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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The stick of boycott v the carrot of recognition

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Monday 1 October 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 19 September 2012.

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The mash of civilisations

 
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By Khaled Diab

There is no conflict between Islam and the West – only clashes of interests between and within them. But there is a very real mash of civilisations.

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Is there really a clash of civilisations? Do “they” really hate us for our beliefs?

Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. The riots and Iranian fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie which forced the British-Kashmiri author into hiding for 13 years, can only be described as tragic – for him and for the cause of freedom and tolerance.

In the years since the 1989 fatwa, the rage expressed at perceived Western “insults” to Islam and its prophet, Muhammad, have transcended tragedy to become farcical, with often tragic consequences. Rushdie’s Satanic Verses – which, as those who have actually read it are aware, betrays a profound admiration and respect for the person of Muhammad, despite its criticism of religion and human nature – at least had the merit of artistic and literary quality.

In contrast, most subsequent targets of this brand of outrage have been crude and amateurish, such as the Danish cartoons mocking Muhammad, and consciously out to provoke a reaction, like the poorly scripted and badly acted Innocence of Muslims, which those “pre-incited”, “pre-programmed”, as the film’s spokesperson Steve Klein described them, Muslim protesters obligingly did.

At a certain level, I can understand, though I am personally not a believer, why Muslims would find offensive the infantile suggestions contained in the film that their prophet got the inspiration to establish his faith by performing cunnilingus on his first wife, Khadijah, or that the Qu’ran was authored for him by a Coptic monk.

To my mind, the best reaction to this so-called ‘film’ – which looks like it cost about $10 to make over a weekend, but was rumoured to have cost $5 million – would have been not to dignify it with a response, then its makers would have been left to wallow in the bitter realisation that their endeavour did not capture an audience beyond the 10 people who turned up to watch its one and only screening.

The Muslims who expressed their outrage peacefully had every right to, since freedom of expression guarantees not only the right to cause offence but also the right to take offence. However, the minority who chose violence not only went against liberal, secular values, but also the teachings of their own prophet and an ancient tradition of mockery of religion in their own societies.

Moreover, the protesters triggered widespread disapproval and disbelief across the Arab world. “The only thing that seems to mobilise the Arab street is a movie, a cartoon or an insult, but not the pool of blood in Syria,” tweeted one dismayed Syrian activist.

So why did a production that is so out there it wouldn’t even qualify as the lunatic fringe provoke such outrage and violence?

Part of the reason is a simple case of ignorance. Many Muslim conservatives fail or refuse to understand that the United States and many other Western countries hold freedom of speech, at least in principle, in higher regard than religious sensibilities. That would help explain why so many protesters called on the United States to apologise for the film and ban it, despite the first amendment of the US constitution which guarantees freedom of speech.

But before Westerners take too much of a holier-than-thou attitude towards their commitment to free speech, they would do well to remember that up until very recently Christian conservatives had a powerful influence on constraining freedom of expression. This shows that it is religion in general (or rigid secular ideological orthodoxy) that is a significant barrier to free thought and inquiry, not just Islam.

In fact, a number of majority Christian European countries, as well as Israel, still have laws against blasphemy or insulting religion on their books, and though most no longer apply them, some still do, such as Poland and Greece. Meanwhile, nearby Albania is a majority Muslim country which has a long history of atheism and no laws against blasphemy or insulting religion, and has never prosecuted anyone for such a crime.

In Russia, the punk-rock band Pussy Riot was recently convicted for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”, though how their “punk prayer” was offensive to Christianity is unclear, though it was highly insulting to Russia’s earthly deity, President Vladimir Putin.

Further West, cinematic classics, such as Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, elicited angry protests across the Christian world, including the firebombing of a Paris movie theatre, and was banned outright in Mexico, Chile and Argentina.

Likewise, The Life of Brian, also elicited widespread protest – despite Monty Python’s respectful portrayal of Jesus and their insistence that the film is not blasphemous but only lampoons modern organised religion and the sheep-like mentality it inspires in followers – was banned in parts of the UK, in Norway and in Ireland, and British television declined to show it.

But the current protests are paradoxically both about Muhammad but also have absolutely nothing to do with him. The insult to Muhammad was just an issue of convenience and, had it been absent, another cause would have emerged for popular frustration and fury.

This is not because, as some Westerners seem to believe, that rage and fury are fulltime occupations for Muslims, but because they are fed up with American hegemony (and local corruption) and dominance over their lives, from the bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the decades spent supporting and propping up corrupt and brutal dictators, while paying lip service to the haughty ideals of freedom and democracy.

This fact has been conveniently overlooked by Pax Americana’s cheerleaders who, despite having been thrown off kilter by the revolutionary wave which has swept the Middle East, are now returning to business as usual with their suggestions that the fury unleashed by the anti-Muhammad film is incontrovertible proof of the irreconcilability of Western and Islamic values.

Describing herself as a “combatant in the clash of civilisations”, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-Dutch feminist, atheist and advocate of neo-con policies uses the latest flare up to call for more, not less, US intervention in the region to bring down political Islam “in the same way we helped bring about the demise of the former Soviet Union”.

Although I admire Hirsi Ali’s courage in standing by her convictions despite death threats, I cannot abide her politics, her wilful myopia to the destructiveness of much of America’s interventions, and her insistence that there is a “clash of civilsations”.

In my view, there are clashes of many things in this world – trivilisations, idiocies, fundamentalisms – but no clash of civilisations. Although culture and ideology can on rare occasions lead to conflict, for the most part, societies enter into conflicts due to clashes of interests.

That would explain, for instance, why the United States decided to invade Saddam Hussein’s secular Iraq, even though it was a sworn enemy of al-Qaeda and Jihadist Islam, yet is bosom buddies with Saudi Arabia, the hotbed of reactionary Wahhabism and the home of most of the alleged hijackers who took part in the 11 September 2001 attacks. It also sheds light on why Israel once short-sightedly backed Islamist Hamas as a counterweight against the secular PLO.

Despite the mutually exclusive historical narratives of Dar al-Islam and Christendom, of Crusades and Jihads promoted by extremists, any deep reading of history will soon reveal that conflicts within self-identified cultural or civilisational groups are greater than those between them. Christians and Muslims have gone to war and killed more of their coreligionists than each other. Take, for example, World War II, whose Christian-on-Christian carnage far surpassed anything the Muslims had ever inflicted. Moreover, the mutual hatred of Catholics and Protestants and Sunnis and Shia’a has often surpassed the rivalry between Islam and Christianity.

Add to that the fact that alliances regularly cut across presumed civilisational lines, such as the Arabs allying themselves with the British and the French against the Turks, or the Ottomans fighting alongside the Germans against the British, French and Russians. In fact, throughout its centuries as a major power, the Ottoman Empire’s alliances shifted between various Christian European states, including France, Poland, as well as the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic House of Habsburg.

More fundamentally, despite popular references to a “Judeo-Christian” civilisation, Islam actually also belongs to the same civilisational group, with common roots in the Abrahamic tradition, not to mention the Greek and Hellenistic, Mesopotamian and Egyptian influences. In fact, Europe and the Middle East, especially the Mediterranean countries, have more in common with each other than they do with their co-religionists in Africa and further east in Asia.

Some will undoubtedly protest that, even if this is true, the Enlightenment and its values, such as freedom of expression, have largely passed the Arab and Muslim world by. But the reality is far more complex and nuanced. Although Arabs and Muslims generally lag behind scientifically, this is not just down to local cultural factors. There are plenty of geopolitical and economic factors which are beyond their control holding them back.

More importantly, the values of the Enlightenment have been an integral part of the secularising and modernising reform project in the Middle East that began in Turkey and Egypt in the 19th century. More recently, it was the desire for freedom and democracy – as well as economic justice – which lured millions of protesters onto the streets, and even if mainstream Islamists have made the biggest gains for now, they have had to adapt their discourse to suit this public mood.

What all this demonstrates is that the clash of civilisations exists mostly in the fevered imaginations of extremists on both sides, but we are in danger of it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy if we allow ourselves to fall for the divisive, though alluring in its simplicity, logic of the prophets of doom. To remedy and challenge this, moderates on all sides must join forces to highlight the reality and benefits of the mash of civilisations in which we really live.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 23 September 2012.

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نصف يوم مع “آخِر” يهودي عربي

 
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بقلم خالد دياب

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

الخميس 9 اغسطس 2012

English version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Half a day with the “last Arab Jew”

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Wednesday 1 August 2012

النسخة العربية

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Thursday 19 July 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Social media and the end of nationalism as we know it

 
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By Osama Diab

As social media strip away the space and time separating like-minded people, is the notion of “nationalism” becoming too small for us?

Friday 8 June 2012

Not in the very distant past, the media and media platforms were mostly specific to individual countries, and the interactivity and communicativeness of traditional media was very minimal. Unlike social media, people from two ends of the world were unable to communicate directly and form communities using traditional media, such as radio or TV. The rise of social media has given rise to virtual spaces in which virtual communities can be formed and flourish. But what effect will this have on actual physical spaces and communities that are based on geographical proximity?

The idea of cosmopolitanism can be traced back thousands of years at least to the time of ancient Greek philosophy. However, historically, cosmopolitanism was confined to philosophy and was limited to haughty debate among philosophers, sociologists and academics. This might be changing now, and due to the renewed interest in globalisation, cosmopolitanism might find its way to the grassroots level. Ulrich Beck, the German sociologist argues that “[cosmopolitanism] has left the realm of philosophical castles in the air and has entered reality”.

Nationalism, based on geography, wouldn’t have been possible if it had not been for the mass media. Benedict Anderson, the Irish scholar, argues that print-capitalism laid the bases for national consciousness by creating “mechanically reproduced print-langauges capable of dissemination through the market”. Today, the world is becoming more compressed in terms of time and space, crushed by faster transportation and communication, and the closing of distances this involves. When we take into consideration the speed at which data travels, time and space actually almost completely collapse.

Will our unprecedented ability to communicate through time and space increase the scope of imagined “national” communities? If nationalism in essence is the ability to identify and belong to a people in a particular geographical area, what are the factors that determine the size and the scope of this area of community?

Benedict Anderson famously argues in his book Imagined Communities that speakers of the different variety of English, French, and Spanish who would often find it difficult to understand one another, became able to communicate and understand through print and paper. They then became aware of the other similar people in their ‘langauge-field’, forming the so-called imagined communities. Driven by the capitalists’ desire to enlarge markets, they pushed out the boundaries of their community to form larger communities.

Anderson links the emergence of nationalist ideologies with the emergence of print capitalism. According to Anderson’s theory, the limit of which people will imagine a community is, at least, partially dependent on the media they share and the interest of media owners (the capitalists) in unifying factors, such as language, in order to get a larger amount of people to consume their products. In this process, many minority languages and cultures might be suppressed, but nevertheless, bridges of understanding and empathy are arguably built. So what happens when the media cross national boundaries to cover the whole globe and the interests of capitalists becomes transnational?

In a similar manner to how profit-driven capitalism encouraged the “assembly”, or convergence, of vernaculars into a single language, enabling people identify with a larger community for the first time, the modern multinational corporation and global media encourages people to “learn” a global language. This phenomenon is like Anderson’s print-capitalism but on a much larger scale.

Kenichi Ohmae, the Japanese corporate strategist, states that global firms must share a common language and that mother country identity must give way to corporate identity. The emergence of English as a global lingua franca inevitably intensifies the level of communication and shared cultural experiences between people from different parts of the world at an unprecedented rate.

Ulf Hannerz, the Swedish social anthropologist, argues that in order for a transnational corporation to operate in a global world, it must not have ties with any particular location and develop a more decentralised approach by getting rid of the central headquarters mentality. The global forward-looking firms must create a system of values to be shared by company managers regardless of their backgrounds or whereabouts to replace “the glue nation-based orientation once provided”.

This is why in multinational or transnational corporations, who in some cases, are bigger, wealthier and more powerful than states, the role of the human resource management is to create a culture and identity for the company which will develop a feeling of loyalty similar to that citizens feel towards a state. In this model, the corporation an employee works for becomes part of their identity in what Hannerz calls the “transnational source of identity”. The same applies to social and political movements which share the same cause. The “we are the 99%” slogan is mostly associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement, but was used in many other Occupy camps around the world.

Paradoxically, the very regime that created and was the engine behind globalised free trade is now being fought and criticised using the tools and weapons it created. If we take Occupy activists from two different countries as an example, they would probably communicate and coordinate in English using Google Mail, Facebook or Skype and transfer money through an HSBC account and they might even book a conference hall in the Hilton for their annual meeting. This makes the anti-globalisation movement quite globalised and highly reliant on transnational corporate brands to express its anti-corporate sentiments.

It seems inevitable that we, and more certainly future generations, will be less likely to identify ourselves primarily in terms of a narrow geographical areas, and more likely to associate along more cosmopolitan lines, according to political or cultural identity, for example. This will require a new approach to studying these phenomena such as Beck’s “cosmopolitan sociology”.

It might be useful here to draw on Raymond Williams theory of the three cultural moments: dominant, emergent and residual. In the age of global de-territorialised media, we could perhaps define cosmopolitanism as the emergent, nationalism as the dominant and tribalism as the residual. Just as the spread of nationalism didn’t completely stamp out tribalism, the collapse of national psychological barriers and the rise of cosmopolitanism will also not abolish nationalism overnight.

Cosmopolitanism is no longer a naïve and rosy vision that the world will become more pacifistic and a better place to live, but rather a perception of the self where national borders play a less significant role in the modern person’s identity, or rather multiple identities. It is also useful not to view cosmopolitanism and nationalism as conflicting and mutually exclusive. Human beings are capable of ‘hosting’ multiple identities. Therefore, the growth in cosmopolitanism doesn’t instantly suggest a decline in nationalism, but would just add a new layer of empathy which is the ‘cosmo’, or the globe, that wasn’t commonplace before due to the relative limitation in means of transport and communication.

It is likely that divisions, conflicts, and differences will remain but they will gradually become less along national lines and more across lines which are political, religious, ideological, etc. Empathy, accordingly, might become less based on geographical proximity but rather on ideological proximity. An Egyptian Marxist might be able to identify more with an Italian Marxist than with a ‘fellow’ Egyptian Islamist. Amid the increasing importance and impact of virtual places, geographic spaces will begin to face some serious competition. Sharing your concerns with someone thousands miles away from you while thinking of your next door neighbour as a stranger might be an increasing phenomenon in the near future.

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