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Blown up Humvee. August 2003. Photos by Christian Parenti.
Blown up Humvee. August 2003. Photos by Christian Parenti.

Think war is glamorous? Then see Tawfik Saleh’s film The Dupes, it is the antidote to the John Wayne-ism of Hollywood’s wars. Made in Syria in 1972, the film centers on three Palestinian refugees all desperately trying to get from the occupied territories’ locked-down ghettos and corrupt, broken economy to Kuwait where they hope to find safety, jobs, and money to send home.

One of the first Arab films to address the Palestinian struggle, The Dupes is set in the years just after the 1947 UN partition resolution and the 1948 proclamation of the state of Israel that dispossessed thousands of Palestinians, a series of events referred to by Israel as its war of independence and by Palestinians as al-Nakba, or the disaster.

The film is based on the 1962 novella Men in the Sun by Ghassan Kanafani, a Palestinian refugee and prolific political writer assassinated by the Mossad in Lebanon the same year the film was produced. The economical script and stark black-and-white images result in a deftly crafted tale and mood. The Dupes’s unrelated yet interconnected three main characters represent different generations and facets of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation. The story is a predicament familiar today: poor migrants, rendered so by war, desperate to find work, confronting militarized borders.

The oldest of the travelers is the most visibly unwilling. Walking across the roadless, skeleton-strewn desert to Basra, Iraq, he approaches a cluster of palm trees and lies down in the wet sand, anguish crushing his face. The man flashes back on the life he left behind. He is younger and picking olives, then he is eating with his wife and school-aged son who teases him playfully for not knowing the name of the river formed where the Tigris and Euphrates meet. Then in battle he’s dodging mortar fire and witnesses the death of his son’s schoolteacher. Back to the present, he bargains with a hardened smuggler to get across Iraq’s southern border, beyond which lays the promised land of Kuwait.

Again he drops back into memory: he is sitting with his silent wife and new baby in a small room, partitioned from another family by blankets. The other child is gone, presumably dead, but no mention is made; now he is only an absence. The man’s wife eventually convinces him to go, to earn money to escape the camp. Made homeless by the war and suffering from a lack of any promise of income, the man fearfully agrees to go.

The two other stories, of a teenager and young man, are equally dramatic and mundane. As with the first character, their backgrounds are revealed through a narrative that regularly switches back and forth from past to present, old events persistently cutting in to deliberately and poetically reveal why they are each seeking passage (putting Jarmusch and Tarantino in their place). They happen to cross paths in Basra, where, unable to get into Kuwait on their own since none have papers, they all agree to travel with the same smuggler in an empty water truck.

Left with no alternative to supporting his mother and younger brothers, the teen-age boy sets out on what he knows is a dangerous journey, reluctance frequently casting its shadow over his face. The boy’s father deserted the family for another woman who owns a house made of "real stone and concrete." The father’s new bride was still available for marriage since she was missing a leg, perhaps an injury from a landmine or stray weapons fire. Enduring crushing poverty and living in a mud shelter with his family of six, the boy’s father finally broke and selfishly escaped. The boy’s character is both naive and fully aware of the risk he is taking, the stakes are clear: life or death, whether he stays or goes. It’s as if he forces his own gullibility just so he can endure; he sets to the journey despite his fear, like a soldier, prisoner or the homeless kid that he is, he has no choice.

Sometimes Saleh shows the same scene—usually one of betrayal—repeatedly. Triggered by what appears to be a set-up, the third protagonist is forced to leave home. He strikes a deal with the father of a young woman, exchanging his vow of marriage for an upfront payment of 50 shekels. The young man immediately retains a smuggler to take him away; he is on the lam and must get out. On a desert highway the driver tells the young man that because he has no papers he must traverse a desolate desert hill on foot, and, the driver assures him, he will be waiting on the other side. Again, the young man knows the risk, the audience knows it, but he has no other choice, he submits and treks the "H2" controlling his fear, blinded in the searing heat of the sun. Finally, the black snaking strip of highway comes into view. He has made it without getting lost in the vast desert.

Then it starts, the repetition. The whole scene of the promise is shown again, some parts more than once. The driver’s words "I’ll be waiting for you on the highway, just on the other side of the H2." It’s the way that memory works when coping with loss, playing moments back to try to understand something that was perhaps missed or even to extract some kind of comfort. The flashbacks painfully and skillfully signal the young man’s increasing differentiation between what he was told would be and what really is. He has been abandoned and must figure out another way to get to Kuwait. And, later, as he and the other two make their way through the scorching sun to the border in the smuggler’s truck, that same creeping fear surfaces again.

The Dupes does not shy away from war’s most gruesome aspects, many of which do not take place on the battlefield. The story carefully constructs the capillary level realities of war that drive and shape these characters and their lives. Even if they have never seen direct combat they have not escaped the brutalities of war. And those injured in fighting, although shirking death, lose eyes, hands, feet, genitals and are relegated to their own unique forms of suffering. From a safe distance and to the desensitized public, the meaning of and fallout from war can seem marginal, especially when coupled with a racism that justifies an ongoing siege. The Dupes reveals a world that is closer to reality and lies in sharp contrast to the typical portrayal of Palestinians in western media as dysfunctional, corrupt and with no regard for the value of life. Saleh’s film does much to dispel that sort of pervasive propaganda and most importantly it is beautiful, arresting and subtle, leaving much to the imagination of the viewer. In short, it is great art.

The Dupes can be purchased on-line at:


Heather Rogers


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2003

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