Director: Tewfik Saleh.
Tewfik Saleh’s The Dupes is the greatest scream of Arab cinema, a suffocatingly sun-drenched scream of political, economic and existential injustice. Superficially similar to The Wages of Fear in its perilously suspenseful truck-ride of life-and-death, it shares with Clouzot’s film a slow build-up to a more tense and intense second half, in which a truck trek takes place not through the Latin American jungles but in the 50°C heat of the Iraq-Kuwait border. Before that, the characters are introduced meticulously, in a Resnaisian maze of memory-flashbacks and montages, one by one. They are three Palestinian men, orphaned of a homeland, existentially marooned in 1960s Iraq, and each hoping to reach their own ‘promised land’: the booming oil-rich economy of Kuwait where they’ve heard anyone can find work and money grows on trees. Or at least gushes out of the ground.
First is Abu Qays, oldest of the three, a veteran of the 1948 Nakba and the doomed resistance effort by Palestinians to protect their homes. With a wife and two sons to feed, and no possessions to lose beside his homesick memories, he fatalistically succumbs to a suggestion he hears doing the rounds: risking the journey to Kuwait to find whatever work there. Dizzyingly, to evoke the sense of disorientation of this man in forced exile, the editing takes us back into multiple layers of his past, over which his bittersweet voiceover narrates a weary sense of loss and betrayal. One moment of particular resonance is a montage of archival photographs and clips, of foreign leaders, UN meetings, roundtable discussions, a slideshow of images illustrating the fate of the Palestinian people being decided without them and away from them. Over it, only the sound of Abu Qays’ simple exclamation of exasperation: “We’ve been sold and bought by all”.
Once he makes it to Basra, we find him in the office of an Iraqi smuggler, haggling over the price of being driven illegally past the Kuwait border control. Then, suddenly, an abrupt cut to a younger Palestinian man doing the very same thing with the very same smuggler. This man is Ass’ad, the most politically-minded and strong-willed of the three, whose memories of the Nakba can only be those of an uncomprehending child nonetheless deeply marked by the injustice. In a memory flashback, induced by the inflexibility of the Iraqi smuggler, we discover he had been duped before by a cheating border-runner when attempting to cross from Jordan to Iraq, leaving us with an image of a lone man navigating the desert carved up into the left-over arbitrary borderlines drawn by the foreign colonisers of the past. Ass’ad made it out alive, that time, but his close shave is a foreshadowing of things to come.
Finally, another abrupt cut (by now these sudden transitions from one character to the next reverberate their similar experiences, of similarly desperate people pinning their hopes on Kuwait), this time to a teenage boy, Marwan, bargaining with the same Basra smuggler. Marwan represents the generation born after 1948, in the refugee camps, who never knew the homeland but from the words of their elders. His youthfulness means he is stuck in a rotten situation he has inherited through no sin of his own, and his flashback tells us the most tragically wasteful story of the three. His mother, amputated of one leg and metaphorical of the disembodied, abandoned Palestinians, has been left by his father for another woman. His older brother is working in Kuwait but is no longer sending money — and, as he writes in a letter home, Marwan should now be the man of the house instead of “wasting time with schoolbooks”. Young Marwan, innately dutiful and protective of his mother, quits school and plans to join his brother in Kuwait to work and send money back himself.
These three Palestinians, and their schema of three different generations, having been introduced, the film shifts gear. A truck is ready for them to be smuggled in, and all three will have to hide inside its empty water tank, as their driver Abu Khaizuran (himself ironically a Palestinian, and a deeply symbolic character who stands for the betrayal and powerlessness of Palestinian and other Arab leaders) navigates the border checkpoints. Though Abu Khaizuran promises the men they will only need to be inside a maximum of 10 minutes for each of the two checkpoints, it goes without saying that being inside this practically airtight water tank, at the height of the Mesopotamian Summer, is tantamount to scorching within an inferno. These man-made borderlines are now gateways between heaven and hell for these three souls, simply in search of better prospects. Their plight, their hopes, and the tangible tension of whether or not they will make it through, are expertly brought to screen by Saleh and his crew. It is a story as old as the human race and as tragic as ever today in our ongoing global refugee crisis.
Yet, The Dupes cannot be fully grasped without a sense of its political and historical context, that of the Middle East in the years it was made. Its source was a 1963 novella, Men in the Sun, by one of the greats of modern Arab literature, Ghassan Kanafani. Kanafani grew up in the shadow of the 1948 exodus, and was one of the 700,000 Palestinian refugees forced to uproot and resettle in neighbouring countries. By the time The Dupes adapted his novel, several key turning points had occurred: for one, the PLO had been founded, signalling the possibility of a Palestinian resistance absent in the novella; and the dismal failure of the Six-Day War, from the Arab perspective, in 1967, had crushed faith in President Nasser and the hoped-for dream of Pan-Arabism.
The idea of the failure of all Arabs to help the Palestinians, though they hypocritically claimed to care, is even more pronounced by the time of the film. (It must be noted though that this in no way absolves the crimes of the Israeli regime. This film is an auto-critique by Arabs primarily aimed at an Arab audience). The Dupes, as an adaptation of a Palestinian novel, directed by the Egyptian filmmaker Tewfik Saleh, produced and shot in Syria (via the Syrian National Film Organisation which also produced Nabil Maleh’s The Leopard and was a short-lived but fecund artistic centre before the rise of Hafez Al-Assad), and set mostly in Iraq, Jordan and Kuwait, represented Pan-Arab collaboration just as it chastised the hollowness of promises of Pan-Arab unity in the face of the Palestinian crisis.
Part character study, part socio-political denunciation, The Dupes is a significant work. Sadly, as the film’s original negatives were archived in Syria, the chances now of these ever being found and restored are slim. The battered rip up on Youtube nevertheless maintains the amplitude of this desperate plea. The bold editing structure, the briskness of the tension-building rhythm, and the intensity of watching and hearing the truck’s tank and knowing that the three men sealed and asphyxiating within this furnace are spending the last moments of their lives frantically knocking on the inside of walls — these have all kept their primal urgency. This final, impotent act of banging on the walls is not mentioned in Kanafani’s novella, which stays with Abu Khaizuran and the Kuwaiti border guards. In Saleh’s film, at least, this knocking stands for the possibility of the Palestinian plight no longer being mute even in its suffering, of resistance being a possibility. As their knocking reaches us almost 50 years on, their stories have now become those of countless in exodus, people fleeing war and strife for a better life, risking all they have in ships, swimming in the sea, or inside trucks. How long can the world still remain deaf to their knocking?