The Enigma of the Suicide Bomber
Suicide bombers are impenetrable enigmas to the mind of the west. Most of feel that we cannot possibly understand how a young person who is healthy in mind and body can throw away his/her life just to kill a few people who are not really party to the conflict for which he/she is engaged. We can understand a soldier who sacrifices himself as he runs along a beach into the line of fire because his death is not the goal but a consequence and/or the people being killed on the other side are also soldiers. On a more personal note, having lived in Israel, a country that has had to deal with suicide bombers, I must say that I do not have the ability to understand how these bombers can think that what they do does any good for either side—an enemy willing to destroy himself to destroy innocents on the other side is not an enemy that can be dealt with rationally. We have certainly seen that each suicide bombing drives us farther and farther from the belief that negotiation and peace are even possible.
The film, “Paradise Now” shows us some signs that there are people among the Palestinians who understand that suicide bombings are acts of impotent rage that do more harm than good, if they do any good at all, for the people left behind. There is no sacrifice, just revenge.
Suha (Luba Azabal) is not the main character of this movie, but she is the key character for western audiences. She is a French-born Moroccan activist, and brings a secular, outside view of the bombings— she sees the damage they do to the cause of Palestinian statehood. For us, she represents the voice of reason. What we do not know about her is how she is seen in the West Bank and Gaza and that remains an open question.
Before I continue, it is important to understand that this film is completely one-sided in sympathizing with the Palestinian side of their conflict with Israel. The Israelis are seen as faceless occupiers and oppressors. The question of this movie is not whether they are the enemy but rather how to deal with that enemy. The film explores and examines, with a fascinating level of prosaic detail, what will presumably be the last day in the lives of two lifelong friends, Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman). They have been selected for a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. Their handlers let them spend one last night with their families, although they can’t tell them anything about what they’re about to do. It is here that we see the human side of suicide bombing.
The two do not really feel the idea that we have in the West about the way we picture suicide bombers to look like and this gives us the idea that anyone at any time can become one. When we meet them at first, they are working in an automobile repair shop and we see them taking breaks, smoking a water pipe. Khaled seems to be quite the hothead and because of this we see him lose his job; Said on the other hand is cool and reliable. He has a girlfriend, Suha, whose car is being fixed and she is as attracted to him as he is to her. She impresses Khaled because she is the daughter of a famous Palestinian hero.
We do not sense that Khaled and Said are political and neither do we feel that they are religious. This makes it all the more surprising when their friend, Jamal (Amer Hlehel) comes to bring them the news that they have been selected for the next “operation in martyrdom” and they seem to be very pleased about this. Following this is a surreal sequence as the two men are prepared for their suicide mission. There are a few surprises here in that what could have been very seriously portrayed is actually given to us with some character-driven humor. As Khaled makes his farewell to the world video, he stops it to remind his mother to buy filters for water. This to me was quite shocking—here is a man about to die for “a cause” and he worries about his mother. Another interesting aspect is the bomber’s last meal that is staged like DaVinci’s painting of “The Last Supper”. It takes a director with moxie to bring together suicide bombing and Christian religious iconography. For me this is director/writer Hany Abu-Assad’s error in that he went a step too far with this metaphor.
The mission is aborted and the two men are separated and it is here that we learn what brought them to this point. Khaled is more political, driven by feelings of powerlessness against Israel. To be a bomber makes the Israelis powerless against him, leveling the playing field in a perverse way. Said’s motives are more personal, revolving around his father’s execution for collaborating with Israel.
At this point Suha comes back into the film and while he is not allowed to offer up any constructive alternatives, she at least is able to argue the valid point that the bombings simply make life worse for those left behind.
Characters like Jamal, the shadowy handler guiding Said and Khaled down the road to self-destruction, seems outwardly sympathetic but ultimately insincere. Maybe I’m just projecting my own opinion onto these men, who I see as the worst cowards in the whole affair. If they are so committed to this cause, why aren’t they the ones strapping plastic explosives to their bodies, rather than sending more impressionable young men off to die in their place? I’m at least hopeful that Abu-Assad views these people in a similar unflattering light.
“Paradise Now” will not persuade anyone who is not already sympathetic to the Palestinians, but it is a well-written, well-acted and unblinking look into a world completely alien to western eyes. For that reason alone, it has value. It might have come down more strongly against the violence or offered more concrete alternatives, but Abu-Assad has the right to make his own movie, just as I have the right to say I disagree with his choices.
This is a movie that epitomizes risk—and not just from a commercial perspective. Making this film was a heroic undertaking; the movie was shot on location in Nablus, as well as Abu-Assad’s hometown, Nazareth, with the filmmakers dodging near daily firefights and missile attacks while walking a cautious line between the Israeli occupying army and various Palestinian armed factions. The politics are similarly ambiguous or, rather, complex.