New Documentary Shines a Light on Israel’s Forgotten Palestinians

'Roshmia' depicts an elderly Palestinian couple in Haifa who refuse to leave their shacks and become refugees once more.

Salim Abu-Jabal
Haim Schwarczenberg

Ramallah, Saturday afternoon. Al-Manara Square and the main streets are filled with people. “Ramallah is hottest place in Hell,” smiles Salim Abu-Jabal, 44, director of the documentary film “Roshmia,” which was screened on Monday at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque as part of the Solidarity Festival for film, activism and human rights.

“Here history happens, the place is and lively and spirited,” he says. “I live between Haifa and Ramallah; Haifa is bourgeoisie, boring and has no action. It’s good to also be in a place where you really see what is happening and are not fed by only the media. It’s possible to live in Israel and not really know what is happening on the other side of the fence. I choose to be on this side too and feel the spirit of the place.”

“Roshmia” documents the struggles of an elderly Palestinian couple, Yousef Hassan and his wife Amna Abu Fodeh, to preserve their traditional lifestyle in Roshmia, the last natural wadi left in Haifa. The wadi is located on the eastern outskirts of Haifa and during the British Mandate served as a quarry. After the founding of Israel, Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe and Palestinian refugees from 1948 lived there together in a fragile coexistence. At the beginning of the 1970s almost 3,000 people lived in the wadi, and most were evacuated in 1972 after plans were made to build there.

Yousef, who was born in the Wadi Salib neighborhood of Haifa, was one of the refugees uprooted in 1948. “My entire family was forced to leave,” he reconstructs in “Roshmia,” and tells us of when he joined the rebels: “The war started in 1948, and in 1949 we were all already in prison.”

After his release, he lived in Acre and moved to Roshmia in 1956. His first wife died, he divorced the second, and in 1978 he married the third, Amna, a refugee from Yazur (today Azor near Tel Aviv). Amna’s family fled in 1948, when she was 14, to Gaza. Later they moved to Hebron, where she married for the first time. Yousef is her third husband, and she has two children from her previous marriages.

The film won the Jury Prize at the Dubai International Film Festival, and has been screened at film festivals in Beirut, Montpelier, Holland, Sweden and Berlin.

“Even before the [Culture and Sports Minister] Miri Regev storm, I decided that I am not asking for funding for the film from funds in Israel,” says Abu-Jabal. “I think I would have received support, but I felt it would irritate me as an occupied Syrian without Israeli citizenship. I don’t rule out working in casting in the Israeli film industry and cooperate, but I’m not interested in asking for funding from the establishment for the movie I create.

“This is the story of the older generation of refugees forced to uproot from their homes time after time, and deal every time anew with a callous and destructive policy toward people, nature and the environment,” he says. “The movie, similar to the movie directed by Palestinian artist Amer Shomali, ‘The Wanted 18,’ belongs to the new wave of Palestinian cinema in which the occupation is in the background and the human, intimate story is at the center. We don’t see roadblocks, there are no heroic slogans, but the occupation is present through the individual.”

He discovered the story for “Roshmia” when working as a journalist at the Al-Madina local newspaper in Haifa. “One day I heard about an elderly couple who lived in an isolated shack in Wadi Roshmia without water or electricity. I presented myself to the couple and started documenting the conditions of their life. Life in nature and their simple lifestyle charmed me. For a long time I continued to visit them.

“At the same time, the couple received a demolition order for the shack from the Haifa municipality, which decided to pave a road through the wadi to connect the port to [Mount] Carmel. Yousef had documents that proved legal ownership of the shack and the city offered the couple monetary compensation. He refused the compensation. I thought about making a short film to arouse awareness for their battle, and then somehow the demolition of the house was postponed. When I started to notice the tension between them I felt for the first time I had a movie in every way here – I understood there is a demolition story in the background and saw clearly how it enters inside and destroys their relationship.”

Wadi Roshmia also attracted the attention of director Amos Gitai, who documented it in a trilogy: “Wadi, 1981”, “Wadi Ten Years After, 1991” and “Wadi Grand Canyon, 2001”. Gitai focused on following the lives of three families who lived in the wadi: two Jewish brothers from Rumania, Iso and Salo; a mixed Jewish-Arab couple, Skander and Miriam; and an Arab couple, Yussuf and Isha. They are isolated from society and live in the wadi, and Gitai captured the fragile coexistence and changes in their environment.

Arab-Syrian-Israeli-Palestinian

Abu-Jabal was born in Majdal Shams on the northern Golan Heights. His father owns apple orchards and his mother is a housewife. He is the eldest of five children. The family’s home is close to the Israeli-Syrian border.

“I remember that in my childhood we talked with my aunt in Syria using a megaphone,” he remembers with a smile. Like most residents of Majdal Shams, he has chosen not to become an Israeli citizen, but is a permanent resident.

“I grew up in a place where they gave us a feeling from a young age that any minute there will be peace and we will return to Syria,” he says. “The house and community were very political. I remember gatherings in the evenings, demonstrations, interest in figures such as Che Guevara and theories of Marxism. It was an attempt to preserve the character of the community and not be part of [Israeli society]. I remember the older people did not want to learn Hebrew.”

During his studies in university, Abu-Jabal began writing for the media about culture, cinema, theater and Arab social issues. He did an internship at Haaretz and participated in a program for Arab journalists at Channel 2 television.

He directed, edited and filmed “Roshmia” by himself. “I didn’t study cinema, except for a course on screen writing in Tel Aviv,” he says, laughing.

But film was not completely new to him. He had worked in casting for films, taught Arab actors to speak in the Syrian dialect of Arabic, and wrote film criticism, he says. But when he filmed the couple in “Roshmia,” he understood the movie had value in preserving the memory.

Roshmiya
Salim Abu-Jabal

“The documentation of their lives became a sort of archival activity of preservation. I felt I am preserving them and making their way of life accessible. It is possible to learn a lot from their dress, food, behavior, the dialect they use – there are Arabic speakers who do not understand all their words.”

After he completed his studies, Abu-Jabal worked for 10 years in construction. “I did my share in building the settlements and helping the Zionist enterprise,” he says with a laugh. He moved to Haifa and completed a bachelor’s degree in theater and Arab literature. “I haven’t lived in Majdal Shams for over two decades,” he says. “When I come for a visit, I see the change – the young people want to be Israeli in every way and do not understand why be hung up on the past. They have no hesitation about the Israeli identity and Hebrew language.”

How do you describe your identity?

“I am an Arab who belongs to the people that is occupied Syrian, on the other hand I have Israeli identity, but I live as a Palestinian between Haifa and Ramallah.”

Are the couple in the movie an authentic symbol in your eyes of the Arab-Israeli refugees?

“Yes, their lifestyle is a freezing of the situation of the refugees of 1948, and even choosing it. They have the option to receive compensation, to move and live somewhere else and be like all the Israeli Arabs, but they don’t want it. Yousef was born in Palestine and he tells of the house his family had and his participation in the resistance in 1948. He never forgot he was a refugee. He preserved the authentic Arab shack and does not want to move elsewhere and be like the rest of the refugees who blended into society.”

In the movie, Amna’s character develops and feminism and individuality come out.

“It amazed and fascinated me that at some stage she began to stand up for her rights and demonstrate strength,” he says proudly. “I think that as opposed to the stereotype, the Palestinian women who lived in Palestinian villages were very strong, and despite the traditional society they worked in the fields and were not necessarily closed up in the home. Over time I discovered that she is from the Palestinian gypsies, who were even more liberated. Amna had freedom in her childhood and she succeeded in preserving the image of that child all her life and did not give up her rights.”

Are you interested in Israeli audiences seeing the movie?

“Definitely, but I don’t want to be a partner with the establishment. It’s clear to me that the convinced come to this movie. I believe that every director makes movies out of the desire for people to see them. If you make a movie, you don’t have any right to boycott viewers because you act with the goal that everyone will see it. But I wouldn’t want the movie to be shown through or with the funding of official institutions.”