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'Syrian Bride' Illustrates Consequences Of Israel's Occupation Of Golan Heights


Golan Heights is 500 square miles of fertile hillside land. It's home to tens of thousands of Druze, who are an Arab minority in Israel, Syria and Lebanon. The Golan Heights was suddenly in the news after President Trump tweeted that he recognized Israel's annexation of this occupied territory.

ERAN RIKLIS: He would look at the mountains, which were actually the Golan Heights, and there were Syrian troops up there.

GREENE: That's the voice of Eran Riklis, an Israeli film director. He became fascinated by the Druze in the Golan in the 1990s. He returned years later to create the feature film "The Syrian Bride," which shows the occupation through the eyes of one family. Rachel Martin spoke to the director.

RIKLIS: In '98, I made a documentary about the borders of Israel. And it was kind of a well-known fact but never really explored that the Druze had these marriages on the border between Israel and Syria because - to put it very simply - there's not enough grooms (laughter) in the Golan Heights.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: We actually have a clip that I'd like to play. This is from "The Syrian Bride," your feature film, and it illustrates what you're talking about. This is a scene where two U.N. peacekeepers working in the Golan are talking about what happens in these marriages.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) So what happens to the bride when she goes over?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) She loses her identity on the way. She gets a new one in Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) But how will she come back to the Golan?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) She won't. She becomes a Syrian citizen. So the Israeli won't let her in anymore, and the Syrian won't let her out. After she crosses the border, there's no way back.

MARTIN: What is so poignant about the film and the story that you've told here is the way it describes that nether space, the in-between. Without giving too much away about the film, they get stuck in a bureaucratic, geopolitical nightmare.

RIKLIS: Absolutely. Which, you know, I have to say, what you see in my feature film is basically what happened in reality and was a very unique day. We traveled to the border in a classic wedding convoy. And we get there, and everybody starts saying goodbye.

And then I see this Red Cross girl coming, very nervous, and saying there's no wedding, I'm sorry, there's a problem. The Israelis put a stamp into the (foreign language spoken), you know, her travel document. And when the Syrian officer saw it, he sort of said, no, no - she's not coming from Israel. She's coming from our land, occupied land. So we cannot accept this. Everybody went home, you know, heartbroken.

Meanwhile, I finished this documentary. I made another feature film. I did a television series. But I could not get this story out of my mind.

MARTIN: The film takes place when the former president of Syria, Hafez Al-Assad, has died and his son, Bashar al-Assad, whom we know to be the leader of Syria now, comes to take over. He was an eye doctor from London before this.

RIKLIS: Yes. (Laughter).

MARTIN: Was that a moment when both sides believed that peace was possible?

RIKLIS: I can tell you personally, but I think I've shared this with many, many people. I thought, wow, this is an historic moment. That's why I set the film on the day that he comes to power, and he actually stands in the parliament in Damascus and delivers this speech.

But it's almost like an actor in, you know, a first edition. He's trembling. Everybody thought this is the big hope of the Middle East because he is an intelligent, soft-spoken person who will bring a different kind of attitude to the region. But so many years later, we see that, as big as the expectations were, that disappointment became even bigger, and tragically so.

MARTIN: At least here in the U.S., we hear about other occupied territories. Right? We hear about the West Bank. We hear a lot about Gaza and the struggles of the people there. Why has the Golan been largely ignored by the West?

RIKLIS: It doesn't have a history in the sense that the West Bank does. It's, like, a secular area. There's one Israeli city and a few other Israeli kind of, you know, kibbutzim, and various kind of settlements which are not ideological settlements. But underneath it's boiling because there's this sense of people who belong to another country, another state.

MARTIN: "The Syrian Bride," we know that it was shown in Israel. Do you know if it was seen in Syria?

RIKLIS: I know that back before the civil war, one of my actors went to Syria for Palestinian theater group. And they were hosted by the Syrian government. And at some point when he came back, he said to me, you know that our host - we never met the president, but - our host was actually from the president's office, and he said, you know that our president saw "The Syrian Bride" and he actually liked it?

MARTIN: Bashar al-Assad?

RIKLIS: So my immediate thought was, OK, how did he see the film? Is this a DVD that I'm not aware of...

MARTIN: Right.

RIKLIS: ...You know, pirated somewhere? (Laughter) But putting that aside, I was, of course, very happy. And I get so many stories. The film was well-received in the whole Arab world, and it was also well-received in Israel.

MARTIN: What do you know about what life is like there now? I suppose you have no reason to believe that anything is different.

RIKLIS: Well, I think it's different only in the sense that it's probably more tormented in the sense of, you know, across the border, they have family members who are part of a country where a very violent, tragic, crazy civil war has been going on for years now. So I think that's very difficult, you know, to kind of cope with because they're almost helpless because they are here, they're across the border. They can't really do much. I think that's probably the biggest concern there.

MARTIN: The reason we're talking, of course, is a political decision that was made here in the United States, President Trump...


MARTIN: ...Announcing in a tweet that U.S. foreign policy would recognize the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. Do you think, based on your time there, your connections there, that this will change anything about how people live?

RIKLIS: Listen. The truth is, you know, I cannot understand how an American President - whoever it is - tweets about this and makes decisions for a region he has no idea about. Will it have any immediate effects? I doubt it.

MARTIN: But now, no doubt, a decision by an American president - no matter who it is - putting to rest, from an American perspective, who owns the Golan, that's only going to complicate those control issues.

RIKLIS: Absolutely. But, you know, I go back to, you know, '77, '78, when four years after a very traumatic, bloody war - and I was a soldier then. You know, the Yom Kippur War in 1973 - suddenly, you know, to put it very simplistically, an Egyptian president, President Sadat, woke up one morning and sort of said, forget it, I'm going to Jerusalem. I'm going to propose peace. And we had a right-wing prime minister that you could not believe he would even answer the phone but he did. And he made peace.

And I think once we get the right leadership somewhere - in America, here, in the region - things might change and we might wake up to, you know, to a new morning where we can take a train to Damascus and enjoy some good food.

MARTIN: Israeli director Eran Riklis. Thank you so much for talking with us.

RIKLIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.