This must be what it was like in the 1930s when Jews fleeing Nazi Germany created a major refugee crisis to which the response of Britain, the USA and other potential safe haven countries was a collective shoulder shrug of indifference – or outright hostility. This summer we have witnessed an unfolding crisis on a scale unprecedented since the Second World War, as desperate people risk their lives fleeing the civil war in Syria and the murderous advance of ISIS. With some noble exceptions, the prevailing response, especially here in the UK, has been once again to demonise fellow human beings. Continue reading “This must be what it was like when German Jews were refugees”
Gaza August 2014: ‘less pity on school children’
How does one avoid despair at the news these days?
The lunatics are in my hall
The paper holds their folded faces to the floor
And every day the paper boy brings more
It’s been a terrible few weeks: death and destruction in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria and Libya, all overshadowed by the appalling events in Gaza. This morning’s Guardian adds to the gloom with news that 40,000 Kurds from a minority sect of Zoroastrians are surrounded by jihadist forces of Isis on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, known in local legend as the final resting place of Noah’s ark. Alongside that is a report by from Israel by Giles Fraser (one-time Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, who resigned during the Occupy encampment there). In it, he paints a picture of an Israel in which there is almost total support for the war in Gaza, newspapers and TV channels are ‘simply cheerleaders for the government line, offering a constant diet of fear and fallen heroes, with little evidence of any of the atrocities going on in Gaza’, and peace activists are fearful of making a public stand.
One of the people to whom Fraser spoke was the writer Amos Oz, ‘Israel’s great literary conscience’. Fraser senses a shift even in Oz’s outlook:
He says something that feels to me like a real shift in his position. Previously he has described the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as a Sophoclean tragedy over land in which both sides have a claim to right on their side; as a battle, as he put it of ‘right versus right’. But now, he says, this is a battle of ‘wrong versus wrong’.
Actually, to me, ‘wrong versus wrong’ seems a more clear-sighted assessment of both the present situation and the historical background than ‘right versus right’. Certainly Oz has always issued side-swipes at well-meaning European liberals who, in his view, fail to understand the complexities of the conflict. The ‘right versus right’ concept comes from a speech Oz made in Germany in 2000, later issued in a little book, How to Cure a Fanatic. This is how Oz began:
Who are the good guys? That’s what every well-meaning European, left-wing European, intellectual European, liberal European always wants to know, first and foremost. Who are the good guys in the film and who are the bad guys. In this respect Vietnam was easy: The Vietnamese people were the victims, and the Americans were the bad guys. The same with apartheid: You could easily see that apartheid was a crime and that the struggle for civil rights, for liberation and equality, and for human dignity was right. The struggle between colonialism and imperialism, on the one hand, and the victims of colonialism and imperialism, on the other, seems relatively simple–you can tell the good guys from the bad. When it comes to the foundations of the Israeli-Arab conflict, in particular the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, things are not so straightforward. And I am afraid I am not going to make things any easier for you by saying simply: These are the angels, these are the devils; you just have to support the angels, and good will prevail over evil. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a Wild West movie. It is not a struggle between good and evil, rather it is a tragedy in the ancient and most precise sense of the word: a clash between right and right, a clash between one very powerful, deep, and convincing claim, and another very different but no less convincing, no less powerful, no less humane claim.
The Palestinians are in Palestine because Palestine is the homeland, and the only homeland, of the Palestinian people. In the same way in which Holland is the homeland of the Dutch, or Sweden the homeland of the Swedes. The Israeli Jews are in Israel because there is no other country in the world that the Jews, as a people, as a nation, could ever call home. As individuals, yes, but not as a people, not as a nation. The Palestinians have tried, unwillingly, to live in other Arab countries. They were rejected, sometimes even humiliated and persecuted by the so-called Arab family. They were made aware in the most painful way of their “Palestinianness”; they were not wanted by Lebanese or Syrians, by Egyptians or Iraqis. They had to learn the hard way that they are Palestinians, and that’s the only country that they can hold on to. In a strange way the Jewish people and the Palestinian people have had a somewhat parallel historical experience. The Jews were kicked out of Europe; my parents were kicked out of Europe some seventy years ago. Just like the Palestinians were first kicked out of Palestine and then out of the Arab countries, or almost. When my father was a little boy in Poland, the streets of Europe were covered with graffiti, “Jews, go back to Palestine,” or sometimes worse: “Dirty Yids, piss off to Palestine.” When my father revisited Europe fifty years later, the walls were covered with new graffiti, “Jews, get out of Palestine.”
People in Europe keep sending me wonderful invitations to spend a rosy weekend in a delightful resort with Palestinian partners, Palestinian colleagues, Palestinian counterparts, so that we can learn to know one another, to like one another, to drink a cup of coffee together, so that we realize that no one has horns and tails–and the trouble will go away. This is based on the widespread sentimental European idea that every conflict is essentially no more than a misunderstanding. A little group therapy, a touch of family counselling, and everyone will live happily ever after. Well, first, I have bad news for you: Some conflicts are very real; they are much worse than a mere misunderstanding. And then I have some sensational news for you: There is no essential misunderstanding between Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jew. The Palestinians want the land they call Palestine. They have very strong reasons to want it. The Israeli Jews want exactly the same land for exactly the same reasons, which provides for a perfect understanding between the parties, and for a terrible tragedy. Rivers of coffee drunk together cannot extinguish the tragedy of two peoples claiming, and I think rightly claiming, the same small country as their one and only national homeland in the whole world. So, drinking coffee together is wonderful and I’m all for it, especially if it is Arabic coffee, which is infinitely better than Israeli coffee. But drinking coffee cannot do away with the trouble.
But, drinking coffee cannot do away with the trouble. What we need is not just coffee and a better understanding. What we need is a painful compromise. The word compromise has a terrible reputation in Europe. Especially among young idealists, who always regard compromise as opportunism, as something dishonest, as something sneaky and shady, as a mark of a lack of integrity. Not in my vocabulary. For me the word compromise means life. And the opposite of compromise is not idealism, not devotion; the opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death. We need a compromise. Compromise, not capitulation. A compromise means that the Palestinian people should never go down on its knees, neither should the Israeli Jewish people.
In his Guardian piece, Giles Fraser writes of his attempt to ‘come at things sideways’ with Oz by talking about Israeli poetry. Fraser tells him he has always loved a poem by Yehuda Amichai, considered by many to be Israel’s greatest poet, who died in 2000 aged 76. The poem is ‘The Place Where We Are Right’:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, Amichai was invited to read from his poems at the ceremony in Oslo. ‘God has pity on kindergarten children’ was one of the poems he read that day. Less than a year later, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated at a peace rally in Tel Aviv by a right-wing Orthodox Jew who opposed the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. In the weeks just gone there has been no mercy in Gaza even for kindergarten children.
God has pity on kindergarten children.
He has less pity on school children.
And on grown-ups he has no pity at all,
he leaves them alone,
and sometimes they must crawl on all fours
in the burning sand
to reach the first-aid station
covered with blood.
But perhaps he will watch over true lovers
and have mercy on them and shelter them
like a tree over the old man
sleeping on a public bench.
Perhaps we too will give them
the last rare coins of compassion
that Mother handed down to us,
so that their happiness will protect us
now and in other days.
The events of this summer have echoed with chilling synchronicity those of one hundred summers past. As the forces of Isis have swept all before them this summer, determined to eradicate the borders established by the colonial powers in the Middle East at the end of the First World War, we have been made painfully aware of the loose ends left by that war in eastern Europe and the Middle East. In a blog post the other day, Mary Beard wrote about attending the commemorative event at the St Symphorien cemetery near Mons on Monday. Everyone there was given a booklet by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission explaining how many graves the commission looks after and where they are. Flipping through it, Mary Beard discovered with a shock that there are over 3000 graves in Gaza from the Great War. They hold the remains of British soldiers who fought to take Gaza city in 1917. It is a reminder, Beard wrote, ‘of a complicated story of conflict in that region which reaches down a century’.
Deir al-Balah cemetery in Gaza: headstone damaged by Israeli shelling in 2009 (photo by Eva Bartlett)
Coincidentally, on Monday’s Channel 4 News, Paul Mason visited the Deir al-Balah cemetery which had been hit by a couple of Israeli shells. The cemetery, which is in the centre of Gaza, has been maintained by the same Palestinian family for three generations, and was badly damaged by shelling in 2009.
Where can we seek consolation amidst all the ruination? I have no idea. The only hope seems to be to hold onto the vision, offered in another of Yehuda Amichai’s poems, of a weary and tarnished ‘wildpeace ’:
Not the peace of a cease-fire,
not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb,
as in the heart when the excitement is over
and you can talk only about a great weariness.
I know that I know how to kill,
that makes me an adult.
And my son plays with a toy gun that knows
how to open and close its eyes and say Mama.
without the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares,
without words, without
the thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it be
light, floating, like lazy white foam.
A little rest for the wounds—
who speaks of healing?
(And the howl of the orphans is passed from one generation
to the next, as in a relay race:
the baton never falls.)
Let it come
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.
Deir al-Balah cemetery in Gaza (photo by Eva Bartlett)
This past week I listened to the series of talks given by Michael Goldfarb for Radio 3’s nightly The Essay, in which Goldfarb made the case for the dramatic events of autumn 1973 as a historical turning point. He made a convincing case in a series that reflected upon the way in which personal history intertwines with the broader history of a time, suggesting that for the generation to which he (and I) belong, and for much of the world, the events of autumn 1973 would go on to determine the unfolding pattern of the next 40 years, and the shape of the world in which we live now. Continue reading “1973 and all that”
One of those moments tonight when, following the daily routine of watching the night’s TV news, you are pulled up short. Channel 4 News broadcast outstanding video footage, filmed by an anonymous French photojournalist, that revealed graphically what is happening in the Syrian city of Homs, under siege for days now from shelling by government forces.
We’ve seen a lot of low quality footage, filmed on mobile phones and the like, beamed out of Syria on YouTube and other internet channels. But this film, shot by ‘Mani’, a photographer who has been to Homs several times,was crystal clear. The incredible footage a vivid and frightening account of what Homs has been like for the past three weeks. The massive Syrian government bombardment and assault on opposition districts in Homs began on February 3. ‘Mani’ filmed the beginning of the assault, the effects on the population, and the response of the Free Syrian Army to the massacre, on the first day, of over 140 people.
It was an awful coincidence that Mani’s film was broadcast on what has been the worst day in the Syrian conflict for journalism. The dangers of reporting from Homs have been tragically highlighted by the deaths of Marie Colvin (of the Sunday Times) and award-winning French photographer Remi Ohlik. His image, ‘Battle for Libya’ (below), won first prize in the general news section of the 2011 World Press Photo awards. It shows rebel forces outside Ras Lanouf, Libya, in March 2011.
Marie Colvin was a foreign correspondent with more than 30 years of experience in conflict zones. In 2010, she spoke of the importance of war reporting:
Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction and death, and trying to bear witness. It means trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda when armies, tribes or terrorists clash. And yes, it means taking risks, not just for yourself but often for the people who work closely with you. […]
Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice. We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado? Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices. Sometimes they pay the ultimate price. … I lost my eye in an ambush in the Sri Lankan civil war. I had gone to the northern Tamil area from which journalists were banned and found an unreported humanitarian disaster. As I was smuggled back across the internal border, a soldier launched a grenade at me and the shrapnel sliced into my face and chest. He knew what he was doing.
We go to remote war zones to report what is happening. The public have a right to know what our government, and our armed forces, are doing in our name. Our mission is to speak the truth to power. We send home that first rough draft of history. We can and do make a difference in exposing the horrors of war and especially the atrocities that befall civilians.
Also dead is the citizen journalist Rami al-Sayed, who provided live video streams from Homs and posted more than 800 videos on YouTube. He was also hit during the shelling of Baba Amr on Tuesday and died some hours later. His YouTube channel, Syria Pioneer provided many of the online videos showing the Syrian government’s bombardment of Homs that were used by news organisations like ITN and the BBC.
Tonight, Channel 4 News concluded with the grim news that there are now no remaining channels for news out of Homs.
This shocking image reveals as starkly as any could that the struggle in Egypt is not yet over. It was taken over the weekend and shows a young woman being dragged away from protests in Tahrir Square on the third day of clashes between the Egyptian military and protesters demanding that Egypt’s military rulers give up power – protests that have left 14 dead. Tonight The UN’s human rights chief, Navi Pillay, has called for the arrest and prosecution of members of the Egyptian security forces involved in the crackdown on protesters.
Since the Egyptian uprising began back in the spring, the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif has been reporting from Cairo as events unfold in a series of despatches to The Guardian. She and other members of her family have been active in the protests. Today her report concerns this photograph. She writes:
The woman is young, and slim, and fair. She lies on her back surrounded by four soldiers, two of whom are dragging her by the arms raised above her head. She’s unresisting – maybe she’s fainted; we can’t tell because we can’t see her face. She’s wearing blue jeans and trainers. But her top half is bare: we can see her torso, her tummy, her blue bra, her bare delicate arms. Surrounding this top half, forming a kind of black halo around it, is the abaya, the robe she was wearing that has been ripped off and that tells us that she was wearing a hijab.
Now our revolution is in an endgame struggle with the old regime and the military. The young woman is part of this. Since Friday the military has openly engaged with civilian protesters in the heart of the capital. The protesters have been peacefully conducting a sit-in in Ministries’ Street to signal their rejection of the military’s appointment of Kamal Ganzouri as prime minister. […]
They dragged the unconscious young woman in the blue jeans – with her upper half stripped – through the streets.
The message is: everything you rose up against is here, is worse. Don’t put your hopes in the revolution or parliament. We are the regime and we’re back.
What they are not taking into account is that everybody’s grown up – the weapon of shame can no longer be used against women. When they subjected young women to virginity tests one of them got up and sued them. Every young woman they’ve brutalized recently has given video testimony and is totally committed to continuing the struggle against them.
The young woman in the blue jeans has chosen so far to retain her privacy. But her image has already become icon. As the tortured face of Khaled Said broke any credibility the ministry of the interior might have had, so the young woman in the blue jeans has destroyed the military’s reputation.
Ahdaf Soueif is the author of the bestselling The Map of Love which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1999. She is also a political and cultural commentator: a collection of her essays, Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground, was published in 2004. She has a new book Cairo: My City, Our Revolution published in January 2012.
It’s been a year since Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in a provincial Tunisian town – an event that triggered a year of revolt that has flared not just across the Arab world but the entire planet in what has turned into the most potent year of protest since 1968.
This is Sidi Bouzid, the Tunisian town where Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, photographed for Time magazine this December. A portrait of Bouazizi hangs outside the Governor’s office that was the site of the young street vendor’s protest.
Each year, Time magazine chooses a Person of the Year to place on the cover of the last issue of the year. This year they have chosen The Protester, explaining their choice in these words:
History often emerges only in retrospect. Events become significant only when looked back on. No one could have known that when a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in a public square in a town barely on a map, he would spark protests that would bring down dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and rattle regimes in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Or that that spirit of dissent would spur Mexicans to rise up against the terror of drug cartels, Greeks to march against unaccountable leaders, Americans to occupy public spaces to protest income inequality, and Russians to marshal themselves against a corrupt autocracy.Protests have now occurred in countries whose populations total at least 3 billion people, and the word protest has appeared in newspapers and online exponentially more this past year than at any other time in history.
Is there a global tipping point for frustration? Everywhere, it seems, people said they’d had enough. They dissented; they demanded; they did not despair, even when the answers came back in a cloud of tear gas or a hail of bullets. They literally embodied the idea that individual action can bring collective, colossal change. And although it was understood differently in different places, the idea of democracy was present in every gathering. The root of the word democracy is demos, “the people,” and the meaning of democracy is “the people rule.” And they did, if not at the ballot box, then in the streets. America is a nation conceived in protest, and protest is in some ways the source code for democracy — and evidence of the lack of it.
The protests have marked the rise of a new generation. In Egypt 60% of the population is under the age of 25. Technology mattered, but this was not a technological revolution. Social networks did not cause these movements, but they kept them alive and connected. Technology allowed us to watch, and it spread the virus of protest, but this was not a wired revolution; it was a human one, of hearts and minds, the oldest technology of all.
Everywhere this year, people have complained about the failure of traditional leadership and the fecklessness of institutions. Politicians cannot look beyond the next election, and they refuse to make hard choices. That’s one reason we did not select an individual this year. But leadership has come from the bottom of the pyramid, not the top. For capturing and highlighting a global sense of restless promise, for upending governments and conventional wisdom, for combining the oldest of techniques with the newest of technologies to shine a light on human dignity and, finally, for steering the planet on a more democratic though sometimes more dangerous path for the 21st century, The Protester is TIME’s 2011 Person of the Year.
This morning, The Guardian has a thoughtful piece, ‘How a lost generation found its voice‘, which concludes that ‘2011 was the year of a global youth revolt’. Here are some extracts from the article:
The struggles that gave birth to each demonstration, occupation or revolution were separate and yet connected; part of a collective roar from young people who, for the first time in modern history, faced a future in which they would be worse off than their parents. […]
But it is far more than material privation that underlies this year’s youth revolt, more than just a question of how to integrate into the globalised economy the talents and expectations of 80 million unemployed young people from the most well-educated generation in human history.
At the heart of this most potent insurrection since 1968 is an expression of the deep uncertainty about how the future will pan out.
“It’s the first time in American history that a generation came along and was told: ‘No, things are gonna be worse for you than they were for your parents’,” says Jesse LaGreca, a prominent Occupy Wall Street figure who has travelled to occupations across the US.
“I think that has created the necessity for change, and we can no longer wait for political promises – we have to make that change ourselves.” […]
When you speak to those organising the Occupy movement, it is remarkable how important Tunisia and Tahrir were to their own action. No longer was the west to be a democratic beacon to the Middle East. It was very much the other way around.
“Who would have thought that Mohamed Bouazizi would set in motion such a series of events?” says David Osborn from the Occupy Portland movement. He says that many in the west were “deeply moved and inspired” by seeing protests across the Middle East, but that Egypt in particular had captured Americans’ imagination.
“To see the movement generally, but in particular the youths, mobilise and really demand the impossible … to think Mubarak would not have been president more than a few weeks or even a month or two before he actually fell was almost impossible. And yet they asserted that another world without Mubarak was possible, and I think that kind of re-inspired the radical imagination in many of us.”
“The lesson of Tahrir Square was that once again, democracy has become a revolutionary force,” says Shimri Zameret, who spent four months organising the global day of occupation on 15 October that saw people in more than 900 cities turn the square’s tent city into a worldwide phenomenon. […]
It is easy to dismiss the interconnectedness of 2011’s youth-driven resistance movements; and it is possible even to deny they amount to any kind of identifiable social phenomenon at all.
Certainly, comparisons between the pepper spray of Oakland and the tank shells of Homs can be facetious, and the triumphs of the protester – named this week as Time’s “person of the year” – appear scant if limited purely to the arena of formal political change.
But connections there are, not just in mutual recognition and frustration, but in method. The movements that made the headlines in 2011 were largely non-hierarchical, creative and locally autonomous. And consciously so. […]
The generation that grew up being told they were the heirs to Francis Fukuyama’s end of history and victory of a liberal capitalist society, is now working its damnedest to prove how untrue this is, not for the sake of utopian reimagination but to resolve the very serious problems that very system has created.
Where the movement goes next remains to be seen. But as the Jordanian human rights activist Laila Sharaf recently told a group of young people in Beirut, in a statement that could apply universally: “Today the rules of the game have changed, and the ball is in your court.”
Or, to put it in the words that are so often held aloft at any street protest today, part in hope, part as threat: “This is just the beginning.”
Remarkably, too, the Nobel Peace Prize was shared this year by three women who have campaigned for peace and democracy in Liberia and Yemen. The Nobel committee said the three had been chosen “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”.
Awarding the prize to Tawakkul Karman, the Nobel committee said :
In the most trying circumstances, both before and during the Arab spring, Tawakkul Karman has played a leading part in the struggle for women’s rights and for democracy and peace in Yemen.
Karman has been a key figure among youth activists in Yemen since they began occupying a square in central Sana’a in February demanding the end of the Saleh regime, and has often been the voice of activists on Arabic television, giving on-the-ground reports of the situation in the square outside Sana’a University, where dozens of activists have been shot dead by government forces. She called her award ‘a victory for the Yemeni people, for the Yemeni revolution and all the Arab revolutions’.
This is a message that the era of Arab dictatorships is over. This is a message to this regime and all the despotic regimes that no voice can drown out the voice of freedom and dignity. This is a victory for the Arab spring in Tunis, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Our peaceful revolution will continue until we topple Saleh and establish a civilian state.
Yesterday, Jesse Jackson spoke at the Occupy St Paul’s camp with a speech in which he hailed the protest as not just a force for good but as a direct descendent of the civil rights movement. The Occupy movement, which began in Spain before gaining prominence in the US and then moving to other countries, was, Jackson said, ‘a global spirit, which is now sweeping the nation and the world, fighting for justice for all of God’s children. His Christmas message on the steps of the cathedral was this:
Jesus was an occupier: born in poverty, born under Roman occupation. Under threat of his life his parents took him to Egypt as an immigrant, as a refugee. He served the poor, he challenged the prevailing ethos of power in Rome. … Gandhi was an occupier … Martin Luther King was an occupier …They are all exalted now but they were rejected as occupiers, as protesters, as radicals, called terrorists by governments. The occupiers’ cause is a just cause, a moral cause. They should not be dismissed but heard – listen to their message. Occupiers are the canaries in the mine, warning us of the dangers – few have too much, too many have too little, too much poverty, too many costly wars. Banks got bailed out, people got left out. Protesters are criminalised but not a single banker has gone to jail for their crimes, the corruption and greed which drove the global economy to the brink of collapse.
Jackson said: ‘The church should be the headquarters for the Occupy movement. … The occupiers represent the conscience of the church’.
A requiem of sorts: at the end of a year of global economic meltdown, the euro crisis and Occupy protests, The Guardian invited writers and artists to invent new currencies and banknotes for a changed world. This came from Naomi Klein:
For once I’m going to reproduce an entire article because of its excellence and importance. This is Robert Fisk in today’s Independent:
Writing from the very region that produces more clichés per square foot than any other “story” – the Middle East – I should perhaps pause before I say I have never read so much garbage, so much utter drivel, as I have about the world financial crisis. But I will not hold my fire. It seems to me that the reporting of the collapse of capitalism has reached a new low which even the Middle East cannot surpass for sheer unadulterated obedience to the very institutions and Harvard “experts” who have helped to bring about the whole criminal disaster.Let’s kick off with the “Arab Spring” – in itself a grotesque verbal distortion of the great Arab/Muslim awakening which is shaking the Middle East – and the trashy parallels with the social protests in Western capitals. We’ve been deluged with reports of how the poor or the disadvantaged in the West have “taken a leaf” out of the “Arab spring” book, how demonstrators in America, Canada, Britain, Spain and Greece have been “inspired” by the huge demonstrations that brought down the regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and – up to a point – Libya. But this is nonsense.The real comparison, needless to say, has been dodged by Western reporters, so keen to extol the anti-dictator rebellions of the Arabs, so anxious to ignore protests against “democratic” Western governments, so desperate to disparage these demonstrations, to suggest that they are merely picking up on the latest fad in the Arab world. The truth is somewhat different. What drove the Arabs in their tens of thousands and then their millions on to the streets of Middle East capitals was a demand for dignity and a refusal to accept that the local family-ruled dictators actually owned their countries. The Mubaraks and the Ben Alis and the Gaddafis and the kings and emirs of the Gulf (and Jordan) and the Assads all believed that they had property rights to their entire nations. Egypt belonged to Mubarak Inc, Tunisia to Ben Ali Inc (and the Traboulsi family), Libya to Gaddafi Inc. And so on. The Arab martyrs against dictatorship died to prove that their countries belonged to their own people.
And that is the true parallel in the West. The protest movements are indeed against Big Business – a perfectly justified cause – and against “governments”. What they have really divined, however, albeit a bit late in the day, is that they have for decades bought into a fraudulent democracy: they dutifully vote for political parties – which then hand their democratic mandate and people’s power to the banks and the derivative traders and the rating agencies, all three backed up by the slovenly and dishonest coterie of “experts” from America’s top universities and “think tanks”, who maintain the fiction that this is a crisis of globalisation rather than a massive financial con trick foisted on the voters.
The banks and the rating agencies have become the dictators of the West. Like the Mubaraks and Ben Alis, the banks believed – and still believe – they are owners of their countries. The elections which give them power have – through the gutlessness and collusion of governments – become as false as the polls to which the Arabs were forced to troop decade after decade to anoint their own national property owners. Goldman Sachs and the Royal Bank of Scotland became the Mubaraks and Ben Alis of the US and the UK, each gobbling up the people’s wealth in bogus rewards and bonuses for their vicious bosses on a scale infinitely more rapacious than their greedy Arab dictator-brothers could imagine.
I didn’t need Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job on BBC2 this week – though it helped – to teach me that the ratings agencies and the US banks are interchangeable, that their personnel move seamlessly between agency, bank and US government. The ratings lads (almost always lads, of course) who AAA-rated sub-prime loans and derivatives in America are now – via their poisonous influence on the markets – clawing down the people of Europe by threatening to lower or withdraw the very same ratings from European nations which they lavished upon criminals before the financial crash in the US. I believe that understatement tends to win arguments. But, forgive me, who are these creatures whose ratings agencies now put more fear into the French than Rommel did in 1940?
Why don’t my journalist mates in Wall Street tell me? How come the BBC and CNN and – oh, dear, even al-Jazeera – treat these criminal communities as unquestionable institutions of power? Why no investigations – Inside Job started along the path – into these scandalous double-dealers? It reminds me so much of the equally craven way that so many American reporters cover the Middle East, eerily avoiding any direct criticism of Israel, abetted by an army of pro-Likud lobbyists to explain to viewers why American “peacemaking” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be trusted, why the good guys are “moderates”, the bad guys “terrorists”.
The Arabs have at least begun to shrug off this nonsense. But when the Wall Street protesters do the same, they become “anarchists”, the social “terrorists” of American streets who dare to demand that the Bernankes and Geithners should face the same kind of trial as Hosni Mubarak. We in the West – our governments – have created our dictators. But, unlike the Arabs, we can’t touch them.
The Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, solemnly informed his people this week that they were not responsible for the crisis in which they found themselves. They already knew that, of course. What he did not tell them was who was to blame. Isn’t it time he and his fellow EU prime ministers did tell us? And our reporters, too?
Remember this? (BBC News, 26 September 2011)
- Inside Job reviewed on this blog
- Looting the lot of us
- Looting with the lights on: Naomi Klein
- The Goldman Sachs project — New world government? (Digital Journal)
The brave, dignified, resolute, peaceful and determined people of Egypt have made history today. The Egyptian revolution – the most hopeful event of this century so far, likely to be as defining a moment as the Russian Revolution was for the last. Lenin once coined the phrase, ‘Revolution is the festival of the oppressed’. It was nonsense – there were no festive feelings in him, and 20th century revolutions were made with guns, led by vanguard parties with their own precise agendas and had deadly consequences. Tonight the scenes from Cairo really do look like a festival of the people.
The movement symbolised by the occupants of Tahrir Square this past 18 days has no leaders and only home-made banners. They organised using the new communication technologies of Twitter and Facebook. But, as Timothy Garton-Ash wrote in yesterday’s Guardian, new forms of protest are combined with something as old as the hills:
New in Cairo 2011 is that it is now Arabs and Muslims standing up in large numbers, with courage and (for the most part) peaceful discipline, for basic human dignity, against corrupt, oppressive rulers. New in 2011 is the degree of decentered, networked animation of the demonstrations, so that even the best-informed observers there struggle to answer the question “who is organising this?”. New in 2011 is the extraordinary underlying pressure of demography, with half the population in most of these countries being under 25. Old in Cairo 2011 – as old as the pyramids, as old as human civilisation – is the cry of oppressed men and women, overcoming the barrier of fear and feeling, however fleetingly, the sense of freedom and dignity.
Tariq Ali has just written on Comment Is Free at guardian.co.uk:
A joyous night in Cairo. What bliss to be alive, to be an Egyptian and an Arab. In Tahrir Square they’re chanting, “Egypt is free” and “We won!”….The age of political reason is returning to the Arab world. The people are fed up of being colonised and bullied.
And he has quoted this extract from a poem written in 1967 by ‘one of the great Arab poets’, Nizar Qabbani:
Corn ears of the future,
You will break our chains.
Kill the opium in our heads,
Kill the illusions.
Don’t read about our suffocated generation,
We are a hopeless case,
As worthless as a water-melon rind.
Don’t read about us,
Don’t ape us,
Don’t accept us,
Don’t accept our ideas,
We are a nation of crooks and jugglers.
Corn ears of the future,
You are the generation that will overcome defeat.
Here’s another poem, For Tahrir, For Egypt, posted by Egyptian blogger Diptychal (‘I live in Cairo, where by day, I work at a publishing house. I’m 1/2 poet, 1/2 geek with a heavy dose of techno-joy….I post photos taken mostly in the streets of Cairo’).
that public square
named for fate and history
as though it knew what was to come
we stood our ground
saying, we will not be moved
painted poems on the hard asphalt
that had softened, soaking in our blood
and the world watched.
The world watched as we were called
and on television screens
in homes, doors locked refusing to let in
men spit scorn into cameras
and women screamed into their phones
eyes and hearts full of rage
unable to understand
that Tahrir was theirs, for them,
while government eyes showed only what they wanted
us to see
the sun setting over the Nile
but all it would take, was the smallest turn of the head to the left
a glance from the corner of the eye
to show the haze of Cairo’s sun through tear gas,
to show men charging the street with only their bodies
met with police trucks running them down.
Newspapers wrote of unrest across the Mediterranean
pretending that this day that had begun in Cairo
was like any other.
But something had begun.
Men and women shook the earth
with their voices.
From north to south
bodies fell to the ground, hearts stopped beating
but in Tahrir, we held our heads high for them
moving away from the walls that, our whole lives
we had walked close to, hiding in the shadow
of conformity and fear
opened our chests to murder
opened our faces to rocks, our eyes to bullets
our minds to molotov fires thrown down onto our heads
we are not afraid
because the fear of living with your face buried
in the soil of a land that can no longer feel
was nothing, nothing compared to
the fear of dying
without once having said
I am free.
Let us pray that the promise of Tahrir Square is fulfilled. As I watched the joyous scenes there this evening, I thought of Patti Smith’s poem, ‘Notes to the Future’. Here are extracts that seem to speak of this moment and its hope for the future (apologies to Patti for butchering it):
Listen my children and you shall hear
The sound of your own steps
The sound of your hereafter
Memory awaits and turns to greet you
Draping its banner across your wrists
Wake up arms
For as one to march the streets
Each alone, each part of another
Your steps shall ring
Shall raise the cloud
And they that will hear will hear
Will hear voice of the one
And the one and the one
As it has never been uttered before
For something greater yet to come
And all their hearts were as one heart.
And all their voices were as one voice.
This is our birthright.
This is our charge.
And we have given over to others.
And they have
Now my children
You must overturn the tables
Deliver the future from material rule
For only one rule should be considered
The eleventh commandment
To love one another
And this is our covenant across your wrist
It is merely a cloth,
Merely our colors,
Invested with the blood of the people
All their hopes and dreams.
It has its excellence
Yet it is nothing
It shall not be a tyranny above us
And the children shall march
And bring the colors forward
Investing within them
The redeeming blood
Of their revolutionary hearts.
The full text can be heard on YouTube:
We’ve had revolution in Tunisia; in Egypt Mubarak is teetering; in Yemen, Jordan and Syria suddenly protests have appeared. In Greece strikes and riots continue to protest the financial crisis. This week Ahdaf Soueif, author of The Map of Love, reported from Tahrir Square:
Four generations, more than a million people (according to the army count at 2pm) are here. They are all doing what they have not been able to do for decades; each and every one is having their say in their own way and insisting on being counted. Their dominant demand, of course, is for Mubarak to step down.
In the regime’s response to this people’s revolution they have displayed the same brutality, dullness, dishonesty and predictability that have characterised their 30-year rule. They have shot and gassed their citizens, lied to them and about them, threatened them with F16s, tried to foist a “new” cabinet on them – everything except the decent thing: go.
Meanwhile the citizens on the ground have come into their own. Tahrir is about dignity and image as much as it is about the economy and corruption.
So, asks Paul Mason of BBC’s Newsnight, What’s going on? This is his answer, in 20 bullet points:
1. At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future
2. …with access to social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and eg Yfrog so they can express themselves in a variety of situations ranging from parliamentary democracy to tyrrany.
3. Therefore truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable.
4. They are not prone to traditional and endemic ideologies: Labourism, Islamism, Fianna Fail Catholicism etc… in fact hermetic ideologies of all forms are rejected.
5. Women very numerous as the backbone of movements. After twenty years of modernised labour markets and higher-education access the “archetypal” protest leader, organizer, facilitator, spokesperson now is an educated young woman.
6. Horizontalism has become endemic because technology makes it easy: it kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously, whereas before – and the quintessential experience of the 20th century – was the killing of dissent within movements, the channeling of movements and their bureaucratisaton.
7. Memes: “A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.” (Wikipedia) – so what happens is that ideas arise, are very quickly “market tested” and either take off, bubble under, insinuate themselves or if they are deemed no good they disappear. Ideas self-replicate like genes. Prior to the internet this theory (see Richard Dawkins, 1976) seemed an over-statement but you can now clearly trace the evolution of memes.
8. They all seem to know each other: not only is the network more powerful than the hierarchy – but the ad-hoc network has become easier to form. So if you “follow” somebody from the UCL occupation on Twitter, as I have done, you can easily run into a radical blogger from Egypt, or a lecturer in peaceful resistance in California who mainly does work on Burma so then there are the Burmese tweets to follow. During the early 20th century people would ride hanging on the undersides of train carriages across borders just to make links like these.
9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess – so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.
10.This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because – even where you get rapid economic growth – it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.
11.To amplify: I can’t find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations – but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.
12.The weakness of organised labour means there’s a changed relationship between the radicalized middle class, the poor and the organised workforce. The world looks more like 19th century Paris – heavy predomination of the “progressive” intelligentsia, intermixing with the slum-dwellers at numerous social interfaces (cabarets in the 19C, raves now); huge social fear of the excluded poor but also many rags to riches stories celebrated in the media (Fifty Cent etc); meanwhile the solidaristic culture and respectability of organized labour is still there but, as in Egypt, they find themselves a “stage army” to be marched on and off the scene of history.
13.This leads to a loss of fear among the young radicals of any movement: they can pick and choose; there is no confrontation they can’t retreat from. They can “have a day off” from protesting, occupying: whereas twith he old working-class based movements, their place in the ranks of battle was determined and they couldn’t retreat once things started. You couldn’t “have a day off” from the miners’ strike if you lived in a pit village.
14.In addition to a day off, you can “mix and match”: I have met people who do community organizing one day, and the next are on a flotilla to Gaza; then they pop up working for a think tank on sustainable energy; then they’re writing a book about something completely different. I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square this week.
15. People just know more than they used to. Dictatorships rely not just on the suppression of news but on the suppression of narratives and truth. More or less everything you need to know to make sense of the world is available as freely downloadable content on the internet: and it’s not pre-digested for you by your teachers, parents, priests, imams. For example there are huge numbers of facts available to me now about the subjects I studied at university that were not known when I was there in the 1980s. Then whole academic terms would be spent disputing basic facts, or trying to research them. Now that is still true but the plane of reasoning can be more complex because people have an instant reference source for the undisputed premises of arguments. It’s as if physics has been replaced by quantum physics, but in every discipline.
16.There is no Cold War, and the War on Terror is not as effective as the Cold War was in solidifying elites against change. Egypt is proving to be a worked example of this: though it is highly likely things will spiral out of control, post Mubarak – as in all the colour revolutons – the dire warnings of the US right that this will lead to Islamism are a “meme” that has not taken off. In fact you could make an interesting study of how the meme starts, blossoms and fades away over the space of 12 days. To be clear: I am not saying they are wrong – only that the fear of an Islamist takeover in Egypt has not been strong enough to swing the US presidency or the media behind Mubarak.
17. It is – with international pressure and some powerful NGOs – possible to bring down a repressive government without having to spend years in the jungle as a guerilla, or years in the urban underground: instead the oppositional youth – both in the west in repressive regimes like Tunisia/Egypt, and above all in China – live in a virtual undergrowth online and through digital comms networks. The internet is not key here – it is for example the things people swap by text message, the music they swap with each other etc: the hidden meanings in graffiti, street art etc which those in authority fail to spot.
18. People have a better understanding of power. The activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri, but the ideas therein have become mimetic: young people believe the issues are no longer class and economics but simply power: they are clever to the point of expertise in knowing how to mess up hierarchies and see the various “revolutions” in their own lives as part of an “exodus” from oppression, not – as previous generations did – as a “diversion into the personal”. While Foucault could tell Gilles Deleuze: “We had to wait until the nineteenth century before we began to understand the nature of exploitation, and to this day, we have yet to fully comprehend the nature of power”,- that’s probably changed.
19. As the algebraic sum of all these factors it feels like the protest “meme” that is sweeping the world – if that premise is indeed true – is profoundly less radical on economics than the one that swept the world in the 1910s and 1920s; they don’t seek a total overturn: they seek a moderation of excesses. However on politics the common theme is the dissolution of centralized power and the demand for “autonomy” and personal freedom in addition to formal democracy and an end to corrupt, family based power-elites.
20. Technology has – in many ways, from the contraceptive pill to the iPod, the blog and the CCTV camera – expanded the space and power of the individual.
Why keep returning to the issue of Israel? Because the Israel-Palestine conflict is the most serious threat to stability in the Middle East, and because the Israeli state is coming increasingly to resemble apartheid South Africa with its corralling of Palestinians into bantustans surrounded by an obscene Wall, its military oppression and violence, and its deepening racism.
There has been much to substantiate this perspective in recent weeks. The illegal construction of Israeli settlements has continued, whilst evictions of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to make way for incoming settlers continue apace. A recent comment summed up the process in this way:
‘Judaising’ East Jerusalem is a stated policy of numerous settler groups and their financial and political backers, and every home demolition and family eviction expedites the process of ethnic cleansing already embarked upon.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel says 14 bills, now working their way through the Israeli parliament, are antidemocratic. These include a law that would demand that Arab citizens swear loyalty to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Last week a Palestinian man was convicted of ‘rape by deception’ after having had consensual sex with an Israeli woman who believed him to be a fellow Jew.
Meanwhile, Haneen Zoabi, the Arab member of the Knesset who was stripped of parliamentary privileges for joining the Gaza aid flotilla, has spoken about the impact on Palestinians with Israeli citizenship who makes up a fifth of Israel’s population:
‘It took us 40 years for us to admit that we were even Palestinians. Another 15 years passed before we realised that the peace process started under Oslo had been a disaster. The Zionist project was to domesticate its Arab citizens as the hewers and drawers of water. But the carrot-and-stick approach failed, and now we see Israel is prepared to throw away its liberal side to control us. We were passive once and now we are becoming active about our national identity. We did not immigrate to Israel. Israel immigrated to us. We are the indigenous people of a land from which we are being gradually expelled.’
Recently Rachel Shabi wrote in The Guardian:
Such racism doesn’t emanate, as some have argued, from the Jewish component of Israeli nationhood. It is informed by the Eurocentric cornerstones of the country: the belief, expressed by Israel’s founding fathers and still current, that the nation should be a bastion of the “enlightened” west in the heart of the supposedly savage Middle East.
It seems increasingly clear that the one-state solution- bi-national, secular, non-racist, democratic – must be the answer. Although Zoabi’s Balad party still officially favours a two-state plan, she has expressed doubt that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, could negotiate any state from Israel ‘bigger than a local authority’.
Remember the policy of ‘separate development‘, ‘homelands’ and forced removals in apartheid South Africa? Ultimately doomed – though it seemed far from being so, back in the 1970s.
- The one-state solution: Wikipedia
- Israel: The Alternative by Tony Judt (New York Review of Books)
- One democracy: One Democratic Secular State for all its citizens in Israel and Palestine
My anger and my sadness are so great that I have to deliberately draw a deep breath from time to time to ease the bands I feel around my chest. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that millions of people in the world are feeling the same. People everywhere see and understand what is happening.
That’s Ahdaf Soueif writing in today’s Guardian in response to yesterday’s storming of the Gaza aid flotilla by Israeli commandos and the deaths of as many as 19 activists. She so perfectly expresses my feelings that I reproduce her piece in full below.
Can we hope that the international outrage that this action has provoked will at last lead to Israel being required to accept the norms of international law and human rights? Strange that Israel is not regarded as one of the world’s ‘rogue’ nations when its actions do so much to create instability, injustice and violence and contribute to global disorder. What is the difference between this action and North Korea’s attack on a South Korean warship in April?
Israel is a nation founded on fascist principles by terrorists. The leaders of the Stern Gang were willing to enter into negotiations with the Nazis to gain support in their war against the British occupation in Palestine, and last week The Guardian revealed how Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime in South Africa in 1975. That story confirmed what has been understood for a long time – that Israel does have nuclear weapons.
Last year, following the Israeli incursion into Gaza, the UN commissioned a fact-finding mission on the conflict. It was conducted by the South African jurist Richard Goldstone. His report accused Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes and “possibly” crimes against humanity. But in a conflict that saw 10 Israeli soldiers and three civilians killed compared with about 1,400 Gazans, Goldstone was particularly scathing about Israel’s “deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population” – which he said amounted to “collective punishment”.
Killed In Crossfire by Tom Paulin
To me the Zionists, who want to go back to the Jewish state of 70 AD (destruction of Jerusalem by Titus), are just as offensive as the Nazis. With their nosing after blood, their ancient ‘cultural roots’, their partly canting, partly obtuse winding back of the world, they are altogether a match for the National Socialists.
– Victor Klemperer, 13 June 1934
We’re fed this inert
this lying phrase
like comfort food
as another little Palestinian boy
in trainers jeans and a white teeshirt
is gunned down by the Zionist SS
whose initials we should
– but we don’t – dumb goys –
clock in that weasel word crossfire
First published in The Observer, Sunday 18 February 2001
Meanwhile the Wall is extended and settlements in the West Bank grow by the day. Just last week Ahdaf Soueif wrote about how Palestinians living in Jerusalem are being driven from their homes by archaelogical excavations conducted by an agency that is in reality an executive arm of the Israeli government. This comes at the same time as the row between Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, author and Nobel peace prize winner, and a group of Jewish residents of Jerusalem over the accuracy of his recent statements about housing developments that reflect systematic discrimination against the Arab population in the city.
The United States will, no doubt, continue to back Israel, reflecting the strength of the American Jewish lobby. But, as a recent piece by Peter Beinart in the New York Review of Books argued: Israel and its defenders in the American Zionist leadership threaten the interests of Jews everywhere.
Israel reveals its true face by Ahdaf Soueif
This will count. A flotilla of relief boats attacked in international waters. Armed commandos boarding a vessel carrying supplies for a besieged civilian population. More than 10 peace activists reported killed. This has to be made to count.
The dead have joined Rachel Corrie, Tom Hurndall, James Miller and Brian Avery in giving up their lives for the Palestinians. None of these young men and women went out to die or wanted to die or was accepting of death. Each and every one of them ultimately believed that they were safe; that there was a boundary – call it a boundary of legality, a boundary of civilisation – that Israel would not cross. They were wrong. And in proving them wrong, Israel has revealed, once again, its true face to the world.
This face, of course, the Palestinians know well. They see it every day in the teenage soldiers of the occupation chewing gum as they dish out humiliations, in the settlers shooting young Palestinians with impunity, in the soldiers firing gas canisters at the heads of demonstrators. The world saw that face in January last year when Israel unleashed the might of its air force on Gaza – the only time in modern warfare that a civilian population was sealed in as it was being bombed and shelled. Now Israel is out on the high seas killing internationals.
So never mind the multimillion-dollar public relations campaign – actions speak louder than words, and the murder of these peace activists is Israel’s message to the world. It does not matter what Mark Regev or any other Israel spokesperson says. It does not matter what spin the Israeli government tries to put on this; the only link between Israeli words and Israeli deeds is this: Israel uses words as a decoy and an obfuscation and a cover for its deeds. It has done so for 62 years. These internationals, dead now, murdered, have ensured that anyone who does not see this is wilfully blind.
Western governments are fond of holding up Israel as the “only democracy in the Middle East”. So should we assume that the Israeli people are behind their government? That they approve these killings? Last month I was at al-Quds University in Abu Dis. Israel’s wall shaved the edge off the campus. On it, in tall blue letters, a Palestinian student had written: “My Israeli sisters: this is not the answer.”
A few days ago, young Jewish Israeli activists told me they saw that the only hope for their country lies with the international community. Israel is on a path to self-destruction, they said, and it will take the region with it. It will not stop, they said, until the price it pays for its actions becomes too heavy. This price has to be a moral and economic price imposed by the world.
My anger and my sadness are so great that I have to deliberately draw a deep breath from time to time to ease the bands I feel around my chest. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that millions of people in the world are feeling the same. People everywhere see and understand what is happening. Many of us feel that Palestine is nearing its South Africa moment. This latest outrage must push it closer. And it will.
Donations will, I’m sure, flood in to the other relief boats waiting in harbour. More and more people will take the boycott to heart. More civil bodies will insist on divestment from companies that do business with Israel. The time has come for the governments that represent us to stop engaging with Israeli lies and excuses. The price of Israel’s action today has to be to put the issue of sanctions squarely on the table.
Saturday 5 June: The Guardian publishes Henning Mankell’s private diary of the events leading to his capture. Back home in Sweden he concludes:
I listen to the blackbird. A song for those who died. Now it is still all left to do. So as not to lose sight of the goal, which is to lift the brutal blockade of Gaza. That will happen.
Beyond that goal, others are waiting. Demolishing a system of apartheid takes time. But not an eternity.
The previous day, the newspaper had reported that Gaza flotilla activists were shot in head at close range.
Karl Sabbagh’s mother was English, his father was Palestinian, the descendent of a long line of Christian Arabs whose history he traces here as far back as the 18th century, when Palestine was an Ottoman province and his ancestor Ibrahim served at the Ottoman provincial court.
In Palestine: A Personal History, Karl Sabbagh has combined his own family story with a historical outline of the Palestinian case against the Zionist project. He wants to demonstrate the continuity and richness of the Palestinian Arab presence, both Christian and Muslim, in the region, and reject the Zionist assertion of title to ‘a land without people for a people without land’.
The book, which I’ve just finished, is clearly written and his case is presented in a measured and reasoned manner, always citing sources which are often Jewish and Israeli (for example, the detailed research work of Benny Morris into the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland in 1947-8).
Sabbagh aims to challenge stereotypes: “I am the son of a Palestinian father, but… I am not poor, unshaven or a speaker of broken English. I do not know how to use a gun or manufacture a bomb. I have little to do with camels, sand or palm trees. But I both sympathise and identify with the Palestinian people.”
A previous edition of the book was subtitled ‘History of a Lost Nation’ – which is probably a more accurate description of this account of how Palestine has been subjected to outside interference and control since at least the 18th century, the period at which Sabbagh begins his narrative. There is less ‘Personal History’ of the Sabbaghs woven into the story than the present subtitle might suggest.
Sabbagh writes that “many different ‘peoples’ have lived in Palestine over the centuries. I say ‘peoples’ in quotes because there is no really accurate way to determine from historical texts and excavations the precise connections or ethnicities of the groups who have left traces of their presence.” He presents the Sabbagh family as representative of the vast majority of the Arab population of Palestine – Muslim and Christian, who have lived in Palestine for more than 300 years, alongside their Jewish neighbours.
We are given snapshots of the Sabbaghs at different times, and learn especially about his father, Issa, who was for many years a broadcaster for the BBC Arabic Service during the eventful years of the 1940s and 1950s. But Sabbagh’s repeatedly diverges from his personal narrative to explore the wider political story of machinations by the British and the Zionists in Palestine between the wars. It’s a familiar story of the Balfour Declaration, the Mandate, the various inter-war Commissions, and the way in which the tiny Zionist movement mysteriously influenced politicians in Britain and America who were often completely ignorant of the land, its peoples and its history.
The lesson I take from his survey of this history is that no people has a monopoly of virtue. The parallels (and in some instances, the collaboration) between Zionism and Nazism are unnerving – once again highlighting the terrible legacy of European nationalism, here in its most extreme forms: both deeply racist, both seeking an ethnically pure nation-state, through whatever means necessary. Sabbagh quotes Avraham Stern, leader of the terrorist Stern Gang (who approached the Nazis with an offer of an alliance against Britain), as describing the Arabs as ‘beasts of the desert, not a legitimate people…The Arabs are not a nation but a mole that grew in the wilderness of the eternal desert. They are nothing but murderers.’
The Sabbagh family history shows the absurdity of Israel Zangwill’s claim that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land”. Sabbagh’s grandfather was a lawyer in Tulkarm. His relatives were businessmen and traders, part of an intricate web of societal links that reached across Palestine and the Levant. Palestinian Arab society was highly developed, especially in the towns and cities, with a sophisticated cultural and political life. Sabbagh is good on what might be called the second “lost history of Palestine”(if the first is that of the Palestinians themselves): the good relations between many Jews and Arabs before 1948. When Sabbagh’s uncle had a car accident outside the Jewish town of Nahariya, local people took him and his passengers in, gave them tea and cakes and tended to their injuries. A man called Azmi Audeh recalled the local Jewish fishmonger who served his father: “The Jew looked exactly like us; had the same skin colour, spoke the same Arabic language, dressed exactly like us, and even had the same nose. He seemed to be a very nice man, eager to please. So why was this man a problem?” The problem was, of course, not piscine but political: the Yishuv, the Zionist state in waiting, claimed Palestine for itself.
The Palestinians were no match for the determination of the Jews. Riven by factionalism and incessant feuding, their leadership had no strategic plan to capture Palestine once the fighting started and no united military command. Sabbagh skilfully uses material extracted by Israeli historians from Israeli archives to show the dark reality of the 1948 war, which makes uncomfortable reading for those raised on the myth that the Palestinians simply ran away. But Sabbagh does not mention the pledges of Abd al-Rahman Azzam Pasha, secretary-general of the Arab League, who promised “a war of extermination and a momentous massacre” of the Jews, which would “drive them into the sea”.
When Sabbagh returned to Safad in 2004, to seek relatives who stayed after 1948, he found houses occupied by Jewish immigrants, the Arabic inscriptions above the doors scratched out. But his guide was a Jewish Israeli called David, whose family had also lived in the town for 11 generations and well knew the Sabbaghs’ lineage. The two men, the Israeli local historian and the Palestinian-British writer, had much to talk about. And talking is better than fighting, as this poignant, often moving work shows.