Any relation we have to the earth is mediated by our bodies. Elaine Raheb makes films that reside in the space between land and body.
I just watched her short film Massage and Politics. She brings you inside a living room with three friends, one playing the tabla, the other talking about the Hashemite Kingdom as the cornerstone of stability and safety in Jordan while massaging his other friend whose script might as well just have read “be,” which might be true because this is in the category of “Documentaries >> Biographies” on M.Media, a Netflix-style streaming site based in Beirut showcasing Arab films. The friend being massaged discusses the restrictions on citizenship in Jordan and jokingly alpha-male-pokes-at his friend on the tabla. And at the end of the two-minute short short, they sing an upbeat lamentation and part of it goes:
قصتنا قصة شارع
الله يعين اللي سامع
هم وفقر وتتفرانين
بطالة في الشوارع
The lyrics above can best be described as blues:
our story is the story of the streets / God help you who are listening / we’re poor and stressed and buried alive / the sidewalk’s become the unemployment line.
For the record, I enjoyed taking translator liberties with the rhyme scheme and the last part.
Her Amr in Tahrir Square, another biography, another two-minute short short, shows footage of Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the part of the revolution when chants were still about Hosni Mubarak and Tantawy, who briefly succeeded him after the ousting.
Her cuts are sharp and telling because they tell what the other films about the revolution don’t tell. She doesn’t tell of the crowd gathered at the square; no conclusions can be drawn except that it is large. The information we gather is about the individuals and the individuals are airing their individual grievances, disagreeing with each other, quieting each other down, clapping for some and not others, speaking for their individual selves. There is no singular opinion that comes out of the Arab world and it is foolish that my saying that even means anything. Maybe the closest thing we can agree on is a free Palestine but even the logistics of the right of return, citizenship, borders, etc. would be a point of heated discussion among a group of Arabs.
Considering the hours of footage we have Netflixed, Facebooked, YouTubed about the Egyptian Revolution and what has succeeded it, almost none of it discusses what one woman covers in fifteen seconds of the documentary: that the peoples’ lands at Toskha and Sharm Elsheikh were sold. And sold to whom? She says they’re sold to the United States and Saudi Arabia and Israel. The investors in those projects may very well have been any of those mentioned but what is important is this: that people’s grievances are not only about dictators, it is about the nuances of what happens to them under dictatorships driven by late capitalist globalization and the nondenominational act of stealing land from indigenous communities.
And we don’t get that a lot in reference to media coverage of Arab nations — Arab independent film, maybe, but there’s so much out there not made widely available so it doesn’t yet warrant a confident claim. People are losing access to their own land. And Upper Egypt and Sinai are home to large populations of Nubians and Bedouins respectively: Black and Indigenous.
[Bookmark for another post: the Arab world is in a convenient denial about blackness; darkness/lightness and colorism is discussed as an interpersonal characteristic and not a sociopolitical dynamic. When the conversations stay at surficial levels that are potentially digestible by an ignorant Western public, without talking about our own internal issues and our own environmental issues and our own of land ownership and skin color, we further repress oppressive dynamics, couch them in practices shrouded with language and women all over the Arab world carry BWhite skin bleaching jars into the bathroom with them each morning, singing the melanin off their skin. And people’s houses are being taken away by their own government.
And instead of showing this as news coverage of the revolution and the gripes leading up to it, we instead try to humanize our revolutions to the Great White West; plead to them that a brown body in protest is allowed to exist because they shudder at the prospect of black protests, brown protests, bearded dark-haired men protesting, women in headscarves protesting; we show these images as if they are new images. And to many folks in the Arab world or familiar with images coming out of the Arab world, the woman in headscarf protesting is not new, it is so present it is almost trite. We need to have more complex conversations and we need art to be having more complex conversations.
And Elaine Raheb is doing this. I want to talk about her craft and what she does with form but I know little to nothing about film theory or film except that I enjoy it very much so for now, content and subject matter, and form for later. Whew. I. digress–]
Under Mubarak’s regime (and several other post-1956 Egyptian governments), lands in Upper Egypt’s Luxor were plots for elaborate development projects and irrigation projects and archaeological digs. To dig up thousands of couch-sized sphinx statues presumed to be underground, neighborhoods in Luxor were destroyed, and people displaced into the desert with bogus promises of subsidized homes in new modernized desert communities given them instead, and by extension a bogus promise of upward mobility and hope. Even the revered Gamal Abdelnasser ordered the mass displacement of Nubians in order to build the High Dam. Sixty years later, reparations remain unpaid.
She has another film about Akkar, a northwest district of Lebanon bordering Syria. It, too, talks about the land, those who leave it, and those who remain. Another called 12-year-old Girl, featuring her in a lot of wildflowers and weeds. She speaks about leaving her home in Syria and she hides her face and braided thick brown hair beneath a piece of cloth because she does not want to be prohibited from returning when she eventually returns. Another one films Tarek writing a poem about Um Mohamed’s domestic life in the midst of war.
غسيل وسخ / اكوام نهاية / الاسبوع /على رأسها / قدر الغسيلي / خرجت / الى الشمس
And I took transcriber liberties with the line breaks above. And translator’s liberties below.
The dirty laundry, the accumulation
of a week’s worth
of living. Balancing
the laundry basket
on her head,
she goes to the sun.
In two minutes, Elaine Raheb does with film what others do with longform journalism and sabbaticals that turn into books. But what allowed her to do it in two minutes is 1) a keen focus on the body (bodies of land, our bodies, powerful bodies, the response to other bodies) 2) a commitment to the individual and 3) their right to be seen and heard.