A tale of Palestinian alienation

Profile of a man staring into the distance, woman sitting nearby

A still from the al-Taghriba al-Falastiniya television series by Hatem Ali.

The renowned Syrian filmmaker Hatem Ali died in the last days of 2020.

He was one of the most distinguished Arab drama filmmakers, having directed, written and acted in numerous television shows on historical and social issues.

Sadness over Ali’s loss in the Arab world was considerable.

His death made headlines. Social media users memorialized his legacy. Artists and political figures mourned his loss.

Ali regarded his work as his life’s noble mission, never relying on thrills and amusement, but arising from a strong sense of patriotism and national sentiment.

And Palestine was never far from Hatem Ali’s mind.

His most reputable directorial work was al-Taghriba al-Falastiniya, or The Palestinian Alienation. The masterful television series – aired in 2004 – is centered around one of the most tragic events of the 20th century – the horrors of the Nakba and the loss of Palestine.

During the Nakba of 1948, Zionist paramilitary groups carried out a systemic ethnic cleansing campaign against Palestinian towns and villages. Under heavy fire and the news of massacres in nearby villages, confused families fled their homes with little belongings in directionless flight.

At least 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes and villages.

What was thought to be a temporary journey until Arab armies intervened and defeated Zionist paramilitary forces turned into a multigenerational exile that continues today.

Al-Taghriba al-Falastiniya depicted that history with unparalleled precision, replete with its extensive social, political and historical details.

Viewers would forget that they were watching television and become emotionally engaged in the story, identifying with the characters and crying at the tragedy of the Palestinians.

“Collective issue”

Walid Seif, the Palestinian writer of the series, said the seed of the project was planted in the 1980s.

“I didn’t write it in 2002 or 2000. I finished writing it in 1987. I spent three years researching, studying, collecting stories and then writing it,” he said in a 2011 interview with Al Jazeera.

Hatem Ali’s own heritage also had an impact on his direction of the television series.

“Not only am I the son of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights who shares the experience of some of the characters in al-Taghriba al-Falastiniya, but I also grew up in the [Palestinian] Yarmouk refugee camp [in Damascus],” Ali said in an interview in 2009.

“I have often been asked the same question, which is how a non-Palestinian director could present a work on the Palestinian issue. My answer is that the Palestinian issue is the collective issue of Arabs.”

The events of al-Taghriba al-Falastiniya start decades before the 1948 catastrophe.

The story centers on the Yunis family living in rural Palestine during the 1930s, in the era of the British Mandate in Palestine and the rise of the Zionist movement. Contemporary events garner the attention of Ahmad Yunis, or Abu Saleh, the protagonist.

Abu Saleh first comes into close contact with the political reality of his time when British occupation soldiers come to his village and decide to grant Jewish settlers a piece of land to build a colony. Abu Saleh clashes with the British soldiers and flees to Haifa to escape their pursuit.

Abu Saleh is exposed to a number of events in Haifa which open his eyes to the British colonial practices in Palestine and the growth of Jewish settlements. Feelings of anger accumulate within him until the British Army executes before his eyes one of the men who resisted Palestine’s colonization.

Abu Saleh then returns to the village full of revolutionary ideas.

“Shock was overwhelming”

In one of the series’ episodes, the narrator describes the experience of living through the Nakba.

“Some time had to pass before we understood the size and scope of the catastrophe, before its features became clear, before we adopted it in our being and in our witnessed reality, before we coined the term Nakba, the Nakba of Palestine, and before realizing that we were its generation, witnesses and victims.”

He continues, “During it, and under the stress of dealing with horrific details created by the horrible circumstances, shock was overwhelming. That was the shock of a cyclone that absolutely possessed you, paralyzed your awareness to the extent that you couldn’t comprehend what was happening around you.”

The events of al-Taghriba al-Falastiniya extend beyond the Nakba and follow Palestinians to refugee camps, after they had lost everything.

After two decades of living in the hope of returning to their homes and land from which they were expelled, Zionist forces attack them again in their places of refuge.

This time, the Zionist forces had turned into an army of a country called Israel, which occupied the West Bank, Gaza and the Syrian Golan Heights, and Palestinians experienced once again the frustration of relying on Arab regimes to fight for their rights.

As al-Taghriba al-Falastiniya deals with an unfinished tale, the writer and director opted for an open ending of separation and return.

Al-Taghriba al-Falastiniya – in addition to portraying courage and heroism in Palestinian history – also dealt with social issues among Palestinians.

This took the form of showcasing the exploitation and injustice landowners practice against farmers. In this way, the show was class conscious and carefully illustrated the differences between rural and urban areas and the heavy price vulnerable sectors paid for binding customs and traditions.

One scene shows Abu Saleh saying, “If we are afraid of Abu Azmi [a landowner], how are we going to confront Jewish [settlers] and the British tomorrow?”

The social criticism gave the series credence. It did not aim to project a fantasy of what had happened or project a perfect image of social reality. Rather, it gave a realist insight into Palestinian life.

The Palestinian issue is more than a conflict between two sides or an occupation that started in 1967. It is about displacement and replacement, a settler-colonial project, the ethnic cleansing of a whole people.

A television series with the rich historical and visual content in al-Taghriba al-Falastiniya would be valuable for international audiences. It personalizes the Nakba, introduces them to the core of the issue and obliterates the lies of Israeli propaganda.

A Palestinian group led by Refaat Alareer is working to complete the translation of al-Taghriba al-Falastiniya into English subtitles. This positive step was long overdue, and more should be done to ensure access to non-Arab audiences.

There is a burden of responsibility to share the stories of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians injured, killed and exiled by British occupation and Zionist settler-colonialism over the past century. This is so that they won’t be killed a second time by the world’s denial of their suffering.

The sadness over the death of Hatem Ali is exhaustive. He died in exile from his homeland Syria before he could tell the story of the Syrian alienation.

Ahmed Abu Artema is a writer who lives in Gaza and a researcher at the Center for Political and Development Studies. He is one of the organizers of the Great March of Return.