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The Green Prince of Peace Documentary
by Doniphan Blair
Mosab Hassan Yousef, the eponymous 'Green Prince', with co-star, Gonen ben Yitzhak of Israel's Shin Bet. photo: courtesy N. Schirman
FINALLY, A FILM FROM THE MIDDLE
East—"The Green Prince", in theaters now,
—which tackles AND takes down some of that community's toughest conundrums:
1) Is mystical pacifism possible in the Middle East?
2) Can Arab intellectuals accept Israel?
3) Can Israelis accept Arabs as brothers?
“I’m not naïve,” notes Gonen ben Yitzhak, the film's co-star, formally of Shin Bet, Israel's internal intelligence service, now a lawyer in Tel Aviv, in a recent interview (NY Times, 9/8/14).
“But my father was a general in the Israeli army, Mosab’s father founded Hamas, and those two figures were fighting each other. Now Mosab and I have become brothers."
Number three: CHECK!
Mosab Hassan Yousef, the eponymous "Green Prince" (Shin Bet's code name for him), is the star of the story and an intoxicating storyteller with movie star looks.
Although a documentary, the film is built off of Yousef's book, "Son of Hamas" (2010). What the interviews lack in first-time freshness, they make up in artistry, intensity and live-saving revelation, a la Eroll Morris's "Thin Blue Line" (1988).
Looking into Mosab Yousef's eyes as he tells of being raped as a young man, may be all the verification most viewers need. photo: courtesy N. Schirman
Just Mosab's backstory—the son of a Hamas founder who became his father's right hand man—is interesting.
But the drama of his arrest by the Israelis, for a minor weapons charge; his incarceration in an Israeli prison, where his wing was controlled by Hamas prisoners; and his decision to start spying for the Israelis, while telling his Hamas relatives and friends he was double-agenting them, is astounding.
The double agent is a profoundly mystical figure, as dangerous as sometimes enlightened, who becomes a self-appointed clearinghouse, playing god, essentially, by deciding what information to pass where, often involving whom to kill when.
For example, what was more threatening to the US in the '60s: the Soviet nuclear command or James Jesus Angleton, the CIA's counterespionage chief, who tore the agency apart for the entire decade with endless lie-detector tests in his attempt to find a suspected Soviet mole?
Mosab saved Hamas the trouble—which would have been serious, considering Hamas is very paranoid and executes hundreds of collaborators annually—by becoming a triple-agent.
Indeed, working with his Israeli handler, ben Yitzhak, Mosab helped prevent dozens of suicide bombings during the Second Intifada (2000-2006). Conversely, ben Yitzhak also violated Shin Bet protocol by meeting with Mosab privately, by giving him incredible access or, later, by flying to California to testify at his US deportation hearing.
Why did Mosab go rogue? After witnessing Hamas torturing their own mercilessly in prison and adopting a suicide bombing strategy in the Second Intifada, he explains, he wanted to do whatever he could to follow the path of peace.
He also used Shin Bet to gather his own intelligence, once notifying his father, who seems like a decent chap compared to other Hamas, of an assassination attempt.
Although hardly a Christ-like figure, The Green Prince did what he could in that darkened arena, a Palestinian Batman fighting for good by any means possible.
Number one: CHECK!
Seeing documents with Mosab Hassan Yousef may also help—his father is on the right. photo: courtesy N. Schirman
Sure, cynics and anti-Zionists will dismiss "The Green Prince", directed by Nadav Schirman and the winner of Sundance's 2014 Audience Award, as:
1) A CIA CGI fabrication
2) BS from a squealer spy in bed with Zionists
3) Palestinian Porn: A noble soul forced into unspeakable acts
Alas, they may not appreciate fully the power of art. Indeed, you have to see "The Green Prince" and look into Mosab's eyes as he explains his reasoning, which includes that he was raped as a youth, to understand what art can do.
Moreover, as we can easily see, the Middle East will not be changed by suicide bombers, foreign boots on the ground, religious reformers or even democracy movements, no matter how heartfelt. The number of and confusion between the factions is simply too great.
Simply to achieve baseline function, democracy needs a free press, a literate population and political parties. But beyond this, they need visionaries voicing alternative opinions. In the old days it was the poets, whom they sometimes called prophets.
With the collapse of the Arab Spring, the only social force left standing is art—no longer poetry but pop music, film and television—which is precisely why Sunni extremists outlaw it and Shi'a extremists limit it. Only the Sufis, who have long been 95% of all Muslim artists, stand unabashedly by art.
Although there are Palestinian Sufis living in Israel, the only country in the Middle East with enough religious freedom for them to pursue their practice openly, Mosab decided he preferred Christianity, albeit non-denominational. Middle Eastern Christianity has been taking a beating of late but it is a more established and respected Arab faith, especially since the Sufis started their decline into dysfunction three or four centuries ago.
Although people who can't comprehend art feel they must attack or abolish the metaphors of others simply for their own stories to survive, this an automatic recipe for war. Symbol-killing leads directly to people killing, as the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine noted 100 years before the Holocaust. If that sentiment leads to "total war," as the Nazis brought on their countrymen, however, the wide-spread devastation eventually forces the contestants to reevaluate their symbols.
By the time World War II became "The Subway War" in April 1945, so-called because Germans soldiers could commute from the Eastern to the Western front on the Berlin subway, the entire world, including virtually all Germans, had come to agree: Nazism was not a operational symbol system.
The trick to avoid this in the Middle East would be for artists to drill down through the tendentious confusion to the tectonic faults in the metaphorical superstructures, and expose them with artistry and eloquence, before the need for total war—which is fast approaching, like a truck with cut brake-lines—reaches a tipping point.
'The Green Prince''s is as artistic as it is truthtelling, an important achievement as radical Islamists outlaw art across the Middle East. photo: courtesy N. Schirman
Schirman, who directed "The Green Prince", appears well aware of this and has done an excellent job building on his substantial achievements in two previous spy documentaries.
"The Champagne Spy" (2007), centers on an Israeli whose father was also a secret agent, this time for the Mossad (the country's foreign intelligence service), and whom, when he was 12, sworn him to secrecy because his assignment was to impersonate an ex-Nazi millionaire in Cairo. Conversely, "In the Dark Room" (2013), relatives of the Venezuelan terror prince, "The Jackal", voice regret about their complicity with his assassinations and terrorist actions.
Schirman seems to have found an alchemical combination of truth telling and evocation, setting up his interviews in sets dressed to suggest the offices where his two stars, Gonen and Mosab, first met and then letting the music and cutaways, including actual surveillance footage, as well as their incredible personalities—Mosab the handsome star, Gonen, the schleppy nerd, or Sancho Panza—carry their themes aloft.
Just watching Mosab speak, with his slight smiles and excellent English, we come to trust him. As the camera closes in, in this highly technical but extremely personal film, he takes it upon himself to bare his soul entirely, the veracity of which seems easy to appraise.
It is not only Hamas' hypocrisy of purporting to lead while focusing on violence which alienates Mosab but his community's overall "Shame Culture," which he was forced to confront the hard way. As a young man, on the way home from a country outing one time, he was raped.
"If there is one thing worse than being raped, it is having it known that you were raped," explains Mosab, right in the beginning of the film. Simply by admitting that, Mosab penetrates to the heart of the matter.
While most Middle Eastern intellectuals have been playing catch-up delving into their community's catastrophic problems, Mosab and others, like the Egyptian filmmaker Muhammad Diab (
see CineSource Interview
), prove that the quest for clarity, responsibility and mature comprehension is ongoing and possible.
Sometimes it is hard to discern between document and artifice in in 'The Green Prince' but 'Art is a lie to see the truth,' according to Picasso and director N. Schirman hits that balance beautifully. photo: courtesy N. Schirman
As Mosab tells us, even in the most aggrieved situations, wise choices and ethical action are both possible and imperative. By the time we get to him explaining how he told his Hamas prison-enforcers, which included his uncle, that he accepted the Israeli offer to spy—simply because if you claimed you didn't accept, they wouldn't believe you and you would be tortured, we have entered a cracked world that makes Kafka's "The Trail" seem like a kid's birthday party.
For those unfamiliar with the shame-guilt divide, which sometimes runs along East-West lines: Shame is the more tribal system where citizens are kept in line through harsh public pressure while guilt is Freud's super-ego, the inner nag, more civilized perhaps but also more injurious on occasion, since it is more internal.
Mosab's father, Hassan Yousef, doesn't seem like a bad guy; indeed, to raise a Mosab, he couldn't have been. Sort of a nerd with glasses, the elder Yousef works tirelessly for his people, does not advocate extreme violence and even sends his son the country to commune with nature, although that did lead to the fateful day he was raped.
He simply can't get the big picture that Mosab, with his temperament, education and now Internet can see: that the means don't justify the ends, that violent strategies inevitably grow and get out of hand, and that he is leading his people down the path to death and destruction, if not hell.
Indeed, Hamas and many Middle Easterners, as well as Westerners of the harder right and left, remained convinced that nothing extracts concessions from Israel other than violence or outright war.
Unfortunately, anyone bothering to examine the news from 1948 on, can see that simply by accepting Jews, both the Holocaust refugees and the area's ancient residents, as normative citizens of the Middle East, Israel would have remained in its tiny, pre-1947 borders; they would have saved the massive expenditures of blood and gold in the half-a-dozen wars from 1948 to Gaza 2014; and the tradition of hysterical sectarian acrimony would not have been nurtured so assiduously that it has now produced ISIS.
Nor can the elder Yousef get that Mosab's actions are a natural continuation of the romantic drive that flourished for thousands of years among Arab poets, prophets and Sufis, and that this is part of the normative human quest for monotheism, which symbolizes above all that all members of the human race are one.
And the results Mosab's ethical adventures are equally romantic. Although his family and friends mostly disowned him and he had to flee Palestine for his life, he developed new friends, like ben Yitzhak who rejected Shin Bet and flew on his own dime to the US to testify at Mosab's deportation/asylum request hearings. Government lawyers accused him of being a member of Hamas, a terrorist organization, and helping with their operations—yes, sure, but your honor, it is slightly more complicated than that as the "Green Prince" details.
Although Yousef cleans up well, US immigration accused him of terrorism and refused to accept his double-agent explanation. photo: courtesy N. Schirman
And where was this trial held: San Diego which continues the romantic symbol development of the "Green Prince" to California, a place where mysticism and multiculturalism are fully functional, and where Mosab met some Christians and converted, albeit while remaining nondenominational and noting that all religions are a problem.
The film ends with incredible hope, not so much that Mosab will be able to reconcile with his family, indeed he lives alone, or help the cause of Palestinian peace, but just that he could survive all that and keep moving forward to higher mystical levels.
The greater hope remains with art and in fact "The Green Prince" will be remade into a live-action feature film. Perhaps the more complete immersion allowed by narrative can crack the sclerotic shame culture of the Middle East.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Oct 06, 2014 - 08:26 PM