By Inna Michaeli and Zohar Elmakias
In his film “Once I Entered a Garden” (2012), Israeli director Avi Mograbi documents a series of meetings with his Arabic teacher, Ali Al-Azhari. Mograbi shares his dreams with Al-Azhari, along with biographical details about his Jewish-Lebanese family; together they imagine possible scrips about return and their intersection histories. The movie incorporates love letters in French written by a woman in Beirut to a Jewish lover who immigrated to Tel Aviv.
Inna Michaeli viewed the film in Berlin, where she lives. Zohar Elmakias watched it in Jaffa, where she lives. And then they had a conversation about it.
Zohar: Let’s do it.
Inna: It’s been a while since I saw the film, so I suggest a retrospective experience. I think I remember telling you that I didn’t really like it.
Z: What was your criticism?
I: Maybe I’ll start with what I liked, which were the letters in French. It isn’t clear from the film whether there they are authentic, but it doesn’t matter, because they are really the most fantastic part of the movie. It isn’t a coincidence that it is a love-based text, and that a woman wrote it (although it is impossible to know – maybe Mograbi or some screenwriter wrote them for the film – this is a different question altogether, about the possibility of a woman subject and feminine subjectivity outside of male authority).
Z: The letters are fictional. But they really were placed in the most pure moments in terms of feeling, which is why their effect was significant. As opposed to the rest of the film, which I felt was too manipulated.
I: I also felt that it was embarrassingly manipulated. By someone who thinks that he is inside the occupation, but is actually talking about how the occupation is passé, as if he already has one foot in the future. And he doesn’t. It’s embarrassing because he cannot speak from a radically different position from the one he finds himself in, and only does so because it fits his film. It’s on the border between subversion and changing reality on the one hand, and pretending as if reality does not exist on the other hand. It’s too close to the other side of that border, in my opinion.
ֿZ: I feel that the Jewish-Arab discourse has a tendency to sink into nostalgia or into an imagined future, based on the thinking that this is the only way to speak with Palestinians, or that this is the only position Mizrahi Jews can have vis-a-vis the occupation. It’s a bit dangerous, as it puts us in a very orientalist position which is located solely in the past. The Mizrahi turns into a mythological creature that has no grasp on the present or the future. He does not have one foot in the future. He has two feet in the past and he suggests that the future look just as the past did. Do you get me?
I: Of course, everything is based on a longing for the past, while at the same time saying that the past no longer exists. The movie deals a lot with the fact that Mograbi doesn’t really speak Arabic. And he cannot really nor does he want to “return” to Lebanon. Maybe it is only through the female body that is marked ethno-nationally, culturally and linguistically. There’s a story there about a romance he had with someone from Lebanon. I also understand your point about putting a question mark on identification as the source for identity and political positions. It’s likely due to biographical personal reasons of my own that I do not take part in this fantasy about returning to a home. And I’ve been interested in this idea of “identification” for a few years, and especially its absence. I’m interested in what happens when I don’t have a cultural background in common with Palestinians. This, of course, interests me as an immigrant when I meet people. What alternatives can I find for identification and common cultural roots as a basis for a relationship as well as politics?
Z: Why are you not part in this fantasy? I don’t take part in it either, but maybe for different reasons.
I: My immigration to Israel was in the framework of a return home, of the Law of Return. This absolutely adds to the trauma I have from the concept of “returning home.” Trauma is too strong a word. More skepticism. I really remember it as a moment of skepticism when, on the way to Israel, they told me that we’re going “home” and I wanted to return to my home. I think this is connected to what you were saying, since I am saying that I don’t even have the pretense of a common background, and you are saying that you could have that pretense, but you don’t necessarily want to be tied to it as a condition or legitimization or justification for where you are at personally or politically. Do I understand correctly?
Z: More or less. I think that identifying – the thought that I and my other are the same – can come from an absence or presence. That is, either I identify with someone because both of us are uprooted and estranged from our surroundings, or I identify with them because we both have similar baggage. Now, I would really be happy if I felt that there was a whole, coherent gamut of things that are “Moroccan” in my eyes. But Moroccaness is a constant feeling of yearning for me. A silly yearning, since my mother misses something that she actually knew, and I yearn for something I’ve never had. Thus, I fear projecting my hopes on identifying with Arabness – not because I identity so much with Jewishness or Israeliness, but rather because Palestinianess is something valid that exists. It is a living culture, even if it is being trampled and oppressed. While my culture is a ghost-culture. I won’t feel at home in Morocco, neither would my mother, and our culture is something that existed in a time and space that belongs to the past. Everything I define as Moroccan now is a longing for something in the past, or an attempt to recreate, or a response to the establishment. Shimon Adaf (who signed the letter to Samer Issawi, but whom I think is right about other things) said in an interview that he wants to build Moroccan identity as one that is not oppositional. I agree, but as we do so, we need to remember that this is a hybridic, contemporary identity, and understand what it can offer me when entering a political struggle.
I: You are talking about a place of restlessness within yourself, within identity and culture. And if we’re already talking about identifying: if I think about my closest friends, it seems as if that is one of the things that pushes me to form a close bond with someone – identifying on the basis of restlessness. It’s not necessarily uncomfortable, but it isn’t a place of restfulness and clear-headedness; like, oh, I’m Mizrahi or Russian or Ashkenazi or anything else. I am, but this is a place of restlessness. It’s important for me to do thinking exercised and see where my heart and my energies are and whether this is dictated by identifying. For instance, if someone who is racist against Russians upsets me (obviously), I stop to think – would I experience this less harshly if the racism was against someone else, someone who wasn’t me? And if so, would I respond in an even harsher manner because it hurts me, or by experiencing this as an insult, I actually confirm my identity as a Russian? These are questions that come up in the face of a reality in which I care about people with whom I don’t share a common culture background. And of course, I’m not sure what “common background” means. People from the kibbutz who grew up on “Russian songs” that I never once heard in Russia, for instance. But we need to return to Mograbi.
Z: Let’s go back. It bothered me that there is no imagination of future in the film. It isn’t a coincidence that my favorite character was Yasmine, the girl.
I: Her character has a certain bi-national imagination to it, since her father is Palestinian and her mother is Jewish. It seems that she presents the future in that sense. This bothered me – the ease in which there was a jump to the future.
Z: There is that really chilling moment, when they are visiting Tzippori (site of the former center of Jewish religious and spiritual life in the Galilee, as well as the site of the depopulated Palestinian village of Saffuriya), and the girl sees a sign that says “no trespassers allowed,” and she becomes very frightened. She immediately demands that they leave because they are trespassers.
I: I think there is something very powerful in those moments that we sometimes experience as children, when all of a sudden something becomes very obvious (usually something very frightening, when we suddenly understood a certain taboo), and you get a certain “truth” about the world based on what you’ve been told.
Z: You understand what the world sees in you through a twisted mirror.
I: Yeah, but just before you understand that it’s a twisted mirror, you comprehend the glance and look at yourself through it. Maybe we should say a few words about the film. When I saw the credits roll I thought that it was a classic parody of Jewish-Palestinian cooperation, when the direction, production, budget management and the professional credit belong to Jews. Or when he isn’t aware of the subject of power relation, or like he says – forget power relations, I’m beyond that. My Arabic teacher and I are friends.
Z: There is one part where Mograbi says to Ali: You are capitalizing on the fact that I don’t know Arabic. And Ali replies “we’ll get even for 1948.” This is pretty much the only moment that reveals power relations. This, and when Ali asks Mograbi to bring him a beer and says that he is an Arab of the revolution, that he does not do anymore hosting.
I: The film is full of jokes that go something like “although the reality is of occupation and apartheid, but we can act as if we’ve gotten past all of that.” Obviously we can laugh about painful things, but in my eyes, it demands a certain amount of sensitivity. It also raises a lot of questions about Ali’s agency in an interaction that is rooted in a colonial context.
Z: Something in the process of identifying, when it comes from a Mizrahi Jew to a Palestnian, it is like he is saying, “I am also uprooted and full of yearning, I am just like you.” Instead of saying “man, with all my uprooting, I have a camera now and I’m paying someone to teach me my mother tongue.” And I don’t say that judgmentally, but rather with a pain, as someone who has a camera and pays for someone else to teach her to speak Arabic (I don’t really have a camera, I don’t want people thinking I’m filthy rich from this whole story). And here comes the basic cinematic question: who is making a movie about whom?
I: I felt very uncomfortable with the jokes about ’48. It’s as if a man would joke with me about sexual harassment, and I would continue joking, cause otherwise I would look like an idiot in his film. I also don’t like the whole self-indulgence thing that men do.
Z: Ah, this leads me to the point about gender in the film.
I: Tell me.
Z: There is this new genre in American comedies called “Bromance,” which centers around masculine brotherhood. It’s like a romance film, but with two men in an platonic relationship (to the extent that I’ve seen these movies, right? God knows what they do when the credits roll). I have a feeling that all this fantasizing is entirely a game belonging to men. I don’t see us in this fantasy.
I: You’ve gotta give credit to the fact that this movie is able to portray a kind of awkwardness that is characteristic of personal interactions between Jews and Palestinians. It’s clear that something is happening. But we don’t know exactly what to do with it, and then there is a moment of “inauthenticity” which is probably a kind of authenticity in itself. And there are ways to circumvent it, for example when two people know each other really well, or when there is exceptional chemistry, or when there is no “political awareness” so that each person doesn’t find him or herself in a sort of dramatic situation. They really didn’t circumvent it. Anyways, gender. Right? There are no women – they only appear as relatives of the male characters. The daughter of, the lover of…
Z: Yes. So the whole fantasy looks totally masculine to me. Of course, the entire movie is imaginary, right? In the sense that there is a friendship between these two that is supposed to apprise something, to provide a solution. Something utopian that does not deal with the present. This seems like a male luxury to me.
I: This is totally a characteristic of feminist politics – a commitment to reality, and coping (to various degrees of success) with power relations that arise.
Z: These dudes don’t really like talking about power relations, or breaking them down.
I: Let’s try to think about an example to back up this claim. Let’s say, the entire production that we’re discussing as well as what you brought up – you’re a refugee, I’m a refugee.
Z: And the fact that there is no acknowledgment of power relations in a documentary film. It ignores the real danger that a documentary film carries vis-a-vis the main character.
I: Which danger?
Z: There are always many dangers in being the object that is being observed. The danger is that you don’t get to decide what aspects will be revealed about you. There is an entire world of filming, editing, music, distribution and marketing. Your character, how you present yourself to the world, is filtered through mechanisms of creation and the industry. And on this point there is feigned ignorance. Mograbi emphasizes his place as a student of Arabic, but not his place as a director that makes decisions, that the power dynamics are part and parcel of these decisions.
I: And of course, there is a gap in the tools available to Avi and Ali to assess these mechanisms and their influence. Also, these characters just aren’t interesting enough.
Z: I think they are trapped in an uninteresting situation. This is a situation that doesn’t allow, but rather determines. It doesn’t suggest, it clings to the past.
I: This connects with what you started talking about before – the attempt to extract some identity or culture or history from the past. Like a moment of nostalgia.
Z: I’m interested in your position as an immigrant, maybe even an immigrant “squared” (you know, I’m not an immigrant, but if I may borrow another mathematical phrase, then maybe I am the derivative of an immigrant).
I: But there aren’t many pure categories like that. What is a “real immigrant?” When I arrive somewhere and am automatically given citizenship, am I an immigrant? For instance, here in Germany I don’t have citizenship, but when looking at the criteria of language and class, there are immigrants and then there are immigrants. It takes me to a more pragmatic place, and far away from fantasies about home. Perhaps they are just fantasies of a different kind. Let’s say, a home full of closeness to people I love. Closesness with myself. This is really important. It’s the name of the game here, but in the movie, just as in our daily lives and in the place we grew up in, it’s belonging and a yearning for belonging and running away from belonging. Belonging has a coupled relationship to identity.
Z: I really like the idea of home as you just described it.
I: And maybe the story that the movie could tell, had it been a bit better, is precisely about this place – yearning to belong to a different place from the one you actually belong to, even if only partially or in a way that is full of contradictions, and even against your own will, even if it steps all over you. Some kind of a sideways glance – to imagining a bi-national state or perhaps a Palestine from the river to the sea, or imagining Beirut in the 40s. Maybe even Berlin, just not here.
Z: Perhaps this yearning needs to be channeled into building a place where you can actually belong.
I: But this is the paradox, or even the tragedy, if you will. Because there is an element of belonging. And there is a struggle in this belonging, both in the Mizrahi context and, to differentiate, in the Palestinian context. It’s a classic case of belonging and not belonging all at once. Of foreignness as a particular experience, even a collective one, of belonging. And this movie, with it’s fantasy journeys in time and space, as if it is running away from foreignness to an ostensibly familiar place, or where it has roots, but is still definitely running away to a new form of foreignness. Maybe there is something addictive in that.