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Posts Tagged ‘Mahmud Darwish’

Part II of Dispossession, Despair, and Defiance:  70 Years of the Palestinian Naqba  

The village in western Galilee where Mahmud Darwish was born was razed by Israel’s armed forces after the Jewish state came into existence and he lived, as many Palestinians have, in exile for the greater part of his life.  That displacement, occupation, and exodus is now seared into the memory of Palestinians as the nakba, ‘catastrophe’.  The Palestinians have today become the diasporic people that the Jews once were—that may be one of the more ironic elements of this convoluted narrative of displacement after displacement.  Jews in the twentieth century, facing not just another around of pogroms and anti-Semitism, but the prospect of their absolute elimination from lands where they had been often lodged in ghettoes and yet also integrated to varying degrees, resolved to ameliorate the historical conditions of their distress by dislodging the Palestinians from their ancestral homeland.  “My roots”, says Darwish, “were entrenched before the birth of time”.  But, of course, all three Abrahamic faiths claim Palestine as their ‘holy land’:  that, too, has perhaps brought the conflict into a wider public domain.  Thus, even as the conflict revolves centrally around the dialectic of displacement and home, one is compelled to probe further the meaning of home and equally of homelessness.  Now that the Jews claim to have been restored to their ancestral homeland, and have as a consequence defied the design of history which for centuries seemed to have bound their very identity to the condition of diasporic rootlessness, can we say that they are properly ‘at home’?  What is a home that is gained, some would say, at the expense of another’s home?  One may be at home and yet find that the home that one craved for repels as much as it attracts.

Mahmud Darwish

Mahmud Darwish.  Source:  https://arablit.org/2013/08/09/selected-works-on-the-5th-anniversary-of-mahmoud-darwishs-death/

Beyond all this, the conflict over Palestine disturbs even those who may be indisposed towards Palestinians, Arabs, or Muslims because it presents harrowing images of the enormous disequilibrium of power between Israel and the Palestinians.  That disequilibrium of power has sharpened over the years, widening to an enormous gulf in the last two decades; but it was present at the outset, since the migration of Jews into Palestine in the 1930s, which began to alter the demographic composition of Palestine, and subsequently the very foundation of the Jewish state of Israel, were both facilitated by British arms.  Then, as now, the Palestinians were left to fend for themselves.  In the most recent round of protests, in anticipation of the 70th anniversary of the creation of Israel as well as the relocation of the United States Embassy to Jerusalem, this immense chasm between Israel and Palestinian protestors has yet again been glaringly evident.  While Israeli soldiers snuff out Palestinian lives at will, deploying the arsenal that a well-armed nation-state can draw upon, Palestinians can only respond with burning tires, sling shots, and other contrivances that suggest extraordinary ingenuity on their part as much an awareness that the odds are stacked against them.

Palestinian protesters throw stones towards Israeli policemen during clashes in the Arab east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Ras al-Amud

Photo Credits:  Reuters/Ammar Awad.

Naturally, Israel contests any such representation of the conflict, pointing to the frequent rocket attacks against the Jewish state launched by Hamas, or even to the stalemate forced by Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, to suggest that it is not the invincible military machine that it is made out to be by its detractors around the world.  Lately, under Netanyahu, the swagger with which Israel acts has intensified, but even now, after repulsing one contingent of Palestinian demonstrators after another determined to breach the fenced border between Gaza and Israel, the claim that Israel remains forever vulnerable to attacks by Hamas or young men who have been initiated into violence not simply persists but has become the linchpin of Israeli self-aggrandizement.  After the humiliating defeat of the Americans by the rice-eating Vietnamese, a possibility that would have shocked Montesquieu and many other proponents of the idea that the world might reasonably be divided into consumers of wheat, potatoes, and rice, each set of people marked by indelible signs of manliness or effeminacy, there is certainly reason to believe that sheer technological prowess does not necessarily confer victory.  Nevertheless, as I have already argued, there is no gainsaying the fact that the conflict presents a hugely disproportionate allocation of technological resources, pitting Israel’s advanced fighter jets against the stone-throwing boys who perhaps gave the intifada its most enduring image.

If all this were not enough to lend the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians a particular poignancy, the occupation of the Palestinian territories, now having crossed the five decade mark, is nearly singular in its length, intensity, and normalization of the experience of humiliation.  Numerous political manifestos, not only those issued by the leaders of al-Qaeda, have called for the liberation of various Muslim lands now under the ‘occupation’ of the infidel, and Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, and Chechnya have been mentioned in the same breath by those who argue that there is a global ‘war on Islam’, but there is little question that these struggles for self-determination are far from being similar.  Portions of India, not just Kashmir, are in fact among the most militarized zones in the world, and the inhabitants of the Kashmir Valley have not infrequently had to live under curfew.  The Kashmir Valley has certainly seen its share of strikes, lockdowns, ‘disappearances’, house-to-house searches, police brutality, and other forms of intimidation of common people by the state and non-state actors alike, but it is doubtful that daily life at all presents the humiliations and dangers that are now terrifyingly common in the Palestinian territories.  The distinguished scholar of Indian languages, literatures, and religions at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, David Shulman, who is also an activist in the ranks of Ta‘ayush, an Arab-Jewish Partnership, states candidly in the introduction to his chronicle of peace activism that “Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories is unacceptable, illegal, and ultimately self-destructive.  Yet I am not one of those who think that what has happened here is entirely our fault.  The ‘other side’, as it is called, is also staggering under a burden of folly and crime.  Neither side has a monopoly on right or, for that matter, wrong. There is much harshness and suffering everywhere” [Dark HopeWorking for Peace in Israel and Palestine (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 2007)].

But Shulman, shaped perhaps by his reading of the Hebrew scriptures, the Koran, and myriad Indian religious texts, and recognizing that the onus lies on the stronger side to take the bolder initiatives and show the generosity without which strength is revealed to be merely brute force, is constrained to admit that over the last four decades, “destructive elements [in Israeli society] have found a haven, complete with ideological legitimation, within the settlement enterprise.” These individuals “have, in effect, unfettered freedom to terrorize the local Palestinian population; to attack, shoot, injure, sometimes kill—all in the name of the alleged sanctity of the land and of the Jews’ exclusive right to it.”  The book itself catalogues, sometimes in chilling detail, the crimes of the settlers and their state sponsors: one is not likely to forget soon the account of the rat poison scattered over Palestinian fields, with an aim all too clear:  “to kill the herds of goat and sheep, the backbone of the cave dwellers’ subsistence economy in this harsh terrain, and thus to force them off the land.”

(to be continued)

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(an essay in several parts)

 Los Angeles, 14 May 2018

Prologue:  Today marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel; not any less significantly, and with perhaps even greater implications in thinking about the future of humanity, and the possibilities, slim as they seem at this juncture, of moving towards a world that would embody nobler conceptions of social justice, equality, and human dignity than those that are found to prevail today, Palestinians remember this day as the “Nakba” [also “Naqba”], a catastrophic day when they were dispossessed of their land, their homes, and rendered into refugees.  The plight of the Palestinians continues unabated to the present day.  Today was, in Gaza, a day of terrifying carnage: as the Americans celebrated the opening of their Embassy in Jerusalem, and Benjamin Netanyahu and his friends mindlessly exulted in the relocation of the Embassy as a great day for “peace”, 58 Palestinians were shot dead at and near the border between Gaza and Israel.  It was Tacitus who, centuries ago in writing of Roman expansionism, declared:  “They make war and call it peace.” We have heard, and will certainly hear for some more days, international expressions of “outrage” over the events.  The United States has already blocked a call by Kuwait for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.  Nothing here takes one by surprise; but in the midst of all this, it is the images that have emerged from Gaza which sear the conscience—Palestinian youth organizing tires and setting fire to them to create smokescreens; a young man, Sabir Ashqar, who lost his legs in earlier round of conflict in the Gaza strip a decade ago, using a slingshot from his wheel chair; and kites, prepared with incendiary materials, being flown over agricultural lands in Israel in an attempt to set them on fire.  Is a Third Intifada on its way?

GazaBurningKites2

Palestinian protesters fly a kite with a burning rag dangling from its tail, during a protest at the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, April 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra) Source:  https://www.timesofisrael.com/in-first-israeli-planes-bomb-hamas-post-in-response-to-gazan-attack-kites/

 

GazaBurningKites

Targeting IDF [Israel Defence Forces] soldiers at Gaza Border.  Source:  http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/245443

Part One:  Edward Said and an Exceptional Conflict

It is nearly a century since a British official, the foreign secretary Arthur Balfour, who might justly have been forgotten but for an infamous pronouncement associated with his name, committed the British to assist in the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.  Five years later, in 1922, this commitment was given further impetus when the Mandate for Palestine was authorized under the jurisdiction of the League of Nations.  The seeds of the present conflict between Israel and Palestinians are thus most likely to be viewed as having been sown then, even if Jews still comprised less than ten percent of the population of Palestine; but some commentators might well point to the fact that the long history of anti-Semitism in Europe, where Jews were overwhelmingly concentrated, was, in the age of nationalism, perforce calculated to lead them eventually to a more vigorous assertion of the demand for a Jewish homeland.  On the other hand, historians could equally well dispute whether the idea of Israel was, even on the eve of World War II, at all inevitable.  The White Paper of 1939, after all, appeared to be sensitive to Palestinian demands: it held out the promise that the British would withdraw from the Balfour Declaration and place limits on Jewish immigration into Palestine, and that at a time when the position of the Jews in an Europe that would soon be reeling under Nazi attacks was exceedingly bleak. [This history has been ably recounted in Ilan Pappe, A History of Modern Palestine (2nd ed., Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2006), and Rashid Khalidi, The Iron CageThe Story of the Palestinian Struggle Statehood (Boston:  Beacon Press, 2006), among other books.]  However, whatever the precise point at which Jews and Palestinian Arabs became locked in battle, it has become common to characterize their conflict as intractable.  Seventy years to the day since the establishment of the state of Israel, the search for a just and sustainable peace between Israel and Palestinians does not merely continue, but is likely to strike most viewers of the contemporary Middle East as unattainable.

GazaBurningTires

Palestinian protesters burn tires during a protest on the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, Monday, May 14, 2018.  (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra) Source:  http://www.winknews.com/2018/05/14/deadly-gaza-protests-cloud-us-embassy-opening-in-jerusalem/

If the Israel-Palestine conflict is scarcely the only conflict of our times, it nonetheless has an exceptional character, indeed a poignancy peculiarly its own.  The late Edward Said, lionized as one of the leading intellectuals of the second half of the twentieth century, was perhaps the most well-known advocate (barring Yasser Arafat) of the Palestinian cause for at least two decades before his death in 2003.  In left circles and even among many of those who are content to describe themselves as liberals, Said came to be celebrated as the conscience of our times.  He often remarked that, in the United States at least, “the last permissible racism—and by permissible, I mean it’s okay publicly in the media and elsewhere—is to be racist against Arabs”.  This is from an interview in 1987 with Matthew Stevenson of the Progressive magazine, Madison; five years later, while speaking to Richard Kearney in Dublin, Said gave it has view that respected writers such as Conor Cruise O’Brien and David Pryce Jones could openly and without any consequences speak of “Arabs and violent and depraved people”, but something similar “could not be written about any other ethnic cultural group in the world today.” [These interviews are collected in Gauri Viswanathan, ed., Power, Politics and Culture:  Interviews with Edward W. Said (London:  Bloomsbury, 2004).]  Moreover, among the Arabs, the Palestinians appeared to Said to bear the brunt of an oppression which had the tacit and often explicit approval of all sectors of the establishment.

EdwardSaidAtWestBank

In Memoriam Edward Wadie Saïd: a Palestinian National Initiative poster at the Israeli West Bank wall. Photo: Justin McIntosh; Source: Wikipedia Commons.

It would be churlish, I think, to quibble with Said on the question of whether Arabs are subject to opprobrium unlike any other group in the world.  We have only to recall that a billionaire publicly described Mexicans as “rapists” and “killers” and got rewarded for his egregious indeed revolting behavior and rank racism by being elected to the most powerful office in the world.  Whatever one’s view about the state of Israel, I daresay that in many countries of the world it is still perfectly respectable to indulge in the vilest anti-Semitism and get away it.  The attacks on Jewish cemeteries in scores of countries should be enough to disabuse one of the idea that Arab Muslims represent the last frontier in the effort to rid the world of racism and ethnic hatred.  One could go in this vein; and yet there may be a modicum of truth in Said’s suggestion, considering that Muslims, and not just Arab Muslims, do not seem to have the goodwill of a great many other people around the world.  Putting it rather differently, many states—and here I speak of countries where the majority population is not Muslims—have proceeded to treat their Muslim populations as second-class citizens on the supposition that other countries will not be excessively bothered by such acts of discrimination and, on occasion, outright violence.  Myanmar scarcely took a risk in purging the country of its Rohingya population:  there was the customary hue and cry over the ethnic cleansing of the country’s Muslims, but the country’s leaders calculated, and not without reason as events have shown, that the world would not be much bothered by the dispossession and killings of the Rohingya.  What Said did not say, though he may have intended to convey as much, is that there is not much will in what is called “the international community” to prevent violence against Muslims.

However, there is another, more serious, criticism to be made of Said.  For all of his sensitivity to injustice and oppression, sometimes he barely seemed capable of seeing beyond the conflict over Palestine.  He gave a number of interviews in 1994, the year of the Rwandan genocide, but this macabre set of events, leading to some 800,000 deaths in a little over three months, appears not to have left any impression on him:  there isn’t the slightest mention of Rwanda, in interviews peppered with thoughts on racism, violence, statelessness, and so on.  If “the Holocaust”—and it is often spoken of in the singular, as if any attempt to pluralize the conception of the holocaust was itself tantamount to diminishing the suffering of the Jews (and its many other victims, among them homosexuals, gypsies, and the ‘mentally retarded’)—has become the paradigmatic instance of a descent into barbarism, an evil that utterly escapes comprehension, then to Said and some others the injustice perpetrated against the Palestinians appears uniquely to embody the pain of all those who have been displaced from their lands and who now face brutal odds against a nation-state armed to the teeth.  The conflict over Palestine has gone on so long that exhaustion has set in; a few years ago, many people ceased to  apprise themselves of the latest twists and turns in what used to be called the ‘peace process’, and which is now all but finished.

Yet, while many other conflicts have been forgotten, or are struck from our conscience on account of their remoteness to our experience, Palestine has implanted itself firmly on our conscience.  It may be that the Palestinians are a gifted people, and not all oppressed peoples can claim the good fortune of having poets of the likes of Mahmud Darwish:

Write down!
I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged
My roots
Were entrenched before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras
Before the pines, and the olive trees
And before the grass grew.  [“Identity Card”, 1964]

(to be continued)

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