‘Bye Bye Tiberias’: A quiet meditation on memory and identity

Lina Soualem’s 2023 cinematic masterpiece follows four generations of Palestinian women, with a focus on her and her mother, actress Hiam Abbass. From upheaval and refuge comes serenity and sadness.

A still from the film 'Bye Bye Tiberias'
Bye Bye Tiberias (2023
A still from the film 'Bye Bye Tiberias'

‘Bye Bye Tiberias’: A quiet meditation on memory and identity

The 2023 film Bye Bye Tiberias has already cemented its status as a timeless cinematic masterpiece brimming with themes of identity, resilience, and the indomitable spirit of women confronting life’s adversities head-on. It is a deeply personal and joyful exploration of director Lina Soualem’s relationship with her mother—the acclaimed actress Hiam Abbass. It is also a tale of matriarchy and of uprooting, told through the stories of two generations of Palestinian women.

Soualem let the narrative flow so viewers learn of Palestinians’ expulsion during the 1948 Nakba (Catastrophe), their wrenching separation from familiar landscapes, their aspirations and loved ones, and their relentless resistance against Israeli occupation.

The Sea of Galilee

A French-Palestinian-Algerian filmmaker and actress, Soualem was born in Paris, where she lives, but the film takes us to the Sea of Galilee—the “source of our story,” she told France 24—since this is where her family were expelled from. “It’s where everything ended and started at the same time.”

What elevates the film’s scope and profundity is its willingness to embrace additional themes that can feel at once both divergent and complementary as the story delves into the mystical. At heart, it is about the struggle to assert one’s identity amidst crises, to maintain an authentic voice in the din of historical erasure, and to grapple with big personal issues in an era that seeks to reduce them to symbols or pawns in the tumultuous battle of ideas, ideologies, and historical retellings.

Bye Bye Tiberias was a collaborative effort between French, Belgian, Qatari, and Palestinian creators, in which Hiam and Lina play themselves, alongside two other generations of women from the same family lineage.

Hiyam Abbas and Lina Souilem on the red carpet during the 20th edition of the Marrakesh International Film Festival, Marrakesh, on November 25, 2023.

Um Ali, Lina’s great-grandmother, passed away when Lina was just ten years old. As might be expected, her personal memories are now scant.

Spreading her wings

Hiam’s abrupt departure from Deir Hanna in Palestine in her youth to pursue artistic dreams in France complicated the preservation of family memories, we learn. Yet Lina crafts a cinematic presence for these memories using various tools. Among them is the meticulous script that reconstructs fragmented glimpses of the women’s lives, offering commentary on each. Much of it is content that Hiam never wanted to share, let alone to a camera.

Lina incorporates her own observations and emotions, supplemented with clips of the old streets where Hiam’s mother and grandmother once lived. Lina’s own voice is interwoven with that of her mother, who is the film’s focal point and gravitational centre.

Without consulting her family, Hiam left for Paris during her formative years, a pivotal event explored in the documentary. “Everything made me suffocate, even those who loved me,” she says at one point, looking at photos.

Hiam’s passion for art blossomed in her youth as she immersed herself in the world of the Hakawati Theatre, or Palestinian National Theatre, in Occupied Jerusalem. A free spirit, she also longed for love, experiencing it in various fleeting encounters before ultimately deciding to leave permanently. While her family, including her mother Neemat, did not oppose her short-lived romances, her horizon still felt constrained, so Hiam sought ways to transcend this in a pursuit that ultimately came with costs.

Paris to Galilee

In Paris, Hiam forged a career, married, and tried to sever ties with her past, hoping to replace old memories with new ones in a new land and new language, as if trying to assuage her pain. There, she gave birth to Lina. “I was born from this departure, from this separation,” Lina reflects.

However, over time, Hiam came to realise that this act of self-erasure might be more detrimental than liberating. Encouraged by a young Lina, she returned to Palestine and to Tiberias, a city on the western shore of the huge freshwater lake. Brimming with nostalgia, she came as a visitor on her French passport since her Palestinian passport no longer facilitated entry and reunion with her family in Deir Hanna.

“I came back because it was difficult to be a mother alone in exile,” Hiam says. “I came back because I needed my mother to become a mother.”

This poignant narrative thread delicately explores the complexities of motherhood and its intricate interplay with personal history, symbolised by the lush landscapes of Tiberias, with its forests and the miraculous lake that Christ purportedly walked on.

In her youth, Lina was captivated by Hiam’s tales of home, and in one funny and candid moment that the cameras caught, Lina admits that when she was young she “thought we were related to Christ,” prompting incredulous laughter from Hiam. Hopes of a connection to divinity, with its promise to transcend our earthly limitations, may help explain Lina’s desire to return to Deir Hanna, symbolised by her attachment to the titular lake.

Reconstructing memory

While Hiam chose to leave Palestine for Paris to shape a new identity, Lina—who is French-Algerian-Palestinian—had no say in her unique amalgamated heritage. Still, she has embraced it and uses cinema as her medium to express it.

Prior to Bye Bye Tiberias, she directed the documentary Algeria, delving into the history of her Algerian father’s family, notably her grandparents, who immigrated to France with the psychological scars of French occupation in their homeland. Once again, Lina bears witness, capturing her mother reading Arabic poetry, for which she is known. Poignantly, Hiam recites O Song of the Forests, pauses, then says to Lina in French: “How I would have liked you to learn this language!”

Lina understands the Arabic dialect that her mother and aunts spoke while travelling between Paris and Deir Hanna. She remembers joyful family moments through video, including Aunt Buthaina’s wedding, where the national anthem preceded the ceremony. While filming Hiam exploring her childhood home, Lina preserves all ambient sounds, from birdsong to the call of vendors calls and the gentle lapping of water by the Sea of Galilee, perhaps to capture as much of the place and the memory as possible.

Bye Bye Tiberias subtly suggests that identity is fluid, while memory—though subject to change over time—is deep-rooted. It also conveys a sense of pride in the extensive reach of family history as Lina tries to visually reconstruct life before 1948. The changing geography, plus Israeli annexations and displacements, make reconstruction difficult, prompting a reflection on the preservation of memory, whether in archival material or in the heart and mind.

Upheaval and return

Prior to 1948, Um Ali’s family lived in Tiberias itself before they were forced out by Zionists. Lina recounts Um Ali’s saying: “I have never known happier moments than the ones I experienced in Tiberias 50 years ago.”

Amidst the upheaval, Husniya, Um Ali’s daughter and Neemat’s sister, relocated to Syria with her husband and lost contact with the family for years due to Israeli oppression. Her eventual return, marked by a brief, clandestine visit to Deir Hanna shortly before she died, carries a sense of farewell and a hopeful prophecy of crossing borders and finding solace under different skies.

In some ways, Bye Bye Tiberias is similar to the 2019 documentary Tell Me About Them by Egyptian director Marianne Khoury, which delves into the memories of three generations of women: Khoury, her daughter Sarah, and her mother, whose brother was the esteemed director Youssef Chahine. In her conversations with her mother regarding the family’s fragmentation, Sarah’s anger is palpable, with hints of underlying turmoil and possible concealed histories within the female line.

In contrast, Bye Bye Tiberias exudes a sense of serenity despite the backdrop of occupation and the intermittent sadness in Hiam’s voice, such as when she recalls her own mother’s disappointment at her departure or her mourning after her mother died.

Resilience and nuance

What is striking is the resilience exhibited by the female protagonists. Despite the weight of pain, moments of light relief punctuate throughout, laughter amidst tears. The film masterfully captures nuances, juxtaposing the intrusive gaze of Israeli soldiers with scenes of Palestinian familial camaraderie and playful reenactments, all set to an evocative score by Amine Bouhafa.

For Lina Soualem, Bye Bye Tiberias is not only her directorial debut, it is a testament to her role as the latest generation, one that has been tasked with synthesising the collective narrative into a coherent perspective, if only momentarily. In this way, the film assumes a tranquil and contemplative demeanour, reflecting on the ebb and flow of memory and somehow espousing hope amidst the loss.

font change

Related Articles