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Sonia Nettnin Film Review: Door to the Sun – Pt. 1

Film Review: Door to the Sun – Part I

By Sonia Nettnin

(Photo courtesy of CPFF )

“Door to the Sun,” is an epic, feature film that explores the heroic exploits of one Palestinian couple, Nahila and Younes, and their friends, over two generations. It covers their years growing up in Palestine, just before the creation of Israel; and it extends into their last months in 1994.

Professor Elias Khoury’s magnum opus, saga novel Bab El Shams, or Door to the Sun, (1998) is the basis for the screenplay, co-written by Khoury also. Yousry Nasrallah directed the film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2004.

Khoury’s saga novel relies more on the classical, Arabic way of storytelling, like the oral tales of Shahrazad in The Thousand and One Nights. However, Khoury adapted the narrative structure into a screenplay for film presentation. Nasrallah delivers the most crucial half-century of Palestinian history – and his directorial interpretation is profound.

In Part 1, The Leaving, the film begins in Beirut 1994. In an effort to keep a man he considers his father alive, Khalil Ayyoub of Shatila cares for Younes Ibrahim El Assadi, who is in a coma in Galilee Hospital. Khalil narrates Younes’ life story in his ear. Khalil is a storyteller, like Shahrazad in Nights, except the film takes over the narration through character dialog and visual image. Khalil tells Younes stories to keep him alive. The film uses flashback to recreate the characters’ life stories.

It begins with a flashback to the past, 1943, when young Younes marries a young girl named Nahila from Ain El Zeitoun, their native Palestine.

After the arranged marriage brings them together in a wedding ceremony rich with cultural tradition and ululation, Younes feels alienated by the forced commitment, so he runs away. He returns a few years later and the young couple consecrates their marriage. Nahila becomes pregnant with their first son, Ibrahim. During Younes’ absence, Nahila seeks education from her father-in-law, a blind sheik who sees beyond the sensory world and the school headmaster, who understands the corporeal world. Despite the reprimands of her mother-in-law who contested her son’s marriage, Nahila develops her resilience even though her husband is not present for support.

During harvest time, the villagers shake and roll the olive branches, so green, oval drupes cover the ground like blankets of bubbles. It is a celebratory affair, centuries old, suddenly disrupted by children who scream: “The army of the Jews is coming!”

Just prior to their calls, the headmaster exclaims olives are bitter, a foreshadowing with seconds forewarning of the forthcoming devastation. In a night raid, the Israeli militia, Palmach, roll flaming garbage cans of gasoline into Palestinian homes.

On a loudspeaker a man calls out: “This zone is for non-Arabs. We will kill your men and rape your women!”

The Al-Nakba, the Catastrophe unfolds the beginning of massacre and violence within the Palestinian tragedy. The Palmach shoot and bury Palestinian men and boys into mass graves. The Arab Rescue Army from neighboring countries has orders not to interfere with the invasions. Survivors live a life of constant running. People from neighboring villages gather in the village of Chaab, where they look for surviving family members. They recuperate from their horrific experiences. Although they seek refuge, they cannot settle in one place for long without loudspeaker announcements about zone evacuations. People famished, tired and ill, huddle together in terror and fear.

Away in Syria acquiring arms, Younes returns home to a burned village. He finds his family, resettles them and then he flees to Lebanon. From Shatila, he builds an armed militia called the Fedayeen. While the UN negotiates a peace agreement with Israel, Lebanese officials insist on a cease-fire. The Lebanese closely monitor the Palestinian refugee camps and they beat Younes when they find out he is responsible for carrying arms into Israel.

Younes returns to Nahila periodically, but Israeli forces wait for his return. Through loss and separation, Younes’ love for Nahila and his son grows when he realizes his took their presence for granted.

Lying on the hospital bed with Younes, Khalil tells his friend: “You understood the word ‘fatherland’ only when Galilee fell.”

Although Younes is one of the central characters, he leads a life of alienation: the mass expulsion sends him to other countries and it leaves him comatose with a cerebral hemorrhage.

Despite their unexpected life situation, Nahila sets up a secret home in a nearby cave. Periodically, she meets Younes there at night. The cave symbolizes the displaced marriage and family life the couple tragically lost in Al-Nakba. It is a safe haven where the couple can have their marriage on their terms. Nahila lights up the cave with candles, where she and Younes create life.

“The door to the sun is just for us,” Younes tells her.

The cave is a metaphor for their life together on their homeland. They create an unoccupied house where they can share their lives together. Their door to the sun symbolizes the continuity of life for which they yearn and struggle to preserve in brief moments as a married couple.

A timeless place without seasons, Younes and Nahila create memories in the cave that sustain them until their next clandestine meeting. The cave is for bittersweet meetings where they bear the fruits of marriage as husband and wife. Occupying forces cannot control their love and their procreation. Free from the oppressor in their momentary encounters, they become whole again in natural surroundings on their native land.

Although the Catastrophe and the ongoing occupation disrupt the continuity of their life, they treasure their time together. Out of tragedy and despair, absence makes the heart grow fonder.

For every departure, there is a return.


Directed by: Yousry Nasrallah
Produced by: Humbert Balsan
Co-Produced by: ARTE France; Ognon Pictures
Novel by: Elias Khoury
Starring: Rim Turki; Orwa Nyrabeya; Bassel Khayyat; Nadira Omra; Hala Omran.
Music: Marcel Khalife; Tamer Karawan
Country of production: France/Egypt
Year: 2004
Language: Arabic, French and English, with English subtitles
Minutes: 139, Part I


Sonia Nettnin is a freelance writer. Her articles and reviews demonstrate civic journalism, with a focus on international social, economic, humanitarian, gender, and political issues. Media coverage of conflicts from these perspectives develops awareness in public opinion.

Nettnin received her bachelor's degree in English literature and writing. She did master's work in journalism. Moreover, Nettnin approaches her writing from a working woman's perspective, since working began for her at an early age.

She is a poet, a violinist and she studied professional dance. As a writer, the arts are an integral part of her sensibility. Her work has been published in the Palestine Chronicle, Scoop Media and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. She lives in Chicago.

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