The diary of Mohammad Malas’s film about Palestinian refugees in Lebanon

The Dream: A Diary of the Film by Mohammad Malas, introduced by Samirah Alkassim, is published by the American University in Cairo Press (2016).

In 1980 Syrian filmmaker Mohammad Malas traveled to Lebanon to film a documentary of interviews with Palestinians of the refugee camps around Beirut. His aim was to delve into the Palestinian subconscious by probing his subjects’ dreams.

The political landscape against which Malas’s interlocutors describe their dreams to him in The Dream: A Diary of the Film—his notes and selected interview transcripts of the filming process—now seems as though it comes out of another age.

For anyone who lived through the rise of the Palestinian Thawra (Revolution) in the refugee camps and the bloody and maddeningly complicated years of the Lebanese civil war, the contrast between Lebanese and Palestinian politics then and now could not be more stark. Names like Amal, Ein al-Helweh, Tel al-Zaatar, Bashir Gemayel, and Abu Ammar jump out of Malas’s diary like words on a crackling newsreel. Once the stuff of news headlines, they’ve long since disappeared, to be replaced by a new generation of flashpoints and political players. Malas recorded his diary in 1980–81, so change is to be expected, but too much has happened since. This heightens the diary’s sadness, its fragmentary, surrealist feel. Only the names of the towns and villages from which the refugees were driven out stay constant, talismans of memory that pervade the Palestinian consciousness.

In the early part of his diary, Malas writes that he wants to understand what makes Palestinians Palestinian outside the usual framework of politics and armed struggle. He later elaborates the point while preparing for the first phase of shooting:

“There must be documentary faithfulness to the filmed material—as opposed to ideological faithfulness. This might contradict the official Palestinian mindset.”

His notes let the refugees speak for themselves. This gives their thoughts a raw, austere quality devoid of rancor. Accounts of siege, dislocation, dispossession, and loss arise
time and again in a way which is almost pedestrian, but taken together they build up a quiet, devastating power. These narratives are mixed throughout with Malas’s own thoughts as he walks through the camps—his feel for an individual’s character; the sounds and smells that accost his senses; his instinctive discomfort, unease, and, on occasion, fear of very real and imminent danger; and, in other moments, his sense of what is artistically possible:

“I have to admit I have never seen prettier light than that found naturally in the alleys or inside the houses in the camps. So I should rely on the rules and aesthetics of the real sources of light.”

Even while doubt and guilt creep in:

“What am I doing? Am I buying people’s dreams? What will I do with them? Serve up a handful of their souls and leave?”

Malas wants to probe his subjects’ dreams, but the blurred lines between dreams and reality in the refugees’ accounts force him, and us, to question the boundaries between fact and fiction:

“It is hard to determine whether the son said this to him in a dream before he was martyred, hence as a portent of death, or if he meant his son came to him after he was martyred. Dreams mix with reality like a combination of illusion, intuition, and hallucination.”

Elsewhere, political players are pressed into service as puppets of the dreamer:

“Kennedy also came and visited the camp, I saw him. He was a good speaker. He said he sympathized with us and felt our pain but nothing happened.”

The psychic play of high political tragedy and bathos reveals the dreamers’ feeble attempts to gain momentarily a sense of power, of relevance in the face of geopolitical events:

“I once dreamed I was swimming in the sea. Then Moshe Dayan came, dressed in shorts and not wearing his eyepatch. He said to me, ‘You’re not allowed to swim here.’ I grabbed sand and threw it in his face and eyes, then I fled to the sea and swam . . . I saw myself in Ma’alot. I asked myself, ‘How is this? There’s no sea in Ma’alot!’”

When Malas goes back to his subjects to begin the filming process after his first phase of research, he begins to observe the minute differences between what his subjects said the first time he interviewed them and what they say before the camera. By the end of the first phase of filming he admits that what he’d seen and filmed had affected him to a far greater degree than anything he’d be able to bring to the film.

As Samirah Alkassim writes in her introduction to this English translation, The Dream: A Diary of the Film is framed by two major massacres of the Palestinians during the war in Lebanon—Tel al-Zaatar in 1976 and Sabra and Shatila in 1982. Following the Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which many of his interlocutors were killed, Malas was unable to continue work on the project and only came back to it four years later, after which a copy of the film was smuggled into Shatila and viewed by its inhabitants. The refugees’ ferocious vulnerability is ever-present in Malas’s diary even while they strive to retain a foothold on a world that has no place for them.

The diary was first published in Arabic in 1991 by Dar al-Adab in Beirut as al-Manam: mufakkirat film. This English translation was published in 2016, five years after the start of the uprising against Syria’s regime. The irony of a Syrian filmmaker recording the deepest fears of Palestinian refugees against the backdrop of a seemingly unending civil war cannot be lost on today’s readers. There are eerie parallels between the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and their Syrian counterparts today. The massive influx of
Palestinian refugees into Lebanon in 1948 did not make itself felt until more than twenty years later with the rise of the PLO. It remains to be seen how the story of the Syrians in Lebanon will unfold.

By Nadia Naqib



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