Last night at Alwan for the Arts in New York they staged a cultural event that might even be historic it was so important in subtle/oozing ways. Julian Schnabel read passages from the novel Miral, by the Palestinian-Italian journalist Rula Jebreal, and the two answered questions, Jebreal about her childhood in occupied East Jerusalem and Schnabel aobut his film based on Jebreal’s book. The importance of the evening was literal and symbolic. A leading Jew in the arts and an Arab stood together in an Arab-American space, to give life to the Palestinian story. They did so in ways that punctured the Israeli story (Deir Yassin, ethnic cleansing, Gaza onslaught were all touchstones) but also actually honored a Jewish cultural understanding. There was a sense that Jebreal could only tell her Arab woman’s story outside the Middle East, and that in the U.S. a Jewish artist could help in facilitating its expression.
My headline is about the film. I don’t know what its status is. It was supposed to come out now, but it’s not. Here’s what Schnabel said, to explain his appearance at this event, a reading of his girlfriend’s book:
"We planned on the film opening in December but in looking at the landscape of blandishment, conflict, and confusion, it felt like we needed to spend more time preparing the audience and psyche of our fellow world citizens for the film and that way somehow left Reula’s book dangling without a movie to support it, so I find myself reading…
"We’re actually going to show the film on March 15 before the General Assembly of the United Nations for 2000 people. That’s where the movie will open." There will be other screenings before that, the painter-cum-director said. It was at the Council on Foreign Relations last week, and will be at the 92d Street Y in February.
“We wanted to cuddle the world in some sort of way and form some kind of coalition and find some kind of post-right, post-left dialogue about this issue…. I guess you will see the movie some day. I hope you’ll see the movie."
Well I don’t speak Arabic, but my guess is that the movie which is about 1948, Deir Yassin but also the first intifadah, the refugee camps, was too pro-Palestinian and they are having to manage this, and if not change it, try and put a tuxedo on it. Just my guess. I note that an industry sheet says that the film was delayed by the Weinstein Company because not enough people were getting "behind it," and EI says that the film has some big editing issues. Note that Adam Horowitz saw it and declared his "amazement at what I was watching. Here was a film following many of the conventions of a traditional Hollywood film, but this time it was telling the Palestinian liberation story." My guess is that Schnabel is under political pressure. His tone last night was a little battered but unbowed.
Now let me tell you why the evening was so powerful. The cultural transaction was this: that Schnabel as a Jewish American would absorb from Rula Jebreal the history of the conflict, and would accept it, would accept the truth of Deir Yassin and Sheikh Jarrah and Gaza, which upset Schnabel so much that he wanted hs crew not to speak Hebrew when they worked in East Jerusalem. And in turn Schnabel would empower Jebreal to speak about women’s rights in the Arab world.
Her story is a horrifying one. It begins with Jebreal's mother, Nadia, raped at 13 by her stepfather, who had moved into Nadia's widowed mother’s house because women needed protection—this was a passage that Schnabel read aloud—and Nadia had gone on to lead a loveless hard life till she committed suicide. But she had had two daughters, and these daughters, first given up to an orphanage called Miral in Jerusalem-- which Hind Husseini started because of the orphans of the Nakba-- were taken in by a man whom Jebreal believed to be her father till the last week of his life when the hospital needed blood for him and she tried to give it to him and the doctors said, you are not related to him. A brutal discovery. He could not go public about this because there was shame in taking in someone else’s daughters, she said, and there was shame too, in the “conservative Arab" family she is from, when she tried to tell the story of her mother’s life and of the father’s love for daughters not his own.
Now I know that such stories of patriarchalism happen in a lot of cultural milieu but Jebreal was giving an Arab cast to her story. She was being the Ayaan Hirsi Ali of her own family saga, she needed to go to Europe to tell it, and Schnabel was giving her a wider platform, in New York and Hollywood, and describing his own awe at the power of the father Jamal’s love for two girls not his own.
And let me add: We were hearing this all in an Arab-American space, without a hint of censorship or disapproval, from a mainly Arab-American audience, some of the women covered. Now show me the Jewish audiences hearing about Deir Yassin massacre or refugees without someone jumping up and screaming curses. Where are the synagogues having films about the Nakba? Where are the panels on the dispossessed refugees in Jewish spaces? So it was moving to hear this Arab story of feminist liberation in an Arab-American space with a Jewish narrator.
Schnabel said he was able to do this film because he is a "tourist" to Israel and Palestine, and I recommend that position to all American Jews, especially the ones who say it's their homeland. He invoked his mother.
“For me as an American Jewish person— my mother was president of the Hadassah and had always looked at and believed in this utopian, democratic possible Jewish world, a good place…. And I felt my mother would have been very disappointed at.. the way things were going over there.”
He doesn't care if this is his last film. It was worth doing, he said, because there is a serious problem over there, and they are killing children. "And whoever kills a child is a murderer." I thought of Gaza of course, the 400 children slaughtered in Gaza. Schnabel quoted Jean Renoir saying that there is always a reason for killing children.
“There is no reason good enough for all the insanity going on over there.”
He’s in a learning process, he said. He’s trying to make a post-left post-right kind of dialogue. I think someone in the movie business has their boot on his head. I can’t wait for the 92d Street Y night in February. Then worlds will collide, and more Jews will wake up to the Nakba.