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.

Stavros Damos for the New Statesman
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A L Kennedy Q&A: “Of course we’re all doomed"

The novelist talks wise politicians, time travel and Captain Haddock. 

What’s your earliest memory?
I’m not sure my early memories are that real. I recall pulling a doorknob off in the hallway in an attempt to leave home, because I was walking away from salad and was never going back . . . Salad back then was limited and scary.

Who was your childhood hero?
I was fond of Captain Haddock. And impressed by Henry Dunant. My heroes were mainly in books. My adult heroes would be numerous. The Lakota (and other) folks resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline are amazing. Bill Nighy is quietly doing amazingnesses on behalf of others. The whole of Médecins sans Frontières – they’re extraordinary. Lots of people do amazing things but don’t get mentioned. We are constantly given the impression by politicians and the media that everyone else is a bastard. It’s not true.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?
I don’t think that’s ever happened. I’m always happy to read a wonderful book. But I guess I have envied writers who have been to amazing places or lived in amazing times and been useful. Rebecca West, then, Chekhov, Robert Louis Stevenson.

What politician, past or present, do you look up to?
Nelson Mandela was very wise about a number of things. Václav Havel and Gandhi also. In the present, the mayor of Düsseldorf is pretty impressive. So is Nicola Sturgeon. They’re people you can stand to be in the same room with – which is unusual in politics.

What would be your Mastermind special subject?
Anything I enjoy knowing would get spoiled by having to sit and spit out chips of it. Plus: my memory is on temporary leave of absence while I have the menopause.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?
I’d like to have visited Shakespeare’s London – awful to live there. The UK in 1946-50 would fascinate me. And I’d like to have been in the US for the Sixties.

What’s your theme tune?
Depends. Bits of Dylan, lots of Elvis Costello, “Bread and Roses”, some First World War songs.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I was told that if I held on and passed my forties, life would be infinitely more fun. I did and it is.

What’s currently bugging you?
Don’t get me started. Let’s boil it all down to ambient cruelty and stupidity. We seem intent on becoming extinct. And if we go on as we are – we kind of should.

What single thing would make your life better?
I can’t tell you. But it would.

If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
No idea. I quite liked bits of acting – that’s tough, though. I like painting, in the sense of decorating. I wouldn’t mind being a painter.

When were you happiest?
I would imagine it’s all the times when I’ve forgotten about being me entirely and been completely involved in something other – nature, writing, giving a shit about someone else . . .

Are we all doomed?
Yes, of course. We always are. We all die. That’s why we ought to be kind. 

A L Kennedy’s “Serious Sweet” is newly published in paperback by Vintage. Her children’s book “Uncle Shawn and Bill and the Almost Entirely Unplanned Adventure” is published by Walker Books

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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