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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Buying camel’s milk in Arabic

 
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By Philip Hall

Conversing about camel’s milk may not be the most useful Arabic to learn, but learning the language can open up the Arab world to Europeans.

Thursday 17 October 2013

Once, in Princess Gardens, we were in a hurry to get home. I saw a side gate and walked towards it. “It’ll be closed,” said Teresa, my wife, “Let’s try anyway.”

Outside, on either side, sat two young people who began to stare at us as we approached. When we were about ten yards away one of them blurted: “It’s closed mate.”

“Let’s go,” said Teresa.

“No, perhaps it’s open,” I insisted.

We walked the last ten yards, the teenagers staring all the time. I pushed the gate and it opened – Snap! The attention of the two watchers broke and we walked through. Every day, we face invisible barriers. Something stops us from opening a gate. We don’t ask for help when we really need it. We don’t ask someone charming for a coffee date. We don’t apply for a job we are probably well suited for.

Some invisible barriers are much bigger than that. Some are huge. For example, after you consider the facts, you might conclude that it is deeply irrational for European governments not to promote the teaching of Arabic in European schools. The numbers speak for themselves: the Arab world has over 400 million inhabitants, some 300 million people speak Arabic as their native tongue, and many millions more speak it as a second language.  Moreover, there are many native Arabic speakers in European countries. For example, Arabic is the mother tongue of nearly a million people in France, not to mention all the second and third-generation North Africans there who speak at least a little of the language.

Before coming to work in the Middle East, I had a short conversation with my recruiter. He was British and had worked in the Gulf for 35 years. There was a prosperous, flushed look to him. He was on the point of retirement. “Your Arabic must be fantastic.” I probed.

“No”, he said proudly, “I haven’t learned a word of it.”

This puzzled me. What was going on here? And why was this man so proud of his failure to learn Arabic? The accumulated prejudices of a thousand years seem to be blocking the path to language learning, and consequently blocking the path to mutual understanding between the northern and southern halves of the Mediterranean: two parts of a whole, shared culture.

But nowadays, who believes in historical determinism? I certainly do not. Do you? Who believes that what has happened in the past is the single decider of what will happen in the future? Why not choose our own future? Why not choose to overcome prejudice and do so by learning Arabic?

Government policy-makers can take the rational step towards funding and promoting the learning of Arabic in every school in Europe. As an individual, you can make this choice. Together, we can break through invisible historical social, cultural and political force fields by being practical and rational.

I am following my own advice; I am now learning Arabic. Our teacher is proficient in teaching primary school children, but we are middle-aged men. She is teaching us to ask for information, to talk about our families and describe what they do, to talk about what’s in our houses, and to say what we want when we go to restaurants. “Peteer,” she says, a little like a Palestinian Joyce Grenfell. “Did you do your homework?”

Peter says ,“No,” in a small voice, “I was too busy working”. His grizzled face looks down in embarrassment. “Oh Peter!” she exclaims, “We must do our homework.”

Secretly, however, my classmates and I are learning the poems of Adel Darwish, as sung by Marcel Khalifa. We are watching Palestinian cultural programmes, Egyptian soap operas and listening to Lebanese pop songs. I have even had my first conversation in Arabic. It was with Yemenis and it went like this:

“Do you have any camel’s milk?”

“Oh yes, I do, it is over there.”

“I love camel’s milk.”

“Yes it is very nice but the milk is much healthier fresh from the camel’s udder.”

“Really.”

“Yes, but not if the camel is ill.”

“Can I get fresh camel’s milk here?”

“No, you have to go to any small town in the desert. It’s easy to find camel’s milk there.”

“ Well, I will be sure to do so. Thank you for your advice.”

“My pleasure.”

Clearly, if I can converse about camel’s milk with a man from Yemen, the doors of the Arab world have now swung wide open for me.

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Islamism is the illusion

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Saturday 17 August 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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Beauty in the eye of the political storm

 
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Can the skin-deep world of the Miss Israel beauty pageant help combat the ugly face of discrimination and prejudice against Palestinians in Israel?

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Mimas Abdelhai (first from right): "I believe I can shed light on matters that are very important for me."

Mimas Abdelhai (first from right): “I believe I can shed light on matters that are very important for me.”

Yityish Aynaw, or Titi as she is known to her friends, became the first woman of Ethiopian origin to win the Miss Israel contest. Like winners of the beauty lottery everywhere, Aynaw’s crowning has thrust her from obscurity into the limelight.

But her victory has a political dimension that is often missing from the skin-deep world of beauty contests: Aynaw comes from one of Israel’s most marginalised ethnic groups. Some have interpreted the Ethiopian beauty queen’s victory as a sign of Israeli tolerance, and of how Ethiopians are becoming increasingly integrated and mainstream.

However, in the absence of substantive change, Aynaw’s success could prove little more than a Botox injection – and the ugly face of discrimination will again sag. Nevertheless, many in the community celebrated that one of their number has become queen for a year. “For people from my country of origin it is a source of great pride,” asserted Aynaw.

And Aynaw has not just inspired members of her own ethnic group. Mimas Abdelhai, a Palestinian-Israeli, has been mulling the idea of taking part in Miss Israel since last year. “I have been so scared to make this decision and to even talk to the people closest to me about it,” admits Abdelhai, who is a student of government at a top private Israeli college. “But this year’s winner gave me strength and encouraged me to make this decision.”

Unlike Aynaw, who entered the Miss Israel pageant to pursue her modelling aspirations, Abdelhai’s motives are largely political and cultural. “Miss Israel is different to beauty contests in other countries. The title comes with a social and political dimension, especially if a contestant comes from a minority background,” she explains.

And for Israel’s 1.6-million-strong Palestinian minority, usually referred to locally as ‘Arab Israelis’, this “political dimension” is a massive one, perched precariously as the community is on the main fault line of a decades-old conflict, as Rana Raslan, who won the title in 1999, discovered.

Although Palestinian-Israelis often welcomed Raslan’s unprecedented victory, especially in her hometown of Haifa, many Palestinians in the occupied territories as well as Arabs in the wider region reacted angrily, and tended to view the spectacle with distaste and distrust.

Distaste because the idea that an Arab would openly wear the label “Israeli”, carry the Israeli flag and represent Israel on the world stage is anathema, especially with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza still living under the crushing boot of occupation. Distrust because people fear the propaganda mileage the Israeli establishment would try to extract from such a high-profile success, though one that is ultimately non-threatening.

And true enough, Bibi Netanyahu wasted no time. “This is a clear manifestation of equality and co-operation between Jews and Arabs in Israel,”   he said at the time. One of the Miss Israel judges, Pnina Rosenblum, went even further, extrapolating that this showed Israelis “want a true peace”.

Though many Israelis applauded Raslan’s victory, in rightwing nationalist and religious circles little in the way of “equality and co-operation”, or aspirations for “true peace”, were on display, as reflected in the fan(atical) mail the beauty queen received urging her to renounce her crown in favour of a Jew.

This raises the poignant question of why Mimas Abdelhai would want to step into this political minefield. “[Participation] automatically gains political attention. With that attention and connections, I believe I can shed light on matters that are very important for me,” she says, belying her political aspirations encompassed in the name of the party with which she became involved during the recent elections, Hope for Change.

And those matters? Raising the profile of her community and drawing attention to the discrimination it faces, representing her generation and her gender, as well as highlighting the plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories and acting as an ambassador for peace and a bridge for coexistence.

And handling the inevitable public fallout? “Of course, there will be those to object on both sides and I understand why,” Abdelhai acknowledges. “My parents are scared about the controversy the possibility of me competing might cause [but] I am strong enough to face this controversy,” she adds, noting that she would only take part if she can win her parents over.

Although I have serious misgivings about the political spin the Israeli establishment would put on anther Israeli beauty queen who happens to be Arab, what the rejectionists on both sides overlook is that Palestinian-Israelis, whether people like it or not, are not just Israelis by citizenship, but are increasingly “Israeli” culturally.

Political discourse is, in fact, lagging drastically behind reality. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes more polarised than ever, and identity politics grow, a new generation of Palestinian-Israelis has grown up quietly in the background with a very mixed cultural heritage, as I discovered.

Some acknowledge that they are both Palestinian and Israeli, while even those who reject or are uncomfortable with the “Israeli” label often recognize the influence of Israeli society on them. And this influence has been two-way, if you consider how much Palestinian culture Israeli Jews have assimilated over the decades, from food to language, and more.

In the case of Abdehai, she speaks natural Hebrew, her formal Arabic is underdeveloped and she has spent more of her educational career among Israeli Jews than Arabs. But with her state at war with her nation, as one prominent Palestinian-Israeli memorably put it, juggling these two cultures causes an identity crisis.

“In my university right now, I’m the only Palestinian,” Abdelhai told me in an interview for my book. Being a minority of one “is sometimes very scary. It feels very uncomfortable. I’m not sure I can represent where I come from in the right way. I feel like I have a lot of responsibility.”

The flip side is that being educated in the Israeli and international systems, despite the opportunities they have offered, have also somewhat alienated her from the mainstream of her community. “I find it hard to befriend people in my hometown,” Abdelhai admits. “The things I do and the things I like doing are very different.”

Although I am sceptical that a beauty contest can make any meaningful political difference, the rise of a new, assertive generation like Abdelhai’s can and will challenge lazy prejudices and artificial dichotomies, while the blurring of rigid identities could point a way forward towards peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.

And like Mohammad Assaf demonstrated in Gaza with his Arab Idol victory, the feel-good factor and pride cultural success can elicit for an embattled community can be at least as important as its possible political utility.

Moreover, even if it does little immediately for the integration of Palestinians in Israeli society and even if there are influential forces in Israeli society trying to arrest or reverse what gains there have been, this kind of assertive gesture is a reminder to the mainstream that “we are here too and we will not be ignored.”

“This country should embrace its diversity because I believe that’s what makes its special,” Abdelhai urges.

This hints at the two-tired but complementary nature of the Palestinian struggle: for greater integration and empowerment within Israeli society, and for enfranchisement and national self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 9 July 2013.

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How iSlam made the West cool

 
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Those who fear Muslim influence should raise a glass to the Sultan of Style when they freshen up, don the latest fashions or enjoy dining out.

Friday 31 May 2013

Medieval Muslim ‘jamming’. Image: Yorck Project

In the wake of the Woolwich machete attack against an off-duty British army drummer, the stabbing in Paris of a French soldier and the Boston marathon attack, anti-Muslim sentiments have, as might be expected, increased in Europe and the United States.

In the UK, for example, the far-right British National Party (BNP)  which had such a disastrous showing at recent local elections that it has urged it members to “do our bit for Britain and our race” by breeding more  and English Defence League has been mobilising overtime to capitalise on the fallout.

The BNP leader Nick Griffin called ominously on supporters to “join the British resistance“, while another senior party official suggested that the men behind the London murder should be executed. Meanwhile, anti-Muslim hate crimes are running at 10 times their usual rate, according to a British government hotline.

The United States has also experienced a backlash in what Salon dubbed as the “return of the anti-Muslim bigots“. There have been hate crimes as well as suggestions for blanket spying on Muslims.

On both sides of the Atlantic, there has been growing fear of the “Islamisation” of society, while the notion that Muslims stand opposed to Western values is gaining traction. This is reflected in a new cross-border survey, which shows that majorities in a number of Western societies regard Islam as a threat.

As I’ve argued before, and despite my concerns over Islamic radicalism and extremism, Islam is not alien to Western civilisation but an integral part of it. In fact, Islam and the Muslim influence are deeply woven into the West’s social and civilisational fabric.

Readers may well have come across historical explanations of the contributions Muslims made to modern sciences, philosophy, medicine, agriculture, sociology and other areas of learning. Here, I’d like to explore how Muslims helped make the West “cool,” shaped our modern tastes and sensibilities and gave us many things we regard as quintessentially Western, such as the café.

In fact, I’d like to introduce just one man, Ziryab (Blackbird), the Sultan of Style, who, given his contribution to European chic, should have statues erected to him in Milan, Paris, London and New York. Although you may never have heard of this dandy ninth century Muslim, his genius touches the most private and intimate moments of all our lives  modern etiquette would be positively vulgar without his tasteful influence.

Born Abul Hassan Ali Ibn Nafie in modern-day Iraq in 789 AD, he joined the court of the legendary Haroun al-Rashid (also of 1,001 Arabian Nights’ fame) where he was the student of a gifted musician. But after stepping too hard on the toes of his mentor, he hot-heeled it to the rising star of Baghdad’s cultural and scientific rival, Cordoba in Andalusia.

There, he joined the court of the Umayyad Prince of Cordoba Abdel-Rahman II. Islamic Cordoba was a beautiful and manicured metropolis of imposing public buildings, although it still lacked its most famous landmark, the 10th century Great Mosque (the Mezquita, as it is known today).

It boasted about 1,000 mosques, 600 public baths, several hundred public schools and a university, not to mention the grand aqueducts in the surrounding countryside that fed the complex irrigation system introduced to the area by the Arabs.

Although he lived a few centuries before the Renaissance, Ziryab was a true ‘Renaissance man’. In addition to being a polymath with knowledge in astronomy, geography, meteorology and botany, he was also a visionary trendsetter.

As an accomplished singer and musician  he was reputed to have memorized a repertoire of more than 10,000 songs   Ziryab added a fifth string to the Arab oud, creating the lute (which is also etymologically derived from the Arabic al-oud) that would, through the Spanish, spread across Europe.

Ziryab also rearranged musical theory, setting free the metrical and rhythmical parameters, creating new ways of expression (known as mwashah, zajal and nawbah). This musical genius established the world’s first known conservatory where aspiring young musicians learnt harmony and composition and were encouraged to develop musical theory further.

But one thing above all else constitutes Ziryab’s gravest or greatest legacy, depending on your standpoint, to posterity. “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months,” Oscar Wilde, that Ziryab-like Englishman, once retorted. But who, Mr. Wilde, was it that first came up with the revolutionary idea of seasonally shedding our clothes?

Ziryab’s earth-shattering innovation was to submit fashion to the cycle of the seasons. This trendsetter came up with the then outlandish idea that people should wear different styles  and not just more layers or an overcoat  in summer and in winter. He even invented in-between seasons.

This hip Muslim brought a similar orderly flare to food. When people think of haute cuisine, their minds tend to go all Français. French may be the lingua franca of food  with its entrées, appetizers, aperitifs, desserts, etc.  and the French have given us much to savour. However, the modern dining experience was forged in Arabic.

Before Ziryab came along, dining was a freestyle event, even at court. People ate savoury with sweet, fruit with meat, all in one big heap. Abundance, and not order, was the key to successful banquets. But our man revolutionized all that.

Perhaps his highly refined sensibilities were offended by what he saw as a feeding frenzy, or maybe he thought that different tastes should be relished individually. Whatever the reason, our gastronome extraordinaire set about to tame his peers’ eating habits by inventing the multi-course meal. To make the fine dining experience that much more exquisite, Ziryab also invented the drinking glass (fashioned out of glass and crystal).

And, to round off the complete fashion experience, this all-round man also found time to develop a new type of deodorant and invented an early form of toothpaste which became all the rage in Iberia, as well as a type of shampoo. In addition to introducing new hairstyles to the longhaired Cordobans, he also popularised shaving  perhaps foreseeing the bad press beards would get in the 21st century.

Next time you brush your teeth, don the latest fashions, enjoy a delicious three-course meal or raise a glass, don’t forget to toast, or at least spare a thought for, old Ziryab, that uncrowned Sultan of Style  and remember that Muslims have had a cool, and not just a chilling, influence on Western society.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 28 May 2013.

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Intimate strangers in a splintering world

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Monday 29 April 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 23 April 2013.

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Gay pride (and prejudice) through the ages

 
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By Khaled Diab

Historical examples of homosexuality being tolerated by Judaism, Christianity and Islam can help overcome homophobia and reinvent these faiths.

Thursday 28 February 2013

Were the Christian martyrs Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus involved in a medieval "same-sex union"?

Were the Christian martyrs Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus involved in a medieval “same-sex union”?

It is almost spring, and love, of the gay variety, seems truly to be in the air. The last few weeks have brought a constant stream of good news for LGBT communities in Europe, not to mention encouraging developments in the United States and even within the Catholic Church.

British and French MPs spread the love in the run up to Valentine’s Day by giving non-heterosexual marriage a resounding vote of confidence, while Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled in favour of so-called “successive adoption” by same-sex couples.

Across the Atlantic, where same-sex marriage has faced stiff opposition from religious and social conservatives, a pro-gay marriage ad campaign featuring prominent Democrats and Republicans, including Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, has just been released, while there is talk that Barack Obama is planning to utilise the Supreme Court to push for same-sex matrimony.

Homosexuals, not to mention feminists, have toasted the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, who “made homophobia one of his battle cries”, according to one activist. This has left many in the LGBT community hopeful that the next and future popes will be more relaxed towards questions of sexuality, while activists have been urging the Vatican to wake up to reality.

“There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family,”  wrote Cardinal Ratzinger, the Holy Father’s previous incarnation, in an opinion he wrote for his predecessor Pope John Paul II in 2003 on the issue of same-sex marriage.

Why? Apparently, because “marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law”.

Although the argument that homosexuality is unnatural is contrary to the available scientific evidence and undoubtedly angers gay communities and their supporters, this idea is common not only in the Catholic Church, but in other branches of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

However, despite Ratzinger’s protestations, deep, deep inside Christianity’s historic closet, there was greater tolerance of homosexuality than appears at first sight. Although the medieval and pre-modern church, especially during the various inquisitions, was well-known for persecuting and killing homosexuals, it may, at least at times, have been rather gay-friendly.

For example, though the modern clergy, with the exception of some reformist churches, tends to reject the idea of gay marriage, it appears that two men – but not women – could sometimes be joined in holy union in the Middle Ages.

In a practice known as Adelphopoiesis, two men would be joined in what American history professor John Boswell has controversially described as “same-sex unions”, although his contention has been challenged by the clergy and other scholars who insist that, though the practice walked and talked rather like a church wedding, the union in question was actually a spiritual and celibate one and closer to the concept of “blood brotherhood”.

Although the practice of Adelphopoiesis may strike the modern reader as surprising, once it is placed in the context of Greco-Roman culture, which had a profound impact on early Christian and Muslim ideals, it is not. In the male-centric classical view, men’s affection for each other was the most sublime form of love, while women didn’t really count for much, as attested to by the absence or belittling of lesbianism in classical, Judaic, Christian and Islamic traditions.

This idea of the superiority of male love, and the tolerance thereof, can be seen in the odes to homoerotic passion of the camp and irreverent Abu Nuwas, the Abbasid court laureate who was believed to be the greatest poet in Islam, and whose work was not censored, strangely enough, until the early 20th century.

Moreover, medieval Islamic scholars tended to hold that male homosexual acts did not merit worldly punishment, rather like how ancient Jewish legal practices upheld such strict rules of evidence in cases of “sodomy” that it was near impossible to prove and secure a death sentence. This is a far cry from the contemporary puritanical attitude towards homosexuality in much of the Muslim world, where gay people often potentially face the death penalty

The sublimation of mutual male affection has been (re-)interpreted by modern scholars, commentators and even clergy as a sign of homosexuality in the most unexpected quarters. Not only have many interpreted Jalal al-Din Rumi’s love poetry, or ghazal, dedicated to his older spiritual master Shams-e-Tabrizi, as a sign that the legendary Sufi poet had homosexual tendencies, there have even been suggestions that none other than Jesus Christ was gay.

That a man in his 30s apparently had no wife or girlfriend, even though Jewish law would have allowed him to marry, but was friends with a prostitute, hung out with a dozen other blokes, including one “Beloved Disciple”, in the words of the Gospel of John, could be interpreted as repressed homosexuality by the modern secular ear. Needless to say, the very suggestion is rejected as outrageous and insulting by the church and the majority of Christians.

Although early Christianity and medieval Islam seemed to have adopted some elements of the classical tolerance of certain aspects of homosexuality, at least the male variety of it, all the Abrahamic faiths have inherited the Old Testament tradition which condemns as sinful homosexual acts (the idea of homosexuality or sexual orientation did not really exist until modern times, or was at the very least more fluid).

For instance, both Christianity and Judaism draw on the Book of Leviticus (18:22) which commands the believer: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.”

One reason why homosexuality elicits such a disproportionate reaction in all three religions is because of its powerful potential to subvert the traditional patriarchal order. Traditional models of marriage, after all, are more about procreation than recreation, and about prescribing and cementing a strict gender hierarchy, in which man sits on the throne and woman washes his royal feet. “Same-sex marriage fundamentally challenges the basic sexual premises of marriage as a contract,” writes Kecia Ali, a professor of religion, in her taboo-shaking book Sexual Ethics and Islam.

The most common justification for the prohibition on homosexual behaviour in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is, of course, the allegorical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, two Biblical cities which were destroyed by fire and brimstone for their sinfulness. Although none of the scriptures spell out homosexuality as the nature of the sins committed by the Sodomites, who wanted to rape God’s angels, sodomy, or liwat (i.e. pertaining to Lot’s people) to Muslims, has for centuries been assumed to relate to anal sex, or more broadly, homosexual male intercourse.

This is not a valid connection to make, many contemporary activists claim. “Reading the story of Sodom as being about homosexuality is like reading the story of an axe murderer as being about an axe,” writes Jay Michaelson, the American-Jewish academic and activist.

But is such revisionism honest? I believe that, in the balance of things, the Abrahamic tradition is homophobic, as was the Greco-Roman tradition, though to a lesser degree. Nevertheless, though such revisionism may not be honest, it is useful and perhaps even necessary, to bring religion into the 21st century.

While I personally reject religion because of its intrinsic contradictions and inherent unfairness, I accept that faith can give a structure to the world for believers, and a perceived higher purpose to their lives.

That is why religion has been invented and reinvented endlessly over the centuries. What we call Judaism, Christianity and Islam today, for instance, bears little resemblance to their original counterparts. And just as no modern believer seriously accepts their religions’ ancient attitudes towards, for example, slavery and warfare, people will one day hopefully look back on the current debate over homosexuality and faith as archaic.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 26 February 2013.

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Russia takes a “grown up” beating

 
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By Ray O’Reilly

The acid attack on the Bolshoi ballet’s director highlights the worrying spread of crime, corruption and intimidation to all facets of life in Russia. Update: reports coming out indicate that long-running internal strife at the Bolshoi may be connected to this attack.

Wednesday 30 January 2013 [update 19 Feb 2013]

Is no one safe from Russia’s criminal gangs and shady types? Kidnappings, extortion, bribes, threats … a litany of evil stuff that ordinary Russians face on a daily basis. Now the acid attack on Bolshoi ballet’s Sergei Filin puts Russia’s revered cultural institution in the spotlight.

Cut someone off on the road, fall foul of the police, forget to pay ‘taxes’, start up a rival business … or just become a public figure and you could well find yourself on the wrong side of a dangerous character.

What are the police doing about it? On paper, what the police are supposed to do: investigate, report and occasionally charge someone with a crime. But ask a Russian what the police are doing and the answer will inevitably be “very little” or “too much”.

It’s probably this kind of cryptic logic that got Russia into the trouble it now faces. Corruption, it seems, cuts deep into everyday life in Russia. I entered a search query starting with “Why are Russians …” and Google’s auto-complete function offered “so crazy and ruthless” before I had even finished writing “Russia”. The query results were illuminating. The top spot went to a Yahoo question-answer which elaborated on the Russian mafia’s turf battle with Italian-Irish hard-men in New York.

I then drifted to a story by Business Insider on why Russians use car dashboard cams to record “crazy” stuff on the road, from police graft and road rage to hit-and-runs. There is even a YouTube montage of some of the footage gathered by these ‘dash-cams’.

Russia’s former president Dmitry Medvedev blamed these problems on the “undisciplined, criminally careless behaviour of our drivers”, along with poor road conditions. The police also come in for criticism in the Business Insider report. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, corruption undermines countries and institutions and “generates popular anger that threatens to further destabilise societies and exacerbate violent conflicts”.

Indeed, it is the sort of violence we are now witnessing as it spreads from business and politics into the cultural and arts scene in Russia – a facet of life you would not ordinarily expect to be dragged into the greed and graft cycle. In 2012, Russia ranked 133rd on the corruption index. “While no country has a perfect score, two-thirds of countries score below 50, indicating a serious corruption problem,” notes Transparency International.

According to the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a Russian initiative, a big chunk of that corruption is by traffic police, which along with kindergartens and universities, was ranked by Russians as the country’s most corrupt institution. “Over half of the population surveyed who interacted with traffic police said that they had been asked for a bribe,” the OCCRP reported.

Transparency International sums up the trickle-down damage that corruption inflicts on a society where trust in eroded: “Corruption translates into human suffering, with poor families being extorted for bribes to see doctors or to get access to clean drinking water. It leads to failure in the delivery of basic services like education or health care. It derails the building of essential infrastructure, as corrupt leaders skim funds. Corruption amounts to a dirty tax, and the poor and most vulnerable are its primary victims.”

This sort of corrupt influence doesn’t seem to stop at Russia’s borders. Interpol must have proverbial drawers-fall of mug shots of organised crime gangs operating out of Russia. Rumour has it that the Russian mob is establishing a foothold in underworlds in major cities around the world, from New York to Antwerp. (Clearly, I didn’t ask Interpol or the gangs to confirm this!)

Culture of violence?
Read any webpage on Russian culture and you will be reminded of its rich history, strong traditions and influential arts, especially literature, classical music, architecture and of course the ballet. People like Sergei Filin, head of Russia’s Bolshoi ballet, are household names in Russia … hell, the whole world. In fact, he is not the first ‘cultural name’ to come to the underworld’s attention.

“[Filin’s] acid attack has laid bare the poisonous atmosphere that has gripped the Bolshoi,” reports The Guardian. “Once the pinnacle of Russian cultural achievement, the theatre has been beset by scandal in recent years. Even a much-vaunted reopening in October 2011 was marred by accusations of corruption and poor workmanship.”

The attack puts the spotlight on a wave of violence that has swept Russia’s arts scene. In the past weeks, several theatrical figures connected to theatres in St Petersburg and Moscow were reported to have been threatened or beaten up.

Kirill Serebrennikov, a director at the Gogol theatre in Moscow, went so far as to publish on his Facebook page the threat he received, which according to The Guardian story went as follows: “Malobrodsky probably didn’t tell you what we said while we were beaten [sic] his Jewish mug, but if you don’t leave the Gogol theatre then you will be next. Happy New Year, with new feelings. They’ll beat you in a grown-up way. Wait for it.”

With all this crime, intimidation and fear of everything from shake-downs to death threats, it is little wonder that Russians record their trip to the supermarket on their dash-cam. But the scariest thing about this Filin story – and the thing that inspired me to write this little missive was the odd phrase, “They’ll beat you in a grown-up way”. It says your life, our lives, are filled with child-like notions of fair play. Where a dispute ends in a push-fight or a shouting match and everyone makes friends after the teacher intercedes.

In this dark underbelly, there is no teacher to protect you and the push could be at the end of a shank. A juxtaposition of innocence against anarchy… with all the makings of a Russian realist novel!

[Stay tuned for more intrigue!]

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Humanising the Holy Land

 
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By Khaled Diab

My time in Israel and Palestine, where everything is politics, has taught me that it is the human that  is holy, not the land.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

In any normal context, a toddler’s third birthday party should be a simple, even mundane affair.  Photo:©Katleen Maes

In any normal context, a toddler’s third birthday party should be a simple, even mundane affair. Photo:©Katleen Maes

Everything is politics, the German novelist Thomas Mann once wrote, and my sojourn in Jerusalem has convinced me that this truism is nowhere truer, at least for me as an Egyptian, than in the Holy Land.

In any normal context, a toddler’s third birthday party, which was doubling up as his parents’ farewell do, should be a simple, even mundane affair. But then, that same week, Gaza happened.

This not only raised the question in our mind of whether it was appropriate to be having fun while war was potentially brewing just a few dozen kilometres down the road, the prospect of having Palestinian and Israeli guests – and plenty of international observers – under the same roof suddenly seemed not just a possibly tense experience, but a potentially explosive encounter.

Despite the dangerous escalation in the war of words and the pulling of rank going on outside, the get-together passed without incident and surprisingly cordially, though the situation kept some of those coming from the West Bank or the coast away.

Afterwards, I felt a sense of relief. For me, as an Egyptian, the situation is sensitive at the best of times. In a context where any contact with Israel or Israelis is widely regarded in Arab circles as a form of unacceptable “normalisation” and the presence of Arabs is often viewed with suspicion or even hostility by Israelis, living in Israel-Palestine is a politically charged affair.

Residing here teaches one that everything is political and politics is everywhere: from choosing where to live and shop, to deciding where to go and who to befriend, not to mention what to call things, since vocabulary is not just idle semantics, but can act as a powerful weapon of negation and denial.

Everything is politics, including the decision to move to the Helly Land. For many years now, I have been convinced that the Arab fixation on normalisation and the Israeli obsession with ghettoisation have distracted attention away from the equally important question of humanisation. This lack of contact empowers extremists to continue their demonisation of the other side and use this to further their rejectionist agendas.

Being here makes you realise that even clothes – from the type of kippa a Jew wears to the traditional Palestinian keffieyeh – speak the language of politics and make far more than just a fashion statement. I’ve always been something of an unorthodox dresser, but since moving to Jerusalem I’ve learnt that white and black, and my affection for headgear, are really quite orthodox.  My wife has also had her notions of fashion redefined. She has discovered that one of her preferred strategies for dealing with the Middle Eastern heat and sun – a cotton scarf tied, gypsy-style, around her head and a loose skirt or a dress – whereas elsewhere it can lie somewhere between the hip and the hippy, here it is associated with the Hilltop Youth and their gung-ho Wild West Bank ways.

Living here also reveals you that the political can also gradually become normal, ordinary, mundane, even humdrum – or, at the very least, an occupational hazard, so to speak. For example, we have raised our three-year-old son, Iskander, for the greater part of his life in Jerusalem.

He went, sometimes on a politically controversial tram, to a crèche in the old city, a stone’s throw away from the holiest, and hence highly politicised, sites in monotheism, past heavily armed soldiers. Iskander not only learnt to speak Arabic more like a Palestinian than an Egyptian, he also picked up some Hebrew phrases, calls money, including euros, “shekels” and even sings “Frere Shekel” instead of “Frère Jacques”. Being an egalitarian toddler, he bombarded Palestinians and Israelis indiscriminately with affection and mischief.

Whenever a military fighter jet or Apache gunship flew overhead – which was with saddening regularity during our last days in Jerusalem – my son would point up to the sky excitedly and shout “plane” or “heli’topter”. Although I pretended to share his excitement, I was privately grateful that he did not have to grow up in Gaza, where the sound of aircraft does not represent a distant and intriguing toy, but a near and deadly danger, or in nearby Sderot where the whistling of rockets does not indicate a fun fireworks display but the muffled sound of a randomly falling rocket heard from the dark confines of an air raid shelter.

However, one thing I will never grow accustomed to is the ugly monstrosity of the wall and the checkpoints and what they represents in terms of segregation, confinement and dispossession.

Then there are the psychological walls and emotional chasms. Trying to bridge these or to infiltrate and occupy the emotional, psychological and political no-man’s land in such a deeply entrenched conflict, as anyone who has tried it will attest, leaves you exposed to both friendly and unfriendly fire.

It also raises the thorny ethical dilemma for me as an Arab – even though I do to strive to be an inclusive, progressive humanist –  of exactly which Israelis I should engage with and befriend.

Although I have not shied away from meeting and dialoguing with Israelis of all political stripes, including extremist and radical settlers, deciding who it is kosher to socialise with or befriend is a trickier affair. Though it is unfair to blame and boycott Israelis for Israel’s excesses and transgressions, should one only socialise with and befriend Israelis who oppose Israel’s repressive policies towards the Palestinians or should differences on these issues not represent a barrier to personal relations? Can friendship and companionship be divorced from politics, especially when, say, an Israeli’s support for military action in Gaza or the wall or settlement building indirectly enables the government to kill and harm Palestinian civilians? Similarly, how should one relate to Palestinians who are sympathetic with, say, the targeting of Israeli civilians?

On a more practical daily level, it can be emotionally and morally challenging to witness the harsh realities of life under occupation for Palestinians, and to enjoy greater access to their homeland than they do, and then to go and hang out with Israelis, who suffer no such restrictions.

Despite this disparity in the power dynamics, there is a growing minority of Palestinians and Israelis who no longer wish to live in the trenches and believe that co-operation, co-existence, and co-resistance will eventually help bring down the real and virtual walls keeping the two peoples apart.

One thing my presence here has driven home to me is that, once you strip away the ethno-tribalism of the conflict, you find that not only are both sides an incredibly heterogeneous mix of peoples, but also that likeminded Israelis and Palestinians have more in common with each other than with their compatriots. And that is why, for instance, secular, progressive, pacifist Israelis and Palestinians have more in common with each other than they do with their conservative, rejectionist, religious compatriots.

Despite the hostile political climate, over the nearly two years of my residence, I experienced a generally warm welcome and remarkably little hostility from ordinary people.

The fact that Egypt is the capital of Arab pop culture and cinema casts a certain glamour upon the only flesh-and-blood Egyptian many Palestinians have ever met, even if I can’t act or sing to save my life, and the Egyptian revolution confers a certain street cred, even though I played no part in that courageous popular uprising beyond writing about it.

Despite the Arab boycott movement, most Palestinians I met, especially in remoter areas, were supportive of my presence and thrilled that a fellow Arab had actually made the effort to come and live by their side rather than grandstand from a distance. And I have been rewarded with touching insights into the meaning of steadfastness, adaptability, as well as peaceful resistance through simple insistence on and persistence with daily life against all the odds. One thing that is striking to the outsider is the powerful lust for life and surprising good humour Palestinians sustain despite decades of tragedy and loss.

For many Israelis, the very exoticness and unexpectedness of having an Arab in their midst softens the tough and rather abrasive public exterior to reveal a hospitable and friendly private side which is not immediately apparent to the stranger, and places Israelis culturally in the Middle Eastern fold. All the doors that have opened to me have helped me form a human picture of who Israelis are, in all their dizzying diversity, and, despite Israel’s contemporary role as oppressor and occupier, how humane so many Israelis actually are.

It is these missing nuances and my conviction that the only peace process that will work is a grassroots people’s peace that has prompted me to write a book not about the politics or the history of this conflict, but about the ordinary folk who find themselves in these extraordinary circumstances.

Seeing the human face of both sides makes me painfully aware of perhaps the greatest tragedy in this conflict: the politicisation of the people. Palestinians and Israelis, albeit to varying degrees, have for generations been viewed and treated as collective causes whose rights to peace and security as individuals are subservient to the claims of the collective to the land.

But it is my belief that if anything should be treated as holy in this unholiest of messes it is the people and not the land.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 12 December 2012.

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The art of Palestinian resistance

 
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Can art help the Palestinian struggle or is it a preoccupation those living under occupation can ill-afford?

Monday 3 December 2012

Although the Palestinians have a rich and varied cultural heritage, art and culture has fallen victim to the conflict. For example, in East Jerusalem, where I live, Israeli clampdowns since the second intifada, the construction of the separation wall, as well as a lack of resources, have led to such a decline in what was once the Palestinians’ cultural capital that it no longer even had a functioning cinema until earlier this year.

“We have a cultural vacuum and it is because the occupation has erased our identities,” believes Rima Essa, a Palestinian film director and the curator of the new cinema at the Yabous Centre, which is located in the former premises of the al-Quds cinema.

However, in recent years, the artistic and cultural communities have been finding new ways to regroup and reclaim their fragmented creative space. Palestine’s physical and political fragmentation is mirrored in the cultural scene, where artists and institutions often work in isolation. To address this, seven Palestinian cultural organisations have joined forces to organise a new festival, Qalandiya International, which ran across the West Bank for the first half of November.

Qalandiya is the point where three physical realities of the plight of Palestinians converge: a massive military checkpoint-cum-de-facto-border-crossing, a monstrous concrete wall, and a decades-old refugee camp which has evolved into a poor slum area where disillusioned and disgruntled youth clash regularly with Israeli forces.

But it wasn’t always this way. Qalandiya was once just a sleepy Palestinian village (which still exists) perched between Jerusalem and Ramallah. It was also home to mandate Palestine’s first international airport, its portal to the outside world.

This conflicting symbolism – despair and hope, freedom and subjugation, escape and imprisonment – made Qalandiya the ideal name for the biennial festival. “It represents our history and suffering,” says Jack Persekian, the artistic director of the festival and the founder of the al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art.

The festival features a wide range of art – from video and installation to painting and literature – and architecture, including walks and talks, organised by Riwaq, an NGO that seeks to document and conserve Palestine’s architectural heritage, which has incorporated its own biennial into Qalandiya International.

Houses under renovation in the old town of Dhariyya. Photo:@Khaled Diab.

I joined a tour to Dhahariya, where Riwaq has implemented an ambitious project to restore and conserve this small town’s historic centre, constructed around an ancient Byzantine fort.

It is said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. But the locals proved to us that “dancing about architecture” is not such a bizarre concept, when schoolchildren put on a performance of the traditional Palestinian dabke dance in honour of the revival of their old town, which had previously lay crumbling and almost entirely abandoned.

With a court house, a community centre, and even a local, grassroots radio station, the first of its kind in southern Palestine, life has returned to the Dhahariya’s historic centre. People I encountered on the streets appeared to be very proud of the architectural and cultural renaissance which has visited their village, including the new broadcaster, manned almost entirely by young volunteers, set up entirely for them. “Dhahariya is a marginalised community and we give it a voice,” said a young male presenter.

Dancing about architecture. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

“Everywhere you walk on the streets, you hear our station playing,” added his female colleague proudly.

Dhahariya is one of the poster villages for Riwaq’s project to restore 50 historic town and village centres which together represent 50% of Palestine’s built heritage, explained Riwaq’s co-director Khaldun Bishara. This novel approach, which I feel can be employed in other places where resources are tight, seeks to arrest the decline in Palestine’s cultural heritage, which has been accelerated by the Israeli occupation, inadequate legislation, overcrowding and a culture that still tends to value the new over the old, Bishara elaborates.

Although Riwaq’s work is not overtly political, against the bitter backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, architectural heritage and archaeology are, at least implicitly, highly politicised. But there is far more to it than politics.

Suad Amiry – the founder of Riwaq who has become a well-known writer around the world since publishing her acclaimed humorous diary of daily life under siege in Ramallah during the second intifada, Sharon and My Mother-in-Law – says that what inspired her to enter conservation was the “organic connection” she felt with traditional Palestinian architecture, which she believes blends seamlessly into the landscape and is more in tune with nature, the climate and people’s needs than modern building styles.

But it is not just about aesthetics, it is about communities, Bishara insists, outlining how Riwaq pursues a holistic approach to their restoration projects – which takes into account cultural and economic factors – to ensure that the restored centres become living spaces and not open air museums.

He adds that the Riwaq approach transforms restoration and conservation into a highly effective job creation and skills building mechanism. “Per dollar, our projects create more work than most comparable development activities,” he told me, “and we equip people with useful skills they can then exploit elsewhere.”

On touring other parts of the Qalandiya International festival, I was genuinely impressed by some of the art and a few of the venues. One new venue in the troubled old city of Jerusalem was a derelict tile factory which, through creativity, has been reinvented and reborn as a haunting and evocative exhibition space.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Inside are installations about the “parallel time” experienced by a Palestinian prisoner of conscience who has spent most of his adult life in Israeli prisons, a Muslim father and son in Bethlehem who make crowns of thorns for Christian pilgrims, and two “incidental insurgents” who go on a road trip through the West Bank ghetto.

Creative as such endeavours are, sceptics might wonder what difference art can make to change the reality on the ground and whether it is a preoccupation that Palestinians can ill afford amid the realities of occupation. “If art were only concerned with aesthetics, I would say this was right,” asserts Persekian. “By giving young artists and innovators the chance, they can present new ideas for exiting this impasse.”

Personally, I have been impressed by the active role young artists are playing at the grassroots level, from the street art on the separation wall to the highly successful graphics of blindfolded Palestinian prisoners in brown smocks which were used as profile pictures by many Facebook users to express solidarity for hunger strikers in Israeli prisoners. That is not to mention the pop artists, such as the hip hop group Dam who have just released a song against honour killings, and stand-up comics.

For his part, Persekian is convinced that Palestinian art, which he says once sat on the sidelines and sufficed itself with observing, interpreting and expressing the Palestinian demise, now stands at the very heart of the Palestinian struggle. “Young artists have become an inseparable component of much of what is going on in the country,” he says.

Persekian may well be right about the mainstreaming of art and culture, but I feel this is somewhat unfair to previous generations. Take Ghassan Kanafani. Not only did his stories have a profound influence in shaping modern Palestinian consciousness, he was also politically active with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, something he paid for with his life.

But there are those, even among Palestinians, who believe that art and politics should not mix. “Art is art. I try to do art for art’s sake,” Nasser Zalloum, an expatriate Palestinian artist exhibiting at the festival, told me.

Regardless of whether or not art can really be divorced from politics, Palestinian art is intimately and inseparably linked to the Palestinian cause. Once the Palestinian people gain their freedom, then their art too can be liberated from politics. I look forward to that day.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 16 November 2012.

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