Sculpting an Identity

Michael Maria recalls the afternoon in September 2006 when he witnessed the killing of a 14-year-old Palestinian youth by an Israeli patrol in the West Bank. The Massachusetts native rarely left his aunt and uncle’s two-story stone house when visiting them in Bethlehem; he had never learned Arabic, and it was dangerous visiting, let alone living in the occupied city; his large family was naturally protective, and safety was always a concern.

“A lot of the ‘shebab’ or young kids were gathered around, and collected stones,“ Maria says over coffee, at ease in a Cambridge café. “From about 100 yards away or so, I could see about 15 shebab collecting on a side street that overlooked the adjoining street.  As the armored Jeeps did another patrol round a little later, the kids let the stones fly.  The Jeeps stopped and the soldiers opened fire.  It was loud, violent, very scary… It was a reminder that you’re living in a war zone.”

Maria and his mother rushed back home; his family sat restless on the porch, “but my first instinct was, ‘I’m going to run up on to the roof and I’m going to take a picture.’ I wanted to just take a picture. And everybody freaked out.”

His father rushed up to the roof and dragged him back down. ‘They don’t know that that’s just a camera, they might think that you’re carrying a weapon! You might’ve gotten shot at!” his family told him. But Maria was tired of the protection. “I was just like… I just wanted to not be so safe all the time. I wanted to branch out and take a risk and do something,” he says, his body and face stiff.

Through the shooting, Maria became a witness: not only of the taking of a life, but of an identity his parents tried to protect him from.

An organizer for the Boston Palestine Film Festival, for the past five months Maria has juggled his time between sponsorships, advertising, contacting film distributors, and other odd jobs needed for the festival to run seamlessly, but still hopes to find time to go to the Big E with his girlfriend of four years, Guenaelle. He is handsome with lightly olive skin, five feet nine inches, and with neat dark hair, thinning at the top.  Dark eyes accompany what can only be called a thorough proboscis, which rests over a thin but enthusiastic smile.

“A lot of people think I’m Jewish just from physical features,” he says. I point to my nose and say we share the same stereotypically “Judaic” nose. A grin spreads over his face and he releases a full-bodied laugh. “The skin, the nose,” he shrugs with a smile. “But yeah, I think very few people look at me and think, ‘He’s Palestinian.’”

The 37-year-old activist has volunteered with the BPFF since its inception in 2007. The ten-day festival begins October 21st and will highlight the Palestinian story, perspective and narrative through films and panel discussions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Berklee College of Music, and Harvard, plus free screenings at Brookline Public library and Cambridge public library.

“It’s all means of making Palestinians seem like ordinary people,” Maria says of his work with the festival.

Now in its 5th year, the festival will be screening, among others, “Love During Wartime,” “77 Steps,” and “Gaza Hospital.” There will be a showing of “Knowledge is the Beginning” at Berklee, a movie about Edward Said and the orchestral collaboration he had with Israeli-Argentine conductor Daniel Barenboim, and there are programs concerning Palestinian women and the Arab Spring.

“It’s hard for us to tell what our audiences’ opinions will be, so we try to not go there,” says Maria, concerning the controversial nature of Palestinian-Israeli relations and of films that depict the Gaza Siege of 2009.

“It can be depressing and scary,” he says. “We view ourselves as a way to facilitate the presentation of Palestinian films to the Boston Public and we want to draw a crowd and we want them to sit and view the film and then we want them to make their own opinions.”

Growing up Palestinian in America didn’t faze Maria. “It was so ordinary,” he says of his young adult life. Born in Massachusetts and musically inclined, he played clarinet in high school and sang in musicals as well. His first role was in the ensemble “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“I always kind of wonder if that made my parents feel anything or feel funny in any way – not that it should – but I wonder.”

As Christian-Palestinian immigrants to America, Maria’s parents raised him, his older half-brother, half-sister, and younger brother in as American a fashion as they could, with the ultimate goal of blending in. He never learned Arabic, even though both his parents spoke fluently around the house.

In fact, Maria and his younger brother were raised sheltered from their Palestinian identity and lived a childhood almost oblivious to the story of their lineage. The one lesson Maria’s parents always bestowed on him was to not get involved in their Palestinian history.

“They feel that this is something that you get drawn into and get all emotional about and dedicate so much of your time to when… “ Maria takes a breath and finishes, “it’s a lost cause.”

It was throughout his higher education experience at Fairfield University and Tufts that Maria began to sculpt his Palestinian identity, but it was in 2002, after the Second Intifada broke out, that he started volunteering with Boston-Palestine activist groups.

“That was a life changing thing,” he says. His other endeavors in activism include Imagine Life, a project aimed at airing Palestinian-relevant commercials on Boston cable channels, and promotional work for the tiny Palestinian producer, Zatoun Olive Oil.

Humbly, Maria tells himself he has only a minute impact on the cause. “But I feel like all of these little things makes me feel like I’m contributing to helping to change reality… I feel like any little thing helps. And I think 2002 was a big turning point for that, and that it was a big turning point for many many Palestinians.”

When Maria last visited the West Bank, in September of 2006 when he witnessed the killing of the shebab, his Aunt Laurensa had asked him, “Do you think I’ll ever be able to see America?” “And I said to her, ‘Auntie, if you want that, you should come,’ and that was almost like a wishful dream. It was just a thought she had.”

I lived this comfortable, privileged life here in the States with my freedoms and my security and I can do whatever I want. But that was not true for my family from my perspective. So I felt… obliged to be active, to do something.”



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