Al-Aqsa: Spiritual battleground

 
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By Khaled Diab

For Muslims and Jews to share peacefully and justly the Holy Sanctuary/Temple Mount requires the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 25 September 2015

The growing familiarity of clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters inside the al-Aqsa Mosque has not weakened their impact on my Palestinian neighbours and friends in Jerusalem.

The picturesque, stone-lined alleyways of an already tense Old City are seething with anger and frustration, punctuated by Israeli surveillance helicopters that hang in the air. Even unreligious Palestinians who have never set foot inside churches or mosques are furious. They partly envisage their wider demise encapsulated by the struggle over the Noble Sanctuary, as they call it, or the Temple Mount, as it is known to Jews.

“We call on the international community, including Arab countries and Muslim states, to intervene immediately before Israel succeeds in launching a global holy war,” urged Hanan Ashrawi, the veteran Palestinian politician, activist and academic.

Though this largely secular conflict is far from being a “holy war”, as I have argued before, if Israel continues down its unilateral path on this issue, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The religious symbolism of the tensions around the holy site have sent tremors and shockwaves across the region and internationally. The clashes in the Noble Sanctuary, as it is known to Muslims, and the Temple Mount, as Jews refer to it, provoked a stern warning from neighbouring Jordan, with which Israel has a peace accord. “Anymore provocations in Jerusalem will affect the relationship between Jordan and Israel,” warned King Abdullah. “Jordan will have no choice but to take action, unfortunately.”

The European Union and the United States also expressed their concerns about the escalating situation. “It is crucial that all parties demonstrate calm and restraint and full respect for the status quo of the holy sites,” European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic told reporters.

The “status quo” in question is one that has governed the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount since Israel conquered Jerusalem in 1967, whereby the Islamic Waqf and Jordan manage the site and control access to it, with limited non-Muslim visits permitted but worship banned.

But it is apprehension that the Israeli right intends to tear up this status quo that has fuelled the latest clashes – just as they did last year. Back then, Jordan recalled its ambassador to Israel and threatened to review its peace treaty with Israel following a Knesset debate, sponsored by the far-right parliamentarian Moshe Feiglin, on whether or not Israel should seize sovereignty of the holy site and allow Jewish worship there.

“Israelis are trying to establish a precedent by dividing [the Holy Sanctuary] into sections and time segments, so they can give Israeli settlers access to our mosque,” said Abdel-Aziz Abasi, who is a member of Mourabitoun, a group of Palestinian activists, which Israel recently banned, who see their role as guarding the compound against Jewish encroachment. “We will never agree to such a plan.”

Although relatively few Israelis actually visit the Temple Mount and have traditionally been content with the status quo, Religious Zionists and Jewish extremists have managed to make headway in recent years by framing the issue as one of religious freedom at Judaism’s holiest site.

Even the lunatic fringe, such as Yehuda Glick, who fantasises about constructing the Third Temple, is pursuing the civil liberties path. Appropriating language from the South African civil rights movement, Glick said at a demonstration during Ramadan: “We’re here to protest against the apartheid on the Temple Mount.”

But what the religious freedom argument airbrushes out is that this issue is about far more than the right to worship, especially in a situation where Israel regularly restricts Palestinian entry to al-Aqsa.

You could also say that the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount is simply a spiritual microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at large.

This jewel in the crown of Jerusalem’s old city, with its gold-plated Dome of the Rock dominating the skyline, contains many of the elements perpetuating the conflict, writ spiritual: control of and sovereignty over the land, asymmetric power, national identity, the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, movement restrictions, draconian laws, not to mention the status of Jerusalem.

Personally, I’m in favour of Jews, one day, worshipping on their religion’s most sacred, hallowed ground. And my view, though controversial today, is not unprecedented in the history of Islam. Following the surrender of Jerusalem to the Arab armies, Omar Ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph, allowed Jews, who had been expelled by the Byzantines, back into Jerusalem.

Omar ordered the cleaning of the Temple Mount, which had been used as a rubbish tip by the Byzantines, and, some historians posit, permitted Jews to worship there, a practice which continued for a century, into the Umayyad era.

One Jewish convert to Islam, Rabbi Kaab al-Ahbar, even located the foundation stone for the Muslim conquerors. It is even possible that Omar allowed the Jews to construct a synagogue on the mount and appointed a Jew as the first governor of Jerusalem, according to the 7th century Armenian historian Sebeos.

In the presumably enlightened 21st century, it should be possible for Muslims and Jews to share this holy site, which has no shortage of space, and rediscover the many long centuries of relatively peaceful coexistence they enjoyed. Perhaps, one day, in a possible future, Jews and Muslims will be able to share the Noble Sanctuary’s tranquil and soothing esplanade, which takes up about a sixth of the old city’s surface area, and where families picnic and children play football.

However, for that to happen requires the resolution of the underlying conflict. Without peace, it is impossible to think that Palestinians and Israelis will find the necessary good will and trust to compromise over this holiest of locations.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 16 September 2015.

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The ghost of conflicts past, present and future

 
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By Khaled Diab

With all the wars and conflicts raging in the Middle East, collective trauma carries very serious consequences for the region.

Thursday 3 September 2015

It is well-known that traumatic experiences leave lifelong emotional and psychological scars in their wake. Some scientists even suggest that trauma causes genetic changes in the victim. A contentious new study goes so far as to imply that these genetic mutations can be passed down from one generation to the next, making trauma hereditary.

The researchers focused on 32 Holocaust survivors and their offspring, finding evidence of the “epigenetic inheritance” of stress. “The gene changes in the children could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents,” said Rachel Yehuda, who led the study.

While some scientists have applauded the research, others have greeted it with scepticism. “The very idea of transmitting trauma makes little sense,” writes Frank Fureidi, a sociologist and author. “People either directly experience trauma or they don’t.”

Even if genetic change is hereditary, this is largely irrelevant, Fureidi argues, because people are far more than their genes. “Identity formation is a cultural accomplishment,” he observes.

Whether or not severe trauma is genetically transmitted is a fascinating scientific question, but an issue which affects the individuals in question. However, what seems clear is that collective trauma is transmitted culturally and profoundly affects a society’s cultural and social DNA.

Nearly seven decades on, the Holocaust still casts a long shadow over the Jewish and Israeli collective psyche and its trauma is scorched deep into Israel’s national identity – even if its memory is abused by one side for political gain and downplayed by the other due to political pain.

In the early years, the Holocaust was a cause of direct and profound trauma and grief for the survivors of the death camps and those who came into contact with them, but it was also a taboo subject enveloped in silence. As the survivors gradually die out, their place is being taken by the ghost of traumas past, i.e. memory.

This historical trauma is behind what you might call Israel’s power dysmorphia: despite possessing the most powerful army in the region, many Israelis do genuinely believe that they are the weaker party and the victims.

Meanwhile, Israel’s victims, the Palestinians, have their own historical trauma to contend with, that of the Nakba (“Catastrophe”), the Arab defeat in 1948 and the creation of the new state of Israel, not to mention the British and Ottoman imperialism which preceded it. As most Palestinians at the time were farmers, the land assumed romantic proportions. “As the women walked back with the oranges, the sound of their sobs reached us,” wrote the celebrated Palestinian writer and activist Ghassan Kanafani in his classic 1958 collection of short stories, Land of the Sad Oranges. “Only then did oranges seem to me something dear.”

And as that land has shrunk, and defeat has pursued defeat, and exile begot further exile, the collective trauma has only been magnified with the years, especially in Gaza, where constant and repeated war and isolation have left most of the population shell-shocked and teetering on the edge of psychological collapse.

And like a phantom in the dark recesses, these historical and contemporary traumas are a significant psychological factor in the failure of efforts to resolve the conflict – as they are and have been elsewhere. For instance, a century after the systematic Ottoman mass killings of up to 1.5 million civilians brought the Armenian people close to extinction, the collective trauma is a defining feature of the modern Armenian identity. Moreover, Turko-Armenian relations are still poisoned by Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge, let alone apologise for, what the majority of non-Turkish historians regard as a genocide.

Sadly, in the Middle East, collective trauma is not just historical. The upheavals, wars and conflicts that have spread like wildfire over the past few years do not bode well for the future.

In Syria, like Iraq before it, the civil war has distressed the entire population and created a lost generation of children whose trauma is likely to shape their entire lives. Long-term effects include the potential of violent behaviour, hooliganism, drug abuse, depression and health problems. Severe trauma is also fertile ground for extremism because it answers the basic human need to “make sense of a very nonsensical situation”.

This nonsensical situation has even awakened dormant traumas and grievances and let the genie of Syria’s “hidden sectarianism” out of the bottle. Islamists have the trauma of Hafez al-Assad’s purge of the Muslim Brotherhood and the 1982 Hama massacre to fuel their rage.

Alawites, though the bulk of them are poor and are no great fans of the regime, have been manipulated by Bashar al-Assad, who exploits their memories of persecution in Ottoman times and the fact that Islamists consider them “infidels”, to lay down the lives of up to a third of their young men.

Trauma is also haunting Arab countries that are not experiencing civil war, but have gone through revolutions and counterrevolutions and anti-revolutions. This is the case in Egypt. “The shock and awareness of the pervasiveness of death and the cheapness of life… raises massive existential questions that not only throws the personal, but also the previously existing social order, upside down,” explains the University of Amsterdam’s Vivienne Matthies-Boon, who is studying the effects of trauma on 18-35-year-old Egyptian activists of all political stripes.

“Revenge was a big issue for all sides,” she adds ominously. “But trauma-induced revenge also leads to more trauma.”

Matthies-Boon has found that those who were best able to avoid (self-)destructive behaviour where the ones with an artistic outlet or a strong faith system. But, worryingly, Egyptians who have been through such traumatic experiences receive little support and many are, Matthies-Boon discovered, reluctant to talk about their trauma, which is an essential part of coming to terms with it.

What the long-term consequences of millions of traumatised people will be for the region is impossible to gauge. But handled inadequately, it could take generations to overcome and could also create untold intractable situations and conflicts.

We need desperately to find ways not only to treat the millions of individual cases but also to formulate effective approaches to tackle collective trauma, with its memory- and emotion-distorting outcomes.

The future Middle East should remember. But it must build a memory based on fact and reality, to ensure this sorry state doesn’t occur again, not on national, sectarian and factional myths. While forgetting is not a wise game, forgiving past pain for future gain is essential if fruitful coexistence and a modicum of trust between the region’s diverse peoples is ever to be restored.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 27 August 2015.

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Hagia Sophia: A symbolic bridge or wedge?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Hagia Sophia must not become a mosque. If its status must change, it should become a space of tolerance, where both Christian and Muslim worship.

The Hagia Sophia when it was a mosque.

The Hagia Sophia when it was a mosque.

Tuesday 16 June 2015

In breath-taking Istanbul, it is perhaps one of the most stunning spots of all: standing sandwiched between the sublime Hagia Sophia and the magnificent Sultanahmet (Blue) mosque which face each other like the intimidatingly gorgeous finalists at a beauty pageant.

Reputed to have been built by Sultan Ahmet I in part to show that the Ottomans could match, and even surpass, the grandeur of the Byzantine splendour of Hagia Sophia, the two majestic edifices show how these two closely related rival religions can sometimes push each other to loftier levels of excellence.

But this rivalry can also plunge to levels of supreme pettiness. Take the hundreds of protesters who recently took part in a rally to demand that the Hagia Sophia museum be converted into a mosque – the latest step in a sustained campaign which has pitted Turkey’s Islamists against its secularists.

The Mufti of Ankara, Mefail Hızlı, believes that Pope Francis’s decision to recognise the mass killing of Armenians during World War I as “the first genocide of the 20th century” would “accelerate the process for Hagia Sophia to be re-opened for [Muslim] worship”.

Though the Pope’s statement reflects the general consensus of non-Turkish historians, the Mufti’s remarks betray a profound confusion about Christian history and ideology, such as the famous East-West schism. After all, Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is the pope of the Catholic church, while the Hagia Sophia served for nearly a millennium as the spiritual heart of Greek Orthodoxy.

This is yet another telling example of how Eastern Christians have been caught uncomfortably in the middle of the centuries-old rivalry between Western Christianity and Islam. This was most spectacularly illustrated when the Fourth Crusade rampaged through Constantinople (now Istanbul), in what has been described as “one of the most profitable and disgraceful sacks of a city in history”.

And the confusion does not stop with Christianity. Those calling for the one-time Orthodox basilica to be re-converted into a mosque seem to misunderstand Islamic theology too. The Quran clearly demands the protection of churches, synagogues and other places of monotheistic worship.

In a similar spirit, the prophet Muhammad sealed numerous covenants with Christian and Jewish communities, including the monks of Mount Sinai, which protected their freedoms and their holy places.

This concept was eloquently expressed at another magnificent church in another sacred city. The second caliph, Umar Ibn al-Khattab, showed considerable foresight when accepting the surrender of Jerusalem after a bloodless siege. When invited by Patriarch Sophronius to pray with him in the Holy Sepulchre, Umar reportedly refused out of fear that “Muslims of a future age would have infringed the treaty under colour of imitating my example.”

Umar’s attempt to avoid this outcome by praying in an open space nearby did not completely avoid this fate. And true to his expectation, a few centuries later, the Ayyubids built a mosque where Umar had prayed, a short distance away from Christianity’s holiest church.

Despite these clear injunctions and precedents, there is, unfortunately, a long history of important churches being converted into mosques. These include the Umayyad mosque in Damascus – which had previously served as an Aramaean and Roman temple, before it became a Christian cathedral – and the Hagia Sophia itself, which Sultan Mehmet II insisted should become a mosque upon his bloody conquest of Constantinople.

And it is to the five centuries during which the Ayasofya served as a mosque until Ataturk converted it into a museum that Islamist nostalgists wish to return . But in addition to conflicting with the spirit of the faith they claim to follow, this has dangerous symbolic consequences for the future.

If modern Turkey which has a reputation for secular tolerance and a tradition of moderate Islam converts this enormously significant monument into a mosque, what signal is this sending out to jihadists and other radicals?

At a time when Christians in the Middle East need the support and solidarity of their mainstream Muslim compatriots, this would constitute a slap in the face and may further embattle their increasingly precarious and vulnerable position.

At a time when Islamophobia is on the rise in Europe, a highly symbolic move like this can be exploited by anti-Muslims to further stigmatise and marginalise European Muslims, including three million people of Turkish origin in Germany alone.

In these troubled times, it would be best for Turkey to take a leaf out of the annals of Islamic tolerance rather than its chapters of intolerance, and fulfil its longstanding potential as a bridge between “East” and “West”, between “Islam” and “Christendom”.

Personally, I prefer the idea that the Hagia Sophia should remain in its current form, a museum where all of humanity – be they people of faith or not – can come together and admire the beauty of human creativity and dedication.

However, if it must again become a place of worship, then this magnificent space should reflect its long history as both a church and a mosque. If Muslims and Christians both worship in this single space, it would send out a powerful message of coexistence at a time when the forces of intolerance are mounting a major assault on our common humanity.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 7 June 2015.

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War and peace in the Middle East and Europe

 
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Europe’s history of total war and mass displacement can help create more sympathy for today’s refugees and keep hope alive in the Middle East.

Like today's refugees, Belgians fleeing World War I often took to the sea in overcrowded boats.

Like today’s refugees, Belgians fleeing World War I often took to the sea in overcrowded boats.

Tuesday 28 April 2015

Some 800 refugees lost their lives in the Mediterranean sea last week. While this has prompted calls for the European Union to do more to deal with the refugee crisis created by the current turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, voices on the far-right have demanded that Europe do less.

Among them was Katie Hopkins, a popular columnist with UK tabloid The Sun, who has over half-a-million followers on Twitter. Shortly before the latest tragedy, she wrote a column in which she described these migrants as “cockroaches” and “feral humans,” suggesting outrageously: “What we need are gunships sending these boats back to their own country.”

On social media, the reactions were even more shocking and disgraceful. Supporters of the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom), or PVV, founded by the anti-immigrant firebrand Geert Wilders, expressed stomach-churning euphoria and ecstasy at the tragedy.

“600 fewer benefits,” one rejoiced.

“Good so. The more who drown, the fewer the problems,” another volunteered.

“Now the seabed is even more polluted,” joked yet another.

Judging by this small sample of comments, what has actually hit rock bottom are the moral compasses of many Dutch people and Europeans

Despite the clear racism of these comments, the European anti-immigrant right wing in general also taps into deep-seated public anxiety towards the violent upheavals and conflicts taking place in the Middle East, which many fear refugees might bring with them.

For some on the far-right, “refugees” and “asylum seekers” have become dirty words, terms of abuse and subjects of hate. While right-wing nationalists may claim to be defending their heritage and tradition, in their attitudes to refugees they are actually betraying it.

Europeans weren’t always so hostile towards those fleeing war and conflict. During World War I, the Netherlands welcomed so many refugees that the Germans saw it necessary to construct a 200-kilometre-long fence along the Belgian-Dutch border in an effort to curb the influx of Belgians pouring from the German occupation into neutral Holland.

The Wire of Death's deadly innovation claimed hundreds of Belgian victims. Source: http://www.dodendraad.org/index.php/wire-of-death

The Wire of Death’s deadly innovation claimed hundreds of Belgian victims.
Source: http://www.dodendraad.org/index.php/wire-of-death

Known as the Wire of Death, it was the world’s first-ever high-voltage electric barrier. Built at a time when Europeans were largely unaware of electricity and its attendant dangers, the fence claimed hundreds of victims who were unaware of how deadly it was or were desperate enough to risk death to cross the border.

In order to shorten the barrier’s distance, German engineers took shortcuts that left large swathes of Belgian territory stuck in the no-man’s land behind the fence. Like in the contemporary West Bank, this meant that a large number of farmers could not reach their land and many families and friends were forced to live in enforced separation. Using a system that would be familiar to modern-day Palestinians, the Germans only allowed those with hard-to-obtain passes, which excluded men aged 16 to 45, to cross the barrier.

This is a far cry from the current situation, where the Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherland and Luxembourg) are tightly integrated and even acted as a precursor and “experimental garden” for the EU. The Middle East, especially the former Ottoman Empire, has gone in the other direction. While the Levant was once largely a borderless economic and cultural area, with many mixed marriages and friendships, today many of its borders are tightly sealed, especially Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon.

Many generations on, the vast majority of Belgians, including my wife and myself, are unaware that such a deadly barrier ever existed and almost no physical signs remain. In fact, I still remember clearly the first time I “crossed” between Belgium and Holland and my wife (girlfriend, at the time) challenged me to identify the border. As the two countries flow so seamlessly into each other, I failed.

It was not just the Dutch who gave refuge to their unfortunate Belgian neighbours. Even though Britain is famed for its oft-isolationist island mentality, it was, during World War I, home to a quarter of a million Belgian refugees, many of whom were housed in purpose-built villages.

Unlike today’s image of asylum seekers as being spongers and cheats, these refugees were regarded as heroic and people wanted to help the “plucky Belgians.” It would be welcome if, instead of shirking its responsibilities, Europe rediscovered this spirit and took in more refugees today.

To understand the fundamental shift in attitudes over the ensuing decades, one needs to delve into the nature of contemporary (Western) Europe. It’s not just a matter of selfishness and ill-will but also a question of profound misunderstanding.

It is said that the past is a foreign country, and the Europe of war and near-annihilation has become just that – a distant memory which only the oldest of Europeans has partly experienced first-hand. When viewed from the peaceful, still-largely prosperous and borderless European Union, the madness and mayhem in the Middle East and Africa seems inexplicable and barbaric, and this makes it far easier to blame the victims for the situation they find themselves in.

But the Europe of the First and Second World Wars resembled the contemporary Middle East to a frightening degree – except Europe was deadlier still.

While an estimated 3 million Syrians have fled the war that’s ravaging their country, the situation is not unprecedented. A century ago, there were over 10 million refugees in Europe, while World War II resulted in tens of millions of displaced people.

A century ago, Belgium, like Syria today, was a devastated nation of refugees and internally displaced people. Some 1.5 million Belgians fled to neighboring countries, and possibly as many again sought refuge from the fighting in other parts of the country. And this was in a country of just over 7.5 million inhabitants.

To Europeans, another inexplicable aspect of the contemporary Middle East is the horrendous levels of mindless killing and blood-letting, which leaves the impression that our region has a unique bloodlust.

Though comparative carnage is a rather macabre undertaking, it is nonetheless a useful exercise to highlight, both to Europeans and Middle Easterners, that the current situation is not unique and, hence, can eventually be overcome.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest clashes in human history.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest clashes in human history.

While the carnage and destruction in Syria and the wider region today is horrendous and troubling, it pales in comparison with the butchery that took place on the Western Front, where the average trench soldier held onto life for just six weeks. The Battle of the Somme alone claimed over a million dead and wounded.

Despite the tens of millions of Europeans who perished in the two world wars, Europe was able to turn over a new leaf in its history and herald in an extraordinary era of peace and coexistence.

It is inevitable that the fire engulfing our region will eventually die down. I only hope that it happens sooner than it did in Europe, and that, out of the rubble of conflict, we draw similar lessons to those of the architects of the European Union, and construct a frontierless Middle Eastern Union.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 23 April 2015.

 

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Mosul’s lost diversity

 
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By Thurayya Ibrahim*

The Islamic State’s (ISIS) destruction of Mosul’s ethnic diversity is more heart-breaking than the erasure of its architectural and cultural heritage.

Tuesday 2 December 2014

Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul

Coexistence and multiculturalism. These two terms are often used to describe London, as well as much of the Western world, as though this is an exclusive privilege that can only be found in these areas of the globe. But that is not entirely accurate. I knew the daily reality of living both concepts, as did my parents, grandparents and their ancestors. Iraq, and especially Mosul, embraced people of all backgrounds and ethnicities. In fact, the Iraqi nation is in itself a mixture of various groups.

Iraq’s population is predominantly Muslim, both Shia and Sunni, and the majority are Arab, although there is a sizeable Kurdish minority of about 6 million. Christians, including Assyrians, Chaldean Catholics and Armenians, numbered as much as 1.5 million before the 2003 US invasion, but today the population has dwindled to as few as 450,000. In addition, there are also the following minorities: Turkmen (approximately 2 million), Shabak (up to half a million), as well as a small number of Circassians, not to mention the Yazidis, Mandaean-Sabeans, Baha’is, Kaka’is (also called Ahl-e Haqq and Yarsan),  and the handful of Jews who remain as a reminder of what was once the longest continuous Jewish presence in the world. Moreover, there are approximately 1.5 to 2 million black Iraqis, 100,000 Bedouins, as well as Marsh Arabs, Palestinian refugees, most of whom were born in the country,  and Roma (Dom or Ghagar).

This was the beauty of Iraq, the cradle of civilisation. In addition to the major contributions Mesopotamia made to the world in science, medicine, literature, art and music,  it also introduced the idea of living with others regardless of their background, ethnicity and faith.

This was the world I first opened my eyes to witness. My nanny was Kurdish (my favourite person at the time), I attended a Christian school that had its own church which I often visited with my classmates, while my best friend was Christian and, to this day, we are still very close. The teachers were Muslim, Christian, Kurdish and Yazidi, and all of them were equally respected and liked. I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house, where the neighbours were mostly Armenians, and we would often visit each other and exchange gifts of food.  Never did any of us question each other’s faith or background nor did we ever think that we were superior to one another.  In fact I only discovered the words ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shi’a’ when I came to live in the UK, when people started asking me to which sect I belonged. Maybe my ignorance of the matter is not something I should boast about but it symbolises a simple concept that has plagued Iraq for more than a decade, sectarianism or division among one nation is an imported one.

That was the Mosul I knew and loved: a city that was like an umbrella that protected and embraced everyone. Today, to see the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) destroy one of the most important and fundamental elements of Mosul, its ethnic make-up, is more heart-breaking, for me, than seeing the erasure of the city’s architectural and cultural heritage.

When ISIS took control of Mosul, it carried out a large-scale campaign of ethnic cleansing and murder. Its fighters ordered Christians, Yazidis, Shabak, Turkomen, Shia, and basically anyone who did not convert to Islam or who was not a Sunni to leave their houses and the city that is their home. Many of those banished were also robbed on the way out of Mosul, escaping with only the clothes on their backs.

Certain things can be forgotten or restored but how can all the people that were forced out ever feel safe again when (and if) they return? Will they be able to resume their previous lives? Can trust between people be restored after the division that was created by ISIS. Ironically, foreign fighters who shared nothing with the people of Mosul took it upon themselves to divide a population that had for centuries lived side by side.  One middle-aged lady informed me how when she phoned her Christian co-workers in Irbil to ask of their well-being, she was met with verbal abuse and accusations of being an ISIS sympathiser, along with all Muslims. The lady was very upset and put down the phone in tears at how a relationship that had lasted more than 20 years could be destroyed in months.

A natural question which forces itself and many are asking is why the people of Mosul have allowed foreign fighters to dictate life in their city in this way? How can they stand by while their neighbours, friends and colleagues are persecuted and expelled from their own homes?

The answer is simple: fear of ISIS.  One middle-aged man, a very respected lawyer, objected to the expulsion of his Christian neighbours and confronted ISIS, only to be arrested for obstructing the ‘law’. A few days later, he was found dead.  It is also important to remember that many people had fled Mosul as soon as ISIS entered, some got stranded in tents while others struggled to cope financially, whether in Turkey, Jordan or Iraqi Kurdistan (before the Kurdish authority closed all its borders). The people who have opted to stay behind know that they are trapped and must adhere to ISIS rules in order to survive and ensure the safety of their own families.

Contrary to reports by the mainstream media, ISIS’s brutality is not reserved just for ethnic minorities but it extends to anyone who does not follow their draconian rules and guidelines, and to people who have worked with the central Iraqi government, including soldiers, police and local politicians. Just as Christians, Shabaks and Shia had a letter painted on their houses to indicate their affiliation, in a bid to ‘legitimise’ the act of taking ownership of the properties and adding them to the treasury of the Islamic State, the same thing was done to the homes of policemen, soldiers and political figures. The key difference was that these officials were not given the chance to leave as they were instantly imprisoned, tortured or killed. For instance, a female doctor and University of Mosul lecturer, Zeina Al E’nizi, who happened to be a parliamentary candidate in 2014, was executed on Friday 5 September.  Another female candidate fled to another town in fear of being assassinated but ISIS fighters soon caught her and she was summarily executed. Even Mosul’s governor, Atheel Alnujaifi could not escape ISIS acts completely, despite fleeing, along with his family, to Iraqi Kurdistan the minute ISIS fighters entered Mosul. In his absence, all his assets, houses, horses and stable were taken and his father’s house was burnt down. Not many people sympathised with Alnujaifi’s loss, as he had lost the trust and respect of Mouslawis the minute he deserted them at the first sign of trouble, to face ISIS alone, without a leader.

ISIS’s invasion of Mosul not only changed the ethnic make-up of the town but caused a near-earthquake in its social structure. People who had the financial means or relatives and family outside Mosul left, as did many university lecturers, teachers and other professionals who sought jobs in other parts of Iraq.

There is a new shift in power as ISIS started recruiting people to their ranks offering a monthly salary of $5,000 to $10,000, plus accommodation (presumably one of the houses that ISIS took from the original owner) and a guaranteed wife, locals who saw the recruitment leaflets say. Suddenly, people who were imprisoned, criminals and thugs at the bottom of the social hierarchy, gained power they had never experienced before in return for growing their hair and beard, dressing as jihadists and declaring themselves ISIS fighters.

Whether ISIS leaves or not, and when, is not so much the issue. The real question is: can Mosul reclaim its identity? Will everyone return to their homes? Can people relearn to trust one another and live together? ISIS originally came to Mosul as foreign fighters. However, after months there, that is no longer the case, and many locals were lured by the incentives that are offered or brainwashed by a political ideology which I fail to understand. Mosul is not fighting a ‘foreign’ invasion anymore but its own people’s greed and division. Mosul is battling to survive one of the most difficult times in its modern history and to save its identity and people.

 Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul

For more information about Iraq’s population, see the report by the Institute for International Lay and Human Rights entitled Iraq’s Minorities and Other Vulnerable Groups:Legal Framework, Documentation, and Human Rights.

_____

*The author’s name is a pseudonym.

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Intimate enemies, future friends

 
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By Khaled Diab

As I cycle amid the growing cycle of violence, I believe peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians is plausible and possible. 

Friday 21 November 2014

I prefer to do the school run by bicycle. While this is unremarkable in any bike-friendly European city, here in Jerusalem it is a different matter, and not just because of the manic traffic and steep inclines.

As the situation in the Holy City speeds along the fast lane downhill, taking the slippery slope towards the abyss, when my son is with me, I too am slowly beginning to succumb to the mass fear gripping both Arabs and Jews. What will happen if Israeli extremists overhear us speaking Arabic to each other? What if Palestinian extremists mistake us, a darkish man with a blond son, for Jews?

This week’s deadly and reprehensible attack against defenceless worshippers at a Jerusalem synagogue, alongside the ongoing attacks against Palestinians by settlers and ultra-nationalists has further reduced the sense of safety and any residual mutual trust in this bitterly divided city. Incitements by extremist elements in the Israeli government and Hamas are stoking the fire further.

Since the summer of hate erupted, many Palestinian Jerusalemites I know no longer venture into West Jerusalem and some who worked for Israeli companies have quit their jobs or are considering it. Similarly, even many of the Israeli Jerusalemites who used to go to the Arab neighbouhoods of East Jerusalem have stopped doing so.

As the situation continues on its collision course, it is hard to imagine that people in this fractured city once lived differently – at a time when there were no walls and fewer psychological barriers.

But older people recall a time – before Oslo and the first intifada – when Jews and Arabs visited each other’s neighbourhoods unselfconsciously and even the West Bank and Gaza were open, with two-way traffic. Difficult as it is to conceive today, both Palestinians and Israelis used to head to Gaza to enjoy its cuisine, beaches and cheap shopping.

Go even further back, and the very oldest Jerusalemites recall a time when Arabs and Jews lived side by side, when the different religious communities shared in one another’s festivities, and all enjoyed the magic of the Egyptian silver screen during its reputed golden age at the local cinema, as my 92-year-old Palestinian neighbour is fond of reminiscing.

And that is not all. Despite their bitter political differences, Israelis and Palestinians are, I have found after living among them for some three years, more alike than they like to admit or are aware.

Two Jerusalemites embody this symmetry in a symbolic, even poetic fashion. The late Palestinian-American academic, musician and activist Edward Said and Israeli novelist and activist Amos Oz shared, unbeknownst to each other, the peculiar fantasy of metamorphosing into a book “whose fate I took to be happily free of unwelcome changes”, imagined Said, and who “would have a better chance of survival”, in Oz’s words.

But the similarities and parallels aren’t confined to the imaginary sphere, they also occupy the real world.

Palestinians and Israelis share a similar Mediterranean outlook, characterised, among other things, by the central importance of family, child-friendliness and the casual attitude to regulations, from smoking to driving. In culinary terms, this is reflected in the Israeli love of hummus and the Palestinian infatuation with schnitzels.

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.  Order here

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.
Order here 

Collectively, both societies are highly traumatised. Israelis live with the memory of the Holocaust and the almost wholesale disappearance of Jewish communities in much of Europe and the Middle East, while Palestinians live under the shadow of the Nakba, the loss of Palestine and the ongoing occupation.

Politically too, the two societies have seen an almost symmetrical swing from leftist, secular nationalism towards right-wing, religiously flavoured populism.

All these commonalities, and the fact that the differences within each society is greater than the divergence between them, is why I call Israelis and Palestinians “intimate enemies” in my new book of the same title.

The book digs beyond the politics to unearth the people, the human reality obscured by the fog of war. In it, I also explore creative ways out of the quagmire, namely a civil rights struggle, what I call the non-state solution and the launching of a people’s peace process.

Impossible as it seems today, peace and coexistence are possible but getting there requires a radical rethinking of each side’s priorities, aspirations and narratives.

 

This article first appeared in Italian in Corriere della Sera on 20 November 2014. 

____

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land

By Khaled Diab

Published by Guardian Shorts, October 2014, http://guardianshorts.co.uk/intimate-enemies/

More info on Intimate Enemies: news, views and reviews

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Lost in confrontation in the Holy Land

 
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By Khaled Diab

As tensions mount, it’s hard to believe that Israelis and Palestinians share a lot in common – even the dreams of their great writers.

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.  Order here

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.
Order here 

Monday 10 November 2014

You could tell by the chaos and confusion in the aisles that it was a flight heading back to the Middle East. Passengers milled about noisily in search of space for their excess hand baggage or chatted animatedly by their seats, causing a significant delay as the perplexed cabin crew tried to gain order.

During take-off, an argument broke out between two passengers because one of them was using his mobile phone. Pretty soon, in classic Middle Eastern fashion, others were drawn into the altercation, each contributing their penny’s worth on whether or not phones should be switched off.

Despite the familiarity of the scene, this flight was not heading to my hometown of Cairo or any other Arab capital but was destined for Tel Aviv.

What this incident highlights is that the differences between Israelis and Arabs are more about politically coloured perceptions than they are about social or cultural realities, especially when it comes to Israel’s Palestinian and Levantine neighbours.

With so little contact between Arabs and Israelis, this will undoubtedly come as a surprise to people on both sides of the political and ideological chasm separating the two sides. But having lived in the Holy Land on and off since 2011, I would hazard to say that, in many crucial respects, Palestinians and Israelis have more in common with each other than they do with their kin further afield, say Gulf Arabs or Diaspora Jews.

That is one reason why I describe the protagonists in this decades-old conflict as “intimate enemies” in my new book: partly because of their close geographical and physical proximity but also because of their surprising social and cultural symmetry.

Confronted with a reality on the ground which conflicts with the simplistic prevalent political narratives, I wrote the book as a modest corrective to all the distrust, misapprehension and miscomprehensions in the air. I am also of the conviction that seeing the human faces behind the conflict is a vital prerequisite to the long process of organic, grassroots peace-building.

The manuscript was well-received by reviewers. One of my favourite responses I received was from the prominent Israeli historian and dissident Ilan Pappè. “I was deeply moved and impressed by the chapters,” he told me. “You are doing justice to their experience, complexities… and impossible reality.”

Palestinians and Israelis share a similar Mediterranean outlook, characterised, among other things, by the central importance of family, child-friendliness and the casual attitude to regulations, from smoking to driving, as if they are recommendations and not actual legislation, not to mention their almost innate distrust of authority. In culinary terms, this is reflected in the Israeli love of hummus and the Palestinian infatuation with schnitzels.

Even Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals share some surprising traits, such as when it comes to their daydreams. One intriguing example is the fantasy entertained by both the late Palestinian-American academic, musician and activist Edward Said and Israeli novelist and activist Amos Oz. “One of my recurrent fantasies… was to be a book, whose fate I took to be happily free of unwelcome changes,” Said wrote in his memoir, Out of Place.

Echoing this sentiment, Oz confessed to me in his study that, as a child, he wanted to “grow up and become a book… because, as a book, I would have a better chance of survival”.

This conflicts with the common Arab perception of Israel as being a slice of Europe transplanted into the region, not to mention the Israeli self-image of being a supposed stronghold of Western enlightenment in the Middle East.

When viewed dispassionately, these similarities, symmetries and parallels are hardly surprising. After all, Palestinians and Israelis have lived side by side for decades and so, even if they regard each other as enemies, they are bound to influence one another.

Add to this the fact that around half of Israel’s Jewish population is Mizrahi (Eastern), then Israel’s Middle Eastern flavour becomes more comprehensible.

Mizrahi, or “Arab Jews” as many were once known, like the Palestinians, also fell victim to the conflict between Zionist and Arab nationalism – so much so that few Arabs alive today realise that they once shared their societies with a dynamic and integrated Jewish minority.

“When you walked down Baghdad’s main street, Al Rashid, half the names on the shops and offices were Jewish,” Sasson Somekh, the accomplished Iraqi-Israeli poet and academic, who helped put the late Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz on the map of world literature, told me.

“We felt even more Arab than Arabs … We did not feel we belonged to a place but that the place belonged to us,” believes Baghdad-born Israeli author Sami Michael.

But in the unforgiving reality of the conflict having the words Arab and Jew in such overlapping and interwoven proximity was too close for comfort for enemies who sought to take the Arab out of the Jew and the Jew out of the Arab.

But it is not just Mizrahi Jews who find themselves trapped unenviably in the no-man’s-land of the conflict, the Palestinian citizens of Israel are also caught in the middle, with one foot on either side of the widening Israeli-Palestinian abyss.

Probably the most famous Palestinian with Israeli citizenship was the late Mahmoud Darwish, whose powerful verse earned him the title of Palestine’s national poet. One under-appreciated aspect is the enormous impact growing up in Israel had on Darwish’s identity, both negatively and positively.

This was reflected in his love of the Hebrew language, not to mention the passionate love affair he once had with an Israeli woman. And it is this ambiguity in a situation that does not generally tolerate it that makes Palestinians in Israel not just “fifth columnists” in the eyes of their Jewish compatriots but also distrusted among some of their Palestinian brethren.

Only last week, the Mufti of Nablus, Ahmed Shobashi, stirred up anger and calls for his resignation when he demanded that Palestinians in Israel be barred from entering the West Bank because of their “negative moral impact”.

This incident illustrates how the differences within Palestinian and Israeli societies are often greater than the disparities between them. This is reflected in the sharp and polarised secular-religious and right-left divides. In fact, with attention focused on the headline conflict, most overlook the brewing civil strife in both societies which manifests itself, for instance, in the increasing “price tag” attacks by settlers against peace activists and leftists or the bitter Hamas-Fatah schism. That is not to mention the conflicts between the haves and have-nots and those in favour of justice and equality, and those opposed to them.

Despite the significant amount of common social and cultural ground, politically Israelis and Palestinians have perhaps never seemed further apart. This summer turned into a heated season of hate and open warfare.

Even now with hostilities over in Gaza, the situation in the besieged enclave has not changed – except for the massive amounts of wanton destruction there. Meanwhile East Jerusalem and the West Bank witness daily protests and clashes, with al-Aqsa acting as a symbolic centre for the rising tensions.

With the worsening reality on the ground, people may be excused for believing that this conflict will just grind on forever. Although the situation is likely to get a lot worse before it gets better, I believe the status quo is untenable.

The most promising way out of the quagmire, in my view, is what I call the “non-state solution” in which talks of states and statehood are abandoned for the time being in favour of a civil rights struggle for full equality, emancipation and enfranchisement. Once this has been achieved, ordinary Palestinians and Israelis, long sidelined and ignored in efforts to resolve the conflict, can begin a people’s peace process in which everyone is involved in the quest for coexistence.

Although it may take generations, I am convinced that a new dawn of peace and justice will come, but this dawn will arrive in gradual glimmers and not in a blaze of blinding sunshine, as many hope or dream.

____

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land

By Khaled Diab

Published by Guardian Shorts, October 2014, http://guardianshorts.co.uk/intimate-enemies/

On Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Intimate-Enemies-Israelis-Palestinians-Guardian-ebook/dp/B00OXQJYUE/?tag=smarturl-gb-21

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 8 November 2014.

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Blood is thicker than war

 
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By Khaled Diab

The horrific murders of Israeli and Palestinian teens should drive home how violence is futile and burdens coming generations with future bloodshed.

Angry residents of Shuafat in East Jerusalem clash with Israeli police.  Photo: ©Ibrahin Husseini

Angry residents of Shuafat in East Jerusalem clash with Israeli police.
Photo: ©Ibrahin Husseini

Friday 4 July 2014

Death is in the air, hate is on the airwaves and there is an air of dread, with everyone expecting bad times ahead – the question being just how bad. And at the symbolic, emotive heart of the situation lie four teenagers, three Israelis and one Palestinian, though he is not the first die since this crisis erupted.

Ever since the abduction of three Israeli youth – Gilad Shaar (16), Naftali Fraenkel (16), and Eyal Yifrach (19) – underlying tensions have spilled over. But I will not go into them here. Suffice it to say that a volatile, unsustainable situation received a trigger which is tipping it over the precariously balanced status quo.

The genuine grief felt by Israelis for their compatriots and the solidarity they expressed for the boys’ families is understandable. The ripostes by many Palestinians that these were settlers on occupied territory, or, more crucially, that far more Palestinians suffer, including all those prisoners of conscience effectively kidnapped by the state, is missing the point.

Regardless of the right or wrong of the political situation they found themselves in, these were kids and, as a father, I can empathise with their families and sympathise with the grief their disappearance inflicted.

Moreover, it is generally accepted that just resistance does not target civilians – and these teens were clearly civilians. But targeting civilians, as well as collective punishment, is what Israel also does, in spades. In fact, the investigation into the kidnappings saw the mass arrest of Hamas members, not to mention some closures.

At a certain level, Israel’s collective grief and sense of joint anguish was admirable and even commendable, if there weren’t such an ugly underbelly: the mass hysteria and hatred this unleashed. While it is understandable that this kind of high-profile act should elicit fear, to listen to some Israelis speak, you might be excused for thinking that the kidnappings, tragic as they were, represented an existential threat to the entire nation.

Whereas the reality is that thousands upon thousands of Israelis live in close proximity to Palestinians and in safety. Take Sheikh Jarrah where I live. Even at the highest points of this crisis, I’ve seen the local hardcore settlers walking around the neighbourhood unprotected and unmolested.

Perhaps the most galling aspect of the whole tragic affair is the unseemly political opportunism of radicals on both sides. The Israeli government used the abductions to provide it with moral cover to crackdown on its arch-enemy Hamas, and even to sabotage the recently born Palestinian national unity government.

For its part, Hamas juggled with the elusive ingredients for having its cake and eating it. While denying any involvement in the kidnapping, it called the abductors “heroes” and criticised the PA for co-operating with Israel in the investigation. At the same time, embattled and broke, Hamas has been discreetly trying to lower tensions so as to avoid a confrontation with Israel, and has cracked down on radical militant groups to keep the peace. In fact, Israel and Hamas are enemies in words but quite often not in deeds.

After a hunt that lasted nearly three weeks, the bodies of the three Israeli teens were located. While the families dealt with their pain and grief, and many Israelis joined them in their mourning, a wave of hate has overtaken numerous segments of Israeli society.

Even otherwise sensible Israelis have succumbed to the atmosphere of rage. “Burning hate and no regard for lives can’t be countered with concerts,” one Israeli I know commented, as if Israel’s military had turned their guns into rock guitars. “It has to be countered with an iron fist and firm knowledge that murderous actions will have ramifications beyond their wild[est] imagination.”

Extremists angrily called for “revenge” and “death to Arabs” and numerous “price tag” hate crimes have been reported. That’s not to mention the deafening cries across the political spectrum, with the exception of Meretz, for military action against Hamas and the destruction of the movement.

I came face to face with this racist sentiment on West Jerusalem’s central Zion Square. A number of radical settler youth had set up a memorial for the dead teens but had fashioned the candles into the Hebrew for “Death to Arabs”, a bystander informed me. Being an Arab myself, but apparently not obviously one, it was rather surreal to be witnessing people demanding an end to my life simply because of an accident of birth.

It was also heartening to see bystanders not pass this kind of incitement by passively and a war of words broke out between opponents and supporters of, as the Cure would put it,  killing an Arab. One courageous middle-aged women who looked like an ageing hippy stepped into the fray and tried to re-arrange the offensive candle arrangement, only to be met with shouting and chants from the opposing side.

Around the corner from this hate fest was a rally, organised by Tag Meir (Light Tag), an organisation which combats price tagging, which paid tribute to the slain teens and to reject racism and hate crimes. I was pleased that so many from different backgrounds, though the crowd was largely young and middle-class, had come, but what were a few hundred doves to do against the deafening wails of the hawks. In addition, the opposition generally was to vigilantism, and was not targeted against violence perpetrated by the state, no matter how unlawful or counterproductive.

To date, these sentiments and efforts have done little to counteract “price tag” hate crimes, which the Israeli authorities have been reluctant or even unwilling to pursue, especially when targeted at Palestinians in the West Bank.

Hours after the bodies of Yifrach, Fraenkel and Shaar were found, another teen also vanished. But this time it was a Palestinian, 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir who was snatched on his way to dawn prayers from outside the family home, which is just 20 steps from the mosque.

When Abu Khdeir’s charred corpse was discovered in the Jerusalem Forest, Israelis who immediately leapt to blame Palestinians, and specifically Hamas, for the earlier abduction, suddenly changed their tone and started to caution against jumping to conclusions about the perpetrators, while Palestinians who had been taking a wait-and-see attitude pointed an immediate finger at the settlers.

The comforting embrace of conspiracy theories also took hold in numerous Israeli circles, as it had done beforehand with a significant number of Palestinians, with people desperately looking to blame everything, including making assumptions about the boy’s sexuality and how his family would react to it, but their own. Echoing earlier Israeli conspiracy theories regarding Muhammad al-Durrah, some Palestinians I have encountered are convinced that the death of the three Israeli teens was staged or was a black-flag op.

Anger at the murder, a recent chain of price tag attacks against Palestinians and the recent Israeli military crackdown, normally sleepy Shuafat erupted into a wave of rage unseen in the quiet suburb for many long years, with the whirring of helicopter blades, the echoing of sirens and the boom of police fire going on late into the night.

 

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

The morning after, I cycled down to the tranquil neighbourhood which we had called home for the better part of two years to the aftermath of rage. There was still a heavy police presence. They had cordoned off the main road and were only allowing locals in, but the police just let me slip by with baffled expressions directed to this figure on a bicycle with a child seat on the back.

The tram stop was destroyed, the glass shattered, the ticket machines burnt. Debris was strewn everywhere, most shops were shuttered, and a couple of buildings defiantly flew Palestinian flags which are banned in Jerusalem.

I dropped by to check on four-year-old’s spiritual “Tetah”, his surrogate grandmother in Jerusalem who was not only a neighbour but like family. The 92-year-old was very troubled by events and shaken. “I am afraid to open my door to strangers,” she told me. “We used to think that Shuafat was a shelter from all the troubles around us, but it seems nowhere is safe.”

She remenisced over better times: “We used to live next door to Jews in West Jerusalem. We used to socialise with each other, buy things from each other, visit each other’s homes. My father’s home was near the Jewish cemetry and I never once felt fear. But now I am frightened.”

It shocked me to discover that I know the father of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, but knew him as Abu al-Rae’d, the name of his oldest son. He is the electrical contractor who installed and maintains the electrical installations in our building. Mohammed, a quiet, reserved and hard-working boy has even been in our building and flat, helping his father and older brother out.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Abu al-Raed was standing in a startled daze outside his shop in Shuafat, amid the rubble of his grief and the wreckage of the previous night’s fury. The poor man didn’t have a moment’s rest the day before: hours of interrogation then a riot outside his front door till late into the night. After offering him my condolences, he told me in disbelief how Mohammed was abducted from outside the shop on his way to dawn prayers at the mosque, which is no more than 20 steps away.

I had so many questions I wanted to ask him, but decided to refrain out of respect for his grief and the immense pressure he has been under, including the constant buzzing of the media around him. After hearing what happened from a man in such clear anguish and pain, I find it hard to believe the alternative theories being circulated, though I hope the police will investigate this murder impartially, thoroughly and dedicate to it all the resources it merits so as to get to the truth.

The seating area for the funeral has already been set up and I was invited to join the mourners. Abu al-Rae’d told me that he hoped Mohammed’s body would be released today so that they can bury him. RIP Mohammed and may your family too find peace amid their grief.

The street in front of the Abu Khdeir’s building was seemingly the focal point of the clashes, with the greatest destruction around it: make-shift barricades, smoking rubbish skips, etc. I found this to be quite insensitive towards the grieving family who have enough on their plate, not to have to deal with violence on their doorstep.

Moreover, the rioting seems to go against the bereaved family’s wishes. Not just that, the father, Hussein Abu Khdeir, has called for calm and a stop to senseless violence. Having tasted the pain of such unnecessary loss of someone so young with his life ahead of him, Abu Khdeir does not wish such a fate even upon his people’s enemy.

“I am against kidnapping and killing. Whether Jew or Arab, who can accept the kidnapping and killing of his son or daughter?” he said. “I call on both sides to stop the bloodshed.”

Rachel Fraenkel, the mother of one of the murdered Israeli teens, shared Abu Khdeir’s parental sentiments. “If a young Arab really was murdered for nationalist reasons, this is a horrifying and shocking act,” she wrote immediately upon learning the news.

In a clear sign that she did not wish to see any self-appointed avengers take it as their mission to avenge her son’s death, she Fraenkel: “There is no difference between blood and blood. Murder is murder. There is no justification and no atonement for murder.”

The noble and human sentiments expressed by these sorrow-stricken parents points to a better path ahead: the full rejection of violence – whether carried out by the Israeli army, Palestinian militants, as well as Arab or Jewish terrorists – and its immediate and unconditional condemnation, especially when committed by one’s own side.

Objections will immediately be raised on both sides, especially among Israelis who seem to think that state violence is somehow more justified than its non-state counterpart, even though the damage military action inflicts is far greater and it hurts and kills more civilians. But as many Palestinians have (re)discovered, especially after the bloodiness of the Second Intifada, non-violence is far more effective – and subversive.

Nevertheless, the mentality persists on both sides, fuelled by each side’s particular history of trauma, weakness and oppression, that acting tough through armed struggle can somehow resolve this conflict. But the evidence is against them.

Although I am a pacifist, I am not naïve. I know there are times and places where violence is unavoidable. However, Israel-Palestine, today, is not one of these times or locations.

Over the past century, the two sides have thrown everything they have at each other, but neither has prevailed. Palestinians and Israelis, each in their own way, are formidable adversaries who will not be broken, and so violence is futile.

In short, force of arms cannot solve what is a political, social, class and religious conflict. The peaceful hand of unarmed resistance and arm-in-arm coexistence is the only way.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

An updated version of this article appeared in The Huffington Post on 8 July 2014.

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The power of Palestinian literature to write wrongs

 
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The power of Palestinian literature lies in its ability to make a word of difference, gradually shifting perceptions and, through them, reality.

Palfest

Wednesday 11 June 2014

The annual Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest), which took place last week, was held in five different cities: Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nablus and Haifa. Into its seventh edition, this year’s PalFest, despite being run on a shoestring, attracted prominent Palestinian, Arab, European, American, Asian and African names.

PalFest has managed to skirt around the movement restrictions imposed by the Israeli military to field a diverse programme including readings, theatrical performances, music, panel discussions and workshops.

The festival’s slogan is “the power of culture over the culture of power”. This echoes the ancient adage “The pen is mightier than the sword,” which has been recycled in various forms since at least the Assyrian sage Ahiqar in the 7th century BC.

But in a world where the sword – or more accurately the gun, the missile and the jet fighter – so often silences the word, it is easy to view literature’s power to write wrongs with scepticism and, hence, regard it as a preoccupation people living under occupation can ill afford.

Even the late Mahmoud Darwish, widely regarded as Palestine’s national poet and one of the main architects of modern Palestinian consciousness, was not immune to such doubts. “I thought poetry could change everything, could change history and could humanise,” he said in a 2002 interview. “But now I think that poetry changes only the poet.”

Despite these misgivings, the culture of power does sometimes feel insecure in the face of the power of culture.

Although Israel, alongside Lebanon, probably has the freest literary scene in the Middle East, this freedom often does not extend to the Palestinians. This was on ample display during the second edition of PalFest in 2009, when Israeli police tried to stop the Jerusalem leg of the festival from taking place, prompting the French Cultural Centre and British Council to step in to save the day.

This demonstrates that the pen can sometimes intimidate the sword.

In my view, the power of literature lies in its ability to make a word, rather than a world, of difference. It doesn’t cause dramatic, immediate change in the real world, but it can gradually shift perceptions and consciousness and, through them, reality.

Literature can and does play a number of vital roles in the context of the Palestinian struggle. For instance, whether in the form of fiction or non-fiction, it is a peaceful means of resisting Israel’s military machine, both by boosting morale and highlighting the plight of Palestinians.

Traditionally, Palestinian literature has served the function of chronicling the dispossession of the Palestinian people and of keeping their memory and identity alive. This is epitomised not only in the poetry of Darwish but also in the defining short stories and novels of Ghassan Kanafani, who was assassinated in 1972 in Beirut by, many suspect, the Mossad.

Literature is also, as Darwish pointed out, a vehicle for humanising the Palestinians. This is not only in the eyes of those who regard them as two-dimensional villains but also those who see them simplistically as superhuman heroes or poor victims.

A new generation of writers and other artists has taken it as their mission to highlight this ordinary human experience, albeit in extraordinary circumstances. Such run-of-the-mill Palestinians “need to be fictionalised,” in the view of Selma Dabbagh, a British-Palestinian lawyer-turned-novelist and playwright, because “the media, if it saw them at all, would be more likely to see them as victims, which is a flattening vision.”

Literature can also be a conduit for self-reflection and criticism of the shortcomings of Palestinian society itself. An example of this was presented at PalFest by Palestinian-American poet Susan Abulhawa when she recited a poem from her collection My Voice Sought the Wind, in which she reflects on the equal sacrifices women must make for the cause but the unequal returns they receive:

The first time your husband hit you

It nearly knocked the country off your back

Literature is also a means of displaying solidarity. “Your very presence here signifies your support in these times of isolation,” Michael Sansour, the executive vice-president of Bethlehem University, one of the venues of the festival, told the assembled writers and journalists.

Caught between the walls imposed by the Israeli occupation and Arab reluctance to scale them, Palestinians have been incredibly isolated not only from the wider world, but even their own neighbourhood. PalFest, which is the brainchild of the acclaimed Egyptian-British author Ahdaf Soueif, was created partly to remedy this.

But literature is not just about resistance but can also pave the way to coexistence by bridging the chasm of perception and misconception between the two sides.

“[Elias] Khoury’s Bab al-Shams influenced my thinking lots, as did Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks,” observes Shuli, an Israeli acquaintance. “They further fleshed out things that I sensed but couldn’t prove with statistics and history, filled gaps.”

This bridge-building potential is well embodied in the unlikely friendship and intellectual companionship between the late Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz and Sasson Somekh, the Iraqi-Israeli poet and academic whose research brought Mahfouz into the international limelight.

But, above all, the writer can imagine a better tomorrow. “I dream of the day when,” Mahfouz once confided in Somekh, “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.”

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 4 June 2014.

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Can the boycott against Israel succeed… and how?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The furore surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s SodaStream endorsement raises the question to what extent BDS can help end the occupation… and how.

ScarJo

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Lost in Translation brought Scarlett Johansson global fame. Will the actress’s latest role – lost in the occupation – earn her widespread infamy?

Since the announcement that the Hollywood star was the new face of the controversial Israeli firm SodaStream, a war of words between pro-Palestinians and pro-Israelis has gripped the (social) media. While pro-Palestine activists condemn Johansson for whitewashing the Israeli occupation, pro-Israel activists see the American’s insistence on sticking with the endorsement deal as a vote of confidence in Israel’s economy and democracy.

Meanwhile, sensing a contradiction in Johansson’s dual roles as an Oxfam and SodaStream “ambassador”, the international NGO castigated the American celebrity, eventually parting ways with her. This came after, according to the BDS movement, a reported “internal revolt” within Oxfam, or in ScarJo’s own words, “a fundamental difference of opinion” with the charity over BDS.

In her own defence, Johansson contends that: “SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine.”

In this, she echoes the Israeli company’s own publicity. “At SodaStream, we build bridges, not walls. It’s a fantastic sanctuary of coexistence and an example of peace in a region that is so troubled and so needs hope,” the firm’s CEO, Daniel Birnbaum said in a promotional video.

It is true that SodaStream employs hundreds of Palestinians under terms they probably wouldn’t get at a similar Palestinian firm and Birnbaum, to his credit, was willing even to embarrass the Israeli president in defence of his Palestinian workers.

However, it is hard to miss the elephant in the room: if Birnbaum is such a prophet of peace, why is he profiting from the occupation by operating a factory in an illegal Israeli settlement which makes the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state impossible? Surely, if SodaStream really wished to act as a “bridge”, it should relocate its main factory to the Israeli side of the Green Line or, better still, set up shop in PA jurisdiction.

The high-profile campaign against Johansson, as well as other recent successes has been interpreted by many pro-Palestinians as another success for the BDS movement. In contrast, a lot of pro-Israelis have seen in the actress’s refusal to back down a clear signal of what they call #BDSfail.

Setting aside the ethical debate surrounding BDS, this raises the question of whether efforts to pressurise Israel by isolating the country can really achieve their stated goals of “Ending its occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall”.

One way of determining this is to examine similar efforts in the past. By putting pressure on a firm’s reputation and profits, corporate boycotts have a relatively decent success rate, as reflected in a number of recent examples, though some companies are more vulnerable than others to this kind of pressure.

Despite the growth of neo-liberalism and the associated privatising of government, countries do not tend to operate like corporations, with the financial bottomline only one factor in many affecting their behaviour.

Hence, the record of boycotts and sanctions against states is far more patchy. In reality, when faced with a determined adversary, punishments of this kind can often fail to deliver the desired results, even in their most extreme manifestations: full sanctions.

More than half a century of American sanctions against Cuba did not lead to the demise of the Castro regime, but impoverished Cuba, leaving it suspended in a decaying time bubble. Other Cold War sanctions hardly fared much better.

A decade of international sanctions against Iraq only succeeded in turning what was once the most-developed Arab country into a graveyard for children and a public health catastrophe. Similarly, the Gaza blockade grinds on, with Egypt too tightening the screws, yet Hamas is still very much in control while the people suffer terrible destitution and isolation.

In fact, in the three examples above, sanctions actually had the unintended effect of strengthening the regimes in question. In each case, sanctions were portrayed as an unfair and unjust form of foreign meddling and the regime as a heroic force of resistance, enabling it to intimidate opponents and shutdown dissent.

There have, of course, been some successes. Many advocates of BDS point to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa as a clear precedent. “Sanctions were the final blow to the apartheid regime in South Africa,” the BDS movement says on its website.

“Such action made an enormous difference in apartheid South Africa. It can make an enormous difference in creating a future of justice and equality for Palestinians and Jews in the Holy Land,” believes none other than Nobel prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu.

But what kind of a role did the campaign of disinvestment and sanctions play in toppling apartheid in South Africa?

Although South Africa was under African sanctions since the 1960s, these had only a marginal effect, and it was not until the West joined the movement in earnest in the mid-1980s that it began to have a perceptible impact.

Among the boycott’s clearest effects was the flight of capital and credit, the rise in economic hardship, and a slow-down in the flow of much-needed foreign technology, which had a knock-on effect on economic growth and the cost of doing business.

On the other hand, even at the height of anti-apartheid sanctions, South Africa managed to find “sanctions-busting” alternatives, and began a process of recalibrating its economy and finding alternative trading partners. There is also evidence that the boycott was losing steam. For instance, even though the United States had passed a Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act only in 1986, US imports from South Africa, by 1988, rose by 14% and exports by 40%.

In addition, sanctions had some unintended consequences. For instance, it forced the country to innovate more, such as developing alternative energy technologies, and had economic consequences for poor blacks and post-Apartheid governments. This explains why opposition to sanctions was not only the preserve of neo-cons, with some South African black and white anti-apartheid activists expressing serious misgivings.

If economic sanctions had only a marginal effect, the academic boycott was even more questionable in its efficacy. “That most of the scholars in our study judged the boycott to be an irritant or inconvenience, rather than a significant barrier to scholarly progress, suggests that it proved more a symbolic gesture than an effective agent of change,” concluded one extensive survey of South African academics conducted at the end of the apartheid era.

In many cases, rather than causing guilt and galvanising opposition to the system, “many scholars felt left out, isolated, unjustly discriminated against”.

If boycotts and sanctions played such a vague and marginal role in toppling apartheid, what actually brought down the system?

It is my conviction that the lion’s share of the credit must go to internal dynamics. Apartheid was not only an unjust system but an unrealistic one. It is impossible to oppress and disenfranchise the majority of a population indefinitely. Mounting, sustained and highly organised black (and, to a lesser extent, white) resistance was the pivotal factor. Of similar import was the enlightened leadership of Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, who managed to neutralise stiff conservative opposition to dismantling apartheid.

With hindsight, there is a tendency to afford boycott and sanctions against South Africa a more central role in defeating apartheid than they actually played, thereby depriving the real agents of change, who risked all for their convictions, of some of the glory they deserve.

That is not say that boycotts and solidarity campaigns are useless. If anything else, they at least provide a morality boost through solidarity to the oppressed and enable outsiders to distance themselves from policies and actions of which they do not approve. However, these are tools that need to be handled with caution and care to ensure they do not misfire.

In the Israeli and Palestinian context, the most effective approach is to continue to demand the grassroots boycotting of corporations that profit from the occupation, thereby promoting a more virtuous and constructive cycle of investments. For instance, a campaign could be launched to force SodaStream to relocate its facilities to areas of the West Bank under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

In addition, like with South Africa, the United States should end its military aid to Israel until it ends the occupation, which might possibly be the single most effective economic action any party can take.

I also believe that the academic and cultural boycott needs a major rethink and revamp, especially its Arab variant (which sees many Arabs unwilling or afraid to engage with even sympathetic Israelis), to penalise Israeli peace-breakers and to embrace and empower peacemakers. Such engagement, especially between Palestinians and Israelis, will also help lay the ground for the post-occupation era.

Ultimately, like in South Africa, the occupation, segregation and injustice of the situation will be defeated by Palestinian resistance and Israeli opposition, which would be a far truer “bridge to peace” than the words of a self-interested beverage company or glamorous actress.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 30 January 2014.

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