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Mahmoud al Massad
Bashir Mammon Mraish,
Saeb Abu Alragheb
In the Ottoman province of Hijaz during World War I, a young Bedouin boy experiences a greatly hastened coming-of-age as he embarks on a perilous desert journey to guide a British officer to his secret destination.
In a place where extremes are raised, a tough choice has to be made. An ex-mujahideen struggles to reconcile his faith and reality. But he faces setbacks at every turn as he is forced to collect cardboard in the streets of Zarqa, an occupation barely sustaining his family. As his situation deteriorates he has to make a radical decision to save himself from humiliation. Abu Amar found himself disillusioned with the chaos Afghanistan was left in during the 80's and tried to clear this confusion by writing a book on Jihad. However insightful and moderate, he has failed so far to publish his work. In the meantime his attempts to build a normal life in the impoverished town where Iraq Al Qaiada leader Al Zarqawi grew up are failing. While the locals share their insights on Al Zarqawi and the current situation in the Middle East, the effects of their constraining environment become clear as Abu heads towards a life-changing decision. Recycle is a documentary with an insider's view on the ... Written by
In the land of Zarqawi, a man in search of completion
In this documentary that won a Sundance prize for its cinematography Mahmoud al Massad films ex-Mujahideen member Abu Amar, a bearded, devout Muslim man in traditional dress who is forced to survive by collecting cardboard boxes in his little blue truck with the help of his sons and selling them to a recycling center. We're in a poor part of Jordan's second city, Zarqa, from which both filmmaker and his subject come. Abu Amar is rarely without his little son Abu Bakr, who even gets to take the wheel sitting in his lap. We don't meet the other sons or the several wives or other family members. In a Christian hospital we see his present wife just in one scene, momentarily unveiled for an interview about pregnancy. We often see friends, never identified, who discuss politics and economics. We also see that Abu Amar prays according to the requirements of Islam throughout the day, and goes to hear a fiery Friday sermon.
Early on Abu Amar and his friends talk about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Al Qaida leader later killed by the US in Iraq. We see Abu Amar watching al-Zarqawi himself talking about Iraq on a TV station. Later Abu Amar watches Bush's announcement of the targeted killing on television. Al-Zarqawi came from the same neighborhood of Zarqa, but the locals agree he was an ordinary man, drove a bus, was a faceless city hall clerk, had little education, and wasn't even religious. They never even saw him at the mosque. "Who would think a man from this place would aggravate the whole world?" one says.
One thing they agree on is that 'jihad' is something that it it is legitimate to turn to under certain circumstances. They express sympathy and understanding for those who organize to fight against the US occupiers, but they also insist that those who become 'jihadis' do so only when government oppression or economic conditions or both have made them turn desperate. They also note, apropos of al-Zarqawi's apparent 180-degree shift, that turning to the mosque and the Koran sometimes is also the only help available in their country for a person fighting addiction to women, pills, or alcohol.
Abu Amar was in Afghanistan, but only as a security guard for Mujahideen leaders. He consequently laughs when asked by the director if he learned about their ideas through working with them.
When three Amman hotels are bombed on November 9, 2005 and Al-Qaida takes credit, Abu Amar is rounded up and held for four months as a suspect, then found innocent and released. He expresses gratitude for his release: justice was done, he says. He doesn't seem resentful.
Abu Amar traces all his current financial problems back to a major rift with his father--causes unspecified-- that forced them to close a commercial space where they were going to open a business. Abu Amar now only goes and lets himself in this space at night. There he has a typewriter and a plastic bag full of Islamic quotations. With the aid of these, he is working on a book which he can't get published. We see him typing away at it, and later reading to friends a passage arguing that it is wrong for Muslims to live in kaafir or "infidel" (non-Muslim) countries; that even converts to Islam should migrate to a Muslim country. This extremely narrow position appears ironic in the light of a step Abu Amar takes at the end of the film.
Whether by choice or by necessity, al Massad doesn't present a very complete picture of Abu Amar's milieu. It's perhaps because of the latter's strict Muslim principles that not much about his family is revealed beyond his close, if stern, interaction with his little boy. What we get to see is a man doing all he can to hold onto self-respect in a dead-end situation. His night typing on his manuscript seems done mainly to reassure himself that his former commitment and his informal religious studies have some value, rather than with the hope of his writings ever seeing the light of day. Even getting camel's milk for his sick mother is a frustrating, doggedly pursued process that takes repeated trips. Despite his expressions of faith and hope, his patience and his machismo, finally Abu Amar comes to seem a rather pathetic figure. Perhaps al Massad's portrait is all the more troubling and memorable for its very incompleteness. The man he is looking at is himself incomplete. The restrained portrait, which takes us up close without seeking to explain, is one whose implications are worth pondering.
Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival, 2008.
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