A World Not Ours, by Mahdi Fleifel (copyright: www.berlinale.de)
Interview with Mahdi Fleifel

''God Is Not an Estate Agent''

In "A World not Ours", Danish-Palestinian filmmaker Mahdi Fleifel portrays for years the refugee camp Ain el-Helweh in Southern Lebanon, from where his family originates and where his grandfather still lives. Interview by Igal Avidan

Your film begins with material shot by your father who was constant filming the Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp. You continued shooting there for 12 years. Why?

Mahdi Fleifel: I wanted to keep a record of this place, particularly because no one seemed to have ever heard about it. My friends in Denmark definitely didn't. To me that felt strange because this was the place where I spent my summer holidays, which were wonderful. I also had great childhood years there. So I felt an urge to try and share my experience with the world.

Did you have also feelings of guilt because you as a Danish citizen can come and go as you please while the others, especially your best friend Abu Iyad, are stuck in the camp?

Mahdi Fleifel: Of course. I was privileged, and with privilege comes a sense of responsibility. I'm certainly the one who can tell the story, who else would? So if I'd just turn my back on it, I wouldn't be able to live with myself.

You lived in the camp as a child, but it was always a problem for you to enter it. Why?

Mahdi Fleifel: In the early 1990s it was agreed that the Palestinians in the Lebanese camps hand out all their artillery and weapons to the Lebanese army who was to control the Palestinians camps. As a result the Lebanese army discovered that it can boss the Palestinians around. Having to go through the checkpoints of the Lebanese army is awful. The only Palestinian ID card I have is from 1983 when I was four and has long expired. The soldiers always wanted a more recent document. Because of my Danish passport they see me as a foreigner trying to enter a security area. So I have to convince them that my grandfather lives in there, my friends and my aunts whom I need to visit. They don't get that so most times I had to get a permission.

They don't recognize the camp as part of your home?

Mahdi Fleifel: No, they don't. I guess it's the state of being an exile.

Is the camp still divided according to the villages the refugees originally came from in 1948?

Mahdi Fleifel: Exactly. Gradually people settled down in neighborhoods according to where they came from in historical Palestine. The largest community now is that of people from Saffourieh, where also my family lives. So they call Saffourieh the capital of Ein al-Hilweh.

Film still from 'A World Not Ours', by Mahdi Fleifel (copyright: www.berlinale.de)
Imbued with nostalgia and striking a wide range of emotional notes, filmmaker Mahdi Fleifel travels to the Lebanese refugee camp of Ain El Helweh to explore how the camp's displaced people use the World Cup series to articulate their own ideas of home, community, victory and hope

​​After the screening your friend Abu Iyad was warmly greeted by the Berlin audience, but could a screening in an Arab country endanger him because his blunt criticism of the Fatah leaders as corrupts?

Mahdi Fleifel: Certainly the film cannot screen in Lebanon with his presence there. That would harm him and me a lot, although I want to open up a much needed debate in Lebanon.

What would annoy the Palestinians in Lebanon the most about his statements?

Mahdi Fleifel: He attacks on the PLO, the Fatah and the way the Lebanese government treats the Palestinians. He is also questioning the right of return. He says he doesn't want to go back, and a lot of people may misunderstand that as if he is denying their right to return publicly, which is not the case. The film could easily be misunderstood so it's bound to stir a debate in Lebanon. But Abu Iyad is very happy and proud to see that his courage to speak up has enabled people to get access to his world.

Can you say something about the discrimination of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon?

Mahdi Fleifel: There are 72 jobs they are not allowed to practice. They can't be doctors, lawyers or government employees. Neither the Christians nor the Shiites in Lebanon wanted them to become citizens. This way they keep a large Sunni population out of the game. So the Lebanese say they'll help them preserve their right to return to their homeland by not making them citizens so they don't assimilate and forget about it.

In one scene you show your visit to Israel, even to Yad Vashem. How did you feel there?

Mahdi Fleifel: It was very strange. I was fortunate enough to go with my Danish high school class. We were hosted by an Israeli high school class so I didn't have to deal with the nightmare of the Israeli checkpoints because I didn't visit the West bank or Gaza. I was young then when I visited this place that throughout my childhood I was told was my home and where my grandparents came from. Yet I felt like a guest, an outsider who has been welcomed by others to his own home. It's a very weird feeling. I'm not sure I understand it to this day.

Did you find any remains from the village Saffourieh, which your family left in 1948?

Mahdi Fleifel: The only "archeological leftovers" was some ruin with a fence around where my grandfather used to keep his sheep.

Mahdi Fleifel at the Berlinale in Germany (photo: dpa)
Mahdi Fleifel is a Palestinian filmmaker and visual artist based in London. He was born in Dubai, raised in the Ain El-Helweh refugee camp in Lebanon and later in the suburbs of Elsinore, Denmark. He graduated from the British National Film and Television School in 2009. His short films have screened at more than a hundred festivals around the world and have won many best film awards. "A World Not Ours" is his first feature film

​​In your film you mention twice a saying by David Ben Gurion about the Palestinian refugees, "the old will die and the young will forget".

Mahdi Fleifel: This sentence is total nonsense. Still today the Israelis live with the delusion that all these crazy Arabs are trying to get rid of them and they don't know why. But that's not the truth. Israel was built as a result of systematic ethnic cleansing, and unless it acknowledges this, the sooner the better, there's never going to be peace. The Israelis keep talking about wanting peace, but how can you do that if you never acknowledge the fact that you have wronged the natives of this land that you have built a nation on.

Palestinians have different opinions about the realization of their right of return. What opinions did you hear among refugees and what is your own position?

Mahdi Fleifel: It is our right to return to this land, there's no doubt about that. The UN has a law about that (UN-Resolution 194 saying that "Refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practical date", the editor) and the only ones who oppose it is Israel and their allies. In the film Abu Iyad says that out of frustration, he's just exhausted from fighting. What he wants most is to feel he has a future. But if someone gave him a ticket to Saffourieh just like Jews can immigrate to Israel and get all the support to build a new life, he and no Palestinian would refuse to return to Palestine. Why wouldn't they?

Maybe because they wouldn't want to live as a minority in a Jewish state.

Mahdi Fleifel: Sure, but this whole idea of having a Jewish state is preposterous if you think about it. Why should a state be based on some sort of religion? God is not an estate agent that says: here's a country for you so you can practice your religion. Religion is a very personal thing that you practice at home or with your community. I don't see the point in having Jews move to the Middle East to colonize a piece of land because biblically they claim that this is where their ancestors used to live. I don't believe you can have a nation based on a religion.

Interview: Igal Avidan

© Qantara.de

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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