The very title of Eran Riklis’ 2004 film The Syrian Bride shows the rebellion and confusion that are central to this film. Firstly, there is the question of the ‘Syrian’ nationality: Mona, the bride, comes from a Druze family in the Golan Heights, an area currently occupied by Israel; by Israeli and legal views she is considered an “Israeli” citizen; however, to Mona and her village they are more likely to see her as Syrian due to the village’s loyalty to Syria. Secondly, this is not so much a story about a wedding, but about the struggle to separate individual from family and family from society.
Rebellion is the key theme, and although the men too rebel too, it is the women who are strong standouts, even though it is interesting to point out that both men and women seem to be meted out equally harsh punishments for “going astray.” There is feminism, and even though Amal, Mona’s liberal sister might wear jeans like a Westerner, it’s got more of a subtle but no less important bent. Mona’s wedding brings home her dysfunctional family which fights among each other and then with the Israeli police in order to accompany Mona to the border, where she will meet her new husband for the very first time, as he is a Syrian TV actor whom she has never met. The showdown in the veritable “No Man’s Land” which is the United Nations-patrolled sliver of land between Syria and Israel is a bit of a Hollywood ending in that of everyone seems to walk off happy, having confronted those opposed to their freedom to choose.
This film has a lot going on in, but it is these different layers and stories which help show that these character’s decisions do not exist in a vacuum; actually, this highlights a crucial difference between (I don’t want to say it but) the West and the Middle East. Whereas in America one largely is free to make their own choices independent of their family and without much threat of being cast out of the family (or society for that matter), the same cannot be said to Middle Eastern families whether they are Christian, Arab or Druze. Each character seems to be facing triple critiques: one, they must fight society and the laws that physically govern the land; two, they must face their family and their family’s reflection in society; and three, they must of course fight the weaknesses and confusion in themselves.
When it comes to the feminist aspect of the film I was not shocked as there was nothing too new in terms of material. Ama’s husband, Amin, does not seem to admire her fiery personality although he does allow her to act as she likes to a certain degree. At first I thought that Amal was Mona’s mother; overall she seemed to unify the entire family better than her father Hammed, which was a challenge to this seemingly very patriarchal society which interesting goes unnoticed. Mona and Amal’s own mother is a wizened woman who appears largely silent, probably in deference to her domineering husband, although I found the relationship between her and her son Hattem’s Russian wife to be important. Although she doesn’t say much, she alone is the first to embrace Hattem’s wife and child, regardless even of what her husband or society says, which is a good example for the rest of the family which again goes unnoticed. Despite the language barriers she tries to communicate with the wife, and even defends her against the other women who remark on her lack of cooking skills, saying that she knows how to “run a hospital” instead. Although very subtle, this is an example of the type of what I would call Arab Feminism: this woman by anyone’s book is a “submissive” and “modest” individual (she dresses in a headscarf and abaya) but even she challenges conventional thought, though not in a way that is all brass-banging and tambourines.
In fact, I would compare her and Mona’s attitudes to be similar: despite the fact that Mona will never see her family again, she does not run around cursing out her father for this despicable arranged marriage (itself an oppression to both man and woman). I do question who thought that the marriage of a girl to someone out of her country seemed like a good idea, since there were bound to be other “good” boys in the village. Mona actually tries to work with the situation a little and is hopefully that maybe good could come out of something seemingly bad. In contrast, we have Amal who openly tells her husband that he can’t stop her from going to get her BA (I loved when she responds to his comments about “They will think I can’t control my wife”) and who faces the Israeli police officer. We also have her eldest daughter who challenges her father when he says that she can’t marry the boy she loves, not only trying to defy arranged marriage but also the idea of respecting one’s elders. Thrown into this mix is the Russian wife, who I just want to point out that, despite being a Westerner seems to be quite meek; grant you, this is probably due to the language barrier (and, being the “other” when it came to marrying my own husband and meeting his family I could relate to her shyness!) but overall she seems pessimistic (“maybe we shouldn’t have come”) and faded in personality.
Another comment: I thought it was interesting how the brother Hattem is considered an outcast because he marries a Russian but then the playboy Marwan, whose behavior seems widely known, is not chastised. This is not just a double standard at play in regards to how a woman in his position would be probably treated, but it also shows that the real transgression is bringing an “other” into the family and incurring lasting shame.
Overall, this was a good ensemble film which shed some light on the little-known-about Druze religion and, although a bit overly drawn-out (and with a largely stereotypical Hollywood ending, unlike The Lemon Tree), The Syrian Bride is a recommended film and a must-see for anyone seeking a dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on less political, more familial grounds.