‘Habibi Rasak Kharban’ (Darling, Something’s Wrong with Your Head)
Great stories of forbidden love transcend place and time and the names of star crossed lovers are scattered across our collective consciousness. The story of love unfulfilled continues to tumble from one expression to another, reaching new audiences, in new ways. Shakespeare found inspiration for his Romeo and Juliet from a 16th century Italian novella, Wagner wrote the opera Tristan and Isolde thanks to a 13th century rhyming couplet and in the 12th century the famed Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi constructed his poetic magnum opus Layla and Majnun from an Arab parable dating back to 7th century. The characters from all of these famed tales have become synonymous with the truest expressions of love and the latest incarnation of the love between Layla and Majnun has been brought to us by Sousan Youssef in her 2011 film ‘Habibi Rasak Kharban’.
The Fainting of Layla and Majnun 1550-1600
Brooklyn born Youssef is a film director of Lebanese heritage who’s touching exploration of love, family and society, set to a backdrop of occupied Palestine, was viewed by #OCCUPYARABART in Liverpool’s Bluecoat gallery at the end of March as an introduction to the 2015 Liverpool Arab Art Festival. Habibi explores the story of Layla and Qays, who in the original Arabic tale becomes driven so mad by his love for and devotion to Layla that he comes to be known by the community by the name Majnun. The word translates to ‘mad’ or ‘possessed’ and in tragic irony results in Layla’s father objecting to her marrying a man whose nickname could be something so unacceptable. In the contemporary exploration of this tale Youssef has chosen not to set this in her home country or even the countries of the Arab region where the story is derived, but has instead elected to deliver her vision in the Palestine of 2001 during the upheaval and emotion of the second Intifada (uprising). In doing so Youssef has added a powerful political and social element to an already tragic and emotionally charged interpretation.
In Habibi, Layla (Maisa Abd Elhadi) and Qays (Kais Nashef) are two young students who fall in love, whilst they are both away from their homes in Gaza, at University in the West Bank. They are able to explore the intimacy and headiness of first love in relative freedom, away from the restrictions of families and community. In an intimate opening scene Qays and Layla are shown in conversation, hungry to learn more about each other, they talk of what moves them. It is here that the central theme of poetry is introduced as Qays, an aspiring poet, says that it is poetry that moves him whilst Layla answers that there is no greater poetry than that of the Quran. The couple’s delicate joy however is soon shattered as they are forced by the politics of occupation and uprising to return home to Gaza before their studies are complete. In returning home they are no longer able to see each other, the Arab and Muslim culture of Palestine preventing their relationship from progressing is heightened by the abject difference in their social status. Layla, strong willed and educated returns to her middle class home to live with her parents and brother and the artistic and poetic Qays to a refugee camp, struggling to accept the physical labour or working in construction in stark contrast to the eloquent and creative poetry he is capable of.
Youssef displays life in Gaza away from news cameras and sound-bites through Layla’s younger brother, showing the exploration of adolescence familiar to teenagers across the globe as he and his friend stand on streets talking about girls, smoking cigarettes and discussing their futures. The boys painfully experience that life in Gaza and life under occupation is anything but ‘normal’. The relaxed young brother has his own existence shattered when one evening as they drive around his friend is killed by an Israeli sniper. This tragedy, shocking to the audience yet unfortunately familiar to the characters, is used to portray the anger and resentment that builds in the younger generations of Palestinians. The role of politics in Habibi adds to the building frustration of all the characters inability to control their own lives and it is here that Youseff bravely shows how political groups like Hamas can seem like a noble option as. It is Hamas that seem to deliver support, answers and solutions to the grief stricken brother. Through the concept of resistance he finds a way to redeem his loss and this carefree young man, once uninterested in politics becomes serious, extreme and conservative. A change that alters the way he perceives his sister and her relationship in an agonizing way.
The headstrong Layla struggles to accept the changes in her life, her inability to finish her education, to see her lover and the control her once relaxed brother begins to exert. These restrictions of family, reputation and curfew lead to some of the most powerful moments in this film. Youssef films these scenes in silence as the audience watch Qays wandering the rubbled streets, graffiting poetry dedicated to Layla on the walls of their town. In Nizami’s verse Qays is described as a ‘drunken lion’ and we see in Habibi a rough and beautiful lion-like Qays, his messy hair forming a mane, intoxicated by love he sprays words of devotion in red on damaged walls. Youssef has cleverly adapted the original parable where Qays is described as a poet who would recite his lines of love to passersby and ingrain his phrases into the sand with a stick. In both versions Qays’s feelings are not internalised, he is desperate to project his feelings to the outside world. In Habibi this is taken literally as his words, via walls, reach Layla, her father and the wider community.
The broken walls that form the pages of Qays’s poetry also form socio-political commentary by Youssef on the living state of the people of Gaza. They show how life for them is broken, pushed out by illegal settlements, homes are demolished and rights are infringed upon in some of the most extreme ways. Youssef is bringing issues such as these into film within a love story to reach a wider audience and to raise awareness of Palestinian struggle. In interviews Youssef has explained that it was impossible to film in Gaza with many scenes filmed in the West Bank. The frustrating reality of attempting to make this film adds to the frustration of the narrative itself. The overriding emotion for the audience throughout Habibi is one of the tension of being trapped; by family, tradition, society and the physicality of being trapped within one’s own country.
In love, Layla and Qays desperately want to be together but are held back by many forces. Qays believes that if he works and Layla waits, he will be able to afford to marry her, whilst at home Layla faces pressure to marry another. In a moment of desperation Layla sends a note to her suitor begging him to come. Layla’s father, who has stood in front of Qays’s poems in shock and embarrassment is not receptive to Qays’s wish to marry his daughter and is angered and confused by the intensity of his love. Scenes follow of arguments and fighting families that show how Layla’s love for Qays affects the relationships and love she holds dear. Youssef sensitively shows that in matters of the heart not all is straightforward whilst for Qays the intensity of his love cannot be altered by any outside factors shaking his belief in Layla’s love for him. Layla’s turmoil is shown in emotional scenes of her face lost in thought, pained and quiet, smoking locked in toilets. The extended time of watching this intimate pain moves the audience to an understanding of her struggle and of the inability to find a solution.
The tension culminates when the couple make a daring attempt to flee to Europe and they find themselves faced with shadowy and unseen figures of authority at the border. This scene builds into a terrifying ordeal as Layla is interrogated and abused whilst Qays is left helpless with no way to protect his love. She is given the choice between returning home and returning to being without her love or escaping with Qays, leaving her family and country with the added pain of becoming an informant on the resistance movement within Gaza. Layla is gripped by fear and the reality of her choice. Refusing to be disloyal to her people a sense of hopelessness and dread overcomes the audience.
Layla broken by her experience accepts her fate and returns home, Qays destroyed returns to wandering the streets reciting poetry but this time it is words of heartbreak that consume him. Qays’s drifting leads him to a mound of rubble where he is warned by a street boy that if he continues he risks being shot. He silently continues, pausing briefly at the summit before disappearing out of the shot. We are left with a seemingly ambiguous ending as Layla is shown walking towards the sea, their figures lie together and we as the audience understand that the only place they could be together is beyond this life and in death they have reached freedom.
The term Majnun became known for those crazy in love and Layla and Majnun were the faithful example of this. The tale is often referred to by authors, musicians and spiritual teachers to provide an example of pure devotion and explores the Sufi mystical ideas and concept of self-sacrifice and love. In Arabic Majnun can mean an absorption into thought and the tale is one of devotion of the soul to another and the experience of the soul in search of God.
‘I pass by these walls, the walls of Layla
And kiss this wall and that wall.
It’s not love of the houses that has taken my heart
but of the One who dwells in those houses.’
In Habibi Youssef takes this most famous verse and uses the literal walls as the place of devotion. Walls can both divide and house us, protect us and when they are demolished we are made vulnerable. She deals with life in the occupied territories, of political struggle and of the variety of love. Love of a cause, of one’s homeland, of freedom, the love between parents, children, siblings and of a lover.
#OCCUPYARABART believe Youssef has found a media by which to offer these commentaries to all people, breaking boundaries of culture and religion with universal themes.