Mohammad Bakri: “I will never apologize!”

Mohammad Bakri: “I will never apologize!”
Mohammad Bakri
On the occasion of the Land Day in Israel (30th of March - a memorial day of the first Intifada and the confiscation of Arab lands in Israel by the Israeli state), Rome welcomed the best Arab actor in Israel: Mohamed Bakri. He was invited by the Palestinian community to present the play “The Pessoptimist” (to signify a state of mind of both optimism and pessimism) based on the novel “The Secret life of Saeed the Pessoptimist” by Palestinian writer Emil Habibi. He also presented his last documentary “The day you left” in several Italian cities. After his touching interpretation of the play in Rome, I met him for a chat and discovered a man immensely proud of his roots who today faces an uncertain future…

Tell me about the Pessoptimist, when did this adventure start?
I started playing the Pessoptimist back in 1986 and I still play it today in Europe, the United States, in Arab countries where I am allowed to go and in Israel and Palestine. I played it more than 1000 times in Arabic and Hebrew. The novel was translated into 20 languages and the play into 4 languages up to now (English, French, Italian and Japanese).

Saeed, the main character of the play stands for another reality.
Yes, the main character of the play, Saeed, is an Arab who remained in the State of Israel after its creation in 1948. He is an orphan who lost his pride and family. He represents the oppressed Palestinian minority in Israel. He illustrates the lack of self confidence and courage of the Arab minority in facing these new conditions of life. He has lost his house, his first and second love, his identity and his pride. And in order to stay in Israel, he has become a looser incapable of coping with the situation. What is fascinating about Saaed, is that he is both extremely clever and stupid. He leaps from bravery to cowardice, divided between truth and lies, love and hate… The real Saeed, who inspired Habibi, suffered from mental disorders due to a split personality syndrome: he ended up in the psychiatric hospital in Acre, from where he sent letters to Emil Habibi the writer, telling him about his story.

The new generation of Palestinians in Israel did not live this period. How did people react to the play throughout the years according to you?
Unfortunately, the younger generation is not conscious enough and is not aware of the socio-political context of the play. Few of them have been educated by their parents to become more conscious of the socio political context in which they live in. However, when it is the case, they are actually much more committed than the former generation.

Do you think that family education is the only way to sensitize the younger generation on its history?
No. The events that take place in the streets of Israel, lead the Arab youths to raise serious questions. Take for example the October 2000 events: young Arabs used their legitimate right to demonstrate in their country -which claims to be democratic- to show their solidarity with the Palestinian people after their upheavals in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the so-called “Al-Aqsa Intifada”. During these demonstrations in Nazareth, the Israeli police opened live fire on demonstrators killing 13 youngsters. After these events young Arabs in Israel, started asking themselves: why do these policemen who are Israeli citizens like me open fire on me?! Events of this kind, along with the education and the society in which we live in, have stirred some Arab youngsters but not all of them; young generations are quick to forget, unfortunately. The way the Israeli system treats Palestinians in and outside of Israel provokes this Political consciousness in Arab Israeli minds and makes them raise questions that had never occurred to them. What is happening is actually a boomerang. In the “Pessoptimist” for example, Saeed had educated his son Walaa (which means loyalty) to accept and not to go against the socio-political situation. But Walaaa became a fighter because he saw his father loosing his ground and could not accept to be like him. This led him to go towards the extreme, this happens a lot in our society.
Mohammad Bakri: “I will never apologize!”
What is your opinion about Israeli Media and Institutions and the role they play in shaping their citizens’ identity?
Israeli institutions, especially the Ministry of Education have been trying for many years to fashion Jews out of Arab-Israelis; they taught us: Hebrew, Jewish history, the Torah and Hebrew literature. Conversely, they totally ignored Palestinian literature and art. For example, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish is not taught in Israeli schools and Universities. He is totally ignored. The events of 1948 and the Arab heritage have been systematically cancelled. In my opinion, it was a very stupid attempt to try to make us become Jews, and this has created a boomerang effect, as I said before. Concerning the Israeli Media, in my opinion, today it rests in the hands of the Israeli army and government spokesmen on issues related to security and political matters. There is no independent press or freedom of expression in this matter, and there is a price to pay for democracy. I think real democracy is priceless. Take for example Dario Fo in Italy, he vehemently and freely criticizes the Italian government and was never jailed for that, on the contrary, he became a legend, because he is a free and revolutionary thinker, while I, and without comparing me with Dario Fo, am neglected in Israel.

Do you have problems in finding artistic work or financial artistic aid as an Arab living in Israel?
Of course I have. When I interpreted the main role in the movie “Behind Barriers” which was shown in Tel-Aviv cinema theatres for 8 months, I was working as a construction worker! Give me one Jewish actor who interpreted a role such as this one and found himself working in construction or as a waiter after that! This is the result of being a Palestinian living in a Jewish state!

If you were living in an Arab state do you think your situation would be different?
I don’t want to live in an Arab country and prefer to live in Israel; at least there is a space of fake democracy I can play with, in Arab countries even this space does not exist.

Your documentary “Jenin Jenin” created a storm in Israel when you wanted to diffuse it in 2002. What happened at that time?
The idea of making the documentary came spontaneously. In 2002 I participated in a demonstration with Arabs and Jews, in the Jalame checkpoint, to oppose the siege put on Jenin by Sharon’s government. A rumor about massacres inside Jenin started to spread because no one was allowed to go in; neither the press nor NGOs like the Red Cross to provide humanitarian or medical aid. Since we know Sharon’s horrible past and what he is capable of, we suspected that something really bad was happening in there. During the demonstration, an Israeli soldier opened fire on the demonstrators injuring a young actress’s elbow, a friend of mine who was standing next to me. This turned on my red light and I thought to myself, if this soldier is capable of shooting on us like this, what can be happening inside?! That’s when I decided to hold a camera, put my life in jeopardy and enter, with others and despite the siege, to film what was happening.

When I wanted to show the documentary inside Israel it was banned for a year but the Israeli Supreme Court allowed me to show it. The judges ruled that the truth could not be monopolized and that even if the film is against public opinion it is the artists’ freedom of expression right to show it. The verdict came out in 2004.

The film was shown only a few times in Israel under very hard conditions. There were large demonstrations against it; I received anonymous letters and phone calls threatening me of death...
Mohammad Bakri: “I will never apologize!”
What about now?
Five Israeli soldiers are suing me in a civil case for what I showed in the documentary. They claim that they were legally protecting their nation at the time and that this movie distorts reality. I should apologize or pay them 2.5 million Israeli shekels as compensation.

What are your expectations from this case?
The hearings will start next June and every scenario is possible because the law in Israel is like a chewing gum... everything is possible.

What if the court finds you guilty?
I will ask a refugee status in a European country because Mohammad Bakri will never apologize for what he has done and will never pay a single shekel to anyone! Alaa Ashkar

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