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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Refuge in exile

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By Khaled Diab

Is it possible for Israelis and Palestinians to find common refuge in their shared notions of exile and return?

Thursday 23 August 2012

Like for Palestinians, refugee camps became a part of the Mizrahi Jewish experience. Photo: Zoltan Kluger

The United States House of Representatives is now considering a bipartisan bill, submitted last month, that would effectively equate the plight of Palestinian refugees with that of Jews whose origins were in Middle Eastern countries.

Although the tragedy that befell Jews in Arab countries following the creation of Israel certainly requires recognition and redress, many Mizrahi Jews resent the linkage.

“The basis of this equivalence is spurious. Arab Jews and Palestinians have two different histories and their experiences are not similar,” insists David Shasha, who directs the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn. “Israel has maintained that Arab Jews are members of the Jewish nation and are part of Israel. The fact that they were or were not expelled from Arab countries should not then be relevant to any peace negotiations.”

Peace activists see in this latest initiative a transparent political ploy to undermine the claims of Palestinian refugees. Noting that congress has never proposed such a bill for Palestinian refugees, Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now points to a similar Israeli foreign ministry initiative whose “focus is not only (or even primarily) seeking justice for Jews from Arab countries. The main goal is to impose new terms of reference on future peace negotiations.”

Despite this manipulation of the tragedy of the Middle East’s ancient Jewish populations, there are clear parallels between that calamity and the one that befell the Palestinians. In fact, you could say that Arab Jews are the Middle East’s “other Palestinians”.

“Both Palestinians and Jews from Arab lands were at the mercy of competing nationalisms – Zionism and Arab nationalism – sweeping the region at the time, playing off each other and insisting on reductive definitions of identity,” observes journalist and writer Rachel Shabi, herself of Iraqi Jewish descent, who is the author of Not The Enemy, a book on the history of Israel’s Mizrahi Jews.

Recalling how well-integrated into the fabric of Iraqi society and relatively successful Jews were, the prominent Iraqi-Israeli poet, academic and translator of Arabic literature Sasson Somekh told me how in light of World War II, and the fascism it unleashed, and the conflict in Palestine: “Everything changed forever. In 1948, I was 15 and I recall how people would curse Jews and throw stones at them.”

By 1951, the situation for Iraqi Jews had become so untenable that most agreed reluctantly to give up their citizenship and property in return for safe passage out of Iraq. By the 1970s, the Middle East’s rich Jewish heritage had all but disappeared, though fairly sizeable Jewish communities continued to exist in Iran and Morocco.

Although Palestinians and Arab Jews do have the loss of their homelands in common, the Mizrahim, particularly those in Israel, generally do not wish to return to their ancestral lands – indeed, many Mizrahim are actually situated on the anti-Arab end of the Israeli political spectrum. Some do visit their places of origin, such as Jews of Yemenite descent (who are the only Israelis allowed to travel to that country), as well as Moroccan and Egyptian Jews, but it should be recalled that Israeli Jews from most Arab countries are not allowed to visit their ancestral lands.

The majority of Mizrahi Jews today appear to be ideologically committed to the idea of Israel as their homeland. This is reflected, for example, in the fact that the Mizrahi vote brought the settler-friendly Likud to power in 1977 and has acted as a core power base for the party ever since. This implies that most Mizrahim no longer qualify as refugees, though they once were.

However, there are some, albeit a minority, who do still regard themselves as refugees and dream of unlikely return. Take Mati Shemoelof, a second-generation Iraqi-Israeli poet, journalist and activist who defines himself as “Arab” and believes that Mizrahi Jews went “from exile to exile.”

He wants Iraq, which he wishes to visit “more than anything in the world,” to make up for its historic crime by granting Iraqi Jews the right of return and full citizenship, while allowing them to retain their Israeli nationality and identity. His vision: “I want to live in two worlds.”

Shemoelof’s sentiments echo those of many Palestinians. Not only do many of them dwell in perpetual limbo in refugee camps across the Middle East, but the experience of exile and dream of improbable return is a central pillar of Palestinian identity. In his evocative memoirs of exile and return, I Saw Ramallah, the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, who was stranded in exile due to the outbreak of the 1967 war, reflected upon his return how Israel “took from us the land of the poem and left us with the poem of the land” and that the “long occupation has succeeded in changing us from children of Palestine to children of the idea of Palestine”.

“[Exile is] a feeling that I have to carry my roots with me, so to speak, but can never fully put them down anywhere,” describes Jennifer Jajeh, a Palestinian-American actress.

Many in the diaspora feel that both they and their homeland have become phantoms. “I feel like I’m a visitor to my own home, like a ghost walking around in a land where other people refuse to see us even when we’re talking with them,” says Ray Hanania, a prominent Palestinian-American columnist, broadcaster and comedian from Chicago who visits Israel and Palestine regularly.

Those who cannot live in or visit the old country dream of being allowed at least to make it their final resting place. “When we die, bury us in Palestine. If you can’t manage that, then try to bring some of its soil and bury it with us,” the parents of a Jordanian-Palestinian friend used to tell her.

And this sense of exile can be just as acute among the Palestinians who stayed behind, as they watch the land of their forefathers morph into another country. For instance, one young Palestinian I know from a village near Bethlehem lives frustratingly within eyeshot – across a railway line which became part of the Green Line – of what was once his family’s farmland but became part of Israel.

“When I go to Jerusalem and walk around certain parts of it, I don’t feel that I belong to that place, because it has been colonised,” says Hurriyah Ziada, a 22-year-old Palestinian student and activist in Ramallah.

Living within the boundaries of her historic homeland does not blunt Ziada’s keen sense of being an exile and refugee, perhaps partly because the movement restrictions imposed by Israel mean she has not been able even to visit her ancestral village of Faluja, near Gaza but now part of the Israeli town of Kiryat Gat. In 1948, Faluja’s residents had refused to flee the fighting but were subsequently driven out following the 1949 armistice.

Echoing the early Zionists, Ziada dreams of making Faluja her home – even though the town does not exist anymore and the surrounding area has become completely Israeli – and living the life of a Palestinian pioneer there. “It’s true that I’m used to living here [Ramallah] and all that, but it is my right to return to the village,” she insists, noting that “I’m willing to pay the price, and to start from scratch because this is the only way.”

It is unclear how representative Ziada’s views are of Palestinian refugees in general, since little research has been carried out on the taboo question of actual versus symbolic return and recognition of the historic wrong committed against the Palestinian people.

For most Israelis, even peace activists and pacifists, the idea of Palestinian return to what is today Israel is a complete non-starter. The creation and development of Israel “entails an essential injustice to the Palestinian people,” Amos Oz, one of Israel’s leading novelists, told me during a long and riveting conversation in his basement study.

In Oz’s view, it is essential for Israel to maintain “a Jewish majority” – though he diverges from the mainstream in his belief that Israel should be a state for all its citizens – even if it means shrinking its territory. His reasoning? That Jews have a right to live free of persecution and to determine their own destiny.

Palestinian return, in his view, should be to a Palestinian state within the full pre-1967 borders, referring to the armistice lines before the 1967 Six Day War. He argues that this is the pragmatic and realistic thing to do. But for an influential segment of Palestinian society, the idea of refugees not having the right to return to anywhere other than the actual homes and towns they abandoned is anathema.

So what’s the solution? According to some, compromise on both sides is the only way to ensure “a means of both of us surviving”, as Ray Hanania puts it.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 20 August 2012.

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Holy month, holy city, unholy Egyptian

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By Khaled Diab

Even for a non-believing Egyptian, Ramadan in Jerusalem – where the three Abrahamic faiths coincide and oft collide – is a fascinating experience.

Friday 17 August 2012

Ramadan lights in a quiet Old City. Image: ©Khaled Diab

Chance – or fate, if you prefer – has ordained that my unholy ‘soul’ should find itself surrounded by holiness in both time and space, in the shape of the holy city, Jerusalem, and the holy month, at least for Muslims, Ramadan.

Although I gave up fasting many years ago, I still enjoy observing Ramadan, that is, its cultural and social aspects, from a comfortable secular distance. And I have encountered the multifaceted yet universal spirit of Ramadan, as a child, youth and adult, on three continents, in Muslim, non-Muslim and hybrid lands.

In its basic character, Ramadan in the Palestinian quarters of Jerusalem is similar to how it is in my home town, Cairo, or elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world. It is a bizarre ying-yang of contradictions and contrasts: fasting during the day and feasting after dark with family and friends, like a whole month of Christmases. There is also charity and goodwill towards others, which coexists side-by-side with the uncharitable loss of temper among the fasting and furious motorists.

Although Ramadan is about austerity and frugalness during the day, at night it is a different matter. After a hard day of fasting, many feel it is their just deserts – or desserts, if you like – to consume prodigious amounts of mouth-watering seasonal delights. But even for the more spiritual and ascetic, conspicuous consumption, albeit of the immaterial variety, is still the order of the day: marathon nocturnal prayer sessions and the constant reading of the Qu’ran.

The religious aspect of Ramadan may be similar in Jerusalem and Cairo, but the secular spirit is quite different. Although Palestinians too hang out the decorative trappings of the season – including the famous fanoos or Ramadan lantern and even give the month that extra bang with sorties of unauthorised fireworks – the night-time revelry of Cairo is missing.

In the Egyptian capital, one of those city’s which truly never sleeps, night truly becomes day, and throngs stay out to the wee hours in specially erected Ramadan tents and cafes, both traditional and modern, expensive and cheap, while the true night owls head off to Cairo’s ancient quarters to eat a traditional dish of fuul (fava beans) just before dawn to line their stomachs for the fast ahead.

Ramadan is a much quieter affair here. This is partly because Jerusalem is small, lacking Cairo’s plethora of hangouts, and Palestinians tend not to be as outgoing as Cairenes. However, Jerusalemites say that the city used to be much livelier, but the Israeli occupation has throttled the social and cultural life of East Jerusalem, which has shifted to that cosmopolitan upstart, Ramallah.

That said, Jerusalem possesses a trump card Cairo does not. Although the Egyptian capital houses some of the most impressive mosques in the world and Islam’s most respected religious authority, al-Azhar, Jerusalem is home to what was once Islam’s holiest site and is now its third holiest, the “Holy Sanctuary” of the sublime Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque.

Worshippers during Ramadan congregate by the exquisite beauty of the golden Dome of the Rock. ©Khaled Diab

Every Friday during Ramadan, an uncountable torrent of worshippers – disproportionately old and female because of the restrictions Israel often imposes on younger Palestinian men – weaves its way through the alleyways of the old city to pray at the place where Muhammad is believed to have visited on his winged stead, Buraq, during his nocturnal trip to heaven.

Momentarily casting aside my rejection of organised religion and my scepticism of god’s existence, I decided that I could not miss this unique cultural experience and, one Friday, joined the throng. Inside, the outdoor esplanade, which is so huge that it normally looks empty, was packed solid, with many of the fasting faithful stuck in the blazing heat of the direct sun.

The area immediately around the magnificent golden dome, which dominates the Jerusalem skyline, was reserved for women, while men occupied the Aqsa mosque and the area outside it. I was struck by the irony that here I was participating in a ritual that, though impressive to behold, did nothing to shake my sceptical ‘soul’ out of its a-religious spiritual lethargy – in fact, living in the Holy Land has made me even more suspicious of religion – while many true believers are deprived of the opportunity to pray here for want of an Israeli permit.

While savouring the spirit of the season is enjoyable, for an agnostic, non-fasting Muslim like myself, it can become overwhelming. In the West, Ramadan can creep by with none of the fanfare Arabs tend to associate with it. A similar spirit prevails in predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem, where the holy month barely leaves a ripple on the tempo of life.

Jewish areas of the city provide the chance to eat and drink in public, which one doesn’t do in the Arab quarters out of respect. That said, there are options for escape in Palestinian areas, as we discovered with some Palestinian friends on the first day of Ramadan, when we went to a swimming pool where Christians and non-fasting Muslims did rather more barbecuing than swimming.

During Ramadan, some Muslims who drink suffer a special kind of thirst… for alcohol. Some give it up voluntarily, seeing a contradiction between the “virtue’ of fasting and the “sin” of drinking, though some Muslims do combine the two, like an eccentric Arab journalist I know in Jerusalem.

However, even those who wish to quench their thirst can find it hard to. In Egypt, only foreigners are allowed to consume alcohol during Ramadan. Among Palestinians, it is more complex. Although there appears to be no law forbidding alcohol during Ramadan, some Palestinian-run bars and restaurants stop serving alcohol and even shut down during the holy month. In addition, though alcohol once used to be a common feature of Ramadan in liberal Ramallah, in recent years, the city council has prohibited alcohol during the holy month by decree, a Palestinian friend informs me.

However, whether or not this decree exists is a matter of some debate, since numerous bars in Ramallah reportedly continued to serve booze during Ramadan, which suggests that it is not well enforced. In some other Palestinian cities, like Hebron and Nablus, finding a drink, even out of Ramadan, is no easy feat.

This seems to reflect the deepening religiosity of Palestinian society. Although Palestinians strike me as being generally more secular than Egyptians, there are troubling signs that tolerance is diminishing. I’ve heard of some shopkeepers refusing to serve women not wearing a hijab and the Palestinian Authority reportedly started deploying, a few years ago, a small police squad in Ramallah to prevent eating in public during the fast.

By one of those sleights of fate, one Sunday this Ramadan, Jews too were fasting to mark Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples, which stood where the Holy Sanctuary (or Temple Mount to Jews) is today, though they were not destroyed by the Muslims.

What could have been an occasion to express interfaith solidarity through fasting, rapidly descended into confrontation and animosity, as Muslim worshippers feared that Jews would “violate” their sacred space, while extremist Jews made some troubling pronouncements, including one Knesset member’s call for the al-Aqsa mosque to be dismantled and moved.

But this sense of distrust and animosity was not always so overwhelming. Older people, such as my 90-year-old neighbour, remember a time when people of different faiths celebrated each other’s festivals in a spirit of good neighbourliness.

During the late Ottoman era, a carnival outside the old city’s walls to mark the festival (Eid) at the end of Ramadan was attended by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike, where they enjoyed fairground rides, horse races, Arab sweets and, apparently, even peepshows. Likewise, Muslims and Christians dressed up in Jewish costumes to celebrate the flamboyant Purim.

Centuries before, the Temple Mount/Holy Sanctuary was an interfaith space where Muslims and Jews could worship. In fact, the early caliphs who ruled Jerusalem even appointed Jews as custodians of this holiest of places, which was seen as the spiritual centre of the world.

Some of this spirit of interfaith solidarity still lives on in Ramadan, in the form of joint iftars when Jews join Muslims during the breaking of the fast, and I’ve even met a Jewish Sufi who fasted Ramadan in full.

Some time towards the end of Ramadan is Laylat el-Qadr (Night of Destiny), when Muslims believe that the Gates of Heaven are wide open to the prayers of the believer. Though I am not one of those, I do hope and “pray” that one day peace will, as the city’s name suggests, make Jerusalem its abode and the Holy Land will finally find a way out of its unholy mess.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter

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

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Safeguarding Arab media heritage… in Israel

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By Khaled Diab

The world’s largest Arabic-language press archive is located in Israel. Should Arabs use it or boycott it?

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Some vintage Egyptian newspapers. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

After a lively encounter at Tel Aviv University with the renegade Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, author of the bestselling The invention of the Jewish people, I met a friend, the young Israeli Arabist and historian Ofir Winter who has a profound interest in Egypt and is researching Arab perceptions of Israel.

“I have a surprise for you. It’s one of the university’s hidden gems,” he told me as he led me to a poorly lit and rarely visited corner of the campus. Our destination: the university’s Arabic press archives which, its curators claim, is the largest collection of Arab print media in the world.

Pleasantly surprised by the unexpected visit from an Egyptian, the two Michaels who seem to be temporarily in charge following the untimely death of the archive’s founder Haim Gal proudly showed me around, including a couple of the seven massive halls containing some 24,000 boxes of publications of all sorts dating back to the 1950s. In the archive’s main hall was row upon row of leading and obscure Arab publications – not just newspapers and political journals, but also lifestyle and women’s magazines – not to mention Turkish and Persian titles.

Since the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions erupted last year, the archive’s resource-strapped team, mostly made up of volunteers, has struggled to keep up with the explosion in new publications that have emerged, especially online. “New titles are coming out all the time and we have to be fast in downloading them because some don’t stay online for long,” explained one researcher as she clicked away at her computer.

One of the Michaels showed me an item that seemed to hold pride of place in the collection, even though it was only a facsimile, the first-ever edition of Egypt’s oldest newspaper still in print, al-Ahram, dated 5 August 1876. Instead of the paper’s famous masthead featuring the three pyramids of Giza, the original showed only two pyramids and the Sphinx. Unlike today’s bulky version, issue one was one large sheet folded into four pages. It is also very difficult to read for the modern eye, because it contained no columns or headlines.

“The most exciting materials I found there were the October magazines from the time of Sadat’s peace initiative,” Winter tells me. “I was moved deeply when I saw images of Sadat arriving at Haifa port in September 1979, with happy Israeli children waving the flags of both Egypt and Israel.”

Of course, the very existence of this archive is likely to arouse suspicion in the minds of some Arabs, who are bound to view it as an intelligence-gathering apparatus. The archive’s management itself insists that it is a resource open to all academics, though the media and the government are welcome to consult it. Academics from Jordan, Iraq, Palestine and other Arab countries are also among its clients, despite the Arab boycott of Israel.

“I don’t know the exact motives of its founders,” admits Winter. “But maybe, just maybe, you can interpret this huge archive as an attempt to bridge the qualitative distance (or isolation) between Israel and the Arab world quantitatively.”

But this message of building bridges is likely to get lost amid the ding of the call for an international cultural and academic boycott of Israel. Omar Barghouti, who wrote a widely praised book on the subject of boycott, divestment and sanctions, calls on “every conscientious academic and academic institution to boycott all Israeli academic institutions because of their ongoing deep complicity in perpetuating the occupation and other forms of oppression”. Yet Barghouti holds a master’s degree in philosophy from Tel Aviv University, which he acquired after co-founding the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel – a contradiction he has refused to explain.

Although many Israeli academics are complicit in perpetuating the inhumane status quo, others are not. For instance, Sand, who I had come to meet, can hardly be described as an apologist for Israeli oppression, was friends with Palestine’s national poet Mahmoud Darwish, insisted that the Arabic version of his book should be published in Ramallah and not Cairo or Beirut, and advocates transforming Israel, in the framework of the two-state solution, into a truly democratic state for all its citizens.

Yet Sand finds himself in the bizarre situation of being effectively under boycott. “They will not invite me to Ramallah because I teach at Tel Aviv University,” he told me. “Any pressure that is not terror is welcome. But be careful. You have started to boycott the most liberal segment of the Israeli political culture.”

While I support a targeted economic boycott against Israel to ensure that the outside world does not bankroll the occupation and oppression of Palestinians, I find a blanket cultural or academic boycott to be unfair and counterproductive. Far better would be two parallel campaigns: one to boycott Israeli peacebreakers and another to embrace and engage with Israeli peacemakers.

This article first appeared in The National on 5 June 2012.

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حرية السينما الحقيقية في القدس الشرقية

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بقلم خالد دياب

هل تستطيع حرية الأفلام السينمائية مساعدة الفلسطينيين على تحقيق الحرية الحقيقية؟

الأربعاء 7 مارس 2012

أثّر الاحتلال في القدس الشرقية كثيراً على الخريطة الثقافية للمدينة. كان من آثار انعدام الاستثمار المزمن وتوسيع المستوطنات والجدار الهائل، الذي تقول إسرائيل أنها بنته لأهداف أمنية ويدّعي الفلسطينيون أنه يهدف إلى اختطاف المزيد من الأراضي، امتصاص الحياة من الجزء الفلسطيني في القدس وتحويل مركز الثقافة إلى رام الله في الضفة الغربية. إضافة إلى ذلك، يبدو أن العديد من الفلسطينيين المقدسيين لم يتمكنوا من التخلص من عقلية منع التجول التي سادت الانتفاضة، والتي انتهت قبل أكثر من سبع سنوات.

إلا أنه في السنوات الأخيرة، تم إطلاق جهود لإحياء وإغناء خريطة القدس الثقافية المتواضعة. آخر هذه الجهود إعادة إحياء سينما القدس القديمة، التي أغلقت أبوابها قبل ربع قرن أثناء الانتفاضة الأولى (التي استمرت من عام 1978 وحتى 1993). وهي الآن، رغم أنها لم تكتمل بعد، مركز يابوس الثقافي. إضافة إلى عرضها للأفلام، تستضيف السينما أحداثاً فنية ومسرحية وموسيقية، بما فيها عرضاً للصور الفوتوغرافية عن الثورة المصرية وحفلات لموسيقى الجاز.

استهل مركز يابوس إعادة افتتاحه بأسبوع أفلام الحرية. العنوان مناسب إذا أخذنا بالاعتبار العطش للحرية السياسية والاقتصادية والاجتماعية، الواضحة ليس فقط في أوساط الفلسطينيين وإنما للشعوب عبر المنطقة، بما فيها إسرائيل، حيث ثارت حركة احتجاج اجتماعي واسع الصيف الماضي. أعلن المحتجون الإسرائيليون جادة روتشيلد في تل أبيب “ميدان التحرير” الخاص بهم، كما أطلق المعلّقون العرب اسم “الربيع الإسرائيلي” على الحركة.

ومن الأفلام التي عرضت في يابوس فيلم “لن نترك”، الذي يعرض نضال الفلسطينيين ضد النزوح الإجباري في القدس، وفيلم “فليجة”، الذي يوثق الاعتصامات الملهمة والابتكارية التي نظمها الناشطون التونسيون بعد سقوط الدكتاتور زين العابدين بن علي، وفيلم “القاهرة 678″، الدراما التي حطمت الممنوعات عن التحرش الجنسي في مصر.

تقول ريما عيسى، منسّقة سينما يابوس ومسؤولة المهرجان أن الفلسطينيين المقدسيين عانوا من “غيبوبة سينمائية”. وهي ترى المهرجان ومركز يابوس الثقافي على أنهما “جسر لإعادة العلاقات التي انقطعت منذ وقت طويل بين الجمهور الفلسطيني في القدس ودور السينما”.

ولكن هل تستطيع حرية السينما مساعدة الفلسطينيين على تحقيق الحرية الحقيقية؟

“دور الثقافة حاسم”، تقول ريما عيسى، “وشعبنا يتوق إليها”. وهي تؤمن أن باستطاعة السينما المساعدة على الربط بين جيل جديد من الفلسطينيين المقدسيين الشباب مع المضمون العربي والعالمي الأوسع، الأمر الذي يمكنهم من نقل وضعهم وكفاحهم إلى العالم الخارجي وإنهاء سنوات طويلة من العزلة.

وقد تمكنت العديد من الأفلام والمخرجين الفلسطينيين في السنوات الأخيرة من زيادة الوعي بكونهم بلا دولة وسعيهم للحصول على الحرية وإنشاء الدولة، والاعتراف الدولي بهم. ومن الأمثلة البارزة على ذلك مخرج الأفلام الفلسطيني الإسرائيلي إيليا سليمان الذي أصبح فيلمه السوريالي الهزلي الأسود “تدخل إلهي” الذي أخرجه عام 2002، عن قصة حب عبر الحواجز بين فلسطيني وفلسطينية يقيم أحدهما في إسرائيل ويقيم الآخر في الضفة الغربية، أصبح ذو شهرة عالمية وصيت ذائع. كما حصل فيلمه الأول الطويل “قصص الاختفاء” (1996) على سمعة واسعة في أوساط النقاد السينمائيين.

إلا أن ريما عيسى، وهي مخرجة أفلام وأول فلسطينية تتخرج من أشهر مدرسة سينمائية إسرائيلية هي “سام شبيغل”، لا تؤمن أن باستطاعة السينما بناء الجسور بين الفلسطينيين والإسرائيليين بسبب عدم المساواة الكبير بين الطرفين.

يخالفها صانعو أفلام آخرون الرأي. على سبيل المثال، تشارك الفلسطيني عماد برنات والإسرائيلي غاي دافيدي في إخراج فيلم “خمس كاميرات محطّمة”، وهو فيلم يوثّق الكفاح اللاعنفي لسكان قرية بلعين الفلسطينية، المسلّحين بالكاميرات فقط، لوقف سلب الأراضي.

ومن الأفلام الرئيسية المثيرة للاهتمام دراما الجريمة “عجمي” الذي يخرجه صانعا الأفلام للمرة الأولى اسكندر قبطي وبارون شاني، والذي يصف بشكل واقعي الحياة في حي العجمي المحروم في مدينة يافا، وليتعمق في تعقيدات الحياة الإنسانية بين المسلمين والمسيحيين واليهود في إسرائيل. وقد حصل كذلك على جائزة “أوفير”، وهي أعلى جائزة إسرائيلية للأفلام وترشح لجائزة الأوسكار في الولايات المتحدة.

ولكن قوة الأفلام لا تتوقف عند قدرتها على تحويل أساليب الناس في التفكير وتحدي ضمائرهم. تساعد مسارح السينما نفسها على إيجاد شعور بالتماسك المجتمعي. على سبيل المثال، تستذكر جارتي الفلسطينية التي يقارب سنها التسعين عاماً فترة ما قبل التقسيم والحرب عندما كان جيرانها اليهود “أصدقاء” يجلسون أحياناً جنباً إلى جنب في دور السينما وعندما كانت الممثلة المصرية اليهودية الأثيرية ليلى مراد هي المفضلة بشكل خاص بين المجتمَعَين.

في المضمون الحالي المقسّم بشكل لا يخلو من المرارة، تظهر هذه الصور على أنها خيال سينمائي بعيد التحقيق. ولكن ذلك كان صحيحاً في يوم من الأيام، وقد يصبح كذلك في يوم قريب.

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‘Reel’ freedom in East Jerusalem

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By Khaled Diab

The reopening of a landmark East Jerusalem cinema could provide local Palestinians with a much-needed dose of ‘reel’ freedom.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

In East Jerusalem, the occupation has affected the city’s cultural landscape. Chronic underinvestment, expanding settlements and a massive wall – which Israel says it has constructed for security purposes and Palestinians allege is a land grab – have had the effect of squeezing the life out of the Palestinian quarter in Jerusalem and shifting the cultural centre of gravity to Ramallah in the West Bank. In addition, it seems many Palestinian Jerusalemites have not been able to shake off the curfew mentality of the intifada, which ended almost seven years ago.

In the past few years, however, efforts have been launched to revive and enrich East Jerusalem’s modest cultural topography. The latest of these is the reincarnation of the old al-Quds cinema, which closed down a quarter of a century ago during the first intifada (which lasted from 1987-1993). Now it is the state of the art, though still unfinished, Yabous Cultural Centre. In addition to film screenings, it hosts artistic, theatrical and musical events, including a photo exhibition about the Egyptian revolution and live jazz concerts.

Yabous marked its reopening with Freedom Films Week. The theme is appropriate given the thirst for political, economic and social liberty, evident not only amongst Palestinians but peoples across the region – including in Israel, where a broad-based social protest movement erupted last summer. Israeli protesters declared Rothschild Avenue in Tel Aviv their own “Tahrir Square” and Arab commentators dubbed the movement the “Israeli Spring”.

The films featured at Yabous included We Won’t Leave, which chronicles the Palestinian struggle against forced displacement in Jerusalem; Fallega, which documents the innovative and inspirational sit-ins organised by Tunisian activists following the fall of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali; and Cairo 678, a taboo-breaking drama about sexual harassment in Egypt.

Rima Essa, Yabous’s cinema coordinator and the festival’s curator, says that Palestinian Jerusalemites have been in a “coma when it comes to cinema”. She sees the festival and the Yabous Cultural Centre as “a bridge to restoring the long-interrupted relationship between the Palestinian audience in Jerusalem and cinema theatres”.

But can ‘reel’ freedom help Palestinians achieve real freedom?

“The role of culture is crucial,” says Essa, “our people crave it.” She believes that cinema can help connect a new generation of young Palestinian Jerusalemites to the broader Arab and global context, enabling them to relate their situation and struggle to the outside world and end their years of isolation.

Love at a checkpoint. A scene from Divine Intervention

And numerous Palestinian films and directors have, in recent years, managed to raise awareness of their statelessness and their quest for nationhood, leading to international acclaim. One notable example is the Palestinian-Israeli film director Elia Suleiman, whose 2002 surreal black comedy Divine Intervention about a love affair across checkpoints between two Palestinians, one living in Israel and the other in the West Bank, became an international hit. His first feature film, Chronicles of a Disappearance, (1996) received widespread critical acclaim.

However, Essa, who is a film director and the first Palestinian to graduate from Israel’s foremost film school, Sam Spiegel, does not believe that cinema can build bridges between Palestinians and Israelis because of the stark inequality between the two sides. “I am in favour of a complete cultural boycott of Israel,” she opines, though she admits that she would not stop Israeli Jews who come to the cinema of their own accord.

Essa, who dreams of a single democratic state for Jews and Arabs, is convinced that engagement between the two sides in the current status quo “would not constitute a discourse of peace… because there is no balance or equality”. In addition, she believes that dialogue not only leads nowhere but provides Israel with a political smokescreen behind which it can continue to push ahead with its settlement enterprise. “You can go to as many debates as you like about water or land, but the occupation carries on unchanged,” she says.

But other filmmakers recognise the power of collaborative art to build bridges. For instance, Palestinian Emad Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi were co-directors of Five Broken Cameras, a film which documents the nonviolent struggle of the residents of the Palestinian village Bil’in – who are armed only with cameras – to stop the seizure of their land.

One landmark co-production is the crime drama Ajami, directed by first-time filmmakers Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, which realistically depicts life in the deprived Jaffa neighbourhood of the same name. The film not only manages to challenge Israeli stereotypes about the neighbourhood Ajami and delve into the complexity of human relationships between Muslims, Christians and Jews in Israel, it also won Israel’s top film accolade, the Ophir Award, and was nominated for an Academy Award in the United States.

But the strength of film does not stop at its power to alter people’s ways of thinking and challenge their conscience. Cinema theatres themselves help create a sense of community. For instance, my Palestinian neighbour, who is almost 90 years old, recalls a time before partition and war when her Jewish neighbours were “friends” and often sat side-by-side at the cinema, with the ethereal Egyptian Jewish actress Leila Murad a particular inter-communal favourite.

In today’s bitterly divided and segregated context, this image may appear like a far-fetched cinematic fantasy, but it once held true – and may again.

This is an extended version of an article which was published by the Common Ground News Service on 6 March 2012.

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The power of Palestinian ingenuity

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By Khaled Diab

Outsiders are more likely to associate Palestine with statehood-pending than patent-pending, but innovation is crucial to building a better future.

Monday 16 January 2012

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

An integrated ‘smart’ system that manages all the devices in your home and business seamlessly. A robot that automatically turns the soil in your garden and waters the plants. Low-cost retinal scanners. Although these innovations may sound run-of-the-mill in Tokyo or Silicon Valley, in tiny, remote Ramallah, they represent the cutting-edge in Palestine’s emerging knowledge sector.

Now into its sixth edition, the ‘Made in Palestine’ fair seeks to change all this by putting Palestine on the global innovation map, before it even makes it on to the world’s political map. The annual exhibition and conference is organised by al-Nayzak, an NGO that works to nurture and incubate the creative and innovative potential of Palestinians from a young age.

But can Palestinian innovators match the success scored by their neighbour, rival and occupier, Israel, which has risen to become the region’s scientific and innovation powerhouse?

Many of the exhibitors and innovators I spoke to in Ramallah were hopeful. Some pointed out that the bumpy road to Palestinian and Arab innovation was already paved with a fair number of good inventions and ideas, but these often did not see the light of day, due to bureaucracy, a shortage of financing, and the absence of a strong industrial and research base.

“The state of Palestinian innovation is similar to that of the Arab world in general,” believes Ahmed Maani, who developed the Tsunami which, despite its destructive name, uses ultrasound to repel insects rather than kill them. “We have thousands of Arab innovators, and tens of thousands of innovations, but they remain neglected and marginalised.”

The situation Maani describes was well summed up in the UN’s sobering Arab Human Development Report, which stated that Arab countries only invested 0.4% of their collective GDP in R&D, compared to 2-3% in the industrialised world.

“But above all, Arab societies and peoples still live with the mentality of the defeated and do not trust any Arab technology,” notes Maani who, despite dedicating six years of his life to developing his latest product, often sees it marketed among Palestinians as being made in Israel because Palestinians do not believe that they can produce any quality products.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

The Palestinians have a number of specific factors in their favour and challenges which hinder them. To its advantage, the Palestinian population is among the best-educated in the Arab world. In addition, its large, diverse and extensive diaspora can, as the Jewish diaspora has demonstrated next door, play a pivotal role in both fuelling innovation and financing it. Moreover, if the conflict is ever resolved, the Israelis and Palestinians could become natural partners in business and innovation.

However, for the time being, the Israeli occupation is possibly the biggest single inhibitor of Palestinian innovation and economic development in general. Noting that investing in Palestinian innovation requires “a certain type of intrepid and foolhardy investor”, Maani points to the additional challenges of the restrictions on Palestinian movement, the small size of the Palestinian market and the difficulties and associated high costs involved in exporting.

That said, the circumstances of the occupation can also stimulate the creativity of the ingenious Palestinians. For example, the young innovator Ibrahim Nassar from Hebron, inspired by the movement restrictions Palestinians face, came up with a device which can be used by doctors to diagnose and monitor, via the mobile phone network, heart patients remotely with complete accuracy and reliability.

More generally, Palestinians are planning to wean themselves off their expensive and unreliable dependence on Israel for their energy needs through green investment and innovation. This preoccupation was reflected in many of the Made in Palestine innovations: compressed-air and solar-powered cars, a wind turbine made of recycled material, recycled car oil and solar-powered water desalination.

In the broader context, the Palestinian authority views economic development, partly founded on innovation, as a top priority and a prerequisite for statehood. What has become known as “Fayyadism”, after the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, posits that the first step on the path to statehood is through changing the Palestinians own state of being and building a de facto state-in-waiting.

“Creativity, innovation and excellence are vital tools in the hands of young people building the future of Palestine,” Fayyad said at Made in Palestine’s award ceremony, where an automated potato planter rolled away with the top prize.

But Fayyad admitted that this required wide ranging reforms, including greater support for innovators, the creation of a culture which values innovation, and narrowing the skills gap between the education system and the job market.

This article first appeared in The National on 12 January 2012.

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The ghost of Christmas past

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By Khaled Diab

The Holy Land is where Christmas began. But with the relative decline of Christianity there, does the yuletide still retain its spirit?

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Santa on the Via Dolorosa. ©Khaled Diab

In one of the bizarre contrasts I’ve grown to associate with Jerusalem, one of the first signs of the approach of Christmas was actually an unintentionally symbolic juxtaposition of birth and death: a kitsch inflatable version of the legendary gift bearer Father Christmas (Santa Claus) watching over pilgrims – and shoppers – as they progress along the sombre Via Dolorosa (Way of Grief), the route Jesus is believed to have followed on the way to his crucifixion.

In the land that quite literally put the Christ into Christmas, the run-up to the holiday season in the public sphere is pretty low key, given that the majority of the population is either Jewish or Muslim. “You see some decoration around, but Christmas here is a normal time of year,” says Dimitri Karkar, a Palestinian Christian businessman. Karkar lives in Ramallah, which has grown, with the influx of refugees from other parts of historic Palestine and Israel’s continued annexation of East Jerusalem, from being a small Christian village to become the de facto administrative capital of Palestine, where about a quarter of its population today is Christian.

This demographic reality inevitably affects the spirit of the season. “On Christmas Day, the majority of people are working, so most Christians work too,” notes Karkar, although he does point out that Orthodox Christmas, which is on 7 January, has been made a public holiday for Christians and Muslims alike in the West Bank. “My wife and kids are travelling but I have to keep my restaurant open.”

Although there is not much sign of Christmas in the public sphere in either Israel or Palestine, in private, the spirit of the season is alive and well. “I most enjoy the family gatherings,” Ameer Sader, a young Christian from Haifa, one of the major Arab population centres in Israel which is notable for its relatively good track record of coexistence. “The colours make me cheerful and full of holiday spirit.”

The way Christmas sheepishly sneaks up on you in Israel and Palestine sits in sharp contrast with the all-pervasive festive cheer in Europe and the United States. “Christmas here feels spiritless and meaningless in comparison to the West,” reflects Sader, who teaches English and works as a young guide at the National Museum of Science and Technology. “I’ve had the opportunity to celebrate Christmas in Paris. I felt the religious meaning of Christmas for two weeks long, as the midnight mass was an integral part of Christmas and the highlight of the celebrations,” he adds, while stressing that he is not a religious person.

With church attendance at an all-time low in Western Europe and the near-comprehensive secularisation of the festival in recent decades, Sader’s idealised description of Christmas in Paris would come as something of a revelation to many Europeans, who spend much of the advent period making offerings for their loved ones at the altar of consumerism, while the “spirit” of the season tends to be a merry genie inside a bottle shared with family and friends.

For their part, foreign Christians and pilgrims tend to romanticise the “purity” of Christmas in the Holy Land. “Christmas here is fantastic because there’s absolutely no sign of the trappings of materialism,” believes Richard Meryon, who is the director of Jerusalem’s Garden Tomb, which is in a kind of spiritual territorial dispute with the Church of the nearby Holy Sepulchre due to its claim to be a strong candidate for the location of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

“People in England hardly know the difference between Santa Claus and Jesus,” jokes Meryon, who has something of the quintessential English vicar about him, while a group of Singaporean pilgrims sing melodic hymns in the background. “Commercialism has taken Jesus out of Christmas.”

Pilgrims sing Jesus' praise. ©Khaled Diab

And the guitar-strumming young Singaporean who had led his evangelist group of pilgrims in song seemed to share Meryon’s sentiments. “Being here is incredible. I can see Jesus all around me,” he said, I imagine, figuratively. Lacking any semblance of religious faith and not being of a spiritual disposition, in all my time in Jerusalem, I have never seen Christ figuratively. I have, however, repeatedly spotted a pilgrim fitting his description making his lonely way through the old city.

The reality of Christmas here seems to me to lie somewhere in the middle between what Sader and Meryon describe. In a land where people are generally more religious than in the West – whether they be Christians, Muslims or Jews – church attendance is high.

For obvious reasons, Bethlehem, whose population today is still about half Christian, is a popular pull for local Christians and pilgrims alike, with the highlight for the faithful being the midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity on Christmas Eve. And like for Joseph and Mary, those who leave it too long to book find that there’s no more room at the inn. “I just enjoy the whole atmosphere of worshipping in the place where Jesus was born, but it doesn’t look like a smelly cave with a manger and cows and cow poo,” says Meryon.

Despite the greater spirituality and religiosity, consumerism has been making rapid gains in Palestinian society, as reflected, for instance, by the ostentatious nature of weddings, which can last days and consume vast quantities of fireworks. In his grandparents’ day things were different, says Sader. “People back then couldn’t afford the extravagance which we are witnessing nowadays,” he explains, recalling his grandmother’s stories of how she and her sisters would spend days making new clothes for the children and baking Christmas cakes.

Back then, the Holy Land was far more Christian that it is now. During the British mandate, Christians comprised nearly 10% of the population of Palestine in 1922 and around 8% in 1946. Today, Christians make up about 4% of the West Bank’s population, although there are still a few Christian-majority villages about, such as Taybeh, whose skyline is dominated by church spires and produces the only Palestinian beer. Meanwhile, in Israel, though Christians make up 10% of its Palestinian population, they only constitute 2.5% of the total population. In Gaza, the Christian minority is even smaller, representing just 1% of the population.

A variety of push and pull factors are behind this relative decline. One major push factor is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Arab-Israeli war of 1948 caused hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee or be driven out of their homes, most never to return – and each subsequent war has led to more Palestinians leaving. Today, though Palestinians are often materially better off than other Arabs, restrictions on movement, lack of economic opportunity, unemployment and the constant indignity of living under occupation prompt many to seek out new homes.

And being relatively better educated and sharing a common religion with the West, Palestinian Christians have generally been better placed to make the move. “Many Christians prioritise their religion over their nationality, thus feeling at home in western Christian countries as immigrants,” says Sader. “Also, the fertility rate among Christians is the lowest within Israel and Palestine, playing a role, however small it is, in their decline.”

But it would be a mistake to see this as a predominantly Christian phenomenon. “What is often ignored is the huge number of young Muslims who are leaving. And don’t forget there are more Palestinian Muslims living abroad than Christians,” points out Karkar.

Paradoxically, Christian charities and missionaries, who often do valuable work here, have played an unwitting role in this dynamic. “I think that an awful lot of well-meaning Christians in the West, whether they are in America, Britain or other places, have poured a lot of money into the West Bank, and specifically into the churches and ministries here,” observes Meryon. This, he notes, “is causing a haemorrhaging of Palestinian believers”, although, as a counterbalance, the numbers of foreign believers and Messianic Jews who believe in Jesus are rising, he points out.

Of course, not all Christian activity has been “well-meaning” towards Palestinian Christians. For example, so-called Zionist Christians are passionately, even virulently, pro-Israeli, and many come to the Holy Land, including mounted on Harley Davidsons, to express their support.

This undermining role was rhetorically summed up by Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich, who in an apparent bid to court the Christian Zionist and pro-Israel right, made the outrageous claim that “We have invented the Palestinian people”, as if the Palestinians I encounter every day here are a figments of my imagination created in a Hollywood basement somewhere.

Nevertheless, Palestinian Christians in Palestine and Israel I have met insist that, although they may face a certain amount of discrimination from the country’s two major faith groups, especially with the rising tide of Islamic and Jewish fundamentalism, they are by no means “persecuted”. “Being a minority inside a minority is not a healthy and helpful situation,” contends Sader. “Christians feel rejected by their Muslim brothers (and vice versa) and of course by non-Arabs in the country.”

“There is no Islamic persecution here,” insists Karkar, who points out that it was a Muslim, the late Yasser Arafat, who not only symbolised national unity by marrying a Christian but also restored the status of Christmas in Bethlehem after years of Israeli-imposed isolation had made it impossible for Palestinian Christians from other parts to visit the birthplace of Christ. Karkar also contends that even the Islamist movement, Hamas, is not “anti-Christian”.

And in light of the pride Palestinian Christians hold in having produced some of Palestine’s most notable political and intellectual luminaries, Karkar’s assertionis understandable, especially given the traditionally secular nature of the Palestinian struggle for statehood. However, the recent rise of Islamism, although it may not have yet led to outright persecution, has certainly made Christians grow more uncomfortable as they are viewed with greater suspicion.

This discourse of “national unity” notwithstanding, not all is well in communal relations between Muslims and Christians. This is manifested in the growing significance of religious identity politics, as reflected, for example, in the increasingly overt displays of religious dress and the regularity with which I get asked whether I’m a Copt or a Muslim.

The future health of Christians and Christianity in the Holy Land will depend largely on politics and whether Israelis and Palestinians will be able to find a just resolution to their conflict. If peace and justice reign, many diaspora Palestinian Christians may be encouraged to return and help build a brighter and more inclusive future for all.


This is the extended version of an article that appeared in Salon on 23 December 2011.

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Next stop: freedom?

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By Khaled Diab

Palestinian ‘freedom riders’ defiantly boarded a bus to Jerusalem. So is the next stop for the Palestinian struggle  a mass civil rights movement?

Thursday 17 November 2011

Huwaida Arraf (left) and Hurriyah Ziada talk to the press. Image: ©Khaled Diab

For untold millions around the world, buses are little more than a mundane and functional aspect of their daily lives. But there are times when public tranposrt take on huge symbolic importance. In 1961, for example, Washington DC played host to the first ‘freedom riders’, courageous civil rights activists who boarded an interstate bus bound for New Orleans to challenge the federally outlawed segregation practised in the southern states.

Half a century later and half a world away, a group of Palestinian activists has drawn inspiration from the African-American civil rights struggle and organised their own ‘freedom ride’ on Tuesday, 15 November, which marked the anniversary of the Palestinians’ symbolic declaration of independence in 1988. Symbolic because, like their current quest for UN membership, Palestinians still live under Israeli military occupation, with all the restrictions on their liberty that involves, including the freedom to travel, work their land, to build and to manage their own affairs.

“Although the tactics and methodologies differ, the white supremacists and the Israeli occupiers commit the same crime: they strip a people of freedom, justice and dignity,” said Hurriyah Ziada, the young spokeswoman for the Palestinian Freedom Riders, whose name, appropriately enough, means ‘more freedom’ in Arabic.

“As part of our struggle for freedom, justice and dignity, we demand the ability to be able to travel freely on our own land and roads, including the right to travel to Jerusalem,” she told the dozens of journalists who had crowded into the courtyard of the state-of-the-art cultural palace in Ramallah, the town which, with Israel’s continued annexation of East Jerusalem, acts as the Palestinians’ de facto capital. She also called for boycott and divestment against the Israeli and French bus companies that run lines through the occupied West Bank.

Basel al-A’raj, one of the Freedom Riders, waits for a bus. Image: ©Khaled Diab

Of course, there are certain key differences between the situation in the southern American states in the 1960s and the situation in Israel and Palestine today. There is no actual law that forbids Palestinians from boarding Israeli buses, and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and Palestinian residents of Jerusalem do so on a daily basis, although Jews and Arabs rarely mix in the troubled ‘holy city’ and possess their own parallel transportation systems.

However, holders of West Bank identity cards live under restrictions imposed by the occupying Israeli military and are barred from entering Jewish settlements and Jerusalem unless they are in possession of rare permits to do so. So, while African-Americans were free to travel where they wanted but not to board whites-only buses, West Bank Palestinians are legally entitled to board Israelis buses but cannot ride them to their destinations. Such is the perverse logic of segregation and discrimination.

And this is what the six brave freedom riders set out to do: challenge the ban on Palestinians travelling to Jerusalem, running the risk of arrest and possible attacks by violent settler extremists, who have recently not only escalated their attacks on Palestinians but have also increasingly targeted the Israeli military, Israeli leftists and human rights activists with violence. 

But even the most serious political activism is not without its surreal moments and light relief. As the six would-be passengers set out in search of a bus stop, the snaking convoy of perhaps 50 or more carloads of journalists followed on a sort of blind bus chase. This caused not only curiosity among passing motorists but a number of traffic jams on some of the narrower back roads used by Palestinians who are not allowed to drive on many settler-only roads and so have to take massive detours to avoid them. 

We eventually wound up on Road 60, one of the few main arteries in the West Bank which is open both to Israeli and Palestinian traffic. When we finally arrived at a bus stop near the settlements of Psagot and Migron, it was difficult to tell whether the bewildered expressions on the faces of the waiting Israelis were due to the presence of the six activists – who wore the emblematic Palestinian chequered ‘keffiyeh’ and T-shirts emblazoned with the words ‘dignity’, ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ – or the dozens of unruly journalists milling about the road and even standing on the roof of the bus stop.

The commotion eventually drew the Israeli police, army and the private security from one of the nearby settlements. But all of them seemed to be at a loss as to what to do. As we waited for a bus that would permit the Palestinians to board without just pulling away from the crowd, I spoke to some of the Freedom Riders. 

Like for Jews in the diaspora, who for centuries longed for “Next year in Jerusalem”, the holy city carries huge symbolic significance for Palestinians. “I haven’t been to Jerusalem for 14 years. It’s a dream of mine to enter Jerusalem,” said Nadeem al-Shirbaty (33), an ironsmith from Hebron who co-founded a movement called Youth Against Settlements. 

The Freedom Riders wait patiently for a bus willing to take them. Image: ©Khaled Diab

Huwaida Arraf (35), the only woman Freedom Rider and a passionate advocate of the Palestinian cause, also holds American citizenship but refused to bring her US passport along. “To be clear, Israel would not be able to do this without the United States’ financial support and political protection,” she told me. “It’s up to the American people to say, ‘No, we fought this during the civil rights movement in the 60s. We don’t accept it for our own communities, so we should not be funding it abroad either.’” 

One of the settlers at the bus stop, who could have easily passed for a Palestinian had it not been for his kippah (yarmulka), voiced a concern common among Israelis. “We are scared that those people will come and blow us up,” he admitted to me. “If one or two or even a hundred come in peace, so what. All you need is one in a thousand to have a bomb, then what are you going to do? How are you going to stop it?” 

This raises a number of thorny ethical questions. Although a tiny minority of Palestinians has been guilty of violent resistance and terrorism against Israelis, including suicide bombings targeting civilians, does this justify the collective punishment of millions and does such collective punishment reduce or increase the chance of future attacks?

As it began to look unlikely that the freedom riders would manage to find a ride, Basel al-A’raj (28), from Walajeh, a small village near Bethlehem, told me: “We’ve been trying for over 60 years to bring our cause to the world’s attention. It’s not a problem for me to wait here for a few hours for a bus.” 

Not much later, a bus arrived that the Freedom Riders managed to alight and the assembled journalists quite literally tried to press gang their

Israeli police and military watch on in bewilderment. Image: ©Khaled Diab

way on to the bus as the driver desperately attempted to shut the door on his by-now desperately full vehicle. Unable to get on the bus, I joined a number of other journalists who went ahead to the Hizma checkpoint on the outskirts of Jerusalem to wait for the bus. When the bus arrived there, the soldiers at the checkpoint were also at a loss as to what to do with the disobedient activists.

Eventually, they got the bus to pull up into the checkpoint’s car park, where I managed to board as the Israeli passengers began to disembark though numerous Israeli activists remained on board in solidarity. Meanwhile, a stream of officials from the police, military and special forces arrived to take stock of the situation. International activists carrying large placards also formed a human wall in front of the bus. 

On the bus, the Freedom Riders and dozens of journalists waited to see how the situation would unfold. A number of Arabic-speaking police officers boarded the bus and tried in vain to convince the activists to vacate the bus and informed them that they were under arrest for attempting to enter Jerusalem illegally and for disrupting public order.

“Our action has been a runaway success, regardless of what happens in the next few hours,” contended Mazen Qumseyeh (54), an academic and university professor who has published several books on the Palestinian struggle.

After Israeli police failed to remove him from the bus, one of the activists gives an interview on the stairs. Image: ©Khaled Diab

“If they try to remove us from the bus, I’ll refuse to get off,” al-A’raj, with his curly hair, said determinedly, giving me a toothy smile, from his so-far undetected position at the back of the bus. “I will abide by the principles of the law, not military decrees, but civilian and international law, which guarantee my freedom of movement.”

Reflecting on his state, he told me that he was overcome by a torrent of conflicting feelings, including excitement and fear. “But we live with these mixed emotions all the time under occupation. Every day, homes are raided and people are arrested. The main difference is that, this time, there is media coverage.”

After a couple of hours, the Israelis resolved on a course of action and delivered an ultimatum to the activists that they either got off the bus voluntarily or they would be forcibly removed. The police then carried them off one by one to a waiting police van, and each Freedom Rider shouted out their name and rejected what they regarded as the illegality of what the Israeli police was doing to them. The activists were released from custody a few hours later.

Though I was stranded without a ride at the checkpoint, unlike the activists, I was able to walk up a few hundred metres to the nearest Israeli settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev and take the bus into Jerusalem. On the way home, I reflected on how I, as a foreigner, have so much more freedom of movement than the local Palestinians of the West Bank and even more so than those in Gaza, and how I take this mobility to roam the world for granted, while Palestinians can have trouble not only travelling to Jerusalem, but during times of heightened tension, to other Palestinian towns and villages.

Despite their failure to enter Jerusalem and their arrest, the Freedom Riders are determined to scale up and continue their campaign to become regular rebel commuters to Jerusalem. “This is only the beginning. This is the first bus, but there are bound to be future attempts involving more riders,” promised Arraf before her arrest.

With the peace process long dead in the water and the end of the Israeli occupation unlikely in the foreseeable future, I have long advocated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be transformed into a peaceful, non-violent civil rights struggle for equality and dignity. This could be a significant step along this long road. Once everyone is enfranchised and has a voice, then the two peoples can start a conversation of equals about their future and whether it will be a common one or whether they will file for a magnanimous divorce.


This is an extended version of an article which appeared in Salon on  17 November 2011.

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