Lemon Tree: Quiet Sadness and Rage in an Israeli-Palestine Film

Like the Lebanese  film CaramelLemon Tree makes an illusion to the idea that life is, well, like food: in this case, like a lemon, life is both sweet and sour. Lemon Tree is a remarkable movie in that, as the lawyer Ziad says (and in contrast to The Syrian Bride) “life does not always have a Hollywood ending.” Lemon Tree does not have a happy ending, and the overall tone and pace of the film make that clear from the beginning; the silences, quiet moments and lack of crucial dialogue that one just keeps waiting for the characters to exchange never happens all point to one of the film’s concepts that there is a major lack, or want, of dialogue.

R-L: Lawyer Ziad, Salma and Salma’s longtime worker in the lemon grove. Soruced from alftg.com

Vocalizing the unsaid seems to be the theme of Lemon Tree, a 2008 Israeli-Palestinian film which, although not so popular among Israelis, was loved by the rest of the world. The film tells the tale of Salma, played by Hiam Abbass, a middle-aged woman whose grove of lemon trees are seen as a security threat to the Israeli Defense Minister  (symbolically called Israel) and his wife Mira who have moved in next door, and thus must be uprooted. Rebellion against existing systems is too a theme: in a move that would make feminists proud, Salma decides to take up the matter all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court, despite opposition from both Arabs and Israelis. In the end Salma loses and her trees are cut down, and it is only bitter victory Mira leaves Israel and the Dividing Wall being built throughout the country cuts right across his backyard, obscuring completely his view of the trees and rendering all the trouble everyone went through worthless. It was indeed a symbolic ending: should we build walls within society? And: with walls (or silence), the distance between people becomes so wide that the gulf becomes impossible to bridge (in this case, the new Wall was impenetrable).

Mira pacing the fence between her property and the lemon grove. Sourced from film-forward.com

The “relationship” between Salma and Israel’s wife is, to me, troubling. I found myself yelling at my computer screen, asking “why don’t they say something?” Mira never verbally confronts Salma, never speaks once except to explain why they want lemons. Yet if she did, the whole problem could have been solved. Likewise Salma never verbalizes what she believes to her neighbors, and although she does eloquently state her mind in court, I feel that regardless of legal say-so it is with her neighbors that her case rests. Mira is a bit of a feminist herself—she does challenge her husband, although not strongly enough—and she does leave him at the end because her personal happiness and respect is more important.

Even if one can challenge the religious or political system in terms of human rights and dignity, challenging one’s neighbors/society is the most difficult of all. Israel’s irresponsible comment that dialogue “hasn’t worked in 3000 years” shows how quick people are to give up fighting, and how silence does not ameliorate a situation any more than dialogue does and in fact gives no possible solution, ever.

            As with The Syrian Bride this film also shows what I would call “Arab Feminism.” Salma has the advantage of being an older, and thus more respected, woman and widow, which allow her some mobility as she has to take care of herself. Her standing up to the Israelis when “her husband never would have” shows that she is transgressing beyond even what a man would do, and the Palestinians don’t like that, but Salma fights for what she wants. That Salma, who seems a bit quiet and reserved, stands up to the overbearing, self-centered and cruel Israeli government is a major female empowerment moment as even a man wouldn’t have done that, and I loved her challenging the state and holding a mirror up to it’s inhumanity and inconsideration.

At the same time, Salma decides to give in to social and traditional pressure when it comes to her romance with the much-younger Ziad and end all ties with him. Thus, we see the social limits to woman’s freedom in Palestine: even when she has neither husband nor elder family members to tell her what to do, a woman is still subject to the social order when it comes to her relationships. But before ending her relationship Amal does give in to desire and not only continues to see Ziad after the warnings but even kisses him, not only underscoring the  that sex/physical relations between two unmarried people do exist in the Muslim world but also that these couples don’t always get caught. (I still cannot believe when he asks to spend the night at her house, nor the early-morning conversation in their bedclothes that ensues; it seems so wholly out of place with Muslim/Middle Eastern culture, but yet at the same time the scene doesn’t jar with the rest of the film).

If you haven’t seen the film, I strongly suggest you see it. Despite the desire to either cry or throw things at the TV screen, Lemon Tree reminds us all how important it is to open up and talk about problems because doing the opposite will not make them disappear as we wish.


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