The Real “Miral:” Rula Jebreal

March 23, 2011

Palestinian author Rula Jebreal bears an uncanny resemblance to Freida Pinto, the Indian actress who portrays the writer’s alter ego in Julian Schnabel’s new film, “Miral.”  So it was not surprising that the filmmaker initially assumed Jebreal was Indian when they met in 2007 at the opening of an exhibition of Schnabel’s paintings in Rome.

“I said, ‘No, I am actually from Israel,’” Jebreal, 38, said in a telephone interview from Manhattan, where she now lives with Schnabel.  “I don’t know if I would say he had a knee-jerk reaction, but his expression changed from smiling to almost a tension, like he had never seen a Palestinian before. So I asked, “Are you scared or something?’” And he replied, ‘Should I be scared?’—that is how we started talking.”

It was only by chance that Jebreal, a prominent television journalist living in Rome, had attended the opening at all. Her friend, Walter Veltroni, Rome’s mayor, mentioned to her over lunch that she should check out the exhibition – and that Schnabel was the only adult besides Hugh Hefner known for wearing pajamas in public.

“When I saw his paintings that night, they spoke to me,” she recalled.  Some captured images and impressions of Egypt, which gave her the sense that Schnabel regarded her culture with dignity and compassion.  “I felt there is a place in his work that speaks to everyone, and relates to the major issues I care about,” she added.

Soon after the opening, she sent the artist-filmmaker a copy of her autobiographical novel, “Miral,” which recounts her painful childhood and her coming of age during the first Intifada in 1987.  Also attached was a rough English translation of a screenplay adaptation of the book, which was originally published in Italian in 2004.

“Three weeks later, Julian called and said he would like to work on this project together,” Jebreal said.

Some time between that telephone call and the completion of the film, the Jewish artist and the Palestinian author fell in love and began living together in Schnabel’s duplex within Palazzo Chupi, a pink complex he built in Greenwich Village.

When did Jebreal learn that Schnabel was Jewish?

“I don’t pay attention to these things,” she said.  “I am Muslim, my daughter is Catholic, and I never classify people based on color, gender or religion. Honestly I did not care.  I met the human being, I met his work; nothing else mattered.”

Jebreal’s own story is heartbreaking.  Everything in “Miral,” the novel and the film, is true, she said, not only about herself, but also about her family.  Her mother, Nadia, was repeatedly raped by her stepfather as a child, ran away from home as a teenager, supported herself as a belly dancer and served time in jail for slapping an Israeli woman who had affronted her.

Eventually, she married Othman Jebreal, a gentle, almost saintly man who worked as a gardener and later, as a minor imam at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.  He vowed to save her, but Nadia was unable to overcome her brutal childhood and descended into alcoholism and depression, eventually committing suicide by drowning herself in the Mediterranean, leaving behind her daughters, Rula, 5, and Rania, 4.

Because Othman Jebreal was already suffering from cancer, he took his girls to live at Hind Husseini’s Children’s Home in the Old City of Jerusalem, hoping that there they could receive an education and find safe haven when he was gone.

“Hind was very strong, dedicated and affectionate to her ‘daughters,’ who numbered about 3,000,” Jebreal said. “She believed education could give us the opportunity to survive, because she saw what was happening in many villages where girls had no option except to marry at 13 or 14, to become prostitutes or to be manipulated and used by religious fanatics, which she did not want for her girls.”

Even so, the early years were difficult for Jebreal, who felt “alone, abandoned, fearful” and who devoured books about orphans such as “Oliver Twist,” “David Copperfield,” and especially “Jane Eyre.”  She learned to tell stories, at first, to heal her sister, who repeatedly attempted to scale the orphanage’s walls to run home; and then to the other orphans who crowded together in bed at night, seeking the physical affection they missed from their parents. Those experiences, in part, led Jebreal to become a writer.

Another turning point came when Jebreal was sent by Husseini to teach in a makeshift school in a refugee camp on the West Bank when she was 16.  “I was shocked by the kind of oppression that seemed unbearable,” she recalled of the camp.  There, Jebreal met and fell in love with an older man, an activist with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine; against the wishes of Hind and of her father, who by then was terminally ill, she also began participating in civil disobedience and numerous demonstrations during the first Intifada.

Late one night, Jebreal was arrested and whipped in an Israeli prison, but was released after 24 hours because she is an Israeli citizen.  The only matter that is fictionalized in the film, she said, involves her boyfriend at the time; he did not engage in car bombings in the settlements or in any other violent activities, as far as she knows.  In fact, when the Oslo Accords went forward in the early 1990s, he publicly endorsed the peace process, to the chagrin of fellow PFLP leaders.

Eventually Jebreal received a scholarship to the University of Bologna and relocated to Italy, where she had an affair with an art student and gave birth to a daughter Miral, named for a wildflower that blooms in extreme conditions.  Her break in broadcasting came when the second Intifada erupted in 2000; since then, Jebreal has become one of Italy’s best-known journalists.  She also became an author, writing “Miral,” she said, as a catharsis of sorts, “but in the third person because I needed to process it emotionally.”  Schnabel, she said, has brought a more relaxed quality to her life, since she finds that “art in general focuses on the positive things.”

Yet she has been dismayed by Jewish groups who protested the screening of “Miral” at the United Nations recently. “The one right that I should have is to be able to tell my story,” she said.  “[But] I’m not sure people are ready for a Palestinian woman to tell her story.  You can judge the film as good or bad; you can dislike it, but to come out against the showing of the film is something I find shocking.”

The film opens on March 25.

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