which Palestinians caused problems in the countries where they took refuge: Black September in Jordan (1970) and the Damour massacre (1976).
Nor is the courtroom drama format used in an inspiring or effective way. In Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg (1961), for example, Nazi crimes are revealed through courtroom dialogues, making for a narrative that is rhetorical and direct but acceptable in the context of World War II and the 1960s.
Over half a century later Doueiri employs the same technique without improving on it, and uses a veneer of political correctness to tell a biased version of the story (since he mentions none of the Lebanese massacres of Palestinians: Karantina, Tel Al-Zaatar or indeed Sabra and Shatila).
Israel certainly deserves the treatment that South Africa received before 1990, and so I have no objection to the concept of boycotting it at official and institutional levels. But boycotting a film on the grounds that its director once filmed in Israel is neither reasonable nor fair to an audience that is eager to see a film that made a mark abroad.
The social media debate, what is more, did not advance the Palestinian cause or help to formulate a clearer position on normalisation. Instead it helped to promote a film that remains modest despite its participation in the Venice Film Festival official competition, where it was Kamel Al-Basha — a Palestinian actor born in Jerusalem — who received the Best Actor prize.
* This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly