“there is a very special light that is unique to Palestine. In winter and spring, it is very beautiful. There is this quality of the land it can turn into a deep burgundy… And the sound of the trees… when we lived in Beirut, we were next to a pine forest which I will never forget the sound of.”
My name is Omar Al Qattan. I am 50, Palestinian, Kuwaiti, British and a filmmaker. During the nineties, my family started the AM Qattan foundation, which I now chair: together with about a 100 colleagues in the occupied West-Bank, in Gaza, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and the UK, we support and develop a number of cultural and educational initiative in these countries. In the UK, we have a beautiful space called The Mosaic Room, which is a centre for Arab culture in London. I also run the Kuwaiti contracting and engineering company that my father founded in 1963.
Both my parents are of Palestinian origin. They left Palestine after the 1948 war, as young adults. My father was from Jaffa, my mother from Tullarem. Both ended up as teachers in Kuwait where they got to know each other and married. My father obtained the Kuwaiti nationality because of his work on behalf the Kuwaiti government. After my birth, they moved to Beirut and we stayed there till 1975, when the civil war in Lebanon started. At that time, they moved back to Kuwait and we were sent to boarding schools and universities abroad, to finish our education. That is how I ended up in London, after a childhood in Beirut.
I never lived in Palestine. As I child I did learn about Palestine via the stories of my parents, books I read and from the word on the street. We did live next to the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and my father was very active on the political front. In ’68 and ’69, he was the chair of the Palestinian National Council, the Palestinian parliament in exile. You can imagine that stories of Palestine were very much a part of our daily life in Beirut.
Amongst my siblings, I was the first to actually visit Palestine. At that time, I was 21 and lived in Belgium, studying at INSAS, a film school.
When you did visit Palestine, did the reality match the image that you had constructed via the stories in your childhood?
Actually, I did get a glimpse of Palestine when I was seven, when I was allowed to join our nanny to visit her family for the olive picking season. She was from the village of Deir Mimas in the South of Lebanon and that area is very similar to Northern Palestine. The countries of the Easter Mediterranean are very similar, Beirut is similar to Haifa in its appearance and atmosphere, as Jaffa is similar to a city like Sidon. When I visited Palestine as a young adult, I did not have to dig very deep to recognize it: the light, the sound and the colors are the same. The main issue was that I was anxious to be accepted. It was more a voyage of discovery, of finding my roots. To the Lebanese, I was somebody speaking with a Palestinian accent and in Palestine; I was somebody with a Lebanese accent. Sadly, I discovered that the reality of the occupation is much worse then one can imagine from the outside. On the upside, it only took a couple of visits to be well accepted and to start understanding about the social topography. That was very important to myself, for my filmmaking and for my work in cultural development later. It is quite a difference between reading about a place and getting to know it and to know its people in person, physically.
After the Oslo agreements, a lot of Palestinians moved back to the West Bank? Did you consider this as well?
In fact, at that time, only a limited number of Palestinians linked to the PLO were allowed to return. I did not qualify for that. But both my films and my work for the foundation have made me return on a very regular basis so the question of relocating has come up. We decided to look at that again when our daughter graduates from school, which will be in a couple of years. In fact, you should know that I do not have a sentimental relationship with Palestine in that sense, for me it is more a moral issue. There are emotions involved related to dealing with an infuriating and maddening situation but overall I think it is more about justice and morality.
What stories of your parents have influenced you most?
My parents were very different with respect to their memories. My father had a very good memory but he would never talk in detail, always with large sweeps, as with broad strokes of a brush. Whereas my mother, who had a very poor memory, like me, remembered a lot of details. Her stories were always a lot more vivid, about the house of her family in Tulkarem for example. She lost her mother when she was eight. To me, as a child, that story was particularly horrifying. The story of my mother and her family is a very colorful one. Her father was a well-respected teacher in Tulkarem. After refusing to salute the British flag at his school, he was expelled to Iraq. They moved to Mosul, where my mother was born. In 1940 however, her father took part in a failed coup against the British backed king over there. As a result, he was imprisoned and his family was forced to leave again and moved back to Palestine. My mother and her sister were sent to a Catholic convent and boarding school in Jerusalem. As my grandmother had died of tuberculosis, the family refused to let the girls come home for years. There was a lot of misunderstanding about tuberculosis at the time and they were condemned to live at the boarding school for years, which was a very hard and lonely time for them. You can add the famine during the Second World War to that and imagine yourself. And in 1948, reunited with her father and family, they all had to run again, this time to Damascus. Ultimately, my parents met in Kuwait, as I explained before. But of course, these are stories about my mother, only incidentally about Palestine.
What place do you dream of, assuming you would move back in the future?
I would love to live in Jerusalem, although it has become very tense and horrible in the past years. The other place which I enjoy is Nablus, my wife’s city. It is one of the few old Arab cities in the Near East which is still intact and is not as a tourist attraction, but a place where people live, where the crafts, restaurants and traditions are still intact. With all the wars that are affecting the region now, and with the onset of this savage capitalism that is changing everything so quickly, it is to be feared that places with such authenticity will disappear in the near future. And I have to mention the sea and Gaza. If I would have the choice, I would love to live near the sea.
What about other memories?
And then of course there is the light; there is a very special light that is unique to Palestine. In winter and spring, it is very beautiful. There is this quality of the land it can turn into a deep burgundy… And the sound of the trees… when we lived in Beirut, we were next to a pine forest which I will never forget the sound of.
Last but not least, there is the food. Leaving Lebanon and arriving as a young boy in an English boarding school, I can assure you that the food from home was something that I did miss terribly. However, I am happy to tell you that I married into a family from Nablus, and it is full of excellent cooks [smile].