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Miral: In a class of their own

One woman's inspiring struggle to provide a start in life for orphaned Palestinian girls is the subject of a major new film, and why her legacy still matters.
A grand building that once housed approximately 400 children is reduced to only 20 due to restrictions of access from the separation wall and checkpoints.
A grand building that once housed approximately 400 children is reduced to only 20 due to restrictions of access from the separation wall and checkpoints.

One woman's inspiring struggle to provide a start in life for orphaned Palestinian girls is the subject of a major new film, Miral. Rachel Shabi finds out why her legacy still matters.

in reality, just as in the film, the location is enchanting. A few minutes' stroll from Jerusalem's Old City, there's a quiet street lined with beautiful stone buildings that allude to a former, grander past, and face the soft hills of the Palestinian West Bank beyond. At the end of this street, a high green gate and a stone placard mark the Dar al-Tifl building - and through the gate you can hear the chatter of Palestinian girls about to be sent home from school for the day.

This is the school at the centre of the film Miral, the latest from the acclaimed artist and director Julian Schnabel - a sweeping drama focusing on Palestinian women through half a century of life after the war that created Israel in 1948. Based on a book by the Palestinian journalist Rula Jubreal, herself a former schoolgirl at Dar al-Tifl, Miral is perhaps the first time that a mainstream movie has told the story of this turbulent period through Palestinian eyes.

The school started as an orphanage, set up by the film's real-life protagonist, Hind Husseini, the daughter of a prestigious Palestinian family. Walking home through her East Jerusalem neighbourhood in the middle of the 1948 war, Husseini found a huddle of shivering children who had been orphaned by a massacre, at the hands of a Jewish militia group, in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin. She took all 55 of them home and moved them later to her grandfather's graceful 19th century mansion that became the Arab children's home, Dar al-Tifl.

"That's how it all started," says Hidaya Husseini, an adopted daughter of Husseini who was left at the orphanage as a two-month-old baby in 1954 and still lives in the Dar al-Tifl compound. "She couldn't leave those children crying and abandoned in the streets, so she brought them to her house and began to fight for them."

The school is now managed by a board, but Hidaya is directly responsible for the orphanage - and for keeping her mother's vision and values in focus. "To be honest with you, there is no one like her," she says. "We try to carry on in her spirit. I try to be a little bit like Miss Husseini - I learnt from her, about love and having a warm heart and how you can't buy these precious things."

Miss Husseini's school for girls still has a reputation for academic excellence - something that Hind constantly prioritised, insisting on women's fundamental right to education. Today, hundreds of children - mostly from East Jerusalem - attend the school, which takes girls from nursery through to baccalaureate stage. The compound also contains a university, a research centre, a library of Palestinian writing and a Palestinian museum set to open this year.

The orphanage itself, however, is no longer filled with Palestinian children in distress. "They can't get here," explains Hidaya. "The separation wall means the children can no longer come from the West Bank - and Gaza is closed."

The orphanage used to be home to about 400 children. "Now we have 20," says Hidaya. "The purpose of this place is to support children, give them shelter, food, happiness - but when I look at our empty rooms, I cry. I know that there are children who need me, but I can't reach them and they can't reach me."

Although often clunky in its political commentary - and containing scenes that sound more like notes from a cheat's guide to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict than actual, human dialogue - the film succeeds in portraying Hind Husseini's struggle to keep Dar al-Tifl alive.

The film's eponymous heroine Miral, passionate about the injustices she sees around her, is drawn towards violent activism during the first Palestinian Intifada of the late 1980s. We get a sense of what it must have been like for Husseini to keep a lid on protest politics in order to keep the school open. Her firm belief that education would create Palestinian adults able to insist on their rights is set against the case for an armed, grass-roots struggle for independence.

Rula Jebreal, the Palestinian journalist whose semi-autobiographical book was adapted for the cinema, says: "The love and values I received from Hind Husseini - who believed in the virtues of education - saved my life. I had the opportunity as a journalist, witnessing conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, to understand that education is indeed the best weapon."

Jebreal says Miral is partly her, but partly "many Mirals" who grow up in similarly tough circumstances in the Palestinian territories. Although drawing from several personalities and events, the story itself, she says, is true. "There's no space for imagination in the Middle East. You can only tell what you have seen through your own eyes."

In the film, Miral is imprisoned and beaten by Israeli soldiers because of her association with the Palestinian resistance movement. The movie ends with Miral leaving Jerusalem to study in Italy, where she later becomes a ground-breaking journalist - as did her creator, Jebreal.

"Miss Husseini always taught us to keep our heads up, to have self-confidence and dignity and to be strong," recalls Hidaya, in Jerusalem. "She said we shouldn't feel inferior because we are orphans. She would tell us that the Prophet Mohammed was an orphan and we shouldn't let it stop us getting on with our lives - and that's exactly what Rula did."

Describing Jebreal as a "strong little girl with charming eyes", Hidaya recalls a hardworking schoolgirl who, arriving at the school from a tragic family background at the age of seven, eventually knuckled down to get the grades that would earn her a scholarship to study in Italy. "It was what she wished for, and she did it."

Miral, Jebreal's character, is played by Freida Pinto, the Indian actress who rose to fame after starring in the award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. Hind Husseini, meanwhile, is portrayed by the Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, who has spoken of her delight at playing the woman she describes as a saint.

Jebreal's book was published in Italy in 2004, but the journalist was thrown back into the story when she worked on its adaptation for the film with Schnabel. "It pushed me to rediscover memories that I had not lost but that were no longer in my head and heart," she says. She also discovered that Schnabel, a Jewish American, had much to learn. "When we started talking, I understood that Julian had little knowledge about the conflict, about who the Palestinians are or even why there is a conflict." The director has said that it is his "responsibility to confront this issue because, maybe, I've spent most of my life receding from my responsibility as a Jewish person."

The school - and its keepers - have borne witness to giant sweeps of history: the carving-up of former Palestine; life under Jordanian rule for a few decades after the war of 1948; another war in 1967, after which Israeli annexed East Jerusalem and occupied the Palestinian West Bank; the outbreak of the two Palestinian Intifadas; and the painful decline of East Jerusalem as a Palestinian hub.

"I have seen a lot, yes," says Hidaya. "Sometimes I feel I should bring a recorder and just talk, because this place and all the stories of the girls, all their cases, tell so much about our situation. People keep saying to me that I am the only one to remember, that I should write it down, or just talk, talk!"

You need only to look across the street from the school, to the stately Orient House building, to see that painful cuts of the conflict are all around. Built by the Husseini family at the end of the 19th century, this stunning mansion hosted dignitaries and became a luxury hotel during the years when this part of Jerusalem was under Jordanian rule. It languished for a few decades after Israel annexed East Jerusalem, emerged as the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organisation during the 1980s, and was thereafter constantly shut down by the Israeli authorities, who closed it for good during the second Intifada, in 2001. The building's contents - historical documents and personal belongings - were confiscated by Israel.

'Now Jerusalem is dead, dead," says Hidaya. "Did you ever see Jerusalem before, did you see Salah al Din Street?" she asks, referring to a road leading from the Old City's Damascus Gate up to East Jerusalem's American Colony hotel - which is the setting for the film Miral's first scene. "It used to be so grand, with beautiful boutiques and upper-class people walking up and down and looking at all these expensive shops. Now, nobody has any money and the ugly wall makes it so difficult to come. Jerusalem is haram now, dirty and full of cheap, Chinese materials because there is no income - I can't look at it like this."

Hidaya, who has a son and an adopted daughter, is still inspired by her adoptive mother, as are many Palestinians who remember Hind Husseini and what she created, against the odds, right up until her death in 1994. "One day she was sitting in the back room," recalls Hidaya, "She said to me, 'I achieved my dream and now I leave the place in your hands.' That was when she passed away. It's too bad - we need more than one Miss Husseini. She was an extraordinary woman, peace-loving, strong, full of love and hope and giving. She was everything. I miss her every day."

The film Miral is due to be released in the UAE on January 20.

Other works by journalists that became hit movies

ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN The 1976 political thriller starred Robert Redford as Bob Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post journalists who wrote the 1974 book of the same name on their investigation of the Watergate scandal that brought down the US President Richard Nixon.

HEARTBURN The 1986 movie starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep was based on the 1983 novel of the same name Nora Ephron wrote about the breakup of her second marriage to the aforementioned Bernstein.

PERFECT STORM The 2000 sea-faring disaster film starring George Clooney was based on the 1997 book The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea by Sebastian Junger.

URBAN COWBOY The 1980 drama starred John Travolta and Debra Winger as fictional characters but was based on a non-fiction 1978 Esquire magazine article by Aaron Latham.

King of the biopics

Films by Julian Schnabel:

BASQUIAT The 1996 drama based on the life of the American postmodernist/neo-expressionist artist Jean-Michel Basquiat starred Jeffrey Wright and featured an ensemble cast including David Bowie, Benicio del Toro, Gary Oldman, Courtney Love, Tatum O'Neal, Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe and Parkey Posey.

BEFORE NIGHT FALLS The 2000 drama based on the autobiography of the homosexual Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas starred Javier Bardem, who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY The 2007 drama was based on the memoir of the same name by Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was paralysed at age 42 after suffering a massive stroke. Starring Mathieu Amalric, it won awards at the Cannes Film Festival and the Golden Globes, as well as four Academy Award nominations.

LOU REED'S BERLIN The 2008 concert film was recorded live at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York, over five nights in December 2006. It was the first time the proto-punk American singer-songwriter Reed had played the full album live in over 30 years.

MIRAL The 2010 drama chronicles the real-life efforts of Hind Husseini to establish an orphanage in East Jerusalem after the 1948 partition of Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel.

Updated: January 8, 2011 04:00 AM



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