It is telling that much of Egyptian media coverage of the most recent Israeli attack on Gaza focused on a critical examination of Egypt’s own relationship with Palestine; on its complicity or otherwise in the hand-wringing, posturing, and conferencing which formed the Arab response to the crisis.
Two camps emerged, broadly-speaking, during this debate. The first decried Egypt’s abandonment of its role as defender of Palestine and the alignment of its foreign policy with Israeli interests, while the second posited a suddenly rehabilitated President Hosny Mubarak as peacemaker and defender of Egyptian interests, par excellence.
Egypt’s 14 km border with Gaza has come to symbolize this divide. It is variously a bastion of Egyptian sovereignty, an agent of Egyptian complicity in the Israeli attack and, in its incarnation as the transit point for the trickle of injured Palestinians permitted into Egypt for treatment, Gaza’s faint pulse.
Ironic perhaps, that a border dividing a single town (Rafah) should have these multiple identities; yet another example of the weird physical realities – the facts on the ground -Israel’s existence has engendered.
Palestinians pay the price for the political smoke circles of course – a point Egyptian director Azza Shabaan makes in her moving documentary Of Flesh and Blood when she asks, “Why is this border so different to every other other border in the world?”
A timely question, as both sides claim victory and Gaza attempts yet again to get back onto its feet and aid continues to force its way across the Rafah Crossing. In her 27-minute film Shabaan takes us back to January 2008, when Gazans in Palestinian Rafah – who by then had been under an Israeli siege for a year – breached the border and crossed into Egyptian Rafah.
Shabaan, armed with a handheld camera and a desire to witness Gaza at first hand, made her way through the throngs of Palestinians and Egyptians buying, selling and bargaining at the demolished border fence, and filmed in a “five day sneak” into the beleaguered Gaza Strip. Her aim she says is to “break the silent siege that has been imposed on it for so long, and to present to us a perspective of the people of Gaza different to that which the media presents.”
Shabaan admits that this is “the first time” that she has picked up a camera – a fact evident in the film’s naive, unfinished quality. Rather than undermining the film this stripped-down quality (the camera which goes in and out of focus during interviews, the shaking during shots in moving cars) lends it a strange, unearthly power which captures the fragility and desperation of life in Gaza.
A glimpse of life in Gaza – of its day to day hardships and overwhelming tragedies – is presented via the group of Gazan women Shaaban meets and follows.
A sense of quiet anger, resignation and, most remarkably, humour pervades the film. Thus we see a woman struggling to put petrol into a car’s tank using a tube connected to a petrol jerkin. Shaaban explains that the woman has insisted on her taking on a car tour of Gaza despite the siege-induced petrol shortages. “Arabs insist on selling us petrol despite the crisis we’re in but I give it to my friend for free,” the woman jokes.
Having succeeded in filling up the petrol tank Shaaban and her companion go on a tour of Gaza. What was life like when the settlers were here? Shaaban asks. The woman explains that she used to spend days at checkpoints, that she was forced to sleep in her car at the checkpoints. The worst thing, she says, is that her house would be visible on the other side.
Another woman narrates the history of her family’s three forced displacements since 1948 and the grandchildren her father never saw because he couldn’t leave Gaza and the children and their fathers, now resident abroad, were prevented by Israel from entering the Strip. She relates this with an impossible equanimity, jokingly asking someone off camera, “Where shall we go the fourth time we have to leave?”
The only music used in the film is a song, song unaccompanied, by the sister of a prisoner of war, Alaa, held in Israel. Shabaan asks her long Alaa was sentenced to. Three life sentences, she replies, seeking clarification from her friend of how long a life sentence in Israel is. It is 33 years.
Israel is the absent but omnipresent villain in this story, but Hamas are also the target of anger. A woman asks why in the coup it was only teenaged policemen who died before relating the story of a man who she says had both arms and legs broken by Hamas members after committing an infraction of some sort.
The most poignant moment in the film – and its masterstroke – are scenes of a wedding party complete with guests, cake, music and bride. The only thing missing is the groom himself: he is studying in Spain and has not been permitted to reenter Gaza. The families decide to go ahead with the wedding anyway, an act of defiance and desperation. There is perhaps no more powerful symbol of Gaza’s plight than this, the abandoned bride of Palestine sitting alone and surrounded by well-wishers unable to do a thing to help her.