When the Palestinian National Poet Fell in Love With a Jew

The love letters between Mahmoud Darwish and 'Rita' intrigued Israeli-Arab filmmaker Ibtisam Mara’ana Menuhin for her own, very personal reasons.

Zuzana Janku

When Ibtisam Mara’ana Menuhin decided to make a film about Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, it wasn’t because she had developed a new love for his poetry – it was because he had been in love with a Jew.

“Write Down, I Am an Arab,” which premiered at Tel Aviv’s DocAviv film festival last month, where it won the Audience Award, features the never-seen-before Hebrew love letters Darwish penned to Tamar Ben-Ami, the young Jewish woman he fell for when he was 22. Their relationship is a major focus of the film.

For the 38-year-old filmmaker, who grew up as Ibtisam Mara’ana in a religious Muslim family in Israel, exploring the relationship between Darwish, who died in 2008, and his Jewish love was a new way of telling her own story. After moving to Tel Aviv from the northern Arab town of Fureidis in 2005, Mara’ana fell in love with her neighbor, a Jew from Canada. Yonatan had immigrated to Israel; his grandfather was a Zionist pioneer, the founder of a kibbutz who fought in the 1948 War of Independence. (Mara’ana Menuhin is her married name.)

Click here for more on mixed marriages in Israel: A special project by Haaretz for Shavuot 2014.

It was difficult “to hide all the time,” she tells Haaretz today. “It was hard not to be able to talk about your love and share it because of this national difference.”

Their three-year relationship, which took place mostly without the knowledge of their families, was the subject of Mara’ana Menuhin’s 2010 film “77 Steps.” With six documentaries and a number of awards already under her belt, this film was different. “I wanted to come out of the closet,” she says of the movie. “I wanted to explode onto the screen.”

“77 Steps” (the name comes from the number of steps up to the filmmaker’s mother’s house) tackled questions of identity and relationships between Arabs and Jews. Prof. Elie Rekhess of Northwestern University, Illinois, a scholar of political history of the Arabs in Israel, says such relationships were more common during the Mandate period, and also among communists – like Darwish himself – who were united by class struggle in the 1960s. Still, Rekhess says this trend wasn’t encouraged by the mainstream, and it was overwhelmingly a question of Arab men with Jewish women.

The last estimate he is aware of, now around 15-20 years-old, put the number of mixed Jewish-Arab couples in Israel – married or unmarried – at around 1,500. “As far as I know, it hasn’t become more accepted, and it is hard for me to find a reason for it to be more acceptable,” Rekhess says.

University of Haifa sociologist Sammy Smooha concurs. “There are the same conditions today as there were 20 years ago,” he says. Smooha has conducted polls on Jewish-Arab relations since 1976, and has found that Jews and Arabs had become increasingly alienated from one another following the signing of the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s, through 2012.

Prof. Dorit Roer-Strier, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s social work school, agrees, noting it is hard to gauge whether the numbers have increased in recent years. “There are little data” on the extent of Jewish-Arab intermarriage, she says. Marriages between Muslim men and Jewish women in the country are considered Muslim marriages by the state, while other cases of interfaith marriage are subsumed in the total of all marriages.

“Either couples don’t marry at all, or they marry abroad in a civil ceremony, or they marry religiously," she explains.

According to the most recent figures, from the Central Bureau of Statistics, of the 8,995 reported marriages that took place abroad in 2011, only 19 were Jewish-Arab. People are reluctant to share their stories for the purposes of research, Roer-Strier adds, “but they will continue falling in love.”

The issue is still socially and politically taboo in Israel, says Mara’ana Menuhin, adding that attitudes toward mixed relationships here are “very primitive. We are in this world where we talk about development, we chase technological progress, but racially we are completely divided – it’s bizarre.”

In one scene from “77 Steps,” Yonatan tells the filmmaker, “I understand where you come from” as he heads out to a celebratory barbecue for Israel’s Independence Day and she is marking the Palestinian Nakba (“the catastrophe” – the Palestinians’ term for the establishment of the Israeli state). “I understand the limits of our relationship,” he says.

‘Difficult, but possible’

After the film was released, Mara’ana Menuhin started receiving private messages on Facebook from Palestinian women and Jewish men, asking her for advice and sharing their stories. “I tell them, ‘Of course it’s difficult, but it’s possible,’” she says.

Mara’ana Menuhin’s openness in “77 Steps” also provoked strong negative reactions. At a screening in a school in the northern Arab town of Arara a few years ago, the 200-strong audience of parents, teachers and students demanded the film be stopped after 15 minutes. The principal had intended to screen it to provoke discussion on the issues it raises, but in retrospect Mara’ana Menuhin admits that she and the principal were probably naïve to think it would be so simple.

“I don’t know how I got out of there alive,” she says now, recalling that she stood in front of the audience and confronted them, asking: “How many men do you know who marry non-Muslims?”

Mara’ana Menuhin also remembers telling the audience: “Mahmoud Darwish fell in love with a Jew, and he dedicated the poem ‘Rita and the Gun’ to her.” The men fell silent, but the women continued voicing their opposition to such relationships. They were “holding onto their repression,” the filmmaker says: She was no Darwish, they insisted. For women, things are different.

“There is an accepted stereotype of an Arab man in love with a Jewish woman – it works,” says Mara’ana Menuhin, who believes Arab women are judged more harshly for entering into mixed relationships than men. In fact, she notes, the very idea of a Palestinian woman talking openly on film about intimate relationships is taboo. By doing so herself, she believes she is challenging the stereotype of the Arab woman who is silenced, boycotted or even murdered for besmirching her family’s honor. When it comes to mixed relationship, says Mara’ana Menuhin, “a man can do it; he entitled to it.”

For the filmmaker herself, the whole issue is a feminist one – much like the subjects of the rest of her documentaries. “If a woman can’t say who she loves, it is one of the basic things in her status in society,” she says. “Standing in front of your father, your mother or your family, and saying ‘This is who I want to marry’ takes a lot of strength.”

The incident at the Arara screening pushed Mara’ana Menuhin to make the Darwish documentary. “I thought, what would happen if a man told this love story?” she explains.

“Write Down, I Am an Arab” hasn’t elicited the same angry responses as “77 Steps” so far. Reactions to the film in the Arab world, where Mara’ana Menuhin says the trailer is now starting to receive attention, range from praise for Darwish for loving someone “across the boundaries,” to charges that she invented the story about him and his Jewish girlfriend. This is the first time many have learned the true identity of “Rita,” she says, and the first time evidence of the relationship, such as Darwish’s love letters in Hebrew, has been made public.

Today, Ibtisam Mara’ana is married to a Jewish man named Boaz Menuhin, and is six months pregnant with their first child. They married in Tel Aviv in a nonreligious, alternative ceremony that is not formally recognized by the state, and now live in the apartment in that city that made an appearance in “77 Steps.”

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, but she and her husband have gained their families’ approval. Mara’ana Menuhin says dating a Jewish man was easier the second time around: Not because her mother had gotten used to the idea exactly, but because she was glad her daughter was finally talking about marriage.

As for the wedding itself, last year, the whole experience was surreal, Mara’ana Menuhin recalls: “I was asking myself: What are they – our families, our friends – all doing here together? How did we manage to beat the system, and the hate, and the stereotypes?”

Neta Lanzman
Ibtisam Films