Though I Know the River is Dry: The Struggle for Home

Author ········· Ayman Farag
Published ······ Online, Nov 2013
Section ·······  Culture

The memory of oppressed people is one thing that cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch below the surface. — Howard Zinn

“How many lives do we have to lose?”

At the luminous edges of Omar Robert Hamilton’s short film Though I Know the River is Dry, the viewer is left with many questions. This doesn’t weigh it down, but rather it only adds to the pulse that continues to echo in your mind after watching the film. In your mind and heart, because make no mistake this is an urgent work of art, as haunting and beautiful as it is intelligent. And Hamilton doesn’t dilute its shimmering poetry by asking for your sympathy with Palestine – the setting for the story. There’s no explanation here, he doesn’t beat the dull drum of exposition – if you want history, go on Wikipedia. The film’s eye stays on the core as it presents us a story of resistance against occupation, the toll that takes on one family and the consequences of the protagonist’s decision to emigrate and bring his unborn son up in America.

The questions that come off the film’s narrative help it to shift and form in the riverbed of your imagination, but they flicker in a vital wind – or rather, current. At the beating heart of Though I Know the River is Dry is a complete dismantling of an old, accepted truth: that in an Arab world compromised, corrupted and – most offensively in the case of Palestine – occupied by elites, opportunity and freedom are only on the end of emigration. Leaving home was salvation, and one that yields the precious gift of a gilded passport for the generation born out there in the West.

Into this stale air, Hamilton throws the idea that it’s by leaving your country for the chances and softer air on offer elsewhere that you become a prisoner. Accused by his dismayed mother of abandoning his country’s fight against occupation, the protagonist’s decision is framed as being for the sake of his son. “How many lives do we have to lose?” he tries to reason against his mother’s biting pronouncement that “if you hesitate in a battle, you can only lose.”

What becomes clear in the film is that it is by venturing abroad to make the most of that one life we have to lose that we end up taking the very course any occupying force or gluttonous elite want us to. One less nuisance for the elites to ride over with their diamond wheels or ethnically cleanse from the scrubbed land.

“But freedom is here.”

Until Arab protesters started overthrowing their tyrants at the beginning of 2011, emigrating from Palestine had its own weight; more was being abandoned than family and place. It still has that, but the fight for freedom is now there wherever ancient regimes have been given cause to creak in their “deep states”. So what this film addresses – and it might be the first one to do so, at least so eloquently – is the new reality there to play with and strive for. What these struggles will mean for the fates of where we come from became apparent to me during those heady days when Egypt rose up against its rulers and friends and acquaintances who grew up or moved abroad decided to make Cairo their home since the country’s future was calling.

I can’t speak for them, but personally, in the cold light of honesty, that other passport, which had rescued me from military service and petty scrapes, now felt like taking a knife into a fist fight. As the tide of change pushed and receded, a second nationality always meant the fate of my children wasn’t engraved in the success of the revolution. Even so, it suddenly became possible to imagine Egypt as a country where they could have the same chances as elsewhere (whatever that means). Egypt became as much a part of my future as my ancestry. Walking home one night along the corniche trying to hitch a ride back home long after the ridiculous curfew, my then-girlfriend and I talked excitedly about the task of building the country’s institutions, how our children wouldn’t have to shelter, or even look abroad the way we did for education or dreams.

That bottleneck moment when history becomes future happens to Hamilton’s protagonist as he enters Ramallah through the Qalandia checkpoint. Running his fist over each of the bars framing this hateful holding cage, the screen ripples with the humiliation and frustration the occupying Israeli army intends for every Palestinian to experience on a daily basis. Out and on the other side of this space built by hatred, the protagonist’s separation, pain and regret crystallise into the acknowledgement of what now stands before him.

The pain and beauty thrumming under the lyrical cinematography and astute use of archive footage are enriched by a defiant optimism as the script brings the film home in a poem. Resistance, the film reminds us, is how we can ever hope to swim again in those rivers bled dry.

Ayman Farag currently works as a barman in London. A former journalist, he scribbles on his blog and his first novel, The Crowded Centre, should make it into print in 2014.