Nostalgia Sunday – Searching for Paradise Lost
Director Avi Mograbi’s new film, Once I Entered a Garden”, explores the idea of a Middle East that once existed, where the borders that today divide hostile nations had not yet been established. It is also, the filmmaker states, “A Middle East in which metaphorical boundaries also do not exist.”
The film is both documentary and fantasy, starting with an imagined encounter between Mograbi and his grandfather, Ibrahim, before the family’s ancestral home in Damascus in 1920. What language will they speak?, he wonders. Mograbi resolves to learn Arabic and in real-life, begins studies with tutor Ali Al-Azhari, who is a central figure in the documentary.
A Palestinian Arab born in Saffuriyya near Nazareth, Al Azhari is described by Mograbi as “a refugee in his own homeland”, living in Tel Aviv, married to a Jewish woman and father to a young daughter. Al Azhari’s way of life, Mograbi says, “poses a challenge to the central value — separation — of both of Palestinian and Jewish society alike.”
In Mograbi’s grandfather’s time, there was pan-regional social and commercial contact. In one scene, Al Azhari assists Mograbi in searching for his ancestors in business directory dated 1938-39, covering the nations of Lebanon, Syria and Palestine.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, “The directory – published in three languages (French, English and Arabic) – is one of many references made to the diaspora that existed in that section of the Middle East before it was sliced up along religious lines, and Mograbi and Al Azhari spend much of the movie discussing how their respective cultural heritages were upended by events following the Second World War.”
“After visiting sites in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, the two friends ultimately make their way to Al Azhari’s birthplace, where they are confronted with yet another case of the absurd realities governing the land. While the men are clearly used to such obstacles by now, the young Yasmin [Al Azhari] is not, and her reaction provides an indication as to how future generations may grow to accept their nation’s dark heritage.”