Salaam Cinema: On Mohsen Makhmalbaf
In Jerusalem these days, reality seems to be breaking through reality. It’s the cultural equivalent of a sonic boom: “I love you!” A hailstorm of applause showers the slight man in black, who has just bounded down the theater aisle and leapt onto the stage like a game show host or a mega-church preacher. “Let’s have a hope for peace between Israel and Iran!” The clapping grows still louder. “I have a dream one day I invite all of you to Iran!” The whistling lifts to tea-kettle pitch as the crowd rises to its feet and he bows, palms pressed together, Namaste-style, then prostrates himself—possibly he’s joking, but maybe he’s not—and promptly springs back up to the microphone, declaring in his lilting, Persian-tinted English, “I don’t know what to say after seeing your reaction, but I love you, I love you, I love you!”
The great Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf has come to Jerusalem. The former Islamic militant and death-row prisoner under the shah, current secular activist for a democratic Iran, and political exile from his homeland has come to Jewish West Jerusalem—that is, Israel. A guest of the thirtieth Jerusalem International Film Festival, which in July screened his newest movie, The Gardener, as well as a selection of his earlier work, Makhmalbaf was also in town to accept a special award from the festival, “In the Spirit of Freedom.” He may be the first director from the Islamic Republic to have visited the Jewish state; he is certainly the first to have made a movie in this country. (Ostensibly a documentary meditation on Bahaism, The Gardener was shot in Israel with a few digital cameras by Makhmalbaf and his son Maysam.) There is no doubt that he is the first to stand before a large crowd of Israelis and grin beatifically as he professes his love for each and every one of them.
It’s hard to believe that he has come, but the unreality of his arrival seems somehow fitting, since most of Makhmalbaf’s movies are playfully serious (or seriously playful) meditations on actuality and illusion. Earlier in the day, he said that in being here, he was happy to have “land[ed] on [the] moon,” and from my seat in a packed auditorium at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, surrounded by a mostly Jewish audience, it feels as though we’ve all just taken a collective leap onto a mysterious but alluring extraterrestrial landscape—a tranquil, reflected image of the tense Middle East we actually live in. Lest we forget: the day after the festival ended, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation, looking like the Grim Reaper in a businessman’s blue tie and warning that he “won’t wait until it’s too late” to take military action against Iran because “all the problems that we have…will be dwarfed by this messianic, apocalyptic, extreme regime that would have atomic bombs.”
For all the grandstanding of Makhmalbaf’s Jerusalem charm offensive, he does have a way of cutting through the notorious “difficulty” of Middle Eastern diplomacy, to say nothing of the hatemongering and saber-rattling that attend it. “I love you!” he insists in the simplest, most unwavering terms. “I love you!”
Or is such simplicity itself—in this pathologically gnarled context—the most slyly sophisticated sort of complication? Like his movies, his presence here sends one wandering down a fascinating, disarming hall of mirrors.
* * *
These are strange days in Jerusalem. On the eve of the month of Ramadan and at the height of summer vacation—as, nearby, Egypt seethes and Syria smolders—the city is both more bustling and more bewildering than ever, and Makhmalbaf’s unlikely appearance only underscores the confusing nature of this Middle Eastern cultural moment.
In the upscale Jewish neighborhoods on the western side of town, things are looking surprisingly swank. Petunias have been planted en masse in the municipal parks. A hundred new street cleaners have been enlisted by city hall to sweep up after the hordes crowding the pedestrian malls. The Ottoman-era train station—derelict for decades—has been tastefully refurbished and has just opened its doors as an elegant entertainment compound featuring chic restaurants, an airy gallery, and a pretty, landscaped foot and bike path that runs, High Line–style, along the old tracks. Mahaneh Yehudah, the outdoor market, is booming. Alongside the well-established vegetable and spice stands, funky bars and trendy cafés have popped up; the place is teeming with locals and tourists, old ladies dragging shopping carts and young hipsters taking drags from their hand-rolled cigarettes.
Palestinians, too, mingle easily in this mix, in large part because of the municipal light rail, which has been running for two years now. For almost a decade, the construction of the rail line and its protracted delays threatened to destroy already depressed downtown West Jerusalem by rendering it a dusty, nearly impassible building site. Now, winding like some great electric eel down Jaffa Road, the rail line cuts a sleek, silvery figure that, in the gritty context of Jerusalem, appears almost fantastical. The gentle tolling of the train’s bell adds to that enchanted feel—as does the utterly mixed population riding the train itself.
Twelve years ago, at the height of the second intifada, when suicide bombers were blowing themselves up with scary regularity in the middle of downtown and the very presence of a Palestinian on an Israeli bus was enough to make most of the Jewish riders squirm, it would have been next to impossible to imagine the scene on the light rail this summer: ultra-Orthodox women in wigs and Muslim women with their hijabs, miniskirted Jewish teenagers and young Palestinian men in jeans not only sitting and standing calmly side by side, but often packed together without panic as the train glides its way from stop to stop. They rarely exchange a word, but there they are, shoulder to shoulder, in the air-conditioned slither toward de facto “unification” of the city. Each station is announced in Hebrew, Arabic and English, which in any other town might seem an ordinary nod to the linguistic needs of the various people using the train. But in traumatized, sectarian Jerusalem, the co-existence of these languages, as of the riders themselves, is startling for its sheer normalcy.