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November 14, 2013

Screening of Gaza Love Story 'Habibi' Intended to Open Cultural Dialogue

feature1-lgMain characters Qays and Layla in a scene from the film “Habibi,” which will be screened Nov. 21.
feature1-lgB“Habibi” is a modern retelling of an ancient Sufi parable that is set in the disputed Gaza Strip.
By Jon Cawley

Susan Youssef's "Habibi" is the modern telling of an ancient Arabian tale of forbidden love that is set in Gaza during the escalating tensions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict following the turn of the 21st century.

Old Dominion's Institute for the Humanities and a consortium of university co-sponsors are bringing the Brooklyn-born filmmaker to the campus Nov. 21-22 for two public events focusing on the film, which is also known by its full Arabic title, "Habibi Rasak Kharbam," or "Darling, Something's Wrong with Your Head."

"Habibi," the first fictional feature set in Gaza in over 15 years, has been screened at numerous international festivals and won several awards. It has not been shown in Hampton Roads.

"Our hope is that the film will bring together members of the Arab and Jewish communities in Hampton Roads and enhance interfaith and intercultural dialogue among them," said Avi Santo, director of the ODU Institute for the Humanities. "The Institute for the Humanities embraces as part of its mission efforts to use art and popular culture as platforms for community engagement and critical conversation."

In "Habibi," Youssef rekindles the 7th century Sufi parable, "Majnun Layla," with contemporary twists. The story follows two young lovers studying at a West Bank university who are forced to return home to Gaza when escalating tensions between Palestinians and Israeli Defense Forces prompt the closure of the disputed area.

But the couple's love is challenged in Khan Younis, one of the most conservative areas of Gaza where dating isn't the custom because it goes beyond the control of family. To reach his lover Layla, Qays scrawls love poems on walls around town. The graffiti is popular, but causes a scandal. Layla's parents seek to marry her and rescue her reputation, while Layla's brother and his friends seek to cast the poet out of Khan Younis. Layla must take action to find Qays, who is living in a refugee camp. A subplot of the film follows Layla's brother as he joins Hamas.

"'Habibi' is a film that challenges prejudice and works towards universal human rights," according to a film synopsis. "'Habibi' is both a reinterpretation of the parable and an exploration of the relationship between politics and Islam at a particular historical moment: the Second Intifada."

Youssef, who was recognized by Filmmaker magazine as one of the "25 New Faces" to watch, says she borrowed elements from Middle Eastern cinema. Her film experiments with slower-paced scenes, relying on visuals rather than dialogue, and portrays Layla as a "woman on the verge of change." Other characteristics include symmetrical framing, diegetic sound and natural cinematography.

"With 'Habibi,' part of our goal is to open up dialogue within and among Hampton Roads' Arab and Jewish communities about the challenges faced by Palestinians living under occupation," Santo said. "My sense is 'Habibi' is ultimately attempting to portray the complexities of that situation and how this interferes with people's abilities to live their lives, exacerbating both love and hatred for one another. The film is provocative, and our hope is that it can provoke a critical and reflexive conversation."

For more information about the film, and to view the official trailer, visit the 'Habibi' website.

The Nov. 21 ODU screening of "Habibi" will be at 6 p.m. in the Mills Godwin Jr. Life Sciences Building, Room 102. A question-and-answer period with Youssef will follow the showing.

On Nov. 22, Youssef will participate in a public colloquium on "Art, Popular Culture and Interfaith Dialog," along with Scott Girdner, ODU assistant professor of philosophy and religious studies, and Rabbi Michael Panitz of Temple Israel, who is also an ODU adjunct history professor. The colloquium will be from 3-5 p.m. in the Batten Arts and Letters Building, Room 9024.