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Elia Suleiman and the politics of disappointment

Doha diary, part 3

The second story on the front page of Doha's English-language newspaper the Peninsula yesterday concerned the declaration by the emir's economic adviser that Qatar had no plans to sell gas to Israel. Dr Ibrahim al-Ibrahim had been challenged by an audience member on the Qatari equivalent of Question Time to confirm that Israel wouldn't be benefiting any time soon from the emirate's huge reserves of natural gas. (Gas now accounts for a larger proportion of Qatar's GDP than oil, and the exploitation of those reserves is very big business indeed. The Duke of York was here last week inspecting Shell's research centre in Doha, and on Saturday night, in the lobby of my hotel, I met a bored and rather languid lawyer for the company who's spending several weeks in this gilded prison, scrutinising contracts on several eye-wateringly substantial deals.)

Israel was also on the minds of the audience at a Doha Tribeca Film Festival "masterclass" given by the Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, after a screening of his latest film, The Time That Remains. Suleiman based the screenplay on the diaries of his father, Fouad, who is played in the film with extraordinary, almost aristocratic grace by Saleh Bakri.

The first portion of the film is set in Nazareth, the director's birthplace, in 1948, as Palestinian fighters, of whom Fouad is one, are surrendering to troops of the Haganah. Many of the townspeople flee to Jordan, but rather than showing us the flight of the Palestinian refugees, Suleiman allows his camera to linger on hastily abandoned homes -- in one house, a half-eaten breakfast is left on a dining table. This reticence is the source of the film's considerable power. At no point in the subsequent segments, set in 1970, 1980 and the present (in Ramallah, as well as Nazareth), does Suleiman allow himself to be seduced by the myth-making of Palestinian resistance. The dominant note is not of anger or rage, but of melancholy resignation.

And that is the sentiment that is etched across Suleiman's lugubriously handsome face in the final act, in which he himself appears, playing the returning son as a completely silent observer of the quiet agonies of a land that it's not at all clear he still calls home. (Indeed, in the discussion afterwards, the director asked rhetorically: "Where is my homeland? Every place I enjoy is a homeland for me.")

Suleiman's temperament evidently tends towards pessimism and the ready acknowledgment of defeat (the title of the film, he said, is meant to remind us that "time is running out"). When he was invited by a journalist from al-Jazeera to send a message to the "suffering people", not just of Palestine, but of the entire Arab world, he refused. To do so, he implied, would have been inauthentic, for he "didn't suffer as a child". (At that point, I half expected Tariq Ali, who was in the audience, to intervene. Ali is here promoting South of the Border, Oliver Stone's docu-hagiography of Hugo Chávez and the other strongmen of the Latin American left, which he co-wrote with the director.)