Rula Jebreal is an award-winning journalist who specialises in foreign affairs
and immigration rights issues. She was born in Haifa and was raised in
Dar El-Tifel orphanage, before moving to Italy where she lived for many years.
You have a successful career in journalism, lived in Italy and now in New York. Can you tell me about this journey?
I am excited that I’m alive and that I’ve had a chance to tell my story, but I am also really excited that people appreciate it. At the age of five, I was brought to an orphanage because my mother committed suicide, and my father was very old and too sick to take care of us. I found myself being the mother of my sister who was four. I left at 19 on a scholarship to Italy, where I studied and eventually became a journalist. I was writing for a newspaper when I was given the opportunity to work for La7. In 2007, I met Julian [Schnabel]; we started talking about Miral and the possibility of making a film. In the past year, I have travelled more than I have over the past 10 years and wherever I go, I learn something about the place and take it away with me. Every time I go to the Arab world, I want to see how it’s torn, backwards or forwards in terms of woman’s rights or something banal like the traffic. When I was in Qatar, I went to schools and orphanages; I really want to see how people live their lives and what’s happening there. It’s about building bridges of communication and awareness.
Miral is a moving novel, because of the personal narratives and the wider historical context, can you tell me about the process of writing this book?
It was hard to write. In 1994, when Hind Husseini died, I felt I needed to honour her. She saved my life and the lives of many girls. Today when I go to the school, it gives me hope, but it also makes me sad, as the school is almost empty with only 40 girls. When I saw that this project was falling apart, because there’s a wall that forbids orphans from going to the school, I decided it’s time to write this book. I started putting all my memories together, beginning with Hind and her story. When I put the first draft together it was very emotional. I wanted Hind to be seen as a hero – she was for me. It was hard to write about Nadia; she was my mother, and writing about your grief in an Arab-Muslim feature is not acceptable. It’s like putting the dirt of your house outside to show the world. So my family was very angry and I thought, either I compromise my work and my integrity or I convince them that the victim here is us and my mother, and we have nothing to be ashamed of. I had the support of my sister, but I was worried about my political involvement, so I made it into a novel. I included a collection of memories of people whose pain, dreams and hopes I shared. That is Miral, she represents a generation.
How did writing this book help you come to terms with the past?
I needed to go through it in order to understand what happened to me. That huge hole of black and pain and darkness that I carried in me, which made me melancholy and pessimistic, meant sometimes I didn’t see hope. What I wanted to do in this book was to make it possible to see hope even in the worst circumstance. I want to believe that there is a solution. When I finished reading the book, I started to realise that I’m a different person. That ideal of hope, which I pushed so hard in the book, is already part of me. Miral is a grown-up today, she is me, my daughter, many girls in the Middle East, and the men and women that are free to believe in a different future and freedom of choice.
You were raised in Dar El-Tifel Orphanage, what was this like?
It was a community life; you don’t say “I” you say “we”. The smaller children were looked after by the older ones, so when I was five there were older girls who would cut my hair, wash me and read to me. I would stay with them and they were like my mothers. We would put the beds together at night, and hold hands, to make up for the missing affection. There were tough rules about how to behave, how to eat, dress and sit, but I grew up in a community where women and girls liked each other. When I went to Italy or even more so in the USA, I was shocked how competitively women look at each other because my memories of women are of support and friendship. I am lucky that I had the privilege to be open to other women. I don’t feel threatened by other women; I feel that they exclude themselves from each other.
Hind is an inspiration; leaving a legacy for future generations. What do you hope women of today can draw from her story?
To give children hope by investing in their education and futures. We seem to be living in a world where we alienate ourselves. The message of this book is to care about others. I left, but I didn’t forget where I came from. I wrote this book as a way to show that I care about what’s happening to our people. It’s about giving them hope. If you believe in heroism, you can understand this book. It’s about making a choice and difference in this world and it can be made with simple gestures.
What was the process like to turn your book into a film?
I was directed by Julian while I was writing the screenplay, so it wasn’t that hard. As soon as you read any screenplay you understand the structure. Every time I finished a chapter, he would elaborate any changes. We even made changes during the shoot, so several aspects of the film we came up with on the spot, because it sounded more realistic. Frieda Pinto was an incredible choice. A friend asked me if I’d found Miral yet, I said “no” and she said, “watch Slumdog Millionaire.” We watched the film and realised that we needed to audition her. I asked Julian to have her do the scene when she was speaking with her father. After that, I had no doubt that she was Miral.
The struggles in the Middle East feature every day on the news, what do you want people to take away from this book?
My book is a cry for peace. I am a pacifist. I went through a journey of hell and I came back even more convinced that peace is the only way forward. These are not my words, but Ghandi’s. Today, 17 years after the Oslo Accords were signed, we are still talking about peace. It’s time to make it, our children should not go through the same experiences; they should have a different future. I feel that we are all hostages because of these conflicts. It’s time to stop this madness. I’m not talking about one side or the other, but about everyone.
What are your plans for the future?
I am writing a new book about the relationship between media and power. It’s a thriller about an international investigation into corruption and selling weapons. There are four journalists from different countries (Russia, USA, Italy and Turkey), who are trying to cover this event, and the book deals with pressure that comes with that and their reaction to that pressure. I’ll finish my research in a month and then the only thing that I have to do is decide which language to write in – Italian or English.