“I am an Arab volunteer. I came to defend freedom on the front in Madrid, to defend Damascus in Guadalajara, Jerusalem in Cordoba, Baghdad in Toledo, Cairo in Cadiz and Tetuan in Burgos.”
So reads the daughter of Najati Sidki, who was a Palestinian journalist and former secretary of the Palestine Communist Party, from her father’s memoirs, written in Arabic, in which he recounted his experience as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Sidki was among thousands of international volunteers who came from Iraq, Morocco, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt and Algeria to fight on the side of the Republicans against General Francisco Franco and his fascist forces.
The scene described above is from the trailer of You Come From Faraway, a documentary film in the making by award-winning Egyptian filmmaker Amal Ramsis, whose repertoire includes the films Only Dreams (2005), Life (2008), Forbidden (2011) and The Trace of the Butterfly (2014).
You Come From Faraway unearths an unexplored history by telling the story of Sidki who, like his Arab companions, believed in the universality of their struggle for social justice and democracy and thus left their countries on the eve of the Spanish Civil War to fight alongside Italian comrades. Some of these Arab volunteers died in the course of the war. Others disappeared, while some were able to return to their countries after the war.
Around 50 percent of the film, which is produced by Necati Sonmez and supported by Screen Institute in Beirut, is complete. In an attempt to finish the film soon, Ramsis started an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign, which she hopes could help the team raise the missing amount in the film's budget and reach the post-production phase in 2016.
On finding a story
In 2004, while studying film in Madrid, Ramsis stumbled upon an article that revealed the participation of Arabs in the Spanish Civil War, published in a Spanish magazine called La Commité de Solidaridad con la Causa Árabe (The Committee of Solidarity with the Arab Cause).
“It was much of a discovery, as even the Spanish themselves don’t seem to know that Arabs had volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War,” Ramsis told Ahram Online.
In fact, Arabs’ participation as international volunteers in the Spanish Civil War has been obscured, with our knowledge of the Arabs’ role in this war largely limited to how Moroccan troops were brought into Spain (as Morocco was colonised by Spain at the time) to fight alongside Franco’s forces against the Republicans.
Hoping there was a story to uncover, Ramsis commenced a search for the writer who had written this magazine article. His name was Salvador Bufaroll and he told Ramsis he discovered the Arabs’ participation in the Spanish Civil War while undertaking research in Moscow.
“He spoke of how he would sent letters to people whose names he found during his research, to check if he’d receive any replies, and hence confirm they were all real-life characters. I told him I was interested in researching the subject and he supported me by passing on all documents he had,” Ramsis explained.
Between that meeting with Bufaroll in 2004 and up until 2007, Ramsis delved into historical research on the topic, with the help of the Granada-based Fundación Euroárabe (The Euro-Arab Foundation), which offered Ramsis a research residency.
(Photo: Fragment from the documentary's promotional material)
During this three-year research period, Ramsis “read a lot about the Spanish Civil War, and met with other people to know more about this specific historical juncture,” all the time trying to locate an Arab family who had been connected to the war, to create an intimate portrait of them and their aspirations for social justice and political freedom.
“There’s a difference between making a documentary about the Spanish Civil War and between finding a specific human story that you could base that documentary on. So while the historical information was available, I was interested in finding Arabs who had lived this war, and had written about it in some way,” Ramsis said.
In 2007, while still in Madrid, Ramsis found her story when she came across a Spanish translation of a memoir by Najati Sidki, a Palestinian communist who traveled to Spain in 1936 and volunteered to fight against Franco. In the fragment of the book that had been translated by Professor Nieves Paradela, Sidki recounted his experience as a volunteer in the war after 40 years of silence.
Ramsis immediately got in touch with Paradela, who informed Ramsis she had been in contact with one of Sidki’s two daughters, rendering Sidki’s family an important find, “since some of its members were still alive and thus could be approached, which was not the case with many of other families of Arab men who had volunteered to join the Spanish Civil War,” Ramsis explained.
Ramsis soon traveled to meet Sidki’s younger daughter who lives in Greece, and was introduced to the full story of Najati Sidki's family. In 2015, Ramsis also traveled to Moscow where she met with Sidki’s eldest daughter, Dawlat.
“I came to know how Sidki had lost Dawlat, who was born three years before the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, during the course of his participation in this war. For the next 25 years, the daughter lived in Moscow, separated from her family before all Sidki family members reunited in Beirut decades later,” Ramsis explained.
The Sidki family had lived through important moments in modern history, beginning with the Spanish Civil War and the 1948 Nakba, to the Lebanese Civil War, and earlier World War II, which Dawlat had witnessed during her stay in Russia. To Ramsis, this only suggested how “this family’s story encapsulates our region’s history as a whole.”
Renegotiating essentialist readings of the Arab
But besides exhibiting a historiographical debate, by showing that Arabs had taken part in Europe’s struggles for democracy, You Come From Faraway also shows how 20th century politically-active Arabs believed in the universality of their social struggle.
“The Spanish Civil War exhibited a very obvious struggle between fascism, on the one hand, and democracy, on the other hand, as opposed to other wars in modern history where this dichotomy was not as apparent,” explains Ramsis, who is also the founder and director of the Cairo International Women’s Film Festival.
Believing in their shared destinies, and viewing their struggle in a manner that transcended borders and nationalities, thousands of international volunteers thus left to Spain, “confident that if this battle for democracy triumphed in Spain, it would also garner similar gains across other European countries,” she adds.
The story constitutes a vivid rebuttal of a long-standing stereotype towards the Arab as being incapable of being active, or involved politically.
Najati Sidki had lost his eldest daughter, Dawlat during the course of his participation in the Spanish Civil War. For the next 25 years, the daughter lived in Moscow, separated from her family before all members of the Sidki family reunited in Beirut decades later. (Photo: Courtesy of Amal Ramsis)
As Ramsis puts it, the discovery that Arabs had participated in the Spanish Civil War suggests that “not only did we as Arabs play a crucial role in important [political] movements in Europe’s modern history, but that this role is also a reflection of our own political activity during the 1930s and 1940s, beginning with the type of problems we were concerned about and how we had a secular struggle against colonialism, which comprised many leftist parties and movements that championed social justice and democracy.”
“For example, despite having traveled to Spain to fight on the side of the republicans, Najati Sidki could still see that the republicans’ struggle lacked an important element because it did not see the decolonisation of Morocco (which was colonised by Spain at the time) as one step towards the ultimate success of their battle for social justice,” Ramsis adds.
That Sidki and his comrades were politically aware and could see this relationship between decolonisation, on the one hand, and crippling fascism in Europe, on the other, challenges the current view of Arabs as submerged in a Sunni-Shia divide or in sectarianism, and renegotiates the misconception that the Arab world "was never home to strong political parties and movements that advocated social justice and democracy in other countries.”
Moreover, the film suggests how borders were a symbol of solidarity in the 1930s-1940s, as opposed to now, where they have become walls against refugees.
“In Spain, Arabs were joined by Italians running away from Mussolini and Germans escaping Nazism, [both groups of whom] saw the Spanish Civil War as being an integral part of their political struggle,” Ramsis says.
Today, however, borders “are open from the West towards East, but not vice versa. Refugees or illegal immigrants remain unwanted at European borders.”
For Ramsis, the Syrian refugees question, for example, "was immediately politicised, with the concern being how to set refugee intake quotas for Turkey, Lebanon and other countries. It is being portrayed more like beggary, while no one seems to be interested in examining the historical context that bore this conflict and how some Western countries played a role in initiating these wars, which have produced today’s refugees.”
Since the film’s inception in 2004, the film project was being realised through individual efforts — specifically through Ramsis and her husband. But, as Ramsis explains, “no film can find its way to the silver screen through individual efforts only.”
Ramsis applied for production grants and received support from Beirut Film Institute, but struggled to receive other grants.
“The problem is that today’s film market prefers mainstream approaches. Films must serve this need to stereotype Arabs, as either refugees or terrorists, without any space for different depictions of the Arab,” explains Ramsis.
“You Come From Faraway is not interested in such victimisation of the Arab, and as such was not attractive enough for available film funds.”
With filming still to be done in Lebanon, Moscow and Spain, the film crew recently launched their Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, which Ramsis says “embodies our own battle against the current film market and its obsession with mainstream cinema.”
“People who contribute to our campaign are helping us carry this battle, which in itself is part of a larger battle over our own history and collective memory,” she adds.
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