Palestine in Pieces: Hany Abu-Assad’s “Huda’s Salon”

21 March, 2022

 

Man­al Awad as “Huda” in Hany Abu-Assad’s Huda’s Salon (pho­to cour­tesy IFC Films/an IFC Films Release).
 
Huda’s Salon is avail­able in select U.S. and Euro­pean the­atres and every­where you rent movies. In the U.S. vis­it this site for tickets.
 

Jordan Elgrably

 

Maisa Abd Elha­di as “Reem” in Huda’s Salon (pho­to cour­tesy IFC Films/an IFC Films Release).

Pales­tine. Israel.

It’s not just a mat­ter of liv­ing under apartheid — it’s liv­ing with treach­ery, not know­ing who you can trust.

For a cou­ple in Beth­le­hem, their lives are not only defined apartheid, but by the dai­ly threat of being shot at by trig­ger-hap­py set­tlers, police or sol­diers, who rarely pay a price for mur­der. And every­one is sub­ject to being spied upon, or being turned.

To be clear, Beth­le­hem is in Pales­tine, not Israel, but Israel has carved up the occu­pied West Bank into three areas of con­trol; Beth­le­hem, which is about 10 kilo­me­ters south of Jerusalem/Al Quds, is in the so-called “Area A” zone admin­is­tered by the Pales­tin­ian Authority.

While Israel denies the valid­i­ty of the Feb­ru­ary 1, 2022 Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al report on how its apartheid sys­tem con­trols Pales­tini­ans, it nonethe­less exer­cis­es con­trol over all Pales­tini­ans inside Israel and the West Bank, while keep­ing Gaza locked down in a siege that is now near­ly 15 years old.

In his lat­est fea­ture, Huda’s Salon, Hany Abu-Assad returns to his cen­tral sub­ject, Pales­tine, or the frag­ments of it. The movie begins with a chat­ty con­ver­sa­tion between Huda (Man­al Awad), a hair­dress­er, and Reem (Maisa Abd Elha­di), a young woman get­ting her hair done, while her infant dozes near­by. The sto­ry quick­ly takes a dark turn, and one imme­di­ate­ly won­ders how much of what fol­lows is real­i­ty, and how much is fiction?

Abu-Assad, who wrote the script, con­fess­es, “The sto­ry is based on real events. It did hap­pen in Pales­tine that secret ser­vice offi­cers used cer­tain hair salons to drug women, then put them in an awk­ward posi­tion and take Polaroids, so that they could black­mail them into becom­ing trai­tors against Pales­tine. And they used vul­ner­a­ble women in Arab soci­ety, women who wouldn’t get sup­port from their hus­bands or families…The film is based on a real sto­ry, but I want to be clear that these char­ac­ters are still fictional.”

Abu-Assad pre­vi­ous­ly vis­it­ed sim­i­lar themes of loy­al­ty and betray­al in Omar (2013), in which a young would-be Pales­tin­ian rev­o­lu­tion­ary gets turned by a Shin-Bet agent. Forced to betray his polit­i­cal con­vic­tions, the ques­tion posed to Omar and the view­er is: how much are you will­ing to sac­ri­fice, to survive? 

In Huda’s Salon, every­thing is hap­pen­ing beneath the sur­face. As Ali Suleiman’s “resis­tance” char­ac­ter Has­san insists, “Trai­tors in our soci­ety are like a can­cer in the body.” The view­er ques­tions the health of Beth­le­hem soci­ety, which is under con­stant assault and con­trol by the Shin-Bet, as well as by the Pales­tin­ian author­i­ties, the “resis­tance,” and of course the set­tlers and Israeli army.

Huda is meant to be a trag­ic fig­ure, yet she seems one of the few Pales­tini­ans in the sto­ry with agency. She lost cus­tody of her chil­dren in a nasty divorce, which is her tragedy, but she fights back against patri­ar­chal soci­ety by coop­er­at­ing with the mukhabarat — the secret police here are Israeli occu­pa­tion agents, often pass­ing for Arabs, or speak­ing Ara­bic flu­ent­ly, but they are in any case in the back­ground; they are in fact, invis­i­ble, like evil djinns.

Hany Abu-Assad is a Pales­tin­ian film direc­tor, writer and pro­duc­er. Born in Nazareth 1961, he turned to film­mak­ing after work­ing for sev­er­al years as an air­plane engi­neer in the Nether­lands. Since then, Abu-Assad has direct­ed sev­er­al award-win­ning films, among them Nazareth 2000, Rana’s Wed­ding, Ford Tran­sit, Par­adise Now, Omar, The Idol, and The Moun­tain Between Us. He has been nom­i­nat­ed twice for an Acad­e­my Award, and is the win­ner of a Gold­en Globe, Felix Award, Berlin Blue Angel Award, Inde­pen­dent Spir­it Award, Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al Film Prize, Gold­en Calf, and the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val Spe­cial Jury Prize.

The word “Israel” is nev­er mentioned.

Reem at first blush seems like an inno­cent house­wife, going to the salon for a new hair­do. She talks to Huda about her doubt­ing hus­band Yussef, who is jeal­ous and doesn’t trust her, though she insists she has no lover and noth­ing to hide.

Trust is the one thing every­one needs and no one seems to have in this story.

Huda’s Salon feels very much like a huis clos, an air­less room — even when Reem is hur­ry­ing down a Beth­le­hem street, her world seems small, hemmed in. It is as if no one has much air to breathe; the view­er feels as if s/he is in con­fine­ment, watch­ing these char­ac­ters strug­gle to exist — for­get about coex­is­tence, for there is no shar­ing Palestine/Israel.

The dream of the two-state solu­tion is dead; there is just one state, one Big Broth­er, under which Israeli Jews enjoy all the free­doms of a lib­er­al democ­ra­cy, while Pales­tini­ans in the occu­pied West Bank, carved into Areas A, B and C, live like lab rats, scur­ry­ing about, know­ing they serve as Israel’s test ani­mals — Israeli mil­i­tary and high tech probes the lat­est weapons and crowd-con­trol gad­gets on Pales­tini­ans, before mar­ket­ing their prod­ucts to the world — indeed, as one observ­er has writ­ten, “Israel tries out weapons in the West Bank and Gaza and then presents them as ‘bat­tle proven’ to the inter­na­tion­al market.”

Reem is fur­ther hemmed in; her broth­er-in-law is in jail (we do not know why, nor does it mat­ter), she is there­fore banned from trav­el. She would have to obtain a per­mit from the occu­pa­tion author­i­ties, who are the very peo­ple Huda would have her spy for.

How do you change your life once you work with the mukhabarat, once you spy? The only ben­e­fit, Huda observes, is that the women become empow­ered around their hus­bands. Has­san, the resis­tance leader asks incred­u­lous­ly: “By col­lab­o­rat­ing with the ene­my, the occupation?”

“Which ene­my? Every­one is an enemy.”

Huda adds: “It’s eas­i­er to occu­py a soci­ety that is already repress­ing itself.”

To my mind, every­one in Huda’s Salon is a trag­ic fig­ure, because every­one strug­gles to sur­vive, to have agency in a world where you exer­cise very lit­tle con­trol over your own des­tiny. The occu­pa­tion author­i­ties con­trol birth and death records, tax­es, access to water and pow­er, and trav­el. They are the over­lords, while the Pales­tini­ans are a peo­ple who eek out an exis­tence by sheer sumud — an admirable stead­fast­ness that does not leave enough room for a care­free exis­tence, much less last­ing happiness.

If Huda’s Salon serves any pur­pose, it is to under­score the need for an end to Israel’s apartheid sys­tem over Pales­tini­ans, and for Israel/Palestine to become one state, shared equal­ly with equal rights for all its cit­i­zens, from the Jor­dan Riv­er to the Mediterranean.