Farha confronts Israel’s erasure of Palestine

The most important thing about Farha – a Netflix movie about the Nakba that has ruffled plenty of feathers – is just that: it’s important.

What is important about Farha is not how accurate it is, how painful and difficult it is to watch, or how well the story is told. It is and does all of these things. But it’s much more important that Farha simply is.

Here’s the thing that people – though not regular readers of this august organ, of course – seem to fail to understand about the Nakba: It really happened. And it pretty much happened precisely how Palestinians tell you it happened.

And it doesn’t matter who you speak to. Every Palestinian has a Nakba story, theirs or those of their parents or other relatives, friends and neighbors. Many have told them, in one forum or another. Historians have documented, documentarians have produced.

The Nakba is full of stories and painful memories and it is one of these stories that Farha draws on.

A traveled tale

According to Darin J. Sallam, the award-winning Jordanian filmmaker for whom the film is a first feature, she first heard the story of Farha from her mother, who heard it from a childhood friend in Damascus.

The story plays out entirely in an unnamed village, which it is understood is among the more than 600 hamlets, villages and towns that were depopulated and destroyed by Zionists in the 1947-49 period of the Nakba, and later hidden in “national parks,” often near new Jewish settlements with similar names.

Farha is the central character, a teenage girl whose ambition is to get to the city – also unnamed – to be educated, contrary to tradition. It’s a powerful performance by Karam Taher who is on screen almost without break.

She eventually convinces her widowed but remarried father about education. But before any of that can happen, the fighting with Zionist militias – always in the background of the movie – reaches her village. Her father locks her in a storage room for her own safety where she spends most of the rest of the movie.

We never see her father again – it is understood he is killed – and by the time Farha can escape, her village has been emptied of its people. We don’t see it happen, but we do see the execution of a family from a different village by Zionist militants.

It’s a tense, well-told story presented entirely from the perspective of Farha. It is also a deeply, painfully familiar narrative to any Palestinian.

Unsurprisingly, the Israeli state and its many minions hate it.

Born in sin

Israel likes to wage war on history. It’s embedded in Zionism, which, like much of European colonial thought at the time, tried to wrap itself in some kind of civilizing conquest, a moral mission, Rudyard Kipling’s “white man’s burden,” a “return” for European Jews – long discriminated against and persecuted in Europe – to raise up the “sullen peoples” already there, as Kipling might have put it.

And such morality tales need myths. Thus, Palestine was a “land without a people, for a people without a land.” That myth transformed in time to the idea of the uncultivated land, the greening of the desert, the bringing of new technology to a backward people, an idea that Israel is still pushing today to gullible interviewers.

But Palestine under Ottoman rule (from the 16th century to the early 20th) was a mostly agrarian society even as it was developing into a regional trading hub. Palestinians made their living largely off the cultivated land, but also from religious pilgrims, manufacturing and trade.

To insist that this very-much-present people did nothing to the land – that there “practically were no tenants there” in the words of Israel’s prime minister-in-waiting Benjamin Netanyahu – is simply not true. And despite massive immigration from Europe, there were more than twice as many Palestinians as there were Jews by the time the Nakba started. It was the Nakba that ensured radical demographic change, allowing a mostly Jewish state to emerge.

But unable to concede that Israel was somehow born in sin, one of the prime objectives of today’s Israel apologists has been to try and erase this history.

The current project of Palestinian erasure is more subtle than the past’s erasure of the physical evidence – the villages and towns, the people themselves. From attacks on the Palestinian curriculum, to the removal of archive material relating to the Nakba, the focus now is on silencing Palestinian history.

Burying the story

Would, for instance, pointing out the reality of the Nakba fall foul of the the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, where one example is claiming that “the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavour”?

But how otherwise to explain the Nakba and its aftermath?

After all, Jewish colonists from Europe after 1917 – the vast majority – did not come to live equally with the indigenous population. They came to claim a “national home” in Palestine as promised them by some distant British colonial overlord.

Some argue that these immigrants weren’t welcomed and hence had no choice but to fight. But, first, why would anyone be surprised that Palestinians were not overly enthused by having tens of thousands of European migrants arriving on their shores to claim those shores for themselves?

Second, why drive the Palestinians out – more than 750,000 wound up in refugee camps in neighboring countries and territories, much more than half of the entire Palestinian population at the time – if this was not a project to replace one people with another, or, indeed, a “racist enterprise?”

Why prevent them from returning?

The 1950 law of absentee property allowed the Israeli state to confiscate what property and lands were still intact but whose owners had fled for safety, been forcibly removed or killed. International law stipulates that refugees have a right of return. But Israel will not allow Palestinian refugees theirs. There is no compensation offered, no acknowledgement, even, that this has happened, that these “absentees” were real.

Indeed, population transfer was always part of the Zionist equation. Theodore Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, early advocated the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, writing in his diary that “we shall try to spirit the penniless [Arab] population across the border,” a “removal” that should be done “discretely and circumspectly.”

David Ben-Gurion, who would go on to become Israel’s first prime minister, in 1938 similarly made no bones about what he thought should happen: “I support compulsory transfer. I do not see in it anything immoral.”

There was a Plan D – to go along with plans A, B, C – to be put into effect should the Palestinians reject the nascent UN’s 1947 partition plan. (This rejection was widely expected. Indeed, a British cabinet meeting from September 1948, after the fact, made it clear that it had long been commonly understood that a “separate Arab state would not be viable.”)

Plan D (Dalet) was explicit in its aims, detailing tactics for attacks on civilian populations and the destruction of villages. Should villagers prove truculent, the plan was clear: they “must be expelled outside the borders of the state.”

In other words, the forced removal of Palestinians from their land was very much a plan, and, as Zionists saw it at the time, a necessity. In the words of Benny Morris, an Israeli historian who first uncovered much of the documentary evidence for this ethnic cleansing in Israel’s archives: “Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here.”

A global reach

With ethnic cleansing came the massacres. Deir Yassin, Lydda, Ramle, Tantura … the list goes on. It is also well-known, not least to those who perpetrated them.

Israeli protestations about Farha are therefore either purely performative – like the French police officer in Casablanca being “shocked, shocked” at Humphrey Bogart’s gambling den while collecting his winnings – or they are testament to how successful the attempt at burying history has been, especially among Israelis and their supporters.

Certainly, they are an attempt at bullying those who would tell the truth, whitewashing historic crimes in such a way that any Palestinian resistance seems entirely irrational, and Palestinians are rendered merely as Kipling’s “Half devil and half child.”

Farha is a corrective to this camera obscura perspective on the past. And whether all details in the film are documentary fact is as relevant to the truth of the Nakba as thousands of World War II movies are to the truth of the holocaust.

You can’t understand the issue of Palestine if you don’t understand the Nakba. And you won’t resolve anything if the Nakba and all it entailed are not properly addressed.

With its Netflix platform, Farha has unprecedented global reach. Well told and beautifully filmed, this is a potentially groundbreaking opportunity to engender greater understanding for Palestine in far-flung places.

For that reason alone, but also because it gives form and shape to something so crucial to the Palestinian experience, Farha is hugely important. Don’t miss it.


Omar Karmi

Omar Karmi is an independent journalist and former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.