Archive for June 2010
The chaos of Lebanon has thrown up an Arab horror parallelled only in post-invasion Iraq. It has also produced the Arab world’s most urgent intellectual life, and its first victory against Israel. Lebanon is the most contradictory of countries, “a more open, liberal and democratic society than any of its Arab neighbours” precisely because of “its vulnerability to domestic dissension.” So, with its seventeen sects and constantly shifting allegiances, who would dare to explain Lebanon?
No better candidate than David Hirst, whose 1977 book “The Gun and the Olive Branch” was one of the very first to sympathetically present the Palestinian plight in English. Hirst’s latest work “Beware of Small States” is a panoramic study of Lebanon’s difficult history which strikes exactly the right balance between close detail and broad interpretative sweep. The writing is precise, penetrative and elegant. For sober, logical analysis, “Beware of Small States” outstrips even Robert Fisk’s magisterial “Pity the Nation.”
One of the sillier lines deployed to take the wind out of a cultural boycott of apartheid Israel is ‘art is above politics.’ It’s not an argument, just a line. To see how far from an argument it is, just substitute Israel with something we all agree is unacceptable. Would it have been a good idea for an artist to travel to Auschwitz while the chimneys were pumping, not to witness but to entertain the Gestapo? What about singing for Stalin during collectivisation? Or dancing for Pol Pot as he filled Cambodia’s fields with corpses? O, but those were atrocities! They were criminals! Which brings us to the nub of it. Those false liberals and mercenaries who proclaim the nobility of their ‘engagement’ with Zionist colonialism believe that Zionist crimes are ok. The ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the caging of the refugees, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the annexation of the Golan Heights and Jerusalem, the savage, repeated bombardments of Lebanon, the cheerleading for the destruction of Iraq – none of it matters much, because ‘art’ floats high above it.
This is in large part an amalgam of other pieces I’ve written on the topic. Like almost all of my stuff, it’s at PULSE, and will be crossposted at the indispensable Mondoweiss.
In his contribution to the debate on the rights and wrongs of violent resistance to oppression, David Bromwich tells us that non-violent action is supposed to be “visible and exemplary.” In the case of Palestine, this chimes with the dominant Western narrative that the Palestinians would have achieved liberation long ago if only they had avoided mindless acts of terrorism. Much of the mainstream media goes a step further to suggest that the Palestinians are hindered by their culture and religion – which are inherently violent, hysterical and anti-Semitic – from winning their rights. If only they would grow up a little. If only they’d set a good example.
Leading liberal clown Bono has also asked where the Palestinian Gandhis are. The problem here, though, is not the absence of Gandhis but their lack of visibility – the visibility which Bromwich says is so important. For the first two decades after the original ethnic cleansing of 1947 and 48, almost all Palestinian resistance was non-violent. From 1967 until 1987 Palestinians resisted by organising tax strikes, peaceful demonstrations, petitions, sit-down protests on confiscated lands and in houses condemned to demolition. The First Intifada was almost entirely non-violent on the Palestinian side; the new tactic of throwing stones at tanks (which some liberals consider violent) was almost entirely symbolic. In every case, the Palestinians were met with fanatical violence. Midnight arrest, beatings, and torture were the lot of most. Many were shot. Nobel Peace Laureate Yitzhak Rabin ordered occupation troops to break the bones of the boys with stones. And despite all this sacrifice, Israeli Jews were not moved to recognise the injustice of occupation and dispossession, at least not enough to end it.
This was published at the Guardian.
The Arab world is undergoing seismic transformations, groping its way towards new, as yet unknown forms, throwing up works of art as well as bombs in the process. In the face of vast complexity, however, and in a time of war, our media’s first response is to dumb down.
If the news media simplifies, literature, by offering social and psychological context, broadens and diversifies our understanding of the region, and particularly literature written by Arabs. (When Martin Amis or John Updike write about Arabs, they are of course writing about themselves, their own ideas of how Arabs tick.) The reading public seems to know this. Recent years have seen an increasing demand for Arabic writing in English translation, though Europe still translates far more.
So the publication of “Beirut 39” – 39 extracts by Arab writers under 40 – is a timely and worthwhile initiative. The 39 are winners of a contest organised by Banipal magazine and the Hay Festival of Literature, and the book’s name honours UNESCO’s World Book Capital for 2009. “Beirut 39” contains short stories, novel extracts and a few poems, often brimming with exuberant confidence and sparkling with innovation. The quality of translation ranges from acceptable to excellent.
I’m proud to be a signatory to this letter published in shortened form in the Independent on Sunday.
June 4th 2010
The murder of humanitarian aid workers aboard the Mavi Marmara in international waters is the latest tragic example of Israel’s relentless attacks on human rights. But while violently preventing the free passage of medical, building and school supplies to Gaza, Israel continues to pride itself as a highly cultured, highly educated state. In solidarity with Palestinian civil society and its call for a Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel, we the undersigned therefore appeal to British writers and scholars to boycott all literary, cultural and academic visits to Israel that are sponsored by the Israeli government, including those organised by Israeli cultural foundations and universities. (This boycott does not include courageous independent Israeli organisations who openly oppose the occupation.) We also ask that writers, poets and British funding bodies actively support Palestinian literary events, such as the Palestinian Literary Festival and the Palestinian Writing Workshop.
What the Western political class and its media demand of the Arabs and Muslims is acceptance of the unacceptable status quo in Israel-Palestine. To resist the status quo is to be troublesome, destabilising and irrationally violent. Resistance arises from the inadequacies of a culture and religion given to antisemitism and hysteria. In order to develop, these backward folk must give resistance up.
For the Lebanese, this means that they must forget the brutal 22-year occupation of their country and the 1982 siege of Beirut as well as the 2006 assault on the country’s civilian infrastructure. They must forget the endless chain of massacres perpetrated by Zionists and their allies on Lebanese territory. They must smile when Israel violates their air space on a daily basis and threatens to send them “back to the stone age” on a weekly basis. They must disarm and label as terrorist Hizbullah, the principled defender of their country.
Following the Israeli act of terrorism in the Mediterranean, calls for the siege of Gaza to be lifted have come from some unlikely quarters, including the British prime minister. A nervous Husni Mubarak has temporarily opened Egypt’s border with Gaza. More ships are being prepared to break the siege, including one organised by European Jewish groups. Norway has cancelled a military seminar because an Israeli officer was part of the programme. Swedish dock workers will block Israeli ships and goods for a week. The British trades union UNITE has voted to boycott Israeli companies. A French cinema chain has pulled an Israeli film and will instead show a film about Rachel Corrie (murdered by Zionism while protecting a Palestinian home from demolition). Nicaragua has suspended ties with Israel. The rock groups Gorillaz, the Pixies and the Klaxons have added their names to the growing list of musicians (Santana, Elvis Costello, Gil Scott Heron..) who refuse to perform in the apartheid state. But the big story, the earthshaking story, is Turkey. Idrees has already posted the video below at PULSE, but I must repost it here. It shows the expanding demonstrations in Turkey, with Turks waving Palestinian, Hamas and Hizbullah flags, and even pictures of Imad Mughniyeh. It can’t be stressed enough how important this is. After a century of bitter estrangement, Turks and Arabs are coming together. This is a game changer.