Song of the Day: El Amaken by Mohammed Abdo
I usually avoid the ‘Middle-Eastern’ sub-tab under the ‘International’ section of movies on Netflix, because the selection is so limited. However, this past Friday, too tired after a long day of work and in need of entertainment; I found myself browsing the section. One of the movies caught my eye. The description read: ‘World War I: The Arabian Desert has become a danger zone of spies, assassins, and thieves. One boy is about to cross it.’ Hardly much seemed enticing about that description but I still found myself clicking play. (That Netflix gives terrible descriptions to movies that are sometimes misleading and sometimes completely off the mark is hardly a new phenomenon — there is even a dedicated sub-Reddit and countless articles written on the subject.)
Anyhow, Theeb, a debut feature by Jordanian director, Naji Abu Nowar is set in the Hejaz province of Arabia, then under Ottoman rule. It is 1916, the year of the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans. And there unfolds a mesmerising coming-of-age/survival adventure in an elemental setting. Theeb becomes more allegorical and more specific to our historical moment the more you think about it. The tale of a Bedouin boy surviving the sands and political cross-currents of World War I-era Arabia could be almost read as a Lawrence of Arabia from the other side, but it is everything but. The further this strikingly assured film goes along, the more it seems a metaphor for fierce self-determination: a non-didactic corrective to long-standing Western narratives about the Middle East.
Recently orphaned brothers Hussein (Hussein Salameh) and Theeb (Jacir Eid) are from a family of pilgrim guides, living a traditional Bedouin life. Their relationship, terrifically delineated, is warm-hearted and playful, with more than a touch of protectiveness in Hussein’s gentle mentoring spirit toward his younger sibling. When a British soldier and his Arab guide arrive at the tribe’s camp, Hussein is bound by custom to lead them to a well along the pilgrims’ road — a strategic point in the ongoing conflict. Theeb wants to join, but he’s told to stay behind. Instead, the boy follows and once discovered, he tags along against the wishes of the soldier (who is less T.E. Lawrence than an inchoate Enoch Powell). Tensions rise when they realise they are being watched — the director refreshingly (for some, frustratingly) refuses clear-cut exposition, though remarks by the soldier indicate that the British are keen to destroy rail lines, protected by Ottoman troops and an assortment of local renegades and allies. And after bandits ambush their caravan, Theeb is left the lone survivor.
It is a well-done adventure tale, and like especially those with an intimate human focus and an expansive, epic vision, the film works on multiple levels. It is, on one hand, the story of a young boy who witnesses his beloved brother’s death and has to survive the inhospitable desert while thinking of ways to restore his family’s honour. On the surface, it seems like the classic horse-opera western complete with the marauding bandits; however, our hero is not the charismatic, determined, driven by purpose man but a young boy. And in this Abu Nowar sidesteps the common leitmotivs of the black-and-white, honour-and-revenge of the genre, which definitely exist but are tempered by Theeb’s youth and uncertainty.
On the other hand, is the historical context which Abu Nowar definitely wants audiences to understand. Theeb is set at the moment when the whole of Arabia was on the cusp of radical change and Bedouin lifestyles, such as those of pilgrim guides like Hussein, were made redundant by trains going all the way to Mecca. Young Theeb is a witness to these shifts, his survival dependent on the training he receives watching his brother. I must say, though introduction titles are far too ubiquitous in contemporary cinema, this might be one case when a brief explanation of Ottoman-British enmity might have come in handy, especially given the West’s distressing ignorance of the subject.
While set in Hejaz (in what is in today’s western Saudi Arabia), the movie was shot entirely in Jordan, using mostly non-professional Bedouins whose powerful presence onscreen is a testament to their talent and Abu Nowar’s working methods. He shapes the boundless desert into distinct, expressive spaces; conveying feelings of claustrophobia, terror, compassion, anger, and hope. Many shots are angled slightly closer to the ground, roughly to that of Theeb’s point of view. This consummate control of setting can be attributed to the year Abu Nowar spent with the Bedouin in Jordan prior to shooting, developing a familiarity with their way of life that enables him to elicit phenomenal performances from all of his non-actors.
Eid is astounding in the lead, conveying the nuances of a child’s confusion but never playing for easy sympathy. And as the dark ambiguities of the film’s final moments play out, our young hero becomes his own man. Theeb may look like an adorably tousled-haired young boy, but appearances can deceive. He heeds his father’s words spoken at the beginning of the film. ‘And if the wolves offer friendship, do not count on success. They will not stand beside you when you are facing death.’
I absolutely enjoyed the film, which I found a beautiful tribute to a way of life that has nearly come to an end, set during a crucial period in Arab history when it began to disappear.
Till Next Post!