Love is blind, or so the saying goes. In Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, though, it is all too often not allowed to be. Director Michel Khleifi's documentary Forbidden Marriages in the Holy Land looks at couples who have gone against the wishes of society and family members, challenging religion and state, to be together. They are "mixed" couples; couples from different religions, or in this context, from different sides of the conflict.
The film introduces the audience to eight such couples, including Palestinian and Israeli partners, Jewish and Muslim partners, and also couples who face discrimination despite sharing the same religion or being on the same side. The film is part of a series, "A Homage to Michel Khleifi", being screened as part of the Shubbak Festival. The Palestinian director was invited to mark his 65th birthday by curating the festival's main film programme. In this particular documentary, Khleifi introduces the audience to the complex struggles the couples face to balance their relationship with their religious, familial, political, national and cultural ties.
Every one of those involved has paid the price for falling in love with the "wrong" person: a lifetime of separation from family members, perhaps; the loss of friends; or being ostracised from their communities and roots. A Palestinian Muslim woman who married a Jewish Israeli man speaks about her relationship with her family: "It's as if something has been irreparably smashed." The fractured relations not only bring her heartbreak, but also fear: "My eldest brother swears that he will not marry until he has killed me." For one Jewish woman who married an Arab Israeli, her friends were unable to see her husband beyond his ethnicity: "Ultimately, for them my husband was always an Arab. I didn't like that. My husband is a human being. I don't see him as an Arab."
According to one elderly lady, "The problem arises once you have children… a problem created not by us but by society. Society pushes you into a corner and asks you, 'Who are you?' You must define your identity." Her comment encapsulates a key theme in the documentary; the issue of identity for the children born to inter-racial, inter-faith unions. For them, negotiating a sense of belonging in a hostile environment is a constant battle.
This negotiation becomes particularly testing during school years. One mother explains how she has tried to join together the two parts of her children's' identity: "As I explained to my son when he told me that his friends asked him if he was Jewish or Arab: 'You're both,' I said, 'you should be pleased.'" But some children face fewer questions and more name-calling: "Mama, they say you're black and ugly. If we wash ourselves will we turn white?" Despite both parents having been born in Palestine, the Chadian roots of the child's mother have opened the family up to discrimination. There is also the issue of severed family ties: "Our sons keep asking us the same question: 'Where is mum's mother? Where is mum's father? Where are her brother and sisters?'"
In such an unforgiving environment, such relationships are also subject to constant surveillance. Playwright Yehoshua Sobol notes: "Nobody comes two years later to check on the newly-wedded couple to see if the marriage has worked out. And if it's failed, nobody celebrates it. But with mixed couples, they're kept under constant scrutiny as if it were a human experiment."
Scenes from a rendition of Romeo and Juliet appear throughout the documentary. The comparison is apt; it is a story of enduring love transcending divisions and barriers. As much as Forbidden Marriages in the Holy Land shines a light on the discrimination and intolerance, highlighting complex issues such as identity and belonging, it also a testament to love and its enduring nature. An elderly lady says of her own "mixed" marriage, "A woman content with her husband forgets about the whole world." Another, when asked whether she regrets her decision to marry an Israeli, despite now being completely cut off from her family, replies, "We regret nothing."
The Shubbak Festival is running until 26 July. For information on upcoming events, click here.