Saturday, February 28, 2009

Waltzing with Death

I will never forget that night in mid-September of 1982 when we saw the flares light up the sky over southern Beirut, the orange glow outlining the silhouette of a darkned and shattered city. We were sleeping on the balcony of a friend's apartment on this sweltering night in West Beirut. There were several of us, men and women, brought together like flotsam by the turbulent waves that dislocated our lives that summer. Social conventions go out the window during war and conflict; we sought the safety of an improvised pack in this still half-deserted city.

We knew that the flares were Israeli, having watched in disbelief and anger as Israeli tanks and troops made their way into West Beirut only a couple of days before. Lest anyone forget the treachery of Begin and his henchman Sharon, the Palestinian fighters had by then been escorted out of Beirut by sea under an agreement that stipulated that Israel would, in turn, not enter the city. What we failed to realize that night is what kind of horror the flares were both illuminating and facilitating.

Ari Folman, the director of "Waltz with Bashir", was there that night and some of the flares I saw were fired by him. His movie is an animated documentary of his quest to remember and reconstruct the events of the summer of 1982 by interviewing other Israelis soldiers who served with him. Folman's is unflinching in his approach to the subject and the result is one of the most powerful indictments of the folly of war in general and of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon in particular. Most of all, Folman is very clear about the culpability of the Israeli army, especially the senior commanders including Sharon, in the massacres of Sabra and Shatilla. Just as the image of the flares and its connection to the massacre is seared in memory, Folman uses images of the flares in a repeated surreal scene of soldiers emerging form the sea to forwarn of the horrors to come. As he peices together the reality from the fragments of memories of his comrades in arm, it becomes clear that the flares are being fired to facilitate the killing field perpetrated by the Phalangists brought into the camp by the Israeli army. With the Palestinian fighters all gone, and the phalangists penchant for cruelty well known by their close allies, the Israelis, what other purpose was there to bring into the camp other than to commit a massacre?Late in the movie, Folman switches seamlessly from animation to some of the most graphic images of the massacre. At this point in the movie, with my heart in my throat, I could not contain myself anymore, not only because I remembered these exact images from 1982 but also because the images were eerily similar to what we just witnessed in Gaza.

It has been several days since I have seen the movie and yet I cannot seem to get out from under its dark cloud. Saddest of all for me is to think that it has been twenty seven years since this war and yet it is as if we are stuck in time, as if our part of the world is doomed to live in conflict and war forever impervious to the lessons of history.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Holocaust at the Oscars

Winslet, 'Waltz,' and how Hollywood likes its Jews
By Bradley Burston. Haaretz, Feb. 23, 2009

Hollywood is about message. It is not, strictly speaking, about subtlety, nor idle fretting over obvious irony.

So when Israelis woke up before dawn on Monday to watch the 81st running of the Oscars, the message was clear enough. Hollywood knows exactly how it likes its Jews: Victims. Civilian victims. Targets of genocide. None of this Goliath stuff. None of these pre-emptive, disproportionate, morally amorphous behaviors.

My wife, the child of Auschwitz survivors, saw it right off, even in the dark. Even before they announced the winner of the Best Actress award.

Against a well-deserved paean to eventual winner Kate Winslet, a giant screen showed hunted, gaunt, clearly doomed figures. "This is how Hollywood likes its Jews," my wife said. "Hunched over and dressed in rags."

Minutes before, as if to underscore the Hollywood principle that Jewish history ended in the Holocaust, and Israeli history ended with "Exodus," the Oscar ceremony enlisted Liam Neeson - star of the ultimate Hollywood version of the Good Christian-Bad Holocaust epic, Schindler's List - to deny the Oscar to a film showing Jews not as they may have been, but as they, in fact are.

The narrative of Israel has become increasingly uncomfortable for the limousine left of Hollywood. Not necessarily because of the specifics of occupation and overkill. No, there are wider problems with these Israelis. Their story arc doesn't work.

They are neither cutesy, comedic Yiddishers nor noble, chiseled, ascetically moral kibbutzniks. They bear as much resemblance to Zohan as Adam Sandler does to Tsipi Livni. Israelis are complicated, angry, unhappy, family-oriented, insular, often flawed human-beings. Perhaps, in the Hollywood context, the problem with these Israelis, is that they are not identifiable as Jews at all.

Last year, "Beaufort," an exceptional Israeli film about IDF soldiers at war in Lebanon was one of the five nominees, but lost to the Austrian entry, in which a Jewish concentration camp prisoner forges currency for the Nazis.

This year, "Waltz with Bashir," an extraordinary, soul-shattering Israeli film about IDF soldiers at war in Lebanon, was one of the five nominees. Its only conmnection to the Holocaust, however, is an uncomfortably authentic one. As Neeson's announcement suggested, with his small but ringing note of incredulity, a nominee it will forever stay.

There were at least eight films classed as Holocaust-based, released in 2008. "Waltz with Bashir" was not one of them. But in dealing with searing honesty about war, memory, the violent death of innocents, as well as about the complex darkness at Israel's heart, it has fundamentally more to do with the Holocaust than any of the eight.

Ari Folman, the director of "Waltz with Bashir," is also the son of Holocaust survivors. The Holocaust informs the film in ways that Hollywood is literally incapable of imagining. Because this is the real thing.

"Waltz with Bashir" was not made for Hollywood, it was made for human beings. It was made for the people who went through the horror it shows, and who are still going through new horrors which feel exactly as unbearable.

The story of how Hollywood likes its Jews has been told before, of course, never more succinctly - or with a heavier cargo of irony - than when Kate Winslet played a satirized version of herself in a 2005 episode of the U.K. series "Extras." Winslet, then winless in four trips to the Oscar nomination altar, explains to series star Ricky Gervais, why she's decided to act in a Holocaust film.

Gervais: You doing this, it's so commendable, using your profile to keep the message alive about the Holocaust.

Winslet: God, I'm not doing it for that. We definitely don't need another film about the Holocaust, do we? It's like, how many have there been? You know, we get it. It was grim. Move on. I'm doing it because I noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust, you're guaranteed an Oscar. I've been nominated four times. Never won. The whole world is going, 'Why hasn't Winslet won one?' ... That's why I'm doing it. Schindler's bloody List. The Pianist. Oscars coming outta their ass ...

Gervais: It's a good plan.

This year, despite general agreement that her performance as a 1950s-era Connecticut housewife in Revolutionary Road was far better than her role as a former SS guard in The Reader, life imitated Gervais, and the Oscar was finally Winslet's.

Back in Israel, meanwhile, the debriefing of the Academy Awards had begun. On an early morning television news show, Meital Zvieli, the lead researcher for "Waltz with Bashir," said that despite their disappointment, the crew members watching in Israel felt that, in any case, "The film won." It had been seen by people who needed to see it, people who in many cases began to speak to their families about their own experiences only after having experienced the film.

That may be the only point that really matters.

In the end, the cultural distance from the Jews of Hollywood to the Jews of Israel may be impassible. The oldest and most basic need of the Jews who invented the film industry, the compulsion to reinvent themselves, early on developed into the need to reinvent the Jewish people.

There, after all these years, the industry remains. Perhaps, after all these years, it's time for Hollywood, at long last, to take seriously and with intelligence another piece of Gervais' scripted advice.

Move on.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Home Again: To Lattakia and Back

My last interaction with Syrian authorities did not go well, yet I felt surprisingly calm this time around. My wife, did not share my confidence and waited nervously in the car with the children as I walked with our driver into the Arida border checkpoint to have our passports checked.

The place was inauspicious to say the least. A ragged Syrian flag flew over the station. The building itself was rundown. Inside, the offices were dirty and filled with idle men, some in uniform and some in civilian outfits –leather jackets preferred-, milling about in a haze of cigarette smoke. By contrast, the offices of the Lebanese border checkpoint we just passed were tidy if somewhat bare. The uniformed personnel, clean shaven and in crisp uniforms, dealt with travelers in a professional way. Once inside the passport office, our driver, a veteran of the Beirut-Lattakia line, told me to let him do the talking. With a handshake here and there, the necessary show of deference to the officers, and a couple of minor but apparently necessary “tips”, we cleared the border in about thirty minutes.

After an absence of about thirty five years, I was back on Syrian soil. Yet, there was no emotional catharsis, no melodramatic falling to the ground in a puddle of tears. More than anything, what I felt was a sense of bemused disbelief. Besides, any elation at being home again was dampened by my irritation at the sleaziness of the transaction at the border and the embarrassment I felt in front of my kids at the lousy first impression they got of Syria. But, as parents are often wont to do, I underestimated my childrens' maturity. They were unfazed by what they saw; they understood what was important and what this trip meant to me. For the next three short days, I took in all the sights, sounds and smells hoping to trigger long dormant memories buried deep in the recesses of my mind.

The coastal plain to Lattakia was wide, a welcome relief from the narrow and overbuilt Lebanese coastline. Some of the villages and small towns we drove through looked poor and neglected. The first familiar sight on the road to Lattakia was the imposing Mar'ab castle on a hill overlooking Banyas, a sight that always fired up my imagination as a child. As we approached the outskirts of Lattakia, I recognized nothing . The city's population has quadrupled since I lived there as a child and its physical outlines has grown significantly. Closer to the port I started recognizing my old Lattakia. Across from the old seaport, my grandmother's house, sandwiched between between a church and a mosques is now gone, replaced by the apartment building where my aunt and cousins live. A couple of blocks east, my grandfather's house, where I was born, still stands, old and rundown. The northern part of Baghdad street where we later lived looked familiar with many of the same pleasant 1950s and 1960s vintage two and three story apartment building surrounded by small gardens. Further south, Baghdad street used to end in a small traffic circle surrounding an ancient roman column beyond which was scrub and empty rocky terrain descending down to the sea. Today, the area is packed with upscale apartment buildings and it is bordered by the the new southern corniche.

In the short time we had, we tried to see as much as we can. We drove throught Shateh el Azrak beach area where I first waded into the sea. It is now sadly overbuilt. Next we drove further North into countryside to ancient Ugarit where the alphabet was born. That afternoon we made our way up the mountains East of the city. The temperature dropped precipitously as we drove up the mountain. Slunfeh, our destination was shrouded in dense fog. We managed a quick visit to the family's old summer home before making our way down to Haffeh. From there we veered off to the South to visit see the Salaheddin castle. From the vantage of the opposing hill and against the backdrop of the green wooded mountains behind it, the view is breathtaking (see banner photo above). Salaheddine's castle sits like a crown on top of a steep, narrow hill in the midst of a wooded valley. To reach it, one has to descend to the bottom of the narrow valley and then ascend the steep hill to the base of the castle wall. We explored the grounds of the castle excitedly for an hour before rain forced us to retreat back into our car and continue our descent back to Lattakia.

As vivid as childhood memories are of places, their importance comes from their associated remembrance of people, of family. My kind grandmother has long since passed away as have many of her siblings who formed much of our extended family. Sadly, as is the case of many Syrian families, subsequent generations slowly dispersed to the four corners of the world. Many left seeking new opportunities, others became unwilling political exiles. My aunt, a lawyer, remained as have her two children, my cousins. Distance and prolonged separation has led to strained relations between my father and his sister over the past few years, yet none of that was evident in the warm and generous reception we got from my aunt and her husband. I met my two cousins now adults, only one of whom I had seen before and then only when she was an infant. I, in turn, introduced them to my wife and kids. My wife, the more extrovert of the two of us, hit it off with my aunt’s husband, a energetic Levantine gourmand, as they discussed the finer points of Syrian cuisine. Now we definitely know that the Lattakian knafeh bi narain* (love the name) is the best knafeh bi jibin** anywhere on the Eastern Mediterranean coast. We talked, we tried to catch up and almost instantaneously the three and a half decade gap disappeared. Once family, always family.

On our way back to Beirut, we stopped in Tartous, took a quick boat ride to the Island of Arwad and returned to meet with Abu Fares and his lovely wife for lunch. I had been looking forward to this meeting for a long time. It is curious to think that you can have an affinity and a familiarity for someone that you have never met. That these sentiments were only reinforced when I met Abu Fares is perhaps a testament to the communicative power of the blog. Alas, after too brief an encounter, we had to continue our journey back to Lebanon.

Middle age crises manifest differently in different men. Some seek out a sports car that they always fancied while others, grieving their lost youth, seek out a younger woman. Since I could care less for a sports car and already have my younger woman (OK, only two years younger), all I wanted was to go home. I needed it as an anchor at this stage in my life. This trip has done that for me and more. Perhaps the best feedback I got is from my father who did not quite understand my obsession with wanting to visit Syria. As we were making our way back to Beirut, my aunt called tell him how happy they were at having seen me and my family, and I in turn relayed to him the warm and generous reception we received. He told he how glad he was that I went and that what I did was not only good for me but for the whole family. For the first time in many years, my father is inquiring about whether he too can go home.

* Knafeh: Middle Eastern sweet filled with cream or cheese. bi narain: literally, with two fires; refers to the knafeh being browned on both sides.

**Knafeh bi jibin: cheese filled knafeh.