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Lost in Palestine: A quest for identity

Palestinian filmmaker Alaa Ashkar [stephane_burlot/Instagram]

Palestinian filmmaker Alaa Ashkar investigates his heritage and that of his family who live within the Green Line.

An intimate account of the filmmaker’s quest for identity, “You reap what you sow” is Alaa Ashkar’s second film.

The simple storyline takes the audience along a journey with a Palestinian filmmaker who is living in France and wants to start a documentary on Palestinian memory in Israel. During a trip to his family’s home in Galilee, relatives expressed their concern about the film and the life choices made by the director, adding a further dimension to the production.

Ashkar’s first offering, “Route 60” showed an awareness of the policy of global Israeli colonisation and its effects on the land and people’s minds; however he now questions his family to better understand himself. Through this journey from childhood within his protective family to adulthood through his travels, we accompany the narrator into historical Palestine.

From the very beginning Ashkar tells MEMO: “Please make it clear that I am a Palestinian filmmaker who is a citizen of Israel and not an Israeli Arab filmmaker or an Israeli Palestinian.”

I refuse to call myself an Israeli Arab because Israeli Arab is an Israeli invention whose purpose is to make our Palestinian identity meaningless.

“For some of us, we are Arab Israelis, but is it the same as being Jordanian, Iraqi, Egyptian? For them, our references are the official authority. This is Israel, so they feel like Israeli Arabs. I am a Palestinian of Israeli citizenship. I am Arab because I belong to an Arab nation, but I am Palestinian… We must not deny who we are.”

Palestinian filmmaker Alaa Ashkar’s new movie, ‘You reap what you sow’

Ashkar says of the film: “Some people expect to see different Palestinians, resistant, suffering from the occupation. But this film shifts away from that. This may come as a surprise. I wanted to give a different perspective on the Palestinians as they are seen in France. It’s not a militant film in the sense that it’s not going to speak directly about occupation, conflict, resistance,” Ashkar adds.

Though it does not tackle the question of occupation heads-on, it raises the issue of identity, memory and how Palestinians who remained in what became Israel in 1948’s Nakba are portrayed. Does this make it a film about militants?

If it’s in the sense of memory, then yes, my film is militant and resistant in the sense that I’m trying to maintain a memory. I am talking about the 1948 Palestinian question. We look a lot at the West Bank or Gaza, but we do not know this other Palestinian reality.

Palestinians represent 20 per cent of the population in Israel, most often marginalised in Israeli society. For the new generations, 1948, when Israel was created and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled, is a page of history – rewritten by the Israeli state – learned at school. Some families choose to forget their Palestinian identity to better help their children integrate. Double culture, double language, but finally a single identity, surrounded by silence.

Read: Israel’s precarious identity is Palestine’s nightmare

Throughout the film Ashkar asks: “What is our identity?” The answers are all the more surprising and lead to an in-depth reflection of what it means to be a Palestinian in Israel. If the Palestinian memory is very much alive and well maintained in the West Bank, there seems to be a deficit of memory for Israeli Palestinians of 1948, those who are of Israeli citizenship and of “Arab” nationality.

We are not refugees. We have become Israeli citizens. We lived in Palestine and then suddenly we lived in Israel. The refugees have been ripped out of their homes; that’s the difference.

Ashkar’s young niece, who pops up throughout the film, highlights more questions of identity; that of today’s generation. Through her innocent and often childish questions she too is learning about her history, stories in which she doesn’t appear.

Palestinian filmmaker, Alaa Ashkar’s niece who pops up throughout the film, ‘You reap what you sow’

She is seen asking Ashkar which football team he would support, “his country France’s team”?

“The scene where she asks me why I do not support my country, France, shows that she is not aware of her identity either, like many Palestinian children in Israel. For her, Palestine is something else, it’s the West Bank. This is not our concern. She’s still small, 13 years old. As she grows up, she will do as others do: either she will proudly claim her Palestinian identity or she’ll be ashamed of it and hide it,” Ashkar explains.

The filmmaker describes daily life in Israel as being one that denies identity and creates discrimination. A citizenship that does not grant full equality of rights:

We are home and we are considered immigrants. It is a state considered to be made for the Jews. What is non-Jewish is considered to be inferior, individually and collectively.

“It’s all about military service. We are exempt from it. Only Jews are obliged to do it. Military service then gives us the right to benefits, access to housing, to study… We do not have the same rights, so there is a form of segregation. Many rights are conditioned to this military service. Even those who decide to volunteer in the army [they are very few among the Israeli Palestinians] remain collectively discriminated against. Arab localities do not have the same aid and advantages as Jewish localities.”

“Our parent’s generation lived in fear. The word Palestine or Nakba was forbidden, for example. Then there was an entire Israeli political process that wanted to erase this memory. Some young people of the new generation do not know much about their history. Their parents don’t want them to be interested in politics because it’s scary. There are similarities with the Algerians growing up in France who are cut off from their memory and history.”

The Israeli education system reinforces this, Ashkar explains, by erasing Palestinian memory. “At school we are not taught our history. There is a whole political, educational and media strategy to erase the memory of Palestine in general, but also of these Israeli Palestinians. For we are at the heart of the subject of memory.”

Read: Palestinian options dwindle without reinforcement of collective memory

But is there still only one Palestinian memory left, or has it broken up into three parts: Gaza, the West Bank and the 1948 Palestinians? Land dispossession in the West Bank, confinement in Gaza, dispossession of the memory of the Ashkar family and so many others. All Palestinians are being besieged by a slow process of dispossession of their lands, homes and identities. Beyond that, according to Ashkar, is there still a Palestinian nation? “Yes, there is a Palestinian nation. But we are in a region where the stakes are so high that we sometimes feel cursed. We are also in a mosaic of identities that marks the political issue. The European nation-state is not the possible model in this region. The question of Palestinian identity is part of the Arab nation’s question. The only question that can be asked is: is there an Arab nation? The answer is yes. If there are tensions between the political groups, at the individual level, we are all Palestinians, despite different contexts. We are all Palestinians because we share the same history, the same memory and the same hopes.”

“I’m looking for the ideal Palestine through this film too. I want to sow the memory to reap the peace and quiet. In Israel, fear is sown to harvest walls. I wanted to sow honesty in order to reap the benefits of openness,” Ashkar concludes.

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