Archive for June 2009
This was published in the Sunday Herald.
The mainstream media narrative of events unfolding in Iran has been set out for us as clear as fairytale: an evil dictatorship has rigged elections and now violently suppresses its country’s democrats, hysterically blaming foreign saboteurs the while. But the Twitter generation is on the right side of history (in Obama’s words), and could bring Iran back within the regional circle of moderation. If only Iran becomes moderate, a whole set of regional conflicts will be solved.
I don’t mean to minimise the importance of the Iranian protests or the brutality of their suppression, but I take issue with the West’s selective blindness when it gazes at the Middle East. The ‘Iran narrative’ contains a dangerous set of simplicities which bode ill for Obama’s promised engagement, and which will be recognised beyond the West as rotten with hypocrisy.
Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.”
It’s difficult to know where to start with this. Perhaps by registering just how insulting it is for the representative of the imperial killing machine – responsible directly and indirectly for millions of deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Somalia – to lecture the dispossessed and massacred Palestinians on their occasional attempts to strike back. We can be sure that the sleeping children Obama is concerned with here are the Israeli children who live on the stolen land of Palestine, not the unsleeping, traumatised children of Gaza, several hundred of whom were burnt and dismembered six months ago. Then it’s worth remarking how the erudition and intelligence shown in Obama’s pre-presidential book ‘Dreams from my Father’ have been immediately crushed on his assumption of the presidency. How otherwise could his historical vision be so partial and simplistic? There was certainly a key non-violent aspect to the struggle for civil rights in the United States, but pretending that violence played no role in the process makes it necessary to ignore the American Civil War (half a million dead), Nat Turner, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and rioting Chicago. Violence, or the threat of violence, was important in South Africa and India too, and certainly in Obama’s ancestral Kenya, and was the dominant anti-imperial strategy in Vietnam and Algeria.
I love it when Arab Christians have names like Omar. It shows, on their fathers’ part, a rejection of the sectarianism which cripples us. I know of a Christian family in Beirut which named its eldest son Jihad, and Muslim families with sons called Fidel and Guevara. Omar is not merely a specifically Muslim name; it’s more particularly a Sunni name, disliked by some Shia for theological-historical reasons. Omar is not a good name to have written on your ID card while driving through a Shia-militia-controlled area of Baghdad. But I know an Iraqi Shia woman whose brother is called Omar, because her father rejected the whole sorry sectarian business.
By and large, the Palestinians have avoided the curse. It’s still the case that if you ask a Palestinian whether he’s Muslim or Christian he responds, “Palestinian!” I mention this because our guide from Amman to the Allenby Bridge was a Palestinian Christian called Omar, and because the Palestinians, unlike their enemies, are proud of their diversity and pluralism.
Swaying in the bus aisle, Omar explained that Jordanian officers would check our passports but would not stamp them. “The Jordanian government has recognised Israel, but not Israeli control over the West Bank. Why are there Israeli police on the border and not Palestinians? Jordan recognises this as a crossing, but not a border.”
“I cannot keep silent … Disaster follows disaster; the land lies in ruins … My people are fools; they do not know me.” Jeremiah 4:19
Mordechai Vanunu is a Moroccan Jew, born in Marrakesh. Today he credits his humanity to having been born in an Arab country rather than in the Jewish state. He was nine when he was taken to Israel. He attended an ultra orthodox school, and after his military service became a nuclear technician at the Dimona plant. At this time his anti-Zionist politics developed. Later he flirted with Buddhism, converted to Christianity, and in London in 1986 told the Sunday Times what he knew of Israel’s nuclear weapons programme, backing his claims with photographic evidence.
He was then caught in a ‘honey trap’, lured by a beautiful woman from London to Italy, drugged and kidnapped in Rome by Mossad (with the connivance of British, French and Italian intelligence services), and brought back to Israel, where he served 18 years in prison for his truth-telling, twelve of them in solitary confinement. He says he survived because of his strong will (“the first thing I did in prison was give up smoking”), and by playing opera records. He refused to converse with the only human beings available – his guards. His lawyer describes him as “the most stubborn, principled, and tough person I have ever met.”
Suheir Hammad is one of the Palfest participants who deserves a post to herself. A Palestinian-American, Suheir was born to refugee parents in Amman. She spent her first years in civil war Beirut before moving to Brooklyn, where drugs and gang wars raged. She is a poet, prosewriter and actress. Her poetry erases any distance between the personal and political, and is humane, passionate and particular. Greatly influenced in its rhythm, diction and pacing by New York hip hop, it fits snugly into the tradition of Palestinian oral delivery exemplified by the late poet Mahmoud Darwish.
Suheir stars in the film Salt of this Sea, but it is surely time someone directed her in a poetry performance DVD. You have to hear her read to really appreciate what she does. A good place to start is the poem First Writing Since, which concerns 9/11.
Personally, I found it unpleasant to see Obama lecturing the Arabs, and the handpicked audience clapping as ecstatically as trained apes whenever the President (rather like Napoleon in Cairo) made an Islamic allusion. No matter that he said ‘hajib’ intead of ‘hijab’. Most depressingly, Obama’s address was heavily influenced by the Bernard Lewis school of Orientalism – Arab and Muslim anger is caused by the cultural trauma of modernity and a “self-defeating focus on the past,” rather than by very present realities, such as the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the destabilisation of Pakistan and Somalia, the unwelcome military bases in the Muslim world, and the support of dictatorial regimes such as Mubarak’s. Obama’s assumptions repeated falsities, such as the notion that Arab regimes focus on Palestine to distract the people from their own failings. In fact the Arab regimes do everything they can to take the focus off Palestine, as the Palestinian tragedy is the key symbol of the bankruptcy of the client regimes. And Obama mocked violent resistance while not saying a word about the 1400 just killed in Gaza or the million slaughtered in Iraq.
The best response I’ve seen to the speech is by Ali Abunimah, who studies Obama’s phrases well: “Suffered in pursuit of a homeland? The pain of dislocation? They already had a homeland. They suffered from being ethnically cleansed and dispossessed of it and prevented from returning on the grounds that they are from the wrong ethno-national group. Why is that still so hard to say?” Ali goes on:
Once you strip away the mujamalat – the courtesies exchanged between guest and host – the substance of President Obama’s speech in Cairo indicates there is likely to be little real change in US policy. It is not necessary to divine Obama’s intentions – he may be utterly sincere and I believe he is. It is his analysis and prescriptions that in most regards maintain flawed American policies intact.
Please read the captions.
I have just returned from a physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting week in Palestine. I was a participant in Palfest 09, the second Palestine Festival of Literature. It was a great honour to be in the company of writers like Michael Palin and Debborah Moggach, and Claire Messud, MG Vassanji, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Ahdaf Soueif and Jamal Mahjoub, the lawyer for Guantanamo Bay prisoners Ahmad Ghappour, Palestinian poets Suheir Hammad and Nathalie Handal, and all the others. I’ll do a post at some point on everybody there. It was an even greater honour to meet Palestinian academics, students, and people on the streets and in the camps, to witness their incredible resilience and creative intelligence. Something fearless in them slipped into me, and gave me optimism. A people like this can not be kept down indefinitely.