Movie Review: The Idol by Hany Abu-Assad

The New York Times, in its review of Ben Ehrenreich’s book The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine,  posted the picture below:

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photograph by Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

It is a photograph of unbridled joy, curiosity and innocence set in a refugee camp against the bombed out ruins of Gaza.  The happiness of childhood trumps–at least in this moment–the nastiness of the adult world around them.

This photograph reminds me very much of the first half of Hany Abu Assad’s film The Idol (Ya Tayr Al Tayer). It is a fictionalized account of the true story of Mohammed Assaf, the Palestinian wedding singer who sneaked across the border from his Gaza refugee camp and traveled to Cairo to compete in Arab Idol (the Arab version of “American Idol”). The film is divided neatly into two halves. (Though it is an awkward transition from the first to the second half.)

The first-half begins with a group of young children, riding their bikes, running from bullies, scraping together money, fishing (and then cooking and selling those fish). There is a sense of pure joy and freedom and hope. Except for the background of bombed-out buildings, exposed rebar, enormous piles of rubble and trash and ubiquitous destruction, the scenes could have been written for Hal Roach’s Little Rascals.

the kids

All photos from “The Idol” press kit.

The children want to form a band. The 10-year old Mohammed (Qais Atallah) and his 12-year old tom-boy sister Nour (Hiba Atallah) recruit their friends and begin performing. Mohammed’s talent is evident; his voice is mature and controlled beyond his age. His sister’s charm and grit and ambition push the band forward, and they begin getting hired to play at weddings. (Nour’s being female is a problem. They cannot get hired if they have a female in the band and no one would hire them without her musicality. So she hangs in the background, behind the others, playing guitar and wearing her ever-present backwards baseball cap.)

Young Mohammed (Qais Atallah)and his sister Nour (Hibba Attala)

And they are good. Carried by Mohammed’s voice.

When Nour collapses from kidney failure, the band dissolves, but Mohammed vows to earn enough money singing to get her treatment–thus the quest to appear on Arab Idol. The actual quest begins the second half of the film when Mohammed (now played by Tawfeek Barhom) is 18.

Life hasn’t changed much in the seven years that have elapsed. It may have gotten worse. There are still power shortages, travel restrictions, destruction, hopelessness.  But Mohammed is determined, especially when encouraged by the girl he met while his sister was getting dialysis.

This is not a spoiler. It is the fact that the film is based on. Against, incredible odds, Mohammed Assaf rises to the top of the competition. And it is here that one witnesses the true joy of the film.

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Mohammed Assaf (Tawfeek Barhom) on “Arab Idol”

Every neighborhood, every household, every town square is filled with proud Gazans watching Mohammed on Arab Idol. Their pride and joy is palpable.  There is cheering, fireworks, embraces, flag waving. These people have not had a lot to cheer for, and now they do and it is cause for celebration.

It would be disingenuous to say that The Idol is not a political film, for of course it is. The politics, however, are subtle and act as a patina to a classic story of realizing one’s dreams. It is a joyous film, all the more remarkable for taking place in what appears to be such a joy killing space. And the realizations of Mohammed’s dreams are felt vicariously by the crowds that gather around televisions, big and small, and watch his ascent.

Hany Abu-Assad, who shares writing credits with Sameh Zoabi, has crafted an emotional film that never gets schmaltzy. There is angst and happiness, frustration and success, danger and death and victory and love. But it is all done with an even-hand and a simple narrative. Again, the politics are there–you cannot see Gaza and not wonder how or why? But, that is never the thrust of the film.

It is rare these days to see a film set in the Middle-East in which afterwards one comes out of the theater smiling and happy. Hany Abu-Assad has created such a film. And our joy is not simply for Mohammed Assaf, but for the Gazan people themselves. Sure their lives will remain unchanged for the most part, but the music competition has given them something to be proud of.

Book Review: Eyes, Stones by Elana Bell

Eyes, Stones–Elana Bell’s first collection of poetry and the winner of the 2011 Walt Whitman Award–is an extraordinary feat of poetry and clear-mindedness.  Each of these 40 small poems are dense explosions of beauty and clarity, encased in language that is both modern and antique, beautiful and brutal–much like the countries that she writes about.

In her poetry, Bell attempts to look and understand the worlds that are Palestine and Israel. She moves from biblical stories to modern events and much in between. Her topics range from the ancient relationship of Abraham and God, Sarah and Hagar, Ishmael and Hagar to the modern Holocaust, the Zionist movement, the 1968 Egypt-Israeli War, and the most recent Intifada.

But what is remarkable about these poems is that they don’t stink of politics, of nationalism, of self-righteousness.  They are simple poems that lay bare the simplicity of man’s pain, the artlessness of his troubles, the wonder of his existence. Often, in these poems one is unsure which side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Bell sits, her treatment is so even-handed.

Take for instance her poem “Naming the Day,” which is a composite both of those Jewish villages in Eastern Europe destroyed or made “Jew free” AND those Palestinian villages destroyed or evacuated during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

In “On a Hilltop at the Nassar Farm,” the speaker admires the Palestinian woman Amal:

Amal laughs with all her teeth and her feet
tickle the soil when she walks. She moves
through her land like an animal. She knows it
in the dark. She feeds stalks to the newborn
colt and collects its droppings like coins
to fertilize the field. Amal loves this land
and when I say land I mean this
exact dirt and the fruit of it.

Amal’s rough existence she compares with her own existence in the settlement that surrounds Amal’s land:

All around her land the settlements sprout like weeds.
They block out the sun and suck precious water
through taps and pipes while Amal digs wells
to collect the rain. I am writing this poem
though I have never drunk rain
collected from a well dug by my own hands,
never pulled a colt through
the narrow opening covered in birth fluid
and watched its mother lick it clean,
or eaten a meal made entirely of things
I got down on my knees to plant.

Yet Bell’s work does not rise from the guilt of the occupier.  It comes from a genuine love of the people–both Arab and Israeli–and a horror of the world that has evolved around them.  A particularly poignant poem, “In Another Country It Could Have Been Love,”  laments what could be between the two:


The next time I saw her, a rifle
strapped her shoulder. The tip
of it fingered my ribs, my hips
the inside of my thighs.
Cold metal instead of her hands,
her eyes.

Elana Bell herself is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, and as such, her examination of Jewish and Arab relationships is strikingly honest. She maintains an embracing love of the land through its many incarnations: biblical landscape and Zionist dream, modern nation and occupied territory.

In the end of the collection, she returns to Brooklyn where she lives. There she will “watch the Super Bowl…eat organic greens and make love on Saturday afternoon…[She will] listen to jazz in tight-packed clubs…and sleep on clean cotton sheets.” It is during this sleep, however, that the Mid-East comes to haunt her, to remove her from her comfort, and to tie her to the lands of her heritage.

Eyes, Stones won the 2011 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets.  Five of her poems (along with her bio) are published on the Academy’s website. Check it out. She is a remarkable woman and a fine poet.