Though the film is called The Syrian Bride, the story is about much more than the title character, Mona. Played by Clara Khoury (who also starred as a bride in Rana’s Wedding), Mona doesn’t have very many lines in this new Israeli film. Instead, she acts as a gravitational body that the main themes of the film orbit around — her sister Amal’s unhappy marriage, the problems of tribal politics, the Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights, and on a more abstract level, the broader political conflict in the Middle East.
Featuring a mostly Palestinian-Israeli cast, the film takes place in Majdal Shams, a Druze village in the Golan Heights, different from Druze villages in Israel proper when it comes to its unwavering loyalty to Syria. Mona is to be wed to a cousin she has never met, a famous television actor who lives in Syria. But instead of being a happy one, the day is mournful. Thanks to the cold war between Israel and Syria, Mona will never again see the family she knows in Majdal Shams.
Mona’s family comes from near and far to congratulate her as well as say goodbye. Returning home are her brothers Hattem, who betrayed the village’s code tribal loyalty by leaving the village eight years earlier and starting a family with his Russian wife, as well as Mona’s playboy brother Marwan, who lives it up in Italy — but the homecoming is not without conflict. Hattem is barely acknowledged by their father (played by Khoury’s actual father, Markam), despite his mother’s pleas, and Marwan returns home to an angry former girlfriend, an amusing caricature of a Red Cross employee working in the village.
Meanwhile, Amal, performed by the masterful Hiyam Abbas, confronts her controlling husband Amin, the father to her two teenage daughters. Feeling threatened by his strong-willed wife, and worried what others in the village will think of his manhood if he allows her to study at Haifa University as she so desires, Amin uses their eldest daughter, Mai, as a pawn to assert his authority by punishing his wife through her.
Though the day is about her, Mona spends much of it alone, contemplating her future and second-guessing the marriage. Reassurance comes from an unlikely source — the wedding videographer determined to document every aspect of the day. Upon recognizing her wedding-day anxiety — compounded by the lateness of the groom to the checkpoint that controls access from the Golan Heights to Syria, and the uncertainty of whether the Israeli and Syrian immigration officials would let her through — the cameraman tells Mona, “Marriage is like a watermelon — you don’t know what it’s like ‘til you open it up.”Her uncertainty wanes as she hears her fiance speak over the megaphone, “The family is dying to see you. And I am dying to see you as well.” The only question remaining whether Mona would be allowed to pass into Syria, the controversy being the Israeli stamp (due to their lack of diplomatic relations, anybody with an Israeli stamp on their passport is denied entry to Syria, and vice versa) on her nationless passport.
In an amusingly apt portrayal of the absurdity of the political situation, and the international community’s futile attempts to resolve it, the good-intentioned Red Cross worker is volleyed like a ping-pong ball between the inflexible and bureaucratic Israeli and Syrian border control. She gives it her best effort, but ultimately she throws up her hands and walks away from the situation before it is resolved. It isn’t until Mona takes matters into her own hands and takes advantage of a brief moment of opportunity to slip through the checkpoint, unnoticed by her distracted family, that she finally gets her wedding.
The ending is an interesting one — here is Mona, whose situation wasn’t solved until she took her own initiative, but left without any national identity. Yes, it is a subversive message, which comments on the limitations nationalist politics. The audience wants to see her get married, but also stay with her family. But there is the border line, invisible on the landscape, which prevents her from doing both.
The filmmakers’ cosmopolitan attitudes are apparent in the film, but their social criticism is not dealt out in a heavy-handed manner. Created with just the right amount of comedy and drama, the film subtly tackles many heavy themes, such as paternalism, feminism, and the politics of occupation and a protracted war—but in a very digestible manner. And thanks to the writers Suha Arraf and Eran Riklis (also the director), the compelling story makes the characters and their trials all the more memorable.
Currently based in Ramallah, Maureen Clare Murphy is Arts, Music and Culture Editor for The Electronic Intifada