Fadia's Tree: A hopeful, if agonising, interrogation of the Palestinian right to return

Fadia's tree still
5 min read
27 May, 2022

Fadia’s UK visa will expire on 30 May, two days before the premiere of her feature film at the British Film Institute in London. But her mind is elsewhere. She sees a pizza oven in a restaurant and wonders how it would fit the school she built in the Bourj el-Barajneh refugee camp in Lebanon.

“Because we cannot go out, I want to bring the world in.”

This is Fadia, explains friend and filmmaker Sarah Beddington. “She can’t just have a pizza. She sees the pizza oven and says: ‘Yes! We could have it in this corner in the kindergarten. It’s so beautiful. We can make pizza for everyone.’

“I say, ‘yes – let’s do it.’

“I go with her to the park and she’s thinking: ‘how can I bring this park to my people? How can I give them this feeling of freedom?'”

"The story is not ‘Fadia’s story’. It is the story of everyone living in the camp"

Fadia’s family fled violence in Palestine in 1948, crossing the border into neighbouring Lebanon where she was born. For the last 34 years, she has worked as a schoolteacher, helping keep alive stories of her land to the south. When she is not working, Fadia plants fruit trees so that children born in the camp can grow up knowing nature.

Today, she is in London for a screening of Fadia’s Tree at the Whitechapel Gallery. It is Sarah’s first feature-length film, and the first opportunity for Fadia to share her story with the world. It is the first time she has seen her sisters outside of the camp.

The film follows Sarah’s journey in search of a mulberry tree on the site of Fadia’s family home. Months after her family left, Sa’sa’ village was razed and its inhabitants massacred by Zionist Haganah forces.

Fadia is certain the tree must still exist but can only guide Sarah with family stories of life in Palestine.

Without formal citizenship, Fadia is unable to return to her homeland, despite guarantees in international law. Her family are part of the 700,000 Palestinians who left during the 1948 Palestine War, known in Israel as the War of Independence and in Arabic as part of the Nakba – the catastrophe.

As Sarah journeys south, she is drawn to the migratory patterns of birds guided instinctively back to the region each year. She appreciates their “logic”, disinterested in artificial borders, guided alone by views of the coast and stars. The annual return is “built into their DNA”, she says.

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But these views are a privilege. In one scene, Fadia drives to the border and pauses to watch the sun rising with the moon still high in the sky. In the Bourj el-Barajneh camp (lit. ‘Tower of Towers’) she cannot see this. Tall buildings – ever-growing upward to accommodate new refugees – conceal the world beyond.

But a simple quest filmed over several years has shone new light on the camp. Audiences are responding positively; the film won the Amnesty International Award at the Donostria-San Sebastian Human Rights Film Festival in April and was nominated for the Sunbird Documentary Award last year.

Still from Fadia's Tree [credit: Fadia Loubani and Sarah Beddington]
A still from Fadia's Tree [credit: Fadia Loubani and Sarah Beddington]

On the 74th anniversary of Nakba Day, Fadia hopes the film will remind the world of her estranged community in the southernmost suburbs of Beirut. As she becomes a grandmother, she hopes her own people don’t lose sight of where they come from.

“We feel that we are forgetting people,” she says. “This feeling [of recognition for the film] lets me know that many people – maybe thousands, maybe later a million – are thinking about us, about our suffering and this life.

“The story is not ‘Fadia’s story’. It is the story of everyone living in the camp.”

Fadia has many stories left to tell of life in the camp. “She has always written,” says Sarah. “Her stories have dark, comic humour that is about translating life in the camp back to the people in the camp. She is also writing short stories on her own, [some of which] have just been published in an anthology of women writers in Lebanon.”

The challenge for the production team was to tell just one. From 450 hours of footage, Over the Fence Films producer, Susan Simnett helped focus on “one key story, the core story.”

“While it is important on many different levels, it is also a way to bring other people into the conversation and to engage in a way that they have resisted in the past.

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“Film is itself a way to communicate that is different to strictly factual news reporting. A narrative is how books and films and storytelling allow people to engage with facts that might be too harsh for them.

“Anytime you are looking at a screen you are bombarded with bad things. The news is quite an aggressive information channel. And we can communicate what it is saying, but in a different way.”

Fadia’s story is one of hope. She hopes that her visa will be extended long enough to see her film play at the BFI. She hopes conditions in the camp will improve to guarantee all those who live there healthcare and a good education. And she hopes that, like birds on a tree in Palestine, she too might one day enjoy the freedom to choose the branch on which she wants to land.

James Reynolds is a freelance reporter and features writer. He writes on philosophy, Europe, energy, tech and legal.

Follow him on Twitter: @JimReynoldsUK