Next Year in Haifa

In his new documentary, Omar Shargawi helps his father, who fled Palestine at the age of 8, to confront the ghosts that have haunted the family ever since.

"I'm certain his temper derives from the war and everything he went through but why, damn it, am I like that too?" wonders director Omar Shargawi at the start of his documentary "My Father from Haifa." Very soon thereafter the father-son dynamic unfolds on screen. "We can't travel to Kuwait or Palestine. Convince me we can," the father says to his son. "But I've already convinced you! You've forgotten," cries the son, throwing his hands up in despair.

"I only said yes to make you happy, but I wasn't really convinced," his father insists. "You hugged me and said, 'You've convinced me,'" the younger Shargawi smiles in frustration.

"I think you should give up on this trip, Omar," the father says, causing his son to get up from his chair and storm out of the room.

"My Father from Haifa," which will be screened today at the Jerusalem Film Festival, captures a complex relationship between Munir Shargawi, who is now 70, and his son Omar. The father is a Palestinian refugee, who at the age of eight left his home in Haifa, along with his parents and sister. They fled first to Jordan and from there to Damascus. At 15, Munir Shargawi enlisted in the Syrian army and afterward the Jordanian army ("I wanted to liberate Palestine, and I wasted my youth," he says in the film ). After wandering for some time, he finally settled in Denmark.

Over the years, he often spoke to his three sons about his longings for Palestine. Six years ago when Omar, his eldest son, told him he wanted to take a trip with him to visit Haifa and see the house where his father had been born, Munir Shargawi got caught up in a whirlwind of emotions. Over and over, throughout the film, he agrees to accompany his son on the trip to Haifa and then changes his mind. He buys tickets four times and then cancels them.

Omar Shargawi
Emil Salman

Though on the brink of throwing in the towel, Omar does not give up. "I wonder what parts frustration and fear are playing in his refusal to return to his childhood home with me," Omar Shargawi says, sharing his thoughts with the audience. "I feel there is something deep inside him desperately resisting this trip."

Shargawi continues to pressure his father, with no intention of giving up. Eventually his father agrees and the two set out.

The documentary film provides a glimpse into the life of a Palestinian refugee who has built a home in a new country, established a family and supposedly rehabilitated his life in a comfortable European country, but in fact is pursued by ghosts from his past. The father says his entire personality has been shaped by the fact that he was born in Palestine and thrown out. He admits that while he may not know much about the place, he nevertheless feels a strong sense of longing for it. The film also offers a fascinating perspective on the son, who has obviously been affected by his father's refugee experience.

Shards of memory

On Monday at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, where Shargawi arrives as a guest of this week's film festival, he relates that he has always spoken with his father about Palestine. "It was always a major topic in our family," he says, "and I assume it's the same way in all the exiled families that have one sort of Palestinian background or another."

He is familiar with the expression "Next year in Jerusalem," which has served many generations of Jews in the Diaspora, and agrees that today it could apply to many Palestinian refugees.

"The Jews did not forget Palestine for 2,000 years, so they can't expect the Palestinians to forget it after 60 years. All Palestinians wish to return to Palestine, or to at least visit, but not all of them do so - even if they have European passports and technically are able to," Shargawi says. "I think my father represents a generation that in a certain way has dreamt about this all its life, but for many reasons found it hard to get up and do it. I think that at one time, for the Jews and now for the Palestinians, this unrealized dream of returning to Palestine became a way of life. A dream is one thing, but to get up and realize it is another thing."

For many years, he relates, his father refused to go into detail about his experiences. "I know so much about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and about other people's stories, but I felt that I didn't really know my own story. Every time I tried to ask my father about his own personal story, I would hit a wall - he didn't want to open up and talk about it. In the end I convinced him to let me interview him.

"At first I didn't know what I would do with those interviews. I thought I'd simply keep them for the family, but after filming them I came up with the idea to travel with him to Palestine."

"For me, this film was not just an opportunity to tell my story and my father's story, but also thousands of similar stories of people in the same situation - not only Palestinians, but refugees in general," he says. "That was the motivation that impelled me to continue, even during the many moments of crisis when I felt like giving up on the whole project."

Shargawi says the interviews with his father revealed many biographical details he had not previously known; he decided to embark on the trip to Haifa to try to better understand his father's character.

"One of my intentions was to understand where my father got those feelings of grief and sorrow that have been with him all his life. That day, when he left Haifa, was of course the reason for much of the pain that has accompanied him throughout the years, for the breakup of the family, for his enlisting in the army at a young age, for this artificial dream of returning. I think that for him and for many others in his situation, the effect of this situation was revealed not during childhood but rather many years later."

Because of his father's temper, and the tense relations between the two, Shargawi had to film a large part of their meetings using a hidden camera. "He did give his general consent to appear in this movie, but most of the time he didn't want me to film him, so I had to film clandestinely and tell him only afterward," he laughs.

Though not a professional actor, his father also starred in Shargawi's last film, "Go with Peace Jamil." "I don't think the film would've been the same without him. Even though he didn't play the main role, for me he was the most important character," says Shargawi.

He is now working on his next project - a modern adaptation of the biblical story of Job - and he wants to have his father act in this film as well. "I am trying to figure out how I can bring him in. The hardest thing, of course, will be getting him to agree," he smiles.

Touring the land

Immediately after he and his father returned to Denmark from Haifa, Omar Shargawi had a strange feeling. A week later, he landed again at Ben-Gurion Airport.

"I don't know, something pulled me back," he said. "I felt that I had to return. I got in a car and started driving all around Palestine. I tried to see as much as possible. I went to Nazareth, Acre, Jerusalem."

He cannot explain this urge, but when asked about his four visits here over the past two years (he was at the festival in Jerusalem two years ago as well, with his previous film ) he says: "I feel I belong here too. I was born in Denmark, but I also feel Palestinian. I can't deny this. Before I came here for the first time, I was afraid it was nothing but a romantic dream and that when I finally did come here I wouldn't feel a thing. But I felt many things, which I can't put into words. Now, without a doubt, I feel my roots are planted in this place."

And his father? "I think even today he doesn't yet completely understand the meaning of that visit for him. But Palestine is no longer something we need to talk about all the time, the way we did all my life," Shargawi says. "Over the years he said countless times he would take us there and show us the place where he grew up, but he never did it. Now, after we've done it, it's no longer something we need to talk about obsessively."