The scene for this tale is set in London; it is fourteen degrees and slightly damp. I shouldn’t have expected anything different but still, it seems a long way from the soaring heats of the Middle East from where I have just returned.
People talk a lot about reverse culture shock, about the problems of easing back into life after visiting somewhere like the occupied Palestinian territories. I largely laughed it off, confident in my own ability to slot back into life. Like a junkie though, unable to spot his own problems and unable to go cold turkey, I lurked up to the Amnesty International human rights action centre on a chilly Tuesday night. With my hood up fighting the cold I came out of the fading evening light to get my Israel/Palestine fix, a showing of the film My Neighbourhood.
My Neighbourhood “follows the story of Mohammad al-Kurd, a Palestinian teenager growing up in the midst of a remarkable nonviolent struggle at the centre of one of the world’s most contested cities” – Jerusalem.
Mohammad, now aged 14, was evicted from his home in East Jerusalem. His neighbourhood is being targeted by Israeli settlers looking to establish a permanent Jewish presence there. The neighbourhood is called Sheikh Jarrah.
What turns this from a painfully too common occurrence to a film worthy story is that today Mohammad still lives in his house, with his family, but alongside the settlers. The house has been literally divided into two with his family living in the back of the house and the settlers living in the front. Alongside their house sits a tent which is often manned by international peace organisations dividing the two and providing protective presence.
About six weeks ago I was fortunate enough to meet Mohammad and his father at their house. They both must have told their story a thousand times to hundreds of foreigners but they told it to me with a passion as if it was yesterday.
What struck me the most about Mohammad’s story was the humanity and honesty in which it was told. Coming from the perspective of a young teenage boy it was filled with imperfections and raw emotions. This honesty is what makes it so powerful. Unlike on many occasions in Palestine where you feel like you are being sold a narrative, with Mohammad and his neighbourhood I felt like I was being told his story.
Mohammad would be the first to admit that he reacted with deep anger towards all Israelis, feeling the rage and injustice of the situation in which he found himself. The film does not shy away from this highlighting it as a precursor to the crux of the story, the introduction of the supporting protagonists – the Israeli peace activists.
The film tracks Mohammad’s supposed “coming of age” (although I wonder whether he would feel he has ‘come of age’) over two years of the most extreme upheaval and introduces the viewer to Israelis such as Tzvi Benninga – a fellow ‘Jeruslamite’ but significantly from the West of Jerusalem. Tzvi now plays a central part of the protests at Sheikh Jarrah.
The film has given Mohammad a platform to a global audience. Just last week he was in the European Parliament giving evidence. Julia Bacha, the film’s director commented that he started his evidence by saying, “this is the first time I have left my region, the first time I have been on an aeroplane and this is the first time I have spoken to the European Parliament”. Mohammad also uses his status on social media to highlight the plight of his community. He charismatically uses twitter.
Despite the strength of Mohammad’s story, it might be one that at the moment does not finish with a happily ever after.
Julia Bacha explained why:
“The story we set out to tell in My Neighbourhood is still largely unfinished. Mohammed’s family and their neighbours have yet to regain their homes, and the spectre of displacement remains very real for hundreds of others living in Sheikh Jarrah and across East Jerusalem. In the meantime, protests involving both Israelis and Palestinians continue, though it is still unclear how successful they will be in their campaign to halt and ultimately reverse the evictions”
All we can do is to highlight stories like Mohammad’s to make sure the world is watching when/if these further evictions take place.