Pomegranates and Myrrh – the Palestinian struggle for a culture

The assault on Palestinian culture posed by the Israeli occupation is well-recognised, but it is not the only threat.

Najwa Najjar’s Pomegranates and Myrrh is a bitter-sweet Palestinian film, intriguingly described as a crowd-pleaser, a political, and a story of strong women. Something about Palestinians which hasn’t been mediated by Hamas supporters. The Sundance Film Festival synopsis:

“Dancer Kamar’s joyful wedding to Zaid is followed almost immediately by Zaid’s imprisonment in an Israeli jail for refusing to give up his land. Free-spirited Kamar wants to support her husband and be a dutiful wife but struggles with the idea of giving up dance and her own dreams. Matters are complicated when a new dance instructor, Kais, returns to the studio after many years in Lebanon and takes a special interest in Kamar. She struggles to deal with the weight of Kais’s attention, which brings to the surface her attempts to balance her own desires with her duties as the wife of a prisoner.Like the character of Kamar herself, Najwa Najjar’s filmmaking (in her debut feature) is matter-of-fact about Kamar’s situation. Instead of manufacturing melodrama, Najjar stays focused on her protagonist’s insistence on seeing her life, like anyone else’s, as an opportunity for joy. The constant interference of the external conflict—her husband’s arrest, the squatters on her land, and the soldiers filling the streets—is an unavoidable aspect of Kamar’s existence but one that she will not allow to deter her. Najjar’s intimate storytelling and Yasmine Al Massri’s sensitive portrayal of Kamar create a film that addresses honestly the way a woman might face the realities of life in modern-day Palestine while refusing to be defined by them.”

Najjar says:

“I didn’t want my film to be a violent film of the kind you see in cinemas,” explains Najwa Najjar. “Zaid and everything he went through was important for me. We have all seen violence before. And so have the viewers.”

“Take, for example, the scene showing the quiet determination of the settlers who strap machine guns to their bodies and set up tents on the family’s land, or the constant presence of Israeli soldiers, whether it be at checkpoints or in the streets of Ramallah. Anyone who has been in the occupied territories in recent years knows that this is an accurate representation of life there: the omnipresence of the occupying forces, the helplessness of the Palestinians, and their attempts not to spend their lives being full-time victims and not staring at the occupying forces like a frightened rabbit stares at a snake.

“We are not what you see on television,” explains Najjar. “There is a feeling of solidarity, of holding together, among many Palestinians. While there are political problems with Hamas and Fatah and the things that are happening in the country, these political disputes are the result of the fact that there is a lack of vision for the future. Among Palestinians themselves, however, there are not as many conflicts.”

The fact that Qamar does not want to stop dancing and insists on culture in her life while everything around her becomes politicised, is also an expression of the political disillusionment of the young film-maker.

“I think that culture is the soul, the heart-beat of a nation. It is what remains when politics fails. Politics is leading us nowhere. So at least leave us our culture. That, at least, is something we can pass on to future generations.”

The film looks quite steamy – the tempestuous women, the smouldering dance teacher. Hamas inmates of Israeli jails are campaigning to have it banned – this reminds me of working in HMP Bedford (where I was switchboard operator and made particular efforts to put wives through to husbands – although it wasn’t strictly permitted) and how being inside and imagining your other half with another man is terrible for morale. In the case of ideological hate-mongers, perhaps it’s better if morale is low. But then again perhaps it just makes them more hateful.

Daoud Kuttab in The Huffington Post:

“While many welcomed it, some felt that somehow Najjar treaded on forbidden territory when she took the audience inside the head of a liberal prisoner’s wife, and then showed her conflict about going back to dancing and even exchanging special looks with her trainer. Some seemed to think it lunacy, others treason.

A report highlighting the angry statement of a viewer appeared in the media and seems to have made its way inside the Israeli prisons where a campaign began by Hamas prisoners asking for the film to be banned because it negatively portrayed the prisoners’ wives.

The filmmaker’s protagonist couple are patriotic Palestinians from the nationalist liberal wing of Palestinian struggle today, yet this did not stop the campaign. Some see this campaign as a reflection of the overall Palestinian political and social divide. Counter-campaigns, one led by well-respected Palestinian novelist Lina Bader, have also been initiated.”

(Liana Badr?)

“One of the problems facing Palestinian creative talent and intellectuals is that they often give themselves the awesome difficulty of having to carry the entire Palestinian cause on their shoulders. Even paintings have to have the colours of the Palestinian flag, or some kind of embroidery, or cactus, or Handallah, or the map of Palestine in order to pass the test of patriotism. But artists are not obliged to do that.

A Palestinian fiction need not be the official narrative of all Palestinians, neither should any other work of art of culture have that requirement. By attempting to mass everything into every work, Palestinians fall into exactly the stereotypical trap that has been set up for them.”

The trailer:

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