Jenin, April 8, 2010. The four of us, all Israelis, enter this Palestinian city from which more than 20 suicide bombers have come from during the second Intifada. Before traveling to it, we were all required to sign a document that absolves the army and the Israeli government of all responsibility for us, acknowledging that we were now moving into territory that was closed and dangerous.
It was back in 2008 that I knew this day would come, one day. It was when I saw a beautiful and hope bearing movie in Haifa, "The Heart of Jenin", made by the German film producer and director Marcus Vetter, who also spoke to the audience after the screening. Ten days later, in an e-mail to Marcus Vetter, I asked him: "What do you think of making a second film about peace and reconciliation related to Jenin – and, this time, in memory of Dov?" In that email to Marcus Vetter, I developed my idea further. Marcus responded immediately: "The story interests me, we should meet."
As an architect and city planner, and at the same time, a Zionist and Socialist, my late husband, Dov Chernobroda had, in his profession, been committed for more than 30 years to working in the Arab cities in the Galileeand in Wadi Ara. In the course of this work, he was actively involved in obtaining rights for the inhabitants of this area. He was a pioneer, and as an architect, he had planned the Olympic stadium in Um-El-Fahem. Furthermore, he had initiated dialogue-encounters between the representatives of the different sides, among them with Fayçal-el-Husseini, who has been Dov's good friend. We had both visited Arafat in the Mukata. Dov was a wonderful partner, a man of true peace from the depths of his soul. Fortunately, there is no lack of documentation of his many and varied activities.
Marcus Vetter's youthful, excellent crew begins working, step by step, as early as the autumn of 2009, with both professionalism and considerable insight. The crew first meets with the Tobassi family in Jenin and stays there for a few months. Later, the crew moves to Haifa. We get acquainted, meet almost every day, and the crew meets Dov's friends and family. Together, over a period of 6 months, we construct a movie of peace and reconciliation, from a human and personal point of view. Preceding the arrival of the crew, I bought an English map of Israel for them, and with a very heavy heart, for the first time in the past 8 years, I run my fingers along the road that leads from Jenin and from the Jalame Checkpoint to Haifa. The journey to Jenin could not have been more meaningful.
I am convinced that Dov, had he remained alive after the terrorist attack, would have taken this road to Jenin, a long time before we did. He would have done it as a gesture of reconciliation and peace between us, between the two families…. Any gesture is important for the sake of Dov's children and grandchildren. Any gesture is also important for the children and grandchildren of Shadi Tobassi's parents. It was this thought that motivated me, for the memory of Dov and in spirit of his life, to take the opposite path taken by Shadi Tobassi on the accursed date, the 31st of March, 2002. I want to believe that it is perhaps possible to prevent another unnecessary death. I think that we do not have to wait for the two governments to sign a peace treaty. I know that there is no absolute truth, and that in the Middle East we live each day on the brink of the abyss. Most of all, I want to dream bravely, just as Dov dreamt until his last breath.
Yoav, Dov's eldest son, and Bluma Finkelstein, my closest friend, accompany me. It was they who were by my side throughout Dov's life and have stood by me, especially after his murder. Today they are also with, more than ever before. On the day of the funeral, I begged them to stay there close to me, and they never let go of my hands. They loved Dov very much. When I asked them to accompany me to Jenin, they agreed immediately. They always followed our love story with great interest and affection. Both of them, like me, agree that we are making an important step for the young generation and the children of both families, for the children of both our nations, and for ourselves, in Dov’s memory.
Marcus Vetter's crew knows that I couldn’t agree to undertake this journey without two senior representatives of our Forum - one Israeli and one Palestinian – to accompany us on the visit to the Tobassi family's house. The Parents Circle-Families Forum (PCFF) is a Forum of Israeli and Palestinian people who have lost a member of their family through the conflict and are now working together towards peace and reconciliation. More than anything, the PCFF is, for me, the bridge that links Israelis to Palestinians. I have been a member of the Forum for only a year, yet I haven’t stopped telling people about it. It is a true family. I know the impact and the influence of the Forum can be meaningful in an encounter such as this, and in fact, that is exactly as it turns out. When I first approached them, Nir Oren, the General Manager of the Israeli Forum and Ali Abu-Awwad, spokesman and Project Manager of the Forum, enthusiastically agreed to accompany me on my visit at the Tobassi family.
The Palestinian driver Wassaf (whom my friend Bluma and I already knew, as we had met him twice when we were with Marcus Vetter's crew) leads us to the Jalame Checkpoint. He yells loudly and cheerfully to the young Israeli woman soldier on duty: "There are 4 Jews in my car!" Wassaf drives through all the red traffic lights on the way from Haifa to Jenin and explains to us that in the Palestinian Authority all the red lights are considered green! We all burst out laughing. Our mood is relaxed: we’re four Israeli Jews, and three members of Marcus Vetter’s crew.
We all meet in Jenin’s renovated youth-hostel terrace to talk with Marcus and his partner Fakhri Hamad, director of the project "Cinema Jenin". They remind me of twin brothers, so alike are they in their vision of a better future and their youthful, contagious enthusiasm. For the past three years they have been “moving mountains"- business wizards working on behalf of therenovation of "Cinema Jenin", as well as additional educational projects. Throughout his life, Dov had a youthful look, rather like that of Marcus and Fakhri.
Ali cannot restrain himself from asking me in a friendly direct way: "But what do you expect of this visit?" and I answer him: "Nothing! Absolutely nothing! For today, nothing! As Dov always said, we are enemies, but we talk to each other. Between friends, there’s no need to make peace. With enemies, there is! Starting tomorrow, I have great expectations of what may develop from this visit..." We are all longing to come back again in August for the opening celebration of "Cinema Jenin", and Marcus is wholehearted about inviting us.
As I get out of the local taxi that has brought us to the refugee camp where the Tobassi family live, I instinctively grasp Yoav's hand. Hand in hand we go up the three floors. The driver didn't know which "Shaheed" Marcus was talking about when he told him our destination. That's a good sign, I thought. After all, there were so many "Shaheeds" in Jenin!
It is hard to look at this house. This is the house that Shadi set out from, wearing his explosive belt. His original home was destroyed by the Israel Defense Forces, but they allowed the family to rebuild it over the ruins. On the first floor, there’s Shadi's uncle, on the second floor, his elder brother, and on the third floor, his parents live. It was on this floor, as his mother will later explain to me, Shadi would eventually have lived with a wife and children, had he married, and not decided to do what he did.
The father, Abu Amjad, (who is also called Zakharia) is waiting for us at the top of the stairs. He speaks Hebrew; I called him not long ago and asked him if he would agree to meet us at his home. He looks at us with a soft, yet anxious look. We greet one another with word of welcome in Hebrew:Shalom, meaning “peace”. As I enter the living room, I immediately notice that the family has taken down the poster or photos of Shadi from the walls, as I had asked them to do. It is a gesture they have done for me, and any gesture is important. I will later discover that the photos were taken down just at the last minute: it must have been difficult for them as well.
I am the only one in our small group that knows the first name, age and profession of each family member. The two German directors have made a family tree for me because I wanted to know how many people live under this roof, who they are, who has a salary, who doesn't. I also asked for all the family to be present, especially the children and the five grandchildren. And in fact they did gradually trickle through the door's entrance, throughout the day. I will not forget. And I will also not forget the beautiful smile, both surprised and joyous, belonging to one of Tobassi's granddaughters, when I took her hand and as we strolled, hand in hand in downtown Jenin …
One could not dream of Palestinian friends more wonderful than Fakhri and Ali who, tactfully and intelligently, construct gateways of dialogue in Arabic. This meeting is not simple for any of us and the conflict is, unfortunately also about the controversy of words. Yoav is very calm, just as I am. But Bluma says she could not sleep last night. Neither of us has come to ask: "But what kind of son did you bring up?" Neither of us have any thoughts of judging anyone.
Bluma and I are soon asked to go and meet the mother, the youngest sister and the daughters-in-law in their living room. Yoav and Nir will later tell me that in the beginning Fakhri translated, as the men spoke of life in Jenin, of the bombed house, of the father who worked as a house painter in Haifa for 15 years (in fact, for the same contractor who built my house!). They talked about the circumstances that lead their youngest son, Shadi, to decide to become a “Shaheed” the fact that his closest friends were killed in the second Intifada, which began in late September 2000. How, for Shadi, despair overcame everything else.
In the beginning of filming "our" movie, I used to simply call him "the terrorist". Later, I was afraid to make the mistake by saying Shaheed instead of his name, Shadi. Finally I decided to say his full name: Shadi Tobassi. Perhaps more than in any other place in the world, it’s well-known for us in Israel that every person has a name.
Bluma and the mother embrace, letting out a restrained moan that is immediately choked back. I do not cry. You should never force yourself to cry. I have cried so much in the past weeks. I think of Dov, and – of course, of the future. Instinctively, I lean towards Umm Amjad, take her hand and do not let go of it. I will call her "Mum” throughout this whole meeting, throughout the entire day. It comes spontaneously. For me, she is primarily a mother: she raised her three sons and three daughters, now she has five grandchildren. Her son Shadi is the only one who committed murder; not her, not them. I refuse, in any way, to generalize about them.
Umm Amjad tells me in Hebrew that her son did not tell any one that he was going to the “Matza” restaurant to blow himself up, that she is being eaten up from inside with pangs of remorse. She was diagnosed with leukemia after the bombing, that she had undergone an operation in Jordan because their Israeli identity cards were taken again from them after the bombing, as were their cards for the Israeli Health Services. "Maybe you can say something so that they’ll give them back to us?" she whispers. She shows me a large scar across her leg. "Do you have children?" she asks me. "No. I couldn’t give birth. But my husband was a widower, so I inherited a wonderful family, three children, eight grandchildren – and all with no effort! Whereas you had to work so hard to raise your large family!"…
I listen to Umm Amjad. She tells me she no longer sees her two married daughters in Um-El-Fahem, nor her family from Muqeibila, the village north of Jenin, which is within the territory belonging to Israel. Her husband's family live in Jenin. I tell her very little about myself. I do not let go of Umm Amjad's hand for a moment. Neither does she.
At first, only a daughter-in-law is present. Later, Sarah, Shadi's younger sister, a beautiful 16 year-old teenage girl, and the daughter-in-law approach us. They hand some Kleenex to Bluma, Umm Amjad and me. I take the whole box, move it away from us and say: "No! As of today we don't cry anymore! We have all cried enough! Today we think of the future, of the children and grandchildren!" And suddenly there’s a perceptible relaxation in the ambience: the young women bring a camera, the batteries are a little old, the flash sporadically works, and we all laugh together!
Jule, one of the film directors, is there with us. We all traveled together this morning. She has been with me since last night and her lovely presence makes me feel good. She also takes photos, and we feel comfortable with each other, as women, even if there is no-one to translate for us from Arabic. We understand each other without words. Steffi, Jule's film co-director, remained in the men's living room. She had had a lot of small talks earlier this morning before we arrived, to persuade the Tobassi family to take down the poster or photos of Shadi from the living room. But she did it gently and diplomatically. I know very well that I will see them in the film, but today I am not prepared to meet Shadi's eyes when I’m in front of the rolling cameras. Steffi and Jule spun a coin to see who would accompany us from Haifa to Jenin in the car, and who would wait for us in Jenin! In the past few months, they have been helped by Yoscha and Mareike, their wonderful technical crew-members on the film. All of them are so young, so professional. They are true ambassadors of peace! We were all fast becoming friends.
It is at this moment that I choose to take out from my handbag the beautiful tablecloth that I got from Kibbutz Shuval. It is decorated with a chamois motif."Yaël", the chamois, is the translation of my name in Hebrew. I had been keeping this tablecloth hidden away in my bag as I did not know whether I would want to offer Umm Amjad my gift or not when I arrived. I turn to Bluma, and ask her in French, and she agrees with me. Shadi’s mother is moved to tears. She asks Jule to take a photograph of us and I know that she refused to be filmed for “our” movie. I said: "Whenever you set a large table with this tablecloth– it measures around 60 by 60 inches or 1.50 meters by 1.50 meters – for your children, your grandchildren, your future grandchildren and great grandchildren, remember there is a woman in Israel, named Yaël, who came to visit you one day, to make a gesture for peace and reconciliation together with you. Dov, my husband, was murdered in vain. Your son, Shadi, is futilely dead. Let us hope that a Palestinian state will soon be established and that the peace will also come soon!"
As I return to the living room, I notice the father looks calmer. As his wife joins us in the living room, he understands that the meeting with her has gone well and was held in a pleasant atmosphere. His wife will even come with us on the wonderful visit to "Cinema Jenin", which is headed by Marcus, and will also accompany us on our later visit to the owner of “Cinema Jenin” – and all this after she at first declared she would not come. When Bluma and I meet again, as we leave the Tobassi family's house and make our way through their yard, we respond to the women of the family waving goodbye to us, as they smile and lean towards us from the windows of the house. Bluma will later tell me that behind us all the neighbours were watching us from their windows.
Our visit at the Tobassi Family's home was drawing to a close. Yoav and I speak also of Dov, one after the other, without any prior arrangement. Neither of us wants to talk too much. We speak of the essence, even with a little humor: Dov's personal path, his profession, the way he perceived the conflict, his political activity, the meetings he held with Palestinians, with Fayçal-el-Husseini and with Arafat. Our mere presence here is really the most beautiful proof that Dov still lives on in us, and that even after his murder, his message exists forever.
On the roof of the youth-hostel, I said to Yoav: "You know, over the years, I have done many things in memory of Dov, but I never dreamed I would come to Jenin to make a movie in his memory!" Yoav responded with his soft smile, which so resembled his father's: "Ah, but Yael – this is a gesture that Dad would have appreciated the most!"…
A little before we say goodbye to the family, Nir Oren and Ali Abu Awwad, “my” two representatives from the Forum, suggest to the Tobassi family, in front of all those present, that they also join it. Then they hand them information in Arabic about the Forum’s activities in 2009 and activities that are planned ahead for 2010. It's simply wonderful! Ali is taken aback by my immediate agreement. Just a few days earlier, Marcus had written to me, quite aptly: "You are reaching out to all those human beings, when they cannot yet do the same!"
Marcus cannot stop smiling throughout the day, and how happy I feel to see him beaming with joy! It is truly a gift to meet people like him, and a team such as his. The experience we have had together is unique.
Then Yoav spontaneously suggests helping Fakhri and the Forum in their joint activities. Once again I am thankful, as I am aware how little spare time Yoav has – because he is shouldering the responsibility for his start-up company!
Bluma repeats her suggestion to the film producer Marcus, that the Mayor of Haifa, Yona Yahav, be approached about the idea of affiliating the Haifa Cinematheque with Cinema Jenin, as twin cultural institutions. As a writer and poet who is personally involved in peace, she organised an encounter between authors of PEN International and his Writers for Peace Committee which will be held in Haifa, in December 2010. Israeli and Palestinian authors --will also take part in this three-day encounter. I am full of hope that "our" movie will have its World Premiere at this occasion! Bluma also suggests organizing a concurrent photography exhibition about the project "Cinema Jenin" by the Berlin photographer Fabian Zapatka, a friend of Marcus Vetter, and that the exhibition be held at the Beit Hagefen Arab-Jewish Center in Haifa, as well as at the French Culture Center in Nazareth.
By the end of the afternoon, when we separate with kisses from Shadi's mother and a goodbye from his father, after the friendly meeting with the owner of "Cinema Jenin", the father invites us all to come and have dinner at his home, next time, when we will return to Jenin…
Initiatives come from all sides. Around me, each person becomes involved in his or her own way, which is exactly the "new day" I had dreamed of – and amazingly, it’s already beginning today …
When Bluma photographed me from behind, walking the streets of Jenin hand in hand with Shadi's mother, both of us marching ahead, limping a little, she must have thought, smiling, that the name of her poetry book, that she dedicated to her best friend, Dov Chernobroda, could not have been more apt! Bluma had called her book Les éclopés de la fraternité -- "The Limping Comradeship Group"…And that’s how we actually were, on that day in Jenin. Between us. A limping comradeship group. Honest. Others might call us naïve, but naivety is not a crime.
Let us not forget that The Geneva Initiative was written by naïve Israelis and Palestinians – and that this agreement is as valid today as it was, and continues to carry hope for us.
Yes, we all experienced a very meaningful day. Without radio, without television, without newspapers and most of all, without pretensions.
Every gesture counted. For the sake of tomorrow.
Yaël Armanet – Chernobroda, April 2010
translated by Aloma Halter and Judy Reich
Meeting with the enemy? By Nir Oren
Watch the movie trailer: AFTER THE SILENCE