Ibtisam Mara’ana Menuhim wrote, produced and directed a sublime documentary centered on the life of the Palestinian national poet, Mahmoud Darwish. It is a compelling portrait of a man whose verses confused his readers. Rita and the Rifle, for instance, was written as a love letter to a Jewish girlfriend Tamar Ben Ami – and not as tribute to this homeland. (Read more…)
For Portuguese readers not familiar with your work, will please tell us who is Ibtisam Mara’ana?
I was was born in 1975 in Faradis [Paradise]. I am a Muslim, Arab, working class village in the North of Israel. At the age of 18, I was accepted to film school where I began to create without previously ever having seen a film in a cinema.
Immediately, I began working with the themes that my films continue to explore until today. My first commercial release, Paradise Lost, is considered to be the first film to be made from the perspective of a Palestinian woman.
I founded Ibtisam Films over a decade ago to produce films which have a strong personal voice exploring the borders and boundaries of Palestinian and Israeli society with a focus on women and minorities.
The films explore gender, class, racism, collective and individual identity, history, the present and dreams for the future. Beyond my film work, I give lectures at Bezalel – Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.
Do you recognize yourself in this definition of your films: “They explore gender, class, racism, and collective and individual identity, showing the plight of Palestinians of Israeli citizenship in Israel but also criticizing the backward traditions (including the so-called ‘honor killings’) within their own society”?
I grew in an Arab chauvinist society that discriminates women and in the Israeli Jewish society that discriminates Arabs, thus most of my life I fight for my own woman identity and my national identity in Israel.
The subjects of my films reflect the backyard of the Israeli and the Palestinian society, which are most of time the most hidden ones, because they are also the ugly ones.
I deal with those subjects because, in my opinion, there is a huge lack of justice that is done toward women through all history of men kind, and it is time to put an end to this miserable situation.
I believe that as long as women are depressed and occupation continues, my movies will continue to reflect this situation, which is my reality, and the reality of most women on earth.
Why did you decide to write and direct a documentary about Mahmoud Darwish?
I never thought to make a film about Darwish’s life as a national poet and as a man. In 2010 I released a documentary film called 77 steps which is a love story between me and my Canadian Jewish ex-boyfriend.
For two years I documented my life with him and the difficulties we had as a Palestian-Jewish couple. I remember the fears I dealt with through the making of “77 steps”, which was a very personal movie. One of my biggest fears was how arab society will accept this film.
To convince myself and in order to feel safe, I made a ‘safe answer’ to throw at anyone attacking me for exposing my relationship with a Jewish man.
This ‘safe answer’ was that Mahmud Darwish could write love poems about his Jewish loved one (one of the poems is Rita and the rifle), it is perfectly fine that I’ll make a movie about my relationship with my Jewish boyfriend, a controversial act in both the Arab Israeli and Jewish Israeli societies.
After the end the movie production, I went to seek who Rita is. I went to a half a year research in which I found a woman who might be Rita in Darwish’s poetry.
The name of that woman is Tamar Ben Ami, and I found her living in Berlin. She exposed her love story with Mahmoud Darwish 40 years ago. She also exposed love letters that Mahmoud sent her. That when I understood that only through such a love story I can tell a story of a national poet.
The HotDocs Film Festival is one of the biggest and honourable documentary film festivals in the world. And this is not the first time I première my films in this festival.
Why the title Write Down, I am an Arab? Is Identity Card your favorite poem?
As an Arab who lives in Israel, I never identified with the Israeli National hymn (“Hatikva”) nor the Israeli Flag.
The poem Identity card is sort of a national hymn for me. Though my favorite poem of Darwish is Rita and the rifle [Mira Awad plays a beautiful song with these verses; an older version is performed by the great Lebanese composer, singer and oud player Marcel Khalife] because it describes the Palestinian-Jewish conflict, and is both national and personal at the same time.
Rita and the Rifle
Between Rita and my eyes
There is a rifle
And whoever knows Rita
Kneels and plays
To the divinity in those honey-colored eyes
And I kissed Rita
When she was young
And I remember how she approached
And how my arm covered the loveliest of braids
And I remember Rita
The way a sparrow remembers its stream
Between us there are a million sparrows and images
And many a rendezvous
Fired at by a rifle
Rita’s name was a feast in my mouth
Rita’s body was a wedding in my blood
And I was lost in Rita for two years
And for two years she slept on my arm
And we made promises
Over the most beautiful of cups
And we burned in the wine of our lips
And we were born again
What before this rifle could have turned my eyes from yours
Except a nap or two or honey-colored clouds?
Once upon a time
Oh, the silence of dusk
In the morning my moon migrated to a far place
Towards those honey-colored eyes
And the city swept away all the singers
Between Rita and my eyes —
Have you ever met Darwish? Are there one or more personal stories that you wouldn’t mind to share? How do you describe the impact of his poems and of his life in his homeland and among Palestinians in exile?
I met Darwish in 2007, a year before his death, in Ramallah when I went to document a Palestinian writer named Raji Bathish, I tried interviewing him but he did not cooperate. Mahmoud is considered as the voice of the Palestinian people across the world. He is greated than any Palestinian leader. His impact is huge and I hope my film will bring some of him to many people who have not discovered him yet.
Mahmoud Darwish was, initially, a Palestinian of Israeli citizenship, a member of a community that “walk like an acrobat on a tightrope”, as David Grossman wrote – a minority treated with suspicion not only by Israelis demanding loyalty to a “Jewish State”, but also by Palestinians in the occupied territories. You were a candidate to the Knesset on a list of the Meretz party. How do you evaluate the role of Palestinians of Israeli citizenship in the national political scene? Why so many of them vote for Zionist parties, and how do you explain the divisions that prevent a common front?
The Israeli Palestinian people do not see themselves as part of the political scene. They do not believe in Palestinian leaders and don’t think that they can help them. Therefore most of them do not vote.
April 2014 was supposed to be the deadline to close the “peace process”, under the auspices of US secretary of State John Kerry. What are your expectations? Do you believe in a two-state solution? What would be the ideal Palestine of Mahmoud Darwish?
I do not believe in a two states solution, I believe in a one state solution for both nations. We can keep on daydreaming about a Palestinian state, but as I see the state of the occupation, I see no way an Israeli leader will rip apart the settlements.
Israel is stalling on purpose so it will be able to continue expanding on more private lands and more settlements.
I think that both sides, the Israeli leadership and the Palestinian leadership is benefiting from the current state. No Palestinian leader will ever acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, because it isn’t (this is a state with both Jewish and Arab people).
As one state will rise for both nations and the refugees will be able to come back home, justice will be made after decades of bloodshed. I think Mahmoud Darwish spoke about one state for two nations.
Israeli media nominated you as “one of the 10 most influential women”. Do you see yourself like that? What are the Palestinian women’s main challenges, and what is the role of your foundation in this regard?
Every year, Israeli media declares different 10 most influential women, I don’t take those lists too seriously. The main problems of Palestinian women is that they keep silent and see the Arab man as a target they need to reach, they give them respect even when they shouldn’t and they are not willing to pay the price of challenge and revolution.
Being your brave mother a role model, according to this interview, if you had to make a film about a woman poet whom would you chose?
Great question! One of the persons I would choose to make a film on is Fadwa Tuqan, a Palestinian poet [Nablus, 1917-2003], that never married. Her point of view as a single woman in the Palestinian patriarchal society is unique.
Books by Darwish were recently banned as “blasphemous” and removed from the Riyadh International Book Fair. How do you explain this decision being Darwish a writer whose poems are taught in schools throughout the Arab world and who is seen as one of the most important poets in the Arabic language?
Mahmoud Darwish is very secular, that is why I identify with him. It is a sad decision of the book fair organizers but I don’t think it represents the Muslim world.
There always are and always will be extremists who see Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry as a threat. Did you know that Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry is banned in Israeli Schools?
Israel, as much as the Riyadh Book Fair people, is afraid from people such as Mahmoud Darwish for their influence on nations. I think that poetry can influence people as much as any religious book.
I am an Arab
And my identity card number is fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the ninth will come after a summer
Will you be angry?
I am an Arab
Employed with fellow workers at a quarry
I have eight children
I get them bread
Garments and books
from the rocks…
I do not supplicate charity at your doors
Nor do I belittle myself at the footsteps of your chamber
So will you be angry?
I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged
Were entrenched before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras
Before the pines, and the olive trees
And before the grass grew
My father… descends from the family of the plow
Not from a privileged class
And my grandfather… was a farmer
Neither well-bred, nor well-born!
Teaches me the pride of the sun
Before teaching me how to read
And my house is like a watchman’s hut
Made of branches and cane
Are you satisfied with my status?
I have a name without a title!
I am an Arab
You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors
And the land which I cultivated
Along with my children
And you left nothing for us
Except for these rocks..
So will the State take them
As it has been said?!
Write down on the top of the first page:
I do not hate poeple
Nor do I encroach
But if I become hungry
The usurper’s flesh will be my food
Of my hunger
And my anger!
Parts of this interview were included in a long article published in the Portuguese newspaper EXPRESSO, on June 21, 2014.