A Palestinian woman should be free to tell her story
Ypres and Palestine, the Jewish Holocaust and Iraqi Kurdistan. Spot the connection?
As a schoolboy, Belgian author Erwin Mortier and his friends would play in the fields near his home on the old First World War Western Front. One day, Erwin and his best chum heaved from the earth two helmets, one with a bullet hole, the other undamaged. They argued over which had the more value: the one which belonged to a soldier clearly shot by a sniper or the one owned by a soldier who might have survived the trenches of the Ypres salient.
Mortier, who has just published Divine Sleep, a novel about the Great War, spoke at Ypres not long ago about the way in which that terrible 1914-1918 conflict might be remembered now that its participants are all dead. He had visited current refugees in Belgium, almost all of whom, it turned out, were victims of the colonial rearrangements which the victorious European powers had agreed at Versailles in 1919.
On his visit Mortier met Lisa Appignanesi, the British writer of Polish-Jewish origin who gave him some of the best advice I have ever heard. Appignanesi's mother, during the Second World War, managed to save herself and her husband from Nazi persecution through a complex play of identities. Her mother, she said, had been "a queen of deception", her parents striking a balance between remembering and forgetting.
Appignanesi explained to Mortier, "memory always takes the form of a negotiating table".
I read the text of Mortier's speech this week, a day before watching Julian Schnabel's new movie Miral, a feature film which follows the life of Rula Jebreal, a real-life Palestinian-Israeli woman who became a journalist, author and television presenter.
Schnabel, who is Jewish, lives with Jebreal in New York. Their movie begins and ends with the death of Hind Husseini, a remarkable Palestinian woman who found orphans from the Jewish massacre of Arab villagers at Deir Yassin in 1948 and started a boarding school for girls. Husseini died in 1994, but Rula was one of her pupils. Her childhood - losing her mother, choosing to be a well-educated woman, sucked into the intifada, arrested and brutalised by the Israelis - is the story of Miral.
Israel's so-called 'friends' in America and Britain panned the film, primarily for two scenes. In the first, Rula is beaten into unconsciousness by an Israeli woman torturer. In the second, an Israeli bulldozer demolishes a Palestinian home. Crocodile tears on the floor, please. The Israelis have indulged in torture of both men and women for years - dozens of Amnesty International reports bear witness to this - and I have personally heard the screams of the tortured at what was Israel's proxy jail at Khiam in southern Lebanon. I have witnessed countless home destructions by Israeli troops in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
But that's not the point. The film has been abused as (of course) "anti-Semitic", the same old slander that's been spat at me for more than half my life. The real problem, of course, is that Palestinian cinema is slowly coming of age, and Israel's supposed 'friends' want to stop it in its tracks.
So I called Rula Jebreal in New York. We both agreed that the real reason for the political/racial attacks on her movie was its existence. "Why can't a Palestinian woman tell her own story?" she asked. And she is absolutely right.
It's that "negotiating table" again. Mortier ended his speech at Ypres with a disturbing, accurate thought. "The dead will be forgotten sooner or later, but who knows it might make a difference if by remembering them, we lose them properly... However profound the silence may be in and around the war cemeteries, we should not conclude too readily the dead are resting in peace at last." And so for Ypres, Auschwitz, Burundi, Kurdistan, Palestine...