The Promise

I spent last night watching the four episodes of the Channel 4 mini-series The Promise. I had avoided it after hearing from people I really like and respect on twitter that the first episode was really bad. But yesterday those same friends on twitter were urging me to watch it, saying that it was brilliant. They said that while the first episode will get on my nerves I should stick with it and that I would be pleasantly surprised. I had realised that I wasn’t going to be able to sleep that night. So I thought that I might as well watch the whole thing because I wasn’t going to do any work anyway.

I sat and started watching it on the watch again feature for channel 4 (4OD). I have to admit that within 15 minutes of the first episode I wanted to grab my laptop and smash it repeatedly on the wall. It just looked like it was going to be a complete surface pro-israel account. There was a point when the main character, an annoying, rich, White, British, 18-year old, clueless girl from London on her gap year, who goes to israel with her best friend, who’s going there for her military service, says, while sitting on the beach next to the villa of the family she’s staying with in the rich part of Haifa: ‘this is paradise!’. At this point I just wanted to scream. The whole first episode is filled with things like that. I also noticed that the Arabs were conspicuously absent. The only arab character seemed to be a reformed Al-Aqsa brigades member, who only appears for a small part.

But anyway, before getting carried away, let me explain what the series is about. It follows the afore-mentioned British teenager’s trip to israel on her gap year. Before she leaves her grand father falls ill and she takes his diary, from his time in british mandate Palestine to read. The series therefore follows two parallel storylines, one in modern day Palestine and one in 1945-1948 Palestine. She’s a clueless, privileged, annoying teenager, and he is a British soldier who liberated a concentration camp during world war II and found himself in Palestine.

So the story begins with both of them, especially the grand father, being quite pro-zionist. She out of uninformed stupidity, he out of the horrors he witnessed in the death camps. So this is why the first episode was so annoying to me. It is because the story is really told from the perspective of the two characters, and no one else’s, that the first episode needed to be like that, from a story telling point of view. However, the next three episodes go on to shatter every single assumption and lie that seemed to be told by the first one. They also go on to tell the truth about the Palestinian tragedy without compromise. It felt so good to watch a drama the wasn’t afraid to show the truth and shatter this idea of false equivalence between both sides’ suffering.

I cried my eyes out through the whole last episode. I’ve always known the history of the Nakba, and Deir Yassine, and the truth of the brutality of the occupation in the West Bank and the giant interment and concentration camp that is Gaza, but I was still emotionally drained and affected by it. The most beautiful thing about it was the way in which it showed things that are important for all arabs but that most people don’t know. Like the centrality of the keys in the Palestinian struggle for the right of return of the people who were forced out of their homes and were ethnically cleansed in 1948.

Another really good thing about it was all the very subtle ways in which it showed the apartheid system of israel for what it is. For example, the main character’s best friend makes fun of the recruits on her first day of induction into the IDF calling them idiots for the way in which they act, she’s spent most of her life in England and thus feels like an outsider. However, during her basic training graduation party, she acts exactly like the people she made fun of in the first place. This is not in your face but is subtly represented. Another example, is the moment when ‘liberal israelis’ are forced to have dinner with a Palestinian for the first time. They ask him where he’s from and he tells them, being from a village cut in half by the  illegal apartheid separation wall, and they act politely outraged. Then he asks them where they’re from, one of the says I’m from here. He then pointedly asks, ‘no I mean where are you from originally?’

Anyway, the whole thing was brilliant in every single aspect. It is one of the best pieces of television ever made and takes its place amongst the other greats like The Wire and Battlestar Gallactica. The acting is brilliant, the story is wonderful, the sets are fantastic, especially the period ones, and the history is completely accurate. I cannot recommend it enough. It’s still on 4 OD for another few days and it is already out on DVD. Trust me you will want to watch this, whether you know about Palestine and its history or not. It is an education for those who don’t know and a reminder for those who do.

13 Responses to “The Promise”

  1. walt kovacs Says:

    like the wire????

    you have gotta be kidding

    the wire was filled with characters that were all painted with shades of gray

    this production made everything black and white

    jews bad

    arabs good

    this series was made for you….because you already believe that

    oh….and len was wrong….not only did israel thrive….it continues to thrive…to the consternation of you…and the arab states

  2. You’ve just made me feel like I should take my computer and smash it.

  3. cara Says:

    Haven’t seen it yet but due to you describing your emotions while watching it, I will deffenetly get it on dvd and watch it.
    So tnx for the tip, sounds like it should be played in schools, after watching I might use it in my sociology class.

    • Thanks for the kind words. It’s a very powerful drama. It tells the silenced history of the Palestinians in a very poignant way. I do think this kind of Drama is important to be shown to everyone. Please let me know if you decide to use it after all.

    • Sharon Klaff Says:

      School children should never be indoctrinated by ill informed playwrites.

      • Avril"wotisay" Says:

        this is not indoctrination but history as we know it. truth will out my dear, like it or not.

  4. Sharon Klaff Says:

    If you believe this to be a great production you must be delusional. I guess the handy chain and lock with key in situ is plausable to you, particlarly as the petulent Erin found it in 3 seconds flat. This small scene epitomises poor production in terms of fact and direction. I’ll remember never to watch anything you recommend.

  5. saffronatstudy Says:

    Like Erin, I was completely naive and uninformed when I went to kibbutz in 1987, a month before the Intifada. Like you, I loved ‘The Promise’. However, I felt that it didn’t fully explore the reasons for the extreme animosity against the Palestinians by the character Clara. We could clearly see why she hated the British, but we needed more on why she felt she was in the right sacking a Palestinian village. My understanding, which may be wrong, is that some Jews felt that the Palestinians were collaborators because of the actions of the Grand Mufti? This in no way justifies the massacre portrayed in the dramas, but it does contextualize it. Where the drama was strongest was where it showed how normal people could end up doing extreme and terrible things. This was hinted at through the character of the little sister of the suicide bomber. When she showed Erin her photograph, you realised that she had once been like her sister. This is a good review, and I like your honesty that the first episode frustrated you because you thought it was pro-Israeli. However, don’t you think that it is only by resisting the impulse to take sides that a peace can be negotiated? Len and Erin changed their points of view from pro-Israeli to pro-Palestinian, but it was the characters of Paul and Omar who really grappled with the complexity and contradictions of the situation. Also,I’m not sure why you say Sharon Klaff is a zionist? Don’t you think that could be an assumption too far? I was a bit annoyed at the tidy coincidences at the end, but unlike Sharon, chose to put them to one side and go with the story (but then, I am an English Literature lecturer!). She could just be being a little pedantic!

    • Thanks for your comment. Well you might be right about Sharon, I did say that it was a hunch. I believe that the comment was a bit too aggressive to be inspired simply by the ‘tidy coincidences’ as you put it. I felt there was more to cause such animosity towards me and my review than a pedantic attitude. However, I’m very happy to be proven wrong. It is an assumption, and it might be as you say one too far.
      As for the reasons behind Clara’s hatred of the Palestinians. The actions of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem might have had something to do with it, although I don’t really believe they did. The Mufti’s actions came from an anti-British perspective, not an anti-Jewish one. Were they justified, probably not. It’s important to note though that no one knew the extent of the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews until the end of the war. I’m not trying to find excuses here, I’m just showing the motivation. I don’t know what could lead anyone to take part in a massacre like that of Deir Yassine, and I have to admit I like that I don’t.
      Now for the last point about taking sides. I think that we need to take sides in front of injustice. However, we need to be careful not to turn it into a racist affair. I think that taking sides against an ideology that promotes the idea of the land belonging to a singular group, whether religious ethnic or cultural, rather than an other, is morally right. To be against an apartheid system which perpetuates and justifies treating a group like strangers in their own land, and oppressing them, is morally right. Paul and Omar have taken sides, they both stand against zionism and israeli Apartheid. Now it is important to make sure not to conflate zionism and israel with Jewish, those are separate. I feel that to stand against zionism and israeli apartheid today is as important as when people stood against white supremacy and South African Apartheid before, against JimCrow laws in the US, and against colonialism in all its forms.
      I hope that clarifies my point of view a little.

      • saffronatstudy Says:

        Yes, it does clarify. Thanks for taking the time – your comments are thoughtful and thought-provoking. I agree that you have to take a stance on what you think is right and wrong, be it through voting, marching, signing a petition, refusing to fight or whatever. I make a stand on several issues because they affect me personally: gay rights (I’m in a Civil Partnership), multi-faith initiatives (I’m a liberal, pluralist Christian), anti-racism (my children are mixed race and it TERRIFIES me that the BNP has a hold here in our region). However, at the same time I need to try to understand other people’s narratives. How did somebody end up a homophobic bigot, a fundamentalist (religious or secular) or a racist? What makes otherwise decent people buy into these ideologies? Why do some of these people turn their views into violent attacks? Back to ‘The Promise’, there are Zionists who don’t condone massacres. What made Clara (and the real people she represents) cross that boundary and others not? That was the story I wanted to be told that wasn’t told in an otherwise excellent drama.
        I’m in the middle of writing a PhD chapter, so I’d better stop trawling the internet for interesting blogs…

      • That’s an interesting point you make. I agree with you that it is important to understand where someone else comes from and what their motivation is. It is also important to understand their narrative. The only thing that scares me, is that while understanding how someone’s actions are constructed and conditioned is important, it should never be accepted as true. I am like you very passionate about standing up to oppression in all its forms, racism, homophobia, islamophobia, antisemitism, class, religious intolerance, etc. I hate that trying to understand the other’s perspective, however, turns into accepting their side’s truth as being somehow valid. While I’m interested in understanding what turns someone into a homophobic bigot or a fundamentalist racist, as you put it, I am not interested in justifying their position. That’s why I was a little apprehensive of your comment. But you make a lot of sense, that part of the motivation was absent. I guess Kosminsky’s excuse would be that the narrative was from Len and Erin’s perspectives and no one else’s.
        I know what you mean, I am in the middle of a PhD chapter as well, and I’m spending my time online following the Arab Revolutions. I really need to pack it in and go to work 🙂

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