The women who used to run Palestine’s movie theaters

A new film documents the story of a Palestinian woman who wanted to open up a movie theater in Nazareth in the 90s. But a closer look reveals that women were running Palestine’s cinemas long before.

By Eli Aminov (Translated to English by Connie Hackbarth, Alternative Information Center)

A recent article by Nirit Anderman published in Haaretz covers a new film that will be screened next week at the Haifa International Film Festival. “Nazareth Cinema Lady,” directed by Nurit Jacobs-Yinon, tells the story of Safaa Dabour, a Palestinian who grew up in a wealthy and religious Muslim family in Nazareth. In the 1990’s Dabour began to fulfill her dream of establishing a cinematheque in the city of Nazareth.

Alhambra Cinema, Jaffa, 1937.
Alhambra Cinema, Jaffa, 1937.

Despite the opposition and derision suffered from her family, as well as the pressure she faced from her conservative society, which prefers that woman fulfill their traditional tasks in the home and not participate in the public spaces, Dabour succeeded in realizing her dream in 2003. She had the idea after she was forced, like other residents of Nazareth, to go to Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque to see a Palestinian-directed film.

It is likely that the author of the article, the film’s director and perhaps even the film’s heroine do not know that this isn’t the first time a woman has run a movie theater in Palestine. They certainly don’t imagine that this situation, in which Palestinian women face limitations and difficulties concerning their participation in the public sphere, such as the lack of such spaces in Arab society and the perception of a woman running a movie theater as something extraordinary, is a direct result of the establishment of the State of Israel. This lack of knowledge is not the result of ignorance, but rather of intentional actions by the Israeli establishment in what can be termed as “memory killing.”

Existing patterns of behavior in Palestinian society in Israel are not the result of an historical continuation of traditional patriarchy that controls society, but a renewed phenomenon created following the 1948 War. It was during this year that urban Palestine was annihilated and Palestinian society was thrown backwards from the 20th century to the previous one. This is because the social situation of women in urban Palestine during the British Mandate was much better than the situation under Israeli rule today.

Take Ophelia Butrus for example. She was an exiled Palestinian in Amman, Jordan who was born in Jerusalem’s Talbiyeh neighborhood in 1927. In 2004 she told researcher Manar Hassan that during her teenage years, she used to visit cinemas in the West Jerusalem neighborhoods of Katamon and Baqa. “We would gather together, the boys and girls from the neighborhood, and afterwards go in the afternoon or on holidays, although sometimes Dad would go ahead of us to see if there was kissing in the film or not.”

“We had a full social life,” Ophelia notes, “we came, went, had mutual visits, parties, everything, until the attacks began.” From the few footprints left behind for us — primarily oral testimonies — we learn that not only did women watch films, there were women who actually established and ran movie theaters. Anisa Zraik, a teacher from the Galilee village of Ilabun, migranted to Bisan (Beit Sha’an), rented a flat where she lived alone and managed a school. After several years she resigned and established the first cinema in Bisan (Manar Hassan, doctorate at Tel Aviv University, 2009).

As is known to researchers of Palestinian social history, after eliminating the cities, the Israeli government destroyed or moved archives from Palestinian cities to unknown locations. Thus oral history and Palestinian newspapers from the British Mandate period serve as an alternative source. A brief item that first appeared in the Palestine newspaper in August 1929, which announced screening of the film “Tremble of Love” in Jaffa’s Apollo cinema, teaches us that the theater in Jaffa was also run by a woman.

The notice read: “The Apollo cinema, under direction of Yousef Zamaria’s widow, brought interesting artistic dramas not yet screened in Palestine. Recently the film Tremble of Love was brought, which was successful in Europe. Madame Zamaria brings the best dramas and screens them in the Apollo cinema even before they have been screened in other places. We ask that residents appreciate her efforts and encourage her.”

The social history of Palestinian society, and primarily of Palestinians residing in urban areas (close to 40 percent prior to the Nakba), was almost entirely erased by intelligence officials and Israeli experts on Arab affairs, who created a new narrative according to which all of the progressive elements in Arab society in Israel were the result of Israeli modernization.

Unfortunately there are also Palestinians, flooded by the Israeli hegemonic discourse, who believe this to be true. The connection of Palestinian intellectuals to the true history of their nation signals the end of the Israeli modernization fairy tale.

Eli Aminov is a committee member for A single secular democratic state in Palestine. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call and in English on the Alternative Information Center’s website.

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