Archive for July 2009
This is, more or less, a selection from posts I made during the Gaza massacre.
From Palestine come pictures on the internet, and on al-Jazeera – burning half bodies, a head and torso screaming, corpses spilt in a marketplace like unruly apples, all the tens and hundreds of infants and children turned to outraged dust. A little more out of focus, but concrete, there is the obscenity of starved refugees and cratered farmland, of shriek-soaked hospital walls and babies born at checkpoints. Still further behind these instances, these symptoms, looms the brute and perpetual obscenity of the ancient Canaanite-Arab Palestinian people having been driven from their land into camps and walled ghettoes, where they have been repeatedly massacred. All of this is offensive, repulsive and indecent. The Western media, not wishing to offend our senses, keeps the obscenity quiet. Better put, they cloak the obscenity with the greater obscenity of untruth, of dreaming a pleasant version while people bleed and die.
This should concern everybody, and first of all writers and readers. For the prime obscenity for us here, away from the immediate death and panic, is the language we use to hide the reality of what’s happening. We use magical terms. This is how it goes:
The Guardian reports on British campaigning in Afghanistan, specifically an “operation” which ”took nearly 3,000 British troops, many engaged in gun battles, to capture an area the size of the Isle of Wight.” I do wonder what meaning the verb ‘capture’ has here.
The article relays stories told by “British officials” and a couple of named officers, stirring stories which involve “a risky air attack” and a “Taliban drugs bazaar.” Twenty two British soldiers have been killed in Helmand province this month alone, so I expect our officials are thinking very hard indeed about the stories they tell. The recent adventure is called ‘Operation Panther’s Claw’, and is hoped to be “a decisive turning point in the eight-year conflict.”
We shall see. In the meantime, what seems a potentially decisive sign is the language and direction of this Taliban ‘code of conduct’. It demonstrates not only a higher stage of organisation than at any time since the movement’s 2001 defeat, but also a leap forward in ethics and political understanding.
On suicide bombing, the code says
(These) attacks should only be used on high and important targets. A brave son of Islam should not be used for lower and useless targets. The utmost effort should be made to avoid civilian casualties.
And concerning relations with the Afghan people,
The Mujahideen have to behave well and show proper treatment to the nation, in order to bring the hearts of civilian Muslims closer to them. The mujahideen must avoid discrimination based on tribal roots, language or geographic background.
For obvious reasons it is difficult to know precisely how those under the Taliban umbrella think. But it’s certainly safe to say the movement is learning lessons very quickly. When the ‘old Taliban’ took Afghanistan over from the warlords in 1996, it had the open backing of the US-Saudi-Pakistani alliance. This time it will have to think, and change, and work much harder.
An edited version of this article was published in The National.
We entered Palestine from Jordan, across the Allenby Bridge and over the trickle which is what’s left of the diverted, overused, and drought-struck river. The Dead Sea glittered in the hollow to our left. Jericho, the world’s oldest city, shimmered through heat haze to our right. The site where Jesus was baptised was a stone’s throw away. Palestine is most definitely part of bilad ash-Sham, in the same cultural zone as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, but it is also most definitely like nowhere else on the planet. Suddenly the superlatives were coming thick and fast.
Palestine feels as large as a continent – but one that’s been crushed and folded to fit into the narrow strip of fertile land between the river and the sea. The Jordan Valley depression is the lowest point on earth, part of the Rift Valley which stretches from east Africa, and it’s as hot as the Gulf. But only a few miles up from the yellowed, cratered desert into the green hills before Jerusalem, and the weather is very different. As we left our performance in Ramallah a couple of nights later, gusts of fog blew in on an icy wind. If a Palestinian in the West Bank manages to find an unoccupied hilltop – which isn’t at all easy – he can look all the way to the forbidden Mediterranean, and perhaps he’ll pick out the fields of his ancestral village.
This was published on the Reuters Great Debate blog.
I visited as a participant in the Palestine Festival of Literature, the brain child of the great British-Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif. I was in the company of many wonderful writers and publishers, among them Python and traveller Michael Palin, best-selling crime novelist Henning Mankel, Pride and Prejudice screenplay writer Deborah Moggach, and prize-winning novelists Claire Messud and MG Vassanji.
Our first stop was Hebron University, where I ran a workshop on ‘the role of writing in changing political realities.’ The students were bright and eager; the only discomforting note was struck by a memorial stone to three killed while walking on campus, by rampaging settlers, in 1986.
After lunch we visited Hebron’s historic centre.