Monday, May 26, 2014

An Update from Sanabel

Sanabel age 9... or 12....
I should probably look into that...
Every year, for the past 8 years I've watched the Oscar nominated documentary film,  Promises six times.  You would think it would get tiresome, but it hasn't really.  The Israeli/Palestinian Conflict remains as relevant today as when the movie came out in 2001.  Although much has changed, much remains the same.

The film follows Israeli and Palestinian children around, interviewing them and exploring the conflict through their eyes.  It is very well done.  (Did I mention, "Oscar nominated?")

After we watched the film this year, I wondered if it would be possible to get in contact with any of the children from the film, to see what's going on in their lives now, and if/how their views had changed.  With all the various social media out there, we had to have a shot, right?

While a few of my students liked to say this bordered on stalking (creeper, in their words) most of them said I should go for it - so I did.  I found many of the (no longer) children of the film and asked them if we could ask them some questions, and get an update.  There is an update in the film - and my students love it.  After seeing the kids as kids, it clips to several years later, and they're teens.  Sanabel starts off by re-introducing herself and her father in English.  But that update was done in 2004.

We weren't sure if anyone would reply - in fact, I wasn't even sure I had sent messages out to the correct people.  I'm pretty weak in both Arabic and Hebrew - and since many of their profiles are in those languages... you know... What could we do besides wait around and learn something else for a while?

Many of my students were naysayers, but it didn't take Sanabel long to respond.  It took me a little while to get back to her, because I wanted to make sure I gave my students time to ask her questions.  Junior High kids sometimes get a bad reputation - but they came up with some fantastic, FANTASTIC questions.  True, I had to sort out some - many students had the same questions.  Some asked things that were answered in the movie.  One student (apparently not realizing that Sanabel is no longer a teenager) asked her for a date.  Even with taking out the redundant, excessive, redundantly excessive, and pointless questions we still had dozens.  I was worried that if I sent them all she would be overwhelmed - especially given that she was reading and responding in a second language.  But, she was ever so gracious.  I broke up the original questions (I tricked her into answering follow ups as well) into 3 sections.  LIFE, CONFLICT, MOVIE - here is what she had to say, with my thoughts and questions in italics:


First, thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, my classes have come up with several.  How are you?  How is your family?  Do you have your own family now?  How has your life changed since the update in the movie?

I am happy to answer them.  When I first filmed Promises, I was 9 years old.  My father was in prison.  Again, we filmed when I was 12.  On June 16th, I will be 27 years old.  I am now married, and have 2 children - a girl and a boy... Natalie and Marcel.

I graduated from Bethlehem University as a social worker.  I spent two years working in the UN.  I now work for the Qader Association - which works to empower women in economically disadvantaged families.

Do people often contact you about the movie?

I am in touch with a lot of people who have watched Promises.  Schools, families, universities...


Should 12 and 13 year old children be more or less optimistic about peace?  What would you say are the major developments in the conflict since the update?  I'm writing this in Indiana - close to Chicago, in the United States.  We live far away.  Do you have any suggestions as to what we can do to work for peace from here?*  (We come back to these questions later.)

My thoughts on peace are still this: the two-state solution is the only solution.

Peace means the cancellation of checkpoints.  Peace means the freedom of movement between towns.  Peace is not killing Palestinian children, the young, the elderly.  Peace means freeing the Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.


I've always wondered some of this stuff, even if it doesn't really have to do with the conflict.  You and Faraj and Ahmed and Motasem were all from Deheishe Refugee Camp.  Did you know any of them before the filming began, or did you meet them all with the filming?  Also, have you maintained contact with any of them?  (Don't worry if you haven't, as we both know, children grow up.  I don't really even keep in contact with the childhood friends I was closest to...)

I knew Ahmed and Motasem from the dance group before the filming took place.  I don't have contact with Faraj, Yarko, Daniel or Mahmoud.  In fact, I never met Mahmoud, Shlomo, or Moishe.

In the 2004 update, you expressed hopelessness and anger over the fact that Yarko and Daniel joined the army.  Earlier, however, the film had mentioned that military service in Israel is compulsory.  So, if they had no choice, and had to join the army, why were you so mad?  Or did they have a choice we didn't know about?  For instance, could they have served Israel in some other way?

I expressed anger about Yarko and Daniel joining the military because I imagined them being stationed at the checkpoints.  I imagined them invading our area, killing people.  They could have refused to join the military, but they would have gone to prison for 20 days.

*** Interlude***

Now, there was actually some lag time between when I wrote the questions and when Sanabel had a chance to answer them.  That's not really made clear in the blog post.  *I'd like to clarify here that I am in no way a reporter.  I've never taken a journalism course.  So, if this interview seems disjointed, you're just going to have to deal with it.*

During that lag time I was driving home from school, and I heard that The Pope was going to be visiting... Deheishe Refugee Camp.  Now, I don't know if I've ever heard of Deheishe outside of Promises.  And I was in the middle of this correspondence with Sanabel.  I don't know if this ever happens to you - where you see or hear something, then suddenly it's everywhere?  We had already asked her TONS of questions, which she said she would respond to soon, but I figured I could press my luck and ask a couple more about her views on The Pope's visit.

***Technically, that was more of an interruption than an interlude, but it's over at any rate***

I heard on the news that The Pope will be visiting Sunday.  What are your thoughts about this?  They mentioned that it was right after Pope John Paul II visited that the Second Intifada broke out.  Does this concern you?  Are you going to go see him?  Would you even want to?

We Palestinians welcome people from all over the world, for we want them to come and see the reality of what life is like here for themselves.  So, we await the arrival of Pope Francis.  The head of the Catholic Church will confirm the right of the Palestinian people to "have a sovereign independent homeland" as well as Israel's right to "exist and live in peace and security."

***Me Interrupting Again***

This is, perhaps the best part.  Although I tried to make this interview look like it has some sort of cohesion, our correspondence was rather piecemeal.  We're both rather busy people, so we would respond when we could.  But I happened to be online the last time she was responding, so it looked more typical of what I've always imagined an interview should look like.  Albeit I was typing my questions into my phone, and I'm really, really slow.

Regarding the question mentioned above, "Should 12 and 13 year old children be more or less optimistic about peace?"

Palestinian kids - and especially those who live in camps like Deheishe Camp where I live - still suffer the invading from the Israeli soldiers every day and at nights.  Israeli soldiers invade our camp and arrest Palestinian youth from their homes while they are sleeping.  They used to shoot while entering our camp, so nobody would try to get out.

I have a story to tell:

When I got married, I got married to a man from our camp who I loved for 3 years.  When I got married, after 6 months the Israeli soldiers invaded my home and arrested my husband while I was pregnant with Natalie.  I remember them as the hardest two years of my life.

He was released when Natalie was one year old.  She didn't accept her father for months.

Me:  I'm sorry to hear that.

Sanabel's husband, Raed and daughter Natalie.

Sanabel:  Yes.  I graduated from the university when he was in prison.  I had my first anniversary when he was in prison.  And Natalie had her 1st birthday when her father was in prison.  It was a very difficult time, with all this added responsibility.

Me:  It's interesting that as a child you lived through YOUR father being unjustly imprisoned - and then had this happen too.  (*In the movie, Sanabel's father is imprisoned and waits more than 2 years before he's even given a trial...)

Sanabel: Yes.

Me:  It must have given you an added perspective on what your mother went through when you were a child... sorry... I said I wouldn't interrupt.

Sanabel:  Exactly.  That's what I wanted to say.  So thank you.  Children at Deheishe still feel like this.  They always talk about the moments when their fathers or brothers were arrested.  Deheishe Camp, where I live is one of the camps that suffers most from the occupation.  Many people from the outside - from the United States, or from Europe come and live here to know exactly how it is.

Me:  That's interesting.  I wonder though, it's still not the same.  Because in the back of their minds, they know that they're not going to be there forever.  They can get out.  Palestine was never their land, so they don't have the ties to it...  But it would still give them an added perspective and a deeper understanding of what's going on.

Sanabel:  Yes.  It's one thing to see it from the movie, but it is another to live there.  It helps to understand.

Me:  Other than going there ourselves, because this would not be feasible for my students, do you have any suggestions of how we could work for peace?

Sanabel:  I think Promises is the best way to let the people over there know about what is going on in the West Bank.  Because, the people ware are in the film are children, and children see the world truthfully and simply, and speak out about what they see.

Me:  It is interesting that in my class the solutions the students come up with are always a simplified version of what the most highly educated people in the International Relations community come up with: share, get along, we are all people.

Sanabel:  One more thing: I hope that in the future sometime you can come to Palestine.  You and your whole family, your students.  We will welcome you.  I will welcome you into my home.

Me:  Thank you for the invitation.  I will let them all know.  Although, my students are 12 and 13.  But as you know, 12 and 13 year olds grow up.

Sanabel:  I hope that sometime in the future, when they are grown up, they can go all around the world.  I want them to know that we will welcome them any time.  Someday they can come and see things here on the ground, and they will understand very well how people are living in the camps.  They will see the Palestinian Apartheid Wall, the checkpoints, the prisons, everything... and maybe they will understand Promises very well.

Me:  Thank you.  I will pass that along.  I think that the Israelis are worried that if they give the Palestinians a little, the Palestinians will want a lot.  Should they be afraid?

Sanabel:  Why?  We are living here now, as our families have for generations.  We need security, rights, freedom.  Our children have the right to sleep in security, as their children do.  We're not calling for miracles - we're calling for equality.

Me:  You make very good and honest points.  Thank you.  And thank you for your time.

Sanabel:  Thank you.  I want you to also send my thanks to your students, because they are searching for reality, and truth, and sorting through the facts.

Me:  I will do thank.  Thanks again.  And have a nice evening.  In my mind, I'm saying goodbye in Arabic - but since I don't know Arabic, I'll just say goodbye.  

Sanabel:  Ma asalama.

Me: Ma asalama.


  1. Way cool. Mad props.

  2. This is really neat! I have enjoyed reading your blogs and find it exciting that our students have been so interested in the topic. I have not seen this movie. Can I find it online somewhere? -Mrs. Higley

    1. I'm sure it's on Netflix. It's around.

  3. Very nice work Philip (and students). It shows me just how much journalism has changed with the internet. It definitely is worthwhile to see things first-hand if possible, but it is not easy (or always safe) to do so. I would encourage you to follow-up on an Israeli child (now adult) to hear their perspective, both for you, your students, and your readership. Life is not always "safe and secure" for them either. When I visited the west-bank and Gaza several times, we were constantly warned of the dangers, and if you enter by first flying into Israel (since there is no Intern. airport in the Palestinian areas), the Israeli gov't doesn't smile upon that. It may cause you problems when exiting Israel. I once had an Arab friend take me to the airport. They stopped us some place before the airport, and he wasn't allowed any farther. They tagged my bag with about 20 stickers. Before I got to the airport I removed all the stickers, since I knew they were used to alert the security of a possible problem. If I hadn't removed them, I probably would have been interrogated for a couple hours. This had happened to me before when I returned to Israel after visiting Egypt. I had purchased a Bible in Arabic, which security thought was a Koran. I explained to them in Hebrew that it was a Bible, but they still grilled me for a couple hours.

    1. Thanks.

      I would love to do a follow up interview with an Israeli child who is now an adult. I found and messaged 2 of the Israeli children from the film, but I haven't heard back from them. I'm still holding out hope though. I agree that it would be beneficial for all of us. Although, I had to laugh when you included my readership in there, as this blog is hardly widely read. In fact, it goes into hibernation mode at the end of the school year.

      Right while I was finishing up writing this, the Director of the documentary responded, though, and said that she would answer "a couple" questions. I tried to narrow down the list, but it was tough to do. I'm not sure I'll even be able to get that published on here before the end of the school year. It's interesting that 2 of the 3 directors of the film are Jewish. I don't know if that means anything - or if it should - but it's interesting.

      Next year, if none of the Israeli kids write back, I may resort to interviewing you, as someone who has at least been to both places, and experienced the conflict first-hand.

      Thanks for the comment.

    2. By the way. I saw someone post that they had gotten a Koran or Qur'an, which is the religious text for ISLAM! A Koran/Qur'an is not the Jewish holy text. That is the Torah/Tanakh. I'm sorry but we are learning this in Social Studies, as well as I knew this years before. Koran=Islam, Torah=Judaism.

    3. Thanks Anonymous.

      I'm not sure where you saw the post where someone said they had gotten a Qur'an. I don't think anyone on here was claiming it was the holy text for Judaism. However, since Sanabel is Muslim, it would have made sense if someone on here mentioned it.

      I'm glad you're learning something in social studies.

      All the best.

  4. Thank you so much for doing this. I can't quite express the emotions I am feeling right now, for I got so attached to all of the children in Promises, but especially Sanabel, because she is so much like me.

    1. Thanks Jasmine. It was a great experience for everybody involved.

  5. Hello, I am a teacher in massachusetts. Could you tell me how you got in contact with Sanabel. I too have been teaching with this movie for years and would be very interested in trying to get an update from them. Thanks for posting this. I will be sure to share it with my students.

    1. Thanks for sharing it. I hope they liked it. I scoured social media, at the time. I'm still appreciative of her replying.