The Cruel Passage: Palestine in Exile in "The Dupes"

Newly restored, Tewfik Saleh's gut-wrenching migrant drama follows three representative generations of Palestinians across the desert.
Sanoja Bhaumik

The Dupes (Tewfik Saleh, 1972).

The August sun is a fierce weapon. Amidst the war, occupation, and destitution that form the backdrop of Tewfik Saleh’s The Dupes (1972), it is the sun that ultimately represents the greatest danger to its Palestinian protagonists. Impoverished refugees searching for work, the three men attempt to cross the desert border from Iraq to an oil-abundant Kuwait. In a no-man’s-land too deadly to be policed, the trio must put their faith in a Palestinian smuggler to guide them through this trial of fire.

The Dupes is set in 1958, ten years after the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” when 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes to enable the creation of the state of Israel. Its three migrant characters represent different generations of Palestinians confronting this great dispossession, their paths converging in the Iraqi port city of Basra. Shifting between past and present, the narrative recollects their lives and losses, culminating in each individual decision to escape.

Newly restored by the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, the Cineteca de Bologna, the Syrian National Film Organization, and the family of Tewfik Saleh, The Dupes screened last month in both the New York Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival. The restoration marks an important revival. Upon its release, The Dupes won Tanit d’Or at the Carthage Film Festival but was banned by many Arab states due to its political content. The film had few public screenings elsewhere, and its circulation in recent years had been largely restricted to a battered YouTube clip.

The story is based on Ghassan Kanafani’s widely read 1963 novella Men in the Sun. Translated into several languages, the text remains an iconic work of modern Arab fiction, exemplifying a genre of Palestinian writing after 1948 that Kanafani termed  “resistance literature.” In the years that followed the novella’s publication, both the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) were founded. A Marxist born in Akka, Northern Palestine, Kanafani joined the latter in 1969, editing the revolutionary group’s weekly magazine, Al Hadaf. In 1972, at the age of 36, he was assassinated by the Israeli Mossad in Beirut.

Saleh’s cinematic adaptation, released just seven months before Kanafani’s death, similarly renders visible the waves of expulsion, hardship, and war that shaped mid-century Palestine. In addition to tracing Palestinian struggle after the Nakba, Saleh considers the political transformations of the intervening decade, in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War and the resurgence of Palestinian militancy. Half a century later, the resurrection of The Dupes testifies to the enduring salience of its critique. For present-day viewers, an unwavering focus on the Palestinian cause remains strikingly urgent.


The Dupes (Tewfik Saleh, 1972).

The Dupes begins with Abu Qais (Mohamed Kheir-Halouani)—a sweaty, depleted older man—wandering the desert alone. He spots an oasis of palm trees in the distance, laying his fingers in the dirt and his body in the shade to gain relief from reality. We flash back to a distant past, where he speaks to an old friend under the trees of his village. “Everytime I smell the earth while lying on the ground, I seem to smell the scent of my wife’s hair after a cold bath.” An illiterate olive farmer, Abu Qais conveys a longing for land that echoes Palestinians’ historic demand for the right to return to their homes.  

Abu Qais is the eldest of the film’s central characters. After the Nakba, his family is displaced to a crowded refugee camp, teetering on the edge of starvation with no employment prospects. Convinced that migration will reverse his misfortunes, he arrives passport-less in Basra and attempts to haggle with Iraqi smugglers. The film then abruptly cuts to the same situation but with a different character—Assad (Bassan Lofti Abou-Ghazala), a young activist attempting to escape Jordanian police and the marital obligations of his family. The same smuggler then reappears humiliating the film’s youngest character, Marwan (Saleh Kholoki). At fifteen, Marwan quits school to earn money for his family, after they are abandoned by his father and older brother. Abul Khaizuran (Abdul Rahman Al Rashi)—a Palestinian smuggler working for a mysterious, wealthy Kuwaiti—convinces the three to risk the crossing in his water tank, offering them safe passage for five dinars cheaper than his Iraqi competitors.

Bridging these generational storylines, the first half of The Dupes functions in part as a political document. In a montage that breaks with the text’s plot, Saleh incorporates UNRWA footage of tent cities, barbed wires, food lines, and impoverished, wailing Palestinians. These visuals are sequenced with images of Arab monarchs and leaders at various negotiations. “Talks, talks, arguing, nonsense. They’ve sold you and bought you again,” taunts a distant voice to Abu Qais, as he contemplates leaving for Kuwait. 

Arab complicity in the Palestinian plight quickly comes into sharp view. The Iraqi smugglers are portrayed as greedy and vindictive, and there’s a pervading sense that the men will be cheated—or worse, discarded—at each turn. In one flashback, a news clipping reveals that Assad had been caught in a plot to assassinate the Jordanian monarch. This detail, another departure from the text, was a pointed inclusion from Saleh: Two years before the film’s release, Jordan’s King Hussein expelled the PLO from their strongholds in the country. In the ten-month conflict known as Black September, the Jordanian Armed Forces killed over 3,400 Palestinians. For Saleh, the massacres served as a major focal point for the film’s political outlook. 

In comparison, Zionists are rarely shown onscreen. The events of 1948 are referenced primarily in Abu Qais’s flashbacks, where the war suddenly overruns the village. A secular schoolteacher from Jaffa anticipates this turn of events, stating “When they attack, wake me up. I can be of use to you then”—the “they” left implied. The film immediately cuts to an olive grove transformed into a battlefield, where we get a first glimpse of a younger keffiya-adorned Abul Khaizuran taking the gun of the slain schoolteacher. A narrator levies a warning to Abu Qais after the loss: “You have the Zionists before you and the traitors behind. You are between a devil and the blue sea.”

Harsh critique of Arab governments was a common theme in Saleh’s work, often leading to difficulties acquiring funding and distribution in state-run cinema sectors. Born in Alexandria, the Egyptian director belonged to a generation of European-educated Arab filmmakers who sought to bring a new kind of social and political cinema to the region. Scholar Nadia Yaqub writes that in 1970 he moved to Damascus, then considered “the gathering place for young, politically minded Arab filmmakers,” to direct a film for Syrian General Cinema Organization (GCO).

This appeared to be a hopeful collaboration: between 1969 and 1974, the GCO produced fifteen movies on the subject of Palestine—a focus of the Arab left—featuring filmmakers from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. Yaqub notes that it was in Syria where the first narrative films on Palestine emerged, representing Palestine pre-1948, the failures of Arab leadership, and questions of class and gender in Arab and Palestinian society. Despite this brief period of state support, The Dupes faced severe censorship. Many Arab states flatly refused to screen it, a result of Saleh’s brazen accusation of Arab betrayal. Even in Syria, it showed for only two weeks before being pulled from Damascus theaters. The film’s emotional climax had thus been designed to mobilize broad Arab audiences that it failed to reach.


The Dupes (Tewfik Saleh, 1972).

If the first half of The Dupes blitzes through time and space, the second is tethered to a brutal journey across the border, where simmering tensions come to an agonizing peak. Abul Khaizuran drives through blinding light as sweat drips down his face; the others alternate lying on the top of the truck, covering their skin to avoid the burns. The most suspenseful and gut-wrenching moments occur during the few minutes spent at each checkpoint. To evade Iraqi and Kuwaiti authorities, the men must hide inside the black metal water tank. An object whose metal surface sizzles from the heat, its belly is a suffocating furnace. (This plot thread is borrowed from life—Kanafani drew from a real case in which forty immigrants suffocated in a tank crossing the Kuwaiti border.)

Perversely and tragically, the personal ties so fragile throughout the film begin to develop during this hellish passage. Until now, the characters were isolated figures navigating their escape alone; that they were all Palestinian carried little weight. Solidarities had long been frayed, and even the smallest gesture towards shared struggle felt untrustworthy. The desperate struggle for survival had weakened communal and familial bonds. The Dupes’s final act, however, briefly challenges this cynicism. Assad hears snippets of Abul Khaizuran’s past, who tears up recalling his traumas. Marwan rests his head on Abu Qais’s leg, performing an act of almost parental care. These men seem to genuinely want each other to live. Despite every warning to the contrary, we hope that maybe, just maybe, they will emerge together on the other side.

Instead, we are left with utter devastation. The three refugees bang on the sides of the tank in their final pleas for survival. These calls go unheard, drowned out by the hum of air conditioners cooling Kuwaiti border officials. Initially displaying horror upon discovering their demise, a detached Abu al-Khaizuran dumps their stiff, almost naked bodies onto a pile of trash. While Saleh captures the many political complexities that plague the region, he ultimately delivers a blunt, simple message: the world has abandoned the Palestinian people.

In 1995, Saleh wrote that “the ending of The Dupes does not arouse pity … Engaged art must provoke in the spectator anger in the face of what he sees, a refusal of what he sees.” Today, as the bodies of over 11,000 Palestinians fill up Gaza’s mass graves, as Western leaders reiterate their unwavering support for Israel’s siege on 2.2 million civilians, as Gulf states broker normalization deals, and as Egypt considers resettling expelled Palestinians in the Sinai, Saleh’s critique rings startlingly true. As we confront new levels of violence with each passing day, we must ask ourselves: will this moment provoke our pity, or our refusal?

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