“I despise the idea of the present as nothing but a void. A transition between what was and what’s to come. A sentimental prelude to the afterlife. It rejects any sense of now. The fact of our existence.”
This line comes from 30-year-old protagonist Alia in one of my favourite films, In Vitro (2019), now available on Netflix, directed by Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind. In the Palestinian post-apocalyptic sci-fi short film, Alia is born underground as part of a cloning program and has never seen the town she is destined to rebuild.
Alia is arguing with 70-year-old Dunia, who founded the orchard they live in, with a group of scientists who are preparing to replant the soil using heirloom seeds collected days before the apocalypse. The exchange between Alia and Dunia develops into an intimate dialogue about memory, exile, and nostalgia, encompassing the symbolically and politically charged backdrop of Bethlehem, Palestine.
“This present barely exists,” responds Dunia. “You were born into purgatory. Like past generations in this place. They all tried to redeem their present lit up with old stories and decorated the void with promises of things to come. But the void only grows. Soon, it’s so imposing and violent, it devours everything in its way. Like a black hole….”
This part of the film feels the most potent. It is resonant of the pain of older generations, now in exile, and the angst of younger generations, who are born in exile and lack the embodied experience of homeland that their elders speak of. In the film, Dunia only wants to return to the way things were before doomsday. Alia, who has visions of Palestine from memories artificially implanted in her mind, is at odds with the role of the past. Dunia bites back, “We were all raised on someone else’s nostalgia.”
“We were all raised on someone else’s nostalgia.”
Although it is a sci-fi fiction, In Vitro speaks to the current-day Israeli occupation of Palestine. In the face of occupation and apartheid, Palestinian women remain rooted in the land. Whether it is through advocacy, physical labour, art, archiving, gatherings, or demonstrations, their individual and collective engagement contributes to the vitality of Palestine.
For example, the uprooting and burning of Palestinian olive trees by Israeli forces has been an ongoing act of cultural and economic violence. On February 22, the Instagram account @menaheat shared a video of Palestinian musician Dalal Abu Amneh singing a traditional Palestinian folk song about olive harvest season, “Dal’ouna Al Zaytoun,” with a group of women. This video has circulated on the internet for years. Encountering it always gives pause.
In the “Dal’ouna Al Zaytoun” video, the group of women sing, ululate, and grasp the olive tree they sing to and about, while they and a group of children clap along to the rhythms of their celebration. The inherent collectivity and love in the video moves me to tears.
It is no wonder Dunia of In Vitro feels tethered to what was, and determined to reinstate it. The fight for a Free Palestine is necessarily attached to the land and its resources, and women are always there to defend it. Singing to olive trees might seem like an inconsequential response to military violence, but it is precisely this kind of nourishment which feeds community spirit and maintains generational, loving relationships with land.
I return to “Dal’ouna Al Zaytoun” and In Vitro time and time again as examples of Arab feminism. As a Lebanese young adult born in the diaspora, I know that the only way forward is by looking back. I hold my truth while also being curious about what Arab elders think and feel, jaded as they are sometimes. They embody resilience and invaluable knowledge.
“I want to line up my ancestors,” Palestinian American poet Hala Alyan writes. The April 2020 article titled “This is Not a Rehearsal,” published in Emergence Magazine, processed the similarities between the COVID-19 pandemic and the diasporic experience.
The fight for a Free Palestine is necessarily attached to the land and its resources, and women are always there to defend it.
“I want to know how they survived. This part of the world knows shelter. It has been sanitized for several generations; even its wars are fought on others’ soil. I think of the millions—past and present—pressed in basements with flashlights and stale water, waiting for bombs; my own mother in Damascus after the Kuwait invasion, awaiting my father’s arrival for weeks. The time passed, she tells me. The time always passes. The secret to endurance, it seems, is to get good at waiting.”
But waiting is not an idle action. The women of In Vitro are planning, working, and keeping memory alive as they wait to seed the future. In the “Dal’ouna Al Zaytoun” video, they are harvesting olives, preserving culture, and teaching youth as they wait for the world to care about the occupation.
Here in the diaspora, we watch helplessly as our homelands and peoples suffer, celebrate, and live on. Let the abyss of nostalgia not be a void, but a reminder of kinship, solidarity, and most of all, love, in its purest and most actionable form.
Editor’s Muse column by Christina Hajjar (senior editor, Herizons)
Christina Hajjar is a queer femme first-generation Lebanese artist, writer, and cultural worker based in Winnipeg on Treaty 1 Territory. She is passionate about independent publishing, self-publishing, and print media. Hajjar is co-editor of Carnation Zine (on diaspora and displacement) and qumra journal (on world cinema). Her writing has appeared in BlackFlash Magazine, C Magazine, The Uniter, and CV2. Learn more at christinahajjar.com.