and FARRAH HASSEN
“I was depressed,” said the comic. “I didn’t have the energy to commit suicide. So, I started dating.”
Like most good jokes, this one hides a tragic insight. If only Said and Khaled had caught her act! For these Palestinians, outrage has fed depression and turned it into righteous destructiveness the ultimate in therapy, posing as politics.
Israeli occupiers prove daily to residents of the West Bank that they live in the opposite of Paradise; indeed, even a momentous distance from a contiguous and liberated Palestinian state. The beautiful future exists only in the fantasy of the two young male protagonists, and presumably those who have programmed them to take the violent route to Heaven.
The “Resistance” leaders weave their religious-infused thread of struggle through the thin surface layers of daily maintenance and sustenance, work, family, food, smokes and play. In the dusty refugee camp in urban Nablus, the “Resistance” also selects best friends, Khaled (Ali Suliman) and Said (Kais Nashef), whose futures look bleak, to the honored role of martyrdom.
Having established anger and pessimism in their lives, director Hany Abu-Assad (“Rana’s Wedding”) then takes the audience through a political and psychological discourse that goes beyond cinematic drama and gives “Paradise Now” an educative function for moviegoers of the world. Indeed, 90 minutes of pictures and sounds from a well-acted, character-driven film, prove more insightful than the millions of words analysts have exhausted on the volatile Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The protagonists live inside limits imposed by Israeli policies, the evolution of their lives caged by the history of occupation, that grinding process that erodes optimism and molds rancor into their psyches.
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s annual report stated that the Palestinian economy “shrank 1% in 2004, one in three Palestinian workers was jobless at the end of last year and 61% of households had income below the poverty line of $350 per month” (Al Jazeera, August 25, 2005).
Concurrently, “Between September 2000 and through September 2004, more than 24,000 Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip have been made homeless by Israeli house demolitions,” according to the 2004 Arab Human Development Report. Since 2000, over “12,000 homes have been either demolished or damaged in the West Bank” (pg. 31).
Norman Finkelstein quotes an Israeli bulldozer operator, who told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper (May 31, 2002) after the IDF’s 2002 incursion into the Jenin refugee camp: “I wanted to destroy everything. I begged the officersto let me knock it all down: from top to bottomFor three days, I just destroyed and destroyedI found joy with every house that came downIf I am sorry for anything, it is for not tearing the whole camp down” (pg. 52, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, University of California Press, 2005)
The Nablus refugee camp inhabitants understand the bulldozer operator. He could be the Israeli soldier staring death daggers at Palestinians at checkpoints, the fanatic settler randomly shooting a Palestinian. It makes Palestinians bitter, incensed or weak.
Said’s father grew weak and the “Resistance” executed him as a collaborator, a traumatic blow for a young child. He doesn’t blame his father, he says. Instead, Said understands how living in Nablus, a human “prison,” had eroded his father’s strength.
The media doesn’t show Palestinians’ living conditions, so the opening scenes of “Paradise Now” may shock US audiences. Israeli soldiers at check points aim guns at each Palestinian entering or leaving his territory. They treat them with disdain, suspicion and hatred. The film relies on that opening scene to evoke “oppression,” since we don’t see further images of the daily harassment and human rights violations imposed by the occupiers. Indeed, the director assumes that filmgoers already know about the humiliating body searches, the bulldozing of Palestinian homes as collective punishment, the Israeli soldiers shooting kids throwing rocks.
He assumes the public will appreciate the symbolic and real meaning of the Israeli wall (452 miles long when completed) that cuts into Palestinian land. Indeed, in a July 9, 2004 advisory opinion, the International Court of Justice called it “contrary to international law.”
Nonetheless, daily humiliation administered by Israeli occupiers does not explain suicide bombing. Palestinian fury does not have to mean martyrdom. Indeed, “Paradise Now” vibrates with the possibility of an alternative, one that negates suicide as viable politics. It suggests that this tactic poses as a crucial element in the political struggle, but really has no role in a larger strategy.
Suha (Lubna Azabal), the film’s third main character, a European-educated middle class daughter of a martyr, feels the passion in Said, the soulfulness in his sad eyes. But she cannot reason politically with a man whose psychic despair drives him to avenge his father’s death, punish the Israelis and cleanse the family name and thus his own soul as well.
Later in the film, however, she does persuade Khaled that suicide will not only deprive the resistance of a valuable actor, but that its violence against an enemy with far superior armament represents the ultimate in futility. In truth, suicide bombing-in the name of struggle-helps unify a potentially divided enemy.
Suha also snaps Khaled out of his religious fervor, his parrot like repetition of the hereafter dogma fed to him by Jamal (Amer Hlehel), a member of an unnamed Palestinian group who guides the friends on their deadly mission. Two angels will transport them to Heaven and the “Resistance” will protect and look after their families, Jamal assures them. Yet, he doesn’t explain how the fatal deed will help Said’s mother recover from the loss of her son.
We watch the elaborate purification ritual of the would be martyrs, culminating in their physical transformation from shaggy, rugged auto mechanics to clean cut human bombs sporting identical “belts” underneath their new black suits.
Khaled, initially more spirited about their endeavor, experiences the first glimmers of cold reality when the video camera recording his impassioned pre-mortem statement malfunctions. Like an actor, he must do another take, in front of the crew more interested in devouring their pita sandwiches and ready to call it a wrap, than in the profundity of his final remarks.
The video, we learn, will find its way to the shelves of a small West Bank version of Blockbuster Video. In that video shop that sells collaborators’ taped confessions along with the last speeches of martyrs, the store owner claims people would pay more for the collaborators’ tapes, a statement that underlines the callous foundations of Palestinian life produced both by the occupation and the hitherto frustrating results of resistance.
The occupiers themselves, who we have seen only at checkpoints, take on greater dimension as the two erstwhile exploders take their last ride. For the first time they, alongside the film’s audience, can compare Tel Aviv’s prosperity and glistening sky-rise buildings overlooking the sparkling blue sea coast, to the reality of Nablus, the latter filmed in mostly grayish hues to evoke the stifling feel of the decaying city.
The bomb-loaded young men, the only objects in distinctly black and white, stand as symbols of the oppressed in their death uniforms. Abu-Assad’s astute direction doesn’t allow the audience to assume that facile one-dimensional storyline by preaching good versus evil, right versus wrong. Rather, his account about suicide bombers dramatizes the complexity of human response to contemporary oppression.
Instead of mounting spectacularly choreographed Hollywood fireworks, “Paradise Now” relies on subtle, ironic moments to explore an explosive subject. After the first aborted suicide mission, Said screams in pain when his handlers remove the adhesive tape that secured the bombing device to his body. Such a believable reaction from a man who moments before had committed himself to incineration raises questions about both characters and presents the immediate reality of human anatomy: it hurts to have the tape ripped off.
It also raises the issue of whether Said really has the will to continue the mission. By the middle of the film, Suha’s luminous presence, her growing affection and compassion for Said, should provide-at least ideally-a counter lure for his mission of death. Could she represent the means by which Said can transcend his desire to avenge his father’s death and offer him a loving way out of his misery?
In their last screen time together, the camera captures a sensitively acted exchange of longing looks and one light but very tender kiss: a statement of love or a sad goodbye?
If nothing else, before potential suicide bombers commit to martyrdom, they should confront Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s lines:
“We have on this earth what makes life worth living:
April’s hesitation, the aroma of bread at dawn,
a woman’s point of view about men,
the works of Aeschylus,
the beginning of love,
grass on a stone,
mothers living on a flute’s sigh and the invaders’ fear of memories
We have on this earththe Lady of Earth, mother of all beginnings and ends
She was called Palestine. Her name later became Palestine.
My Lady, because you are my Lady, I deserve life.”
(“On This Earth,” Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, University of California Press, 2003, pg. 6)
SAUL LANDAU is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.
Farrah Hassen is a 2005 Seymour Melman Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. She can be reached at email@example.com.