Book Review: A haunting tale from the shores of Jaffa

Updated 01 October 2019

Book Review: A haunting tale from the shores of Jaffa

CHICAGO: From the shores of Jaffa, where the sea has remained the same but the land has changed, comes a powerful tale of two cities that are one and the same. One city’s memories weave in and out of new buildings and language, and the other overlays ancient street names and former inhabitants, as an old resident complains: “I walk in the city, but it doesn’t recognize me.” 

From Palestinian author and journalist Ibtisam Azem comes “The Book of Disappearance,” a story that follows the life of Alaa Assaf and his family, the children and grandchildren of the only woman in their family to stay in Palestine after 1948.

When the reader meets Alaa and his grandmother, all the Palestinians in Israel, four million people, disappear overnight and are not seen again. Is it a miracle or a security operation? No one knows, but as fear and elation grip Tel Aviv, journalist Ariel tries to look for his friend, freelance cameraman Alaa.

When he cannot find him, Ariel finds his red notebook, the one in which he has written his memoir, in which his memories overlap with his grandmother’s — hers from old Jaffa, and his from new, and the surrounding villages now known as Tel Aviv. As Ariel tries to make sense of the mystery, he reads Alaa’s notebook and Alaa’s grandmother’s past comes to the fore.

Through Alaa, we read of his grandmother’s life in Al-Manshiyye, and later in Ajami, where she and other survivors were surrounded by barbed wire. She did not flee to Beirut but stayed and watched as the city around her left — its people dying or fleeing — and its survivors learned to live the lonely existence of strangers in their own land.

Through his grandmother’s memories, Alaa tries to understand himself and the city he grew up in. He writes about her Jaffa and his, “Two cities impersonating each other. You carved your names in my city, so I feel like I am a returnee from history...”

Azem’s work is powerful, her creativity stretching to far reaching corners and her recollections of an ancient land vivid in the mind. Her characters are resilient but shattered on the inside.


‘It Must Be Heaven’: Elia Suleiman’s sardonic take on the world

Suleiman, who plays the lead role as himself, explores identity, nationality and belonging. (Supplied)
Updated 23 October 2019

‘It Must Be Heaven’: Elia Suleiman’s sardonic take on the world

MUMBAI: Elia Suleiman’s “It Must Be Heaven,” which was screened at the Mumbai Film Festival, is pure cinema. Like his earlier works, here too the Palestinian director uses wit, sarcasm and minimalism, this time to present a series of vignettes that are funny but also a powerful lambast of the world we live in. Suleiman, who plays the lead role as himself, explores identity, nationality and belonging.

He says people worldwide now live in fear amid global geopolitical tensions. Today, checkpoints are just about everywhere: In airports, shopping malls, cinemas, highways — the list is endless.

“It Must Be Heaven” was screened at the Mumbai Film Festival. (Supplied) 

Suleiman’s earlier features, such as “Chronicle of a Disappearance” and “Divine Intervention,” showed us everyday life in the occupied Palestinian territories. This time, it is Paris and New York. 

The first scene is hilarious, with a bishop trying to enter a church with his followers. The gatekeeper on the other side of the heavy wooden door is probably too intoxicated and refuses to let the priest in, leading to a comical situation. Suleiman’s life in Nazareth is filled with such incidents — snippets that have been strung together to tell us of tension in society. Neighbors turn out to be selfish, and only generous when they know they are being watched. 

The Palestinian director uses wit, sarcasm and minimalism, to present a series of vignettes that are funny but also a powerful lambast of the world we live in. (Supplied)

In Paris, the cafes along the grand boulevards, and the young women who pass by, are typical of France’s capital. But a cut to Bastille Day, with tanks rolling by in a show of strength, jolts us back to harsh reality. In New York, Suleiman’s cab driver is excited at driving a Palestinian. 

The film has an interesting way of storytelling. The scenes begin as observational shots, but the camera quickly changes positions to show Suleiman watching from the other side of the room or a street. The camera then returns to where it first stood, and this back-and-forth movement is delightfully engaging.

The framing is so perfect, and the colors so bright and beautiful, that each scene looks magical. And as the director looks on at all this with his usual deadpan expression, a sardonic twitch at the corner of his mouth, we know all this is but illusion. There is bitter truth ahead!