For Palestinians – as for many refugees in camps and detention – a state of lockdown is nothing new. In Elia Suleiman’s gentle comedy It Must Be Heaven, he seems to foretell, with empty city-scapes, and omnipresent police – how COVID-19 can affect the most vulnerable. As species die around us, oceans rise, more and more people will be forced to flee. We are now besieged by a 1.5 billion year old life-form: a virus. Suleiman suggests we learn from this experience to live in the state of siege epitomized by Palestine. His surreal film inspires us to observe, to reflect on our common humanity, and to quietly, and resolutely, resist state solutions that put security ahead of human well-being.
‘Handala’ by cartoonist Naji al-Ali Elia Suleiman in ‘It Must be Heaven‘
In an early full-length study of how COVID-19 lockdowns affect migrant workers, the editor comments that across the world: “Borders are closed. These closing lines are drawing inwards like concentric circles to the extent that the migrant…is unwelcome, s/he is a migrant to his/her own home”. An estimated 80 per cent of the planet’s people have been through weeks or months of strict lockdown, and global dividing walls seem to divide more and more of us. In his gentle, surreal and humorous film, Palestinian director Elia Suleiman suggests, during the worldwide COVID-19 lockdown, “you can consider the world a global Palestine”. In the ironically-titled It Must be Heaven (2019), set in occupied Palestine, Paris and New York, Suleiman plays the main character.
He stands, like Handala, the little boy seen from behind, cartoon symbol of Palestinian resistance (Illustration below). As Naji al-Ali, the cartoonist, explains he: “…drew Handala to keep the memory of his homeland close to him, and…through this icon he works to remember his Palestinian identity”. [HH1] Handala is a young refugee. Like him, Suleiman stands in the film with his hands folded behind his back, bearing witness to all that is around him. In Paris and New York, he finds the cities almost deserted. He watches policemen measure the distance between the café tables to the road, as he sits drinking coffee. They could be measuring our social distancing. As tanks rumble through Parisian streets, we are back in Palestine. In New York, a helicopter follows Suleiman down an empty alleyway. Grocery shoppers carry guns, bazookas, grenades, and rocket-launchers. In a rare act of kindness, an African-American taxi driver, hearing Suleiman is Palestinian, offers him a free cab ride. In Central Park an angel dressed in the Palestinian flag is chased by police. In Nazareth, Paris, New York, police are everywhere, along with cameras and surveillance.
As Daniel Trilling notes, measures to combat Covid-19 have led to the ‘overpolicing of marginalized groups’. And Suleiman points out that the politics used in Palestine are now universal. Can one really fight a virus with security measures and border closure? Across the world, migrant workers, refugees, the homeless and Roma are besieged, confined to crowded accommodation, chased out of the cities in the Gulf, India and China. Forced into makeshift camps, attacked and detained, all in the name of containing the virus. What we need now is testing, tracing and protection for the most vulnerable, and genuinely universal health care. In the absence of these necessities, we get more policing. When Turkey bussed Syrian refugees to the Greek border during the COVID-19 crisis, they were reportedly met with “tear gas, water cannon and live ammunition” when “…trying to cross the border”. As attention shifts away from terrorism to infection, the vocabulary remains the same: fighting, beating, a war. The unseen enemy must be smashed, but the violence is also visible. As Arundhati Roy (Indian novelist and political speaker) notes: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next”. In the perplexing era we now live in, like Suleiman, and like Handala, Naji-al-Ali’s iconic symbol of Palestinian sumud, or resistance, we need to pause a while, observe, listen and learn, and to resist through finding joy in our common humanity.