Waleed Zuaiter, a professional actor in his early thirties now living in Brooklyn Heights, New York, never thought his life would change the way it has after reading a book. While taking part in the US West coast premier of Homebody/Kabul, a play by the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning playwright Tony Kushner, Zuaiter’s wife Joana came across On the Hills of God, a novel by Ibrahim Fawal, a Palestinian writer and filmmaker now residing in Birmingham, Alabama.
Although he was preoccupied with acting at night while living in Berkley, California, Zuaiter’s captivation with the 450-page book sparked him into action. And it was then that he decided to try and turn it into a film. He was swept up by the powerful and tragic story of a young 17-year-old boy, Yousif, a Christian Palestinian, and his two best friends, Amin, a Palestinian Muslim, and Isaac, a Palestinian Jew, living in Palestine in 1947. The three friends grew up together in the close-knit environment of Ardallah.
As the book relates, things changed for the three teenagers. The summer of 1947 marked the beginning of the end for Palestinians. The book is not ideological; rather it’s a narrative that turns history into drama through the eyes of Yousif. Prophetically, the three characters make an oath to one another, promising to remain friends come what may. When mayhem sets in, in the wake of what Palestinians call Al-Nakba (catastrophe) and Israelis call their war of independence — innocence is lost, chaos and paranoia slowly infect everyday life, and humanity crumbles. That the friendship of the three boys survives the ravages of war attests to the harmony in which all Palestinians lived; and to the time when both Muslim and Jewish mothers breastfed each other’s children. With the killing of a resident of Ardallah in a bombing in Jerusalem, and life becoming difficult for Isaac’s family, they make the decision to move and settle in with Yousif’s family.
But the situation does not improve and Isaac’s family decides to move away. Later, a group of Zionists under the umbrella of the Jewish military organization Haganah, are caught trying to launch an attack on Ardallah and to Yousif’s shock, Isaac is among those captured. Isaac profusely maintains he was pushed into the group but is sentenced to death along with the rest of the infiltrators. Yousif pleads to save the life of his friend, whom he describes as the “best boy in the world,” but to no avail. It is this heartbreaking scene that moved and caught Zuaiter’s imagination, prompting him to get in touch with Fawal.
“This is the best time to make this movie; especially after 9/11, everybody wants to learn more about the history of the conflict because it’s in the news everyday,” says Zuaiter. “We live in a society in the US that is largely misinformed but eager to learn the truth and I want to make a film that will transcend what people see in the news — the way the friendship of Yousif, Isaac and Amin transcended the difficulties [of their time].” Zuaiter’s goal for the film is far greater than its timeliness. He aims to “make a film that is in fact timeless.” This quality, says Zuaiter, will only come “from a very moving story that is enriched with beautiful and real characters whose relationships capture your heart regardless of the political situation surrounding them and its relation to today’s visible conflict.”
Zuaiter’s goal is not merely to produce a film that the audience knows all too well, but to make a movie for people that are not familiar with the Palestinian saga. Pointing to Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, which won an award at the Cannes Film Festival, Zuaiter says the true art of a film is visual poetry and that can be a lot more powerful than words. “In this business, your product is your script and if you don’t have a damn good product it’s difficult, but I have it. What I need now is to find all the other sides to the business, including the financing,” says an enthusiastic Zuaiter.
Collaborating with the author and getting his blessing was essential for Zuaiter. When 70-year old Ibrahim Fawal, author of the award-winning book, got the call from Zuaiter, it was instant chemistry. They gelled; he was ecstatic to hear from an eager Zuaiter. Fawal, who was born in Ramallah, had lived history and saw the catastrophic consequences of war in 1948. Then 15 years of age, he became a witness to the exodus of Palestinian refugees, infamous massacres such as Deir Yassin, and the subsequent occupation.
The memories stayed with Fawal throughout various junctures of his life. They lingered while he was earning a masters degree in film and writing his thesis on the writer Khalil Gibran in the 1950s at the University of California in Los Angeles, assisting in the filming of Lawrence of Arabia, running his own film company, and through 25 years of teaching film and literature. It was during this time that Fawal wrote and revised the novel. Years later, he wrote the English biography of his friend, director Youssef Chahine.
In the aftermath of the 1967 war, Fawal poured years into his novel and when he was finished he found nothing but closed doors. “I had an agent once who promised me a large sum of money in advance but he couldn’t sell the book because they didn’t want him to sell it. There was, at the time, resistance to our side of the story,” says Fawal. “The more challenges, real or unreal, that the editors threw at me, the harder I fought back.” But persistence ultimately paid off and Fawal found a publisher. “I was convinced deep in my heart that this was a story worth telling and nothing could shake me off.”
On the Hills of God won the PEN-Oakland Award for Excellence in Literature and received praise from Oxford University to the University of Washington in Seattle, and has been translated into Arabic. While he certainly does not vilify the enemy, Fawal speaks about humanity on both sides and the need for peace on both sides. “I show the decency of both sides, how we ate the same food, sang the same songs and spoke the same language.” For Fawal, the most entrancing part of the book is the irony of turning the Holy Land into a battleground.
“Supposedly, this is sacred land, yet it gets lip service and here are the descendants of Abraham on both sides fighting each other as if they own the land without recognizing that this Holy Land belongs to everyone,” Fawal says.
In an ironic way, 9/11 opened some of the closed doors Fawal experienced when he first tried to publish his novel. Amidst the mayhem and shock emerged a moderate Arab voice in America and the world that clearly disavowed the crime of that day.
As a result says Zuaiter, “the acceptance is there for better or worse, there is an obligation to illustrate the complexities of the region.” This change in mindset has opened the doors for stories like On the Hills of God because the audience is greater now, irrespective of whether Hollywood wants to take a part in it or not, says Zuaiter. The film will help fill a gap in America’s understanding of the grievances of Palestinians, say Fawal and Zuaiter. “People say Hollywood is controlled by Jews, but what people fail to realize is there are many liberal, peaceful, justice seeking Jews, not just in Hollywood, but around the world. I hope to make these people a part of this film as the story represents them, as well as a true depiction of the history of Palestine,” explains Zuaiter.
That motion pictures are a business is not anathema to Zuaiter. He fully comprehends the difficulty of the industry and understands that a good story may not be enough by itself.
The business proposition must be there for a film to materialize.
People buy because of other people’s track record. Zuaiter understands this and has made a lot of sacrifices, including putting his own money into the venture. “I want to have the authenticity that the story deserves and I am looking for investors who can put their money where their passion is,” Zuaiter says.
Massoud A. Derhally is a freelance journalist, political commentator and former correspondent of Agence France Presse. Massoud can be reached at Massoud_Derhally@yahoo.co.uk. To get in touch with Waleed, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org