Reimagining Palestine: Inserting the human dimension

 
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By Khaled Diab

The outside world primarily see Palestinians as two-dimensional heroes or villains. A new generation of artists and writers is adding a vital third dimension, the human. 

East Jerusalem provides the backdrop for a comedy drama about a Palestinian family. Source: NossBalad

East Jerusalem provides the backdrop for a comedy drama about a Palestinian family. Source: NossBalad

Monday 3 March 2014

The Arab-Israeli conflict has cast such a long shadow over the Palestinians that it sometimes seems the outside world can only view this dynamic and diverse people through the prism of the conflict. This tension between the image of the Palestinian as freedom fighter, in one narrative, and as terrorist, in the other, distorts the far more important picture of the Palestinian as human being.

But recent years have witnessed the emergence of a new generation of artists and writers who are challenging this superficial hero/villain dichotomy by delving deeper into the ordinary human experience, albeit under extraordinary circumstances.

In so doing, they are making the conflict the backdrop, rather than the central focus. “I have met people, many Palestinians, whom I have found quite heroic in a quotidian, no-glory kind of way,” reflects Selma Dabbagh, a British-Palestinian lawyer-turned-novelist and playwright. “They need to be fictionalised, as the media, if it saw them at all, would be more likely to see them as victims, which is a flattening vision.”

And despite the temptation to communicate a “message,” Dabbagh has striven to avoid such two-dimensional flatness in her work. “I did start writing thinking [I have] a mission… but the more I wrote fiction, the more I realised that the message was dangerous,” she notes. “The characters have to live and breathe in a writer’s mind and rub off each other with love and conflict.”

Selma Dabbag. Photo: Jonathan Ring

Selma Dabbag. Photo: Jonathan Ring

And “love and conflict” are the themes of Dabbagh’s latest work, a BBC radio play. Although The Brick, which is set in Jerusalem, features checkpoints and permits, these provide the background scenery to a personal story of mundane routine pierced by shattering family revelations.

In Dabbagh’s well-received debut novel, Out of It, she also attempts this difficult juggling act of making the human speak louder than the sometimes deafening background drone of conflict.

Partly set in Gaza during the second intifada, the book strives to rise above the cacophony of conflict to delve into the human experience of a family of “returnees” trying to find escape, each in their own unique way – in England, in the Gulf or inside their minds.

Escapism, exile and return are, unsurprisingly, recurring themes in contemporary Palestinian literature, whether fictional or factual, as brought vividly and poetically, and sometimes humorously, to life by Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah and I Was Born There, I Was Born Here.

But for real laughs, both tragicomic and absurdist, one should turn to architect-cum-writer Suad Amiry. Set during the second intifada in Ramallah, her debut autobiographical work blends dry, unvarnished humour with a sharp talent for storytelling.

Sharon and my Mother-in-Law hilariously juxtaposes two authoritarian figures restricting Amiry’s freedom: one a 91-year-old matriarch, the other a ruthless general-turned-politician in his 70s. “I ended up with two occupations, one inside the house, in the form of my mother in law, and another outside the house with Sharon’s army. And don’t embarrass me and ask which one was more difficult,” she joked on a long bus journey during which she reflected on life, architecture, politics and writing.

As if to answer her own question, Amiry adds, “Perhaps one day I may forgive you, the Israelis, for all the atrocities you have committed against us, but I shall never forgive you for having my mother-in-law stay with me for 40 days under curfew – which felt like 40 years.”

sharonAs the Israeli army locked down Ramallah in 2002, Amiry’s mother-in-law was largely oblivious to the war zone around her, retreating into the protective shield of her marmalade-making routine. “In spite of the fact that we were under curfew, with no electricity and no TV, she still wanted to lead a normal life: dress up as if we were going to a party, set the table nicely and eat on time as if there was no war around us,” the perplexed daughter-in-law recalled.

To escape the fighting and curfew on the streets, Amiry mined this rich comedic material in e-mails sent out to her niece and friends which eventually became an unexpected hit when turned into book form, and not just in Europe but also in Israel.

The surreal moments Amiry recounts include a spontaneous outdoor “party” during which all her neighbours took to their roofs to bang on pots and pans in peaceful, if noisy, defiance of the curfew, and an incident in which she posed as her pet dog’s chauffeur to get into Jerusalem because Nura, the canine, had a Jerusalem pass while her mistress did not.

As if to prove that this was no beginner’s luck, Amiry, who is not only an architectural conservationist by profession but is also dyslexic, has followed up this success with highly innovative, original works.

In Nothing To Lose But Your Life, Amiry disguises herself as a man and embarks, with a group of illegal Palestinian workers, on an improbable, funny, dangerous and self-deprecating adventure into Israel in the dead of night. For her third book, she casts off her male disguise to explore life for middle-aged Palestinian women of the “PLO generation”, intriguingly titled Menopausal Palestine.

Efforts to reimagine the Palestinians through humour do not end with literature. A group of enterprising young Palestinians and Europeans is working on a humorous television soap opera, a genre long dominated by Egypt and Syria. “It’s a way of putting Palestinians on the map,” explains Pietro Bellorini, the director of the series. He adds that the production, which revolves around the lives and antics of an East Jerusalem family, will go beyond the serious but superficial Arab preoccupation with the occupation and familiarise the region with the funny and absurd side of life in this troubled and incredibly complex city.

Speed Sisters watermarkedLike Monty Python revolutionised the way we look at the crucifixion by reminding us to “always look on the bright side of life”, humour can play a powerful role in changing people’s consciousness through laughter. “We use humour because it is a very powerful tool,” Bellorini stresses. “It is a tool that allows you to say things that wouldn’t be accepted in a serious conversation.”

Beyond television, the visual and audiovisual arts are also doing their part to challenge prevalent perceptions. One recent example of this was a photographic project titled Occupied Pleasures, which attracted significant international media attention.

“Pleasures” is not a word most people associate with occupation. But the series features pleasurably unexpected images that shatter clichés, from hijabi women doing yoga on a West Bank mountaintop, to a tête-à-tête between a young man and his sheep in his car, to Ramallah girls getting ready for a night on the town, to Gazan bodybuilders striking poses, to a girl surfer waiting for a liberating wave to ride.

Speed Sisters Trailer (in Production) from SocDoc Studios on Vimeo.

Challenging prevailing stereotypes about Palestinian women has become a regular theme in numerous works. One prominent example is the documentary-in-the-making about the Speed Sisters, Palestine’s first all-female motor racing team.

“The first time I sat behind a steering wheel, I felt in control,” one of the Speed Sisters confessed to me. “Now every time I push down on the accelerator, I feel like a bird: free and fast. I feel like I want to move towards the future and break free of all the oppression and repression.”

Omar-posterThis longing to “break free” is, as you might expect, a common theme in Palestinian filmmaking, as captured in Elia Suleiman’s bleak and beautiful black comedy Divine Intervention, on love in the time of checkpoints.

Recent years have seen a surge in creative, critically acclaimed and award-winning Palestinian films. Even Hollywood seems to have, at least partly, overcome its traditional bias toward “reel bad Arabs” and has nominated the same Palestinian director, Hany Abu-Assad twice for an Oscar: for Paradise Now in 2006 and this year for his thriller Omar. Both delve into the human aspect of political violence, exploring the dark and the ironic.

“If you look at any time in history when politicians have failed, it’s the artists who have come forward to try to make sense of the world,” Abu-Assad told the audience at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 25 February 2014.

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Learning tolerance

 
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By Barry van Driel

Islamophobia is common in western society, so the classroom is a good place to start combating it.

25 November 2010

If ever a book was overdue, Teaching against Islamophobia is it. This edited volume of very diverse contributions deals with a phenomenon that I would want to describe as the first real obsession of the 21st century:  the unease of Western societies with Islam and Muslims.  Unease is perhaps too mild a term for the mudslinging, accusations, fears and sheer paranoia that seem to have taken hold of large swathes of the public and media across North America and Europe. The vitriolic attacks on everything Muslim have been unleashed from both the right and the left side of the political spectrum.

This book represents a committed and comprehensive attempt to remind those in society who define themselves as educators that embracing issues of social justice and equity implies taking sides in the Islamophobia debate. The editors rightfully view Islamophobia through the lens of racism. In the UK, this has led to the use of the term anti-Muslim racism instead of Islamophobia.

Though the authors claim in their forward that the book is aimed at teachers, the contributions make it clear that it is intended for a much broader audience and that it has been especially written to make all of us (the non-Muslims primarily) reflect on our attitudes and misconceptions and to rethink many of our assumptions.

Living in Europe, I was pleased to see a primarily American book provide a North American perspective on the issue of Islamophobia, while also bringing in European issues in a few key places. In that sense, the book truly has an international character.

The 20 chapters in this book cover a wide range of topics, and it moves from more theoretical and socio-political discourse to a discussion of more practical issues.

In chapter 1, Joe Kincheloe and Shirley Steinberg set the theoretical tone for the rest of the book. Their comment that “learning from difference means that teachers are aware of the histories and struggles of colonized groups and oppressed  peoples” signifies how the authors reject the very common approach in multicultural and intercultural education that avoids discussing historical injustices and controversial issues so as not to upset people. References to empathetic understanding, solidarity and valuing of differences help position their pedagogical approach.  Their deconstruction of the propagandistic arguments being used by, for instance, the Fordham Foundation to promote the West as enlightened and majority Muslim nations as inherently inferior and a threat.

Chistopher Stonebanks builds on this analysis by looking at the manner in which intolerant attitudes towards Muslims and Islam are promoted by popular culture and are not considered, by and large, to be prejudicial. He also discusses the controversial concept of Islamophobia. Any treatise on the topic is enriched by looking at alternative and perhaps more accurate concepts. For instance, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which includes some 67 countries from Canada to Russia, speaks of ‘intolerance against Muslims’.

The last two chapters of Part 1 have been written by several Muslim teachers and address the misconceptions they encounter among their students regarding the core principles of Islam, the role of women, perceptions of violence, the spiritual meaning of the concept of ‘jihad’, and more.

Screen villains

Part 2 of the book looks at public, media and political discourse related to Islam. Shirley Steinberg returns to the topic of media discourse by examining 17 films where there is a significant presence of Arabs and/or Muslims. Her analysis shows that the overwhelming majority of Muslims/Arabs depicted in films – for most films the two are interchangeable categories – are viewed as barbaric, dangerous and uncivilised. They are somewhere between human and animal. White men are viewed as the heroes who will save locals and the West from these evil, stealing, cheating people. Arab and Muslim women are almost exclusively portrayed as oppressed and/or fanatical.

Steinberg also traces how Arabs and Muslims are portrayed in television programmes in the United States and finds that though there a few positive depictions of Muslims, they are, by far, in the minority and becoming less common in recent years. Steinberg especially deconstructs popular television shows, such as Cable TV’s Sleeper Cell and 24. On the whole, Muslims are perceived as potential threats and especially as the ‘enemy within’.  Given their evil demeanour and the threat to the United States they do not deserve the same rights as others in society.

Jehanzab Dar looks at the demonisation of Muslims and Arabs in mainstream American comic books, which tend to be poorly developed caricatures of the ugly Arab stereotype. The author does devote some attention to several more recent positive cartoon depictions.  The series The 99 is especially mentioned as an example of how popular media (in this case comic books) can provide more accurate depictions of Muslims and Arabs.

Michael Giardina, moves away from analyses of popular culture somewhat and looks at how political individuals can be demonised through associations with Islam. He focuses on the rhetoric and imagery used to discredit US President Barack Obama by right-wing conservatives.

Nations of Islam

Part 3 shed light on “Muslims you never knew” by covering topics outside the main discourse relating to Islamophobia.

Several essays examine a topic often forgotten in the discourse about Islam and Muslims in the United States – the relationship of the African-American community to Islam. Preacher Moss, who refers to himself as an ‘undercover Muslim’, takes a somewhat tongue-in-cheek look at African American perspectives on Muslim identities.  The more serious essence of his treatise is that “African American Muslims are marginalized as African Americans and ignored as African American Muslims”.

Samaa Abdurraqib provides highly insightful information about the historical relationship of the African-American community in the United States to Islam. She explains, right from its inception, Islam has been present in the United States – citing that perhaps 10%-15% of slaves brought to the United States were Muslim. She goes on to explain how this dimension of black history in the United States has been ignored in education and in the media, as has the diversity among US Muslims. The author’s main point is that Islam is not a foreign religion in the United States, as frequently claimed, but that it has long-established roots.

In a chapter that is bound to lead to significant discussion and debate among educators of all stripes, Younes Mourchid examines the contested relationship between alternative sexual orientations and traditional Islamic values. Mourchid builds his chapter on interviews with 20 LGBT Muslims. The author shows how such individuals, in often complex and contradictory ways, almost always struggle with their identity formation.

Some tend to internalise homophobic attitudes, blaming themselves for causing friction in the family, for instance, while others might internalise Islamophobic attitudes, blaming Islam for rejecting this core part of their identity. The campaign to make homosexuality acceptable in Muslim communities faces many challenges and is an uphill struggle. Mourchid closes with a discussion of whether those who hold traditional religious attitudes and reject homosexuality can be labelled ‘homophobic’.  His answer might surprise some readers.

Awad Ibrahim also seeks to provoke debate by examining the role of atheists and other non-believers within Islamic societies and ends with what he calls ‘The St Petersburg Manifesto’. This Manifesto is directed at both Muslim and non-Muslim faith communities and argues for a number of freedoms to be implemented in predominantly Muslim societies, such as freedom of conscience and freedom of speech, and the separation of religion and state.

Back to school

Part 4 brings us closest to the title of the book by providing some very concrete suggestions for materials that can be used in classrooms at all levels to combat Islamophobia, while also examining these materials critically.

Carolyne Ali Khan takes a critical look at a variety of educational programmes and materials that students in US schools are exposed to. In a very insightful discussion of several organisations and programmes that claim to promote understanding and ‘tolerance’, Ali Khan shows how they do the opposite.  She critically assesses, for instance, the messages and approaches promulgated by the New York Tolerance Centre and the American Textbook Council. The author’s discussion of these and other respected sources shows to what extent anti-Muslim bias has penetrated mainstream and even ‘tolerance’ education.  She ends her chapter by presenting some ‘uncommon knowledge’ about Pakistan and Pakistanis. Khan comments that many in Pakistan “are not the lunatic fringe. They are intelligent, complex and rational; they sing, dance and read and (perhaps most shockingly) they laugh, merrily poking fun at themselves and at the world”.

Anastasia Kamanos Gamelin looks at the intersection of gender and education in Saudi Arabia, a country known for denying women a number of fundamental rights and with a very traditional view of gender roles.

Fida Sanjakdar focuses on sex education in Australia and the view of Muslim communities regarding this always contested topic.  She notes that, in Islamic school curricula, almost no attention is devoted to sex education and this omission, in her view, represents a violation of the Islamic principles of a holistic and democratic education.

Krista Riley looks at the ways that literature, in particular young adult literature, can be used to “address themes of oppression and to promote critical reflection and social justice activism”. She does this by analyzing the book Bifocal, a fictional story about the arrests made of young Muslim men in Toronto in 2006 and the racist backlash at a high school after the arrests.

In the book’s final chapter, Melanie Stonebanks presents three potential classroom resources – illustrated picture books with Muslim main characters – that could be used as first steps to combating Islamophobia.  She concludes that, though the texts are far from perfect, they could be useful if used appropriately and with a critical eye.

This article is published with the author’s permission. © Barry van Driel. All rights reserved.

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By the book

 
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By Khaled Diab

Following the lead of Islamists, Egyptian Christians are trying to ban an award-winning novel because it ‘insults’ Christianity.

18 May 2010

I am no fan of fanaticism and I wish fundamentalists would just have some fun, or at the very least learn to live and let live. But, in Egypt, they have gone from being a nuisance to becoming a real threat, not only to freedom of speech and expression but also to the country’s very cultural heritage.

This was demonstrated in recent weeks when a group calling itself (without a hint of irony) Lawyers Without Shackles tried to shackle the reading choices of Egyptians by calling for a ban of a newly released version of the classic One thousand and one nights saga, with its ensemble of popular and ageless characters, including Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sindbad. Their reason? The centuries-old collection is “obscene” and could lead people to “vice and sin”.

Luckily, Egyptian intellectuals have rallied to defend the classic tales, warning against the increasing “Bedouinisation” of Egyptian culture. This is, perhaps, the most ridiculous example of the recent trend towards, what I call, the retroactive condemnation of published works.

Not to be left out of the banning fad, Christians have also joined the fray. A group of Copts in Egypt and abroad have filed a complaint with the public prosecutor against the controversial novel Azazeel (Beelzebub) by Youssef Ziedan, which won the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, an award backed by the Booker Prize Foundation. As insulting any of the ‘heavenly faiths’ is illegal in Egypt, Ziedan could face up to five years behind bars.

“He insulted priests and bishops and said many things with no proof or evidence from books or history,” said Mamdouh Ramzi, a Coptic lawyer involved in the action, adding that Ziedan was “not a Christian man, what does he know about the Church?”.

In his own defence, Ziedan told the Guardian: “Many Orthodox bishops and monks welcomed the novel, and some of them wrote positively of Azazeel, whether in Egypt, Syria or Lebanon.” He has previously described his novel as “not against Christianity but against violence, especially violence in the name of the sacred”.

But even if it were insulting to the Christian clergy, my natural reaction is: “So what?” Not only do we all have differing definitions of what constitutes an insult, everyone is free to express insulting views, if they so wish, and if you don’t like it, then don’t read it and, by all means, encourage others not to.

As to Ramzi’s second assertion, is he seriously suggesting that, in order to write about a faith, you need to belong to it? This is nonsense on so many levels, not least because it stifles freedom of inquiry and speech, and also because most religions do not require their followers to be knowledgeable of the history and philosophy of their faith. Besides, Ziedan is a renowned professor of philosophy and the director of the manuscript centre at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

So, what in Ziedan’s award-winning novel has specifically irked the Coptic establishment?

The events of Azazeel take place around the turbulent and troubled period of the Nestorian schism in the Orthodox church, and the book highlights, through the eyes of a fictional Egyptian monk, not only the tensions between different Christian factions, but also between the new official faith of the Roman empire and the “pagan” religions that preceded it.

The Coptic church has denounced the novel as offensive for its violent portrait of one of the church’s founding fathers, St Cyril, the so-called ‘Pillar of Faith‘. The trouble for the Coptic church is that, its reverence for Cyril of Alexandria notwithstanding, the historical evidence does strongly suggest that he was violent.

Cyril was involved in the expulsion from Alexandria of Jews and of newly declared ‘heretical’ Christian movements, such as the Novatians, not to mention the persecution of adherents of the old-world polytheistic faiths, and the murder of the Alexandrian philosopher and first notable female mathematician, Hypatia, one of my favourite Ancient Geeks.

With all this fuss about Ziedan’s novel, I wondered what Ramzi and the other Copts involved in this legal action would make of Alejandro Amenábar’s wonderfully evocative Agora – in which Rachel Weisz portrays Hypatia beautifully – and whether they’ll also be calling for its banning.

Agora, which I had the pleasure of seeing last weekend, covers the same historical period as Azazeel and dramatises the clash of ideals and ideas between Cyril and Hypatia, as well as the power struggle between by the Patriarch of Alexandria and the city’s Roman prefect.

Although Amenábar perhaps over-romanticises the rationality and tolerance of the Greek tradition and exaggerates Hypatia’s achievements, we saw clearly the parallels he was drawing between that ancient clash between rationality and dogma, as well as tolerance and intolerance, and our own times. More specifically, the Egypt he portrays is eerily familiar – what with its huge socio-economic inequalities, an elite far removed from the populace, foreign meddling from a distant great power that often makes matters worse, and religious puritans and fundamentalists taking care of the neglected and hungry populace in return for their blind obedience.

Both Azazeel and Agora are timely works of art because, by contrasting past and present tragedies, they may help us understand our times better and realise the possible consequences of our actions. Egyptian Copts are justifiably nervous about their worsening status on the back of the rising wave of Islamic fundamentalism but dialogue, not stifling freedom of expression, is the answer.

As Brian Whitaker has observed, Egyptian law and how it is interpreted is giving fanatics increasingly free rein. In order to avoid the abuse of Egyptian law by the government and religious reactionaries to shutdown debate and silence dissent, Egyptians need to band together to change Egypt’s antiquated laws and protect freedom of expression for all.

This article appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 12 May 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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