What Jews and Palestinians share would make a powerful film

What Jews and Palestinians share would make a powerful film
By Ray Hanania — How is it that two peoples who share so much can be so far apart and such enemies?

Of course, I am talking about Palestinians and Jews.

I’ve been researching my family’s history through several online ancestry websites that bring together a lot of historical documents, mainly immigration and census records.

I was struck by how many Jews shared the same passage with my father from Jerusalem in 1926 when he arrived in America on the SS Sinaia, a steamer that took 30-days to cross the Atlantic.

That’s a long time to be on a boat. But I am sure that inevitably, the passengers on the boat got to spend much time with each other. There wasn’t much to do on a boat except stare at the ocean from its portals.

They had to have talked to each other, right? Jews and Palestinians? Maybe sharing the same apprehensions of a new world? Fleeing Palestine’s turmoil for an uncertain future in a land where the streets were said to be paved in gold?

Part of the interest in all this comes in part from the 1997 movie Titanic by Hollywood producer James Cameron.

My wife dragged me to see the movie “Titanic” but I practically slept through most of the film. I was shocked from my slumber when a cameo character in the film, an Arab woman with her husband and children, blurted out one word “Yalla” as the RMS Titanic slowly sank. The Titanic sunk after striking an iceberg 100 years ago on April 15.

The word struck me like the arctic cold Atlantic waters. My eyes popped open and the movie grabbed my attention by the throat.

There were Arabs on the Titanic, I thought to myself.

The theater had made a big deal out of the tragedy and printed the names of every passenger on the Titanic. They posted the list on the theater walls. I was surprised at how many of the names were Arab.

I counted 79. Then I started to do more research and estimated that there were more than 160 Arabs on the Titanic. And I crashed into a few contemporary jokes, too. Like the obvious one that if the Captain of the Titanic had been an Arab, the world would have called the sinking an act of “terrorism.”

James Cameron could have included more of the Arab experience in his movie. But he did not. In fact, it seemed as if he went out of his way to erase the Arab presence. A good example is the scene where Titanic stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet come upon an Irish party deep in the hull of the ship. In my research, I learned that there was in fact an Arab hafli celebrating the engagement of a Lebanese couple on the Titanic.

But how would that Arab celebration have played into the love story Cameron was selling to Western audiences about two Irish immigrants who fell in love?

In the end, the entire experience reminded me yet again of how Arabs have failed so miserably to tell their own story to anyone besides themselves. Arabs on the Titanic? And no Arab writer thought it important enough to re-tell in a compelling drama to way the emotions of the West favorably towards Arab culture? The message is so obvious. Arabs are no different than any of the immigrants who came to America. We’re the same.

Try telling that to an American today.

Hollywood sways emotions of audiences favorably and unfavorably towards people, races and religions. Right now it’s very unfavorably against Arabs.

I bet, though, that if Arabs and Jews could one day overcome their mutual animosity and aggressive anger and produce a compelling movie that tells both their stories in a positive and moving way.

Well, I doubt Jews would want to make any film that would undermine the power of the movie Exodus, which defined for many in the West the Jewish narrative of Palestine to the detriment of Palestinians.

So far no Arab has even come close to telling a compelling tale of the Palestinian experience, other than myself of course in my humorous memoir “I’m Glad I Look Like a Terrorist: Growing up Arab in America” (which I renamed after Sept. 11 “Ya Habibi: Growing Up Arab in America.)

Still, I’ll bet that when my dad sat down and shared a cigarette or a cup of coffee with Jewish passengers on the SS Sinaia, they didn’t just talk about the politics or the turmoil in Palestine. I bet they spoke about what they shared. They had to see in each other a mirror images.

Imagine to be Palestinian and Israelis and forced to share a boat together for 30 days, with nothing to do except stare at the expanse of the ocean and talk to each other. Maybe dream about collaborating on a movie about our mutual experiences together.

Well, in a way, Palestinians and Jews have been forced to share the same land. Although we don’t come together to sip coffee or talk about anything else besides the emotional conflict, politics and violence.

Palestinians and Israelis share so much, yet can’t we find the opportunity to speak to each other with civility, compassion and hope?

(Ray Hanania is a Palestinian American radio talk show host.)

Categories: Middle East Topics

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