When I think of cinema in Ramallah, I think of Esther Jallad. She and her family were expelled from their wealthy home in the port city of Jaffa in 1948 and found themselves in the hilly village of Ramallah. In her displacement, Esther carried one passion with her: she loved to go to the movies. She lived conveniently, next to one of the three cinemas in Ramallah, Cinema Dunia. Every afternoon at 3:15, dressed up to the hilt, with her heavily lipsticked, pursed mouth, eyes smudged with pink eye-shadow, her large purse dangling from her bent arm, she would walk down from her house to the cinema as though on a rendez-vous that could never be missed. The cinema had three classes of seats, stalls the cheapest, circle and balkon (balcony). One of the six balkon in the cinema was reserved to her. Everyone knew it was Madam Jallad’s box, and whenever we went to Cinema Dunia we never missed Esther’s cocked head, occupying one of the four upholstered chairs in the balkon at the far left. A lone figure, quietly concentrating on the film projected on the wide screen. Esther’s love of the movies was magical, but remained uncommunicated.
Two films showed in the afternoon starting at 3:30, an ajnabi (foreign) and an Arabic film. Invariably the ajnabi was in English; very rarely were French films shown except if they featured Brigitte Bardot. The films’ screening began at 3:30 with the Jordanian national anthem, to which we were all supposed to stand, with the exception of Esther who never did. Once I tried to follow her example only to find the usher flash his light at my guilty person slumped in my chair displaying disrespect to our king whose image standing before the flag filled the screen. The Arabic films were all Egyptian and were of good quality. The ajnabi movies that made their way to Ramallah were a mish-mash. It was not an open choice for the cinema manager because he was restricted by both the censor — who had to approve every movie — and the availability of movies provided by film distributors in Cairo and Beirut who added Arabic subtitles to films they distributed throughout the Arab world.
Esther’s command of English was limited and she was too near-sighted to read subtitles comfortably. French was her second language, a marker of sophistication amongst the higher classes of Jaffa. But there were few French movies shown in Cinema Dunia. What did Esther make of the films she watched? She never discussed them, never spoke about what she saw. Her movie-going was a solemnly solitary affair. She always went alone to sit in the dark in the large chair in the balkon
Then on the cursed day of 6 June 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank and we were cut off from the Arab world and from the film distributors who provided the cinemas in the West Bank with the films. For a number of months Cinema Dunia, along with the other two in Ramallah, Jameel and Walid, and all three in Arab East Jerusalem, closed down. Occupation and entertainment did not go together. For many years the billboard outside Cinema Dunia showed the same advertisement for the last film screening there before the war of 1967, The Thief of Baghdad. Every time I passed by the cinema on my way home, I felt as though time had stopped and our life was spent waiting for the old film to be changed.
It had been not a good time for Esther. Her husband’s health was deteriorating. She nursed him staying indoors most of the day, deprived of the distraction of afternoon movie-going. But she had a cinematic adventure that occupied her mind as she sat on the porch of her house: how to retrieve the jewelry she left in Jaffa.
Every one of her acquaintances and friends had thought that they would be leaving their homes for no more than a few weeks until the Jewish terror from the Stern Gang ended. But Esther had thought otherwise. Before they left she had gone to her garden, dug a hole and buried the metal box in which she kept her jewelry. After the 1967 War she went to the priest in the Orthodox church and prevailed upon him to go to her house in Jaffa. She described the location where she had dug the hole, between the two lemon trees and five meters away from the gate. The priest could not refuse Esther’s wish and did as she commanded. He found the house but more trees had grown in the garden. He stood by the gate observing the house trying not to attract attention, waiting for the occupants to leave and trying to figure out where to dig. It was a scene reminiscent of the treasure hunt in the film It’s a Mad Mad Mad World. And as the hero in that film suddenly figured out the site where the treasure was buried between the palm trees forming a large ‘W’ so the priest identified the place where Esther had buried her treasure. When he came back to Ramallah and knocked on Esther’s door he was carrying with him the rusty metal box full of Esther’s expensive jewelry.
A few years after this incident I went to visit Esther to check on the health of her husband. It was not the best time to visit. Mr. Jallad, for whom I had great respect, was dying. I found Esther in the room with him. The door was closed and the other members of her family were standing in the lobby waiting for Esther to emerge. When she finally did, she walked towards us and after closing the door behind her, announced in French: “C’est fini.” Her face had that same solemn expression she put when she was on her way to the cinema. Her mouth was pursed, but her beautiful black eyes were not smudged with pink eye shadow, they were red from tears she had silently shed in that darkened room as her husband breathed his last. I felt sad at the loss of the venerable old man but could not help marveling at how unreal it felt. Esther’s words were like a line adopted from one of the movies she must have watched at Cinema Dunia.
Mr. Jallad’s death marked the end of an era, the demise of that class of well-to-do refugees from Jaffa who, in spite of having lost everything, kept their dignity and pursued their lives in their new homes as well as they could manage, often resorting to the movies for escape from the dismal desperate reality around them. Most had left after the occupation to start yet again new lives in prosperous Amman. Now the last of those who stayed had died.
Without a husband to nurse, all her children away and no cinema to escape to, Esther moved to Amman where she lived with her daughter. Her unmarried granddaughter was kind to her. When Esther could no longer leave the house to visit the movie house, she presented her with a video machine so she could darken the lights in her room and see, alone, lying in bed, her favorite movies. To her amazement, Esther never turned it on. It was not the films Esther would go to the cinema for, rather it was being in the dark, watching films with others, young and old, who came for all sorts of reasons, and then leaving the charged smoky atmosphere to the other world outside, and making that other world seem different in the light after being inside that movie theater.
Meanwhile, in Ramallah, complaints about the dullness of life in the Palestinian towns were mounting. Bethlehem was the first to re-open its movie houses closed since June. Jerusalem followed, and finally Ramallah. By the end of 1967 all the movie houses that had been in operation before the war resumed their activities. Without cultural access to the Arab world, the only films that could be screened were those which the cinemas had in store or which came via Israel. This meant fewer Arabic films were shown. Ajnabi films were brought from Israel. Instead of Arabic subtitles, these films were subtitled in Hebrew, which no one could read.
With such a poor fare, the audience, which came enthusiastically at first, starved as it was for any sort of film, soon began to dwindle. The censor was gone, and the national anthem a quirk of the past. And with most of the audience only able to look at the pictures and hardly understand a third of what was being said because of poor English and no knowledge of written Hebrew, what mattered was the sensation of seeing these actors perform all sorts of exciting scenes on the big screen. It was not long before the cinemas went a step further and began to show films that depended entirely on the visual without the need to follow a narrative line, that is, pornography.
This proved very popular. Once again movie houses began to fill up but now with an exclusively male audience. And without censor or control, there was no bar on young teenagers anxious to smoke out of sight of their parents, coming to sit in the movie house watching one pornographic film after the other and smoking away.
While the cinema in Ramallah showed a pornographic film only occasionally, there were a few in Jerusalem that seemed to specialize in the genre. Complaints began to be voiced. Teachers were concerned about the effect the films had on their students. Parents also made their voices heard. Then, Nuzha, the movie house most notorious for screening these films, was burned down. And so it remained until it was taken over by a group of dramatists who established the first Palestinian theatre, the Hakawati, later to be also turned into the first cinema club in East Jerusalem.
Cinema Dunia was not burnt but bowed to self-censorship and only occasionally slipped in a pornographic movie. It was eventually Israeli taxes that forced it to go out of business in 1984. The other two movie houses in Ramallah continued until the first Intifada that began at the end of 1987. Then a few years into that mass rebellion against Israeli oppression, they were forced to close down when the Israeli army began storming into the darkened theatre to arrest suspected activists who were taking time off from resistance to watch a movie.
All the movie houses remained closed until the Oslo Accords brought a measure of false hope and Cinema Walid re-opened. It still had that same smell of formaldehyde in the bathrooms. But Cinema Dunia closed down for good. Cinema Jameel which was renamed al-Kasaba was renovated and turned into a theatre hosting plays and a cine-club showing a combination of popular films and films of quality.
In Amman Esther was getting into her ninth decade. One day she called her granddaughter into her room and told her to go to the closet and pull out the lacy dress she had brought with her from Jaffa when they left in 1948 and had not since had an occasion to wear. The granddaughter asked if she wished to wear it. “No, my dear,” said Esther. “It is not for now. It is for later. You know what I mean.”
The granddaughter’s eyes choked with tears. “No tata. No. No.”
“Yes my dear. I want you to promise me to put this on me when the end comes.”
Not long after, the time came for Esther to disappear into the final escape reserved for all of us. She went in style, dressed in her best gown, as she always had been when she walked down from her house for shorter escapes into the darkened theater of Cinema Dunia.
Raja Shehadeh is a lawyer, writer and novelist who lives and works in Ramallah. He published a memoir, Strangers in the House, in 2002 and When the Bulbul Stopped Singing in 2004, adapted to the theater and performed in Edinburgh, Tehran, New York and Amman. His most recent book is Palestinian Walks, Notes on a Vanishing Landscape (2007).
This essay was originally published by ArteEast and is republished with permission.