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.

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Follow Amira Mohsen Galal on Twitter

 

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Islamism is the illusion

 
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By Khaled Diab

Islamism is not the solution but is built on an illusion. Islam’s past strength was actually a secular one based on free thought.

Saturday 17 August 2013

SONY DSC“The people want to apply God’s law,” one group of male protesters chanted.

“Islamic, Islamic, Egypt rejects secularism,” a group of women sang in rhyming Arabic prose, their tone that of a wedding party.

As if that wasn’t enough, all over the Raba’a al-Adawiya encampment, what seems to be a current hit on the Islamist charts was urging everyone within earshot of a loudspeaker to “Tell the world that Egypt is Islamic.”

But that is not exactly the message that has been reaching the international community from the pro-Morsi camp. Although only a single letter separates the two in Arabic, there is a world of difference between the democratic legitimacy (Shari’ya) the Muslim Brotherhood asks of the world and the Shari’a protesters were loudly demanding.

“I want to defend my religion and my country’s Islamic identity,” Mohamed Eissa, 20, told me, adding that he wanted Egypt to implement Shari’a. And what about democracy, I wondered? “If we apply Shari’a, we will have the best democracy in the world,” he claimed.

I doubt many non-Islamists when they think of Morsi’s “democratic legitimacy” would ever associate that with implementing Shari’a, as countries which have done so sit near the bottom of the league in terms of freedoms and rights.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

As I stood there in Raba’a, a scarce secular soul, I pondered a question I have asked myself repeatedly: what exactly is the point of the Islamist project in a Muslim society?

After all, Egypt already implements Shari’a in its personal and family law, with all the gender and other inequalities that involves. In addition, there is absolutely nothing to stop a devout Muslim from practising every facet of his or her faith.

In contrast, Egypt has no civilian family courts for those who wish to run their personal affairs according to modern, secular standards. Moreover, though freedom of expression is a constitutional right, this freedom has been severely curtailed in recent years by the obscure, vague and innovative legal concept of “insulting religion”.

But does centuries-old Islam, the world’s second largest religion, really need self-appointed defenders to shield it from “insult”, when the Qur’an itself welcomes doubt, questioning and even ridicule?

And why do these self-appointed defenders of the faith contradict the example of the prophet they claim to emulate? For instance, Muhammad pardoned one of his scribes, Abdullah Ibn Saad, even after he claimed that the Qur’an was invented and Muhammad was a false prophet.

These examples highlight how Islamism, rather than providing the solution, as it claims, is actually built on an illusion.

Islamist discourse, on the whole, holds that the reason for the Muslim world’s decline is its deviation from Islamic law and values. That explains why Hassan al-Banna, despite his attempts to inject some elements of modernity into traditional Islamic thought, fixated on questions of morality and Shari’a. One of his ideological descendants, Sayyid Qutb, went so far as to invent the dangerous idea that Muslims were living a period of modern “Jahiliyyah” (pre-Islamic ignorance).

But by misdiagnosing the malaise afflicting society, Islamists have prescribed totally the wrong medicine, with severe and debilitating side effects.

Any objective, dispassionate reading of Islamic history reveals that Islam’s former glory was actually built on a largely secular foundation. In addition, the start of its decline coincided with the victory of rigid dogma and orthodoxy – represented by the likes of the “father of Salafism” Ibn Taymiyyah in the 14th century – over reason and intellect.

Muhammad himself never established anything resembling what we would call an “Islamic state” today. His secular-sounding Constitution of Medina actually defines Jews, Christians and pagans – i.e. every member of Medina’s society – as being full and equal members of the Ummah.

During what is widely regarded as Islam’s “golden age”, the political and social mechanisms governing the lives of Muslims were generally secular. Though the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs derived their claim to legitimacy from Islam, they were essentially secular rulers, presiding over secular governments. They were autocratic, not theocratic.

In fact, their honorific title “commanders of the faithful”suggests that caliphs derived their authority from their Muslim (and other) subjects and not from Islam itself. Moreover, most enlightened caliphs were derided by conservatives and traditionalists as immoral and decadent.

Take Harun al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid caliph and stuff of legends. Under his rule, the sciences, culture and the arts flourished, despite clergy’s disapproval of the company he and his libertine son, al-Amin kept, including the outrageous and camp court poet, Abu Nuwas, considered the greatest poet of his time.

Freethinking philosophy also flourished during this era, both under the Abbasids and the Umayyads. The Muʿtazilah, for example, held that rationality, expressed through reasoned debate known as “kalam”, are the “final arbiter” that trumps “sacred precedent”.

In such a climate, it is unsurprising that non-belief was accepted and atheistic scholars, such as Ibn al-Rawandi were published, only to have their works destroyed by later, less tolerant generations.

The reasons for Islam’s subsequent relative decline are manifold: the loss of dominance over global trade, the Mongol invasions, intellectual stagnation, infighting and factionalism, colonialism, and more.

However, deviation from some imagined “pure” moral state is not one of the factors, and belief in this illusory mirage will delay effective reform. In the 21st century, the best system that encompasses the spirit of past Muslim success is enlightened secularism. That might explain why the renowned 19th-century reformer Muhammad Abduh once said that in France he saw “Islam without Muslims”.

 

Note: This article was written before the violent dispersal of the pro-Morsi encampments occurred.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The National on 15 August 2013.

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Egypt and the West: the liberal-Islamist paradox

 
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Why do some Western liberals committed to democracy, gender equality and minority support a president and movement that respects none of these?

Thursday 15 August 2013

Photo: ©Khaled Diab.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab.

One of the gatekeepers at the protest encampment in support of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi outside the Raba’a al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo stopped me to check who I was and what I was doing there, his eyes full of weary suspicion.

But then when he caught sight of my European ID card and heard the list of Western publications I wrote for – on the advice of fellow hacks, I had not mentioned any of the Egyptian or Arab papers I worked with due to reports of journalists being attacked andbeaten up – his manner shifted perceptibly, welcoming me warmly and ushering me in promptly.

And he was not alone. Once I began to interview one young man, a crowd formed around me, all eager to tell their stories, some of which were of ugly brutality and murder at the hands of the authorities, and express their support for the deposed president. “I was born when Morsi came to office. I died when he was removed from office,” Yosri Ahmed said to nods of approval.

Quite a number were convinced that Morsi’s unseating was a Western conspiracy, yet they were keen for me to communicate their message to the West.

What was behind this? Part of the reason is simple pragmatism and real politick. Despite US pro-democracy rhetoric, it is generally accepted round these parts, and often true, that few leaders last long – or can be reinstated – without Washington’s approval. That explains why the Muslim Brotherhood has sought to reassure and even court the US and its Western allies.

Another factor is the relatively sympathetic hearing the Muslim Brotherhood has received in the European and American media, especially the more progressive and liberal segments. This is a far cry from the anti-Morsi hostility, even demonisation, pervading Egyptian society, though there are some segments of the independent media trying to give Morsi and the Brotherhood the fair hearing the Islamist media denied secularists.

Some might see a contradiction in how people who believe in freedom and equality, especially for women and minorities, are now throwing their weight behind a man and movement who have spared few efforts to promote inequality, especially for women and minorities.

What is behind this paradoxical Western liberal-Egyptian Islamist union? After much reflection, analysis and debate, I have come up with a number of explanations. In some segments of the mainstream media, especially those closely aligned to government, there is also a question of pragmatism, and “protecting US interests” involved returning Morsi to power, since Washington tends to prefer “stability” over principle.

In the liberal/progressive reaches where principle matters most, there has been confusion over which principles take priority, mixed in with a profound misunderstanding (sometimes wilful) of Egypt’s political reality.

This is clearly illustrated in the fixation on democratic process over undemocratic reality, that the ballot box should be respected even when its outcome is undemocratic. Yes, it is true that Morsi was elected democratically, but the sheer scale of protests against him acted effectively as a popular impeachment.

Moreover, Morsi was no democrat and he did not preside over a democracy. This is reflected in the undue influence the military exercised over Egyptian politics. In fact, those who are convinced that the army re-entered politics with Morsi’s ouster should be made aware that the generals never actually left.

Over and above this, the office of president remained far too powerful, which enabled Morsi to temporarily grant himself superhuman powers to push through a troublingly undemocratic constitution. Then there was the clamping down on protests, the intimidating of opponents, not to mention the attempts to push through legislation to limit protest and to pass NGO laws that were “more draconian” than Hosni Mubarak’s.

Such behaviour would have probably led to the prosecution of the president in a country with more robust and independent checks and balances.

Beyond this is the fact that Morsi’s behaviour did not fit into the liberal discourse on moderate Islamism. Partly in reaction to the ugly discrimination and bigotry unleashed by George W Bush’s “War on Terror” and the prevalent rightwing idea that Islam and democracy don’t mix, I was among those who said that the Muslim Brotherhood and other moderate Islamists could survive in a democracy, despite the inherent tensions in reconciling “God’s law” with man’s.

Sadly, Morsi and his entourage behaved as though they were a poorly acted parody of anti-Muslim stereotypes. Faced with Morsi’s project to become Egypt’s first democratically elected dictator and to establish a theocracy, millions took to the streets in protests at least as large as those which ousted Mubarak.

Yet numerous liberal and leftist observers chose to gloss over this. And the Muslim Brotherhood has been trying to exploit this reticence to the fullest. While their representatives speak at length about “democratic legitimacy” to the outside world, protesters at pro-Morsi rallies chant for Shari’a and the downfall of secularism. “Egypt is Islamic. Tell the world Egypt is Islamic. It isn’t secular,” a song playing all over the Raba’a encampment said in no uncertain terms.

But why would people committed to democracy, human rights and equality take such counter-intuitive stances? Part of the problem is that the world is a complex, morally ambiguous place which throws tricky conundrums at us.

Many Western progressives are used to seeing Muslims as the underdogs, either as vulnerable minorities in the West or as the victims of Western aggression. It is true that in Europe and the United States the issue is about providing members of a religious minority with the space and respect to exercise their faith freely. But in Egypt, where Muslims are free to practice every tenet of their religion, the Muslim Brotherhood project is about imposing their conservative religious vision on society as a whole.

But this does not, as some liberals wary of criticising the Brotherhood might feel, in any way imply that Islam or Muslims are incompatible with democracy, only the current Brotherhood project is. The majority of Egyptians are pious Muslims and yet they have risked their lives and livelihoods for nearly three years, toppling three dictators along the way (Mubarak, Field Marshal Tantawi and Morsi), for the sake of democracy, freedom and socioeconomic justice.

In Tunisia, where they have Islamists with more common sense and tolerance, the Ennahda party has, despite opposition and controversy, steered a fairly pluralistic route. Unlike their Egyptian counterparts, they wasted no time on the question of Shari’a, even though the Tunisian constitution makes no mention of it. “The values of justice, liberty and equality are Islamic values, and they are in the constitution,” explains Rached Ghannouchi, the party’s chief.

And contrary to the popular legend, the clash in Egypt is not between a secular elite and the conservative masses. Morsi’s opponents include pious and liberal, rich and poor, young and old, men and especially women. It brings together those who wish to keep religion out of politics with those who felt Morsi was serving just the Brotherhood and had ruined the country further, rather than rebuilt it.

Of course, some outsiders express support for Morsi as the lesser of two evils, with the Brotherhood cast as being better than the army. Though I share a similar aversion to the junta, for millions of Egyptians who caught a glimpse of the Islamist abyss ahead, they decided that taking their chances with the military was safer.

That is not to say that Egyptians generally prefer dictatorship over democracy, as some have asserted. Egyptians still want democracy more than ever, but they trust the military to deliver it more than they do the Brotherhood and other Islamists. This trust is very likely to prove unfounded, as it did during the first transition.

But many Egyptians feel that gaining their freedom from men with guns will be easier than trying to wrest it from men who claim to have God on their side.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 9 August 2013.

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Gay marriage but no polygamy?

 
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By Khaled Diab

If we can have gay and interfaith marriages in the West, then why not polygamous ones?

Monday 13 May 2013

Marriage is such an ancient tradition that most people take it for granted. Yet, as the impassioned and polarised debate over gay marriage in the United States and elsewhere clearly reflects, when it comes to matrimony, not all humans are created equal.

In some countries, the restrictions go far further, and limit the rights of heterosexuals too. An Israeli NGO which promotes religious equality has created a global league map of countries based on the liberalness of their marriage laws.

As you’d expect Europe, the United States and much of the Americas top the chart, but so do many Asian countries. Propping up the bottom are conservative Muslim countries, as well as North Korea which, in a communist sort of caste system, prohibits marriage between people of differing class backgrounds.

According to Hiddush, the organisation behind the ranking, Israel, despite its proud self-image as bastion of secularism and freedom, is in the company of the likes of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan in terms of the restrictiveness of its marriage laws. Not only does Israel forbid interfaith marriages, the tight control the Orthodox rabbinate enjoys over personal status issues means that many Jews or nominal Jews cannot even marry fellow Jews – at least not in Israel.

Rather than reform the system and provoke the wrath of the religious establishment, Israel has opted for the path of least resistance and recognises any civil marriages brokered abroad, including gay ones. Although this provides people with a way out of the religious straitjacket and makes the system more inclusive than it appears at first sight, it comes at significant extra expense and hassle – and, by definition, is not an option open to people of limited means, placing a class divide in the access to marriage.

The Middle East as a whole fares pretty badly, as it does in so many other areas related to freedom, such as the media. Across the region, people are generally not allowed to marry out of their sect or religious community.

In my own native Egypt, Muslim men are permitted to marry non-Muslim women, but Muslim women may only marry from within their own faith community. Despite plenty of evidence to suggest that Islamic jurisprudence does not actually prohibit this, the only way for non-Muslim men to marry Muslim women is through conversion.

That said, some Muslim-majority countries, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Tunisia, Turkey and Albania, allow full freedom of marriage.

So why is the Middle East so averse to interfaith unions? Part of the reason is wanting to keep religion in the family, so to speak. Another factor is that much of the region fell under the control of the Ottoman Turks who established a system known as millet, which Turkey itself abandoned under the reforms introduced by Ataturk.

Although the millet system gave a high degree of autonomy for recognised religious communities and was once an admirable expression of pluralist tolerance in action, its survival grates against 21st century reality and aspirations. This needs urgent reform, though with other pressing issues facing a region in revolutionary flux and the current ascendancy of Islamist forces, this seems unlikely for some time to come. However, change is slowly gaining traction.

Lebanon, like neighbouring Israel, only permitted the registration of civil marriages performed abroad, now Lebanese are free to carry out such nuptials on Lebanese soil, with the first ceremony taking place recently.

This opens the door for unions between the countries various sects. It also raises the interesting prospect that, while the parliament remains divided along sectarian lines, Lebanese families are likely to become increasingly mixed in the future. And this is no bad thing – perhaps mixing up the population through civil marriages can help prevent Lebanon from erupting into another civil war.

The West has a reputation for having complete freedom of marriage, especially those countries that allow same-sex couples to wed too. But are Western countries as free as they seem?

Well, yes and no. Of course, people of different faiths and none can marry each other freely, and gay marriage is becoming an increasingly accepted norm, both of which are great signs of tolerance and freedom. However, polygamy remains a crime – and I can see no rational reason for this prohibition.

While the Christian concept of wedlock as a lifelong, unbreakable bond has given way to divorce becoming an accepted component of the modern landscape, the Christian aversion to multiple spouses remains firmly in place.

Polygamy in most Westerners’ minds is a symbol of an outdated patriarchal order and a clear sign of gender inequality and is mostly associated with a benighted model of Islam, even though polygamous relationships are not exclusively Muslim, and many in Muslim societies reject or frown upon polygyny. Moreover, some lone voices have started demanding that women be allowed to enter into polyandrous marriages.

Traditional models of polygyny (and polyandry, in a minority of matriarchal societies) do, indeed, tend to reflect social inequalities, between genders, generations and classes. The alpha male sits on top of the social pyramid. And assuming a 50:50 gender divide, polygamy not only means that women in polygamous relationships receive a small fraction of a man, but also some unfortunate men lower down the pecking order will get no woman at all.

But modern, secular society is about personal liberty – even the freedom to live less freely – not moral judgment. People’s rights should not be limited because they offend mainstream society’s sensibilities, as long as their actions do not harm others. So if, for instance, a Muslim woman in the West wishes to become the second, third or fourth wife of another man, who are others to stop her, even if they disagree with her actions?

Besides, a show featuring an aged patriarch with one foot in the grave and his harem was a massive reality TV hit in the United States. Girls of the Playboy Mansion (The Girls Next Door), featuring the Sultan of Porn, Hugh Hefner, and his trophy girlfriends.

While many are likely to find off-putting the sight of an octogenarian living with women young enough to be his grandchildren, including teenagers, there is no law to stop them for cohabiting and broadcasting it on television. But if Hefner were to decide he wanted to marry his girlfriends, he’d probably have the police knocking at his door. Yet what exactly is the essential difference between the two situations, aside from a contract?

Moving away from the world’s various high-powered patriarchs, more equitable modern models of polygyny and polyandry are emerging in which men and women who are largely social equals enter into complex relationships that go beyond the nuclear family.

As the controversy over same-sex marriages clearly reveals, religion and tradition still cast a long shadow over human relationships in these secular times. But in this age of expressed equality and liberty, marriage, like friendship and love, should be open to all.

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Intimate strangers in a splintering world

 
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By Khaled Diab

Multiculturalism is enriching and as easy as child’s play. But as the winds of intolerance blow harder, it may become a liability for my son and his generation.

Monday 29 April 2013

You don’t need to belong to a place to have a sense of belonging and you can be a foreigner in your own land. Image: ©Khaled Diab

You don’t need to belong to a place to have a sense of belonging and you can be a foreigner in your own land. Image: ©Khaled Diab

As Iskander and I enjoy a rare sunny Sunday during this northern European spring that has not yet found its spring, our son quite literally sings the praises of multiculturalism, as he recites nursery rhymes and songs he likes in different languages.

While I bask in his sonshine, I marvel at how the intricacies of different cultures and identities become, in his tiny hands, quite simply child’s play.

Not only does he act at home in his two native cultures, Belgium and Egypt, he also took the complexities of the Holy Land, where he spent more than half his short life, in his, at first wobbly, stride. In that sun-kissed, trouble-drenched corner of the world, his blond locks went down a treat on both sides of the bitter divide, as did his nonchalance, charm and tenderness.

When we returned to Belgium recently from our 20-month stint in Israel-Palestine, we were a little concerned about how long it would take him to adjust to life back in Europe, especially the demanding task of starting pre-school.

But he took to it like a rubber duck to bubbly bathwater. Within a few short weeks, Dutch switched back to being his dominant language after a hybrid Palestinian-Egyptian Arabic had been during most of our time in Jerusalem.

Multilingualism, as researchers are increasingly discovering, enhances children’s cognitive abilities and helps them to do better in school. As the world continues to shrink, Iskander’s polyglottic childhood should place him in a good position to enjoy an international adulthood.

Although like any parents we hope that the future is bright for our son, there are a number of clouds on the horizon that trouble me. My wife and I take the benefits of multiculturalism as a given, as do most people in our circles. Not only is the microcosm of our family confirmation of this, but our own experiences back up this conviction.

For my part, I find that dividing my childhood, youth and adulthood between the Middle East and Europe has been a generally enriching experience, despite certain challenges – I feel both out of place and at home everywhere. My well-heeled Belgian wife developed a keen wanderlust early on which influenced her choice of studies, her extensive travels and her choice of careers.

Iskander is the next step along this evolutionary line. While both my wife and I grew up in monocultural families, Iskander has been born into diversity, with all its inherent richness and complexities.

My own personal experiences have taught me that in human interactions personal culture and disposition are more vital factors than collective culture. For example, my wife and I – both secular progressives with an inclusive, humanist outlook – have far more in common with each other than we do with our supposed cultural kin.

But as the winds of monocultural intolerance swirl evermore-menacingly overhead, not everyone sees the situation this way. A growing number of people (re)subscribe to the notion that there is an innate, cliquey cultural essence which unites a certain group to the exclusion of others.

This is partly a by-product of the social and economic alienation many people encounter, and the consequent desire to manufacture a sense of belonging. As I get older, I’m growing to understand better the attraction some people feel to having deep roots: the security derived from the familiar, the ability to read the various chapters of your life inscribed on every paving stone for miles around, and the convenience of being in the comforting proximity of family and lifelong friends.

But you don’t need to belong to a place to have a sense of belonging and you can be a foreigner in your own land. I know people who have lived in the same place their entire lives and feel alienated from their surroundings. I know others who move constantly but settle into each station as if it were their final destination.

With petty nationalism seemingly on the rise, partly on the back of the crisis afflicting global capitalism, this exclusiveness often manifests itself along nationalistic, even patriotic, lines. Given our aversion to nationalism, we hope that Iskander will grow up to become a proud citizen of the human nation.

But I appreciate that peer pressure, or rejection, may force him to jettison, or at least to underplay, one of his identities. And so, paradoxically, he may come full circle: returning to one of the monocultural roots of his multicultural parents.

Although balancing national identities can be done relatively painlessly, especially between societies that are not in conflict, a tougher nut to crack is religion. Of course, Iskander is still too young for religion to be a real issue, but we plan to raise our son to appreciate the beauty of his triple heritage – the secular, non-aligned humanism of his parents, his father’s Muslim and his mother’s Christian heritage – and to choose his faith for himself.

Even though the millet system, which gave a high degree of autonomy for recognized religious communities, was once an admirable expression of pluralist tolerance in action, its survival in much of what was once the Ottoman empire, including Israel and Palestine, grates against 21st century reality and aspirations. This outdated system defines faith as a birth right, no matter how wrongly or incorrectly this may describe a person’s actual convictions.

In Egypt, this means that my identity papers say that I am a “Muslim” – which I partly am, in the cultural sense of the word. In addition, given the legal assumption that the son of a Muslim man is also, by default, a Muslim, Iskander, regardless of his actual beliefs, would still be a Muslim in the state’s eye. If Iskander rejects Islam or religion in general, this could result in the surreal situation where two generations of non-believers are still officially defined as Muslim – a situation not unlike that of the historian Shlomo Sand in Israel, who is a third-generation non-believer, but cannot change his ID card to reflect this.

However, the sands may be slowly shifting: the well-known writer Yoram Kaniuk has won the right in the courts to be registered as “without religion”.

Our refusal to predefine our son’s convictions have made me so far reluctant to register Iskander’s birth in Egypt, in the hopes that one day the religion field will disappear from birth certificates and IDs, or until I find a legal means to keep it blank.

However, even if the state becomes more amenable to diversity – which seems unlikely under the current Islamist stewardship but is conceivable under new management given the  protection of personal freedoms guaranteed by the new constitution – society as a whole will not necessarily follow suit.

In Egypt, especially in traditional and conservative circles, the idea that religious identity is inherited runs deep, both among Muslims and Christians, and the traditional model of tolerance is to live as good neighbours and friends but not generally to intermarry. That said, I have met a number of conservative Muslims who accept the rights of other Muslims to convert and even to become atheists.

More troublingly, the increasing marginalisation of Christians in society and their targeting by Islamic extremists bodes ill if the country fails to rediscover its pluralism. For Iskander, this could be problematic if he decides to pursue his Christian identity or, worst, in the eyes of society, abandons religion altogether. And even if he chooses to become a Muslim, it would cause him to feel shame towards an integral part of his personal heritage.

But our son’s mixed heritage is not just potentially problematic in the Middle East, it can also cause him difficulty in Europe. Although European society has evolved into a multicultural kaleidoscope which, at its best, is incredibly tolerant and accepting of diversity, there are numerous worrying undercurrents.

Here in Belgium, the law guarantees equality regardless of background and people possess the legal freedom – both nationally and at the EU level – to choose the belief system that suits them. Moreover, the apparent unceremonious death of organised religion has left questions of faith almost completely in the private and personal sphere.

But even if Christianity has to a large extent fallen by the wayside, Christian rituals have been secularised, as reflected in the enduring popularity of Catholic sacraments, such as baptism and confirmation. Moreover, for some, old Christian prejudices have combined with secular distrust of religion or old-fashioned racism, to stigmatise Muslims. This manifests itself in the increasing mainstreaming of Islamophobia, as well as xenophobia in general.

The trouble with the push towards greater monocultural conformity, whether in Europe or the Middle East, is that the rolling boulder of intolerance gathers no nuance as it hurtles down the slippery slope to ever-greater rejection. Today’s “in” could easily become tomorrow’s “other”, as eloquently expressed by pastor Martin Niemöller in his famous “First they came for…” statement.

This is reflected in how certain salafist groups devolved from the rejection of the non-Muslim other to declaring Muslims who have a different interpretation of Islam to theirs as the enemy within. It can also be seen in how extremist settlers have widened their attacks on Palestinians, to target Jewish-Israeli peace activists and even the Israeli army, as well as the growing segregation between the religious and secular within Israeli society.

For the sake of my son, and all our children, I hope that multiculturalism prevails. In this, we can takea leaf out of Iskander’s book, who shares his affections indiscriminately, based solely on a person’s individual merit, without regard to nationality, religion, gender, ethnicity or creed.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 23 April 2013.

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The stick of boycott v the carrot of recognition

 
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By Khaled Diab

The targeted boycott of Israel should be complemented with Arab recognition of the Jewish state and grassroots engagement with ordinary Israelis.

Monday 1 October 2012

In a YouTube video, Chili Peppers express their excitement about their imminent Tel Aviv gig.

It is a mark of the phenomenal success of a certain band from Los Angeles that the words Red Hot Chili Peppers are primarily associated in the minds of millions with a unique flavour of funky sounds that has all the spice and kick of the piquant fruit they are named after. The Chili Peppers were an important and integral part of the soundtrack to my youth.

Appealing to the band’s sense of justice, many Palestinians and supporters of the cultural boycott against Israel called on the Chili Peppers to cancel their recent concert in Tel Aviv but to no avail.

“Art alone cannot break down a wall that appropriates Palestinian land and resources,” Palestinian-American poet, writer and activist Remi Kanazi, who is a member of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, wrote in an article for al-Jazeera calling on the band to cancel their Israel gig. “But artists and their art can inspire millions to take conscientious action against occupation and discrimination.”

In ignoring this outcry, were Kiedis and his crew guilty of putting profit over principle and of hypocrisy?

In the past, I might have responded with an unqualified, “Yes, they were”, and advocates of the boycott against Israel see the Chili Peppers as having sold out the Palestinians by coming here and behaving as if there were no occupation. And to their discredit and shame, the band which has dedicated so many memorable lyrics to the racism and segregation suffered by African-Americans and the plight of Native Americans, despite expressing strong love for Israel, did not seem able even to spare a single word for the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza who live in enforced segregation.

That said, the situation is not entirely black and white. The Chili Peppers have a special emotional link with Israel, because the group’s original guitarist Hillel Slovak was Israeli, and Kiedis and crew may have decided that Israelis cannot be held collectively responsible for the crimes and injustices committed by their state.

For myself and the majority of Arabs, the idea of boycotting Israel is almost second nature, given that it has been an integral part of Arab political culture for decades. Even in Egypt, which has had a peace treaty with Israel for most my life, those who deal with Israel or Israelis are often depicted as unscrupulous opportunists who are out to profit from the misery of their Palestinian brethren.

Prior to moving here, I did not buy any Israeli products and, given my commitment to ethical spending, I still believe that a targeted economic boycott is justified to ensure that people do not bankroll the occupation and the subjugation of the Palestinians. In fact, in addition to the popular boycott, Western governments should not effectively be rewarding Israel for its intransigence and there is a case to be made for the United States to suspend military aid and the EU to downgrade relations with Israel – which the EU’s former foreign policy chief Javier Solana once described as an EU member in all but name – until a peace deal is reached.

However, I do have serious misgivings about the cultural and academic boycott. Although institutions which perpetuate the occupation, such as military research centres or universities on occupied land, should rightly not be dealt with, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) effectively calls for a blanket boycott, arguing that, “unless proven otherwise”, all Israeli academic and cultural bodies “are complicit in maintaining the Israeli occupation and denial of basic Palestinian rights”. But presuming guilt until innocence is proven is unjust, and this is a form of collective punishment, albeit not on the scale of the Gaza blockade.

On a more pragmatic level, it is also counterproductive. Take the case of the German documentary about Jerusalem which was set to feature both Palestinian and Israeli residents to show the reality of life in the divided city. Pressure from campaigners caused many Palestinians to pull out of the project, the upshot of which will be that the film is more likely to show only Israeli perspectives.

The veteran Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab – who co-founded the now-defunct Bitter Lemons journal where Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals engaged in oft-heated dialogue – described the furor as a form of “intellectual terrorism”. Other activists who advocate joint action and dialogue I have spoken to have complained of a growing rejection of their approach.

“Some regard any encounter with an Israel as ‘normalization’. I am against normalization… but dialogue is not normalization,” a prominent activist who has spent years promoting Israeli-Palestinian dialogue told me. “Peace is too precious to be left only to politicians,” she emphasised.

Part of the reason for this hardening of positions appears to be disillusionment and scepticism at the entire apparatus – which put some emphasis on dialogue and collaboration between the two sides – put in place as part of the failed and discredited “peace process”.

“The aim of most of these so-called dialogues is to give the impression that there is an exchange going on,” one young activist involved in the BDS movement told me. “But this happens without the recognition of our rights, without the acknowledgement that there is a people being oppressed.”

But by punishing sympathetic Israelis along with hostile ones, this kind of unenlightened boycott alienates the doves more than it isolates the hawks. Although the cultural boycott claims to target institutions and not individuals, individuals who work for these bodies more often than not fall prey to the boycott, regardless of their politics.

“They will not invite me to Ramallah because I teach at Tel Aviv University,” complained Shlomo Sand, the maverick Israeli historian and one-time friend of the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, warning that the Palestinians were boycotting “the most liberal segment of the Israeli political culture”.

“It’s a very, very closed-minded tactic,” he told me.

Moreover, the Arabs have little to show for their decades of boycott, beyond perhaps the emotional satisfaction of not dealing with the enemy. Some suggest that it has even strengthened Israel. “I think that the reason for Israel’s prosperity is, ultimately, an unexpected result of the boycott,” believes Iraqi-Israeli poet Sasson Somekh, who was a close friend of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz.

“I am against boycotts, even of your worst enemies,” he told me. “If you want to influence them and change the status quo, you need to have dialogue with them, not boycott them.”

Counterintuitive as it may sound to many Arab ears, the best way forward is for ordinary Arabs, not just Palestinians, to engage more with ordinary Israelis – both in dialogue and joint action – because there can be no resolution to this conflict without an Israeli partner, and gaining that partner requires the empowering of Israel’s increasingly marginalized and embattled peace movement.

Moreover, the blanket Arab boycott belies a profound and damaging misunderstanding of the Israeli psyche and the existential angst Jews have suffered following the deadly pogroms of the previous century and the Holocaust. The majority of Israelis do not see the boycott as a principled stand in solidarity with the Palestinians, but as a manifestation of Arab rejection of Israel’s right to exist.

To allay such fears and deprive Israeli hawks of their intellectual and emotional prey, I think that the majority of Arab countries who have not yet done so, perhaps through the Arab League, should immediately recognize Israel within its pre-1967 borders. This simple, highly symbolic act – which actually costs the Arabs nothing and does no harm to the Palestinian cause – can help the Arab world, rather like Anwar Sadat once did, to go over the intransigent Israeli leadership’s heads and appeal directly to the Israeli public.

Sadat believed that a psychological barrier existed between Arabs and Israelis – a “barrier of suspicion, a barrier of rejection; a barrier of fear, or deception” – which constituted “70% of the whole problem”. While the percentage is open to question, in this, Sadat, for all his failings, was largely right.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 19 September 2012.

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Aanslag op Amerikaans consulaat in Benghazi valt niet uit de lucht

 
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Door Badra Djait

De aanslag op het consulaat in Benghazi was geen verrassing. De voortekens waren al lang zichtbaar.

Dinsdag 18 september 2012

De Amerikaanse ambassadeur in Libië, Christopher Stevens, is samen met drie andere medewerkers om het leven gekomen bij een raketaanval in Benghazi. Aanleiding voor de aanslag is een anti-Islam film uit America.

Hoe is het mogelijk dat er raketten konden worden afgevuurd op een Amerikaans consulaat, dat de Libische betogers het gebouw in brand konden steken, en dat het lichaam van de Amerikaanse ambassadeur voor het oog van de hele wereld over straat kon worden gesleurd? De Amerikanen hadden de aanslag in Benghazi minstens moeten voorzien.

Ten eerste is zes jaar geleden iets gelijkaardigs gebeurd naar aanleiding van de Deense Muhammad cartoons. Toen in Libië bekend werd dat een Italiaanse minister, Roberto Calderoli, een T-shirt met een spotprent van de profeet droeg, verzamelden spontaan een duizendtal mensen zich voor het Italiaans consulaat in Benghazi op 17 februari 2006. De betogers waren er zelfs in geslaagd het Italiaans consulaat in lichterlaaie te zetten, waarop de Libische politie het vuur opende op de betogers. Minstens tien doden waren er gevallen.

Vijf jaar later – toen de Arabische revolutie uitbrak – riep de Libische oppositie op om de dood van de betogers tegen de Muhammad cartoons te herinneren. Er moest betoogd worden tegen Gaddafi op 17 februari 2011 omdat die bij de demonstratie tegen de cartoons de zijde van het Westen had gekozen tegen de Islam. Vandaar dat de Libische revolutie van 2011 ook wel de “cartoonrevolutie” werd genoemd.

Met andere woorden, de ambassadeur en zijn medewerkers hadden de Libische ambassade moeten verlaten, eens het protest in Cairo aan de Amerikaanse ambassade tegen de spotfilm over Muhammad is uitgebroken.

Een tweede reden waarom de VS de aanslag op het consulaat hadden moeten voorzien, is dat ze wist dat Benghazi bekend staat als een bolwerk voor gevoelige extremisten. Uit het rapport al-Qaeda’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq van de US Military Academy bleek dat 18% van de al-Qaedastrijders uit de wereld die naar Irak kwamen om te vechten tegen de geallieerde troepen voornamelijk afkomstig waren uit Oost-Libië, waaronder Benghazi.

Verbaast het dan dat na de NAVO-interventie de voorzitter van de Libische oppositie, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, in zijn overwinningstoespraak in Benghazi liet weten dat Libië de sharia tot de officiële wet van het land zal verklaren. De eerder liberale voorzitter moest rekening houden met de ideeën van zijn conservatieve achterban. Zelfs de vlag van al-Qaeda werd er omhoog gehesen op het gerechtsgebouw van Benghazi na de bevrijding van het land door de NAVO.

Ten derde is het adagium van het buitenlands beleid “de vijand van mijn vijand is mijn vriend” op korte tijd zo vaak toegepast met wisselende vijanden en vrienden dat de Libiërs de Amerikanen niet meer konden vertrouwen.

De religieuze extremisten die voornamelijk in Oost-Libië zaten, waren vanaf de jaren tachtig bekend als beduchte politieke vijanden van Gaddafi. De toenmalige Libische gevangenissen waren vol met de “bebaarde mannen”. Dat is ook de reden waarom het westen na 9/11 toenadering zocht tot Gaddafi op zoek naar steun voor haar “war on terror”.  De CIA, de Britse en de Libische inlichtingendiensten wisselden toen honderden namen van Libische islamistische verdachten uit. Vandaar dat Moussa Koussa, voormalig hoofd van de Libische inlichtingendiensten vorig jaar veilig werd overgebracht naar Qatar na een tussenstop in Groot-Brittanië.

Niet alleen werden gegevens over islamistische verdachten uitgewisseld, ook wilde de VS de marteling van al-Qaeda verdachten uitbesteden aan gevangenissen buiten hun controle. Een bekend voorbeeld is Abdelhakim Belhadj, de voormalige leider van het fundamentalistische Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Hij werd samen met zijn zwangere vrouw opgepakt in Maleisië. Beiden werden gemarteld door de CIA in Bangkok en vervolgens uitgeleverd aan de willekeur van Gaddafi. Dat werd recent nogmaals bevestigd door het rapport van Human Rights Watch getiteld ‘Delivered into enemy hands. US-led abuse and rendition of opponents to Gaddafi’s Libya‘.

Maar Gaddafi behandelde de islamisten én hun familieleden zo slecht dat de modale Libiër zich begon te keren tegen Gaddafi. Toen Fathi Terbil werd gearresteerd in februari 2011 – Fathi Terbil was een mensenrechtenactivist die de familieleden vertegenwoordigde van de honderden gevangenen die bij rellen in de beruchte Abu Salim gevangenis in Tripoli in 1996 door veiligheidsdiensten werden vermoord en van de gedode betogers in 2006 naar aanleiding van de Muhammad cartoons – begon de oppositie in het oosten van Libië zich serieus te roeren.

De Libische oppositie kreeg al snel steun van het westen. En plots werden de “voormalige al-Qaeda verdachten” de vrienden van het westen, en werd Gaddafi de gemeenschappelijke vijand. Getuige het feit dat de door de CIA gemartelde Belhadj werd benoemd tot de militaire leider van de Libische oppositie.

Het is dan ook wereldvreemd dat de VS zich publiekelijk afvraagt “hoe zo’n aanslag kon gebeuren in een land dat met Amerikaanse steun werd bevrijd”, terwijl voorgaande info in Libië als algemene kennis wordt beschouwd. De Libiërs zien de VS niet als een land dat hen bevrijd heeft omdat ze democratie wilde brengen, wel omdat ze eigen belangen heeft. Het principe “vergeven en vergeten” geldt hier niet. De aanslag op het consulaat in Benghazi valt dus niet uit de lucht.

 

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نصف يوم مع “آخِر” يهودي عربي

 
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بقلم خالد دياب

يعتقد ساسون سومخ، الشاعر والكاتب وصديق الأديب المصري الراحل نجيب محفوظ، ان الأدب  يتسامى على السياسة

الخميس 9 اغسطس 2012

English version

بوجود هذا الغموض الذي يكتنف الجو، هذه أوقات مزعجة للعلاقات العربي الإسرائيلية. ولكن رجلاً واحداً يصرّ على الحفاظ على أرجله مزروعة بعمق على جانبي هذا الصدع

يصف ساسون سومخ نفسه كيهودي وعربي في الوقت نفسه، كعراقي وإسرائيلي. دعاني هذا الشاعر والأكاديمي والكاتب ومترجم الأدب العربي إلى العبرية لقضاء “نصف يوم” معه في تلميح ذكي لقصة قصيرة غير شائعة كتبها نجيب محفوظ، المصري الحائز على جائزة نوبل. تسرد هذه الرواية الرمزية التي كُتبت في سنوات نجيب محفوظ المتأخرة الكثيرة الإنتاج، أحداث نصف يوم فقط يدخل فيها الراوي أبواب المدرسة للمرة الأولى كفتى صغير في الصباح ويخرج في المساء رجلاً كبيراً في السن

“كيف حدث ذلك كله في نصف يوم، بين الصباح المبكر والغروب؟”، يتساءل الراوي المسن محتاراً

تساءلْت مثله، بينما أبحر هذا الرجل السلحفاة المتقد ذكاءاً، البطئ في حركته والسريع في تفكيره عبر الزمن والمساحة ليأخذني في رحلة مذهلة من إسرائيل المعاصرة في سنواته الفضية عودة إلى عالم شبابه الذي اختفى في بغداد اليهودية، والذي يستحضره ببلاغة في مذكراته “بغداد الأمس”، عبر صالونات الأدب المصري في شبابه

يستذكر سومخ، الذي ولد في بغداد عام 1933 في أسرة يهودية ميسورة من الطبقة الوسطى، أوقاتاً قضاها يسبح في نهر دجلة العظيم ويذهب في رحلات ونزهات حوله. “تلك كانت أكثر أيام حياتي بهجة وسروراً”، يستذكر بحزن

شكّل اليهود في تلك الأيام حوالي ثلث سكان العاصمة العراقية. “عندما كنتَ تمشي في شارع الرشيد الرئيسي في بغداد، كان نصف أسماء المتاجر والمكاتب يهودية”، يشير سومخ

أدى الوجود اليهودي القديم في العراق إلى أشكال مثيرة للانتباه من التكامل الثقافي: كان اليهود العراقيون يكتبون العربية تقليدياً بالحروف العبرية، وكان اليهود البغداديون يتكلّمون لهجة عامية كانت قد ماتت بين المسلمين والمسيحيين. أثّر اليهود كذلك على حياة العراق اليومية. على سبيل المثال، يستذكر سومخ بعض الشيعة الذين عملوا لدى بعض الأعمال اليهودية وهم يحوّلون يوم إجازتهم الأسبوعية إلى السبت.

وخلال سنوات مراهقته، كان سومخ شاعراً واعداً قضى أوقاتاً في صالونات بغداد الأدبية النشطة، ونجح في نشر بعض أشعاره وقصائده. ولكن أحلامه الشابة الوردية بمستقبلاً أدبياً لامعاً في وطنه توقفت بوقاحة من قبل التاريخ والصفائح التكتونية للسياسات الجغرافية

ورغم أن الغالبية الساحقة لليهود العراقيين لم تلعب دوراً في ما حصل للفلسطينيين، إلا أن اللائمة ألقيت عليهم رغم ذلك، وأصبح الوضع غير محتمل لهم بحلول العام 1951

جرى إسكان المهاجرين اليهود في إسرائيل، مثلهم مثل الفلسطينيين في مخيمات مؤقتة، وكانت تلك خطوة هائلة إلى الأسفل بالنسبة لعائلة سومخ، التي انتقلت من وسائل الراحة والنفوذ والاحترام التي تمتعت بها في بغداد. ولكن الأسرة وقفت على قدميها في نهاية المطاف، ورفض ساسون سومخ الشاب الاستسلام وترك أحلامه الأدبية، “الأدب هو الأدب. السياسة لا تدخل به”، أخبرني ببساطة لا تترك لك مجالاً للنقاش.

لم ينخرط سومخ في المجلة الأدبية الإسرائيلية الوحيدة باللغة العربية فحسب، وإنما ضاعف جهوده لتعلُّم العبرية حتى يتمكن من ترجمة الشعر العربي إلى لغته القديمة الجديدة

كان الإنجاز الكبير لسومخ هو أنه أصبح واحداً من المراجع الرئيسية حول نجيب محفوظ. عندما اهتم سومخ للمرة الأولى بالكاتب المصري كان محفوظ ما يزال غير معروف تقريباً خارج العالم العربي

تفتّح الاهتمام الفكري بسرعة ليصبح صداقة خلافية (إذا أخذنا بالاعتبار المقاطعة العربية لإسرائيل) بين الكاتب المصري وناقده الإسرائيلي. حافظ الرجلان على تواصل لسنوات عديدة، وتمكن صديق المراسلة أخيراً من دعم صداقتهما عندما انتقل سومخ إلى القاهرة في منتصف تسعينات القرن الماضي

“عرف شعبانا صداقة استثنائية”، قال محفوظ لسومخ في إحدى المرات. “أحلم بيوم تصبح فيه المنطقة وطناً يفيض بأنوار العلوم، تباركه أعلى ميادين الجنة، بفضل التعاون بيننا”

كانت تلك هي رؤية التسوية العربية الإسرائيلية النهائية التي يبدو أن سومخ، الذي يصف نفسه بأنه “آخر يهودي عربي”، لأن جيله هو آخر جيل يهودي يتذكر بوضوح العيش بسلام بين العرب، قد كرّس حياته من خلالها، لبناء جسور التفاهم الثقافي

ورغم أنه يعترف أن جهوده لم تؤتِ أية نتائج ذات أهمية، إلا أنه يعمل بجد رغم ذلك. وربما في يوم من الأيام، وفي مستقبل أكثر سلاماً، سوف نلقي نظرة إلى الوراء على سومخ ومحفوظ وغيرهما من أمثالهما، ليس كغريبي أطوار مضللين، وإنما كأصحاب رؤية شجعان

This article which was first published by The Common Ground News Service on Tuesday 31 July 2012.

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Half a day with the “last Arab Jew”

 
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By Khaled Diab

Sasson Somekh, critic and friend of the late Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, believes literature transcends politics and can bridge cultures.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

النسخة العربية

These are troubling times for Arab-Israeli relations. Arabs watch on with rising alarm as Israel continues to cement its hold on the occupied Palestinian territories and toys with the idea of denying that there even is an occupation. Meanwhile, Israelis look on with mounting apprehension as Egypt elects the unknown quantity of its first Islamist president and Syria slips further into civil war.

Amid all this uncertainty and distrust, one man insists on keeping his feet firmly planted on both sides of this chasm. Sasson Somekh describes himself as both a Jew and an Arab, as both Iraqi and Israeli.

This poet, academic, writer and translator of Arabic literature into Hebrew invited me to spend “half a day” with him, in a witty allusion to a little-known short story by Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Penned in the latter years of Mahfouz’s prolific career, this allegorical tale relates the events of just half a day in which the narrator enters the school gate for the first time as a young boy in the morning and emerges as an old man in the afternoon.

“How could all this have happened in half a day, between early morning and sunset?” the elderly narrator asked, perplexed.

I wondered the same, as this sharp-witted tortoise of a man, slow of body but swift of mind, snailed through time and space to take me on a riveting journey from the contemporary Israel of his silver years, back to the disappeared world of his youth, Jewish Baghdad (which he eloquently evokes in the first part of his memoirs, Baghdad, Yesterday), via the literary salons of his middle age in Egypt.

Born in Baghdad in 1933 into a well-to-do, middle-class Jewish family, Somekh remembers summers spent swimming in and loungingby the majestic Tigris, the river along whose banks some of the first human civilisations were born. When temperatures soared and water levels dipped, a patchwork of small islets would emerge, providing ideal seclusion for family picnics, consisting primarily of fish grilled on a special covered Iraqi barbecue. “Those were the most enjoyable days of my life,” he recalled wistfully.

At the time, Baghdad was a very Jewish city, with Jews – who were active in all walks of life, including commerce, the professions, politics and the arts – comprising as much as a third of the Iraqi capital’s population. “When you walked down Baghdad’s main street, al-Rashid, half the names on the shops and offices were Jewish,” he noted.

Iraqi Jews were so enmeshed in their country’s social fabric that they described themselves, and were regarded, as “Arabs”, and viewed Judaism as a religion and not an ethnicity. As Somekh put it, he grew up with Arabic as his mother tongue and Arab culture as his reference point.

The ancient Jewish presence in Iraq led to some interesting cultural symbioses: Iraqi Jews traditionally wrote Arabic in Hebrew script and Baghdadi Jews spoke a vernacular that had died out among Muslims and Christians. Jews also affected Iraq’s daily life. For example, Somekh recalls, some Shi’ites, who worked for Jewish businesses switching their own day of worship to Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, during which Muslim neighbours often helped perform tasks Jews were ritually forbidden to carry out, such as lighting stoves.

Despite the image in Israel of Middle Eastern Jews being very traditional and religious, the educated or wealthy Jewish elites did not keep Sabbath and were very secular. Somekh, whose father was a senior clerk at a British bank, grew up knowing very little about his religious heritage, which was not even taught at the Jewish schools he attended.

During his teenage years, Somekh was a promising young poet who hung out in Baghdad’s vibrant literary salons and managed to get some of his poetry published. But his youthful dreams of a glittering literary career in his homeland were rudely interrupted by history and the shifting tectonic plates of geopolitics.

Though the vast majority of Iraqi Jews played no part in what befell the Palestinians, they were nonetheless blamed for it. And by 1951 the situation had become untenable.

Iraqi Jewish refugees in Israel were, like the Palestinians, settled in makeshift camps, a huge step down for the Somekhs from the comfort and prestige they had enjoyed in Baghdad. But eventually the family got back on its feet, and the young Sasson Somekh refused to give up on his literary dreams. “Literature is literature. Politics does not enter into it,” he told me with disarming simplicity.

Somekh not only became involved with the only Israeli literary magazine in Arabic at the time, one run by the Israeli communist movement, he also redoubled his efforts to learn Hebrew so that he could translate Arabic poetry into this new-old language.

Somekh’s crowning achievement was to become one of the foremost authorities on Naguib Mahfouz. When Somekh first took an interest in the Egyptian novelist, Mahfouz was almost unknown outside the Arab world. As there was so little information available on Mahfouz’s literature in English, the Nobel committee, according to Somekh, relied heavily on his PhD thesis to assess the Egyptian novelist’s work.

Intellectual interest soon blossomed into an improbable and controversial (given the Arab boycott of Israel) friendship between the Egyptian writer and his Israeli critic. The two men kept up a correspondence for years, and the pen pals were finally able to further their friendship when Somekh moved to Cairo in the mid-1990s, to head the Israeli Academic Centre.

“Our two peoples knew extraordinary partnership,” Mahfouz once confided in Somekh. “I dream of the day when, thanks to the co-operation between us, this region will become a home overflowing with the light of science, blessed by the highest principles of heaven.”

And it is this vision of eventual Arab-Israeli conciliation that Somekh – who describes himself as the “last Arab Jew” because his is the last generation of Jews that clearly remembers living in peace among Arabs – seems to have dedicated his life to through his attempts to build bridges of cultural understanding.

Though he admits that his efforts have not yielded any significant results, he labours on regardless. And perhaps one day, in a more peaceful future, we will look back on Somekh and Mahfouz and others like them not as misguided eccentrics, but as bold visionaries.

This is the extended version of an article which was first published by The Common Ground News Service on Tuesday 31 July 2012.
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Behind the ‘Zion Curtain’

 
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By Khaled Diab

Living behind the ‘Zion Curtain’ reveals how alike Israelis and Palestinians are and how ordinary people must build common ground on this shared land.

Thursday 19 July 2012

Sharing the same land has caused Israelis and Palestinians to become more alike. Can this be used to build common ground? Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Not so long ago, an Iron Curtain split Europe. Similarly, a sort of “Zion Curtain” still divides the Middle East. But unlike communism and capitalism, Zionism and pan-Arabism are remarkably similar: both have sought to unify and empower diverse cultures who share a common religious heritage, on the one side, and a common language, on the other.

In addition to the physical barriers separating most Israelis and Palestinians from one another and the Holy Land’s isolation from the wider region, there are the apparently insurmountable psychological and emotional walls behind which each side takes cover, lest they unwittingly catch a glimpse of the human face peering across that political minefield littered with the explosive remnants of history.

Carrying as little political baggage as possible, I took the rare initiative – for an Egyptian – and stole across this no-man’s-land a few years ago in a personal bid to connect with ordinary people and see for myself the reality on the ground. Last year, I returned – this time with my wife and toddler son – to deepen my knowledge and do my little bit for the cause.

Egyptian intellectuals in the past who have preceded me on similar journeys have often faced censure and even ostracism, because their critics confuse dialogue and sympathy with Israelis with normalisation with Israel and approval of its policies towards the Palestinians. Despite the Camp David peace agreement, there is little traffic between Egypt and Israel. However, though I am a rarity in this land, I am by no means the only Egyptian who has made this journey. In addition to diplomats and some Christian pilgrims, a steady trickle of Egyptian pacifists has crossed the border.

Most Israelis are aware of the late president Anwar al-Sadat’s historic visit in 1977, but he was not the first Egyptian to cross the border. Some years earlier, when Egypt and Israel were still in a state of war, a young maverick and idealistic PhD student by the name of Sana Hasan threw caution to the wind and crossed the border. During her three-year sojourn, Hasan met just about everyone and did just about everything in her bid to understand her enemy and extend a hand of peace. She even wrote a memorable book about her exploits.

Another notable example is the leftist Ali Salem, the famous satirist and playwright who wrote perhaps the most famous Arabic-language stage comedy of the 20th century. In the more optimistic early 1990s, the portly, larger-than-life Salem mounted his trusted stead – a Soviet-era Niva jeep – and set off on a conspicuous road trip through Israel, which he fashioned into a bestselling book.

Both these brave individuals faced more condemnation than approval for daring to cross enemy lines. Personally, despite some criticism, I have encountered a great deal of positive reactions and encouragement, especially from Palestinians themselves. For their part, many Israelis I encounter are thrilled to connect with a genuine McAhmed Egyptian, and ply me with so many questions that I sometimes feel like I’m the sole representative of an alien race from a faraway planet.

Viewed from the inside, one of the most striking things about this tiny land – whose combined Jewish and Arab population is barely half that of my hometown, Cairo – is its sheer, dizzying diversity, which could be its most powerful asset in the absence of conflict.

Not only do you have two self-identified nations and three main religious groups, you also have enormous ethnic, social and cultural variety within Israeli and Palestinian ranks. Jerusalem is a colourful – and often monochromatic – catwalk of the variously attired faithful, while Tel Aviv and Ramallah are the choice hangouts for the secular.

The downside of this variety is discord. While the outside world is acutely aware of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, less noticed are the fault lines within each society, between the religious and the secular, hawks and doves, maximalists and pragmatists, to take just a sample.

Another striking feature is how much Israelis and Palestinians have in common, despite their bitter political differences. For instance, though Israel is variously perceived as an “outpost” of Western civilisation or a Western “implant,” depending on your political convictions, culturally and socially it is also very Middle Eastern, not only because a significant proportion of its population is of Mizrahi Jewish descent, but also because of the direction in which Israeli society has evolved. I am sometimes surprised by how much Arab culture has sunk into the Israeli mainstream, despite the Ashkenazi cultural dominance. In fact, despite Israel’s European aspirations, Israel certainly does not feel like part of Europe: it is an odd blend of Middle Eastern colour and tradition, Eastern European austerity and communalism, and, like other parts of the region, sprayed over with a recent layer of superficial American consumerism.

In fact, I would hazard to say that Israelis, Palestinians and the people of the wider Levant resemble each other more than they do the Jewish Diaspora or Arabs from, say, the Gulf. Israelis and Palestinians share a wide range of attitudes to family, education, work, friendship, socialising, driving, and even creaking bureaucracies and rough-round-the-edges finishing. Moreover, even though many Israelis in public are somewhat abrasive and direct, they often have a Middle Eastern attitude to helpfulness and, in private, share regional notions of hospitality, as I have personally experienced.

Moreover, the close proximity in which Israelis and Palestinians live – and the very extensive contact that occurred between the two peoples prior to the current segregation, as recalled oft-nostalgically by older people – has profoundly influenced both sides. In Israel, the Arab influence is clear to see in the culture, music, cuisine and language, while the Israeli influence, as well as the necessities of the conflict, seems to have made Palestinians more individualistic and anti-authoritarian than many of their Arab neighbours.

In terms of language, modern Hebrew was profoundly influenced by Arabic, while Palestinian Arabic is increasingly borrowing from Hebrew. Sometimes Palestinians use Hebrew words, yet are convinced they are Arabic, such as “ramzor,” the word for “traffic light.” Moreover, young Palestinian-Israelis speak in a confusing mix of Hebrew and Palestinian Arabic, while older Iraqi Jews liberally inject Baghdadi Arabic into their Hebrew.

When it comes to cuisine, while Israel’s acquisition of hummus as its national dish has led to the so-called “Hummus Wars,” Palestinians too have borrowed, albeit to a lesser extent, food from their Jewish neighbours. The prime example is, as I discovered, the surprising popularity of schnitzel among Palestinians.

The decades-old conflict has also profoundly shaped the psyche of both peoples, though it takes a far greater physical and material toll on the Palestinians. Most Palestinians and Israelis alive today were born into conflict, and this has bred a deep level of insecurity, paranoia and despair. This translates not only into positive attitudes towards, for instance, education, solidarity and steadfastness, but also into self-destructive notions that the world is against them, and the conflict is insoluble.

But the conflict is resolvable, not in any dramatic, comprehensive, final manner, but gradually, inch by painful inch, as pragmatism and the need to coexist slowly defeat ideology and intolerance. And the key to that future lies not with the failed leadership on both sides, or the ineffectual international community, but with ordinary people, Israelis and Palestinians willing to work together to transform the land they share into a true common ground.

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This is the extended version of an article first published in Haaretz on 17 July 2012.

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