Our Other Sisters attended Hackney Palestinian Solidarity Campaign’s screening of Michel Khleifi’s Fertile Memory (Al Dhakira al Khasba). An engrossing feature film documenting the lives of two empowered Palestinian women living in the 1980s, Fertile Memory is increasingly plaintive in a 21st century context, in which revolution, identity and the daily struggle of women in Palestine is even more poignant.
5:30am. Roumia wakes up and walks to the bus stop, standing next to a line of men waiting to go to work. She is the only woman there. A grandmother from Jaffa, working in an Israeli clothing factory, Roumia has lived through the occupation, resilient, hard-working and undeterred. Orphaned and widowed from a young age, she is the head of her family. A woman ahead of her time, Roumia cooks, cleans, works the land, mourns her dead and tends to her grandchildren.
“Do you consider yourself a militant Palestinian woman?”
Sahar regrets her past. Married at eighteen, she left her husband after thirteen years, a period of her life which she now considers ‘lost.’ Living as best she can Sahar, a novelist from Nablus, sees her creativity as a form of escapism and uses pen and paper to rage about the plight of her people. But she does not feel trapped by her gender. Sahar now considers herself a free woman, yet often feels judged for divorcing her husband. She is empowered, and this sense of freedom has opened her eyes to the women’s struggle in Palestine. She wonders how women clad top to toe can take part in this struggle. She sees the gap widening between men and women, and views her own solitude and separation from her husband as symbolic of her rejection of this stereotype.
“How can I live without a woman?”
Marriage is important to Roumia but she insists that a woman can live without a man and yet a man is helpless without a woman. A traditionalist, she doesn’t agree with women who leave their husbands for other men. Men are important but not essential to Roumia who radiates independence. Roumia jokes: ‘the smell of male smothers all initiative.’ Far from being hostile, this comment represents Roumia’s acceptance of her own emancipated existence.
For Sahar, marriage is a symbol of regret and the thirteen years she lost in marriage represent the lost years of the Palestinian people living through the occupation. Being tied to a man in marriage, in the eyes of Sahar, further inhibits her progress as a woman living in Palestine: “when a woman is cooped up at home her mind becomes calcified between the kitchen and the children. Marriage was not a good experience.”
“I will not sell”
Roumia and her son debate whether or not to sell their ancestral land to the Israeli’s, who are offering an exchange. We are presented with a juxtaposition of man versus woman; tradition versus modern; ingrained cynicism versus youthful naivety. As Roumia’s son begs her to allow him to sell their land, Roumia declares that she has suffered enough and wants this piece of land to remain in the family. The land, to Roumia, is an emblem of her past life, her present struggle and her imagined emancipation of her family in the future. After thirty two years of slaving hard to keep the family afloat, the idea of receiving money for an exchange of land which is belongs to her is something which she cannot contemplate. The land is significant to the way in which she defines herself and justifies her struggle.
“Watch all this extravagance – people are starving!”
Roumia and her family sit in silence and watch television. A Western advert appears on screen, promoting deodorant. Young men and women are seen dancing in nightclubs. An everyday image for us in the West is not only alien to Roumia, but she violently disapproves. For us, Roumia’s struggle as a woman is suddenly put into perspective. And yet, for Roumia, her years of working hard for her family, her identity and her own independence are dashed away in the flicker of the television screen. It seems to her that Palestinian women have a much longer journey ahead.
“I want. I desire. I hope. Nothing is finished.”
The feelings of the Middle East are like a bath that is boiling.
Fertile Memory delivers two strong narratives of the lives of two externally strong women. This is not fiction – this is their reality.
The past is no longer a hiding place. The women’s revolution is the present of Kheifi’s documentary in 1980 and a reality for Palestinian women today.
For more information about Hackney Palestinian Solidarity Campaign please visit their website.