Afghanistan, art of resistance

The Book To Read: Afghanistan, Where God Only Comes to Weep.

I recently read (finally) Siba Shakib’s well-known novel Afghanistan, Where God Only Comes to Weep. It is a story about Shirin-Gol, Afghan woman who was just a young girl when her village was levelled by the Russians’ bombs in 1979. We follow her life from her teenage years to her adulthood – going from one refugee camp to antoher, from Afghanistan to Pakistan, from Pakistan to Iran and back to Afghanistan. And all of that before the US invasion (the book was published in 2002). Who knows what happened to Shirin-Gol later…

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Siba Shakib is an Iranian-German filmmaker and writer, and she spent many years working in Afghanistan. This book (she was just finishing it when the attack on World Trade Center happened) was a result of her ‘story-collecting’ ventures in Afghanistan. Seeing all the suffering, particularly the burden women carry on their shoulders, she decided to write this book. This is a story about Shirin-Gol, but it is, at the same time, a story about millions of Afghan women (and men) and their endless suffering.

The book was fast-paced and simply written, it really felt like listening to Shirin-Gol’s story. You may feel there’s some depth missing from the story, you may look for more explanation, but this book will not provide you with that. I don’t think it lacks quality for that reason. This was meant to be a book written the only way war (often) allows us to write and tell stories – with not much time to reflect on things, with constant changes and adaptation to new circumstances.

That is why, when things settle down, when the defence mechanism is down, when you are finally at peace for a while – you start feeling the pain kicking in. It is like Khaled Juma wrote about his experience in Gaza: “I recall that after the 2012 war, many people said to me: ‘It is strange that we did not feel scared during the war, but after it finished we feel terrified.’ This is precisely the concept of ‘crisis storage.'”

Unlike many foreign authors who write about Afghanistan (and other war-torn countries) Siba Shakib doesn’t make this book about herself, about her journey through the demolished country. The focus is were it should be – on the victims, the Afghan people. Shakib lets them speak through his book.

Although I read a lot about Afghanistan and its people, it’s always incredible how much suffering can fit into one lifetime, one body, one heart. It is incredible how people can endure it, how they go on, how they survive. We must pay respect to their courage and we must be aware of their pain. This book doesn’t exist for us (by us I mean people who don’t live in a war-torn country) to feel better about our lives, this book exists so that we could do something about them (by them I mean people who are suffering, people caught in the horrors of war). Afghanistan, Were God Only Comes to Weep is only a tiny part of the big Afghanistan puzzle, but it is worthy of attention – read it.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Late For Tea At The Dear Palace 

A Sky So Close by Betool Kheadiri

My Happiness Bears No Relation To Happiness

and more.

 

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art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict

Emile Habibi: The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist.

The following is an excerpt from Emile Habibi’s satirical novel The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist (first published in 1974). It is a story of a Palestinian who becomes a citizen of Israel (very much like Habibi himself), and in many ways – a prisoner of Israel. It’s a story about a looney man, atypical hero, a luckless fool, a man looking for survival – and maybe, just maybe – even a little bit more from life.

992837792/Emile Habibi, photo via Haaretz/

I found that we were then at a crossroad between Nazareth and Nahlal, passing the plain of Ibn Amir. The big man signalled to the policemen through the glass window separating him from ‘the dogs.’ They led me out and stuffed me in between the big man and the driver. I made myself comfortable and sighed, breathed the fresh air deep, and remarked, ‘Oh, I see we’re in the plain of Ibn Amir.’ Obviously annoyed, he corrected me: ‘No, it’s the Yizrael plain.’

‘What’s in a name?’, as Shakespeare put it, I soothed him. I spoke the line in English, causing him to murmur, ‘Oh, sou you quote Shakespeare, do you?’

As we descended further down into the plain toward its city of Affulah, with the hills of Nazareth to our left, the big man began reciting to me the principles governing my new life in prison, the etiquette of behavior toward the jailers who were my superiors and the other inmates who were my inferiors. He promised, moreover, to get me promoted to a liaison position. While he was going through these lessons, I became ever more certain that what is required of us inside prison is no different from what is required from us on the outside. My delight at this discovery was so great that I exclaimed joyfully, ‘Why, God bless you, sir!’

He went on: ‘If a jailer should call you, your first response must be: Yes, sir! And if he should tell you off, you must reply: At your command, sir! And if you should hear from your fellow inmates engaging in any conversation that threatens the security of the prison, even by implication, you must inform the warden. Now, if he should give you a beating, then say -‘

I interrupted him with a proper response, ‘That’s your right, sir!’

‘How did you know that? Were you ever imprisoned before?’

‘Oh, no. God forbid, sir, that anyone should have beaten you to this favor! I have merely noticed according to your account of prison rules of etiquette and behavior that your prison treats inmates with great humanitarianism and compassion – just as you treat us on the outside. And we behave the same, too. But how do you punish Arabs who are criminals, sir?’

‘This bothers us considerably. That’s why our minister general has said that our occupation has been the most compassionate on Earth ever since Paradise was liberated from its Occupation of Adam and Eve. Among our leadership there are some who believe that we treat Arabs inside prisons even better than we treat them outside, though this latter treatment is, as you know, excellent. These same leaders are convinced that we this encourage them to continue to resist our civilizational mission in the new territories, just like those ungrateful African cannibals who eat their benefactors.’

‘How do you mean, sir?’

‘Well, take for example our policy of punishing people with exile. This we award them without their going to jail. If they once entered jail, they would become as firmly established there as British occupation once was. ‘

‘Yes, God bless you indeed, sir!’

‘And we demolish their homes when they’re outside, but when they’re inside prison we let them occupy themselves building.’

‘That’s really great! God bless you! But what do they build?’

‘New prisons and new cells in old jails: and they plant shade trees around them too.’

‘God bless you again! But why do you demolish their homes outside the prison?’

‘To exterminate the rats that build their nests in them. This way we save them from the plague.’

By now the police car was leaving the city of Affulah on the Bisan road, which led to my new residence. On both sides refreshing water was being sprayed on the green vegetation, fresh in the very heat of summer. Suddenly the big man, cramped there with me and the driver in the front seat of that dogcart, was transformed into a poet. 

While I sat there being my usual Pessoptimistic self, he was estatic: ‘Verdant fields! Green on your right and on your left: green everywhere! We have given life to what was dead. This is why we have named the borders of Israel the Green Belt. For beyond them lie barren mountains and desert reaches, a wilderness calling out to us, ‘Come ye hither, tractors of civilization!’

I looked before me and saw a huge building towering like an ugly demon of the desert ; its walls were yellow, and around it there was a high, white outer wall. There were guards posted on each of the four sides of the roof, and they could be seen standing with their guns at the ready. We were awestruck by the spectacle of this yellow castle, so exposed and naked of any vegetation, protruding like a cancerous lump on the breast of a land itself sick with cancer. The big man was unable to control himself and exclaimed, ‘There! The terrible Shatta prison! How fantastic!’

I stretched my neck forward in alarm and whispered, ‘God bless us all!’

This led him to comment, ‘It is the prison warden who will bless you. Come on down. I’ll ask him to look after you.'”

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art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict

Zakaria Mohammad: Is This Home?

The following is an excerpt from Zakaria Mohammads Is this Home?, translated from the Arabic by Michael K. Scott. It is a story of Mohammad’s return to Palestine after decades spent in exile.

tumblr_n0m7k6wfob1rouua1o7_r1_1280/The Bearer Of Burdens, Sliman Mansour/

In the days prior to my return I had decided to assume a cool demeanor and contemplate my country as a tourist might, and not as a rapturous and homesick returnee. I wanted to hold the moment in my hands, examine it, and write up the experience. And I wanted to minimize, to the extent possible, any emotional entaglement on my part, so that I could see things clearly. I’ve gotten tired of emotional entanglement… My entire life has been full of that. Now I am an old man who wants to see things clearly with a neutral eye. Yes, I want to be as cold and dry as a stone, if I can.

Then I got to the bridge that connects one bank of the river to the other. I arrived, and ended up on the other side. I came away from the bridge with my blood boiling. Five hours of interrogations and closed rooms with the Israeli secret police seemed to have injected poison into my veins, and obliterated all of the happy scenarios I had constructed for the moment of my return. For the Israelis, these hours were needed so that each and every returnee would understand the truth they wanted understood: you are coming to place yourself under our heel. This is the supreme truth, and everything else follows from it.

I was unable to act like a tourist who sees things with an indifferent eye. I was unable to act like a returnee overcome with yearning and joy. I was unable to tak ein the views or the scenery clearly. I had no ability to contemplate and enjoy, nor to observe or critique my feelings. It took me a few hours in Jericho before I could regain a bit of my composure.

Then we sett of from Jericho. The plam trees on my right provided pleasing company. I found joy in them, until our guide informed us that the Israelis owned all of the plam groves. We walked on, our little flock shimmering ahead like a mirage, stopping only at the Israeli checkpoints.

There was with us a man who had reached, or nearly reached, his old age. He was returning after forty years of absence. All he had lef in the homeland was a married sister in Talouza. He was afraid that this sister might not recognize him, and not acknowledge that he was her brother. She might refuse to receive him. His thinking was beyond me. How could a sister shut the door on her brother, whom she has not seen in decades? The thought seemed ludicrous to me, but the man was afriad it would happen. He wanted us to wait for him until he knew his sister’s reaction, and that of her husband. We didn’t have time to wait. Every one of us wanted to see his mother and family. So we went our way. We left him knocking on his sister’s door, hesitant and in trepidation.

The family home consisted of two concrete rooms whose doors close only at bedtime. There, on my arrival, my sister cried, while my father seemed to be only semiconscious, thinking of the days long gone by, and of the death that hovers around him. As for my mother, she smiled. But her smile seemed to be carrying some illness – some effort to forget – that I could not yet understand. The reunion was no bolt of lightning. I was weightless.

The first days passed in the rush of greetings and hugs. But gradually the war between memory and reality broke out, in my mind.

In exile we lived in memory, and on it. Memory would devour us. It gave us vitality, and it adorned the goal, the purpose of our exile. It would grow and expand, merging with truth and delusion. It had its own routine. It would conjure up a scene from the past for me, whenever and however it wished. We would play together. Memory and I were twins.

So here’s my memory going round and round, like an ant that can’t find its hole after some miscreant hand had messed up the path, the sand and the scent. This is my memory: a lost ant in churned-up sand. Since she can’t stay in this condition – running around in circles – forever, she began on her own to dig a new hole in the ground. And the new hole in the ground? It was my exile. She is working with everything she has to construct and anthill to replace the one that was smashed. She finds her subject, and her self, in exile. Is this home then? Is it ‘home’ for memory to be forced to transform exile into being her ‘thing’, instead of home?”

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art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict

(Interview) Tamara Erde: On History, Memory & Living Near the Livings.

Tamara Erde is a French-Israeli filmmaker who creates in various mediums, from documentary and fiction films, to performances and video installations. Erde is a brave artistic soul, often taking from her most personal places and transforming it into her art. In her work, she often deals with political and social issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That is what hits home. I was truly happy to be able to do the following interview and get to know more about Tamara’s work and her personal journey while making it.

Capture/Tamara Erde in Cell in a Human Scale/

Being born and raised in Israel, Israel being a part of your identity, did you have issues when you first started making films about different layers of Israeli – Palestinian conflict? Did you feel your work will be politicized, dissected in a particular way?

Yes, having been born and raised in Israel, and later on deciding to live and work on different, critical aspects of the Israeli society and politics, it has been a rather difficult process, to acknowledge I will face the unsatisfaction and sometimes anger of many of my friends and society in which I grew. I also have my films shown less in Israel then in anywhere else, so this is also a shame for me, as I’d love to show them there too and arouse a discussion about it. But I guess that indeed, once they touch core political problems that are in the basis of the perception and life views there, it is directly politicized and remains only as a political work and not a cinematic, creation as well.

In your documentary film released this year, This is my Land, you focus on how  Palestinian and Israeli (Jewish and Arab) education systems teach the history of their nations. You also confront your own history (in relation to the land) and the way it was built up, created. You admit you first started asking questions and having doubts about the nature of Israeli occupation during the army service. Could you tell me more about this film and the experience of it, but also the story of your personal journey, which could be marked as – before and after – the army service?

I have decided to do this film when I found myself, about two years ago, asking myself how come I didn’t know and didn’t search to know, what I do now, about the history of my country and my region. Because the information is out there, in Internet, in books, in the mouth of people. And for me the direct answer was – the education I got. So that has brought me to wish and come back to Israel but also to Palestine, and see now, from my new perspective, how kids are taught.

Until my army service, I was very zionist and nationalist. I didn’t know much about the conflict, I didn’t have contact with Palestinian people, nor did I think about it too much. My army service was during the second Intifada, I saw then how the decision are taken, how life are being played with for political little reasons, I saw for the first time (even though it was sadly through the information computer screens) Palestinian people. And this has made me start asking question and doubting what I was doing and believing till then. From that I went to a journey of some time, trying to learn and research the story of “the other side”.

Very few children can see through and doubt the education they receive. I am sure that if I had to go back to school, changing the position – going to a Palestinian school, or to an orthodox religious school, I would have been following this sets of values and beliefs. Very few people also doubt or question their education on their later life, as adults. I had the chance to do it thanks to my profession, to my films that have brought me, and still do, to discover and investigate about my identity, and the society I live in, or from which I come.

But even though the ability to change the way a child perceives his education is so small, the ability to change the education we give him, is much more probable, and possible. For me, this voyage I wish to go on with this film, back to this primal encounter with the teachers, and the school, in the place where I was born, which imposes the charge of the conflict, is a way to make myself, and hopefully my viewers, think about the way we can change the education system, and assure a better future society and life for the generations to come. And I think this is true to Israel-Palestine, but also to many other places around the world.

disney ramallah/Disney Ramallah/

Disney Ramallah is your latest short film. It is a story of a father and son in Ramallah, confronted to the harsh reality during the Second Intifada. The boy has one dream – to go to Euro Disney for his birthday. Of course, that is not possible, and the father ends up making a home-made alternative universe for his son. Something in this story, the creative magic and will maybe, reminded me of Yalla to the moonThere is something mesmerizing about these parallel universes people create among the harshest of conditions, which also remindes me of Guido Orefice in La Vitta è Bella. What inspired you to write and direct this story? 

I have written this story basing on my experiences and what I have seen during the Second Intifada when I was in the army, but also what I have seen later on, in the West Bank, when I have met many children and heard their stories and their families stories. One of the things that inspired me mostly was their energy, their hope, their great force of life, even in the harder and most extreme situations. That has made me imagine that boy that all he wants, like many kids, is to go to EuroDisney, and what happened when this meets his father’s harsh daily struggle, who has put aside his childhood dreams and urges.

When I was a child, I grew up alone with my mother, since my dad died before I was born. At nights, sometimes, I used to be afraid that she will die too, leaving me alone in the world. And so, I used to ask her, simply, what if… And she used to tell me the name of her friend; she will take care of you if I die, I talked to her about it, she will adopt you. For some months, years even, I remember, I kept repeating this question, wishing only for one answer: I won’t die.., but she never said this to me. She told me the truth, at simple as it was.

And years later, I kept asking myself about it… What would I do? Do we always need to tell the truth to our children? What does protecting someone means? Hiding from him sometimes? Or on the contrary remaining loyal to the truth? Or maybe creating a different, imagined truth, for those we love. Those questions, daily dilemmas, of parents, of human relationships, are in the heart of Disney Ramallah. In this story, an additional aspect joins those universal story of father and son, since Rabia and Ahmed live in Ramallah, in a complexed reality.

You create in various mediums, not just film. One of your installations and performances is A Soldier’s Dream.  It was influenced by poems of the great Mahmoud Darwish, and aims to give a visual personal adaptation to his writingHomeland, in the context of Israel and Palestine, is a complex term. It involves memories and realities, leaving and returning (in both space and time), waiting and expecting, and generally – an internal state of chaos and confusion. It is not just Darwish who struggles with the notion of homeland. Kanafani writes in Returning to Haifa: “What is a homeland? Is it these two chairs that remained in this room for twenty years? The table? Peacock feathers? The picture of Jerusalem on the wall? The copper lock? The oak tree? The balcony? What is a homeland? Khaldun? Our illusions of him? Fathers? Their sons? What is a homeland? Is it the picture of his brother hanging on the wall?” How do you see this issue of  homeland, and why did you approach Darwish and his poetry through your installations and performances?

It was after my last visit to Israel, on the spring of 2010, that I’ve decided to create this project around the poems ad writing of Mahmoud Darwish. On my return to France after that visit, I felt more then ever helpless, seeing the frozen situation, the immobile misery and injustice that have long ago conquered this land. In front of my eyes I still had this image of the sea, near Gaza, divided by the separation wall, thinking – what else can be done when even the water are bound to surround. I’m looking again, now in France, at the few pictures I’ve managed to take there, at the point where the wall meets the sea, before the soldiers came with their weapons towards me.

Staring at this black and white desperate silence of the water, I recalled Darwish’s texts about the water; “Who says that water has no color, flavor or smell?” [Memory of forgetfulness].

I thought about the relation between words and images when confronting those ungraspable impermeability, where is their limit in view of that, where are there points of force, of challenge and of completion. It was from that desperation that I felt a need to return to the words of Darwish, whose words are imprints of footsteps on this sands of misery, of that surrounding water, and yet, of the whole world outside, of the love and the hope deriving from the simple beauty, form the power of the sincere words, phrases, memories.

In Forgotten Oceans, an experimental dance film, you explore the theme of physical memories of spaces. Again, such an important theme concerning the Israeli – Palestinian conflict, its millions of people living in exile and millions of memories that were and are wiped out. Like Khaled Juma asks in The Unseen aspects of War: “Are the memories we grew up with which are destroyed not pieces of us? Should we not consider the destruction of the places in which we were raised with these memories to be the destruction of a part of us, just like our hands, our heads, or our hearts?” It is like the “my tree was gone” moment from your film. Why did you find it important to make this fim, to do this exploration, and could you relate it to Israeli – Palestinian conflict, from your own perspective?

Actually, this video dance, that I created in an aim to develop and include in a performance piece later on, is also the continuation of my work inspired by Darwish, aims to give a visual personal adaptation to his writing. Being an Israeli I was amazed how many things I have discovered, when reading Darwish’s poems, on my “Homeland”, how close I felt to his words, and how painful it was. His words, have become, to me, a life-time journey, and this performance was part of this journey.

The poetic, the never ending, floating magical words, are living side by side with reality, with the aching sand grains of this land. On the video dance Forgotten Oceans the scene is to describe a “no man’s” land on which all characters are immigrants. Turning around, discovering the new space, the new land that is assumed to be their new “home”, again. A land on which they have no past, no memories or acquaintance, and apparently no future either. They are doomed to eternal wonderings.

forgotten oceans/Forgotten Oceans/

Based on the poetry of Mahmod Darwish; the physical choreographically language of the piece, as well as the visual language, aim to create this sense of “no people” on a “no land”. The characters existence in the space is never substantial, no relation is ever physically created between them. “We live near the livings”, Darwish once wrote about his people, and it s this sense of the term “exile” that I wish to give to the spectators in this piece.

• • •

 /all images via Tamara Erde/

For more on Tamara and her work, visit her website.

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art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Palestine

Under The Gun: A Palestinian Journey.

Fourteen years ago, Ahdaf Soueif, famous Egyptian novelist (In The Eye of The Sun, The Map of Love), visited Israel and Palestine for the first time. Under The Gun: a Palestinian Journey (published by Guardian) is an essay she wrote about the journey.

ahdaf soueifAhdaf Soueif /photo via Russell Tribunal on Palestine/

The following paragraphs are the excerpts from it.

I have never, to my knowledge, seen an Israeli except on television. I have never spoken to one. I cannot say I have wanted to. My life, like the life of every Egyptian of my generation, has been overcast by the shadow of Israel. I have longed to go to Palestine, but have not wished to go to Israel. And now I am going there.

I have not felt such anticipation or such fear since I was a child. For the past two months I have been following the news of the intifada. I have compared the images on the BBC and CNN with those on al-Jazira and other Arab channels. I have unspun stories, fumed at the American newspapers and been grateful for some of the reporting in some of the British press. I have started and ended my days reading appeals for help on the internet. And over and again I have asked myself: ‘What is it that I can do?’ Now at last I can do something; I can go see for myself, and write. But going means going there.

We are sitting in a smallish, brightly lit room with vividly blue armchairs. Serious attempts at decor have been made: a cactus growing out of a half coconut shell tilts on an Arab-style carved wooden table, rubber plants and plastic flowers droop from dusty glass shelves, an empty drinks dispenser glows coldly in the corner. On the walls are three reproductions: two are Kandinsky-like, but the third is a large close-up of the two forefingers of God and Adam just failing to meet.

A polite young Israeli comes in and asks me in broken Arabic to fill out some forms. Then he comes back to escort us to the passport window. I say: ‘I don’t want my passport stamped.’ He says: ‘I know.’

I head out of the hotel and start walking. Every car I pass I imagine exploding into flames. How far away does one have to be not to be killed by an exploding car? But the sun is shining as I head down Salah el-Din Street – and I am at home. The street is lined with bakeries, haberdasheries, shoeshops, small grocers, hairdressers. Girls in school uniform and headscarves walk in groups, chatting, laughing. Boys loiter and watch them. The names on the shops and the doctors’ signs are the familiar mix of Muslim and Christian Arab, French and Armenian. The French cultural centre has wide-open doors and an inviting garden; there is a smell of roasting coffee. It’s like a smaller, cleaner, uncrowded Cairo. But two buildings look different from the others: they are modern, precise, their angles are sharp, they fly the Israeli flag, and they are the only ones with closed gates that are made of steel bars.

She talks of tear gas pumped into houses, of rubber bullets which the Palestinian children peel to extract the steel marble within, which they then aim back at the soldiers with their slingshots. She talks of the threat to her mosque, of an ambulance bringing a 78-year-old neighbour back from hospital, how soldiers searched it and stripped it down to the cooling unit: ‘they’ve grown afraid of the air itself.’ I feel dizzy with the detail piling up in my head and leave before I can be made to stay and eat.

The city is beautiful. Like old Jerusalem it is made of pink stone. The narrow streets wind up and down like the streets of an Etruscan town. The houses lean against each other, one house’s roof forming the other’s patio. Ornate stone balconies look out on to the empty street. The sun shines, the air is clean and fresh, the light is so perfect we could be on a film set. A dark green patrol car passes and does not stop us. The microphone blares out in accented Arabic: ‘O people of al-Khalil. Beware breaking the curfew.’ Round the next bend a yellow taxi is at a stop in the middle of the road, leaning to one side. A group of children has gathered round it watching, hushed and still. We pull in by a wall and park. A woman leans against the taxi with a baby in her arms. ‘I know it’s a curfew,’ the driver says, ‘but she has just come out of hospital, and she had the baby, so I drove her. Look what they’ve done.’ A soldier had taken out a knife and slashed the two tyres on the driver’s side. Naturally he only has one spare tyre. With the curfew how is he going to get another one? Two boys are helping him change one wheel. The other children look on in silence. The woman starts walking off slowly.

Maybe there are cafes in West Jerusalem or Tel Aviv where intellectuals, artists, people, sit around and debate the condition of the country and the ‘Palestinian problem’. Maybe they debate the ethics of an army of occupation holding a population hostage, or the civil rights of an Arab population in a zionist state, but these places – the places that are lit up at night – how do I find them? In the entertainment guide I look at the listings: films, recitals, cabarets. I consider taking a taxi and simply buying a ticket. But even the thought makes me uneasy.

Sedition! Snorts Mrs Jibril. ‘We were trying to help the mothers give their children a ‘normal’ childhood. You know what the children sing? They sing: Papa bought me a trifle/ A machine gun and a rifle. We were struggling to to get them to sing normal children’s songs. But normal children’s songs have nothing to do with the reality of their lives.’

‘You know what’s the worst of it’, they say, ‘is that they keep you guessing. You never know if a road is going to be open or closed. When they are going to shut off your water or turn off your electricity. Whether they are going to permit a burial. Whether they are going to give you a permit to travel. You can never ever plan. They create conditions to keep you spinning…’

I have seen women pushing their sons behind them, shoving them to run away, screaming at the soldiers: ‘Get out of our faces. Stop baiting the kids.’

I have heard a man say: ‘I have four sons and no work. I cannot feed them. Let them go out and die if it will help our country; if it will end this state of things.’

I have seen children calmly watch yet another shooting, another funeral. And when I have wept they’ve said: ‘She’s new to this.’“

For more – see the original essay on Guardian and read Soueif’s collection of essays Mezzaterra : Fragments from the Common Ground.

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Israel, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Palestine

Things we must know and remember about the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.

The number of victims in Gaza continues to grow, several days ago Israel and its Egyptian allies offered  „ceasefire“ that’s as laughable and insulting as it is insincere, pretty much all of the mainstream media reported how Hamas rejected another chance for peace, just like they’ve reported about the terrorist attacks on Israel and Palestinian violence as the main reason for the recent turmoil.

Now, this is an ideal chance to stop, think, rewind. We’ve seen this before. It is just like Robert Fisk wrote in his latest piece for The Independent: „Once, we used to keep clippings, a wad of newspaper cuttings on whatever we were writing about: Israel, Lebanon, Iran, Gaza. Occasionally, we even read books. Maybe it’s because of the internet, but in most of our reports, it seems that history only started yesterday, or last week.“ He continues to say: „I’m afraid it’s about context, this memory-wipe. It’s about the way that armies and governments want us to believe – or forget – what they are doing, it’s about a historical coverage, and it’s about – and here I quote the wonderful Israeli journalist Amira Haas – ‘monitoring the centres of power’.“

10313386_10204019644990042_1826316081284667245_nimage © Paolo Pellegrin

So what do the centres of power want us to forget, what does Israeli government want us to leave out? Well, there are a lot of things, a lot of truths we must speak off and keep on going back to. The recent turmoil is not about the boys that were killed, and it is not about Hamas and its rockets. It is about decades of injustice and decades of oppression, decades of colonialism and its insatiable appetite, decades of wrong leaders and bad judgements and – decades of ignorance and status quo.

Escalations are due to happen. Occupation itself is an escalation, and these are some of the reasons why.

Peace talks that offered no peace

Oslo, or as Edward Said called it „The Palestinian Versailles“ was a bad deal for the Palestinians, and time proves it – day by day. As Simona Sharoni and Mohammed Abu-Nimer write in Understanding the Contemporary Middle East (second edition): „At the end of the 1990s, Palestinians had full autonomy in 27% of the Occuppied Territories. In the West Bank, this translated into 3% of the total surface area, whereas in Gaza the PNA controlled 60% of the territory. In the West Bank villages, however, the PNA had only civil and police powers, Israel remained responsible for ‘internal security’, the meaning of which was open to interpretation. Furthermore, because the towns and villages are mostly noncontiguogus and Israel remained in command of the road network connecting them, all movement of goods and persons into and out of these encalves as well as between them could be interdirected at will.“ Things got worse after the 1996 elections, won by Netanyahu and Likud Party. The 1999 Likud charter emphasized the right of settlement: “The Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza are the realization of Zionist values. Settlement of the land is a clear expression of the unassailable right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and constitutes an important asset in the defense of the vital interests of the State of Israel. The Likud will continue to strengthen and develop these communities and will prevent their uprooting.“ Likud’s policies were based on settlement expansion and „judaization“ of East Jerusalem, among other things. Israel continued to build new settlements even during the recent peace negotiations, often claiming it is an imperative. All the “offers” so far have ignored most of the realities Palestinians endured for decades, their desires and basic human rights, and that is why they never lived outside the sheets of paper and conference halls. One sad fact is that in the world of big politics (and big money and resources) you have to be able to offer something in order to get something in return. There is no moral and no justice anywhere on the top charts of international relations, it is not anywhere in the scope of their interests. That is what Palestinians are paying the price for – the truth is – they have nothing to offer to the other side. Israel has everything. Well, almost everything. The rest they cannot get because – and that is the only thing Palestinians have as an „advantage“ – Palestinians exist and they do not plan on going anywhere. Another aspect of the peace talks is all the pressure put on Palestinians to be the ones to initiate it and adjust to all conditions, but, as Edward Said often asked: „Since when are the illegally militarily occupied people responsible for creating a peace movement?“

Two different nationalisms

There is a lot of talk about nationalism and its connotations on both sides. However, there is little talk when it comes to distinguishing Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms. There is a difference between the Israeli, institutionalized state nationalism and Palestinian nationalism, which is the nationalism of a liberation movement. While Israel justifies everything it does on the premises of national security, Palestinians focus on national liberation. Sharoni and Abu-Nimer describe how: „As a result of the primary emphases on national security and national liberation, different social and ecnomic problems within both communities have been put on the back burners until the Israeli – Palestinian conflict is resolved. Nevertheless, the differences between Israeli – Jewish and Palestinian nationalisms, which are often overlooked are far greater than similiarites. They involve fundamental differences in the history and social context of the two national movements and, most particularly, striking disparities of power and privilege between the two communites.“ We must never forget to mention the power relations and the fact that Israeli – Palestinian conflict is an asymmetric war. When talking about Israeli national security and Palestinian national liberation, there is an impression, and it is being deepened by the political leaders for such a long time, that the two cannot be achieved at the same time – ever. However, the great paradox here is that Israel puts national security as a pre-condition for peace, not seeing how it will never be secure until Palestinians fulfill their national aspirations through a political solution they want.

The disputed „right to return“

Big part of peace negotitations was always the question of Palestinian refugees. It is not just about people returning to their homeland, it is also about finally acknowledging that they actually had to leave and that Israel is responsible for that. There would finally be a much needed recongition. There is another  great paradox – Palestinians should acknowledge Israeli – Jewish „organic“ connection to the land Israel occupies, while Palestinians, the indigenous people, are denied that same connection, and all the rights emerging from it. It is also ridicilous to deny the rights of the Palestinians born in exile, claiming „they’ve never even seen Jerusalem“, while at the same time Jews from all over the world, with no connection to Israel, have the „right to return“, and they are entitled to it by the Law of Return.

Bad leadership, on both sides

Israeli government has done its fair share of crimes over the decades, there is no doubt about that. However, the Palestinian side – from Arafat to Abbas – did nothing to properly fight all the Israeli wrongdoings. Palestinian leadership was and is mainly corrupted, with no real strategy, most of the time serving as marionettes and a mockery. While people in Palestine were starving, Arafat’s big political move was to give Bill and Hillary Clinton  gold and diamond necklaces, bracelets and earrings – worth $12,000. In addition, Arafat gave former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright jewelry worth $17,400. That’s just one example of his international relations strategies. On the other hand – just couple of days ago, Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the Egyptian ceasefire intiative, saying he appreciated the Egyptian role and efforts to protect the Palestinian people. The intiative is a big nothing for Palestinian people, but there is no surprise Abbas welcomes it.

The key role of the United States

Edward Said dedicated his life to Israeli – Palestinian debates in the American society. It was crucial, he always thought, beacuse USA is where the Zionist headquarters are. That is where the money comes from, and money moves mountains. Just last November, The American Friends of the IDF organization (FIDF) branch in Los Angeles held its annual fundraiser in the Beverly Hilton hotel and raised a record number of $20 million for IDF soldiers’ welfare. Some 1,200 guests attended the event (among them Simon Cowell), the host was a billionaire Power Rangers creator Haim Saban and the guests were entertained by Lionel Richie. It is just one of numerous fundraisers for Israel and its army.  That is why the rare media in the United States providing fair debates on Israeli – Palestinian conflict, like Democracy Now and Vice, are almost priceless. However, until there is not enough pressure from the political leadership and the society in general, it is hard to imagine big changes happening in relations to Israel and the occupation.

Arab is not a one thing, and Arab nations are not a one

If these last couple of days have proved anything – it is that Arab nations, Arab countries and Arab people – are not one. There is no support for the Palestinians from the leaders of other Arab countries, Egypt was waiting for days to open the Rafah border crossing and now initiated a shameful idea of „ceasefire“ that is not even close to a ceasefire. Other Arab countries, the money lands of Gulf and others – stand still, in silence. No surprise there, it is not the first time. In this disheartening fact we could find something positive – this is a lesson, a chance to learn for the western mainstream media. It is time for them to realize that Arabs are not one group, all the same, and Arab countries are not united and we can never speak of them as such. From this lack of support for Palestine, once again, we can learn (beside the fact that economical and geopolitical interests always come first, and moral and justice are laughable terms) to finally stop addressing Arabs as one, and acknowledge the political, economical, cultural and human differences that exist among them. Just like other people – they are not the same, and they are for sure not united – except in doing nothing, just like in this case.

Slowly dying is also dying

While in today’s world everything revolves around numbers, and they have to big and shocking in order to get attention, even when there are no „huge events“  in Gaza and West Bank, there is still a lot of violence, oppression and – slow death. It is the occupation, to some a very subtle thing, but still obvious on every level – the unemployment, the endless waiting, the curfews, the checkpoints, all that despair and uncertainty. A February 2013 publication from UNICEF shows that: „In the past 10 years, an estimated 7,000 children have been detained, interrogated, prosecuted and/or imprisoned within the Israeli military justice system — an average of two children each day. The analysis of the cases monitored by UNICEF identified examples of practices that amount to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention against Torture.“ Briefing on Children in Gaza by Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights notes that Israel’s blockade of Gaza, a gruesome form of systemic violence, “puts children’s right to health at a grave risk as access to health services and care inside Gaza is hampered by lack of equipment, expertise, and medicines, while access to care outside of Gaza is largely restricted.” And these are only children we are talking about. So, even when Gaza and West Bank are not in the news like the last couple of days, there are a lot of reasons for them to be.

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