Socialising with the disabled: A guide for the perplexed

 
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By Raya Al-Jadir

Out of awkardness, the able-bodied find it hard to deal with the disabled. The golden rule is to treat the handicapped like the normal people they are.

Disabled sign

Friday 18 September 2015

Regular interaction with people of various backgrounds equips us to better deal, communicate and empathise with others.  This is particularly important when it comes to people living with disabilities. Despite progress made in integrating and empowering the disabled, so many able-bodied people still find it hard to deal with and feel awkard around those with a handicap – and this is more often out of ignorance or inexperience, rather than malice.

To help end these ‘awkward moments’, I consulted with disabled friends and acquaintances, as well as online support groups, to produce a list of 10 things that you should refrain from doing when meeting a person living with disability.

  1. The Stare

Having a disability is not an invitation to stare and examine that person. It could be intriguing to see someone who has different abilities to you, but that is not an excuse to pry into their private space – we are not a freak show nor some kind of entertainment for your amusement. Staring will not gain you any useful information. If you sincerely have questions or are curious to learn more about the person, then politely approach them. This would be better than standing far away, staring and making them feel uncomfortable.

  1. Make eye contact

So when you are on the opposite side of the street you stare at the disabled person but when you are in front of each other and actually speaking, you look at everything but the actual person – this is an all too common scenario. It is a sign of courtesy to look at the person you are speaking with. Just because the person is disabled, it does not mean they should be treated with less respect, no matter how uncomfortable their disabilitiy makes you feel. If they are in a wheelchair, then stoop or bend down to be at the same level as them – it will be of mutual benefit, as you can both hear each other better and communicate in a more friendly fashion.

  1. No pets allowed

A disabled person does not crave a hug and certainly not a pat on the head from strangers, so save the patronising acts. Even if you have the best of intentions, you must remember that the person with disability is an adult like you regardless of height/weight/appearance, and deserves the same respect that you expect of people. Treat others as you would like to be treated. One disabled person that was interviewed for this article narrated a story of her being a guest at an event  where she met another lady who for some reason felt the need to pat the disabled person’s head as a form of goodbye. It may seem like a nice gesture or a form of affection, but the disabled person, who is an adult herself, did not appreciate the pat on the head. It made her feel like a pet or a young child.

  1. Talking over your head

Whatever you do, do not ignore the disabled person. It may make you feel more comfortable to address their companion, but it is hurtful and insulting to the disabled person. One disabled woman related an incident where she was slightly lost and asked for directions, yet the man she approached decided to address her non-English speaking carer and show her the way. The carer clearly did not understand a word so looked confused, and the woman in the wheelchair pointed out that it was her who had asked for help. This made the man feel embarrassed. It is a sign of respect to talk directly to, and not over the head of, a disabled person – it’s also more fun.

  1. “What happened?”

Curiosity is a natural human instinct, but how would knowing the reason behind the person’s disability improve your life? There are so many incidents of disabled people being stopped by perfect strangers asking what had happened to them, clearly assuming that an accident of some sort is the cause of the disability, as though being born disabled is a rarity. Knowledge is important and learning about disability is a commendable aspect, as it enables better interaction and understanding, but there is a difference between seeking information for constructive purposes and just plain curious interference. Remember, not everyone is comfortable with their disability and may not want to talk about it, while others will regard it as personal information that cannot be shared with a stranger. If you want to learn about disability, get to know the person first, then ask questions. Now that you are thinking about it, you may come to recognise that people you already know have “invisible” forms of disability.

  1. Pity

Just because a person is differently abled to you it does not mean that they are in a worse situation than you or are in pain or have no purpose in life and deserve your pity. Many people with disability lead a full and active life and, yes, they might endure pain, but they need understanding and acceptance, rather than pity.

  1. Assumptions based on falsehood

If you see a disabled person in the company of others, there is no need to tell the person with a disability, “You are lucky to have such good friends who take you out,” or “You are lucky to have such a wonderful mother who cares for you.” It may seem harmless, but it is hurtful and patronising. Bear in mind that your sweeping observation based on your interpretation of the situation is not necessarily factual. For example, who says that the disabled person needs others to take them out? They may well have just met up with them in that particular place, and even if friends did take them out, why would they need praising, isn’t that what friends do? Just as most mothers would treat their children with care.

  1. Angels and demons

Not every disabled person is angelic, in need of help or of low intellectual ability, so don’t judge them based on appearance or preconceived ideas. Don’t assume that the disabled person is not educated enough or smart enough to converse with you. Many disabled people are university graduates. On the other extreme, being disabled does not give your immaculate, angelic qualities. Being different in ability does not make us special creatures. We are essentially human beings, and all humans have flaws. Finally, don’t assume that the disabled person is in need of help. If they require it, they will ask, so don’t just plunge in without asking if assistance is needed.

  1. Childhood curiosity

If your child is staring or asking questions loudly about the disabled person that they see, don’t tell the child off and shout. Either explain in detail what disability entails or encourage the child to speak with the disabled person, rather than staring with fear from a distance. Beware: children copy adults, so don’t set a bad example by staring yourself.

  1. Divine intervention

Certain people associate God, religion and salvation with disability. There are people that start to thank God and pray loudly in front of the disabled person for being saved from his or her predicament. While it is important to show gratitude and offer thanks to God for our health and well-being, there is no need to do it overtly and openly in front of the disabled person as it signifies superiority, as though you are better off and have been chosen by God instead of him or her. When you see a person living with disability, don’t offer them your prayers for a “cure” – even if you feel it is a selfless gesture. Don’t assume that the disabled person wants a “cure” – we are all different, with our own aspirations. Just because you were born without disability and regard it as the norm and best status, it does not apply to everyone. A person born with a disability will often regard his/her status as the most appropriate because it is what they know. Similarly, don’t ask for a prayer from a disabled person. They are ordinary human beings, just like you, with no special powers or closer connection to God.

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Palestinian history ✝ – Christians are Arab too

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite what some in the Knesset think, Christians in Israel are Arabs too and have been prominent in Palestinian politics, society and culture.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 6 March 2014

“This is a historic and important move that could help balance the state of Israel, and connect us and the Christians,” said Yariv Levin, the Likud Knesset member behind the controversial new law to distinguish between Israel’s indigenous Christian and Muslim minorities.

While being a minority within a minority does make Palestinian Christians more vulnerable than their Muslim compatriots, the issues facing the two are generally the same. Besides, the law seems to be about anything but the enfranchisement and empowerment of a shrinking minority – otherwise its sponsor would’ve made some effort to understand the group he was targeting.

In fact, for someone who calls a law “historic”, Levin shows precious little understanding of history.

“I’m being careful about not calling [Christians] Arabs because they aren’t Arabs,” Levin asserted confidently, throwing prudence, intelligence and knowledge to the winds of his bigotry.

My incredulity was driven by the fact that not only are Christians in this part of the world as much Arabs as Muslims, there were actually, it would shock Levin to learn, Arab Christians, as there were Arab Jews, long before there were ever any Muslims.

In the modern era, it might perplex Levin to discover, that Christians actually invented and defined “Arab” in its modern meaning… at least in part. Whereas once “Arab” referred solely to the inhabitants of Arabia and those descended from the Arab tribes, in the modern era, the word took a far, far broader and more inclusive meaning.

The Ottoman millet system divided people according to their religious faith, giving each community autonomy over its own affairs. But as the Ottomans turned into the original “sick man of Europe”, the subject peoples of the empire, influenced by ideas imported from 19th-century European nationalism, struggled for independence. These included the Arabic-speaking peoples of the region.

The Arab struggle against the Ottomans took place at three levels: Islamic, local nationalist and pan-Arabist. Unsurprisingly given their traditional dhimmi (non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic state ) status, Christian intellectuals were among the leading proponents and inventors of the idea of secular Arab nationalism, in which all Arabic speakers, regardless of religion, would be equal citizens in a utopian Arab nation which would stretch from the Atlantic to the Arabian Sea.

Some of the most prominent leaders of the grassroots Arab uprising against the Ottomans were Christians. One of the earliest Arab nationalists, the Syrian Christian Ibrahim el-Yazigi, who eventually became a member of a secret anti-Ottoman society, penned a rousing patriotic poem which was incredibly popular in the mid-19th century, Arise, ye Arabs and Awake.

Today, the pan-Arabist movement of the 20th century is generally associated with Egypt’s Gamal Abdel-Nasser. But Nasser actually started off essentially as an Egyptian nationalist. The roots of pan-Arab nationalism actually lie in the Levant.

Jurji Zaydan – a Lebanese Christian intellectual and one of the Arab world’s first media moguls who was interestingly a prolific writer of novels themed around Islamic history – is often credited as its founding father.

In Palestine, though a relative cultural backwater at the time, Khalil al-Sakakini – who would eventually be excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church – pioneered a progressive schooling system based on collaboration, rather than competition, and Arab nationalism.

As a coherent secular political ideology, pan-Arabism was first formulated by three Syrian thinkers – Constantin ZureiqMichel Aflaq and Zaki al-Arsuzi – all of whom belonged not to the Sunni Muslim majority, but to the Christian and Alawite minorities.

In the Palestinian context, many of the leading champions of the Palestinian cause, especially on the left, were Christian, as were many of its most prominent figures in all walks of life. For instance, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the second-largest faction in the PLO, was founded by George Habash, who, like Che Guevara, was a doctor turned Marxist revolutionary. Without a single Islamic or Islamist bone in his body, Habash advocated, following the crushing 1967 defeat, the idea of armed, revolutionary struggle, including spectacular acts of terrorism, as the only way to liberate his homeland.

One of the first intifada’s most eloquent young leaders, who marked the shift to a new generation of more savvy, media-genic Palestinian politicians, Hanan Ashrawi, is also a Christian. Ashrawi is also a prominent Palestinian academic, who was the protégé of Edward Said who, though he became an agnostic, was raised as a Protestant.

In addition to being a pioneer in the critical study of Orientalism and one of the founding figures of Post-Colonialism, Said was the face of the Palestinian cause in the United States for much of his life.

Given the contempt in which many Israelis and pro-Israel activists hold Edward Said and George Habash, it is puzzling that Yariv Levin should claim that: “We and the Christians have a lot in common. They’re our natural allies.”

But perhaps the situation is different within Israel? While Christians in Israel have made significant cultural and economic contributions to the state, this can often be critical. Take Elia Suleiman’s bleakly beautiful Divine Intervention, which highlighted how love can conquer all, with the exception of checkpoints and occupations.

Nevertheless, Christians in Israel are “a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the country from within”, insists Levin.

And Levin has been at the vanguard of efforts to protect Israel against these efforts “to destroy the country from within”. He was the co-author of the “Bishara Law”, which stripped an Arab MK of his pension following allegations of “aiding the enemy”.

The enemy in question was Hizbullah and the Knesset member who was allegedly using “state resources to destroy it”, in Levin’s words, was none other than Azmi Bishara.

The trouble for Levin is that Bishara was no Jihadist Muslim but happens to be a Christian from Nazareth who identifies very much as an Arab and a Palestinian, being the founder of the Balad party, as he is.

If Levin truly believes that Christians are “our natural allies”, why did he not stand up for Bishara, whom many believe was the victim of a political witch-hunt which lead him to flee the country, instead of leading the charge against him?

The cavernous contradictions in Levin’s discourse and positions suggests that he is either engaging in classic divide-and-rule politics or is ignorant. Most dangerous of all, I suspect that he is both.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 2 March 2014.

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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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