Between Three Stools
I experienced the first day of the Lebanese Civil War in a very symbolic way: I was driven out of my family home by my father, after he had humiliated me to the core in the presence of a colleague who had regarded me as a heroine for having made the film The Hour of Liberation among the freedom fighters in Dhofar. To be precise, I left the house after my father had humiliated this colleague in my own bedroom and thrown him out of the premises. As a sign of protest, I left with him rather than submit to what had been more than just a slap in the face for me – I, who considered myself an intelligent being after having returned in glory from Cannes, Paris, and New York.
What sin had I committed in my bedroom with this colleague? I had gone into the room to fetch a poem by Muddaffar Al Nawwab, which I had wanted to show him. My colleague – the Algerian film director Abdelaziz Tolbi, who was visiting Beirut – had innocently followed me in, and we had lost ourselves in our poetic-philosophical discussions while the rest of the household dozed off into a well-deserved siesta after a long Middle-Eastern lunch. “Sayakuna kharab! Sayakuna kharab! Hadhihi al-umma, la budda laha an ta’khudha darsan bil takhrib” (“There will be destruction! There will be destruction! This Arab nation must learn a lesson in self-destruction!”), I recited fervently. It was the end of Al Nawwab’s poem. Exalted, Tolbi lapped up my words. ln them, he had found the creative answer for which he had been searching in connection with the fiction film he had been dreaming up.
Dazzled by Al Nawwab’s prophetic poem, neither of us knew that my father wasn’t asleep. That he was spying on our noises. That he was wondering what this goy (the word used by the Jews to designate non-Jews) was doing in his daughter’s bedroom. And that he was saying to himself: “It’s one thing to let a goy into the house – I couldn’t deny this to my daughter, whom I haven’t seen for three years. She assured me that he was married and the father of four children. Furthermore, while we were eating lunch, the whole family could keep an eye on him. But this goy had the audacity to stick around after dessert and coffee; to linger in the living room all afternoon, alone with my daughter, without anyone to supervise them, apart from the kitchen maid! And now he dares to enter her bedroom! That is crossing the lines...”
Sayakuna kharab... Sayakuna kharab... I couldn’t have put it better myself...
We were soaring high in the rarefied atmosphere of aesthetics and Marxism when my father, still in his pyjamas, burst into my room. Fuming with rage, he insulted my colleague and threw him out, in the most humiliating manner possible. Poor Tolbi was flabbergasted. He had believed himself to be in the home of a guerrilla filmmaker, of whom he had read in the press that she had walked 400 kilometres1 amid falling bombs to film the most radical guerrilla warfare of the Arab world. Something no man had dared to do... And now, before he could even register what was happening, he had been thrown out of this supposedly modern house.
“Ya ard, insha’i w-ibla’ini!” (“O Earth, open up and swallow me!”) Alas, the earth did not grant me my wish. Beside myself with shame and humiliation, I found myself in the street alongside Tolbi. When he had recovered his breath, my poor colleague stammered: “Your milieu isn’t even feudal; it’s tribal.” I had been hoping to repay his kindness as he warmly welcomed me when I was his guest in Algeria! I had landed myself in a fine mess.
But this was not the last time I would be torn between the harsh pressures and stimulating atmosphere of my peers – among whom I surpassed myself and gave off my best – and my family environment, which was light years away from my public life. It was a warm family, admittedly, but within it... “I suffocate in the Malay community,” my cousin from Singapore told me. This cousin, who belongs to my Muslim extended family, is also an artist, and like me she suffocates within the narrow confines of her religious community. I have often asked myself whether her feelings of suffocation have to do with her being a woman or an artist. Like me, she married outside of her social milieu.
But let us go back to our Beiruti subject of the Civil War. So Tolbi and I found ourselves in the street, still stunned and incredulous over the resounding slap in the face that my father had dealt to our avant-gardism and universalism. We had believed that we had wiped our slate clean of old-fashioned religious things, of such backward traditions, of the old patriarchal order we blamed on imperialism and Arab regimes. And bang! We had barely taken a few steps down the street when we received a second slap... or rather a truncheon-blow, in this case! Bullets started to whiz by. They were the very first shots of the Civil War, and this made them terrifying. In Dhofar, among the guerrillas, I had grown somewhat accustomed to that – although not before literally shitting my pants the first time the British Royal Air Force bombarded an area close to us, and not before my sound engineer had dubbed me a “crap director” because I compulsively screamed “Ya mami!” (“Mama!”) every time I heard small arms fire at close range, thereby ruining his wonderful sound recordings. Of course, I had carefully hidden all this from the press, from Tolbi, and the rest of my colleagues, for fear of being rejected – I, who was the first woman director from the Middle East to be selected at the Cannes Film Festival. I was much too afraid of hearing “Look what happens when a woman tries to make a film. And in guerrilla warfare, of all places! We told you so.” But in Dhofar, with the military escorts, the desert, the rocks, the armed women and children, the shooting formed part of the soundtrack of life. In Beirut, the bullets that were flying amid the Lebanese dolce vita were all the more harrowing.
The confessionalism that we had so ridiculed would show us that it didn’t give a damn about our intellectual contempt for it. We had ignored it? It was going to show us it was alive and kicking. We had been guilty of using moral terrorism against the “scumbags” who adopted it? They would pay us back by terrorizing us in a much more physical manner over the next seventeen years. I should have suspected the presence of this confessionalism, since I spoke Arabic with two different accents, like most Lebanese: one in my family and regional environment (Lebanese Jews speak with an accent close to the Syrian accent) and another in the cafés of Hamra and in cultural circles (a kind of standardized journalistic Arabic whose slight classism masked religious or regional particularities, “the poisoned heritage of the Ottoman Empire”, as we liked to say).
The house of the friend where I had planned to seek refuge for myself and Tolbi was still quite far away. To hell with the bullets! Returning home was out of the question. The patriarchal, imperialist, capitalist order was one and the same, was it not? Avanti Popolo! “Al mawt, wa la-l-mazalati” (“Death rather than a life of humiliations”), chanted at that time the fedayeen, whom we supported with such fervour. I was determined to prove to my father that I was an intelligent being and not an eternal minor, the status in which his Judaism, institutionalized through Lebanese laws, had confined me. We arrived safe and sound at my friend’s house, and in the course of our ensuing discussion Tolbi discovered that even though I spoke classical, journalistic Arabic fluently, when it came to reading, I was only semiliterate in Arabic – thanks to my French school education. “And I had thought that it was out of the depth of reflection that Heiny had spent hours poring over the document produced for the congress of documentary filmmakers!” Ah, this conditioning power of the press! O dear! Yet another indignity!
Well, they wouldn’t be the last of my career. I continued to cross borders. Every time professional success made me fly high above the weight of tradition, the long arm of my family brought me crashing back down to planet Earth, where the laws of gravity are merciless to an Oriental woman, particularly if she happens to be Jewish in an Arab world showered with bombs thrown in the name of Judaism.
So, after I was awarded 400,000 francs as Grand Prix for the Best Scenario of the French-speaking world – I who never went to film school –, I had my suitcase opened and searched in my absence by a member of my family, in the best tradition of the Spanish Inquisition. I’m exaggerating: I wasn’t burned at the stake, as were tens of thousands of Jews at the hands of Torquemada. But I was thrown out of my own sister’s house, so scandalous did family censorship find my screenplay. Not to mention the public pogrom-like lynching my family subjected me to after my film on Vietnam (Rising Above: Women of Vietnam, 1995). And so on...
I shot half of Leila and the Wolves in Syria, thanks in part to the active solidarity of my Syrian colleagues, who begged me to hide the fact that I was Jewish. As a child, I had grown up with the notion of the “Chosen People”. As an adolescent, I had earned a very physical slap in the face from a Hebrew teacher at the French Jewish School in Beirut for having dared to state that this Jewish God was unfair to non-Jews. So it was asking me too much to conceal my Jewishness as if it were a venereal disease. I bowed, nevertheless. My Syrian colleagues already had a lot of troubles with their government themselves, and I didn’t want to add to their problems.
In Lebanon as much as in Syria or anywhere else in the Arab world, as soon as I leave the milieu of my tiny left-wing circle, my Jewishness casts a chill, a wave of unease, or worse upon any gathering of people. And I don’t always know what to do, because I cannot identify with this religion, in which the fairest of the fair, the wisest of the wise, King Salomon, kept a harem of a thousand women (700 princesses and 300 concubines, according to the Bible). And the only thing which attracts the wrath of this Lord so righteous and so good is that some of the women are pagan and that Solomon built temples dedicated to their idols, an intolerable offence to a monolithic system of monotheism. After all my crusades – anti-patriarchal, anti-clerical, anti- despotic, anti-anti-anti... – both globally and in my family, I recently surprised myself by painting and repainting the Star of David on the mortuary lanterns dedicated to my late father.
The Star of David? I had gotten to the point where I found the sight of it on television unbearable, so great was the swath of death and misery that the tanks and airplanes emblazoned with this symbol had spread over the course of the Israeli wars. I had gotten to the point where I sometimes felt ashamed of my Jewish origins. As a child, I had loved this star when it was explained to me that it was composed of two perfect geometrical figures – isosceles triangles. One pointing upward and the other downwards to signify the equilibrium between the spiritual and the temporal. A Lebanese friend, who is fond of macrobiotic cooking and Buddhism, told me that this Star of David “is the universal symbol of Tao, and of Yin and Yang, throughout the whole Orient”.
Jewish tradition dictates that prayers of consolation that are specific to the period in which the person died, be read to relatives of the deceased. And so it is that Isaiah is read to me in an annual ritual; indeed, it will be read to me in a few days to console me over the death of my father. These prayers begin quite symbolically by thanking the Lord for having sent good prophets to the Jews, as there are also false ones. According to the Bible, Isaiah was one of the good prophets.
What does Isaiah say in addressing himself to the children of Israel when the Eternal speaks through his mouth? “Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that deal corruptly!” (Isaiah 1:4) And later on, “Every head is sick and every heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head there is no soundness in it...” (Isaiah 1:5-6) And: “Bring no more vain offerings; incense of abomination they are to me. As for new moon and Sabbath and the calling of assemblies, I cannot bear iniquity along with solemn meeting... Even when you make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean. Remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes. Cease to do evil. Learn to do good. Seek justice, relieve the oppressed; defend the orphans, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:13-17). This is how my father speaks to me, beyond his death; he who was a passionate supporter of Menachem Begin. “Human beings have so many hidden treasures.” That’s what my macrobiotic friend tells me, who is always there to show me the unsuspected beauties of Life.
And that is not all. For Isaiah continues: “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:3-4) Wasn’t this what had attracted me to Marxism, this hope that wars would disappear with the end of capitalism? This love of peace and justice is another hidden treasure left to me by my father; he who tore up the Marxist books that I read surreptitiously, by the light of a torch, beneath the covers of my bed.
I burdened my male colleagues with sarcastic remarks about their representation of women. “Arab filmmakers clearly have problems with their mothers,” I wickedly wrote. And when I found the courage to look at myself in the mirror, I saw a woman filmmaker who had just as many problems with her father. For from Dhofar to Vietnam, passing by Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt, I always found myself siding with the David of the moment against the Goliath of circumstance. For even in the Bible, the lovely little shepherd boy who brilliantly defeats the iron-clad monster, armed solely with his faith and his slingshot, abuses his power when he becomes king... And is sharply reprimanded by his Lord, “as the Eternal is always on the side of the oppressed”.
My father, a man of good, did indeed pass this on to me. He who suffered as many discriminations as any Jew could expect to encounter in Lebanese society. He who had so discriminated against me, this female child he hadn’t wanted and had so hoped would replace the male child that had died before my birth. For him, it was a discrimination by divine order, inflicted with all the good faith that his Bible gave him and the object of so much suffering for me, in my private and professional life.
So, I reinvented my Star of David.
All this to explain why I have compulsively found myself making films that are so much more difficult to make than those of my male colleagues.
London, 16 October 1998
- 1In fact, we walked 800 kilometres. See page 84.
‘Assise entre trois chaises’ was written in September 1998 for an unpublished book on Lebanese cinema. Please note that the mistranslation published by Rebecca Hillauer (in: Encyclopedia of Arab Women Filmmakers, American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, 2005.) is not approved by Heiny Srour. Only the present one is faithful to the original French text.