Middle Ground: Three Israeli Palestinian women grapple with tradition and modernity in Maysaloun Hamoud's 'In Between'

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Maysaloun Hamoud’s given name is drawn from a famous incident in the history of the Arab world that took place in present-day Syria. “My name is a story,” the Israeli-Palestinian filmmaker says, in an interview in New York City. Her debut feature, In Between (from Film Movement), will open in theatres on Jan. 5.

The narrative bestowed on the filmmaker by her parents begins at the end of the First World War. In a battle that helped to topple the Ottoman Empire, the British-backed Sharifian Army took Damascus. The leaders of that army hoped to unite their people by establishing an Arabic state in Syria. In 1918, Emir Faisal, a general and an Arab nationalist, formed a monarchy, but by then the British had already betrayed their Arab compatriots; in partitioning what is today called the Middle East, the British promised Syria to the French. In 1920, at the Battle of Maysalun, just west of Damascus, French forces encountered those of the Arab Kingdom of Syria.

“We lost, of course,” Hamoud says, “but we see it as the first brave resistance to colonialism of the Arab people. In a sense, the battle sowed the seeds of Arab identity.” And, with In Between, Maysaloun Hamoud sets out to redefine that identity in female terms. Her film is about the day-to-day lives of three Israeli Palestinian women, all with very significant names. Laila (Mouna Hawa, previously seen in Zaytoun), meaning “night” in Arabic, is a shapely criminal lawyer who enjoys Tel Aviv’s club scene. She shares an apartment with Nur (Shaden Kanboura), “light” in Arabic, a younger woman and a college student, and Salma (Sana Jammelieh) whose name in Arabic and Farsi existed before the era of Islamization.

The names deepen the audience’s understanding of the characters, who are subject to double standards as women and as members of an ethnic minority in Israel. Hamoud, who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in history, says that In Between overturns common stereotypes of Muslim women, and it does, but what American audiences may miss is that Laila, Nur and Salma also represent subtle generational divides. “I am 35, and an older member of the generation that includes Laila and Salma,” the writer-director explains. Hamoud was 18 at the start of the Second Intifada in 2000.

“Our parents faced the military regime, but we didn’t,” Hamoud says. “We grew up more freely and the Second Intifada made us more aware of our rights and identity as Palestinians.” When Hamoud’s parents came of age, Israeli Palestinians were not permitted to attend the country’s universities. They went to Hungary, then part of the Soviet Union, which for political reasons had a long history of supporting Palestinians in their struggle for statehood. Her father was attending medical school in Budapest when Hamoud was born.

Nur’s generation, nearly a decade after Laila and Salma’s, reached maturity during the Arab Spring. “I can see that influence in the subculture we have now, in cinema, music and art,” Hamoud observes. “It is the same in all other Arab countries around us. We are no different from the Arabs in Beirut or Cairo, even though we live inside Israel, in Jaffa, Tel Aviv and Ramallah.” The filmmaker remarks that during her stay in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, she was reminded of Jaffa, the oldest part of Tel Aviv, where she has lived for the last eight years. “We have an art scene, and gentrification, too.” In In Between, which refers to the position of Hamoud’s characters in Arab society, the women’s apartment is in the Yemeni sector of Tel Aviv.

Nur’s fiancé, Wissam (Henry Andrawes), on his first visit, has trouble finding the apartment, and calls her to ask directions. “Their conversation is one of the small but important ones in the movie, because Tel Aviv is built above several Palestinian neighborhoods,” Hamoud says. “The Yemeni quarter is one of many places that was destroyed by the Zionist Israelis in 1948 to cover the origins. The quarter was a Menashiya neighborhood.” Nur tells Wissam that she is not far from the Hassan Bek Mosque, a Menashiya building that was not razed. While these layers of history and meaning, which refer to the Yemeni laborers who migrated to Israel for jobs, may only be understood by Arab and Israeli audiences, In Between has wider appeal, both because of its novelty and Hamoud’s skill as a writer-director.

One of Hamoud’s favorite movies is Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise (1991), and she is pleased when others are reminded of it while watching In Between. (Look for an early scene in which the three characters are in Laila’s car.) Hamoud’s film is a women’s buddy movie, too, complete with the dark undertones of Thelma & Louise. Salma has Christian roots, and Laila a Muslim background; both are secular, while Nur is a practicing Muslim. Laila wears pencil skirts and revealing tops, and Salma, a gay DJ, is sporty and pierced. Nur is the new addition, and arrives wearing a hijab and abaya. “Shaden won Best Actress at the Israeli Film Academy,” the filmmaker notes, “and Mouna Best Supporting.” The characters are shockingly unconventional, even for Israelis; American audiences have never seen Arab women represented as they are by Hamoud.

In the course of the film, Salma’s family is scandalized when they catch her kissing another woman, and Nur is victimized by an abusive Wissam. Laila has a flirtation with a Jewish lawyer but she reminds him that his family will reject her. She finds love with Ziad (Mahmud Shalaby), although later she is disappointed when he makes it clear that if they are to stay together, she will have to stop smoking and start dressing conservatively. “Laila and Salma have burned their bridges, and they have the label of sluts,” Hamoud says. “They are not really welcomed inside the society, but men like Ziad can travel and live with women and later take another woman to marry and be accepted in society and by his wife’s family.” With the exception of Nur’s loving father, and a male gay couple, Western women may find the men in the film repugnant, but Hamoud characterizes them as “weak.”

In Betweenis not a flattering portrait of Tel Aviv or of Israel. Asked about the process of getting approval for her script in order to receive state funding, she replies: “Of course, it is complicated, but first, I am a Palestinian and they expected from me specific stories about the occupation and about the conflict. I like to think the story was so refreshing that they couldn’t refuse me.” At several points in the film, the characters are subject to mild forms of discrimination; one example is in a scene where Laila and Salma are shopping. “In our everyday life, we are always confronting racism,” Hamoud says. “Jewish Israeli audiences did not talk about these scenes, but they connected with the social and feminist aspects of the film.”

Hamoud’s next project is a television series for Israeli TV. “My theme for the show is ‘in-between,” she says. She worries about having to do commercial work to support her filmmaking. “I want to be strong and resist and make my own movies,” she muses. “I am a female and I will continue to make films from my point of view.” As for portraying the lives of Palestinians in Israel, she points out that her movie represents a progressive stance. “I did not really want to include Israelis in the movie, because I think Palestinians can stand by themselves and speak among ourselves,” she says. “I think it’s an important step for all societies when they do not need to see themselves through the Other or among the Other.”