Ypres and Palestine, the Jewish Holocaust and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Spot the connection? As a schoolboy, Belgian author Erwin Mortier and his friends would play in the fields near his home on the old First World War Western Front. One day, Erwin and his best chum heaved from the earth two helmets, one with a bullet hole through the steel, the other undamaged. And they argued over which had the more value: the one which belonged to a soldier clearly shot by a sniper or the one owned by a soldier who might have survived the trenches of the Ypres salient.
Mortier, who has just published Divine Sleep, a novel about the Great War, spoke at Ypres not long ago about the way in which that terrible 1914-1918 conflict might be remembered now that its participants are all dead. With a photographer, he had visited current refugees in Belgium, almost all of whom, it turned out, were victims of the colonial rearrangements which the victorious European powers had agreed at Versailles in 1919, a year after the war ended.
There was a woman called Doris from Burundi, whose brother, nephews and nieces, aunts and uncles and many friends had been massacred. She was, ultimately, a victim of the Great War. Her land had once been part of the German colony of Ruanda-Urundi, ceded to a Belgian mandate after the Great War, whose colonisers reinforced the territories' original ethnic divisions. And then there was Amin, a 17-year-old from Iraqi Kurdistan whose father was torn to shreds by a landmine in the mountains close to the Turkish border, a victim, too, of the Great War's victors who originally promised the Kurds a homeland and then divided their lands between Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran.
Mortier also met Lisa Appignanesi, the British writer of Polish-Jewish origin who gave him some of the best advice I have ever heard. Appignanesi's mother, during the Second World War, managed to save herself and her husband from Nazi persecution through a complex play of identities. Her mother, she said, had been "a queen of deception", her parents striking a balance between remembering and forgetting. "Sometimes they would come across sensitive parts, whereupon they had to retreat and nurse their wounds. My mother's stories were so confusing to me because her 'negotiations' with the past essentially amounted to her not wanting to see herself as a victim… Her narrative was one of triumph." Thus, Appignanesi explained to Mortier, "Memory always takes the form of a negotiating table."
By chance, I read the text of Mortier's short but eloquent speech this week, a day before watching Julian Schnabel's new movie Miral, a feature film which follows the life of Rula Jebreal, a real-life Palestinian-Israeli woman who became a journalist, author and television presenter. Schnabel, who is Jewish, lives with Jebreal in New York. Their movie begins and ends with the death of Hind Husseini, a remarkable and courageous Palestinian woman who found orphans from the Jewish massacre of Arab villagers at Deir Yassin in 1948 and started a boarding school for girls that still exists in Jerusalem. Husseini died in 1994, but Rula was one of her pupils. Her childhood – losing her mother, choosing to be a well-educated woman, sucked into the intifada, arrested and brutalised by the Israelis – is the story of Miral.
It is not, frankly, the best Palestinian film – Paradise Now, the gloomy-cynical story of two Palestinian suicide bombers setting off on their mission dressed as funeral guests, remains the most potent symbol of mental and physical loss – and it got panned even by The Independent's critics. Not without reason. Its screenplay bumps at times – "Everything will be all right in the end" (said twice in the same scene, for God's sake) is one of the clunkiest, overused lines in cinema history, and there's a weird double-speak in which the same characters talk to each other alternatively in English, Arabic and Hebrew (an attempt, I fear, to "widen" the audience). Then there's the collage of archive footage inserted into the drama, black-and-white images jarring with picture-perfect cinema sequences. I like the idea, but not the art: cinema cameras produce a different kind of reality to old, scratched newsreels, a "negotiating table" that somehow doesn't work.
And yet… Israel's so-called "friends" in America and Britain also panned the film, primarily for two scenes. In the first, Rula is beaten into unconsciousness by an Israeli woman torturer. In the second, an Israeli bulldozer demolishes a Palestinian home. Crocodile tears on the floor, please. The Israelis have indulged in torture of both men and women for years – dozens of Amnesty International reports bear witness to this – and I have personally heard the screams of the tortured at what was Israel's proxy jail at Khiam in southern Lebanon. I have witnessed countless home destructions by Israeli troops in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Indeed, a day after I watched Miral, an al-Jazeera news broadcast showed real scenes of Israeli house evictions and bulldozing far more dramatic than the movie.
But that's not the point. The film has been abused as (of course) "anti-Semitic", the same old slander that's been spat at me for more than half my life. The real problem, of course, is that Palestinian cinema is slowly coming of age, and Israel's supposed "friends" want to stop it in its tracks. The sin of Miral is that it exists. The plight of a young Arab woman – ultimately another victim of the Great War (ergo, the Balfour declaration) – should not be told. All manner of spurious movies about Israel – including the awful Exodus – can be made and loved. I once watched a Hollywood film in which Israeli troops rushed to the Sabra and Chatila camps in 1982 to save the lives of Palestinians being massacred; in reality, the Israelis sent the murderers into the camps, watched while they slaughtered the innocent – and did nothing. I was there.
So I called Rula Jebreal in New York from my home in Beirut and told her frankly what I thought of Miral. But we both agreed that the real reason for the political/racial attacks on her movie was its existence. "Why can't a Palestinian woman tell her own story?" she asked. And she is absolutely right, even if only one cinema in New York is showing the movie. My advice to her was twofold: never apologise if you've done nothing wrong, and never, never, never, never, never give up. Thank you, Churchill!
It's that "negotiating table" again. Mortier ended his speech at Ypres with a disturbing, accurate thought. "The dead will be forgotten sooner or later, but who knows it might make a difference if by remembering them, we lose them properly… However profound the silence may be in and around the war cemeteries, we should not conclude too readily the dead are resting in peace at last." And so for Ypres, Auschwitz, Burundi, Kurdistan, Palestine…