Why would a brilliant woman, blessed with familial, material and career success, without any religious animus against Jews or direct experience of oppression, decide to blow herself up and murder a room full of Israeli children?
This question seems to be at the heart of “The Attack,” a beautifully built film by Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri, which opened in Israel this past month and in New York in June. The film follows the path of secular Israeli-Arab Amin Jaafari, a highly accomplished doctor living comfortably in Tel Aviv, as he tries to make sense of a shock that comes out of nowhere: His beloved wife, a Christian Palestinian academic named Siham, kills herself and 17 Israelis in a suicide bombing.
After being roughly interviewed by the Israeli police and rehabilitated by Jewish Israeli friends, Jaafari is caught up in his grief and his disbelief that Siham was capable of such a despicable act. His thoughts continually return to the night before the bombing, when he had received a call from Siham, supposedly visiting family in the West Bank, but he had been too busy to pick up. Siham’s suicide note, arriving by mail from Nablus, dispels all of Jaafari’s doubts, however, and he determines to go to Nablus to confront those who led Siham to her death — not to berate them for their choices, but to try and understand hers.
As the movie progresses it becomes clear that its central question is less why Siham would become a suicide bomber, than why this conflict allows anyone to believe such a decision makes sense. The movie throws dozens of answers at the viewer without reaching a conclusion, from a heavily wounded Israeli patient shrieking at the sight of an Arab doctor to Palestinian souvenirs lovingly displaying the portraits of mass murderers, from the rubble of Jenin to the ubiquitous sermons broadcast in Nablus summoning Palestinians to violence.
The movie presents a world of fear, and of two peoples so deafened by shouting that they cannot hear each other speak. It is not only nations that are blind to each other’s perspectives. When Jaafari finds the radical priest who gave Siham the bomb, the priest tells him that he didn’t agree to a meeting to explain Siham’s actions but simply to say, “There’s nothing for you here.”
Jaafari, no Israeli partisan, could never see his wife for who she was, nor could she understand him. It is not religion or nationality that divides them, but their inability to see through the other’s eyes. The conflict permeates life so thoroughly that Jaafari, at one time at the peak of Israeli professional success and forever an Arab in a foreign state, neither a die-hard Zionist nor devoted to Israel’s downfall, is locked out of either group, cast aside even by his wife.
Throughout the film, Jaafari counts on one piece of evidence that will explain everything: the traditional pre-attack video he assumes his wife made before she set out to the Tel Aviv café to blow herself up. He speaks to radical preachers, waits in mosques and hunts the streets. Finally he finds that his nephew, who helped Siham plan the bombing, had the video all along. But as the audience has come to expect by now, the video has no key to unlock the mystery — it simply shows a woman, torn and alone, about to commit an evil act. Siham asks her handlers how to deactivate the bomb, which they refuse to show her; crying, she borrows a cell phone to call her husband. As we saw at the beginning of the movie, Jaafari is too busy to take the call. Siham, sobbing, lowers the phone in resignation. She cannot reach her husband; she cannot bridge the gap between them; and now, though hesitant and terrified, she will take her own life and murder innocents.
“The Attack” never explains why Siham chose to become a suicide bomber, but it opens a horrifying window into a world in which that choice is possible.
Watch the trailer for ‘The Attack’: