Salt of This Sea and Suheir Hammad’s breaking poems

Tamiko Beyer
August 23, 2010
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I went to see Salt of This Sea (Milh Hadha al-Bahr) the other night. And I found myself turning to Suheir Hammad’s breaking poems the next morning.

ramallah rooster outside hot rock hard times threw up too
much everything beautiful wa occupied terra amped wired bound
hawked spread regal bearing taj exploding next translocation
trans-jordan borders passes wa ports transliterated arabic illiterate
scripted heavy crested embroidered stitched steady tested

– from “break (memories don’t live like people do)”

In my mind, the film and this book (Hammad’s fourth collection) interweave ??? not just because Hammad stars in the film, but also because of their shared concerns and approaches. In the acknowledgment page of breaking poems, Hammad cites Salt of This Sea as an experience that helped shape the work.

salt poster

Written and directed by Annamarie Jacir, Salt of This Sea is a deeply moving and beautiful film set in the West Bank and the state of Israel. The film is playing in New York this month, after its release at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008 and award-winning appearances at film festivals around the world.

The film follows Soraya (Hammad, in her debut acting role), Brooklyn-born of Palestinian refugee parents, who returns to the land her grandparents were exiled during the 1948 war. “They refused to give us the right of return, so I took it,” she says to her new friend Emad (Saleh Bakri). Emad is straining in the opposite direction, trying to get out of Ramallah where he has been unable to leave for 17 years. (For a more complete synopsis and a good review, click here)

It’s a gorgeously filmed movie ??? the filmmaker’s love of the land is palpable. It is also nuanced ??? exploring questions of what it means to own, how truth holds up or twists reality, how an incessant, humiliating, and brutal occupation wears at the human soul. The film is unapologetically political in its stance, but rarely didactic.

(Production still from Salt of This Sea)

(Production still from Salt of This Sea)

For me, the most moving moment takes place among the ruins of Dawayima ??? Emad’s ancestral village and the site of one of the least known massacres during the 1948 war. In a quiet scene without words, Emad and Soraya create a make-sift memorial, carve “Rest in Peace” on a stone and set it upright. They light a candle and pour water on the ground.

It is a fleeting yet profound action of autonomy and dignity by two characters who are holding on to their freedom at the edges of the Israeli state, in between the checkpoint turnstiles and along side the separation wall.

(Hammad in Salt of This Sea)

(Hammad in Salt of This Sea)

In her poem, “break (transition),” Hammad writes:

i left my body somewhere
i remember rooms
bas i don’t remember walls

How bodies are held, how spaces transform and are transformed by their inhabitants and occupiers, what it means to be trapped behind ??? or on the wrong side of ??? walls: these concerns arc both through the movie and through Hammad’s book.

Ultimately, both film and poems question ??? without providing easy answers ??? what it means to break open and what it means to hold strong.

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