Laila, Majnun and the Unfair World

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Arab cinema celebrates love through Susan Youssef’s Habibi Rasak Kharban

Habibi Rasak Kharban 1 

It is perhaps the most known of love stories of the Asian and Arab world. Laila Majnun – the story of two lovers who cannot meet. The angst of unrequited love and pain of separation have made the love story painful as well as immortal. Susan Youssef’s film Habibi Rasak Kharban is inspired by the 7th-century Sufi parable Majnun Layla, a story of forbidden love. The original story is said to have been set in 7th century Arabia when a poet named Qays fell in love with Layla. Driven by intensity and passion, Qays was also known as Majnun Layla which translates into madman for Layla. Youssef though places them in a modern context where the boy and the girl are two students in the West Bank who are forced to return home to Gaza, and whose love for each other defies tradition. To reach his lover, Qays graffitis poetry across town.


The full Arabic title is Habibi Rasak Kharban, translates as “Darling, your head is broken” but has been changed to the catchier Habibi. Youssef has previously made an animation film, a documentary about American Catholics who go to Guantanamo Bay.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, and growing up on Staten Island as an Arab American Youssef has seen two sides to life. There was the home life, the community centre, Lebanese friends on the one side and then life at a strict Catholic school without a single Arab classmate. She began writing stage plays and was accepted into the Tisch School of Arts in New York. Living and working in Texas when the attacks on the World Trade Centre took place she recollects a lot of hate crime at the time.

In the summer of 2002 she went to Palestine for the first time and inspired by the Middle East, she began making films about the region. The short film she made at university won several awards and the decision to become a director was made. Her short film Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf was one of the first fiction films in the US to feature a veiled protagonist. It screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006.

Habibi is a story about the Middle East, rooted in academic history and pivoting around love. Youssef says: “I’m really interested in research. It’s wonderful to be able to go back to an original text and being an Arab American filmmaker I feel very conscious of all the odds that are against us. For this film, I didn’t just go to the poetry because it gave credibility to the film; the main reason I used it was because the poetry is so phenomenally beautiful that I felt everyone should read it.” She insists that the film, despite it is setting and a riveting scene in which the protagonists are searched by Israeli guards as they try to flee Palestine, is not a political film and wants people to watch without preconceptions. “It’s a film about a couple who have obstacles to their love.”