Monday, 18 August 2014

A Life of Resistance: Conversations with Filmmaker Mustafa Azizi

Mustafa Azizi is a Nabulsi filmmaker, Executive Director of multi-media company Karakeeb, and staunch supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. I sat down with him to discuss his experiences as a journalist student, film-maker and Palestinian living under Israeli occupation.

Shutting the windows of the office, Mustafa turns to me and mutters, “On a Friday they drill in the street. They should not be allowed! It is Friday, we must pray and rest. We need quiet.” Sitting to join us, Mustafa leans back in his chair and begins to speak, “I was a journalist student at Al Najah university between 2001 and 2006.” Punctuating his sentences with cautious sips of hot tea, he continues, “I was a student during the worst time - during the intifada and the invasion.”

Eyes fixated intensely on my own, he explains that in five years of studies, the journalism department lost thirteen pupils to violence. “It was crazy,” he says, his voice suddenly losing its intensity as he recounts how violence permeated into every aspect of college life.

Although Mustafa studied all journalistic mediums at Al Najah, he quickly determined himself a film-maker. Between 2003 and 2006 alone, Mustafa created five films and through various festivals held at Al Najah, was awarded ‘Best Film’ twice for his various films. 

Regaining his characteristically confident tone, he turns his gaze towards his tea cup, “After the Intifada, I realized my duty as a film-maker. It’s not a job - it is a duty.” Explaining his frustrations with simply reporting stories, Mustafa explains the empowerment that film-making brings, “When you create the film, you feel something different. You are not following the news anymore, you are creating the news. Films are strong and very honest. In the end, I chose film because of the truth.”

Mustafa Azizi fillming for a project in Al-Khalil
(Hebron); May, 2014
Frustrated with the media normalizing and sugar-coating his experiences under Israeli occupation, Mustafa saw film-making as a way of resisting the occupation. “You have to say occupation. It’s what is happening, everyone knows that but no one wants to say it.”

Expanding, he continues, “As a person who lives in the Old City [of Nablus], I have seen the ugly face of the occupation. Never can anyone imagine what I have seen.”

As he speaks, my mind wanders to the call to prayer bouncing from the buildings outside our closed office windows. I notice men shuffling quietly in the direction of the Mosque. These men are the antithesis of what I have been told to expect: the angry, violent Islam that infects Western media coverage of this piece of the world. Their unassuming and tranquil commitment to prayer washes a calm feeling over my body as my skin prickles into goosebumps.

Jolted back to the conversation, I hear Mustafa say, “Resisting is a lifestyle for us. And I support all kinds of resistance: non-violent; the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement, and even violent resistance.” Looking up from under my brow, perhaps a little too critically, he explains, “Look, my brother, he chose one path of resistance and I chose another. I tell truth with my film so everyday with my camera, I am resisting the occupation, I am resisting Israeli control over my life. Everybody has their way to resist, and I support anyone in this.”

With that, I wonder to myself about the word, ‘resistance’. Surely, in the Western world, this word leaves a bad taste in our mouths, as we are bombarded with images of suicide bombers and angry, aggressive men wrapped in kufiya [classic Arabic scarves]. But, as the word spirals out of Mustafa’s mouth, I see how in this life - a life he doesn’t even own the rights to - resistance is synonymous with hope.

“You see,” Mustafa continues, “journalism for everyone is a romantic idea. But, in Palestine, it is different. You have no independence to write your story. You need to be following someone always. But me, I am sorry, I don’t follow anyone else.”

Wanting to steer the conversation in the direction of his work, I ask, “What does this mean for your films, that you don’t follow anyone else?”

The corners of his mouth curl upwards as he pauses for a second for a sip of tea. “What it means? It means I say occupation when others don’t. I say what is happening, whether they like it in the West or not. And I love this!” His small smile turns into a large grin, accompanied by a chuckle, “I love this…I love to speak this way, very loudly!”

Asking him about the dangers of speaking loudly and openly against the occupation, Mustafa shakes his head at me, “The dangers of speaking loudly against the occupation are smaller than the dangers of not - the danger is that the occupation may continue. And ideas are more powerful than anything to fight it with.”

Recalling political artist Naji Al-Ali’s cartoon of Handala, a symbol representing the complexity of the plight of Palestinian refugees in my mind, I mention the small cartoon to Mustafa.

Naji Al-Ali's Handala
“Yes,” he responds. “Handala enlightened the minds of people. Art is very important in this and it is the choice for me. To make art that enlightens and brings people together against the occupation.”

On July 22, 1987, Naji Al-Ali was shot in London as he walked to work. He died in hospital a month later. A tragic end that is all too common for those who, like Mustafa, choose to speak loudly about the devastating effects of the occupation. Acknowledging Al-Ali’s death, Mustafa says, “But, Handala still exists today. He lives now and will live long after his Naji is gone. This is the power of ideas.”

As the afternoon sun beams heavy onto my face, I ask Mustafa what is next for him. He tells me about Karakeeb, the multi-media company he has started in Nablus. He says the goal of this company is to provide a place for local artists, musicians, writers and anyone with ideas to come together and create something. 

Remembering his own start as a filmmaker, he says, “I remember thinking, who will give me a chance?” Trying now to use Karakeeb as a vehicle for people who started like him, he promises that his company will not follow the normalization of mainstream media and will strive to change the idea of media in Nablus. He says, “It is simple. Karakeeb is to live. It’s all to live free - and we will do anything to achieve this.”

Our mouths soaked with tea and hope, we stand to say goodbye. Shaking my hand, Mustafa leaves me with words that continue to echo in my mind, even now, months later. He says, “No matter what, I am never leaving Nablus - never. I will be here forever and I will fight to win our freedom with my ideas always."

Mustafa Azizi searching for the perfect shot by the separation wall in Bethlehem; May, 2014

To learn more about Mustafa and follow his projects, follow him on Facebook:

To learn more about Karakeeb in Nablus, Palestine, follow them on Facebook:

First photo taken by Odai Qaddomi of Odai Qaddomi Photography. To see more of his pictures, follow him on Facebook:

Friday, 9 May 2014

The Things We Pack

Hebron, Palestine
Days melt into weeks; weeks sink into months. With only three weeks remaining until my contract in Palestine is finished, my mind forces reflection into the quiet moments of my day. Words and feelings flash before me, taunting their own intangibility as they linger just out of reach: peace treaties, destruction, terrorist, student, goats, rocks, provocation, humiliation, complicity, abandonment. Finger-painting their marks on the walls of my mind, these words, I suspect, seek to vaccinate me from future nostalgia.

Around me are my clothes, rolled up and ready to be packed away, unopened until my feet are standing on Canadian ground. I’ve packed too early, finding myself digging through my bags each morning to find pieces of clothing I need for that day - the raincoat I haven’t needed in months, the scarf I thought I could do without for the last couple weeks.

Leaving is not an unfamiliar experience. Memories of packing quickly on the cold tiled floor of my room in Pakistan, the muezzin punctuating my fear and panic with beauty, hang heavy in my room now like a thick fog, distorting my thinking. Opening the over-sized windows in my room, the orange morning light floods in, as if to cleanse the room of it’s anxiety. I wonder what it is that has motivated my packing nearly three weeks early.

Packing, surely, is cathartic. Freeing my physical space of the clutter and disorganization allows me to decide what I will carry with me and what I will leave behind. Inanimate objects grant me a control I do not possess with the thoughts and memories that have seared a home in my mind.

Wadding through the confusing swamp of change that has overtaken my mind, I wonder what I will take with me when I go: the hours spent lesson planning, the smiles of my students, decorating Mother’s day cards or the choir of F-16s and bus rides through checkpoints, Israeli soldiers with guns cocked in hand. Is there room in my mind for the joy I felt watching the sun sink behind Mount Gerizim and the anger I felt witnessing the late night funeral processions for bodies returned to families years after death? Can I roll up the memories of medics shot at during non-violent protests, the pictures of blood flowing through the streets of Jenin and squeeze them beside my favorite sweater in my backpack? Or should I chose to leave them behind for the person who comes to replace me, like the maroon peacoat I’ve slid under my bed?

I sit in my windowsill and watch the city I have come to call home sink into the dark hues of evening, a cigarette burning quickly between my fingers, contemplating my return to Canada. I wonder how easy it will be to remove myself from the violent atmosphere that has crept into my heart, demanding, with all its might to be recognized and understood. Will I unpack it earnestly with each kufiya I gift to family members, each photograph I show to uninterested eyes? Will it remain stuffed away in my backpack, to be unpacked once I am away from home again, away from the eyes of those who do not also swim in its haunting undercurrent? Or will it nestle into my chest and create a silent home for itself, remaining a distant memory I keep shelved for my own comfort?

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

A Man Lit Himself on Fire Today

Laying in bed, cocooning myself from the cold, I overhear my roommates talking from behind my closed doors. 

Did you hear about the man in the dawwar [city center]?

What? No... What happened?

I am no stranger to the automatic dread in her voice. I sit up in bed. 

He lit himself on fire, right there in the middle of everything.


- Silence -

Why...? What? Why?

Nothing is for sure but, they say he was protesting the economic strangulation that the occupation brings.

- Silence -



Immediately, as if it is second nature, I open my laptop and then twitter. I scan my homepage for any mention of the man on fire. Finding nothing, I search for my city, Nablus, in hopes that someone has tweeted about what happened. Nothing. Normally, I can rely on Twitter as a source of information. I realized many months ago that if I want information on anything occurring here, looking at CNN, Al Jazeera, BBC or any other news source is futile. I have learned that not only is it a rarity that the West Bank is featured on these news sources but that when it occasionally is, the information is not only published so delayed that it is rendered worthless but that it is grossly inaccurate, and the people are almost always villain-ized.

Unsatisfied, I shut my computer, zip up my sleeping bag and try to sleep. Thoughts swim through my mind so freely it's like they belong there. A man lit himself on fire today. I think about the peaceful glow of the old city at night, of the smiling shop keepers, cheerful children and beautiful muezzin echoing off the yellow walls. A man lit himself on fire today.

My cheeks burn red. A man lit himself on fire today. I think of the children in my third grade class. I think of their faces, hearing their parents talk about this man. I think of their little chests filling with a feeling they do not yet have a name for as their parents begin to talk about why someone would do that. I think about the news stations I know won’t report on this. I think about devastation, starvation, restriction of movement and the humiliation the everyday silence of the world to these atrocities brings.

A man lit himself on fire today. I try to shift my mind to the world outside of here I remember exists. I shift to my nephew, nearly two years old, completely enthralled by trains. I think of his little chest, of his cheeks, his heart and his life. I struggle to remember the normalcy that is home. I can not close my eyes. I will not close my eyes because behind my tired eyelids is the image of a man on fire, attempting to reclaim his life through his own death. Attempting, in vain, to make the world listen, to open the eyes of someone, anyone, who can do something to change his reality. I close my eyes and see my nephew adorned in a kufiya, smiling to me with the bold innocence granted to him simply by his birthplace. His smile mixes with the roar of the F-16s overhead and the pop of automatic weapons outside, creating the familiar song that lulls me to sleep.

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