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A Hundred Kinds of Exile: Suheir Hammad on ĎSalt of This Sea'

Poet and Actress Suheir Hammad in ĎSalt of This Sea.í Courtesy of Philistine Films.
by Dan Lybarger

Separating a performer from his or her role can be a tricky task. John Wayne was reportedly more comfortable wearing a tux than cowboy duds, although he looked imposing either way. It would be safe to say, however, that he bore little resemblance to one of his more infamous parts: Genghis Kahn.

With Suheir Hammad, the line between her and her character in the new Palestinian film Salt of This Sea is fluid. Both women hail from Brooklyn, and both are the daughters of Palestinian refugees. Both are proud of their heritage and take their peopleís struggles seriously. Both have returned to Palestine and have gone through intrusive searches like the ones depicted at the beginning of the film.

Her character Soraya has returned to Ramallah to discover that her grandfatherís bank account, which hasnít been touched since 1948, isnít accessible. Most folks would eventually give up a quest for 300 Palestinian Pounds, especially after jumping through what seems to be an infinite number of bureaucratic hoops. But with the recent death of her father and a desire to start a life in her ancestral home, Soraya wonít take no for an answer, even if it means becoming a bank robber.

Salt of This Sea won the Cinema in Motion Award at the 2007 San SebastiŠn International Film Festival. This feat is remarkable because the film is Palestinian writer-director Annemarie Jacirís first feature, and leading lay Hammad had never acted before.

Hammad is actually probably best known for her work as a poet, writer and activist. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina she helped New Orleans residents who had difficulty reading or writing to fill out their forms for relief. Her poem, First Writing Since, helped her land a spot on Russell Simmonsí HBO Def Poetry Jam, where she also served as a talent consultant. The series earned a Peabody, and Hammad won an American Book Award for her volume Breaking Poems.

One clear line of separation between Hammad and Soraya is that Hammad is proud of both her heritage and having lived in both Brooklyn and Staten Island growing up. Soraya, however, frequently feels rootless in the film. When Hammad heard over the phone that I actually got to eat a real New York bagel instead of the ďrolls with holesĒ that are served here in Kansas City. She added, ďI really miss (New York) whenever Iím gone.Ē

We also discovered that both of us are literary geeks. For, I write movie reviews in haiku. She even offered one for me. Because her writing is so much a part of her, it was impossible to ignore her ďday jobĒ while discussing her new career in front of the camera. All of her art seems to be converging this weekend as the film opens in her hometown.

Dan Lybarger: Haiku is really challenging because that beautiful sentence you had is going to be unusable if the syllable count is wrong.

Suheir Hammad: I sometimes teach creative writing, and I always like to say haiku is like the economy of language. After youíve been doing it for a lot of years, as Iíve seen from some of the masters, the fewer words you have, the more possibility you have for meaning is there.

You have to strip everything down to get to that moment that you want, and that moment that you want, and that moment has a million entries. You know what Iím saying itís so interesting how we do it to the least amount. Itís just a distillation.

Itís better than a trailer (for the film). You tell your editors that they should get your haikus up on the movie thing.

Sometimes when you look back on your own work, and you wonder how you did it or how. You prepare yourself as much as possible, and you wait for the muse. Or you donít wait for her, and you keep working, and she shows up, or she doesnít.

I can relate to that feeling with my own work and with other peopleís work.

Which is why when everybody says, ďYouíve got to make more movies,Ē I think, I really want to master my craft. Thereís a lot of really wonderful actors out there who need work and want to work. So if everybody really works and studies their art, I think thatís the best case situation because that way we can learn from each other.

Lybarger: Acting wasnít your specialty when you were recruited for this?

Hammad: No, Iíve never acted before.

Lybarger: What made Ms. Jacir say, ďIíve got to get her?Ē

Hammad: Iíve wondered that myself. There are superficial connections that I have to the character, which is weíre both from the same neighborhood in Brooklyn, Sunset Park. Sunset Park to this day has a sizable Palestinian refugee community.

Annemarie chose that community. She could have chosen others in the country. There was definitely a connection I had representing that particular childhood and growing up.

So thereís this really superficial kind of (connection). Iím a woman. Iíve experienced some of what she had experienced. When I read the script and I read the scene at the airport, the ďwelcome,Ē it could have been out of my journal. It could have been out of the journal of hundreds of women that I know whoíve experienced a similar ďwelcome.Ē

Annemarie is also a poet, which a lot of people donít know, and sheís studied and written poetry for many years. When I read the script, I felt the poetry in the script. I wouldnít say thatís what conquered my fear. But the poetry in the script always was with me and was with me during the process.

The relatedness is the geography and the ancestry. What really related me to the story was the poetry.

Lybarger: Poetry seems ingrained in Arab culture because when Soraya sees the ocean, she recites some verse. Where does that come from, by the way?

Hammad: That particular poem is actually from the days of the Moors. Iíve got the name of that particular author in my notes. Itís the poetry, the moon and the ocean. And thatís really kind of a cryptic for so many stories of exile and return. This particular story is about a particular refugee reality and situation, but that moment when Soraya is in front of the sea, sheís connected to all the refugees in the world, who are all standing at some shore somewhere out of place and yet at home.

We made the movie three years ago, and Iíve had some time to get perspective of all the different emotions I had making the film and after. The more I think about it, itís the universal story about not knowing how to fix what was broken before you were born. And thatís where I felt compassion for Soraya because she really doesnít know how to fix it. The authority is so much bigger than her, and sheís trying.

Lybarger: The financial stakes sheís fighting for seem small for all the trouble she goes through. She reminds me of Lee Marvin in Point Blank.

Hammad: Iíll take the Lee Marvin reference any day (laughs). Did you see in the paper about the riot that happened yesterday in Atlanta where people shows up for federal housing assistance? It was on the cover the Huffington Post this morning. Thousands of people came out in Georgia for federal assistance because they hadnít offered this assistance since 2002.

I think thereís something about people losing their homes. No matter who takes your home away, no matter the details, no matter that thereís no sides really, when a home is foreclosed on or an occupation occurs, if you have no access to your ancestral home, thereís something we can all relate to in the sense of not having stable ground.

As for the money, workers in Chicago not only struck, but they took over their factory. I think weíre moving more and more toward a time when people are trying to figure out how to get what is theirs.

And maybe for me as a poet, I would ask people to think about what their own ideas of what ownership are. Thereís a sense of ownership, but thereís also a sense of stewardship. And thatís what I found when I went to Palestine, and I think that one of the things I carry with me when I go to Palestine and come back to the States is really the stewardship of the land, the love of the land and the relationship to the trees. These are the hills and things that people think are their own.

Coming from Brooklyn, New York City, thereís nothing thatís really your own. Itís an interesting idea about home.

Lybarger: Itís a jolt when the Israeli woman who owns Sorayaís ancestral home in Jaffa actually lets her and her friends in.

Hammad: CNN did this special over the summer about a Jerusalemite. This actress who was in Julian Schnabelís new movie (Miral). She went back to her fatherís house in Jerusalem where she was an infant, and it was still accessible because they could still see it. She knocked on the door with the CNN camera crew somewhat behind her. She was not only refused entry. She was seen as trespassing.

There is this spectrum I think for any refugee or anybody whoís going back to a place for some kind of closure. Thereís that moment where thereís that fear of rejection. I think itís interesting in that scene where Soraya, whoís so independent, who so full ofówhat do they say in the Midwestópiss and vinegar. In that scene itís a man who knocks on the door for heróthat moment as a woman, knowing that youíre taking it as far as you can go, and having community to help you get through to the next step.

Iíve met a lot of Peace Now and anti-occupation Israelis. All of them I thinkóthere arenít many that I know, but all of them would have opened up their doors and invited Soraya in for tea. How those people are treated in the whole of Israeli society, someone else could probably talk to that better.

Lybarger: My dad used to be a real estate broker in eastern Kansas, and every contract features a 19th century treaty with the local Indians. I wonder how Iíd react if one of their descendants came knocking at my door wanting to take a look.

Hammad: I think itís an inherent question in American citizenship. If you donít think about what came before, as you can see from our behavior, weíre thinking about whatís coming after.

I donít think thereís an answer to what do you do when a Cherokee shows up. I think the fact that you ask the question shows that if you love this land, youíd wonder who loved it before you. In many ways, when I went to Palestine for the first time, I met Arab-Israelis who lived there, and all of them would say to me, ďDo you watch cowboy and Indian movies? Weíre the Indians.Ē Thereís also this important thing of our own American sense of justice, and thereís a history thatís being imported to this other frontier.

I wanted to say to you one thing about the bank and the money. Annemarie and I both have mutual friends whose parents sat down with us and showed us those papers. We know two real families from Jaffa who still have those papers. Iím sure Annemarie was in Palestine talking to one of these elders.

Like any film, thereís a million sparks that make it happen. That was one of those sparks, but
for me, it was very humbling to think about the fact that there are people who are in Sorayaís situation, hundreds of thousands of them who know they have a right to something that theyíve either given up on that giving up on it is worth the piece of mind that they get. And Soraya is just part of the human spectrum of response to this situation. I have a lot of love for anyone who tries to balance out a situation.

Lybarger: Yeah, because if you look at Point Blank, Lee Marvin goes to almost insane lengths for what eventually seems like a marginal amount of money. You wouldnít want to conquer the entire mob just for the sum of a couple of luxury cars.

Hammad: Of course. You have these mythological archetypes. Youíve got these kinds of tragic heroes. They donít know if itís a divine voice or a mad voice or maybe even a divine-mad voice they have in their head that pushes them to raise the bar for the rest of us. The fact that we can say that this was a ridiculous thing to do or that was overboard, shows the effectiveness of any action, really. Now I get to relate to that action.

I think itís really funny when Soraya goes in to take her money back, she doesnít use live bullets. And we had this whole conversation making the film about the fact that the Palestinian characters are never armed. And the one time the characters are armedóSoraya comes from out of control Brooklyn 1980s gun violence and brings her pacifist, urban guerilla mentality to a bank robbing scene.

Itís just so interesting in peopleís responses to the film, the idea is that these people are never armed. The only thing thatís threatening is their narrative.

Itís the same thing. A Native American comes to your door, you donít know what youíre going to do. Maybe listening to their narrative will empower you actually to make the right decision.

For Soraya, 63 years away from her grandfatherís land or house becomes relative when her entire life has been shadowed by that particular trauma. Whereas someone else would have maybe another set of issues, a more personal stuff that they carry through life. Those who are marginalized relate to the kind of frustration and the lack of options that she has, specifically because she has no money. It matters for her so much to find her job and to keep her job.

I think people can relate to her. For me as an American, just to have a Palestinian woman, not necessarily one who looks like me but who looks like her relatives but who look like a Palestinian woman and not have her disempowered through any other narrative without having to excuse herself. Iím happy to have made something that my niece and the girls who are growing up now can see someone like themselves up on the big screen.

Thatís not their specific story, but it will empower them to tell their stories, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us.

Lybarger: Thatís interesting because sheís not exactly a role model. In the film, fellow Palestinians roll their eyes when they see how determined she is.

Hammad: Yes (laughs). Her American privilege is rolling off of her, but she always feels oppressed in America. We all have that experience. Once you leave America, they treat you differently. They treat you as a member of the empire. For the marginalized of the empire, itís a very schizophrenic situation. Hopefully youíll see this as an opportunity for personal growth and transformation and education. But itís a very difficult position to be in. (Her voice gets gushy.) The film opens tomorrow in my city.

Lybarger: So how does that feel?

Hammad: Honestly, a little emotional. It took so long to get it to New York. It came with TriBeCa. It sold out every show, and we got good press, but we still didnít get picked up.

I donít know about a professional actress, but working on this film definitely changed me and my life. Iím a very nerdy poet. I have a residency at New York University researching my new book. Iím usually in my head.

For it to come to New York now, itís hilarious. Itís Ramadan and itís Friday the 13th! There are all of these weird stars aligning. I hope all the Palestinian refugee community comes out and sees it, and sees themselves reflected.

And I hope, and this is a very arrogant New Yorker kind of wish, weíve been having, letís say, a debate around a proposed Islamic center down at what is called Ground Zero. And itís been a very ugly and misinformed debate. Itís been so misinformed. Itís not a mosque.

In the film, Soraya says sheís an agnostic, and you really canít find a word in Arabic that can translate for someone whoís not an atheist but outside of all religions. Soraya would come back here after being deported and would come back to a New York City in this hot-ass August with me right now, listening to the same news, reading the same papers, and the dominant narrative is racist and hateful.

I hope that some of the people who are engaging in that debate also take time out during their weekend to come and see the film, not to see a Muslim film but to relate to some of their neighbors who come from very traumatic, faraway places.

Maybe their food scents fill up the apartment building. Maybe their music is too loud. Maybe they dress a little weird. But Salt of This Sea offers New Yorkers a home for those people whose homelands are far away. You want to see what happens to your neighbors when they go to where they think they come from? Here it is. Itís not neat. Thereís no welcome wagon. So, Iím hoping that everybody comes out to see it for what they need it for.

This is the place of coming to human responsibility and human individual accountability. And where does the individual fit in for our collective behavior? They say if thereís injustice anywhere, thereís injustice everywhere, but thereís a really a personal kind of commitment you make to your own life.

To engage with your own life is to ask questions that are difficult and to be OK with not having not only no answers but with contradicting answers. We actually come up with contradictory answers all the time for the same situation, and itís being able to hold that place to honor all the different kinds of things that come out of you yourself when you look back at history.

You and I pay our taxes, but are we responsible for things that are going on right now in the world as weíre on the phone? Right now our taxes are being put to work on things that you and I would not choose. The accountability is not about damning yourself.

As a Palestinian, I had that growing up. The adults would always ask me if my parents were hijackers. With terrorism and the violence of the Palestinian rebellion or uprising, was not something that was inherent in my home. It was something that was given to me by the American media and education system.

And I see it as bad faith teaching children that they should be proud and ashamed for all the things that humanity has done and that they have claim to all the horrors and progress of humanity. We all have that claim.

Lybarger: You grew up in New York during the rise of crack during the 80s, but throughout the conversation, itís obvious you love your hometown. But with Soraya, growing up in Brooklyn was just a stop on her road.

Hammad: I think youíre right. I had those questions myself when I had to prepare for the character. Soraya in the film is about the age of 27. In my own poetic, sort of metaphysical way, I sort of imagined that she was going through this sort of saddened return with her fatherís death and may be the end of a love affair, or maybe New York five years ago.

Sheís coming from New York several years after 9/11. That never comes up in the film, but for me, those were the types of things I used to portray her. So those were the kinds of questions I had to ask her myself. What would it be like to be a waitress whoís obviously eastern or Arab for years after 9/11 working in a restaurant in Brooklyn? She had issues, obviously.

She was coming with a full broken heart to Palestine. Iíd have to say, sheís not the first, nor the last to do that.

Lybarger: How fluent was your Arabic when you were shooting this thing?

Hammad: It was very difficult. Everyone else had an Arabic script, and I had an American script so that I could understand the scene. And I transliterated all of my Arabic. I couldnít read the Arabic that everyone else was reading.

If Soraya had to say, ďIím sorry.Ē I would have written it down in English as ďana Ďasfa.Ē I would go over my lines in English fonts but Arabic words.

I discovered hundreds of Palestinian dialects. This place is so small. People have been dispersed for 65 years. Every little area has their own dialect and a way of saying the same thing. There were lots of conversations about how would Soraya have said this Arabic word and how would she have learned this word from her father and given who his father was. As a poet trying to learn how to communicate, that was very interesting.

At some points it was a little maddening because, youíre trying to deliver it and hopefully do a good job. My (Brooklyn) accent gets heavier and lighter throughout the day.

Lybarger: Emad (a Palestinian man played by Saleh Bakri) and Soraya have very different attitudes about what it means to be Palestinian. His first impulse is to get the hell out of Ramallah, and itís
funny how idealized his view of what the rest of the world is like. He thinks that speed bumps only exist in his hometown. And sheís the opposite.

Hammad: I was just in Palestine this spring. Thereís always the spectrum of diasporic, exiled, out-of-place people needing to feel rooted somewhere and then meeting people who are forcibly rooted behind the wall with.

I won the American Book Award last year, and I was still held for six and a half hours this spring at the border to get into Palestine, even though I went with about 25 top-shelf authors from the UK. Iíve gone through, literally what you saw in the beginning of the film about five times since the film.

The occupation is heavier. And with the people who are living there, Iím constantly having to retrain my ears because the frustrations are so unique, and the bureaucracy of the occupation is so large that everyone under occupation has a different experience of powerlessness.

Everyone has a different identity card. The color of the identity card gets you into some places, but with some people, it means they can never leave.

So for Emad, who can never leave Ramallah, who can never see the sea, thereís no option of going to Jerusalem or trying out Syria for a month. And thatís the way the occupation is set up. These people are patient and patient and patient until they feel inhuman.

And then theyíre put into an inhuman situation where itís, ďWhat do I do with my family? What do I do for my future?Ē And itís very painful because I think wherever you are in the spectrum, you want people to feel hope and empowered. Itís getting harder and harder for people to feel that.

Itís actually getting harder and harder for people to see each other. The wall is worse than when we were filming. Almost everyone who worked on this film is facing a 25-foot wall that their families are behind. The grips, the makeup department, I think about them. It was hundreds of regular Palestinian people who donated their time.

Itís not a cinematic culture. People trusted Annemarie and all of us to relay some of their reality.

Lybarger: The movie makes a big deal about what the oranges in Jaffa. What do they actually taste like?

Hammad: Theyíre actually really sweet. They actually do taste like the sun in your mouth.

Lybarger: The way you peeled them is like nothing that Iíve ever seen before. You normally see people throwing pieces of peels, but your peel was neatly removed and still held its shape.

Hammad: Thereís something for me when I saw the scene. Part of it was trying to do it correctly, andóIíve only seen the film twice on screen. Itís a lot for me, itís emotionally difficultóthereís a sense of that sphere being hollow. That moved me because Soraya was peeling and peeling and what was left was emptiness and something that could easily be blown away.

I donít know specifically that Annemarie was thinking of. Iím sure she was thinking of a lot of moments for that scene, but something that I came away with was the hollowness and fragility of the shell, whether itís the political narrative or your own personal narrative. Itís all pretty fragile.

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originally posted: 08/14/10 15:30:43
last updated: 08/16/10 11:42:32
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