From the Chronikles – 2048: A peace odyssey

 
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By Khaled Diab

A century after war broke out, jubilant Israeli and Palestinian crowds celebrate each other’s independence as they march hand-in-hand into the future.

14 May 2048*

Israelis took to the streets today in jubilation to mark the 100th anniversary of the violent birth of their once-troubled nation. In Palestine, Palestinians, who also today celebrate 15 years of independent nationhood and the fulfilment of their national aspirations, extended warm congratulations to their Jewish neighbours.

The legendary one-time Israeli and Palestinian premiers, after attending separate independence day rallies in their respective capitals, Tel Avivand Ramallah, walked out together onto a raised podium in jointly administered Jerusalem, the two nations’ spiritual and federal capital, for a celebration with thousands of revellers.

“Words cannot express my pride and joy on this special day,” a clearly emotional Shalom V, the charismatic Israeli ex-prime minister, told the assembled crowd as he fought back the tears. “I am proud to be alive at this important moment in the Jewish people’s history. Today, we can truly hold our heads up high as proud members of the family of nations, now that we and the Palestinians have found a way of living together in peace and prosperity. I would like to take this opportunity to wish our brothers and sisters in Palestine a happy 15th anniversary for their nation.”

A deafening roar gripped the mixed audience of Palestinians and Israelis who spontaneously began to chant the name of Salama B, the popular Palestinian ex-prime minister. “Just 20 years ago, the idea that a Palestinian leader could be standing here wishing Israel a happy birthday was still unthinkable. It has not been easy for my people, who have shown for decades fortitude and steadfastness in the face of adversity, to come to terms with the painful reality that accompanied the loss of our land in 1948, but our Jewish brothers and sisters also suffered in their exile. Now they are safe among their brethren.”

Back in 2007, while the world was marking the 40th anniversary of the1967 war, Israel was strangling Gaza and repressing the West Bank, and Hamas and Fatah were at war, Salama was on his fifth year in administrative detention in an Israeli prison. The passionate young idealist, a doctor, was spurred by the images of Ariel Sharon entering the Holy Sanctuary with hundreds of troops to join the al-Aqsa martyrs brigade.

He was engaged in a number of gun battles with the better-armed IDF soldiers, but was opposed to suicide bombings and attacking civilians. This set him on a collision course with the more extreme factions of the group, but the imminent standoff was averted by his capture and arrest during another shoot out with the Israeli army, ironically while tending to the soldier he’d critically wounded.

The Israeli officer in charge of Salama did not sympathise with Salama’s assertion that, in a war, it was legitimate to attack soldiers. “And if what you say is true, you’re my POW until the end of this war,” the hawkish officer famously said.

Little did this officer suspect that he was aiding the prospects for peace. In prison, Salama learnt to speak fluent Hebrew and discovered a passion for history – and what he learnt about Jewish history did not quell the anger in his breast that he felt at the plight of his people, but it caused him to feel compassion for the other side.

In 2008, Israel’s 60th anniversary caused Shalom, then a junior Knesset member and historian, to suffer, in addition to his tearful joy, a crisis of conscience. He and Salama needed to reach out to the other side and started off a correspondence through which they became best friends before they ever met.

Together, they realised the explosive effect of the past and of ideology and so set about to defuse it. Slowly, they formulated a common narrative which gave credence to both sides. It sought to replace the current epic Israeli and Palestinian histories with more nuanced ones.

They also agreed to work together on “bread and butter” issues. Shalom, then only 31 and with no military background, began a clever and charismatic grassroots campaign calling for Salama’s release. Once out of prison in 2009, Salama faced some suspicion of being a “collaborator”, but his natural intelligence and charm and his simple message of “individual dignity before national pride” won him many converts among the hard-pressed and downtrodden Palestinian population, at a time of Israeli closures and crushing occupation, international embargo, and civil war. And the many scattered groups involved in non-violent activism found in him and Shalom natural leaders.

Together, Salama and Shalom effectively turned the Palestinian struggle into a civil rights movement for the next decade or so, winning Palestinians the hard-earned right to work and move freely across the entire land, which helped the two sides to see the human in the other. By around 2018, the movement they’d spawned turned its attention to Palestinian autonomy, which was achieved in 2021.

The vexed issue of refugees was handled through a sustainable number of Palestinians being allowed to return each year, compensation for those willing to stay away – and the entire Palestinian diaspora being allowed to visit freely. Some Arab countries which had had significant Jewish populations, such as Morocco, also instigated a right of return for those Middle Eastern Jews who had been made refugees after the creation of Israel and their offspring wishing to return to their ancestral homelands and revive the once-vibrant Jewish minorities there. Most of those who returned came from Europe or the US, but some also moved from Israel.

After a dozen years of autonomy, rapid economic growth and convergence between Israel and Palestine, the time came to decide on the fate of the two nations. In 2033, two separate referenda were held among the two peoples outlining the options ahead. A majority of Palestinians and Israelis voted for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, but then, to the surprise of many, for its immediate entry into a federal union with Israel.

The Palestinian state was born on the same day as the Israeli one 85 years previously, so that the day of Israel’s joy – traditionally associated with Palestinian tragedy and despair – would also be that of Palestine’s, marked according to the Gregorian calendar, rather than the former practice of using the lunar calendar common to Judaism and Islam. In addition, Israeli remembrance day was broadened to include the Palestinian nakba.

“Given the small size of this land and the proximity of our two peoples, that is the only sensible option,” Shalom remarked at the time.

“In the past, we had our hands at each others’ throats. Today, our two peoples have voted to walk into the future hand-in-hand,” said Salama, independent Palestine’s first premier, as he and Shalom grabbed each others’ hands and raised them triumphantly in the air, hugging emotionally like the old comrades that they were.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

*This article was republished on 5 May 2014. It originally appeared in The Guardian on 23 April 2008.

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الرجل العربي الجديد

 
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بقلم خالد دياب

   لوحظ في الأونة الأخيرة تزايد الرجال المناصرة لحقوق المرأة عربياً، مقدمين مثالاُ رائعاً في تحدي المعنى التقليدي للرجولة الشرقية.

Sexual harass protest

Photo: Maged Tawfiles

Read in English

الأربعاء 2 ابريل 2014

قد بلغ التحرش الجنسي في مصر مستويات وبائية حتى وصل الى الحرم الجامعي لأقدم الجامعات العلمانية في البلاد بصورةٍ فجة. وراء هذا الوباء نماذج غير واقعية ومضرة للرجل المثالي والمرأة المثالية.

في السنوات الأخيرة، وخاصةً منذ اندلاع الثورة المصرية في عام 2011، بدأت النساء تتمرد ضد التيارات المتشددة التي اجتاحت مختلف أنـحاء البلاد منذ أواخر السبعينيات من القرن الماضي.

وقد أثار هذا رد فعل ضخم من التيارات المتشددة، مما جعل التحرش الجنسي يزداد عنفًا وإذلالاٍ كأحد ظواهر هذا رد الفعل. غير أن بعض الرجال قرروا أن يسبحوا ضد التيار، ليسوا فقط منادين يحقوق المرأة، ولكن أيضاً متحديين المفاهيم التقليدية للذكورة.

وهذه الصحوة من بعض الرجال لم تتركز فقط على النُخب الفكرية والاقتصادية، لكنها أيضًا قد صنعت فروقاً في جميع أنـحاء البلاد وكل طبقات المجتمع.

(ديفيد عصام)، شاب نشأ في أسرة تقليدية في المنيا في صعيد مصر، وهي من أكثر المحافظات المتحافظة في مصر.

في بداية الأمر يعترف (عصام) قائلاً: “في البداية، لم أكن أعتقد أن المرأة لديها حقوق. كنت فقط أراها كمُكمل لحياة الرجل”.

ولكن تضافرت عدد من العوامل التي صنعت تحولاً كبيراً في أفكار ومواقف (عصام). أهم تلك العوامل هو أخته الوحيدة، وعلى وجه التحديد حين رفضت القيود المفروضة عليها من قبل الأم، والتي بطبيعة الحال في الصعيد كانت تقيد حريتها في الكثير من الأمور.

وثمة عامل آخر وهو انخراطه في القراءة خاصة لبعض الكُتاب النسويين وعلى رأسهم الكاتبة (نوال السعداوي)؛ ولكن ربما كان العامل الأكثر أهمية في تغير أفكار (عصام) هو بعض الصداقات التي اكتسبها من بعد قيام الثورة المصرية، والتي تسببت في زلزال في وعي وضمير (عصام).

يضيف (عصام) “توجهات بعض الشباب والشابات المهتمين بقضايا المرأة جعلني أكثر وعيًا، وقادراً على تحدي الظروف المحيطة”، مشيراً إلى أنه الآن يتطوع دائماً في  فعاليات تعزيز الحقوق الاجتماعية والقانونية للنساء، وفعاليات مكافحة التحرش الجنسي.

على الرغم من أن الثورة قد صنعت جيل جديد أكثر وعياً، إلا أن ثقافة الرجل العربي الجديد ليست جديدة على الاطلاق، حقيقةً أول الأفكار النسوية في العالم العربي كانت، وليس مفاجأ في مجتمع يسيطر عليه الرجال في ذلك الوقت، حيث أن أول من نادى بتلك الأفكار كان رجلاً.

“على مر الأجيال كانت المرأة تابعة لحكم القوى الذكورية، ومُسيطر عليها من قبل طغيان قوة الرجال،” هكذا كتب قاسم أمين في تحرير المرأة في عام 1899م؛ مضيفاً “إن موقف الإسلام المُقلل من شأن المرأة هو أكبر العقبات التي تمنعنا من التقدم نـحو ما هو مُفيد بالنسبة لنا”.

كثير من الرجال ممن لهم أفكار علمانية والذين ظهروا قبل انتشار التيار الإسلامي المتشدد تعتبر المساواة بين الجنسين أمرًا مفروغًا منه، على الأقل من حيث المبدأ. وهناك أيضاً من ينفذه فعليا.

“لدي طفلان، صبي وفتاة، اعمالهما بأقصى درجات المساواة، من حيث النشأة، مصروف الجيب، والمسؤوليات، والواجبات، والتعليم، وتعليمهما احترام الذات”، هكذا بدء سعيد السعيد كلامه، وهو موظف فلسطيني في القطاع الخاص متقاعد وقد سافر إلى سويسرا منذ أكثر من 35 عامًا. ويضيف أيضًا “لقد تحدثت إلى كل منهما عن المسؤولية الجنسية، وقدمت كل علبة من الواقي الذكري عندما شعرت أن الوقت قد حان”.

قد ينسب البعض مواقف (السعيد) إلى مكوثه طويلاً في أوروبا، وهو يستبعد هذا الرأي تماما، قائلا “بفضل والديا، وتحديدا والدي، لم أكن أتقبل ابدا كيف تُعامل النساء في الشرق الأوسط”.

هذا هو حال الكثيرين من أبناء جيله، خاصةً من نشأوا في أسر يسارية، فلديهم ذكريات مماثلة؛ تحكي (سعاد العامري) وهي مهندسة وكاتبة فلسطينية بارزة، كيفية تعامل والدها معها ومساواته بينها وبين جميع أشقائها على حدٍ سواء بصورة تخالف الأعراف المتوارثة حينها.

تقول (العامري): “أنه يطلق على نفسه اسم (أبو أروى)، حتى أن بعض الناس لم يكن يعرفوا أن لدي ابن اسمه (أيمن)”، وأضاف “انه أطلق على نفسه هذا الأسم نسبةً لأبنته البكر (أروى)” منافياً التقاليد المتعارف عليها في التسمية باسم الولد وليس البنت.

بالطبع بلاد الشام، وخاصة لبنان، لديها موقف مستنير نسبيًا تجاه قضايا المرأة. ولكن حتى في أكثر المجتماعات تحفظا في العالم العربي تمر أيضا بصحوتها الخاصة، ولكن من نقطة بداية اقل.

في ضوء القيود الشديدة المفروضة على المرأة السعودية، المتمثلة في نظام الوصاية القمعي، انه ربما من المتوقع أن يكون من أبرظ الداعين بحقوق المرأة هناك رجلاً.

في ما يُعتبر نقطة فاصلة في قضية حقوق المرأة في المملكة العربية السعودية، استطاع المحامي والناشط الحقوقي (وليد أبو الخير) أن يحصل على حكم بالافراج عن (سمر بدوي) والتي كانت قد سُجنت بتهمة عصيان والدها رغم أنه كان يسيء لها.

خلافا للرأي السائد والصورة الإصلاحية التي تحاول العائلة المالكة السعودية أن تُظهرها للعالم الخارجي؛ فإن (أبو الخير) يُحمل النظام مسؤلية الأوضاع المزرية للنساء في السعودية.

“الملوم في هذه القيود جميعها هي السلطة السياسية بالتأكيد، والتي بدورها تلقي باللوم على المجتمع وتصفه بأنه عصي على الإصلاح،” يقول (أبو الخير). “بينما الحقيقة وعبر تجربة على الأرض أن السلطة تريد من المجتمع أن يبقى محافظاً وأن يظل الرجل مسيطر على المرأة لأنها بذلك تعطل نصف المجتمع ليبقى النصف الآخر يسهل قياده”. لهذا السبب، يرى (أبو الخير) أن الصراع على حقوق المرأة ذا صلة وثيقة وجزء لا يتجزء من الصراع على حقوق الأنسان كافة. “الجميع هنا مقموع ولا نريد أن نساوي مقموعاً بمن هو أخف قمعاً منه،” يصف الناشط السعودي. “والمرأة ليست مشكلتها كما أعتقد مع الرجل في السعودية وإنما مشكلتها مع السلطة أولاً وأخيرا”.

يعتقد (أبو الخير) أنه إذا اتخذت المؤسسات الوهابية موقفًا محايدًا تجاه الحقوق الشخصية وتركوا للناس الحق ليقرروا بأنفسهم، فإن هذا سيساعد على صنع نقلة كبيرة وإنجازاً في قضية حقوق المرأة في المملكة العربية السعودية، وخاصةً في الغرب؛ ويضيف (أبو الخير) ” وفي مجتمعي حيث أعيش، أي في الحجاز، الأغلبية يؤمنون فعلا باحترام المرأة وحفظ حقوقها وكان هذا الإيمان واضحاً أكثر قبل تغلغل الوهابية في مجتمعنا بفعل السلطة “.

كان من الطبيعي أن يثير نشاط (أبو الخير) عدم رضاء التيار المتشدد عنه، وبالتالي الدخول في مصادمات حادة مع السلطات السعودية؛ ورغم جميع المعارك القانونية والتي تسببت في اعتقاله العديد من المرات ومنعه من السفر وتحديد أقامته، إلا أنه وجد من تشاركه في حروبه وآلامه، (سمر بدوي) اختارت أن تشارك (أبو الخير) في قضاياه وحياته كزوجةٍ له. بعد أن كان (أبو الخير) هو محامي (سمر البدوي)، أصبحت هي ناشطة بارزة في مجال حقوق المرأة في بلدها، فهي من قدمت أول دعوى قضائية في المملكة لمنح المرأة حق التصويت، كما شاركت في الحملات المطالبة بحق المرأة في قيادة السيارة.

على الرغم من كل التحديات والصعوبات التي تواجه قضايا المرأة في المجتمع العربي، إلا أن (أبو الخير) متفائل بشأن المستقبل؛ ويوضح قائلاً ” والمعطيات الحالية تؤكد أن المرأة في طريقها لكسب حقوقها، نظراً للتحولات الكبيرة التي يشهدها المجتمع”.

في البلدان العربية التي اكتسابت فيها المرأة حصة كبيرة من حقوقها، يخاف البعض من التراجع النسبي.

“بشكل عام، فإن وضع (المرأة الفلسطينية واللبنانية) قد تراجع، مع صعود التيارات المتشددة دينياً؛” يعتقد (سعيد السعيد)، حيث يلوم على الأمهات نظراً لتبنيهم ثقافة”(الصبي الأمير على حساب أخوته البنات”.

وتعكس تجربة (ديفيد عصام) الخاصة في هذا المجال التحدي الذي يتماثل في التعامل مع دور المرأة بوصفها هي الداعم للنظام الأبوي في بعض الأحيان؛ ويصرح قائلاً “والدتي سعيدة من شكل علاقتي بأختي لما فيها من حب ورعاية واهتمام؛ لكنها تعترض على مساندتي لها في التفكير للسفر والعمل، وتكوين صداقات في الجامعة”.

وهناك آخرون ممن خالفوا التقاليد الاجتماعية تمامًا، متجاوزً المساواة البسيطة وصولاً لمرحلة الانعكاس التام؛ وهذا هو حال (عمر وهبة)؛ بعد فترة من الانفصال القسري من زوجته التي كان تعمل في جنيف، قرر أن يرمي بجميع التقاليد المتوارثة عرض الحائط، وترك عمله في القاهرة ليتفرغ لتربية طفله، على الرغم من اعتراض عائلته  التي تؤمن بأن دور الرجل انه يقود والمرأة دورها ان تتبع زوجها.

“كانت أول مرة لي ان اكون رب المنزل”، كما يعترف “لقد استمتعت بجوانب عديدة منها كتعلم طهي الطعام، والقراءة أكثر، التأمل في حياتي، التفكير في اقامة عمل خاص، والبقاء مع طفلي أوقات أطول”.

على الرغم من أن (عمر وهبة) أستطاع الحصول على وظيفة في جنيف، إلا أنه الوقت الذي قضاه في الاهتمام بالشئون المنزلية غرس فيه المزيد من التقدير والاحترام للادوار التقليدية المسندة للمرأة، ويقول أنه لا يزال يُسهم في الاعمال المنزلية وتربية الاطفال.

على الرغم من الاضطرابات التي تمر بها مصر ووسط تصاعد حدة التيارات المتشددة منذ قيام الثورة، إلا أن (وهبة) متفائل ويأمل في وضع أفضل للمساواة بين الجنسين في المستقبل.

“أنا متفائل بشأن الجيل الصاعد من الشباب، فهم أكثر مرونة وقابلية للتغيير” ويكمل قائلاً “أعتقد أن الكثيرين أصبحوا لا يؤمنون بالأدوار التقليدية للرجل والمرأة، وأنهم يدركون أن الأفضل هو أن يعملا سوياً لتحسين مجتمعهم وتحريكه للامام”.

نشكر ديفيد عصام لهذه الترجمة.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This feature first appeared in Your Middle East on 30 March 2014.

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The new Arab man: The Middle East’s male awakening

 
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By Khaled Diab

In the first of a Chronikler series on the new Arab man, we meet men who champion women’s rights and challenge traditional ideals of masculinity.

Sexual harass protest

Egyptian men protest sexual harassment in solidarity with women. Photo: Maged Tawfiles https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151910105340644&set=a.10151910085410644.883325.538750643&type=3&theater

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Sexual harassment in Egypt has reached such epidemic proportions that it has eveninfiltrated the campus of the country’s oldest secular university. At the heart of this plague, I have argued, are toxic, unrealistic and demeaning gender ideals and stereotypes.

In recent years, and especially since the eruption of the Egyptian revolution in 2011, women have been rebelling against the conservative current that has swept across the country starting from the late 1970s.

This has provoked a massive conservative backlash, of which increasingly violent sexual harassment and humiliation are one manifestation. But what is lost, even drowned out, by this tidal wave of misogyny are the men who have chosen to swim against the current, and not only champion women’s rights but also to challenge traditional concepts of masculinity.

And this male awakening is not just focused among the intellectual and economic elite but has made in-roads across the country and in every strata of society.

Take David Esam, who was raised in a traditional household in al-Minya, which lies in Middle Egypt, the entry point to ultra-conservative Upper Egypt.

“At first, I didn’t think that women had rights. I just viewed them as complements to a man’s life,” he confessed to me.

A number of factors combined to set in motion a major shift in Esam’s attitudes. One was his sister, and specifically a quarrel they had over the restrictions his mother imposed on his sister’s freedom.

Another factor was the books he started reading, including the writings of Egypt’s foremost living feminist Nawal al-Saadawi. But perhaps the most critical factor has been the friendships he has made since the Egyptian revolution, which triggered an earthquake in Esam’s consciousness and conscience.

“Encountering young women and men interested in the women’s cause made me more self-aware and critical of my surroundings,” observes Esam, noting that he is now active in promoting social and legal rights for women and volunteers in the movement combatting sexual harassment.

Although the revolution has awoken the consciousness of a new generation of men, this new Arab man is actually not new at all. In fact, possibly the Arab world’s first feminist, which was unsurprising in the male-dominated society at the time, was a man.

“Throughout the generations our women have continued to be subordinate to the rule of the strong and are overcome by the powerful tyranny of men,” Qasim Amin wrote in The Liberation of Women in 1899. “The inferior position of Muslim women is the greatest obstacle that prevents us from advancing toward what is beneficial for us.”

Many secular men raised before the spread of Islamist conservatism actually take gender equality for granted, at least in principle. And there are some who implement it almost religiously.

“I have two children, a boy and a girl, whom I treated equally, in terms of upbringing, pocket money, responsibilities, duties, schooling and self-respect,” says Said El-Said, a retired Palestinian professional who has been based in Switzerland for more than 35 years. “I talked to both of them about sexual responsibility and gave each a box of condoms when I felt the time was right.”

Some are bound to attribute El-Said’s attitudes to his long sojourn in Europe, but he insists that nothing could be further from the truth. “Thanks to my parents, specifically my father… I never accepted how women were treated in the Middle East,” he explains.

And others of his generation, especially those raised in leftist households, have similar recollections. Suad Amiry, the prominent Palestinian architect-turned-author, recalled how her father treated all her siblings equally to the extent that he bucked even the most deep-rooted conventions.

“He called himself Abu Arwa, so many people didn’t think we had a brother called Ayman,” Amiry remembers. “He named himself after his eldest daughter and not after the boy.”

Of course, the Levant, especially Lebanon, has a relatively enlightened attitude to women. But even in the most conservative quarters of the Arab world are experiencing their own version of a male awakening, albeit from a lower starting point.

It is perhaps unsurprising in light of the severe restrictions on Saudi women, such as the repressive guardianship system, that one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent advocates of women’s rights is actually a man.

In what was a watershed case for women’s rights in the kingdom, the lawyer and human rights activist Waleed Abulkhair successfully secured the release of Samar Badawi, who had been imprisoned for disobeying her abusive father.

Contrary to popular opinion and the “reformist” image the Saudi royal family attempts to project abroad, Abulkhair holds the regime responsible for the poor status of women.

“The political establishment is to blame for all these restrictions, but it blames society which it describes as ‘unreformable’,” he says. “But in reality, the establishment wants society to remain conservative and for men to continue to dominate women, thereby neutralising half of society, while making the other half easier to control.”

For this reason, Abulkhair sees women’s rights as intimately, and holistically, connected to the wider struggle for human rights.

“Everyone here is repressed and we don’t want an equality of repression,” he claims. “In my view, the Saudi woman’s problem is not with men but with the system.”

Abulkhair is convinced that if the Wahhabi establishment would take a neutral stance towards personal rights and leave people to decide for themselves, then women’s rights would take a giant leap forward in Saudi Arabia, especially in the west of the country. “Where I live, in Hijaz, the majority believes in respecting women and upholding their rights, and this was more apparent before the spread of Wahhabism at the hands of the authorities.”

Unsurprisingly, Abulkhair’s activism has not endeared him to conservatives and has got him into hot water with the authorities. Throughout all his legal battles, detentions and the travel ban still in force, he has found a willing accomplice, defender and champion in the form of his wife, Samar Badawi. Since Abulkhair represented her, Badawi has become a prominent activist in her own right, filing the kingdom’s first lawsuit for women’s suffrage and involved in the women’s driving campaign.

Despite all the challenges and difficulties, Abulkhair is upbeat about the future. “The current situation indicates that (Saudi) women are on their way to gaining their rights due to the enormous changes society is undergoing,” he concludes.

Some fear that the reverse may be true in Arab countries where women have already wrested significant rights.

“In general, the status (of Palestinian and Lebanese women) is regressing, with the rise of religious fervour,” believes Said El-Said. “I blame mothers for perpetuating the tradition of the ‘boy prince’ at the expense of their daughters.”

And David Esam’s own experience reflects the challenge of dealing with the role of women as gatekeepers of the patriarchy.

“My mother is happy with the love, care and attention in my relationship with my sister,” he explains. “But she does not approve of some of my positions encouraging my sister to pursue her interests in work, travel and friendships at university.”

There are others who, bucking social convention altogether, have moved beyond simple equality to engage in role reversal. Omar Weheba is a case in point.

After a period of forced separation from his wife who was working in Geneva, he decided to throw tradition to the wind and quit his job in Cairo to become a trailing spouse, despite his family’s conviction that “it was important that the man take the lead”.

“Being a stay-at-home dad was a first for me,” he admits. “I enjoyed aspects of it like learning how to cook, reading more, reflecting more on life, thinking of doing my own business, staying with my kid more.”

Although Weheba has now found a job in Geneva, his time as a home-carer has instilled in him a greater appreciation and respect for the traditional role ascribed to women, and he still shares in the child-rearing and housework.

Despite the turbulence Egypt is going through and the conservative and religious backlash unleashed since the revolution, Weheba is hopeful about the future of gender equality.

“I am optimistic about the younger generation… They are more flexible and malleable to change,” he argues. “I believe many realise that there is no clear-cut traditional role anymore for a man or a woman. What they know is that it’s best to work together… to better their society and move it forward.”

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This feature first appeared in Your Middle East on 30 March 2014.

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The Arab world’s rebels without a god

 
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By Khaled Diab

In Egypt and other Arab countries, the atheism taboo has been broken. Atheists are rebelling against the status quo and demanding to be seen and heard.

Atheists are carving out a space in the Arab world's narrowly defined religious landscape. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Atheists are carving out a space in the Arab world’s narrowly defined religious landscape. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Sometimes a film can change your life. This is exactly what happened to Alber Saber, but not in the way people usually mean. Little did the young activist suspect that the fevered imaginings and rantings of a religious bigot on the other side of the world would spark furious chaos right outside his front door. The “film” – or, more accurately, trailer – in question was Innocence of Muslims, the low-budget YouTube sensation that caused global controversy in 2012 for its crass and offensive depiction of Muhammad.

On 12 September 2012, a mob of angry neighbours gathered outside the apartment building where Saber lived with his family, angered by rumours that the boy next door had posted the controversial video on his Facebook page.

In fact, Saber had not posted the video. So why did the angry mob target him? Perhaps because Saber comes from a Coptic family – like the maker of Innocence of Muslims – and, unlike him, is an atheist.

Distressed and concerned, Saber’s mother phoned the police, expecting them to turn up and protect her son and the rest of the family. Instead, the police returned the next day to arrest the outspoken blogger and activist who was actively expressing his atheistic convictions on social media. Saber was insulted during his interrogation and a junior officer incited fellow prisoners against him, provoking one of them to cut him with a razor on his throat.

In December 2012, Saber was sentenced to three years for “insulting” and “disdaining” religion by “creating webpages, including Crazy Dictator and Egyptian Atheists”. “This made me feel that anyone who thinks differently to the religion or ideology of the state is a criminal,” he asserts. “But I will not give up my right to think.”

During his appeal, the young activist fled the country. “I really miss my life in Egypt because I am now living in Switzerland far away from my family, friends and country,” he told me from his exile, “even if my country does not respect my rights and has caused me a lot of trouble.”

Saber admits that despite the dangers he faced in Egypt, he did not want to flee. “If it were up to me I would stay and defend myself even if I were to be executed,” he said in an interview at the time.

The sensationalist corners of the media had a field day during Saber’s ordeal, depicting him as the atheistic equivalent of the Islamophobic, Quran-burning American pastor, Terry Jones. “A segment of the media inserted untruths about my case. They alleged that I burnt or tore up the Quran,” he recounts. “Many people still believe this, even though my case revolved around the articles and videos I made about my personal beliefs.”

And it is not just Saber. Ever since the revolution took off in 2001, Egyptian non-believers have felt emboldened and empowered, emerging from the shadows to carve out a space for themselves on social media.

This has had a ripple effect on the mainstream media.

For example, the widely watched 90 Minute talk show recently hosted a young atheist and social media activist, Ismail Mohamed, in an episode titled ‘Penetrating the secret world of atheists in Egypt’. While the programme brought the subject of atheism to a public platform, it was a missed opportunity to promote a mature public debate on non-belief. Despite the presenter’s assertions that she wished to give Mohamed a podium to express his views, she displayed blatant hostility towards the subject. Her guests included a psychiatrist who suggested that atheism was caused – as is similarly suggested about homosexuality in the Arab world – by psychological, financial and family problems and so atheists deserved patience and pity.

The inconvenient truth is that atheism is not a psychological disorder. “I did not become an atheist,” counters Milad Suleiman, a young atheist blogger from Imbaba, a poor Cairo suburb that was gripped by an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s. “Atheism is a state of thought. It has no specific starting point.”

Paradoxically, many atheists arrive at their convictions as the product of an attempt to deepen their faith, understand their religion better or silence doubts plaguing their consciences. “When I started university in the 1980s, I realised that I was very knowledgeable about lots of things, except my own religion. So I decided that I was going to delve deep into it and be as expert as possible,” Ayman Abdel-Fattah, a socially minded businessman and affably outspoken atheist in his late 40s, told me in a noisy watering hole in the upscale Cairo neighbourhood of Zamalek. But  instead of reaffirming his faith, this exercise, Abdel-Fattah admits, “gave me the shock of my life” because he found that the founding fathers and mothers of Islam were very human, for the most part cynically political, motivated by self-interest and riven by infighting, jealousy and overriding ambition.

Others begin their journey as deeply conservative believers. “I was a very religious person when I was a teenager. I used to teach kids in church and remote villages about Christianity and Jesus,” recalls Mena Bassily, a young Egyptian computer scientist now living in New Zealand. Unsatisfied with the clergy’s textbook responses to his growing doubts, Bassily embarked on a journey of spiritual self-discovery that eventually led him to jettison his faith.

Before the revolution, Abdel-Fattah says, Egyptians preferred to adopt a deathly silence on the subject. “There was not a single attempt for any serious academic study or genuine analysis of the social repercussions of the trend, despite the fact that it was easily observable through the blogosphere and social media at large,” he points out.

So what prompted the media to wake up to this phenomenon? “[Everything] changed after it became apparent [that] the Islamists were going to take over,” Abdel-Fattah explains. “[The media] concluded there was one, and only one, reason for this ‘atheism tsunami.’ It was the Islamists’ rule.”

The expression “atheism tsunami,” evoking images of a Biblical god flooding the world with atheists rather than the more conventional water, fire or brimstone, was memorably used by Amr Adeeb, the loud-mouthed host of the popular talk show al-Qahira al-Youm (Cairo Today). The ‘experts’ on Adeeb’s show concluded that young people were turning to atheism as a reaction to the reactionary brand of Islam that had taken hold in Egypt.

“Following the coup, a lot of people reacted against religion as a rejection of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood,” observes Amira Mohsen, a British-Egyptian journalist and media analyst.  In addition, the military regime has manipulated the widespread fear that Egypt could become the next Saudi Arabia to demonise the Muslim Brotherhood and justify its persecution of the movement.

Blaming radical Islamists appeals both to atheists and religious moderates. For atheists, it supports the hope that society will, one day, throw off the shackles of conservative religion and choose secularism instead.

For religious moderates, placing blame elsewhere sustains their belief that it is not religion which is the problem but the way it is abused by extremists.

But while disgust at the surge of Islamic extremism may have prompted a number of Egyptians to abandon their faith, far greater influences appear to be intellectual conviction, more openness sparked by the 2011 revolution, and a gradual discarding of old, tired philosophies that tried to create homogeneity by ignoring the country’s diversity.

“Egyptian society has always been diverse and varied in terms of beliefs, opinions and cultures,” notes Alber Saber, the exiled blogger. “This has made many tolerant of those with differing outlooks.”

Beyond Egypt’s mainstream media, a profound public debate on belief has begun. This can be observed particularly in social media, which has seen a profusion of blogs, citizen journalism and films tackling this complex topic.  

In the progressive ranks of the Egyptian media, there have also been efforts to portray atheists sympathetically. For instance, the online al-Badil (Alternative), which describes itself as “the voice of the weak”, produced a video documentary in which a number of atheists were given the space and freedom to elaborate on their beliefs, lives, concerns and worries.

Atheists hope that the revolution of consciousness which has overtaken Egyptian society will expand to include them. “I don’t think I will witness any earth-shattering changes for atheists’ rights or recognition in my lifetime,” concludes Ayman Abdel-Fattah, “but I’m also certain that the momentum has reached an irreversible point.”

Tunisia: the atheist spring?

Tunisia, the unexpected epicentre of the revolutionary wave that washed across the Arab world is once again providing lessons to the rest of the region in what freedom truly means.

The only difference is that this time around, instead of being the first to rise against a despotic regime, Tunisians were the first to pass a new constitution. This is a document that, despite being drafted in compromise with the moderate Islamist al-Nahda party, guarantees “freedom of belief and conscience” and, most notably, contains no references to Sharia.

Calling the constitution entirely secular may, however, be a bit of a stretch. Islam is still defined as the religion of the state and it is clearly stated that the president must be a Muslim. Also potentially problematic is the state’s dual duty to “protect the sacred” and to “prohibit charges of apostasy”. This could one day potentially be used to curb freedom of belief, a right that includes that of questioning the sacred and being an “apostate”.

It is in fact no coincidence that, although Tunisia tolerates non-believers more than most other places in the Arab world, atheism is still a taboo. This limitation is especially noticeable in the media, segments of which deliberately spread lies about what atheists are and what they believe. One example is that of the male student OM, whose name was concealed for undisclosed reasons. In an interview with Tunisialive, he complained about a journalist who interviewed him about his beliefs and afterwards wrote that “atheists worship stones and the sun, and that they drink urine and blood”.

Until recently most Tunisian atheists kept their convictions behind closed doors, but since the post-revolutionary rise of Islamist parties, more and more are starting to become vocal. At the same time, there seems to be a growing acceptance of atheistic beliefs.

“There are a number of associations that have made the defence of atheists’ rights their main battles,” says OM. “I am hopeful that we will reach a stage when atheism is tolerated.”

Unholy in the Holy Land

The Dome of the Rock. The Holy Sepulchre. The Western Wall. As the cradle of the Abrahamic faiths, the Holy Land is better known for belief than non-belief, yet atheists walk amongst the faithful.

However, when it comes to Palestinian non-believers, life can be lonely and finding like-minded people difficult. “I don’t know many non-believers,” George, a Palestinian atheist from Jerusalem who works in IT, told me.

Whether this is a sign that Palestinian atheists are few and far between or that they keep a low profile is unclear. “The Palestinian media doesn’t deal with the issue,” George explains.

Atheism wasn’t always confined to the sidelines as it is today. In 1948, after the loss of Palestine doubts about the importance of religion were widespread. For the first decades of the Palestinian struggle against Israel, communists played a prominent role in Palestinian politics and society. Although Palestinian and Arab communists were ambiguous about their convictions regarding the existence of God, they were openly sceptical or hostile towards organised religion.

For instance, the writings of both Mahmoud Darwish and Ghassan Kanafani deal with shaken faith. “God does not come to the poor,” Darwish declares in one of his poems, while a character in one of Kanafani’s stories declaims: “May the curse of the God who does not exist anywhere pour down on you.”

Non-belief in the cradle of Islam

As a strict Wahhabi theocracy, Saudi Arabia does not tolerate the presence of other religions or other branches of Islam in the public space. Conversion and atheism are both considered “apostasy” and according to the Kingdom’s law are punishable by death.

Unsurprisingly, citizens and foreigners living in Saudi are very careful when expressing their views about religion. But there are a growing number of exceptions who are challenging these restrictions.

One example is Saudi poet Hamza Kashgari who, in early 2012, posted three tweets on an imaginary encounter with Muhammad during the festival of the prophet’s birthday (mawlid) in which he declared “I shall not bow to you” and “I have loved aspects of you, hated others”. After more than a year and a half in prison for his “blasphemous” outburst, Kashgari was finally released in October 2013.

This is part of a broader backlash against Saudi’s Wahhabi establishment which has included a civil disobedience campaign by women wishing to drive. Even the fearsome Mutaween, the once untouchable religious police, is coming in for increasingly harsh criticism and opposition, including lawsuits and protest actions, especially after its agents drove two young brothers who were playing music off a bridge to their deaths in a high-speed car chase.

Despite the risks involved, an anonymous and secretive atheistic underground movement, albeit a small one, has emerged in Saudi. In order to discuss and share ideas this group of dissident atheists mostly gathers in online forums and chats, but in rare occasions it also manages to meet face to face. “We non-believers have meetings and groups in a lot of Saudi cities,” one atheist told Your Middle East in 2013. “If you go into them, then you will be shocked by the numbers and elements of society.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This feature first appeared in the March 2014 edition of The Outpost.

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Spain, return and the other 1492

 
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By Khaled Diab

Spain’s recognition of the Jews it expelled ignores another historical crime: the Muslims forced out of Andalusia.

Granada was the last Muslim stronghold to fall to the Reconquista. Image: Bernjan

Granada was the last Muslim stronghold to fall to the Reconquista. Image: Bernjan

Thursday 20 February 2014

Spain has further opened its doors to the descendants of Jews expelled from its land half a millennium ago – though the actual application process remains as mysterious as alchemy.

It is welcome that Spain is striving to right a historical wrong. However, what is overlooked in Spain’s public atonement is that it was not only Jews who were expelled during the Reconquista and the subsequent Inquisition, but also an untold number of Muslims.

A decade or so after the fall of Granada and the expulsion of the Jews who refused to embrace Christianity, Muslims were given the option either to convert or leave. But even the converts, known as Moriscos, were forced out a century later.

This omission has caused some anger among North African Muslims. Jamal Bin Ammar al-Ahmar, an Algerian professor at the Ferhat Abbas University in Sétif, was outraged by “the injustice inflicted on the Muslim population of Andalusia who are still suffering in the diaspora in exile since 1492.”

There have actually been some low-level attempts in Spain to address this. For example, in 2006, the Andalusian parliament considered the issue of granting the Moriscos’ descendants Spanish citizenship.

But even if Spain were to extend an equivalent right of return to the descendants of Moriscos as it is offering Sephardi Jews, it would involve enormous practical difficulties. It is already a major challenge determining, some 20 generations later, who exactly qualifies as a descendant of an Andalusian Jew. In fact, many Jews, including those not belonging to Sephardi Judaism, and even non-Jews, could have Sephardi ancestry.

Four centuries after the expulsion of the last Moriscos, ascertaining who their descendants are is even tougher, given that they blended into the general population far more than the traditionally more isolationist Jews did.

Intriguingly, however, all these centuries down the line, there are still pockets that proudly identify as Morisco and trace their families back to Andalusia. For instance, there are even Morisco towns in Tunisia, such as Sidi Bou Said, Testour and Sloughia which maintain their unique Andalusian identity.

“It was very rare for Andalusians to marry ‘outsiders’, that is, Arabs not of the same origin,” explained Professor Abdeljelil Temimi, one of the foremost experts on Morisco influence and heritage in the Arab world, in an interview in the early 1990s. “This is one of the biggest reasons so much of their heritage still exists today.”

And many still feel nostalgia towards the old country. “Being Morisco to me is belonging to a historic time that comes from Valencia, a civilisation, culture, art, agriculture,” Moez Chtiba who is from Zaghouan but traces his family back to Andalusia was quoted as saying.

And I can understand the source of the nostalgia. In its heyday, multicultural Andalusia was the most advanced and cultured place in the Europe of the time, where science, philosophy and art flourished. As I discovered when visiting Spain, this can still be detected in the region’s architectural gems, from the Mesquita in Cordoba to the breath-taking Alhambra in Granada.

Andalusia also had a profound cultural impact on Europe, even defining the concept of Western “cool” and teaching Europeans how to “love” in a poetic, courtly and tormented fashion.

Yet Spain has failed to recognise Moriscos, while embracing Sephardi Jews. One Moroccan journalist called the oversight “flagrant segregation and unquestionable discrimination, as both communities suffered equally in Spain at that time.”

And this is partly true, given the centuries of bad blood between Muslims and Christians and the rampant Islamophobia on the European right, as reflected in a UK opinion piece arguing Spain has no reason to apologise for expelling its Muslim population and freeing itself from “Islamic Jihadist rule.”

But another reason is simple and straightforward demographics. While there is potentially a couple of million Jews who could theoretically qualify for Spanish citizenship, probably only a few thousand at most will actually bother to apply.

In contrast, there are unknown millions of Arabs and Muslims who may be able to trace themselves back to Andalusia, from Morocco in the Maghreb to as far afield as Turkey, where the Ottomans gave refuge to Andalusian refugees.

If only a fraction of these were to apply, it could significantly and rapidly alter Spain’s demographic make-up. And in a country that was devoid of Muslims for half a millennium but lies on the fault line separating the two “civilisations,” this could well spark civil strife or even conflict.

Then, there are those who would argue that the circumstances of Jews and Muslims were different: while Jews were an oppressed minority, Muslims represented the conqueror. In many ways, this would be like asking the Levant to grant the descendants of the Crusaders the right to return and live in their midst.

Though true, this misses a number of important nuances.

One is the fact that during its seven centuries of presence in the Iberian peninsula, Islam became an indigenous faith, not just an elite one. There is plenty of historical evidence that Islam permeated all strata of society, and that Arabic was spoken widely, as reflected in its extensive fossilised remains in modern Spanish.

Moreover, the Moriscos, like other Conversos, were so attached to their homes that they preferred to, at least ostensibly, abandon their faith rather than be banished from their homes.

Regardless of whether or not the descendants of Moriscos will ever be granted the right to move to Spain and become Spanish citizens, Spain at the very least owes them an apology.

Much closer in terms of space and time, as a first step towards reconciliation, Israel owes the Palestinian an unreserved apology. Likewise, the Arab countries that were once home to significant Jewish minorities need to apologise unreservedly to their former citizens and would-be citizens.

One day perhaps we will even see Arab countries and Israel extending some kind of right of return, which would be a boon to a region that has seriously lost its diversity, would spell the end to exclusionary nationalisms and would prove that Arabs and Jews are “brothers” and “sisters,” not feuding “cousins”.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 18 February 2014.

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The Arabs, apartheid South Africa and Israel

 
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By Khaled Diab

Reactions to apartheid South Africa differed across the Arab world and were coloured both by anti-colonial solidarity and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Nelson Mandela with troops from the Algerian Liberation Army. Photo: www.sahistory.org.za

Nelson Mandela with troops from the Algerian Liberation Army. Photo: www.sahistory.org.za

Friday 27 December 2013

Like just about everywhere else, the death of Nelson Mandela triggered passionate responses across the Arab world. “Men and women everywhere feel they have lost someone very close to them,” said the respected international diplomat and peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

“Humanity has lost its greatest son,” tweeted former IAEA chief, prominent anti-Mubarak opponent and short-lived transitional vice-president Mohamed ElBaradei, himself also the winner of a Nobel peace prize.

Egypt even took the extraordinary measure of announcing three days of national mourning to mark the great man’s death. Algerian president Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika went a step further and ordered eight days of national mourning during which all flags were to be flown at half-mast.

Unlike in the West, however, Arab sentiment and sympathy towards Nelson Mandela stretch back decades, back to the days he was a radical rebel and not yet a hallowed peacemaker – some Arabs even prefer that Mandela of yesteryear.

Previous generations of Arabs saw in the long and bitter struggle against apartheid and its precursors in South Africa – spearheaded by the African National Congress (ANC) – the reflection of their own plight under the boot of European colonialism and imperialism. This was particularly the case in North Africa, which also felt a sense of African solidarity.

According to Mandela himself, who admired Algeria’s long battle for independence, the situation in French Algeria most closely paralleled that of South Africa.

In this light, it is unsurprising that the ANC received training, funds and support from Algeria. In 1961, during his clandestine Africa tour after which he was arrested, Nelson Mandela spent time with the Algerian Liberation Army and the rebels of the National Liberation Front in Algeria.

Although Mandela was impressed by what he saw, even back then he realised that “there was no point in trying to overthrow the apartheid regime; the ANC had to force them to the negotiating table.”

Algeria also provided the ANC with constant diplomatic support, such as helping spearhead the pan-African charge against apartheid South Africa. For instance, Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, when he was president of the UN General Assembly in 1974, ruled that South Africa could not participate in its proceedings.

And Algeria was there right to the end. For example, Lakhdar Ibrahimi was the UN Special Envoy for South Africa and monitored the transition to democracy. Ibrahimi is also a member of The Elders, a group of world leaders founded by Mandela to promote global peace.

Nasser’s Egypt also provided the ANC with strong support, in its multiple roles as a member of the United Nations, the Arab League, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the Non-Aligned Movement. Although Egypt did not shut down the South African embassy in Cairo until May 1961, the Egyptian capital hosted offices for the ANC from the late 1950s.

Mandela’s time in Egypt clearly impressed him, both in cultural and historic terms, but also for the new regime’s efforts to develop the country. “President Nasser had an impressive programme of economic development based on African socialism,” he wrote in his unpublished memoirs written on Robben Island.

Solidarity was not one way either, and the ANC supported Egypt whenever it could. In Egypt’s hour of need during the Suez Crisis, known as the Tripartite Aggression in Arabic, the ANC said: “We pledge our solidarity with the Egyptian people and are confident that the people of Africa will not allow themselves to be used against their fellow Africans in any predatory war.”

Showing early signs of his conciliatory humanism and inclusiveness, Mandela spoke up and lobbied robustly in 1962 against strong sub-Saharan African opposition to the entry of North Africa to the Pan-African Freedom Movement for East and Central Africa (PAFMECA), which became the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) and eventually evolved into today’s African Union.

“An aspect that particularly disturbed me was the attitude of most delegates in the PAFMECSA area to visitors from West Africa and the Arab countries,” Mandela recalled. “The whole issue upset me and I felt I could not keep quiet.”

“The trouble Nelson is that in North Africa you have Africans who are not Africans,” one delegate yelled out, not without justification. Nevertheless, Mandela carried the day and paved the way to Egypt, Algeria and the rest of North Africa to become full members of the African club.

It should be pointed out that the Arab world was not uniform in its stance towards apartheid. North Africa and the secular, revolutionary states were generally more sympathetic to the ANC than the conservative monarchist regimes, which feared that the contagion of radical socialist politics would spread within their own borders.

Moreover, some corners of the Arab world, namely some countries in the Gulf, still lived under the dark shadow of perhaps the worst form of apartheid: slavery. Saudi Arabia, for instance, did not abolish slavery until 1962, and only under immense pressure from Egypt’s then-unrivalled propaganda apparatus.

This may in part explain the Saudi regime’s ambivalent attitude towards apartheid and how Riyadh was quite happy to supply South Africa with oil until the oil embargo which accompanied the 1973 war with Israel forced its hand. This may have not lasted long, however, as there is some evidence to suggest that Saudi became South Africa’s leading supplier during the sanctions-busting secret trade of the 1980s.

That said, Saudi Arabia, despite its contradictions, also deserves credit for being among the first nations to push for international action against the apartheid regime. It was, for instance, a co-signatory of a 1952 letter to the UN Secretary-General asking for South Africa’s apartheid policies to be placed on the General Assembly’s agenda.

In addition to anti-colonial solidarity, many Arabs saw South Africa through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, drawing parallels between the two. This remains the case, as the rest of the region, the general view goes, has gained its independence but the Palestinians continue to live under occupation and subjugation. While this is sadly true, this overlooks the fact that there are others who remain deprived of their right to self-determination, such as the Kurds and Sahrawis.

The ANC and Mandela’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause has won them many Arab hearts and minds, as illustrated by the genuine sense of grief felt across Palestine at Mandela’s passing.

However, what both Palestinians and Israeli critics of Mandela do not seem to realise  is that the great reconciler’s solidarity with the Palestinian struggle did not equate to hostility towards Israelis. “I always thought it unrealistic to ignore the existence of Israel and maintained that the Jewish people are as entitled as any other nation in the world to have their own national home,” Mandela reflected on Robben Island.

Beyond the Holy Land, South Africa’s experience continues to resonate and remains relevant. As Arabs struggle against dictatorship, Mandela stands as a shining example of a liberation leader who not only established a largely functioning democracy but also stepped down graciously, in stark contrast to the Arab model of leader-for-life or until revolution strikes.

Despite post-apartheid South Africa’s many imperfections, this rainbow nation also provides our bitterly divided region with an inspiring model of reconciliation and healing.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 19 December 2013.

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US intervention in Syria: Not kind, but cruel

 
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By Amira Mohsen Galal

 Punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. It didn’t work in Iraq, and it won’t work in Syria.

Friday 6 September 2013

As was the case in Iraq a decade ago, punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. Photo: US Air Force.

As was the case in Iraq a decade ago, punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. Photo: US Air Force.

As the drums of war beat once more for yet another strike on a Middle Eastern capital, one cannot help but be reminded of similar events exactly a decade ago that heralded the US invasion of Iraq. However, this time we have learnt from experience to ask the right questions and not to repeat the same mistakes… Haven’t we?

Some would argue that the general public has “over-learned” the lessons from Iraq and yet, just like back then, it doesn’t really matter. According to a recent poll, Just 19% of Americans support intervention in Syria and yet President Barack Obama seems determined to go ahead with his mission. The president set the wheels in motion by asking the US Congress for a mandate to strike the Syrian capital, Damascus, in retaliation for the alleged use of chemical weapons. The resolution was approved by Congress and is now with the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, the US media has gone into overdrive, promoting all the reasons why it is in the American people’s interest to intervene in Syria. The most important of which, apparently, is not concern for the suffering of the Syrian people but because failure to actwould undermine the credibility of the United States of America and of the president of the United States”, in the words of one-time presidential hopeful John McCain.

Obama had stated that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that should not be crossed and would force a tough US response. Fair enough. But why did the slaughter of over 100,000 people, through the use of conventional weapons, not elicit a tough response? Is Mr Obama saying that providing that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad does not use the dreaded chemical weapons, he is free to do as he pleases? This echoes former President George W Bush’s warnings about the non-existent weapons of mass destruction, the “smoking gun”, that triggered the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Though previously Saddam Hussein was given even more leeway and allowed to use both conventional and chemical weapons on his people before any “red lines” were drawn, let alone crossed.

This indicates a certain inconsistency in American humanitarian policy and suggests that perhaps it is not the interests of the Syrian people that are at stake here but simply a desire to maintain the stalemate that has existed between the Syrian rebels and the regime since late 2011. Dramatic victories in Qussayr, Homs, as well as gains in the suburbs of Damascus, indicated a tipping of the balance in favour of the regime. It seems foolish, if not completely crazy, for the regime to halt that momentum by crossing the only line that the West had drawn.

Indeed, why would the regime launch a chemical attack, just days after UN inspectors arrived in Damascus and just 15km away from the hotel where they were staying, even if the experts were initially prevented from visiting the site? This is especially bewildering when you consider that those inspectors were in Damascus for the express purpose of investigating whether chemical weapons had been deployed? Surely, it would have been easier for the regime to allow the inspectors to do their work, send them on their way with no evidence and then resume their bloody assault without laying themselves open to the wrath of America?

Another point worth consideration is that no one is entirely sure exactly who is using chemical weapons in Syria. There have been allegations against both the regime and the rebels. The most notable accusation against the rebels was when Carla Del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria, voiced her suspicions that rebel forces had made use of Sarin nerve gas. This is in addition to Turkey’s announcement that it had seized rebels on the Turkish-Syrian border carrying a 2kg cylinder of Sarin gas. Turkish newspapers also announced, back in May, that  another 2kg cylinder of Sarin had been confiscated from the homes of Syrian militants in Adana.

The regime has not denied possessing chemical weapons but has it used them? It is certainly not a possibility that we should rule out. However, intervention in Syria based on shaky evidence seems ill advised. The declassified report issued by the White House provides little explanation of how the Obama administration decided that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons. Another curious point is how the figure of 1,429 dead cited by the White House does not correspond with the 355 confirmed by Médecins Sans Frontières or the 502 that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimatesor indeed even America’s French Intelligence allies who were only able to confirm 281 casualties. It seems that numbers are being thrown around with little care for what actually happened or to who it happened to.

However, the most significant factor to take into consideration is that it was Syria and Russia who asked for the UN to investigate the use of chemical weapons in Khan al-Assal and two other locations, which the Syrian government did not announce for fear of a repeat of the rebel attack on Khan al-Assal, allegedly to cover up evidence of chemical weapons use by the rebels. 

Most importantly, we must question what the outcome of any strike on Syria would be. One would think it would be enough to see the carnage that this kind of adventurism inflicted on Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. A succession of “wars on terror” and operations to “bring democracy” to Afghanistan has seen the country literally razed to the ground. Libya still remains in total chaos, whilst Iraq undoubtedly represents the greatest human tragedy of our time. Estimates put the death toll at between 100,000 and one million, with some as high as 2.7 million – again a bitter war of numbers that totally disregards the suffering inflicted upon the country. One would be remiss not to mention the effects that “humanitarian intervention” had on the city of Fallujah where the “toxic legacy of the US assault” – where there is, ironically, evidence that the US used chemical weapons – was considered, by international studies, to be “worse than Hiroshima.”

Of course, the pro-intervention crowd will argue that it will be different this time. But how can anyone guarantee that? Any military expert would agree that it is difficult to assess exactly how hard to strike and it’s also difficult to withdraw. And after all of that, will Assad actually fall? Well, if America manages to keep to “limited” strikes, then it is unlikely that Assad will be toppled. Already he pre-emptively relocated his personnel and artillery to civilian areas - a move which assures that America will either totally miss its targets, or civilians will be hit.

Finally, America’s strike on Syria would probably only serve to boost the morale of the regime, which is already receiving support from some segments of the Syrian population and other Arab countries for its perceived role as a champion fighting against another “imperialistic crusade”. Obvious parallels with the intervention in Iraq 10 years ago are already being drawn and the world is getting tired of America’s forays into the Middle East. Moreover, escalating matters can only be advantageous for Russia as it can now justify its backing of the Assad regime as support for a “legitimate authority under attack”. 

Military intervention is not the answer. Punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. Syria needs dialogue and carefully considered diplomacy – not more guns.

 ___

Follow Amira Mohsen Galal on Twitter

 

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Learning about the Holocaust… in Arabic

 
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By Khaled Diab

A joint trip to Jerusalem’s Holocaust Memorial provides Palestinians and Israelis with lessons in tragedy, pain and mutual respect.

Monday 24 September 2012

Participants learn about the Holocaust in Arabic… and Hebrew. Photo: Dara Frank

“Please excuse my broken Arabic,” our guide, Yehuda Yarin, told the mixed group of Palestinians and Israelis who had come to Jerusalem’s Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, to learn more about the Holocaust as part of a three-day, self-financed joint trip (Tiyul-Rihla) which had taken them to Acre, Haifa and Jerusalem.

Yarin, whose ‘day job’ is to guide groups of Jews and Israelis in Poland, including to Auschwitz, has the distinction of being Yad Vashem’s only Arabic-language guide. “I first studied Arabic many years ago, at high school. But, you know, at high school, the level is not very good,” he told me. “Later, I started to learn, ya’ani, logha ameya [colloquial Arabic].”

When the new Yad Vashem – the largest Holocaust museum in the world and Israel’s second most popular tourist site – was opened in 2005, the odd Arabic-speaking group would come to visit, and Yarin, who had begun working as a guide there, was asked to show them around.

Since then, Yarin has guided Palestinians, both from the West Bank and Israel, as well as the occasional visitors from further afield, such as Egypt. “Some of them know nothing. Some of them never heard about the Holocaust. Some of them know the history. It depends,” he notes.

Although Yarin is at pains to emphasise that he doesn’t know what his Arab visitors “think in their hearts”, he is generally impressed by the level of interest they exhibit and their inquisitiveness. “I’m glad when they ask questions,” he confesses.

With the help of Arabic-speaking Israelis and Hebrew-speaking Palestinians in the group, Yarin attempted to convey the magnitude and mindlessness of the one-sided slaughter to his audience.

He said that the Holocaust was unique among modern mass killings because it was completely ideological and was not an extreme manifestation of a political conflict – over territory or competing nationalisms – as other attempted exterminations were. “The Jews were not the enemies of the German people and they represented no threat to Hitler,” he explained.

Although in terms of Jewish history the Holocaust is unique, sadly, the annals of 20th century butchery are filled with genocides, classicides and other mass murders of defenceless groups.

Inside the sombre and sober pyramid-shaped, zigzagging galleries of the museum, the Tiyul-Rihla group of seven Israelis and six Palestinians, who had come on this three-day excursion which was organised by volunteers and largely paid for by the participants, wandered through Nazism’s hall of shame, starting with the rise of Hitler, through the Warsaw ghetto, to the horrors of the “Final Solution” and its death camps.

Familiar with this horrendous chapter in history, the Israelis followed the commentary and exhibits mostly in rapt silence. For the young Palestinians who were being exposed to the full extent of Nazi atrocities for the first time, their attempts to grasp the enormity led them to ply our guide with a constant stream of questions.

“If the Jews were so assimilated and successful, why did the Germans turn against them?”

“Was Einstein Jewish?”

“Why did the Jews believe the lies about the Nazi death camps?”

“Why didn’t the Soviets help the Jews?”

“Why did the West refuse to take in the Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors?”

The personal stories showcased in the museum gave the whole experience a human face which the Palestinians visibly appreciated, while the section dedicated to the “Righteous among the Nations”, which chronicles non-Jews who protected Jews – including Muslims in Bosnia, Albania, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and other countries – elicited the interest of both sides.

The Arabic being spoken by members of the group drew curious glances from Israeli visitors to the museum, who seemed to be trying to figure out what we were about. The passers-by included groups of young IDF recruits, apparently on motivational tours, who caused unarticulated yet visible stirrings of discomfort among the young Palestinian, whose only exposure to Israeli soldiers, though they are of a similar age, is as agents of the occupation.

Although some in the group had been to Yad Vashem before, experiencing it with this unusual group was an eye-opener. “It’s important to see something you think you know well through someone else’s eyes,” believes Dara Frank (22), an American-Israeli student who is currently working on a master’s in international relations at the Hebrew University, because it makes you “start questioning what you think you already know”.

“When it comes to the Holocaust, we only learn the basics about it at school, that Hitler slaughtered the Jews, so this trip has helped us acquire a lot of extra knowledge,” reflected Mohammed Mahareeq (23), who is originally from Hebron but works at a hotel in Ramallah and volunteers with the Palestinian Red Crescent.

The idea that Palestinians study the Holocaust at school, visit Yad Vashem and display genuine interest in the tragedy that befell the Jews of Europe is likely to come as something of a surprise to many Israelis who see regular reports in the media of Arab and Muslim Holocaust denial.

One recent example was Hamas’s angry response following the visit to Auschwitz by Ziad al-Bandak, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Describing the Holocaust as an “alleged tragedy”, a Hamas spokesman said the visit was “unjustified and unhelpful”.

While Hamas’s outburst, as well as the relative availability of literature questioning the Holocaust in some Arab countries, prove that there are certainly Arabs who insultingly deny that this horrendous crime took place. But fixating on Holocaust deniers, as many segments of the Israeli media tend to do, distorts the reality and downplays the importance of the work of the likes of al-Bandak, who visited Auschwitz and expressed sympathy for the historic plight of his people’s enemy, and he did so during a period of heightened animosity and distrust between the two sides.

And he is not a lone wolf. Many Palestinians are aware of the historic tragedy that befell their Jewish neighbours, but are often muted in expressing their sympathy due to the bitterness of the conflict or out of a conviction that it will be used as a political weapon against them. “Many Palestinians feel that sympathising too much with Israelis could lead to justification for the occupation,” Sami Adwan, a professor of education at Bethlehem University, was once quoted by the BBC as saying.

But there are those who point out that mutual sympathy is essential to building trust and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. Determined to act on this conviction, one eccentric Palestinian-Israeli opened up his own tiny Arab Holocaust museum in Nazareth some years ago and tours the West Bank raising awareness about this dark chapter.

“When Palestinians learn about the Holocaust, they will understand the Jewish people better and can begin to develop a shared history,” Khaled Mahameed, the founder of the tiny museum he established with his own money, was quoted as saying.

And building understanding and compassion is exactly what the joint Tiyul/Rihla that brought these Palestinians and Israelis to Yad Vashem is about. “The idea behind the initiative is to expose each side to the other side’s narrative, and to have a very deep conversation about it,” explains Israeli journalist and activist Nir Boms, one of the originators of the idea.

“Personally, I think this trip is very interesting because it’s breaking down the walls between us: Israelis and Palestinians,” said Ibrahim Yassin, an activist and professional cook from East Jerusalem whose night job, as attested to by his hip hop look, is as a DJ.

There have been three join trips to date (two to Israel, one to the West Bank), and the participants brainstormed ideas for a fourth, to Palestine. The Palestinians wished to introduce the Israelis to al-Nakba (the Arabic for “The Catastrophe”), which is the term Palestinians use to describe perhaps the most defining trauma in their national experience: the exodus of up to three-quarters of Palestine’s Arab population, most of whom were not allowed to return following Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948.

However, they lamented the absence of a museum chronicling this painful chapter of Palestinian history. Some Palestinians suggested that the Israelis should join them on a trip to a refugee camp to enable them to gain a deeper insight into what contemporary life is like for many Palestinians.

“I want to introduce our Jewish friends to the suffering of the Palestinians… Just as they told us about their suffering in detail from an Israeli perspective, I’d like them to hear all the details about our stories,” reflected Mutasem Halawani, a student of business management from Jerusalem. “This helps build an exchange of ideas and tolerance.”

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 19 September 2012.

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Refuge in exile

 
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By Khaled Diab

Is it possible for Israelis and Palestinians to find common refuge in their shared notions of exile and return?

Thursday 23 August 2012

Like for Palestinians, refugee camps became a part of the Mizrahi Jewish experience. Photo: Zoltan Kluger

The United States House of Representatives is now considering a bipartisan bill, submitted last month, that would effectively equate the plight of Palestinian refugees with that of Jews whose origins were in Middle Eastern countries.

Although the tragedy that befell Jews in Arab countries following the creation of Israel certainly requires recognition and redress, many Mizrahi Jews resent the linkage.

“The basis of this equivalence is spurious. Arab Jews and Palestinians have two different histories and their experiences are not similar,” insists David Shasha, who directs the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn. “Israel has maintained that Arab Jews are members of the Jewish nation and are part of Israel. The fact that they were or were not expelled from Arab countries should not then be relevant to any peace negotiations.”

Peace activists see in this latest initiative a transparent political ploy to undermine the claims of Palestinian refugees. Noting that congress has never proposed such a bill for Palestinian refugees, Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now points to a similar Israeli foreign ministry initiative whose “focus is not only (or even primarily) seeking justice for Jews from Arab countries. The main goal is to impose new terms of reference on future peace negotiations.”

Despite this manipulation of the tragedy of the Middle East’s ancient Jewish populations, there are clear parallels between that calamity and the one that befell the Palestinians. In fact, you could say that Arab Jews are the Middle East’s “other Palestinians”.

“Both Palestinians and Jews from Arab lands were at the mercy of competing nationalisms – Zionism and Arab nationalism – sweeping the region at the time, playing off each other and insisting on reductive definitions of identity,” observes journalist and writer Rachel Shabi, herself of Iraqi Jewish descent, who is the author of Not The Enemy, a book on the history of Israel’s Mizrahi Jews.

Recalling how well-integrated into the fabric of Iraqi society and relatively successful Jews were, the prominent Iraqi-Israeli poet, academic and translator of Arabic literature Sasson Somekh told me how in light of World War II, and the fascism it unleashed, and the conflict in Palestine: “Everything changed forever. In 1948, I was 15 and I recall how people would curse Jews and throw stones at them.”

By 1951, the situation for Iraqi Jews had become so untenable that most agreed reluctantly to give up their citizenship and property in return for safe passage out of Iraq. By the 1970s, the Middle East’s rich Jewish heritage had all but disappeared, though fairly sizeable Jewish communities continued to exist in Iran and Morocco.

Although Palestinians and Arab Jews do have the loss of their homelands in common, the Mizrahim, particularly those in Israel, generally do not wish to return to their ancestral lands – indeed, many Mizrahim are actually situated on the anti-Arab end of the Israeli political spectrum. Some do visit their places of origin, such as Jews of Yemenite descent (who are the only Israelis allowed to travel to that country), as well as Moroccan and Egyptian Jews, but it should be recalled that Israeli Jews from most Arab countries are not allowed to visit their ancestral lands.

The majority of Mizrahi Jews today appear to be ideologically committed to the idea of Israel as their homeland. This is reflected, for example, in the fact that the Mizrahi vote brought the settler-friendly Likud to power in 1977 and has acted as a core power base for the party ever since. This implies that most Mizrahim no longer qualify as refugees, though they once were.

However, there are some, albeit a minority, who do still regard themselves as refugees and dream of unlikely return. Take Mati Shemoelof, a second-generation Iraqi-Israeli poet, journalist and activist who defines himself as “Arab” and believes that Mizrahi Jews went “from exile to exile.”

He wants Iraq, which he wishes to visit “more than anything in the world,” to make up for its historic crime by granting Iraqi Jews the right of return and full citizenship, while allowing them to retain their Israeli nationality and identity. His vision: “I want to live in two worlds.”

Shemoelof’s sentiments echo those of many Palestinians. Not only do many of them dwell in perpetual limbo in refugee camps across the Middle East, but the experience of exile and dream of improbable return is a central pillar of Palestinian identity. In his evocative memoirs of exile and return, I Saw Ramallah, the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, who was stranded in exile due to the outbreak of the 1967 war, reflected upon his return how Israel “took from us the land of the poem and left us with the poem of the land” and that the “long occupation has succeeded in changing us from children of Palestine to children of the idea of Palestine”.

“[Exile is] a feeling that I have to carry my roots with me, so to speak, but can never fully put them down anywhere,” describes Jennifer Jajeh, a Palestinian-American actress.

Many in the diaspora feel that both they and their homeland have become phantoms. “I feel like I’m a visitor to my own home, like a ghost walking around in a land where other people refuse to see us even when we’re talking with them,” says Ray Hanania, a prominent Palestinian-American columnist, broadcaster and comedian from Chicago who visits Israel and Palestine regularly.

Those who cannot live in or visit the old country dream of being allowed at least to make it their final resting place. “When we die, bury us in Palestine. If you can’t manage that, then try to bring some of its soil and bury it with us,” the parents of a Jordanian-Palestinian friend used to tell her.

And this sense of exile can be just as acute among the Palestinians who stayed behind, as they watch the land of their forefathers morph into another country. For instance, one young Palestinian I know from a village near Bethlehem lives frustratingly within eyeshot – across a railway line which became part of the Green Line – of what was once his family’s farmland but became part of Israel.

“When I go to Jerusalem and walk around certain parts of it, I don’t feel that I belong to that place, because it has been colonised,” says Hurriyah Ziada, a 22-year-old Palestinian student and activist in Ramallah.

Living within the boundaries of her historic homeland does not blunt Ziada’s keen sense of being an exile and refugee, perhaps partly because the movement restrictions imposed by Israel mean she has not been able even to visit her ancestral village of Faluja, near Gaza but now part of the Israeli town of Kiryat Gat. In 1948, Faluja’s residents had refused to flee the fighting but were subsequently driven out following the 1949 armistice.

Echoing the early Zionists, Ziada dreams of making Faluja her home – even though the town does not exist anymore and the surrounding area has become completely Israeli – and living the life of a Palestinian pioneer there. “It’s true that I’m used to living here [Ramallah] and all that, but it is my right to return to the village,” she insists, noting that “I’m willing to pay the price, and to start from scratch because this is the only way.”

It is unclear how representative Ziada’s views are of Palestinian refugees in general, since little research has been carried out on the taboo question of actual versus symbolic return and recognition of the historic wrong committed against the Palestinian people.

For most Israelis, even peace activists and pacifists, the idea of Palestinian return to what is today Israel is a complete non-starter. The creation and development of Israel “entails an essential injustice to the Palestinian people,” Amos Oz, one of Israel’s leading novelists, told me during a long and riveting conversation in his basement study.

In Oz’s view, it is essential for Israel to maintain “a Jewish majority” – though he diverges from the mainstream in his belief that Israel should be a state for all its citizens – even if it means shrinking its territory. His reasoning? That Jews have a right to live free of persecution and to determine their own destiny.

Palestinian return, in his view, should be to a Palestinian state within the full pre-1967 borders, referring to the armistice lines before the 1967 Six Day War. He argues that this is the pragmatic and realistic thing to do. But for an influential segment of Palestinian society, the idea of refugees not having the right to return to anywhere other than the actual homes and towns they abandoned is anathema.

So what’s the solution? According to some, compromise on both sides is the only way to ensure “a means of both of us surviving”, as Ray Hanania puts it.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 20 August 2012.

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Rethinking the right of return

 
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By Khaled Diab

Palestinians understandably dream of return, but focusing on the right of return is standing in the way of other, more vital rights.

Friday 18 May 2012

Nakba Day in Ramallah. Photo: © Khaled Diab

At this time of year, there is a sort of bizarre political yin-yang, though one that does not reflect harmony. Israelis celebrate their independence and the birth of their country, while Palestinians grieve over their dispossession and the loss of their land. Known to Arabs as the Nakba (catastrophe), it is scorched deep into the collective and private memories of Palestinians.

Perhaps few recall it better than my Palestinian neighbour, a sprightly great-grandmother who turned 90 this year. Born at the start of the British mandate to a prominent Jerusalem family, she gave birth to her second child just months before Israel’s declaration of independence. At first, she and her family were determined to stay put during the civil war that broke out following the UN vote to partition Palestine.

Then the Deir Yassin massacre occurred, leading to general panic among the Palestinian population. Fearing for the safety of their family, my neighbour and her husband packed a couple of suitcases and sought temporary refuge in Amman, then a tiny backwater of just 33,000 inhabitants.

The family has never managed to regain or be compensated for their house in West Jerusalem but, unlike many others, they managed to return to East Jerusalem and settle just a few miles from their former home.

But one of the most painful consequences for her is how her family and friends have been scattered across the world. “Time has been hard on us Palestinians. Estrangement and exile is our lot,” she tells me over strong Arabic coffee.

Today, millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants live in neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, while significant Palestinian diasporas are found in Chile, the US, Honduras, Germany and other countries.

Closely related to the Nakba is another political yin-yang: the Palestinian dream, and Israeli nightmare, of return. Palestinians, particularly the disenfranchised inhabitants of refugee camps, have clung on to their dream for the past 64 years. This is most poignantly symbolised by the keys to their former homes which many families have held on to. Politically, this longing has been expressed by Palestinians in their claimed “right of return”, which has been upheld by a number of UN resolutions, including Resolution 194 of 1948.

Over the past couple of years, the right of return has resumed a central position in Palestinian politics, with many describing it as the top priority of their struggle. This has been reflected not only in political sloganeering but also in last year’s bold attempts by thousands of Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Syria and Lebanon to march across the border with Israel, during which numerous marchers were killed by Israeli forces.

But at a time when the dream of Palestinian return is perhaps more distant than ever, and more and more Palestinians are being pushed off their lands by Israel, why are so many focusing on what to much of the rest of the world seems like a futile quest?

The reasons are complex and include disappointment and frustration at the crushing of the Palestinian dream of self-determination, on the one hand, and the cynical exploitation of identity politics as a substitute for real policies, on the other. Then there is the aggressive expansion of Israeli settlements, ongoing Israeli Nakba denial, as well as Israel’s insistence on a law of return for Jews but no right of return for Palestinians.

However, the trouble is that this fixation on return focuses aspirations on a remote, distant and perhaps unattainable goal, while drawing attention and energy away from the very real issues facing Palestinians across the region. Not only does Israel disenfranchise and discriminate against the Palestinian populations under its control, especially in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians in many Arab countries are denied their rights too.

Perhaps the starkest example is Lebanon where, on the back of fears of upsetting the small country’s fragile sectarian balance, some 400,000 Palestinian refugees, many of whom were born in Lebanon, are deprived of numerous basic rights – including citizenship, public healthcare and access to numerous professions – and forced to live in what are effectively ghettos, otherwise known as refugee camps.

Jordan has done more than others to integrate dispossessed Palestinians by granting most of them citizenship but, even there, Palestinians still face a certain amount of discrimination and some of them have been made stateless again.

Though the status of Palestinians in many Arab countries is partly a product of classic xenophobia and a reluctance, as they see it, to pay for Israel’s crimes, much of this marginalisation stems from Palestinian and Arab fears that integrating refugees would hurt their political quest for nationhood and the ever-elusive return.

But what this traditional equation overlooks is that a nation is not the land – which has been declared so “sacred” by both Israelis and Palestinians alike that any number of generations is worth sacrificing at its divine altar – but the sum of its people.

So this Nakba Day, 15 May, it is time for Palestinians to prioritise the people over their lost land, and to campaign, wherever they now live, for their full civil, social and economic rights and their cultural right to be recognised as a distinct community.

That is not to say that Palestinians should forget the Nakba. Just like Jews mourned their “exile” for centuries, Palestinians have a right to keep the memory of their dispossession alive, though this is likely to become more spiritual and symbolic with the passing of each generation.

And perhaps, counterintuitively for us today, as Palestinians cement their identity as a people without a land, they may, in a more tolerant and inclusive future, also start performing a kind of Palestinian version of Aliyah to a land with two peoples.

But, for now, “return” in any form is a highly improbable dream. So, instead, it is far more crucial for Palestinians to remember their present reality and the ongoing Nakba of their disempowerment and disenfranchisement. Though they may be stateless, the most important state the Palestinians need to fight for is a state of individual dignity, equality and self-determination.

This article first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free on 14 May 2012.

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