Sept. 29, 2006
NOTE: This is one in a planned series of occasional feature articles on some of the writers from around the world who are taking part in the University of Iowa's International Writing Program this fall.
Sa'adeh Chose The Truth
"They tortured me to get information, about my friends, my colleagues and our activities. And I refused. And then they put in front of me a paper, with a very small paragraph: 'I, Mazen Sa'adeh, blah, blah, blah, announce that I love the King Hussein of Jordan, and acknowledge the majesty of King Hussein . . .' They asked me to sign this paper, but I refused. And they told me, 'If you sign this paper, you will be free. If you don't sign this paper, you will go to the prison.' I refused, and so I was in prison for nine years."
Sa'adeh, the Palestinian novelist and screenwriter in residence this fall at the University of Iowa International Writing Program, speaks about these events more matter-of-factly than you might expect of a man who has spent a third of his adult life incarcerated for rejecting a loyalty oath. For him, it becomes clear, there was no other option. It was a matter of integrity.
When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed an agreement with Israel, Sa'adeh was one of the students in Jordan who protested. "We made a big demonstration and closed the university for three months," he explains. "So they arrested about 300, but in the end they released all the students except two, because we refused to sign this paper."
It wasn't the first time Sa'adeh had stubbornly defended his integrity. By his mid-teens he had decided to be a writer, but his family wanted him to become a doctor -- a more respectable profession. "I refused my father when I was 15 years old," he says. "They thought that if I wanted to be supported by my family, I should be under his control. So I left my family house and went to Lebanon. And they started searching for me and they found me after three months, but I would not go back until I made my conditions and we signed an agreement.
"Sometimes I think about what I did when I was 15 -- leaving home, with no money, to another country -- I have to be in the mountains, alone. It was so crazy. But now it gives me good feelings that I did this brave thing. I took a brave position from the beginning.
"And then when I was in prison and they asked me to sign this paper, it was easier to protect my dignity."
Protecting his dignity in that case meant being cast into an isolated political prison in a remote location in the desert of southern Jordan. And even there, Sa'adeh was intent on living his life on his terms. "I controlled myself in the prison," he says. "In my experience, the day is a hard time for you in the prison. In our daily life we do everything during the day, and at night you sleep. So I changed my life: I lived my life at night and slept during the day."
And it was there, in those lonely nights, caged in the desert, that he started writing the first of his two novels, "The Oak."
Out of prison, Sa'adeh's problems continued. He was refused a passport to work abroad and toiled as a journalist for 11 years, and when the novel was completed the government refused him registration to publish it in Jordan. "So I published it in Cyprus and got it by mail. And students in the university started to distribute it hand to hand."
As a result of the democracy movement in Jordan, beginning in the late 1980s, political conditions improved, and he relocated to Palestine -- his home city of Jericho was part of Jordan when he was born, but later became part of the West Bank, and is now part of the Palestinian Authority.
In Palestine he met filmmakers who opened a whole new direction for his writing -- and posed more integrity challenges. "In 1998 a filmmaker asked me to write a script for a short drama," Sa'adeh explains. "He shot the film and invited me to the premiere, and after I saw it I told him 'This is not my film!'
"He added two scenes and he changed the last scene, so he changed all the concept. So I asked him, 'Please remove my name from the film.' And he said, 'I can't do that. This film was printed in London in 35 mm, and it is impossible now to change it.' But I announced that it's not my film and I made a big fight with him because he changed the concept."
That's when Sa'adeh realized that he must become a director, too. He learned a great deal about the filmmaking process by taking an acting role in a feature film, and then, at the urging of a friend in Jerusalem he entered a major cinema competition: "She said, 'We have this big competition. You know Palestinian filmmakers, and we want Palestinian filmmakers to participate in this competition.' I told her, 'OK, send me the details,' so she sent me the details and I distributed these documents to all the Palestinian filmmakers.
"And one day she came to Ramallah from Jersusalem and said that the time was getting short, and so she asked me to write something, to apply for this competition. And I told her, 'I don't have a script, I have a novel.' So she asked me to write this novel as a script. I did it in four days and entered the competition -- and it was a big competition, I think 500-600 filmmakers and writers from Europe and the Mediterranean entered this competition -- and I won this prize in 2001."
The prize immediately opened up opportunities for Sa'adeh. He attended major workshops throughout the region, and was put in contact with producers and funders from Europe and the United States. He has directed short films, and now looks forward to directing his first feature film, his adaptation of his novel "The Last Hour."
But despite his recent successes, he knows that young artists in Palestine face unusual challenges. To confront those barriers, he co-founded the Open Workshop for Culture and the Arts in Palestine in 2004. "It is very difficult for Palestinian artists to go out and exchange with American and European artists," says Sa'adeh, whose travel to the IWP occurred only after a bureaucratic ordeal. "So our workshops give them a good chance to meet American artists, European artists." An exhibition of works by young Palestinian painters will be soon be mounted in Ramallah, Jersusalem and New York.
And it also enables these outside artists to see some the other Palestine, the one that is not seen on the television news. "What you see in the news is not the real Palestinians," Sa'adeh asserts. "I have many friends who are Jews in Israel, and are opposed to the occupation, and sometimes we work together. Some of them live in Ramallah. To see the real Palestinians, you should come there, to feel the very warm Arab welcome."
So Mazen Sa'adeh is now a very busy and successful artist -- novelist, prize-winning screenwriter, playwright, promoter of young artists, advocate for cultural understanding, budding filmmaker -- but his fateful refusal to sign that paper many years ago is never far from his mind. For not only does he look back at prison without regret, he also views his stubborn defense of integrity and dignity as integral to who he is, and what he has become.
"Without this experience I would be a different person," he says. "But I like what I am now.
"I chose my direction -- not to be with winners. I believe that in this present time, many of the writers and many of the teachers who work in universities choose the winners side, because of economic reasons. It's not that I choose the losers. I choose the truth."
Twenty-nine writers, representing 22 countries, are in residence this fall at the IWP. Biographies of all the writers are accessible on the IWP website, www.uiowa.edu/~iwp.
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