Director Wafa Jamil discusses her film 'Coffee For All Nations' ahead of its screening at the London Palestine Film Festival tomorrow.
Sitting in semi-darkness, Abed brews his coffee. The light from his small gas burner illuminates his face, set with concentration as he stirs the thick, black liquid. A poster commemorating the Nakba is tacked to the wall. A Palestinian flag hangs precariously from a crevice.
Abed lives in a Canaanite cave, a small stone structure that has stood for millennia in Al-Walaja, outside Bethlehem in the now-occupied West Bank. "When I first read about Abed's story in the local newspaper while I was living in Ramallah, I thought perhaps it had been fabricated or details had been added to it – that it had been 'spiced up' in some way," Wafa tells me: "It just seemed so unusual".
Yet as Wafa quickly discovered, Abed's story was far from a myth. "I contacted the journalist who had written the story and they said it was true," she says, adding: "Of course, I wanted to find out more about him and his story." And find out more she did. Wafa spoke with people she knew in Dheisheh – a refugee camp south of Bethlehem home to thousands of Palestinians displaced from nearby villages during the Nakba of 1948 – to find out more about this seemingly-peculiar individual.
"At first Abed was cautious of me, naturally so given his circumstances, but he gradually came to trust me," Wafa says. After a few years he told her: "I know everything about you too". "He had been asking around about my work, my research and my films while I'd been asking about him," she remembers fondly.
Speaking to Wafa about the seven years she spent filming with Abed, it is clear that what started out as an artistic project came to represent far more than a director working with her subject. "I started filming in January 2008 and didn't finish until the end of 2014. I wanted to observe what was happening to Abed and really see what was going on, so yes, I filmed him for seven years."
Making the film was actually a turning point for me personally. You know, I'm an educated woman; I studied my masters, I made a huge leap in social status when I left the camp [Al-Shati refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip] and moved abroad, but I learned a lot from Abed. Perhaps he barely finished the fourth grade, but he believes so strongly in what he's doing that it inspired me and I was able to internalise his outlook.
Abed has faced more than his share of challenges. Like many Palestinians, Abed inherited a plot of land that had been in his family for generations. His family was displaced during the Nakba and forced to live in Dheisheh refugee camp. Israel has consistently sought to seize this land to expand the nearby illegal settlements, so Abed took matters into his own hands. He built a simple brick room on his land – Israel demolished it. He brought a container – Israel stole it. He built a bamboo house – Israel burnt it down. So he decided to live in the cave, believing that Israel couldn't possibly argue with its ancient origins. He was wrong.
"The Israeli interior ministry is monitoring me," Abed says in the film. "They said I built without permission, but what did I build? This is a cave made by God and nature. They want to change history – they even want to demolish the cave," he explains. "My case has been in court for seven years, they seem to consider me a national security threat. With God's help I'll stay here against their will," he adds.
Yet Abed's decision to move into the cave to protect his land did not come without a cost to his family. Abed's wife and children still live in Dheisheh, yet without the moral and financial support of the head of the household, things are difficult. In one scene, Wafa tries to interview Abed's wife Wedad but she is not impressed by the presence of the cameras. "My wife and I disagree about the land because I'm always there – if you try to interview her she might not agree to talk to you," Abed had warned her.
"Do we want him only to come and go? If only he would just stay at home, take care of his children, work and make some money!" Wedad says. "I work, our oldest son works too. The other pays tuition and helps us. But things are not the way they should be. We hardly get by. We have no money by the end of the month," she explains, adding: "This is our land but we will never ever get it back. It will happen when Satan goes to heaven. Let them take it, I'll get some rest then."
"I think her reaction was a combination of frustration at Abed and the condition he had left the family in, as well as general disillusionment with the broader situation in Palestine," Wafa says of the scene.
In a lot of ways I didn't agree with what he did … leaving his wife to bear the burden of eight children, working and running the house isn't acceptable. Yet on another level, as a Palestinian, I can understand and respect his connection to the land and the decision that he made to protect it. What Abed did was to re-occupy his land from the occupation.
Yet for all its focus on Abed's story, for Wafa this is not the main theme of "Coffee for All Nations". "I think the land is the main character in the film, not Abed," she says. "The connection to the land is an old idea, particularly in Palestinian cultural production," she explains: "The land is part of our heritage and our identity, and for Abed it was central to his sense of self".
Abed's innate connection to the animals, trees and stones that he came to call home is conveyed beautifully in the film. "I planted all these," he says, walking among row upon row of olive trees standing high on the hillside. "If the Israelis build the [Separation Wall] I might not be able to eat them, then all my efforts will be wasted," he quips, "but I hope the people I love will eat from them – even if I can't, I'll feel happy."
"The Israeli occupation continues to take our land," Wafa says, placing Abed's struggle in the context of the wider situation facing Palestinians: "Israel talks about a two-state solution, but it doesn't exist. Palestinians have been forced to live in tiny pockets of land, forced into holes. How can this be a state? Where are the roads for me to travel to see my family in Gaza when I live in Ramallah?"
"There are hundreds of films, documentaries and books about the conflict between Israel and Palestine," Wafa concludes, "but I wanted to focus on the humanitarian issues that often get forgotten among the politics and the violence."
"What I did produce is a film simply about a person, and because of this I hope that it's identifiable. You can understand his connection to the land and his identity without needing too much historical knowledge of the conflict. I wanted to show the situation in Palestine from a different angle."
NB 12 December 2018 at 14:56 This article previously implied that Wafa's family moved out of Al-Shati camp, this is incorrect and we apologise for the error.