NEW YORK − “A sexual jihad. A huge orgy of Israelis and Palestinians, in which everyone puts their politics aside and concentrates on what’s really important: sex.” That is the unconventional solution to the Middle East conflict proposed by the Jordanian-born and Brooklyn-raised director Ghazi Albuliwi, 37. A former standup comic and current director and screenwriter, he notes with a smile that “for some reason the audience did not laugh” when he raised this suggestion at the world premiere of his new film, “Peace After Marriage,” at the recent Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
On November 30, a few weeks after its Persian Gulf screening, “Peace After Marriage” opened the 15th Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, held at the city’s Cinematheque. It was an unusual slot for a wild, provocative comedy in English, Arabic and Hebrew, made by a Muslim director who was born in a Palestinian refugee camp near Amman. “Everyone who lives in New York long enough turns into a neurotic Jew,” Albuliwi says reassuringly. “I am an Arab, but my brand of humor is deeply influenced by Woody Allen, and I think he appeals to Jewish audiences a lot more than to Muslim ones. I don’t know why, but Arabs have a problem with humor. We don’t like to laugh at ourselves. In fact, we don’t like to laugh in general.”
In a New York cafe, where I met with him before he went to Israel to attend the screening there, Albuliwi turns out to be an amusing hybrid of Woody Allen and (Haaretz columnist and author) Sayed Kashua. Like the comedians he admires − among them Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, George Carlin and Louis C.K. − Albuliwi has a healthy fondness for provocation and a deep belief that humor can topple walls and illuminate the human and absurd facets of traumatic events such as the second intifada, 9/11 or, in an entirely different realm, the New York dating scene.
Not surprisingly, then, “Peace After Marriage” is an uninhibited film, with nothing politically correct about it. The plot involves a sex-crazed young Palestinian named Arafat (played by Albuliwi himself), who decides to marry a young Israeli woman named Michaela (Israeli actress Einat Tubi) so she can get a green card. The deal is simple: He will get quick money (and maybe also some sex), and she will get a visa that will allow her to stay in New York and maintain her relationship with her Israeli boyfriend (played by Omer Barnea). Of course, there are complications: The families discover the plan, and Arafat starts to develop feelings for his Jewish bride.
“Peace After Marriage” is a Turkish-French-American coproduction. The screenplay won a grant from the Tribeca Film Institute, a laboratory involved in producing movie scripts which operates as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. The film garnered the Audience Award at the Montpellier Mediterranean Film Festival and has been screened before full houses in Abu Dhabi, Brazil and New York. Furthermore, Albuliwi notes with some surprise, “The movie has become a hit in Jewish film festivals. I don’t even submit it, usually someone from the festival hears about it and contacts me.”
Probably the reason for the popularity of the Jordanian-American director among festival organizers and film reviewers is due to their thirst for a movie that offers a comic take on religious-nationalist tensions. Variety wrote that “it’s refreshing to see a lighthearted Muslim-Jewish romantic comedy without a heavy political agenda.” In addition, despite the fierce criticism Albuliwi levels at Judaism, Islam and, indeed, every religion as such, ultimately he advocates multiculturalism, a message that every international film festival is happy to adopt.
“Peace After Marriage” was originally entitled “Only in New York,” and its plot really could only take place in one of the urban epitomies of multiculturalism.
“I was born in the Zarqa refugee camp in Jordan to a Jordanian father and a Palestinian mother − she fled to Zarqa after the 1967 war,” Albuliwi says. The family moved to New York when he was 2 years old. “I grew up in Brooklyn, in a neighborhood where there were representatives of almost every possible minority: Italians, Hispanics, blacks. There were very few whites in my school. Most of us were children of migrants, but that meant that no one bugged me.”
An immense disparity existed between the society he grew up in and the education he received at home, Albuliwi observes: “I am the eldest of five children, and my parents are villagers by origin. My mother looked after the house, and my father, who is now 80, worked for years as a merchant. With the exception of my brother, who produced the film with me, no one else in the family has artistic tendencies. All our relatives are bus drivers or merchants in Jordan. To this day, my father thinks that moving to the United States was the biggest mistake of his life. Every day he says, ‘Why did I bring all of you here?’ He always asks, ‘Why do you put on perfume before a date?’ Western culture just doesn’t speak to him.”
Albuliwi says he hardly met any Jews until his twenties. What got him interested in Jewishness, and more specifically in Israeli women, was the rough time he experienced in the New York dating scene, which he describes as “hell on earth.” Like Arafat, the character in his film, Albuliwi dated quite a few Israeli women. “Write that I am looking for an Israeli bride,” he instructs me, adding, “Do you think there will be single women at the festival? That’s the only reason I’m going to Jerusalem.”
When not busy looking for an Israeli bride (“preferably one who served in the army and kept her uniform”), Albuliwi makes do with working with Israeli actors. I ask him how the connection between him and actor/model Omer Barnea came about.
“I met him through a mutual friend,” the says. “He is gorgeous and talented. I filmed him in an audition and informed him that same day that the part was his. I really liked the way he looked on the screen.”
He found Einat Tubi through a casting agency: “She is a smart, beautiful girl, and she is from Tel Aviv originally. It was important for me to cast someone who speaks fluent Hebrew, not an American woman who attended a Jewish school here.”
Albuliwi’s highly developed sense of humor landed him in standup-comedy clubs when he was just 17, and also got him a job as a writer for the iconic television show “Saturday Night Live” (“I was there a few weeks. It was a high-school internship that became a temporary job”). He says he abandoned standup and switched to the movies after despairing at the life led by comics.
“It’s grueling work,” he explains. “Sometimes the audience laughs, sometimes not. You spend most of the time not onstage, but waiting to go on. You waste hours so you can wait for your five minutes onstage in a small room with a bunch of frustrated comedians with drug and alcohol problems who can’t get over not having been accepted for television. It got me depressed very fast and I stopped doing it.”
In 2002, without ever having studied filmmaking, Albuliwi wrote and directed his first movie, “West Side Brooklyn,” a drama about four Arab friends who grew up in a Muslim-Jewish neighborhood in that borough.
“I was really into the news then, and the movie was influenced by Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount and by the second intifada,” he relates. “The film tries to show how the tensions between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East affect the life of those communities in New York, despite the physical distance [between them].”
Sex toys and the subway
Although Albuliwi insists he is not a political person, “Peace After Marriage” contains a number of politically charged scenes. A notable one shows Arafat, who is trying to earn money as an actor, going to an audition in which he is asked to portray a mentally unstable Palestinian who is about to perpetrate a suicide attack. Wearing an improvised explosive belt, Arafat tells the American casting people, “I don’t know if this character is credible. There’s nothing anywhere in the Koran about 72 virgins. And who would want to blow himself up for 72 virgins anyway? Give me one whore who can get the job done and I’d be happy.”
Later, after he and Michaela sleep together for the first time, he tells his best friend proudly: “This is the first time a Palestinian ever exploded next to an Israeli without causing loss of life. I deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Despite a few references to the Middle East conflict, including a scene that takes place at a West Bank checkpoint, “Peace After Marriage” generally resembles comedies by Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Superbad”) more than films by Dutch-Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad (“Paradise Now,” “Omar”). In the amusing opening scene, Arafat, still living with his parents in Brooklyn, buys an inflatable sex doll and takes it home on a packed subway. Back in his room, when he starts to fool around with the doll, his mother (Hiam Abbass) knocks on the door and demands that her 30-year-old son open it immediately.
Asked how he persuaded Abbass, a successful Palestinian actress and director (her acting credits include “Lemon Tree” and “The Syrian Bride”), to take part in a low-budget comedy, Albuliwi replies that the connection between them was made by her agent, who liked the screenplay.
“Hiam is an amazing woman,” Albuliwi gushes. “She is talented and she is involved in a great many projects at once. I think she liked the opportunity to do something funny. She doesn’t come across many roles like that.”
After working together in “Peace After Marriage,” Albuliwi and Abbass co-wrote the script for Abbass’ directorial debut, “The Inheritance,” which was screened at the Venice and Haifa film festivals in 2012.
“I recently finished writing a script entitled ‘Ramadan Holiday,’ which will be shot in Jordan with Abbass as the star,” Albuliwi says. “It’s about a young Jordanian man who grew up in the United States, and goes with his mother on a family-roots trip during Ramadan. I have also finished writing another screenplay that will make ‘Peace After Marriage’ look harmless and innocent.”
Abstinence and politics
What sacred cows do you intend to slaughter in that film?
“All of them,” he says, and laughs. “I’ve written a comedy about how Osama bin Laden ruined my sex life.”
Can you elaborate?
“After the 9/11 disaster, no American girl would go out with me. It was the pits. The attitude toward Muslims changed overnight. The whole dating scene was off-limits. Bin Laden forced a period of abstinence on me, and I will never forgive him for it.”
Do you think enough time has passed for people to laugh at that traumatic event?
“I am not laughing at the disaster or at the victims. I am laughing at the situation that was created for tens of thousands of Muslims in New York. I think the American audience is ready for a different representation of that event. Charlie Chaplin made ‘The Great Dictator’ while the war was still raging in Europe. The smart thing is to be honest and clever about the way you laugh at things. From this point of view, you have to judge movies like works of music: If you take one scene out of context, it definitely could be offensive, but it’s better to look at a film like a symphony, not a lone chord.
“Beyond that,” he continues, “like everything I write, these are my personal experiences, so I see no need to apologize for them. All in all, my imagination is very limited. I can’t imagine things that didn’t happen to me. Almost everything I write is based on real events. In my view, good comedy is the ability to express yourself honestly − so for me cinema is therapy. The audience is like a psychologist, sitting and listening to my problems. It’s a weird feeling, but addictive.”
As an example of how he blurs fiction and reality, there is a scene that Albuliwi has created in “Peace After Marriage” that is based on a traumatic incident from his past. A flashback that is meant to make it clear to the audience why Arafat’s parents are so desperate to marry him off shows the family in an Arab village in the West Bank − about to marry him to a Muslim girl. But he changes his mind and refuses to sign the marriage contract. The bride’s family pursues him and threatens to kill him. In an attempt to save his life, Arafat runs toward an Israeli army checkpoint, holds up his hands and shouts, in English, “Don’t shoot!” The soldiers aim their weapons at him, but in the end save him.
“A few years ago,” Albuliwi relates, “I went to Tul Karm to visit my uncle and other relatives who live there, and they arranged for me to marry a village girl. She was beautiful; she looked like Audrey Hepburn. I only wanted to date her, but because she was from a religious family they made me sign an engagement contract. I signed, and it was obvious right away that I’d made a horrible mistake. Her family was completely crazy. I had to escape from the village in the middle of the night, and to this day they threaten to kill me if I ever go back. After I hired a lawyer, my parents had to go there to make sure the divorce was valid. This whole story took a few years. By the way, I even used her real name in the film, as revenge. I hope she sees it.”
You declare that you are not interested in politics, but you write a scene in which Israeli soldiers save the Palestinian protagonist. Don’t you consider that a political statement?
“No. I write comedy, so I always try to think of comic situations. From my point of view, it was more appropriate to make the character a Palestinian than a Jordanian, because it makes the green card marriage with the Israeli woman funnier. When I wrote that scene, I asked myself how it would play out funniest. The answer was: if in the end the Israeli soldiers save Arafat. I am of course aware of the situation in Palestine. I traveled around the territories enough to know that sooner or later you will encounter a checkpoint. I wanted to turn it into a comic situation.”
You noted that in Abu Dhabi the Arab press boycotted your film because it was considered “pro-Israeli.” In the wake of the choice to have the film open the Jewish Film Festival, were you urged to take part in the boycott against Israel?
“Not personally, but I know that tendency exists. I find no logic in it. A cultural boycott is a paradox: To resolve conflicts, dialogue is necessary, the sides have to talk to each other. The whole idea of the movie is to get Israelis to become acquainted with a different type of Muslim Arab: a down-and-out guy who is looking for love in the big city, just like a lot of other young guys. I am a great believer in the ability of the cinema to advance understanding and dialogue, and in that sense I am an idealist.”
In the meantime, until peace comes to the Middle East, Tul Karm is apparently not the only place in which Albuliwi is persona non grata. “Every time I arrive at Ben-Gurion airport I undergo a security check of four hours at least,” he says. “I usually try to make them laugh and start up with the female checkers, and at some point they realize that I am actually enjoying it − and then they let me go.”
Do you think they will believe you when you tell them that you are the director of the opening film of the Jewish Film Festival?
“That’s hard to imagine,” he laughs. “They’ll probably think, ‘Wow, these Hamas guys are really sophisticated. We’ve never heard that story before.’ My dream is to be so famous that even the security people at Ben-Gurion airport will recognize me.”