The Haifa International Film Festival

Kenneth Brown reports on the 21st Haifa International Film Festival, in Le Monde Diplomatique (English ed.).

Haifa is Israel’s only remaining large, mixed, Jewish-Palestinian city. Of its population of 250,000 at least 10% are Arabs; the figure jumps to 30% for students at the University of Haifa. (Of Israel’s overall population of 6.7 million, about 1.3 million are Arabs, 19.4% of the total.) Haifa prides itself on this coexistence, real or imagined, between Arab and Jew. The novelist Emile Habibi (1), the city’s best-known Palestinian, believed the Arabs who remained in Haifa after the war of 1948 could live with Jews in relative tranquillity provided they stayed in their place: that place is geographically and symbolically at the city’s lowest level. Habibi, who died in his beloved city in May 1996, left his mark indelibly on the consciousness of Palestinian and Jewish Israelis. Engraved on his tombstone are the words “Still in Haifa”. A cunning, sad, brilliant writer, he received the Israeli prize for his literary work in 1992. He gave the prize money to the child victims of the first intifada.

At the time of this year’s film festival, Haifa was also celebrating the centenary of the Hijaz railway opened by the Ottoman emperor. The railway ran to Damascus and on to Mecca. It was meant to transport wheat and barley from the interior of Syria to Haifa and, in the other direction, pilgrims arriving by ship from the Maghreb, bound for Mecca, south to the Hijaz. The railway marked the beginnings of the transformation of a small Ottoman town into a modern city.