Friday, October 30, 2009

Dir. Offenbacher's "TEA" Demystifies Syria, Unveils Its Beauty and Diversity, and Wins AFF's Noor Award for Best Documentary

13th Annual Arab Film Festival ("AFF") Held in California from October 15 to October 25
Dir. Offenbacher's "TEA" Demystifies Syria, Unveils Its Beauty and Diversity, and Wins AFF's Noor Award for Best Documentary

In California, October was a special month for Arab Americans. San Francisco's Mayor Gavin Newsom declared October "Arab Heritage month." Events celebrating this designation were held during the month. Another event, no less important, is the Arab Film Festival (AFF). From October 15 to October 25. Arab films from around the world were screened in San Francisco, Berkeley, San Jose and Los Angeles. In all forty- one Arab films were screened from throughout the world.

The opening night film was a Palestinian film, Pomegranates and Myrrh by Najwa Najjar. "A powerful story of love and freedom under repression and control, as described by AFF's program director, Daniella Jubran. Michele Shehadeh AFF's Executive Director Arab wrote in the event booklet "We are proud to present many great features, documentaries, and shorts highlighting this year's theme, "bridging cultures."… Two of our recently screened films, captain Abu Raed and Amreeka, were picked up for national distribution." When asked by the writer of this column if there is a need to hold a similar event, a Muslim Film Festival, to fight the backlash against Muslims, Mr. Shehadeh correctly noted that the discrimination "we face as people of color, as Arab, is not based on religion, it is based on skin tone and the fact that we are not white. When we are seen by non- Arabs they focus on our looks and act accordingly. "

The writer of this review attended a number of the screened films and enjoyed the most the film Tea on the Axis of Evil, affectionately called "TEA" by its director Jean Marie-Offenbacher's ("Jean"). The film takes the viewers throughout Syria from the Bedouins in the desert to the city dwellers with their Westernized lifestyle. Throughout the film, Jean manages to present lovely scenes from throughout Syria while having Syrians from different backgrounds speak for themselves about among other things marriage, love, religion and politics. The Forum and Link met with Jean asking her about her experience making the film:

Forum: When and how did you conceive of this project?
Jean: After the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, the media and representatives of the Bush regime began to describe Syria and Iran in the same terms that they had used to justify that invasion. I was afraid that destabilization or invasion of Syria and Iran could proceed with no opposition from U.S. or European citizens because they were so saturated with fear and loathing of "Muslim hordes." Images of both countries provided by our media were illogical, but Syria was particularly a black hole. Iran exports its film and art, while an opaque veil hides Syria's beauty from the West. References to Syria as a "Muslim" country seemed to intentionally deny the fact that it has a secular government and is a home of Christianity. In the spring of 2004 I decided it would be a good idea to move there and experience what was real and what was propaganda.
Forum: What were the obstacles to this project?
Jean: I did not know anyone in Syria. I asked everyone I knew if they knew anyone in Syria, so by the time I arrived I had a lovely greeting party at the airport and people to help me find an apartment and settle in to Damascus and show me how to get buses, planes and trains to travel.
I did not speak Arabic. Many people in Syria speak English and French and I am a good communicator.
I had not worked in film for 7 years and the last projects I had edited were on 35mm film, so I had to learn to shoot and edit in digital media. Digital media is much easier to learn than traditional so I was way ahead of the curve on camera and in the edit.
Forum: . How long did it take you to finish it?
Jean: I was glacial at completion, because I only had a few donations, so I could not hire a great staff to edit and post production supervise and produce and direct and cast and raise more money…too many hats on my head and some of them were covering my eyes. I shot from September of 2004 until July of 2006, but never edited at all until early in 2006. To make matters worse, my Macintosh computer kept destroying my work until Apple finally admitted that it was a lemon about a year and a half into the edit.
Forum: Where was the first screening? What are the plans for future screenings? Did TEA win any awards?
Jean: The first screening was in Northern Ireland at the Foyle Festival when it was still a work in progress. It was the only film at the festival that was sold out – the other screenings were attended by only a handful of people…that was when I was started to feel confident that ordinary citizens were thirsting for information about Syria – at least in N. Ireland. TEA’s first real screening as a completed film was at Sonoma International Film Festival in April 2009. The screening was so overcrowded that about 50 people were standing throughout and many had to be turned away. Californians were curious about Syria!

The Dubai Int Film Fest requested a screener, but I have not heard if it is accepted. The UNA and Harvard Kennedy School women alumni are creating an event for TEA in Boston in March for International Women’s Day. An exciting upcoming event in April is the Southern Circuit Tour, in which I am paid to travel to small towns in the south to present the film to rural audiences.
The first award was a Special Mention for being poetic at Salento International Film Festival in Italy. The first real award was in the Arab Film Festival in California, where it won the Noor Award for Best Documentary. It was thrilling to be recognized at this event by this community – the other films there were great, better all around than any festival I have ever attended so I was amazed that I won.
Forum: Is TEA available for purchase? Where and for how much?
Jean: As the film is new I am not settled on distribution in North America. For international distribution, Long Tale represents TEA. Anyone interested in purchasing "Tea" should contact me through my website.

Forum: Any thoughts/memories from the making of TEA you would like to share?
Jean: I have so many. The fondest memory, so many...but there are few moments on earth that compare to nights under the darpotabani in the desert...One weekend I took two friends of mine with me to Palmyra. Though they had grown up in Damascus, they had never been to the desert. My Bedouin friends met us there and put us up in a hotel that they had built. It was a beautiful, fantasy hotel that a few months later was mysteriously destroyed. On the second day, two of my Bedouin friends and I rode 40 kilometers - me on horseback, them on motorcycle - to desert hotsprings. One of the heads of a nomadic Bedouin family heard that I rode very fast and challenged me to a stakes race set for the following spring. My friends from Damascus arrived and the springs were opened for us. When we returned to the fantasy hotel, a sheep had been freshly prepared into a delicious mensaf in our honor. Every moment of this weekend was pure magic.
A one-word favorite memory would be food and it is probably misspelled: "macduce"; I ate it for the first time on the morning of day 1 of Ramadan with the Jasm family in Deir Ez Zur. I could probably tell you 1001 tales from the experience of making TEA in Syria.
Note: Dir. Jean Marie Offenbacher contact information is: Re Orient Films jmpo@reorintfilms.org, www.reorientfilms.org. More information about the Arab Film Festival can be found at www.AFF.org

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Remembering the Houla Massacre. 10/31/1948

Houla Massacre of 1948
Apathetic State: No Military Readiness or Political Will to Stand and Fight

The 1948 Houla Massacre Anniversary
October 31, 2009 is the sixty- first anniversary of the Zionist massacre in Houla, a village in South Lebanon. The Zionist Hagganah gang, led by Menachem begin, blew up houses and massacred in cold blood tens of the town's men. As a consequence of the Zionist attack, (one of a string of subsequent attacks on South Lebanon over the years), led to the people of Houla becoming refugees in their own homeland in 1948, living in the Dbayeh refugee camp. It was not until the beginning of May of 1949 that these displaced Southern Lebanese were able to go back to their destroyed village.

The Need for Strong defense of Lebanon
The Lebanese right wing elements has always claimed that there is no problem between the Zionists and Lebanon. They blame all the troubles of Lebanon on the victims of Israeli aggression, the Palestinians, instead of blaming the aggressors. To this group, the "strength of Lebanon is in its weakness" as the late Pierre Gemayel put it. As a result, there has been a determined policy of keeping Lebanon weak- a policy conceived even before the birth of the state of Lebanon. Lebanon has been paying dearly for this official policy since.

1948 Revisited: Failures and Flawed Performance
A few weeks ago a dispute arose in Beirut over the use of a Modern History Book at the International College (IC) school. The book calls Hizbullah and other resistance movements "terrorist organizations." The matter was seen by the supporters of the March 14th Movement some as an attempt by the supporters of the 8th of March Movement to discredit the Minister of Education, the sister of the late Prime Minister of Lebanon Rafic Hariri, and a member of the former grouping. Indeed, there is a problem with history books used in Lebanon across the board but it was not the IC book, which in reality had that offensive statement taken out or covered up. The real problem is that not one textbook used to teach the history of Lebanon actually teaches history. One of the matters that is not taught in history books is the truth about the performance of Lebanon in the 1948 Palestine war. The failures of the Lebanese state and the flawed performance of the Lebanese army are not taught. The massacre of Houla, and the subsequent occupation of a part of Southern Lebanon, are direct results of these failures and flawed performance.

The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948
An excellent book on the 1948 war is The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948, edited by Eugene Rogan and Avi Shlaim. The article of interest for this column is Mathew Hughes', Collusion Across the Litani? Lebanon and the 1948 War.

Debunking Lebanon's False History of a Valiant Fight:
A Belligerent in Name Only
No Political Will or Military Strength to Fight
The main argument of Mr. Hughes is that the official history of Lebanon's role in the 1948 war is false. He writes "In the debates surrounding the events of 1948, Lebanon's role is either exaggerated militarily or relegated to a few footnotes." He adds "[I]t is clear that Lebanon had neither the political will nor the military strength to fight Israel in 1948. It was a belligerent in 1948 in name only, leaving the fighting to others. Politically, its Christian dominated government had little incentive to fight Israel, elements of the Christian community preferring to collude with the Jewish Yeshuv before and after 1948. "

Who's Your Enemy, Past and Present?
Hughes writes about Lebanese Maronite Monsignor Ignace Mubarak "finding common cause with the Jewish Yishuv as minorities in an overwhelmingly Muslim region, Mubarak in an interview with the Palestine Post in March 1, 1946, made abundantly clear his support for Zionism and s Jewish state. The following year, in September 1947, he appealed on behalf of the Yishuv to the United nations (UN) Committee (UNSCOP) sent to investigate the future status of Palestine, linking together the Jews and the Maronites."

1948 War: A Weak Army, an Apathetic State
Policy Delivers the Galilee to Israel, Galilee Palestinians End Up the Much Complained About Refugees in Lebanon
The Lebanese army was unprepared to defend the budding state- instead it was groomed as an auxiliary to the state's police force. Hughes writes, "Until the war with Israel, the Lebanese Army was more of a police force than an offensive military force, not least because its main duties involved assisting the police and gendarmes in internal security…" This army, by design, fought only one battle with Israel, a much ballyhooed battle celebrated by the state's ruling elite. "Lebanese army sole engagement with Israel at village of Malikiyya on 5-6 June 1948 located 700 meters over the border inside Palestine/Israel…In effect, by 9 June the war for the Lebanese army, which had began on 5 June, was over. " He adds, "Lebanon did very little to help the ALA [Arab Liberation Army] during operations Dekel and Hiram." Incidentally, the Hiram battle is the battle were Israel succeeded in taking over the Galilee, a part of Palestine allocated to Arabs in the UN Partition Plan. This led to the uprooting of most of the residents of the Galilee who took refuge in Lebanon and have become the much complained about and mistreated Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon today.

The lack of a fight extended to the lack of political will or military readiness to defend Lebanese territories. When Zionist forces advanced into Southern Lebanon "the Lebanese army withdrew without a fight or remained in its bases, as Israel occupied between fourteen and twenty Lebanese villages in the Marj'Ayun valley stretching up to the Litani, in one of which (Houla) they massacred between thirty four and fifty two villagers…" Mr. Hughes concludes his assessment of Lebanon's war effort: "[I]n 1948, Lebanon did very little to confront Israel; nor did it do much to help Arab irregular forces fighting across the border in Galilee…The insignificant, operationally flawed performance of the Lebanese army and the ALA was a strategic asset for the Israelis who, untroubled on their northern border," were able to focus their better forces on other battlefields thus helping in the total defeat of the Palestinians.

Readiness and Political Will to Stand and Fight.

The performance of official Lebanon in 1948 is contrasted to the solid preparedness and resistance of the Hizbullah in 2006. Mr. Hughes concludes his chapter with citing a counter-factual comment by Charles Glass published in the London Review of Books of 17 August 2006, Hughes writes:"Political factors in 1948 were undoubtedly important considerations in the outcome of the war but so was a willingness to stand and fight. This point is nicely illustrated by Israel's 2006 war with Hizbullah in Lebanon when Hizbullah fighters took on and successfully checked the IDF along the Lebanese border leading one commentator to make the intriguing counter-factual comment that had Israel faced an enemy like Hizbullah in 1948 the outcome of the war might have been different."

Lebanon Today
The opponents of the presence of Hizbullah as a military force have stated that Lebanon needs alternative ways to defend itself. However, so far no official strategy has emerged to confront Israeli aggression against Lebanon. The recent folkloric making of the largest Hummus and Tabbouleh plates will not protect the Southern Lebanese from another Houla. Only military preparedness and the will to stand and fight does. Do these exist at the official level today, unlike 1948?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Love Palestine, love its Palestinians?: The plight of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon

Love Palestine, love its Palestinians?: The plight of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon

Support for Gaza stops short, operation cast lead and the outpouring of support

During Operation Cast Lead against Gaza, a large number of Arab-Americans, leaders and community members turned out to protest the crimes of Israel in Gaza and the unlimited American support of Israel that enables this carnage. In the Greater Detroit area many of those in the protest were Lebanese who sincerely care about the Palestinian cause. It is great that the Palestinians have this show of support—it is heartening to see the throngs of supporters line up on Warren Avenue.

However, Palestinians in the Arab world are also victims of mistreatment and abuse. This mistreatment reaches appalling levels in Lebanon. One wonders how many of those Lebanese protesting Israeli crimes know, care or do something about the appalling situation of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, refugees who are now into their fourth or fifth generation of refuge. There is not a single week that goes by without the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar writing a story about the plight of the refugees—the excessive use of force by the national army and the looting of the Nahr al Bared Camp, the foul language written on the walls of the houses of the refugees, the ill treatment of the displaced refugees at the security checkpoints, etc.
You wonder what explains the loudness on the suffering of Palestinians on the hands of Israel versus the deadly silence as to the suffering of the Palestinians who live in Arab lands, particularly Lebanon. You wonder what is behind the almost universal silence of Arab-American newspapers run by Lebanese-Americans who are vocal supporters of Palestine but ignore completely the plight of the Palestinians in Lebanon? Suspicious.

Cognitive dissonance or tribal logic?: Lebanese civil war begins with a lie, ends with a lie

Is it cognitive dissonance? Is it fear of upsetting governments that are prone to abuse those who dissent? Is it a reality lived according to the Arab saying of me and my cousin against the stranger and me and my brother against my cousin? The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon face de jure and de facto discrimination that is not being seriously challenged in any way. A false history of the Palestinians in Lebanon has hardened many hearts to the plight of the Palestinian refugee and sunk into the unconscious of others allowing them the guilty comfort of the false sense of doubt about the injustice that the Palestinians live daily.
The Lebanese civil war began with the grand lie that the Palestinians either hate Lebanon or want it as a substitute for Palestine. One Lebanese fascist group has made the claim that the Palestinians hate Lebanon because it is "green" or that they want to take it over and forget about Palestine. Those deluded Lebanese forget that if Palestinians like Yasser Arafat, Nayef Hawatmeh, Dr. George Habash, Khalil al Wazir and Salah Khalaf wanted to replace Palestine with Lebanon, the Israeli army itself would have been glad to help them do just that. Israeli behavior and Palestinian behavior exposes this claim for the lie it is–the Israelis invaded Lebanon to crush the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Palestinian nationalism aided by none other than the obnoxiously loud and militarily fickle supporters of Israel who provided aid and comfort to the occupier of their own land, the Israelis, time and time again. This includes massacring civilians in cold blood while the Israelis light up the sky and watch from a safe distance.

The reality is that the civil war began with a lie about the Palestinians and ended with a lie about the Palestinians. Not wanting to face the demons of the causes of the civil war and the Lebanese on Lebanese atrocities, the Lebanese ended their war with the myth that it was all the fault of the Palestinians and the Lebanese were merely victims. A former prime minister aptly called The War of the Victims Against the [other] Victims.

Also, the late President of the Republic, Elias Hrawi, summarized this national amnesia and demonizing of the Palestinians in a TV interview stating "let [civil war atrocities] bygones be bygones." When asked about the rights of the Palestinian refugees he stated that he would not "privilege the Palestinians over the Lebanese." That statement sealed the fate of the refugees and ushered decades of discrimination and abuse.

The courage of Natalie Abu Shakra and the shameful silence of others

Not all Lebanese approve of the mistreatment. Al Quds al Arabi of Sept 15., 2009 published an interview with a Lebanese young woman, Natalie Abu Shakra, who was part of the ship that broke the siege on Gaza. Natalie stayed behind and experienced Operation Cast Lead. Abu Shakra compared the lives of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to the lives of the Gazans. She described the Palestinian camps in Lebanon as "ghettos, just as Gaza is." She told al Quds al Arabi reporter Zahra Merhi that the Palestinian refugees suffer from Lebanese government policy, have no rights, live in ghettos created by the state and that the reality of the camps in Lebanon is a "shame to mankind."

What a courageous woman young Abu Shakra is, a courage that we do not see from many men. No one expects all supporters of Palestine to brave the siege of Gaza and experience Cast Lead. However, it is not much to ask that the Lebanese who support Palestine communicate their disapproval of their country's shameful treatment of the Palestinian refugees and demand a change.

There are a number of consulates and an embassy to communicate this concern to. Also, in the Greater Detroit a number of delegations leave for Lebanon to meet with Lebanese officials to raise the concerns of the Lebanese community in the United States. Not one time I heard or read that any of these delegations raised the issue of the plight of the refugees. Not one time even though some of these delegations include some who wear the cause of Palestine on their sleeve, collar and elbow.

Lebanese sectarian democracy: Regime extends rights to groups, not individuals
Human rights groups ignore the biggest victims of abuse among them

The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are victims of the country's consociational regime and its sectarian politics. In this regime individuals are not recognized, only sects that run the government and the lives of their flock. The rights and obligations of individuals are seen through the prison of the sectarian politics and sectarian spoils. In this regime, the refugees are thought of as another "sect" that wants to share the spoils of the sectarian pie. This thinking sees the Palestinians as a demographic threat rather than as a group of human beings that is owed decency and civility in treatment from a people known to have emigrated in large number throughout the world and knows what it means and feels to be outside the country of origin.
It is time for official Lebanon and Lebanese leaders in the United States to make the leap of thinking outside the sectarian box, dealing with the refugees as a human group rather than as a sectarian collection and obsessing about how they play out in the sectarian balance or imbalance. The civil war hardened sectarians in Lebanon are excused for not being able to escape the straightjacket of sectarianism.

However, there is no easy pass for the others—those who merrily and loudly advocate the concept of citizenship, individual rights and liberties, over political sectarianism but have chosen to ignore the Palestinian issue and to instead revel in their pyrrhic victory of the optional removal of the religious affiliation from state IDs. They would have had a bigger impact and a claim to consistency and solid principle in respect for human rights if they had centered their campaign on the Palestinians and challenged the core of the sectarian regime and not its manifestations.

Those in the Mahjar or diaspora, especially those who wear Palestine on their sleeve, simply have no excuse to inaction. They co-own the national shame.