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The Prison Within
S THE CAMERA stalks Hebron in search of a story about the Occupation, it encounters oppression of another kind. New levels are discovered, things not foreseen.
The film is Asurot (officially and badly translated as "Detained"; the single Hebrew word, with rich ambiguity, refers to women both confined and forbidden). Shot in 1999-2000, it portrays the impossible life of three Palestinian widows who were married to men from a single family. They are Siham, Nawal and Najwa; the family name is Abu Minshar. They live with their eleven children on the seam of the partitioned city. Israeli soldiers sit on the roof of their house, using it as an observation post.
In 1996, the Wye Agreement, part of Oslo, split Hebron into an Arab section, controlled by the PA, and a smaller Jewish-Arab enclave under Israeli control. The front of the Abu Minshar house is in the Israeli-occupied section (H-2), while its rear is on the Palestinian side (H-1).
The camera follows the anxious glances of the women and children as they press against the wall of the staircase when the soldiers pass them. But it finds something more. Inside this prison of the Occupation is a further box, from which peeks the soul of a woman in pain; of another who struggles in silence for her lost femininity; and of a third who has given up.
A strange fate has gripped the Abu Minshar house. The husbands of the three were truck drivers, and all were killed in accidents. To become a widow, within the more conservative sectors of Palestinian society, is to decline in status. One is expected to spend the rest of one's life at home and devote oneself to the children. When a widow over thirty wears make up or a special dress, she is grist for the rumor mill: "Beware of her! She's out for a man!" If she remarries, she faces ostracism, and her children may be taken by the first husband's family.
Asurot was directed by Anat Even (pronounced with short "e's") and Ada Ushpiz. In late January 2007, the Workers Advice Center showed it to a group of women at its hall in Kufr Qara, an Arab village in Israel. Most of the viewers were farm laborers who take part in workshops for women's empowerment. This particular evening included a discussion with director Even, moderated by workshop coordinator Samia Sharqawi.
Asked what had led her to make the film, Even said: "One day Kawather Salam [a journalist based in Hebron in the 90's] told me and Ada Ushpiz about three women whose roof the army had taken over. We put in a long period of research, after which we filmed for a year. We wanted to show how the Occupation had penetrated their house. When we speak of Occupation, we usually mean the oppression of civilians in the public sphere, although we also know that soldiers break into private homes in the night. But most Israelis are unaware that the Occupation can penetrate a house on a permanent basis, turning it into a military position. They are unaware of a situation where soldiers, women and children live all bunched together. This is a mixture of blindness and sheer wickedness."
The story is full of contrary emotions. One doesn't know, sometimes, whether to laugh or cry or mix the two – for example, at the sight of a little girl, amid the insanity, trying to dance like a normal kid. The soldiers, clunking up and down the stairs, invade the family's private space, stealing the intimacy from even the simplest moments. They pass as if the women were air. Without a thought for shame, they piss on the roof. The empty shells of their bullets lie scattered about. The women wash down the roof and rage builds in their hearts. Nawal: "The Palestinian question could find no solution except on my roof?"
Despite the fierceness of the national conflict, however, it gradually becomes marginal in the film, yielding the stage to a different theme: the conflict between Palestinian society and the Palestinian woman, especially the widow. Even tells the group: "We went to Hebron to report on the evils of the Occupation. The oppression of the women within Palestinian society only came to light as our relationship with the three grew deeper, especially during the filming, when we were with them for long stretches. A very strong bond grew up among us. Little by little they opened their hearts. The conversations came to center on their troubles as women and widows. It seemed as if they were saying these things aloud for the very first time."
The participants in the discussion noted that the film deals more with the society's "occupation" of the women than it does with the military occupation.
Even remarked, "At first I thought it was none of my business to treat this. I thought it should be the task of Palestinian society. But from the moment the women began telling us their stories, there was simply no question. It was clear that the film would deal with their position as widows in their society. From an ethical standpoint too, I think, we could not conceal this dimension. Maybe they talked to us precisely because they couldn't talk within their society – or even among themselves. There's a very deep fear. The society had spewed them out, and they had nothing to lose. Maybe they decided to perform a kind of service for the female public – through us."
One of the three, Nawal, rebels against the society's attitude toward widows: "I hate the word 'widow.' It repels me. I reject the notion that a women loses her worth when she loses her husband."
But the society defies Nawal. After her husband's death, she says, his family took over the insurance money. They give her a tiny sum each month, claiming she's not capable of managing finances. "You'd waste it all," they say. Nawal has another source of bitterness as well. Little by little her sons are acquiring the traditional views, adopting airs of authority over her.
Siham, in her forties, is the least rebellious of the three. She manages the household and speaks in a submissive tone to her youngsters. One morning her younger sister pays a visit, bringing her small son. The sister faults her husband, who has taken a second wife; he's become violent and stingy toward her and her children. He doesn't allow her to visit the neighbors or ask them over. While talking, the sister removes her headscarf and lets her long, silky hair flow down her shoulders. She looks into the mirror, seeking her femininity. "You look marvelous," says Siham. They begin to compare their fates – who's worse off, the one with the dead husband or the one with the living husband who has taken a new wife? The sister tells the camera that she wishes her husband dead: only then will she be free. Siham points out to her, though, that death would not solve anything. There is no exit, the sons will copy the father when they grow up, just as her own son overturns the furniture if he sees that dinner isn't ready.
Najwa, in her mid-twenties, is the film's most dramatic figure, complex and full of fire. Asurot opens pointedly with a scene in which she beats her son, pouring her accumulated rage into his small body. The viewer feels repulsed, but he will learn to understand her.
Najwa says with a bitter smile: "Sometimes I wish all women were widowed, so that they'd feel the fire that's burning in me, so that the whole world would feel what I'm going through."
Najwa is the only one we see outside the house. She lives a double life. Originally from Jerusalem, she still has a blue identity card that enables her to travel in Israel. She leaves the children alone at home and goes to Jerusalem. "There I feel a new wind in my sails. In Hebron I feel buried." She mixes with Israeli women, goes into shops, tries things on, buys clothes for herself and her kids, and attempts to feel normal. The connection between the Occupation and happiness is quite clear to her: "The Jews are happy because they're free, we're unhappy because we're not."
Najwa's mysterious journeys move the other two women to condemn her on camera. Toward the film's end, she breaks down: "I'm in pain, my soul is wounded. I feel death closing in every minute. I'm fed up with life. I don't feel these are my children, they're more like my brothers. I feel I'm their servant. My soul is broken, only God knows how much." She looks straight into the lens. "And don't try to get any more out of me." Her voice chokes.
It is late September 2000. Intifada. The sound of gunshots silences other sounds, even the weeping of Najwa. The entire house has become a military base. The families have left. One day Siham and Nawal return to take clothing for the children. "We're refugees now," says Nawal. "We'll come back when things calm down." On second thought she adds, "But things won't calm down. There'll never be an agreement. Only war. The Jews cannot be trusted." The Occupation returns to center stage, and the social oppression retreats to its usual corner.
The lights in the WAC center go on, and the women of Kufr Qara discuss the film. Surprisingly, many identify with Najwa. Our own lives aren't essentially different, they say. True, the Occupation complicates things, but here too women have to get permission from their husbands for every step they take.
One woman questions Even's handling of the Occupation. It appears too human, she says. We didn't see blood. Even reminds her that the film was shot from 1999 until the start of the second Intifada. Then she adds: "We've gotten used to seeing mangled bodies on all news channels. Our senses have been dulled to the point that the sight of armed soldiers in constant friction with women and children, becoming inescapable presences in their lives, may seem trivial by comparison, as though without blood it isn't violence. But think what it means to have your enemy penetrate into your house and do what he pleases. There is no place to hide. There is no defense. You're exposed to his whims. Even when no drop of blood has been spilled, I call that violence."
The clock strikes eight. Some of the women begin to squirm. They laugh and say: "Our husbands will divorce us if we stay out later."