Conflicted Identity in a Conflicted Land

Arab Terrorist for a Father, ultra-Orthodox Jew for a Mother

Award-winning film 'Life Sentences' follows the extraordinary true story of a man born to a Jewish-Arab couple, and ended up following his parents’ footsteps into an equally unusual marriage.

It was the early 1960s, and Fawzi al Nimer, an Arab Israeli from a village outside Acre, was dropping off some merchandise at a café in Nahariya. That’s where he first saw her: blond, blue-eyed, a few years older than him, exceedingly pretty. And Jewish.

The two had a whirlwind romance, married and had two children: a daughter and a son named Shlomo. His nickname was Mommy.

Theirs was an unusual love story; unusual enough to cause a stir in both Nahariya and Acre, and to anger both sets of parents. It also complicated the lives of their offspring - half Muslim and half Jewish children in a land where the two seldom mix.

And that was just the beginning.

“I met Fawzi Nimer in Gaza 11 years ago, when working on a different project,” says Nurit Kedar, co-director of the film "Life Sentences," which won the Best Documentary award at the recent Jerusalem Film Festival. “And his story stayed in my head.”

By the time she was introduced to Yaron Shani two years ago - a fellow filmmaker who would soon become her co-director on the project - Kedar’s original plan to make a documentary about Nimer had hit so many snags along the way that she had decided to turn the whole thing into a fictionalized feature film instead.

“I said, ‘No way,’” recalls Shani, who, at the time, had just finished making his academy award-nominated film "Ajami" and was looking for a new project. “I told Nurit that if we made a feature film, no-one would believe it. They would think it was too far-fetched.”

**

The different project Kedar was working on, way back when, involved researching the 1985 prisoner exchange known as the Jibril Agreement for a TV series she was producing.

Among the 1,500 Palestinian prisoners released by Israel in that deal (in exchange for three Israeli prisoners captured during the first Lebanon War) were well-known terrorists like Japanese Red Army member Kozo Akamoto, one of the perpetrators of the Lod Airport massacre, and Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas.

Another prisoner released in that exchange was Fawzi al Nimer, the very same boy who fell for the blond in Nahariya, and fathered two children with her. And who, a few years down the line and unbeknownst to his family, became a terrorist - plotting and carrying out a series of 22 attacks in Israel in the late 1960s. Fawzi al Nimer received 27 life sentences; his son, Mommy, was one year old at the time.

Thanks to the Jibril deal, Nimer got out before his son reached bar mitzvah age, but he never returned to live with his family. Deported to Tunis, Nimer became close to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, served in senior positions in the PLO and eventually married a fellow terrorist who later went on to become head of the women’s police in Gaza.

After the 1993 Oslo accords, Nimer accompanied Arafat to Gaza and settled there - which is where Kedar went looking for him, taxiing down from Tel Aviv to ask him for an interview for her series.

“When he spoke to us, with the cameras rolling, he was all about slogans. And I hate slogans,” she says. “It was impossible to get anything real out of him.” They spoke of the Six Day War, how and why he turned to terror in its wake and what he thought the future would bring for the Palestinian people. But it was all slogans, she says.

When they turned off the cameras, Nimer turned to Kedar and said, "Let me tell you my life story. Do you know I have a daughter who is ultra-Orthodox?" Says Kedar, “I was like 'Hello!' Now, this, this is a story.”

**

The story Nimer told Kedar became the backbone of "Life Sentences," 11 years down the line. But instead of focusing on Nimer, the documentary takes a long look at his son, Mommy - who today is 45 and goes by the name Nimer Ahmed - and the journey he set off on after his father was jailed.

A tot at the time, Mommy and his sister were sent off by their distraught mother to one Jewish boarding school and then another and instructed not to reveal anything about their father. “I used to say my dad was killed in the war,” Ahmed recounts in the film. But it didn’t help; eventually, the other kids would find out the truth and no-one wanted to be his friend. When his Arab grandmother would come to visit and sit with him on the bench in the school courtyard, Ahmed could feel his classmates’ eyes piercing into his back; judging him, hating him.

Eventually, his mother (who, like Ahmed’s older sister, did not co-operate with the making of the documentary and has not given permission to be identified either in the film or in any article about it) gave up trying to live a normal life in Israel and uprooted with the children to Montreal, Canada - where the family was taken in by an ultra-Orthodox community.

Ahmed’s sister kept in touch with their father for years, writing him letters and even visiting him in Tunis when he was released. But at some point she broke off all contact, married a Chabad Hasid and, although the details given in the film are murky, ended up back in Israel, with “something like 11" children, as Kedar puts it. Ahmed’s mother also eventually moved back to Israel and she too lives an Orthodox Jewish life.

Ahmed took a different path. After years at yeshiva in Canada, he was visiting his sister in Israel. Feeling lost and seeking some connection to his other roots, he traveled to Acre, where he was reunited with his Arab family - and soon fell in love with his first cousin, a beauty named Hadil. In time, with his side curls and kippa gone, the two wed, throwing a big Muslim wedding complete with the waving of Palestinian flags and Nimer - via a Skype connection - blessing the new couple from Gaza.

**

Today, Ahmed, the father of two sons of his own, has made some sort of peace with his different sides. He re-established relationships with both his father - who was sick with Alzheimer's in his latter years, and died in Gaza this April - and with his mother, who broke off contact with her son for a period but now visits him in the village. Ahmed’s mother also joined her son at a memorial service for Nimer recently, crying quietly at the ceremony. “I don’t think she ever stopped loving him,” Ahmed says.

“It took time for Ahmed to open up,” admits Kedar. “His emotional state was, for a long time, very delicate, and he was not ready to talk about his life or his father in a meaningful way.”

But when he does open up, sitting for in-depth interviews hour after hour with filmmaker Shani, Ahmed manages, in his quiet way, to challenge Israelis - Muslims and Jews alike - with some heavy questions about identity. Questions to which he has no answers.

“What am I?” he asks in the film. “According to Muslims, I am a Muslim. According to Jews, I am a Jew. If I go by which is the more ancient people, I would be a Jew. If I go by which is the more populous people, I would be a Muslim.” It is not, he stresses towards the end of the 94-minute movie, that he wants to be part of both religions and nations - its more that he is, or he wants, none of it.

“Look at our society. We live in boxes,” says Kedar. “We are always trying to define ourselves by who we hate. But why? And who? Do we hate the Palestinians? Do we hate the Orthodox? We grow up creating myths of who we are and we divide up into camps.”

“A person is not one thing,” adds Shani. “And I think what [Ahmed] is saying is: All these identities are a lie. If we could wake up tomorrow without all the brainwashing, without seeing one another only as defined by nationality or religion…Well, then we would wake up in a better place.” 

Rami Shlush
David Bachar