Cutting through the bullshit.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

The promise

Anybody who's read this blog will know that I tend to be highly critical of anything I see about Palestine. While my principal concern seems to be deconstructing hasbara 'arguments', bogus 'definitions' of antisemitism and so forth, I have also criticised the Two State 'Solution, expressed scepticism of the one and no state solutions, and cast doubt on BDS. So it's a big deal when I find something that offers so little to criticise as Peter Kosminsky's 2011 four part Channel Four series, The promise. I gather from Cecilie Surasky's 22 February Muzzlewatch post (which ironically has the comments facility disabled) that many in North America have not seen this important series. To the best of my knowledge, it has never been broadcast either free to air or on cable in the US or Canada and the DVD only appears to be available coded for regions 2 and 4, but you know what to do about that, and there are torrents available, as well. I recommend that you make a point of securing a copy and a box of tissues and read no further, as there will be a few spoilers.

The story begins in 2005 when Erin, an English girl who has just finished school, and her mother, Chris, visit her grandfather, Len, in hospital. He is intubated and can't speak or move. In the next scene, Erin and Chris are clearing out Len's house and Erin discovers his diary hidden behind some other books. She asks Chris about it and is instructed to 'bin it', as 'it's private', which is sufficient to ensure that Erin recovers it from the trash and takes it. She then divulges that her closest mate, Eliza, an Israeli dual national who has done her schooling in England – her father is an English oleh, has to return to do her military service and has asked Erin to come with her. Furthermore, she is leaving in a few days' time. Eliza's motivation is not really clear. She will be in training five days of the week, leaving Erin to lounge by the pool at her parents' luxurious Caesaria house and hang with her at the weekend. On the flight, Eliza dozes in her first class seat while Erin starts reading the diary, depicted in flashbacks, in which she learns that Len had served in the force that liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The flashback includes a few minutes of gruesome holocaust footage.

The balance of the series follows Len's experiences in Palestine after the war interspersed with Erin's adventures as she attempts to find the family of Mohammed abu Hassan, the chaiwallah employed by Len's unit who Len had befriended. Erin is utterly clueless and quite aware of her cluelessness. Although Claire Foy, the actress who plays her, was in her mid 20s when the series was filmed, she appears even younger than her character's 18 years. She wanders into situations that she knows must be dangerous without a qualm and never hesitates to request extravagant favours from people she doesn't know that will on occasion place them in mortal peril. Indeed, the fate of Omar, an Israeli Palestinian, veteran of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and fellow member of Combatants for Peace with Eliza's elder brother, Paul, is left unresolved. Presumably to keep Len's and Erin's narratives in parallel, Erin does not finish reading the diary before she sets out on her adventures. Or perhaps that's just an indication of how unprepared she was.

My principal criticism of the series is that, consistent with the narrator's point of view, it is couched entirely within the trope of the beneficent British army's valiant attempt to keep the colonised Jews and Arabs from tearing each other apart – 'the meat in the sandwich', as the intelligence officer puts it in a briefing. Len, himself, a sergeant in command of some 40 other soldiers, is scrupulously fair to everybody, but then it is his diary. And as a matter of fact, it's not really a criticism. One of the charms of the series, the usual accusations of antisemitism notwithstanding, is that it airs a healthy range of perspectives. Len has an affair with Clara, a Holocaust survivor employed by the Haifa City club to entertain British troops (an institution, by the way, that I had been unaware of), who is also a member of the Irgun. Erin meets Eliza and Paul's maternal grandfather, another Irgun terrorist enjoying what appears to be a decidedly comfortable retirement, who is proud of his involvement in the July 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel where the mandate authorities were headquartered, which killed 91, including 17 Jews. Coincidentally, Len has a meeting there and arrives just in time to witness the attack, but is not badly injured. Len often hears radio broadcasts by the Jewish resistance. Paul and Eliza's father articulates traditional 'liberal Zionist' views, while Paul himself, who served for three years in Hebron, is antizionist and seldom enunciates anything I'd differ with. In the course of her travels, Omar takes Erin to Ein Hawd, where survivors of the Nakba get to tell their stories.

Through plot devices that sometimes seem a little contrived, Len's story takes the viewer through a number of historical incidents, including the King David Hotel bombing and the Deir Yassin massacre, while Erin survives a suicide bombing in a Tel Aviv bar, witnesses the harassment of schoolchildren and others in Hebron and a house demolition in Gaza.

There are a few apparent inconsistencies and anachronisms. In the first episode, for instance, Eliza drives herself and Erin, alone in the family's Mercedes convertible, to her first day of training. It is not clear how she aims to return the car to her home when Erin, who we already know to be epileptic, can't drive. When Len is patrolling one night in 1945 or 1946, he uses a torch that looks suspiciously like a Maglite, which was only invented in 1979. Observant viewers familiar with military paraphernalia can probably spot other such anachronisms. Perhaps most disturbingly, in the final episode, Omar and Erin enter Gaza through a tunnel. As far as I know, the tunnels into the Gaza strip connect Rafah with the Egyptian side of the border. It seems inconceivable that a tunnel entrance within Israel could go undetected. But there's no indication that they flew or snuck into Egypt to access the tunnel.

Quibbling aside, I think The promise provides a dramatic and easily digested introduction to some of the historical events and current issues in Palestine and I make a point of showing it to whoever will sit still for six hours.