Twenty years ago, traveling in Syria and Jordan with a faculty group, separated from my comrades, I wandered alone through the Palestinian refugee camp in Baga. Till then my concept of a “camp” was tents—scouts on an overnight trip, troops on bivouac—but this was a permanent neighborhood, a mini-city, an impoverished and overcrowded home for thousands. Suddenly a tall, slender young man with bright, intense eyes confronted me: “Please,” he said in desperation, “Take me to America.”
Obviously I have never forgotten him, partly because I was as helpless as I had ever been, and he really seemed to believe that I had that power.
When the film Zaytoun begins in 1982, in a Palestinian refugee neighborhood in the vicinity of Beirut, Lebanon is in the chaos of a 15 year-old civil war: It is split into various areas under the power of warring groups—Syrian solders, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the Lebanese Phalange (Christian militias) supported by Maronite Christians, United Nations border guards, and the Israeli air force, which makes regular bombing raids.
The camera introduces us to Fahed (Abdallah El Akal), a slightly dark-skinned, skinny, precocious 12-year-old, cutting school and hawking gum and cigarettes on crowded city streets, ducking men in uniform who would force him and his playmates back into their camp. In an open space the PLO is training the youth to drill and to fight. Their sense of entrapment is strong and their time will come to die battle. Fahed prefers to run around playing war games with his pals, dodging bullets from police, until Fahed leads his playmate Ahmad into an occupied zone and a Christian Militia sniper patrolling the rooftops kills him. An Israeli air raid kills his father. Fahed must fall back on his grandfather Seedo; but he is a boy with a dream.
Here we consult our maps. Fahed’s family was driven out of Israel when that area was Palestine, but his mother, now dead, brought with them a tiny olive tree (zaytoun) which the family has gently nourished with sprinkled water, looking forward to the day when they will return to their Israel home, now in ruins, and replant the tree.
One day on the drill field Fahed points a rifle at a lone Israeli plane and pretends to fire. By coincidence the plane sputters and crashes and the ejected pilot parachutes to earth.
Fahed and his friends take the wounded pilot Yoni (Stephen Dorff) prisoner, the Palestinians cage him, rough him up and plan to use him politically. But Fahed has plans of his own. He takes a pistol, the key to his mother’s house in Israel, and the little tree strapped to his back, hand-cuffs the pilot and swallows the key to keep Yori from freeing himself. He pushes the gun in Yori’s face and tells him the pilot will become his guide through the perilous roads and over the border to his Mother’s home where he will re-plant the tree.
Here “Zaytoun” becomes a travel-quest pic as this odd couple, Yori twice Fahed’s age but under his power, turn their saga not quite into a sermon, but certainly into a life lesson about courage, forgiveness, inter-dependence, overcoming differences and finally about love. The ironies are marvelous: the Israeli super-pilot, his wrists chained together on a chain long enough let him drive a stolen jeep, the boy dominant because he does not hesitate to point his pistol at his travel partner, though we wonder whether he would ever fire it. They chug down the coast, climb mountains, duck patrols, steal a donkey, crash a jeep and wander into a mine field where bombs planted by the Israeli might blow them both to pieces. When the boy sleeps the man finds the key to his chains and gains the upper hand. When the man is out of sight the boy goes through his companion’s bag and finds a photo of his wife at the beach. Now he has the advantage.
I shall not reveal whether Fahed gets to plant that tree and/or regains the birthright and freedom he and his people deserve. The Israeli director Eran Riklis, producer Gareth Unwin, who gave us “The King’s Speech,” and Palestinian-America screenwriter Nader Rizq would say this is not a film about politics. I agree that it is a story of two would-be enemies who learn to love one another. But as I left the screening one woman in front of me pointed out that the Palestinian refugee camp in the film was the one where, following the Israeli invasion in June 1982, the Phalangist guards controlling the camps, but under Israeli jurisdiction, massacred just about everyone in Sabra and Shatilla. The film is not propaganda, but it teaches. It teaches the viewer to love by witnessing the growth of love between these two very different men, who, when we get to know them, don’t seem that different after all.