When a Palestinian school child in Abu Dhabi is asked what the difference is between Israelis and Jews, and he replies that, while the Jew is somewhat of a Muslim, the Israeli remains a fully fledged idolater, you automatically conclude that this child must be a Muslim. But it makes you wonder about the presence of Palestinian Christians in local consciousness, and whether the identification of the resistance with militant Islam over the last few decades has wholly precluded them from global debate (the late Edward Said, Allah have mercy on him, may have been a spokesman for Muslims as well as Arabs, but he was not Muslim).
The more you pay attention to the answers given by grade-four students of the Azhar Palestine Private School, one of Abu Dhabi’s less glamorous co-ed institutions, to questions posed by the Zayed University student-cum-film maker Salma al Darmaki in her 35-minute documentary My Palestine, the more you wonder.
You wonder where these little girls and boys got the idea that it was the Shia who invaded Lebanon, kicking the Palestinians out (could this be a warped reference to that episode of the Lebanese Civil War during which Shia militias of the Amal movement fought the refugee camp-based guerillas of the PLO?) You wonder how Israeli military atrocities against Palestinian civilians came to be symbolised by the mythical act of soldiers cutting open a pregnant woman’s stomach, removing the foetus, killing it, and placing a live cat in its place before sewing the stomach back up – leaving the woman, who is still alive, heavy with cat. You wonder whose mistake it was to forget that the post of Lebanese prime minister is open only to Sunnis, leading to the belief, among many of the students, that the late Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri was assassinated because he was a Palestine-hating Shiite.
You wonder if there could ever be any excuse for a parent to teach their child the second half of the broken rhyme Falastin bladnah welyahud klabnah: “Palestine is our country and the Jews are our dogs”.
With less outrage, you wonder what the Danish cartoon crisis, re which the students chant an anthem calling on Arabs, Muslims and the rightful to boycott Danish products, could really have to do with the Palestinian cause, when all is said and done. And you wonder whether religion class, extensively and beautifully featured so that you hear the bigoted, sexist and dogmatic woman teacher without seeing her, might have a role to play in the washing of palpably innocent brains with such hideously subverted narratives about who they might be. You wonder about this and other questions relating to “the construction of identity and how it is being debated”, as the deceptively quiet Darmaki, a petite, modest, focussed, extremely self-possessed 21-year-old in a abaya, phrases the issue at stake.
An international relations student, by the time she embarked on My Palestine Darmaki had, with her colleague and assistant on My Palestine, Hermeen Adam, co-directed two films – Katkout, about real-life dwarves in Abu Dhabi, and Chained, Stripped and Branded, about women’s prison – as part of a course named Peoples of the World, taught by the humanities professor Nizar Andary, who required, in place of the written word for by way of assessment, visual ethnographies. “But the quality was so bad. We didn’t have experience,” she says.
The outcome of an independent-study class devised by Andary specifically because they loved making films, Darmaki’s better planned project for a documentary on plastic surgery was falling through when, curious about the curriculum taught to stateless expatriates (as opposed to schools servicing communities like the Pakistani, for example, which taught their state curricula), she started spending time at the Azhar School. The subject gradually shifted from school curricula to Palestinian identity, however, and when she eventually found the required rapport with fourth graders, she was all too happy to record their unadorned views in impressively seamless cinema verite. Even on the horribly noisy ground floor of the Marina Mall, where she refuses to drink anything and categorically forbids me from smoking, Darmaki will not comment about what the students have to say. Subtly, she explains, the question of UAE solidarity with the Palestinian people is raised. And subtly, when the students chant a salute from the Emirates to Palestine, it is answered, she says, in part: “I too will support the cause but in a less violent way.”
What she supports is the undifferenciated dynamism of underprivileged members of the Palestinian diaspora in an oil rich Gulf state – something about which she is understandably reticent. Darmaki’s homage to Palestine has less to do with either Palestinians in the UAE or the insane reactions of these children’s evidently uneducated parents to the political situation than with the intensely moving humanity of the children, their energy and sheer good will sharply contrasting with what they have to say. Under better circumstances, you wonder, would they be saying the same things? And then you remember the little boy who, conceding his teacher’s view that, “yes, of course, Shia in itself is bad”, points out that individual Shiites are not all bad, actually. “My father has a friend who is Shia and he comes over sometimes so I sat with him,” he says, with heart-rending earnestness. “He really is totally normal.”