Another Paradise Casts Out a Feisty Woman

By Talya Halkin

Published August 08, 2003, issue of August 08, 2003.
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Sloping down from the Carmel Mountains toward the Mediterranean Sea, the village of Fureidis was given its name, according to local legend, by a governor who arrived here during the British mandate. He called what was then a small, quiet village “Fureidis,” Arabic for “paradise.” Fureidis is one of the few Arab villages on Israel’s coast that was left intact during the 1948 war. Today, many of the village men are unemployed. Their wives work as housemaids in the neighboring Jewish town of Zichron Ya’akov, and a sense of hopelessness draws young people to militant Islamic movements. Deeply attached to the village in which she was born and raised, the documentary filmmaker Ebtisam Mara’ana felt stifled by the lack of possibilities it offered her. In “Fureidis, Paradise Lost” (Zeigot Films), screened this weekend on Israel’s film channel, the 27-year-old director looked for answers to her questions about the village’s recent past, which remains “shrouded,” she said, “in fear and silence.”

Fiercely independent and inquisitive, Mara’ana set out to find her childhood hero, a woman by the name of Suad Genam who was born in Fureidis in 1957 and who dared to challenge the village’s penchant for political inaction. In 1979, Genam joined a protest group that became affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organization. She was accused by Israeli security forces of membership in a terrorist organization and was imprisoned and tortured. After her release from prison, Genam left to study in Europe, only to be caught and imprisoned for several months each time she tried to return to Israel.

When Mara’ana tries to find out what happened to Genam, she is stonewalled at nearly every turn. No one, not even Genam’s own sister, is willing to talk about her. When Mara’ana finally finds out that Genam is now a married doctor of law living in England, she flies to meet the woman whom she hopes will be able to answer the question that plagues her: Does achieving the freedom she longs for mean renouncing her connection to the village? Should she remain with her family or move to Jewish Tel Aviv, which is now the center of her professional and social life?

At the same time that the filmmaker achieves her goal of meeting Genam, Mara’ana’s mother fulfills her own dream of journeying to Mecca, a pilgrimage which will bring her closer to the world of religion and tradition from which her daughter is fleeing. In this way, “Fureidis: Paradise Lost” is structured around two pilgrimages, leading in geographically and symbolically opposite directions.

“I didn’t plan to be the protagonist of this movie,” said Mara’ana, speaking in the living room of her house in Fureidis. “But when I sat down to edit the film I made about Suad Genam, I realized it was just as much about my own struggle to define my identity.” After receiving the Best Film and Best Cinematography prizes at the 2003 Israeli film festival DocAviv, “Paradise Lost” is now contending for the Israeli Oscar for best documentary movie and awaits distribution in the United States.

A slight, feisty woman whose beautiful almond-shaped eyes dominate her delicately chiseled features, Mara’ana spoke of the sense of belonging that continues to elude her. “When I went to an Arab high school in Haifa, the nearest city, I was looked down upon as a villager. In Israel, I am looked down upon because I’m Arab, although less so today. When I am with Palestinians, they consider me to be Israeli. When I am with Israelis, it’s the same story. In the end, neither side will accept me, and I remain stuck in the middle.”

When “Paradise Lost” was recently screened in Toulouse, France, some viewers felt Mara’ana’s film was not sufficiently pro-Palestinian, and one Palestinian woman “reacted angrily to the idea that I would ‘sell’ the village for my own freedom,” she said. “At the same time,” Mara’ana continued, “people connect to the film in unexpected ways. When my movie was first screened in Tel Aviv, a woman whose parents were Holocaust survivors showed up on my doorstep in Fureidis with tears in her eyes to tell me how much she identified

with my desire to understand a past that nobody was willing to talk about.”

Nili Aslan’s stunning cinematography and A’llah el-Fahres’s evocative music underscore the power of Mara’ana’s film, whose lyrical, emotionally charged tone is strikingly honest and straightforward. But “Paradise Lost” has no easy resolution. When Mara’ana finally meets Genam in a London suburb, she finds a woman who, despite her accomplishments, remains haunted by the betrayal of the village that turned its back on her political persecution and who is unable to replace the world she left behind.

“It would have been better for me if I hadn’t found Suad,” Mara’ana said. “Today I am left with an even greater sense of sadness and emptiness.”

“I would like to feel like I still have my own paradise,” Mara’ana said, offering figs she picked moments earlier from the tree outside. “But I find it difficult to talk about a connection to a homeland, which I no longer feel I have. The things I found out about the village changed it for me. It’s like being in love with someone all your life only to realize, when you finally get to know this person’s most intimate self, that your love was merely a dream, or fantasy, and that he is not the one.”

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