The Christian Allah

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

Muslim and Christian bigots who don’t speak Arabic believe that “Allah” is only for Muslims. They are wrong: Allah is God and God is Allah.

"Allah" pre-dates Islam. The word was used by the Arabs to refer to the chief god of Mecca who was venerated around the black stone of the Ka’aba.

“Allah” pre-dates Islam. The word was used by the Arabs to refer to the chief god of Mecca who was venerated around the black stone of the Ka’aba.

Monday 7 October 2013

Malaysia is quite literally embroiled in a holy war of words – and the word in question is “Allah”. The government there wants to ban Christians from using what it regards as a word which should be used only by Muslims.

In 2008, the government threatened to revoke the publishing licence of the Catholic Herald, if the newspaper did not stop referring to God as Allah. This would be problematic, as it would force the newspaper to misquote the centuries-old Malay version of the Bible, and the local alternative, Tuhan, is used to refer specifically to “the Lord”.

Fortunately, Malaysia’s high court displayed more sense and ruled in the newspaper’s favour. Unfortunately, the authorities insisted on throwing sensibility to the wind and launched an appeal, which the appeal court began hearing in September, and is due to deliver a verdict on in October.

As is so often the case, the dispute is the symptom of deeper troubles. Despite the fact that Malaysians, in their kaleidoscope of religious and racial diversity, tend to “talk conflict, but they walk cohesion,” as one academic put it, the country has been experiencing rising tensions between its various groups.

In addition, though it is perhaps the world’s longest-ruling party, Barisan Nasional (the National Front) has seen its support base dwindle in recent years. In May, Barisan, whose three race-based parties play on sectarian grounds outside of elections, gained less than half of the popular vote.

Despite statistical evidence to the contrary, Prime Minister Najib Razak blamed the erosion on a “Chinese tsunami”. In addition, the Malaysian government has been under growing pressure from Islamic parties, and this has led the government, as has occurred elsewhere, to play the piety card and engage in identity politics.

But is there any validity to the case for limiting Allah to Muslims? Absolutely not.

The controversy is partly fuelled by confusion. Most Malaysians do not speak Arabic and so some of the Muslims among them may be under the false impression that “Allah” is exclusively Islamic.

But they are mistaken. “Allah’ is simply the Arabic word for “God”, or even “god”.

The word itself – which is probably a contraction of the Arabic al-illah (the God) – pre-dates Islam. It was used by the Arabs to refer to the chief god of Mecca, whom they believed to be the creator of the world and the giver of rain and was venerated around the black stone of the Ka’aba.

With the advent of Islam, Allah topped the list of the 99 names of God. But even under Islam, the word “Allah” has not lost its general sense. For example, the beginning of the shehada, or Islamic creed, tells us that: “La illaha ila Allah”, or “There is no god but God”. The word is also used in the plural form, ‘alleha‘, to refer to the Egyptian and Greek pantheons, for example.

It should then come as no surprise that Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews have, for centuries, referred to God as Allah. In Egypt, for instance, Copts say “Allah mahaba” or “God is love” and I have met Christians whose name is Abdullah (Servant of God).

The fact that Arab and Maltese Christians worship “Allah” while Malaysian Christians have gone to court to defend their right to do so is likely to confuse many conservatives and anti-Muslims in the West.

This is reflected in the controversy in January when a Colorado school allowed pupils to recite the pledge of allegiance in Arabic, sparking anger that the kids were expressing their loyalty to “one nation under Allah”.

But this is just plain ridiculous: Allah is God and God is Allah.

That is why it sometimes irritates me when English translations of the Qur’an talk of Allah, not God. After all, English translations of the Bible do not tend to use the Aramaic or Hebrew words for God but employ a Germanic one, which derives from guthan, meaning “That which is invoked”.

But some conservative Christians will invoke in their defence that Muslims pray to a different deity to them and so this must be distinguished. But this is nonsense of the highest order. Though they may disagree on certain ideological and doctrinal issues, and even a little on the nature of God, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all worship the same monotheistic deity.

In fact, it is not a stretch to say that the three religions are essentially branches of the same faith, as has been suggested by numerous scholars and writers. That is why Muslims refer to the “People of the Book”, and all three religions trace their roots back to Abraham, whom they believe to be their common patriarch.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 3 October 2013.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Related posts

Palestinian liberation through the Israeli ballot box

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 5.0/10 (2 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

Despite their marginalisation or disenfranchisement in Israeli politics, Palestinians can use Israel’s democratic tools to their advantage.

Thursday 31 January 2013

The expected massive swing further to the right in Israel did not materialise, with, according to some estimates, an even 60-60 split of seats in the Knesset between the “left” and “right”. Although incumbent prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is not quite out, he is definitely down – and there exists the theoretical, though unlikely, scenario that he might not retain his position as prime minister if the famously fractured centre and left join forces.

Meanwhile, the new kingmaker, though probably not the king, is not, as many had forecasted, Naftali Bennett or the ultra-nationalist and religious right, or at least not them alone, but the compulsively centrist Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, which came in second, with an estimated 19 seats.

This gain for the centre, if not exactly the left, has enabled many secular and progressive Israelis to breathe a sigh of relief, though not necessarily to breathe more easily. “The Knesset as a whole looks like it will be significantly more moderate as a whole than after the last elections,” said on Israeli friend, Rifka, expressing a certain cautious optimism.

In fact, many on the Israeli left feel little elation, and some are gripped by a sense of deflation. “The public of floating voters went for the middle-class chauvinist TV presenter with good hair and mood music and the charming high-tech guy who calls them ‘achi’ (‘brother’),” believes Udi, a young British-Israeli. “This is a victory for banal, naïve, escapist anti-politics.”

And Yair Lapid, nicknamed Tofu Man by one commentator, is perhaps the greatest example of this escapist anti-politics. He is an actor, a journalist and a TV presenter. But when it comes to politics – he is a political novice and lightweight. He seems to have gained so many votes partly through his superficial charm and the fact that he is a household name, and partly by maintaining an almost pathological silence on the political issues dividing left and right during his campaign.

Another area of major escapism in Israeli politics relates to the Palestinian question – and the occupation hardly featured as an election issue, not even as a minor preoccupation, except perhaps with the religious and revisionist rights’ unapologetic determination to further extend and entrench the Israeli settlement enterprise and even to annex large swathes of the West Bank.

“It was a surprise to everyone that the centre and centre-left have revitalised themselves, but when it comes to Palestinians, no one is jumping with joy,” admitted veteran PLO politician Hanan Ashrawi in an article, expressing a widespread sentiment among Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Faced as they are with an apparently unending occupation and its attendant machinations – walls, checkpoints, martial law, ever-growing settlements, the absence of sovereignty and self-determination – and the indignity this produces, it is hardly surprising that the Palestinians of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza have little to no faith in the Israeli electoral process.

However, the lack of enthusiasm stretches across the Green Line to Palestinians living in Israel who, at least theoretically, enjoy equal citizenship and have the right to vote. They are frustrated by how the Israeli political establishment at best ignores them and at worst passes legislation that actively discriminates against them, despite the political leverage their votes should afford them.

In addition, even though they are generally better off materially than Palestinians living under occupation and enjoy greater freedom than Arabs living under autocratic regimes, they are nonetheless marginalised and stigmatised socially and economically. As one resident of Umm al-Fahm explained: “This is not my country. I don’t receive my rights in this state.”

This translated into widespread apathy – and a certain measure of active boycotting – towards the recent vote, with pre-election surveys suggesting that only half of Arab voters would cast a ballot, compared with some 75% in 1999. At the time of press, it was unclear what the actual voter turnout among Palestinian-Israelis was, though indications were that it would be far lower than the nearly 70% national average, despite the efforts of Arab parties, politicians, community activists and even the Arab League to bring out the vote.

One young Palestinian who had not intended to vote changed her mind at the last minute when she got wind of how low voter turnout in her community was. “I got nervous and upset. I grabbed everyone I know who didn’t vote and drove them [to the polling station],” she admitted.

In total, Arab and mixed Arab-Jewish parties together managed to secure an estimated 12 seats in the Knesset: United Arab List (5), Hadash (4) and Balad (3). Some lament the low voter turnout as a missed opportunity.

“Let’s assume they had voted in large numbers and managed to get 20 seat, which is feasible, then the Arab parties would have had the power to impose their opinion,” believes Hamodie Abonadda, a television producer and Hadash voter. Abonadda speculates that armed with that many seats, the Arab parties would have become impossible to ignore (as Lapid has insisted he will do) by the left and could have made it, for the first time in Israeli history, into a ruling Israeli coalition.

It is my conviction that the political leverage of Palestinians in the Israeli system could be multiplied significantly if the 300,000 or so Palestinian Jerusalemites joined the fray and decided to claim their right to vote.

However, this would involve them applying for Israeli citizenship, which many oppose because it would, they fear, give legitimacy to Israel’s decision to annex Jerusalem. In fact, in the clash between ideology and pragmatism, even participating in municipal elections, which Jerusalem residents are allowed to do without becoming citizens, is still regarded as an unacceptable form of “normalisation”, as I have heard from numerous activists.

“For too long… there has been this taboo on voting for the municipal elections because if one does vote then he/she is seen as a ‘traitor’,” explains Apo Sahagian, an Armenian-Palestinian musician and writer from the old city of Jerusalem. “But this mentality has only worked to the Palestinians’ disadvantage… For example, the approval given to settlement construction starts on the municipal level. If there is enough opposition at that initial level, then that settlement enterprise can be stopped or interrupted.”

Though Sahagian believes that only “raw pragmatism” will save the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom and equality, he opposes the idea of Palestinians in Jerusalem applying for Israeli citizenship. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that “in a different reality” the combined vote of Jerusalemite Palestinians and Palestinian-Israelis would “shake the political landscape of Israel”.

And “raw pragmatism” is guiding a growing number of Palestinians in East Jerusalem to learn Hebrew, as attested to by the plethora of posters advertising language courses, and even to apply for Israeli citizenship, which they see, in light of the vulnerable status of the permanent residence cards that can be taken away fairly easily, as a way of guaranteeing their presence in their beloved city, and hence preserving what remains of its Palestinian character. “What is the difference between having an Israeli ID and an Israeli passport? They’re both Israeli documents, but one gives you rights, the other does not,” one young Jerusalemite who had recently acquired citizenship confessed to me.

There are Jerusalemites I know who argue that the potential combined political clout of Palestinians in Israel and in Jerusalem could also help ease the suffering of their kin in the West Bank and Gaza.

Despite the fact that this emerging trend has sparked controversy, even within individual families, many Palestinians who are moving down this path are doing so out of principle, not just pragmatism, seeing it as an important step along the road to a single, democratic, bi-national, Arab-Jewish state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river.

A friend and neighbour from Jerusalem, with whom I spent long hours dreaming of a better future, expresses this reality succinctly: “There will not be two states. There is already only one state. All the people of this one state should be represented at the ballot box.”

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 26 January 2013.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 5.0/10 (2 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Related posts

Learning about the Holocaust… in Arabic

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +2 (from 4 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (4 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

A joint trip to Jerusalem’s Holocaust Memorial provides Palestinians and Israelis with lessons in tragedy, pain and mutual respect.

Monday 24 September 2012

Participants learn about the Holocaust in Arabic… and Hebrew. Photo: Dara Frank

“Please excuse my broken Arabic,” our guide, Yehuda Yarin, told the mixed group of Palestinians and Israelis who had come to Jerusalem’s Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, to learn more about the Holocaust as part of a three-day, self-financed joint trip (Tiyul-Rihla) which had taken them to Acre, Haifa and Jerusalem.

Yarin, whose ‘day job’ is to guide groups of Jews and Israelis in Poland, including to Auschwitz, has the distinction of being Yad Vashem’s only Arabic-language guide. “I first studied Arabic many years ago, at high school. But, you know, at high school, the level is not very good,” he told me. “Later, I started to learn, ya’ani, logha ameya [colloquial Arabic].”

When the new Yad Vashem – the largest Holocaust museum in the world and Israel’s second most popular tourist site – was opened in 2005, the odd Arabic-speaking group would come to visit, and Yarin, who had begun working as a guide there, was asked to show them around.

Since then, Yarin has guided Palestinians, both from the West Bank and Israel, as well as the occasional visitors from further afield, such as Egypt. “Some of them know nothing. Some of them never heard about the Holocaust. Some of them know the history. It depends,” he notes.

Although Yarin is at pains to emphasise that he doesn’t know what his Arab visitors “think in their hearts”, he is generally impressed by the level of interest they exhibit and their inquisitiveness. “I’m glad when they ask questions,” he confesses.

With the help of Arabic-speaking Israelis and Hebrew-speaking Palestinians in the group, Yarin attempted to convey the magnitude and mindlessness of the one-sided slaughter to his audience.

He said that the Holocaust was unique among modern mass killings because it was completely ideological and was not an extreme manifestation of a political conflict – over territory or competing nationalisms – as other attempted exterminations were. “The Jews were not the enemies of the German people and they represented no threat to Hitler,” he explained.

Although in terms of Jewish history the Holocaust is unique, sadly, the annals of 20th century butchery are filled with genocides, classicides and other mass murders of defenceless groups.

Inside the sombre and sober pyramid-shaped, zigzagging galleries of the museum, the Tiyul-Rihla group of seven Israelis and six Palestinians, who had come on this three-day excursion which was organised by volunteers and largely paid for by the participants, wandered through Nazism’s hall of shame, starting with the rise of Hitler, through the Warsaw ghetto, to the horrors of the “Final Solution” and its death camps.

Familiar with this horrendous chapter in history, the Israelis followed the commentary and exhibits mostly in rapt silence. For the young Palestinians who were being exposed to the full extent of Nazi atrocities for the first time, their attempts to grasp the enormity led them to ply our guide with a constant stream of questions.

“If the Jews were so assimilated and successful, why did the Germans turn against them?”

“Was Einstein Jewish?”

“Why did the Jews believe the lies about the Nazi death camps?”

“Why didn’t the Soviets help the Jews?”

“Why did the West refuse to take in the Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors?”

The personal stories showcased in the museum gave the whole experience a human face which the Palestinians visibly appreciated, while the section dedicated to the “Righteous among the Nations”, which chronicles non-Jews who protected Jews – including Muslims in Bosnia, Albania, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and other countries – elicited the interest of both sides.

The Arabic being spoken by members of the group drew curious glances from Israeli visitors to the museum, who seemed to be trying to figure out what we were about. The passers-by included groups of young IDF recruits, apparently on motivational tours, who caused unarticulated yet visible stirrings of discomfort among the young Palestinian, whose only exposure to Israeli soldiers, though they are of a similar age, is as agents of the occupation.

Although some in the group had been to Yad Vashem before, experiencing it with this unusual group was an eye-opener. “It’s important to see something you think you know well through someone else’s eyes,” believes Dara Frank (22), an American-Israeli student who is currently working on a master’s in international relations at the Hebrew University, because it makes you “start questioning what you think you already know”.

“When it comes to the Holocaust, we only learn the basics about it at school, that Hitler slaughtered the Jews, so this trip has helped us acquire a lot of extra knowledge,” reflected Mohammed Mahareeq (23), who is originally from Hebron but works at a hotel in Ramallah and volunteers with the Palestinian Red Crescent.

The idea that Palestinians study the Holocaust at school, visit Yad Vashem and display genuine interest in the tragedy that befell the Jews of Europe is likely to come as something of a surprise to many Israelis who see regular reports in the media of Arab and Muslim Holocaust denial.

One recent example was Hamas’s angry response following the visit to Auschwitz by Ziad al-Bandak, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Describing the Holocaust as an “alleged tragedy”, a Hamas spokesman said the visit was “unjustified and unhelpful”.

While Hamas’s outburst, as well as the relative availability of literature questioning the Holocaust in some Arab countries, prove that there are certainly Arabs who insultingly deny that this horrendous crime took place. But fixating on Holocaust deniers, as many segments of the Israeli media tend to do, distorts the reality and downplays the importance of the work of the likes of al-Bandak, who visited Auschwitz and expressed sympathy for the historic plight of his people’s enemy, and he did so during a period of heightened animosity and distrust between the two sides.

And he is not a lone wolf. Many Palestinians are aware of the historic tragedy that befell their Jewish neighbours, but are often muted in expressing their sympathy due to the bitterness of the conflict or out of a conviction that it will be used as a political weapon against them. “Many Palestinians feel that sympathising too much with Israelis could lead to justification for the occupation,” Sami Adwan, a professor of education at Bethlehem University, was once quoted by the BBC as saying.

But there are those who point out that mutual sympathy is essential to building trust and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. Determined to act on this conviction, one eccentric Palestinian-Israeli opened up his own tiny Arab Holocaust museum in Nazareth some years ago and tours the West Bank raising awareness about this dark chapter.

“When Palestinians learn about the Holocaust, they will understand the Jewish people better and can begin to develop a shared history,” Khaled Mahameed, the founder of the tiny museum he established with his own money, was quoted as saying.

And building understanding and compassion is exactly what the joint Tiyul/Rihla that brought these Palestinians and Israelis to Yad Vashem is about. “The idea behind the initiative is to expose each side to the other side’s narrative, and to have a very deep conversation about it,” explains Israeli journalist and activist Nir Boms, one of the originators of the idea.

“Personally, I think this trip is very interesting because it’s breaking down the walls between us: Israelis and Palestinians,” said Ibrahim Yassin, an activist and professional cook from East Jerusalem whose night job, as attested to by his hip hop look, is as a DJ.

There have been three join trips to date (two to Israel, one to the West Bank), and the participants brainstormed ideas for a fourth, to Palestine. The Palestinians wished to introduce the Israelis to al-Nakba (the Arabic for “The Catastrophe”), which is the term Palestinians use to describe perhaps the most defining trauma in their national experience: the exodus of up to three-quarters of Palestine’s Arab population, most of whom were not allowed to return following Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948.

However, they lamented the absence of a museum chronicling this painful chapter of Palestinian history. Some Palestinians suggested that the Israelis should join them on a trip to a refugee camp to enable them to gain a deeper insight into what contemporary life is like for many Palestinians.

“I want to introduce our Jewish friends to the suffering of the Palestinians… Just as they told us about their suffering in detail from an Israeli perspective, I’d like them to hear all the details about our stories,” reflected Mutasem Halawani, a student of business management from Jerusalem. “This helps build an exchange of ideas and tolerance.”

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 19 September 2012.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (4 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +2 (from 4 votes)
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Related posts

نصف يوم مع “آخِر” يهودي عربي

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: -1 (from 1 vote)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 3.0/10 (2 votes cast)

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.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 3.0/10 (2 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: -1 (from 1 vote)
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Related posts

Half a day with the “last Arab Jew”

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +7 (from 7 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 8.6/10 (9 votes cast)

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.
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 8.6/10 (9 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +7 (from 7 votes)
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Related posts

Behind the ‘Zion Curtain’

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +2 (from 2 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (4 votes cast)

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.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter

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

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (4 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +2 (from 2 votes)
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Related posts

Travelling without political baggage

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +9 (from 11 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 9.1/10 (17 votes cast)

By Dara Frank

Israelis and Palestinians travelling together without their political baggage can help pave the way to the mutual respect eventual peace requires.

Monday 13 February 2012

Photo: ©Dara Frank

“Why are you even going on this trip?” a friend of mine asked as I was heading out to meet the group Tiyul-Rihla (“trip” in Hebrew and Arabic) to begin our two-day tour through the West Bank. “Do you think this will solve the conflict?” I honestly don’t know what I thought. I half-expected the trip to be another one of “those” tours that takes you into the West Bank and just burdens you with the conflict, hatred and politics.

The group assembled outside our hotel in Beit Jalah was an even mix of Israelis and Palestinians. At first we awkwardly mulled around, waiting for instructions, making small talk. Then some members of the group who attended Tiyul-Rihla Part I – when the group travelled to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – started arriving and greeting their friends from the first trip with huge hugs and shining smiles (that kind you only see on a person who has not seen a close friend in a long time). I think it was the first time I’d seen Israelis and Palestinians actively embracing one another.

The agenda of the trip was non-political in nature, with the idea that we would travel to places that have historical and cultural significance to the members of the group. That way, we could teach and learn from one another about our about our respective religions, histories and cultures. At the Shalom Al Yisrael synagogue in Jericho, we were able to focus on the significance of the menorah mosaic on the floor and not the recent political struggle involving the building. At Hisham’s Palace, our Palestinian group members were able to proudly tour us around the remains of this magnificent structure that was erected hundreds of years ago.

For security reasons, we had to be very careful not to identify ourselves as Israelis. However, one of the guides at the Sycamore Tree site saw right through our cover. After he told us the history of the place, he concluded by saying, “Now go home and tell your friends, tell your country, that we want peace.” This comment made the whole group smile – after all, that’s why we were there in the first place. I was particularly excited by this encounter because, as simple as it sounds, it is not obvious that everyone wants peace; hearing our guide say this gave me hope.

As the day continued, I started to think about the implications of what this man had said. I thought: good, we’re at a good starting point, we both want peace. This means that we’re not engaged in a fight between one side who wants peace and one side who does not want peace and we both recognise that. But what does his peace look like? Does it look like my peace?

The remainder of the evening involved dancing in a park in Jericho, drinking coffee at a café in the center of town, walking through the streets with my new friends, lighting Chanukah candles and singing songs with the group.

It was reflecting on these moments that I was able to see what peace would have to entail. In the end, if I truly want peace, my definition has to overlap with my Palestinian friends’ definition of peace, and theirs with mine. It is trips like Tiyul-Rihla that help achieve the first step towards this recognition because we, as participants, can all now match a face to an idea. When “the Palestinians” are no longer just this group of people that exist in the abstract but a nationality that my friends define themselves as, it is easier to look at the question of a Palestinian state existing alongside Israel. And when my new friends see Israel not as the enemy but as a nation where I live, hopefully they can also see that I have the right to live here too, as a Jew, in my own sovereign nation-state.

We can’t solve the conflict or bring peace, but we can help pave the way for people to respect the other’s rights – on both sides of the divide. On the most basic level, encounters like this allow us to realise and understand the right for the other to exist. In turn, on a slightly more nuanced level, it allows each side to respect the sovereignty and legitimacy of the other.  Without this seemingly simple recognition, it does not matter how much each side wants peace because our “peaces” won’t be the same.

To answer my friend’s question, no, I don’t think it will solve the conflict. But I do think it is paramount to the success of any resolution.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 9.1/10 (17 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +9 (from 11 votes)
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Related posts

Avoiding the ultimate price tag in Israel

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (1 vote cast)

By Khaled Diab

With the rise in Jewish fanaticism, Israelis are faced with a paradox: peace with the Palestinians could stoke conflict within their own ranks but avoiding full-blown civil war requires an end to the occupation.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Once upon a time, the words ‘price tag’ evoked nothing more ominous in my imagination than something attached to the inside collar of a new shirt. But in Israel it has come to be associated with the destruction of Palestinian property, the burning of their fields, the poisoning of their wells, and the desecration of burial sites. 

And the standoff seems to be escalating, as demonstrated by the recent spate of attacks, such as the torching of a mosque, this time inside pre-1967 Israel. In fact, according to one estimate by the UN, ‘price tag’ attacks rose by a stunning 57% in the first seven months of this year. 

But it is not just Palestinians who have been suffering the wrath of these extremists. Increasingly, the price tagging movement has done the once unthinkable and targeted Israelis, both soldiers and leftist activists.

Political violence perpetrated by Israelis against Israelis has shocked Israel – which is hardly surprising, since the extremists have effectively placed their own compatriots in the enemy camp. It has also taken many Arabs by surprise, since one of the few things that Arabs admire about Israelis – even if it is begrudgingly or for the purposes of self-criticism – is how apparently tightly knit and unified of purpose they are.

Now that the unthinkable has occurred, could the unimaginable one day happen? Could Israelis go to war with each other?

In the past, despite the vast ideological, cultural and political diversity of its Jewish population, Israel was able to pull rank and manufacture consent surrounded as it was by enemies, both real and imagined. But as the threat from its Arab neighbours subsided and they began extending their hands in peace rather than rattling the sabres of war, Israel’s efforts to paper over its internal cracks and fault lines could not arrest the deepening divisions.

 In some ways, it can be said that Israel is already in a state of internal ideological warfare – a sort of quasi-civil war that has not yet turned violent, the ‘price tag’ campaigns excepted. This can be seen in Israel’s fractured political landscape and in the bitter division between secularists and religious Jews who have effectively ‘ghettoised’ themselves geographically. Contrast, for example, the relatively liberal, relaxed and hedonistic atmosphere of fun-loving Tel Aviv with the mini-theocracies that have emerged in pious Jerusalem.

There is also the tension between the geographical maximalist supporters of a ‘Greater Israel’ and the more pragmatic backers of the two-state solution. In the wake of the 1967 war, the Israeli political mainstream was generally reluctant to cede the territorial gains Israel had made, and they were helped in their resolve by Arab rejectionism at the time, which was intensified by the bitter and humiliating sting of rapid defeat.

Since the Oslo process began, the mainstream has largely been won over to the idea of ceding land for peace, though there are vast differences of opinion over how much land for how much peace should be exchanged.

This mainstream dithering, along with the need to maintain a consensus of sorts by following the path of least internal resistance, was exploited by extremists – right-wing revisionist Zionists in alliance with religious Zionists who, ironically, are the ideological descendants of the ultra-Orthodox movements who opposed Zionism on religious grounds but were ‘converted’ into a messianic movement by Israel’s spectacular military victories in 1967. In fact, many residents of the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighbourhood of Mea Shearim are still opposed to the existence of Israel – as was advertised on a big banner ther just last week – and some refuse to speak Hebrew, which they see as too holy for secular use. 

Together, the different groups that make up the settler movement managed to pull off the feat of accelerating settlement activity in order to create ‘facts on the ground’ to the extent that more than half a million settlers now live on land which had been earmarked for the future Palestinian state, where the most extreme have enjoyed pretty much a carte blanche to live and act outside the law.

Emboldened by this sense of impunity, this hoodwinking and political coercion has now, with the emergence of the ‘price tag’ movement, turned into open and violent intimidation, in a classic case of ‘blow back’.

But what can be done to turn the tide?

Debate in Israel has largely focused on law and order issues, of catching and punishing the perpetrators of these violent acts and challenging their sense of impunity. Though necessary, this is only a case of attacking the symptoms and not treating the disease.

Undermining the increasingly fanatical settler movement requires an end to the settlements. The silent Israeli majority who have consistently voiced their support for the two-state solution – most recently in a poll that found 70% of Israelis support a possible UN vote in favour of an independent Palestine – must come out of their bunkers and be counted.

Now it is time for them to back up their sentiments with deeds. If the Israeli mainstream wishes to keep the two-state solution alive, now is the time to act forcefully and resolutely to abandon all the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem which are impeding the creation of an independent Palestine, or hand them over to Palestinian sovereignty where they can be opened up and transformed into mixed Arab-Jewish communities.

But such a course of action – which would not only bring about peace with the Palestinians but preserve Israel’s corroding democracy against this extremist onslaught – paradoxically carries with it the risk of escalating the ‘price tag’ campaign into full-blown civil conflict or war. Look what happened when Ariel Sharon, the one-time darling of the settler movement, tried to dismantle the relatively small settlements in Gaza, some will point out?

But this risk will rise with time, not diminish. For now, extremists willing to turn on their Jewish compatriots are a relatively small minority, but they are winning fresh converts constantly.

As numerous Israeli visionaries have warned for decades, the occupation is a corrupting, divisive and draining influence on Israel. If Israelis wish to salvage the secular and democratic nature of their country, and to live at peace, not only with the Palestinians but also among themselves, there is no more room for complacency and dithering.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (1 vote cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Related posts

Walking on the moon in Ramallah

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 8.0/10 (2 votes cast)

By Ben Hartman

As an Israeli and a Jew, Ramallah once seemed to be as distant as outer space. So joining the crowds celebrating the Palestinian UN bid was like a small step for a man but a giant leap for my mind.

Friday 30 September 2011

The scene in al-Manara Square in Ramallah last Friday night was electrifying and fascinating, mainly for the feeling that you were witnessing history, even if it is history that may turn out to be of no consequence whatsoever.

The Palestinian Authority-orchestrated celebrations before and after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech at the UN went off without a hitch, and for the most part there appeared to be a rather restrained and harmless celebratory mood.

Ramallah first entered my lexicon following the October 2000 lynching of IDF reservists Vadim Nurzhitz and Yossi Avrahami in a police station in the city. The images from that day are still among the most iconic of the second intifada: a Palestinian man brandishing his blood-soaked hands to the mobs below, the battered dead body of a reservist being tossed out of the station window and instantly swarmed, beaten, and mutilated.

Even though that incident was followed by scores of bombings and shooting attacks with much higher death tolls, the lynching remains for Israelis one of the most traumatic events of the second intifada, and for many, a “where were you when you heard” moment.

The fact that the two soldiers died such horrible deaths simply for taking a wrong turn seared into my mind the lethal danger of finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time in Israel and the West Bank, and the realisation that such a mistake could result in cruel and certain death in an instant.

Back then, walking on the moon seemed more likely than strolling through Ramallah. The entire West Bank was for me a black hole, no-go zone populated only by settlers, the Israeli army, and Palestinians, all of whom could have been located in outer space for all that they affected my life.
Today, I still wouldn’t walk around Ramallah or any other Palestinian city and say I am Israeli or Jewish, and would make sure no Hebrew passed over my lips. Nonetheless, there seems to be some psychic barrier that has lifted and Ramallah, East Jerusalem, and other Palestinian areas no longer seem to be the sum of all fears 11 years later.

In addition to the almost complete cessation of Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank and within the Green Line, much of my sense of security has come with working in journalism. When I’m working I tend to feel a certain sense of impunity, and that I have an ironclad excuse to be where I’m not known and not wanted. A press card doesn’t make you bulletproof or invisible, but having one does seem to have helped me break down the barrier of fear in my own mind and allow me to walk (somewhat) more freely in places I never ventured before. Along the way, I’ve found myself filling in dozens of my blind spots between the river and the sea, most of them Palestinian, but also Israeli.

At the risk of sounding like an Orientalist, I’ve learned in the past couple years that there is something strangely seductive and fascinating to me about visiting or passing through Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank. Even the remote and thoroughly boring areas of the West Bank bear an attraction.

It is the realisation that you can drive such a short distance from Tel Aviv and enter what is, with or without the statehood bid, a thoroughly foreign entity, an area that is so completely Palestinian and so entirely not us. It’s also the very real awareness that regardless of how much you may or may not support Israel or identify as a Zionist, that there is, to some extent, a foreign nation within the area we control. In Ramallah, Palestine’s largest and most lively city (other than East Jerusalem) the awareness of this foreign nationality is even more apparent.

I don’t know what I make of the Palestinian statehood bid, and I’d rather not express any sort of opinion whatsoever about who is more to blame for the current impasse. Still, even though Mahmoud Abbas couldn’t bring himself to mention Jewish ties to the Holy Land in his speech before the UN and the Palestinian people, and without being able to predict how the statehood bid will turn out, I’m encouraged by the fact that the Palestinian leadership is pursuing the diplomatic path over violence.

When I think of last Friday, I’ll be able to say I witnessed this particular chapter of the world’s most intractable conflict, a conflict that has left nearly everyone involved almost completely jaded by its routine cycle of violence and failed peace talks. Whatever happens as a result of this chapter, it’s one of the rare international media events dealing with this conflict that (so far) did not include violence or failed negotiations in Maryland.

Last Friday, it felt good to walk on the moon in Ramallah and return to earth in Tel Aviv later that same night.

 

Read more in the special Chronikler report on the Palestinian quest to seek United Nations recognition.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 8.0/10 (2 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Related posts

Can peace be as simple as child’s play?

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

 By Khaled Diab

Palestinian and Israeli children are victims of the conflict they have inherited. So can joint schools help them learn to live together?

Sunday 7 August 2011

Palestinian and Israeli children are born into a protracted and bitter conflict and conflict is the ‘normal’ backdrop to their childhoods, which can have serious long-term psychological and emotional repercussions.

In terms of the future, perhaps the most worrying aspect of childhood here is that animosity is almost a birthright, a jealously guarded heritage that is handed down from one generation to the next, perpetuating the hatred, distrust and fear that fuel the conflict.

One way of breaking this intergenerational cycle of hostility is through joint education, where Israeli and Palestinian children study together as peers rather than foes. This is just what the Hand in Hand network of bilingual schools seeks to do.

Set up in 1997 by an Israeli-American social worker, Lee Gordon, and a Palestinian-Israeli teacher, Amin Khalaf, the Hand in Hand network is currently made up of four schools. The largest school, with some 500 pupils, is in Jerusalem.

A few days before I went to the state-of-the-art $11-million Jerusalem campus, the Colombian pop star Shakira, who is of part-Lebanese heritage, also visited the school in her capacity as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, much to the delight of the school kids.

Lacking her talent and celebrity, the buzz of excitement and the frenzied commotion surrounding me had nothing to do with my presence but were what you’d expect from hundreds of youngsters counting down the long hours to their summertime freedom on the last day of term. The key difference was that the kids in question were speaking an organic mix of Hebrew and Arabic.

Given that Arabs and Israelis tend to believe they come from different planets, one thing that immediately strikes you is how similar all the pupils appear, and how hard it is, without language and dress as a guide, to tell them apart.

And the children themselves, especially the younger ones, often can’t tell one another apart or don’t care to. “The children at the school don’t look at each other as ‘Jews’ and ‘Arabs’, they use their own criteria,” explains Ira Kerem, an American-Israeli social worker who works for the charity running the schools and my guide for the day. “What they’re interested in are things like is this person good friend material, is this kid cool, how good is he at football?”

And this was confirmed to me by some of the pupils we came across in the
corridors. “There’s no difference here between the Jewish kids and the Palestinian kids. Unlike outside the school, here we feel equal,” agreed Mu’eed and Jouhan, two Palestinian teenagers studying at the school.

But the reality of the divided city remains just outside the school gates. When I probed the youngsters about whether they socialised with their Jewish friends, both answered in the affirmative, but noted that Jewish and Palestinian neighbours were not always as tolerant and understanding.

In addition, the conflict is never far away, especially at times of heightened tension. “During the Gaza war, we had some very heated arguments with our Jewish classmates, but we didn’t let it get in the way of our friendships,” describe Mu’eed.

Hand in Hand promotes honest and mutually respectful dialogue among pupils and parents alike. It also gives equal time and attention to both Israeli and Palestinian narratives and tries to strike a balance between them, perhaps in the hope of helping create a new, more inclusive history.

This contrasts strongly with the experiences of Palestinian-Israelis who grew up with the official Israeli state curriculum. “Palestine’s history was a missing link in our history lessons,” observed Hatem Mater, a father at the Jerusalem school, in a special book profiling the parents of Hand in Hand’s pupils. “I want my children to know the Palestinian story and the Israeli story. I want them to know the truth.”

Although this is commendable, how much difference can Hand in Hand and other schools like it really make in such an apparently intractable situation. Kerem explains that the schools role is not to resolve the conflict but, in a context where Palestinians and Israelis who live or work together are seen as collaborators or traitors, to show that coexistence is possible.  This motivation is similar to the one that drove the Jewish and Palestinian-Israeli families of Neve Shalom/Wahat el-Salam (Peace Oasis) to settle together for the past four decades.

“We have no illusions that this school will bring about peace between Israelis and
Palestinians,” one Israeli-Jewish father admitted to me. “But you have to do something and every little bit counts – change comes in drips. And you have to start with yourself.”

And this gradual change can be viewed in the shifting attitudes of the parents
themselves. “My association with Arab parents at the school has had a great effect on me,” writes Sigalit Ur, a Jewish mother at the school who defines herself as Orthodox, which shows that, despite stereotypes, it is not just secular, leftist Jews who are for peace and coexistence. “Once I used to take for granted that singing patriotic songs on national holidays was the right thing to do. Now I am more aware of the problematic nature of those songs.”

“This school offers a glimmer of hope for the future, and for the sake of our children, we need to provide them with every bit of hope we can,” a Palestinian mother told me.

Sadly, with Hand in Hand and other bilingual schools struggling to survive, even this glimmer risks being snuffed out. And if broader action to resolve the conflict is not taken, and if tolerance and coexistence are not taught across the board, then the enlightened voices of these youngsters may be drowned out by the overwhelming currents of hatred around them.

This article first appeared in The National on 29 July 2011.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Related posts