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.)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses