'We Need to Redefine Our Narrative as Syrians Under Israeli Occupation'

Druze director Ameer Fakher Eldin examines 'the forgotten Israeli occupation' in the Golan Heights in his new film ‘The Stranger.’ He tells Haaretz why he won’t condemn Assad’s crimes in Syria and has no problem representing Palestine at the Oscars

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Ameer Fakher Eldin, the director and screenwriter of the film, “The Stranger.”
Ameer Fakher Eldin, the director and screenwriter of the film, “The Stranger.”
Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab

A new work by a Druze filmmaker forces viewers to confront the reality of Israeli occupation in the Golan Heights. “This is the forgotten occupation,” says Ameer Fakher Eldin, the director and screenwriter of the film, “The Stranger.”

We haven’t received enough tools to reexamine the occupation and to establish a Syrian national identity

Ameer Fakher Eldin

This is a very complex reality. A bloody civil war has been raging for a decade a few kilometers away, in the Syrian Golan. Meanwhile, Israeli control of the West Bank monopolizes the term “occupation.” His film, Fakher Eldin says, seeks to turn attention toward the problem of occupation in the Golan, which is barely discussed in international forums. But it is first and foremost intended for his fellow Druze living there, he says.

“We too have a responsibility to redefine our narrative as a Syrian people under occupation,” says Fakher Eldi in a video interview from his home in Hamburg. “How will a child born in the year 2000, who hasn’t experienced the historical events of the occupation, know how to define their identity and where they truly belong? You can’t delude the younger generation that there’s no occupation and that all is well. We inherited those wars as youngsters. We weren’t part of them, but they are a part of our people’s history. The responsibility is now on us to maintain our narrative and our identity. The question, of course, is how? We haven’t received enough tools to reexamine the occupation and to establish a Syrian national identity.”

A scene from Ameer Fakher Eldin's "The Stranger."

“The Stranger” is hard to watch. Even those familiar with the reality of the Golan Druze community, as I am, will find it hard at times to process the full complex picture of life under occupation depicted by the director. This complexity is one of the reasons why “The Stranger” drew much attention late last year. It was screened at the Venice Film Festival, chosen to represent Palestine at the Academy Awards (but didn’t make the select nominee list) and won best picture at the Cairo International Film Festival.

“On the surface life is good under Israeli occupation,” he says. “It’s like a soldier going into Auschwitz, handing out bread and asking, ‘Is the bread tasty?’ The people are imprisoned and don’t know what awaits them. Who cares if the bread tastes good or not?”

'What Israel is doing in Palestinian localities is apartheid, and that doesn’t happen in the Golan. However, the great enemy is the time passing under occupation'

The protagonist, Adnan (Ashraf Barhom), has left medical school in Russia and returned to his Golan village. His relationship with his father (Mohammed Bakhri) is tense. He spends most of his time in the family apple orchard, mired in hopelessness and fear that he’ll never get to feel true freedom. Explosions and smoke columns emanate from the civil war across the border in Syria. Adnan is helpless in the face of his reality and deliberates: Should he stay or should he flee?

Fakher Eldin, 30, was born in Kiev, to parents from Majdal Shams who were studying medicine in the former USSR. After graduation, they returned to the Golan. He says a career as a filmmaker was not originally on the agenda. At 18, he began studying accounting at Tel Aviv University, but quickly realized it wasn’t what he wanted. So, he turned to film studies at the Camera Obscura School of the Arts. After making two student films – “Between Two Deaths” in 2015 and “Voicemail” in 2017 – he left school to study independently.

Adnan’s sense of helplessness is familiar to me as a member of the Golan Druze minority. It’s a silenced feeling that has no place in Israel’s national conversation. Others find it hard to understand, too. And suddenly you flood viewers with the alienation and reveal the pain it entails through film.

“I am aware that I come from a place that has barely been shown in cinematic works, maybe only in 'The Syrian Bride.' I don’t find that a good film because it includes all the familiar stereotypes and doesn’t truly delve into the occupation’s essence and the human experience of Syrians living in the Golan," he says. "The same is true for Hollywood movies about the Iraq war. They are tainted with orientalism and evade responsibility. Making a movie about people under occupation when the creator is the occupier is irresponsible. That’s exploiting the story, the place, and the tragedy for cinematic entertainment without profoundly exploring the occupation, the existential experience and its impact on the occupied people.”

You made use of Druze cultural symbols – the traditional garb, the scene where Adnan’s father’s will is annulled, the prayer used to ward off the evil eye. Such scenes have barely ever been seen on the screen.

Ameer Fakher Eldin speaking at the Palestinian film festival in Ramallah in November.

“As a Druze, and as someone who truly respects the Druze traditions and religion, I wanted to reflect the religious symbols the way they really are. The Druze religion is secret, known only to the (initiates called) ‘uqqal. I maintained that secrecy, too, in the film. European viewers can’t interpret these situations, but I did want to use religious symbols to create the characters’ inner worlds. This use arouses emotions in the viewers and touches them.”

Waiting for an unknown future

The film shows the Israeli-controlled Golan lands as dead soil. All that is left for Golan residents is to wait for an unknown future, until things maybe change. “I’m going to Damascus, for 50 years we’ve been waiting to get to Damascus,” says Adnan in the movie to soldiers who stop him at a checkpoint. “It’s a long scene, in which I decided to capture the confrontation from a point of view that illustrates the sense of waiting and the time going by in front of the soldiers blocking the road,” says Fakher Eldin. “I could have depicted the Israeli soldiers stereotypically as evil and violent, but I didn’t because they are not the story. The story is the occupation and how it seeps into everyday life.”

You were born in Kiev, lived in the Golan until your twenties, and now live in Hamburg. Where do you really belong?

“I can’t answer that. Life changes. I can’t say for sure if I’d want to emigrate. My roots are in the Golan. I feel a connection to the soil, but I don’t know what the future holds for us.”

Surely you’ll agree the narrative of occupation in the Golan differs from the Palestinian people’s occupation narrative.

“The narrative seems different, but occupation is occupation. What Israel is doing in Palestinian localities is apartheid, and that doesn’t happen in the Golan. However, the great enemy is the time passing under occupation. As time passes, the issue of Syrian identity becomes less important. Israel uses a divide and conquer tactic between the Druze and the Arabs. The stereotype that the Druze isn’t an Arab is false; it is designed solely for division and separation. I am a Syrian and my identity is Syrian.”

Syrian civil defense volunteers and rescuers removing a baby from under the rubble of a destroyed building after a reported air strike on Aleppo's rebel-held neighborhood of al-Kalasa, in 2016.

You call yourself Syrian. The film deals with the occupation of the Golan and was chosen to represent Palestine at the Oscars. Isn’t that a contradiction?

“The film’s production is Palestinian and it’s an honor for me to represent Palestine. We are two peoples suffering from occupation. The suffering is shared. Although this is supposedly about the occupation of Syrian lands, the film brings a deep perspective about the essence of occupation in the human experience, the internal conflicts it creates. It’s a complex state of awareness that hasn’t been fully expressed in cinema, and it happens both in the Golan and in the Palestinian street.”

The experience of the Golan Druze is very different than that of the Druze who live within the Green Line, serve in the army, and even hold high office. How do you reconcile this gap?

“I refuse to examine this issue superficially. I understand the complexity in which the Druze in Israel live. I understand their conflicts. The Druze in Israel have decided to cooperate with the Israeli establishment. The impact of military service permeates Druze society in Israel. This doesn’t happen in the Golan. The Druze community there is more open and liberal. I believe there are no incidents of murder or violence there, and there is less male patriarchal control compared to the villages in the Galilee.”

You say that the occupation of the Golan is forgotten, certainly compared to the Palestinian occupation. Why is that?

“The Golan is not a country. It’s part of a country. Palestine is a country suffering occupation since 1948. The damage to Palestinian rights, including dispossession of their lands and conflicts with the army, happens daily. The Golan was conquered in 1967, and the Druze living there number 25,000. They are forgotten because there are no daily confrontations and no resistance like there is among the Palestinians. In a certain way, it’s an even harder occupation because people give up and don’t resist the status quo.”

Division among the people

Watching the film, it is hard not to notice the fact that Fakher Eldin almost completely avoids dealing with the crimes committed in Syria during the civil war there. When I try to find out what he really thinks about the catastrophe that has befallen Syrian society under Bashar Assad, he initially falls silent. Then he says: “I’m trying to speak about the unity of the Syrian people, and you ask me what the war did to the people of the Golan. Like every war, there was division among the people. Some are for and some are against. Even if I have personal views about the war, I’m against speaking about them explicitly. That’s not my purpose as a director, or as a Syrian. The war has led no doubt to division and rifts within the Syrian nation and in the Golan, to. Any Syrian, in or outside Syria, experiences this division.”

Ameer Fakher Eldin Ameer Fakher Eldin at a Palestinian film festival in November.

Still, the war caused many in the Arab world to oppose the Assad regime. Syrian actor Abed Fahad, for instance, attacked Assad and the harm caused to the Syrian people. Many Syrian artists fled the country.

“The Syrian actors who publicly announced their views for or against the regime did so personally. It is their choice. My goal as a director is not to deal with the political issues, but to direct the gaze toward the daily human challenge of living under the shadow of war. I made many efforts to keep my political views out of the cinematic work. There is no point in discussing it after making a film. It’s a very volatile subject. I’d rather not get into it.”

But it is important to hear your opinion, as someone who identifies as Syrian and calls out the wrongs of the “forgotten occupation.” After all, mainly Syrians were hurt in this war.

Fakher Eldin reacts with a long silence. His silence represents all the uncertainty the war in Syria left among Golan residents, and Syrians in general. The hopelessness that things will go back to the way they were at some point. His body language projects discomfort, even anger, and I have nothing to offer to break the silence – neither a smile nor a comforting comment.

There were talks over the years about an Israeli-Syrian peace deal, under which Israel would have returned the Golan. What would the Golan’s have been had that peace agreement happened? It seems life under Israeli rule has spared the Golan residents from the war in Syria.

“Your question is inappropriate.”

Why?

Because it’s a false and mistaken thought to say that Israel has protected the Golan residents and spared us from the war. I find that to be a disgustingly orientalist attitude, to think what would have happened to the Golan had it been under Assad’s rule during the war.”

A scene from the 2004 film "The Syrian Bride."

It’s not just bread. Assad committed horrible crimes against the Syrian people.

“The fact that there’s no daily conflict with the Israeli army doesn’t mean the situation is good. Syria is a wounded, bleeding country. I raise existential questions in the film – to what degree do we feel a sense of belonging to Syria and our nation-state at a time of war. The that we didn’t experience the war in Syria doesn’t mean Israel should be thanked. Our lives our like those of prisoners in a camp. We’re cut off. We don’t know what will happen to us, and we’re deprived of any freedom of choice. To sugarcoat the tragic reality is unfair to us. Our reality is more tragic than they think in Israel, and exploiting the war in Syria to undermine the national identity of the Golan residents is wrong, and even violent in my view.”

How do you see the future of the Golan, of the whole region?

He inhales, lowers his gaze, and takes a few seconds before replying.

“I want justice for anyone hurt by the war and by the occupation,” he replies. “For there to be justice for the people of the Golan and fair treatment for the Syrians whose rights were violated and were dispossessed of their lands in ’67. The ideal situation is for Israel to recognize our identity as Syrians and end the occupation. And if that won’t happen and Israel won’t give up the Golan, then it should at least allow the residents access to Damascus and a possibility of experiencing the Syrian nation-state. That’s the most basic thing.”

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