Barack Obama’s Cairo speech

There is so much fear, so much mistrust. But if we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward. And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country – you, more than anyone, have the ability to remake this world.

Well, it seems impressive to me as a statement of principles and purpose, from a man of faith to all those of faith and none. The Guardian has the full text of Obama’s speech. Here are some passages that I particularly liked:

So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the co-operation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.

I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.

As the Holy Koran tells us: “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.” That is what I will try to do – to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart…

Part of this conviction is rooted in my own experience. I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan [the Muslim call to prayer] at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith.

As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam. It was Islam – at places like al-Azhar University – that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation. And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality…

So I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed. That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t. And I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear…

Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighbouring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own…

Too many tears have flowed. Too much blood has been shed. All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed (peace be upon them) joined in prayer…

No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy…

Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition. I saw it first-hand as a child in Indonesia, where devout Christians worshipped freely in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. That is the spirit we need today. People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind, heart, and soul…

The sixth issue that I want to address is women’s rights. I know there is debate about this issue. I reject the view of some in the west that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous.

Now let me be clear: issues of women’s equality are by no means simply an issue for Islam. In Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, we have seen Muslim-majority countries elect a woman to lead. Meanwhile, the struggle for women’s equality continues in many aspects of American life, and in countries around the world.

Our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons, and our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity – men and women – to reach their full potential. I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal, and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice. That is why the United States will partner with any Muslim-majority country to support expanded literacy for girls, and to help young women pursue employment through micro-financing that helps people live their dreams…

All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort – a sustained effort – to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.

It is easier to start wars than to end them. It is easier to blame others than to look inward; to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There is also one rule that lies at the heart of every religion – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples – a belief that isn’t new; that isn’t black or white or brown; that isn’t Christian, or Muslim or Jew. It’s a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilisation, and that still beats in the heart of billions. It’s a faith in other people, and it’s what brought me here today.

We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written.

The Holy Koran tells u: “O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.”

The Talmud tells us: “The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.”

The Holy Bible tells us: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now, that must be our work here on Earth. Thank you. And may God’s peace be upon you.

Seven Jewish Children

Israel’s recent bombing and ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, Operation Cast Lead, killed 1,417 Palestinians; thirteen Israelis were killed, five by friendly fire. Thousands of Palestinians were seriously wounded and left without adequate medical care, shelter or food. Among the Palestinian dead, more than 400 were children. In response to this devastation, Caryl Churchill wrote a play: Seven Jewish Children. It is only eight minutes long but it has proved to be one of the most controversial plays in years. There have been howls of protest and declarations of support, and it has spawned alternative versions trying to make a different point.

This week it was reported that Liverpool City Council has withdrawn funding from the Writing on the Wall Festival which is organising a presentation of  Seven Jewish Children at the CUC.

Now anyone who has not seen Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children can make their own judgment by watching a reading on the Guardian’s website. The play began as a swift response to Israel’s bombing of Gaza and was performed over a short run in February at London’s Royal Court theatre. Churchill made the script available online and said the only condition on it being performed live was that a collection for Gaza should be made. It has been performed across the UK – including in Taunton, Birmingham, Belfast, Glasgow and Brighton. In the US it has been seen in New York, Chicago, Washington and Seattle and there have been versions in Mumbai, Ottawa, Mexico City, Athens, Lisbon and Barcelona.

There were hopes of a British radio version but the BBC refused, saying that even with drama it had to remain impartial – the same reason it gave for not broadcasting a Gaza emergency appeal. Tom Happold, the Guardian’s head of multimedia, approached Churchill after the BBC’s decision. He said: “People will have different views but they should at least base their views on having seen it.”

The Guardian version features the actor Jennie Stoller reading the play, which has Israeli parents articulating how they should tell their children what is going on during key moments in Israel’s history, from the pogroms of the early 20th century to the six-day war to the Gaza bombing.

Seven Jewish Children divided critics. The Guardian’s Michael Billington praised its “remarkably condensed poetic form” which showed “theatre’s power to heighten consciousness and articulate moral outrage”. In the Sunday Times Christopher Hart called it “a ludicrous, dishonest and grossly anti-Israeli rant”.

The voices against it have been loud and often fierce. In a letter to the Daily Telegraph 65 prominent British Jews, including the screenwriter Ronald Harwood, the historian Geoffrey Alderman and the actors Maureen Lipman and Tracy-Ann Oberman, accused Churchill of writing a “historically inaccurate” play that portrayed Israeli parents as “inhuman triumphalists”. Howard Jacobson in the Independent called the work antisemitic and “wantonly inflammatory”.

Churchill responded by saying: “We should be able to disagree without accusations of antisemitism, which lead to a pantomime of ‘Oh yes you are’, ‘Oh no I’m not’, to distract attention from Israel.”

There have also been voices in the middle. The US pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby group J Street supported its performance in Washington and talked about “its value in sparking a difficult but necessary conversation within our community”. The playwright Tony Kushner and writer Alisa Solomon, in a piece for the Nation, said there were scenes “that are terribly painful to experience, especially for Jews”. But, they said, it is a work to be admired: “The play is dense, beautiful, elusive and intentionally indeterminate. This is not to say that the play isn’t also direct and incendiary. It is. It’s disturbing, it’s provocative, but appropriately so, given the magnitude of the calamity it enfolds in its pages.”


One state for Palestinans and Jews?

I’m reading Tony Judt’s Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century. There’s so much in the essays collected here that’s interesting and stimulating; but in this post I’ve chosen to note the chapter on Edward Said, originally published as the foreword to Edward Said’s From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map in 2004, and as an essay in The Nation.

In particular, it was the following section which impressed me, in which Judt explains how Said moved from favouring the two-state solution to the Palestinian problem to favouring a single, secular, democratic state. I hadn’t been aware of this development in Said’s thinking, and it struck me forcefully because I’ve felt for some time now myself  that this has to be the only way out of the impasse – it may seem fanciful, but perhaps no more than the idea of Mandela and de Klerk negotiating the end of the apartheid regime that had been busy selling the idea of bantustans as a solution to that problem.

This is the concluding part of Judt’s essay; it seems even more pertinent after the Israeli military action in Gaza earlier this year:

In 1980, when he first publicly pressed for a two-state solution, Said was attacked and abused from all sides, not least by Arafat’s own Fatah movement. Then, in 1988, the Palestine National Council belatedly conceded that the best possible outcome was indeed the division of Palestine into two states–one Israeli, one Palestinian–echoing Said’s insistence that there was no alternative to reciprocal territorial self-determination for Jews and Arabs alike. But as the years went by, with half of the occupied territories expropriated; with the Palestinian community a shambles and the putative Palestinian territory a blighted landscape of isolated enclaves, flattened olive groves and ruined houses, where humiliated adults were fast losing the initiative to angry, alienated adolescents, Said drew the increasingly irresistible conclusion.

Israel was never going to quit the West Bank, at least not in any way that would leave it in a coherent, governable condition. What kind of a state could the West Bank and Gaza ever constitute? Who but a criminal mafia would ever want to take on the task of “governing” it? The “Palestine” of PLO imaginings was a fantasy–and a rather unappealing one at that. For good or ill, there was only going to be one real state in the lands of historic Palestine: Israel. This was not utopia; it was merely hard-headed pragmatism shorn of illusion. The genuinely realistic approach lay in accepting this fact and thinking seriously about how to make the best of it: “Much more important than having a state is the kind of state it is.” For the last decade of his life Edward Said was an unbending advocate of a single, secular state for Israelis and Palestinians.

What grounds did Edward Said have for his faith in a single-state solution, a nonexclusive, secular, democratic alternative to the present impasse? In the first place, the status quo is awful and getting worse: two peoples, each sustained by its exclusive victim narrative, competing indefinitely across the dead bodies of their children for the same tiny piece of land. One of them is an armed state, the other a stateless people, but otherwise they are depressingly similar: What, after all, is the Palestinian national story if not a reproachful mirror to Zionism, a tale of expulsion, diaspora, resurrection and return? There is no way to divide the disputed “homeland” to mutual satisfaction and benefit. Little good can come of two such statelets, mutually resentful, each with an influential domestic constituency committed to the destruction and absorption of its neighbor.

In the second place, something fundamental has changed in the Palestinian condition. For four decades millions of Palestinian Arabs–in Israel, in the occupied territories, in refugee camps across the Arab world and in exile everywhere–had been all but invisible. Their very existence was long denied by Israeli politicians; their memory of expulsion had been removed from the official record and passed unmentioned in history books; the record of their homes, their villages and their land was expunged from the very soil itself. That, as Said noted, was why he kept on telling the same story: “There seems to be nothing in the world which sustains the story; unless you go on telling it, it will just drop and disappear.” And yet “it is very hard to espouse for five decades, a continually losing cause.” It was as though Palestinians had no existence except when someone committed a terrorist atrocity–at which point that is all they were, their provenance uncertain, their violence inexplicable.

That is why the “right of return” had so central a place in all Palestinian demands–not because any serious person supposed that Israel could take “back” millions of refugees and their descendants, but from the deeply felt need for acknowledgment: a recognition that the initial expulsion took place, that a primordial wrong was committed. That is what so annoyed Said about Oslo: It seemed to excuse or forgive the Israelis for the occupation and everything else. But, as he wrote in Al-Ahram in March 2002, “Israel cannot be excused and allowed to walk away from the table with not even a rhetorical demand [my emphasis] that it needs to atone for what it did.” Attention must be paid.

But attention, of course, is now being paid. An overwhelming majority of world opinion outside the United States sees the Palestinian tragedy today much as the Palestinians themselves see it. They are the natives of Israel, an indigenous community excluded from nationhood in its own homeland: dispossessed and expelled, illegally expropriated, confined to “bantustans,” denied many fundamental rights and exposed on a daily basis to injustice and violence. Today there is no longer the slightest pretense by well-informed Israelis that the Arabs left in 1948 of their own free will or at the behest of foreign despots, as we were once taught. Benny Morris, one of the leading Israeli scholars on the subject, recently reminded readers of the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz that Israeli soldiers did not merely expel Palestinians in 1948-49, in an early, incomplete attempt at ethnic cleansing; they committed war crimes along the way, including the rape and murder of women and children.

Of course, Morris notoriously sees nothing wrong in this record–he treats it as the collateral damage that accompanies state-building. (“I don’t think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes,” he told Ha’aretz. “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”) But this brings us to the third ground for thinking Said may be right about the chances for a single state. Just as the Palestinian cause has begun to find favor in public opinion, and is gaining the moral upper hand, so Israel’s international standing has precipitately collapsed. For many years the insuperable problem for Palestinians was that they were being expelled, colonized, occupied and generally mistreated not by French colons or Dutch Afrikaners but, in Said’s words, by the Jewish citizens of Israel, “remnants of the Nazi Holocaust with a tragic history of genocide and persecution.”

The victim of victims is in an impossible situation–not made any better, as Said pointed out, by the Arab propensity to squeeze out from under the shadow of the Holocaust by minimizing or even denying it. But when it comes to mistreating others, even victims don’t get a free pass forever. The charge that Poles often persecuted Jews before, during and after World War II can no longer be satisfactorily deflected by invoking Hitler’s 3 million Polish victims. Mutatis mutandis, the same now applies to Israel. Until the military victory of 1967, and even for some years afterward, the dominant international image of Israel was the one presented by its left Zionist founders and their many admirers in Europe and elsewhere: a courageous little country surrounded by enemies, where the desert had been made to bloom and the indigenous population airbrushed from the picture.

Following the invasion of Lebanon, and with gathering intensity since the first intifada of the late 1980s, the public impression of Israel has steadily darkened. Today it presents a ghastly image: a place where sneering 18-year-olds with M-16s taunt helpless old men (“security measures”); where bulldozers regularly flatten whole apartment blocks (“rooting out terrorists”); where helicopters fire rockets into residential streets (“targeted killings”); where subsidized settlers frolic in grass-fringed swimming pools, oblivious of Arab children a few meters away who fester and rot in the worst slums on the planet; and where retired generals and Cabinet ministers speak openly of bottling up the Palestinians “like drugged roaches in a bottle” (former Israeli Chief of Staff Rafael Eytan) and cleansing the land of its Arab cancer (former Housing Minister Effi Eitam).

Israel is utterly dependent on the United States for money, arms and diplomatic support. One or two states share common enemies with Israel; a handful of countries buy its weapons; a few others are its de facto accomplices in ignoring international treaties and secretly manufacturing nuclear weapons. But outside Washington, Israel has no friends–at the United Nations it cannot even count on the support of America’s staunchest allies. Despite the political and diplomatic incompetence of the PLO (well documented in Said’s writings); despite the manifest shortcomings of the Arab world at large (“lingering outside the main march of humanity”); despite Israel’s own sophisticated efforts to publicize its case, the Jewish state today is widely regarded as a–the–leading threat to world peace. After thirty-seven years of military occupation, Israel has gained nothing in security. It has lost everything in domestic civility and international respectability, and it has forfeited the moral high ground forever.

The newfound acknowledgment of the Palestinians’ claims and the steady discrediting of the Zionist project (not least among many profoundly troubled Israelis) might seem to make it harder rather than easier to envisage Jews and Arabs living harmoniously in a single state. And just as a minority of Palestinians may always resent their Jewish neighbors, there is a risk that some Israelis will never, as it were, forgive the Palestinians for what the Israelis have done to them. But as Said understood, the Palestinians’ aggrieved sense of neglect and the Israelis’ insistence on the moral rectitude of their case were twin impediments to a resolution of their common dilemma. Neither side could “see” the other. As Orwell observed in his “Notes on Nationalism,” “If one harbours anywhere in one’s mind a nationalistic loyalty or hatred, certain facts, although in a sense known to be true, are inadmissible.”

Today, in spite of everything, there is actually a better appreciation by some people on both sides of where–quite literally–the other is coming from. This, I think, arises from a growing awareness that Jews and Arabs occupy the same space and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Their fates are hopelessly entangled. Fence or no fence, the territory now ruled by Israel can only be “cleansed” of its Arab (or its Jewish) residents by an act of force that the international community could not countenance. As Said notes, “historic Palestine” is now a lost cause–but so, for the same reasons, is “historic Israel.” Somehow or other, a single institutional entity capable of accommodating and respecting both communities will have to emerge, though when and in what form is still obscure.

The real impediment to new thinking in the Middle East, in Edward Said’s view, was not Arafat, or Sharon, or even the suicide bombers or the ultras of the settlements. It was the United States. The one place where official Israeli propaganda has succeeded beyond measure, and where Palestinian propaganda has utterly failed, is in America. As Said observed in a May 2002 column for Al-Ahram, American Jews (rather like Arab politicians) live in “extraordinary self-isolation in fantasy and myth.” Many Israelis are terribly aware of what occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has done to their own society (if somewhat less sensitive to its effect on others). In the words of Haim Guri, an Israeli poet who served in the 1948 war, “Rule over another nation corrupts and distorts Israel’s qualities, tears the nation apart, and shatters society.” But most Americans, including virtually every American politician, have no sense of any of this.

That is why Said insists in these essays upon the need for Palestinians to bring their case to the American public rather than just, as he puts it, imploring the American President to “give” them a state. American public opinion matters, and Said despaired of the uninformed anti-Americanism of Arab intellectuals and students: “It is not acceptable to sit in Beirut or Cairo meeting halls and denounce American imperialism (or Zionist colonialism for that matter) without a whit of understanding that these are complex societies not always truly represented by their governments’ stupid or cruel policies.” But as an American he was frustrated above all at his own country’s political myopia: Only America can break the murderous deadlock in the Middle East, but “what the U.S. refuses to see clearly it can hardly hope to remedy.”

Whether the United States will awaken to its responsibilities and opportunities remains unclear. It will certainly not do so unless we engage a debate about Israel and the Palestinians that many people would prefer to avoid, even at the cost of isolating America–with Israel–from the rest of the world. In order to be effective, this debate has to happen in America itself, and it must be conducted by Americans. That is why Edward Said was so singularly important. Over three decades, virtually single-handedly, he wedged open a conversation in America about Israel, Palestine and the Palestinians. In so doing he performed an inestimable public service at considerable personal risk. His death opens a yawning void in American public life. He is irreplaceable.

Edward Said lectures on Palestine and Human Rights in 2003

Full, one and half hour lecture by Said, Memory, Inequality and Power:Palestine and the Universality of Human Rights at Berkeley University in February 2003, six months before his death.


Gilad Atzmon with strings

Gilad Atzmon with strings

To the Bluecoat tonight to see the Gilad Atzmon Quartet with the Sigamos String Quartet – the last gig in his tour to promote the Gilad Atzmon with Strings project and the new album, In Loving Memory of America. Despite a late start, the result of a nine-hour journey from London, it was a really enjoyable evening. Gilad’s demonstrated superb saxophone technique, using two microphones, one of which reproduced the studio echo from the original Charlie Parker with Strings recordings which were the inspiration for this project. I like the stripped-down, less schmalzy sound that comes from using just a string quartet.  All the musicians were excellent, with Frank Harrison notably shining in then second half, once he’d been given a proper sound level. Continue reading “Gilad Atzmon with strings”

After Gaza: aerial bombing should be banned

Palestinians inspect the rubble of a destroyed building in Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza, 7.01.09
The rubble of a destroyed building in Rafah refugee camp, Gaza, 7.1.09

In a powerful article in today’s Guardian, Simon Jenkins argues that ‘air launched bombs and long-distance shells’ should be declared illegal under the 1983 Geneva convention. He argues:

The tragedy in Gaza surely marks the time when the world declares air-launched bombs and long-distance shells to be illegal under the 1983 Geneva convention. They should be on a par with chemical munitions, white phosphorous, cluster bombs and delayed-action land mines. They pose a threat to non-combatants that should be intolerable even in the miserable context of war.

Continue reading “After Gaza: aerial bombing should be banned”

Banksy: I can’t see because of the wall

Banksy: I can’t see because of the wall

My attention was drawn today to this poem by Yehuda Amichai, the Israeli poet who died in September 2000. Continue reading “Banksy: I can’t see because of the wall”

Senseless in Gaza

A wounded Palestinian is carried near a UN school in Jabalya, Gaza Strip

Powerful article in today’s Guardian, written by Avi Shlaim, Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford.  In it he argues that:

Establishing the state of Israel in May 1948 involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians. British officials bitterly resented American partisanship on behalf of the infant state. On 2 June 1948, Sir John Troutbeck wrote to the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, that the Americans were responsible for the creation of a gangster state headed by “an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders”…

Gaza is a classic case of colonial exploitation in the post-colonial era. Jewish settlements in occupied territories are immoral, illegal and an insurmountable obstacle to peace. They are at once the instrument of exploitation and the symbol of the hated occupation. In Gaza, the Jewish settlers numbered only 8,000 in 2005 compared with 1.4 million local residents. Yet the settlers controlled 25% of the territory, 40% of the arable land and the lion’s share of the scarce water resources. Cheek by jowl with these foreign intruders, the majority of the local population lived in abject poverty and unimaginable misery. Eighty per cent of them still subsist on less than $2 a day. The living conditions in the strip remain an affront to civilised values, a powerful precipitant to resistance and a fertile breeding ground for political extremism…

He concludes:

This brief review of Israel’s record over the past four decades makes it difficult to resist the conclusion that it has become a rogue state with “an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders”. A rogue state habitually violates international law, possesses weapons of mass destruction and practises terrorism – the use of violence against civilians for political purposes. Israel fulfils all of these three criteria; the cap fits and it must wear it. Israel’s real aim is not peaceful coexistence with its Palestinian neighbours but military domination. It keeps compounding the mistakes of the past with new and more disastrous ones. Politicians, like everyone else, are of course free to repeat the lies and mistakes of the past. But it is not mandatory to do so.

Patti Smith: Qana

There’s no one
In the village
Not a human
Nor a stone
There’s no one
In the village
Children are gone
And a mother rocks
Herself to sleep
Let it come down
Let her weep

The dead lay in strange shapes

Some stay buried
Others crawl free
Baby didn’t make it
Screaming debris
And a mother rocks
Herself to sleep
Let it come down
Let her weep

The dead lay in strange shapes

Limp little dolls
Caked in mud
Small, small hands
Found in the road
Their talking about
War aims
What a phrase
Bombs that fall
American made
The new middle east
The rice woman squeaks

The dead lay in strange shapes

Little bodies
Little bodies
Tied head and feet
Wrapped in plastic
Laid out in the street
The new middle east
The rice woman squeaks

The dead lay in strange shapes

Water to wine
Wine to blood
Ahh qana
The miracle
Is love

Patti Smith’s Qana waswritten in response to the bombing of the UN compound in Qana, Lebanon, in 1996, when more than 100 lost their lives.

Under Seige: poems for Gaza by Mahmoud Darwish

“There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza” – Israel Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni

Under Siege by Mahmoud Darwish

Here on the slopes of hills, facing the dusk and the cannon of time
Close to the gardens of broken shadows,
We do what prisoners do,
And what the jobless do:
We cultivate hope.
A country preparing for dawn. We grow less intelligent
For we closely watch the hour of victory:
No night in our night lit up by the shelling
Our enemies are watchful and light the light for us
In the darkness of cellars.
Here there is no “I”.
Here Adam remembers the dust of his clay.
On the verge of death, he says:
I have no trace left to lose:
Free I am so close to my liberty. My future lies in my own hand.
Soon I shall penetrate my life,
I shall be born free and parentless,
And as my name I shall choose azure letters…
You who stand in the doorway, come in,
Drink Arabic coffee with us
And you will sense that you are men like us
You who stand in the doorways of houses
Come out of our morningtimes,
We shall feel reassured to be
Men like you!
When the planes disappear, the white, white doves
Fly off and wash the cheeks of heaven
With unbound wings taking radiance back again, taking possession
Of the ether and of play. Higher, higher still, the white, white doves
Fly off. Ah, if only the sky
Were real [a man passing between two bombs said to me].
Cypresses behind the soldiers, minarets protecting
The sky from collapse. Behind the hedge of steel
Soldiers piss-under the watchful eye of a tank-
And the autumnal day ends its golden wandering in
A street as wide as a church after Sunday mass…
[To a killer] If you had contemplated the victim’s face
And thought it through, you would have remembered your mother in the
Gas chamber, you would have been freed from the reason for the rifle
And you would have changed your mind: this is not the way
to find one’s identity again.
The siege is a waiting period
Waiting on the tilted ladder in the middle of the storm.
Alone, we are alone as far down as the sediment
Were it not for the visits of the rainbows.
We have brothers behind this expanse.
Excellent brothers. They love us. They watch us and weep.
Then, in secret, they tell each other:
“Ah! if this siege had been declared…” They do not finish their sentence:
“Don’t abandon us, don’t leave us.”
Our losses: between two and eight martyrs each day.
And ten wounded.
And twenty homes.
And fifty olive trees…
Added to this the structural flaw that
Will arrive at the poem, the play, and the unfinished canvas.
A woman told the cloud: cover my beloved
For my clothing is drenched with his blood.
If you are not rain, my love
Be tree
Sated with fertility, be tree
If you are not tree, my love
Be stone
Saturated with humidity, be stone
If you are not stone, my love
Be moon
In the dream of the beloved woman, be moon
[So spoke a woman
to her son at his funeral]
Oh watchmen! Are you not weary
Of lying in wait for the light in our salt
And of the incandescence of the rose in our wound
Are you not weary, oh watchmen?
A little of this absolute and blue infinity
Would be enough
To lighten the burden of these times
And to cleanse the mire of this place.
It is up to the soul to come down from its mount
And on its silken feet walk
By my side, hand in hand, like two longtime
Friends who share the ancient bread
And the antique glass of wine
May we walk this road together
And then our days will take different directions:
I, beyond nature, which in turn
Will choose to squat on a high-up rock.
On my rubble the shadow grows green,
And the wolf is dozing on the skin of my goat
He dreams as I do, as the angel does
That life is here…not over there.
In the state of siege, time becomes space
Transfixed in its eternity
In the state of siege, space becomes time
That has missed its yesterday and its tomorrow.
The martyr encircles me every time I live a new day
And questions me: Where were you? Take every word
You have given me back to the dictionaries
And relieve the sleepers from the echo’s buzz.
The martyr enlightens me: beyond the expanse
I did not look
For the virgins of immortality for I love life
On earth, amid fig trees and pines,
But I cannot reach it, and then, too, I took aim at it
With my last possession: the blood in the body of azure.
The martyr warned me: Do not believe their ululations
Believe my father when, weeping, he looks at my photograph
How did we trade roles, my son, how did you precede me.
I first, I the first one!
The martyr encircles me: my place and my crude furniture are all that I have changed.
I put a gazelle on my bed,
And a crescent of moon on my finger
To appease my sorrow.
The siege will last in order to convince us we must choose an enslavement that does no harm, in fullest liberty!
Resisting means assuring oneself of the heart’s health,
The health of the testicles and of your tenacious disease:
The disease of hope.
And in what remains of the dawn, I walk toward my exterior
And in what remains of the night, I hear the sound of footsteps inside me.
Greetings to the one who shares with me an attention to
The drunkenness of light, the light of the butterfly, in the
Blackness of this tunnel!
Greetings to the one who shares my glass with me
In the denseness of a night outflanking the two spaces:
Greetings to my apparition.
My friends are always preparing a farewell feast for me,
A soothing grave in the shade of oak trees
A marble epitaph of time
And always I anticipate them at the funeral:
Who then has died…who?
Writing is a puppy biting nothingness
Writing wounds without a trace of blood.
Our cups of coffee. Birds green trees
In the blue shade, the sun gambols from one wall
To another like a gazelle
The water in the clouds has the unlimited shape of what is left to us
Of the sky. And other things of suspended memories
Reveal that this morning is powerful and splendid,
And that we are the guests of eternity.

Identity Card

Record !
I am an Arab
And my identity card is number fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the nineth is coming after a summer
Will you be angry?

Record !
I am an Arab
Employed with fellow workers at a quarry
I have eight children
I get them bread
Garments and books
from the rocks…
I do not supplicate charity at your doors
Nor do I belittle myself
at the footsteps of your chamber
So will you be angry?

Record !
I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged
My roots
Were entrenched before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras
Before the pines, and the olive trees
And before the grass grew.

My father..
descends from the family of the plow
Not from a privileged class
And my grandfather..was a farmer
Neither well-bred, nor well-born!
Teaches me the pride of the sun
Before teaching me how to read
And my house
is like a watchman’s hut
Made of branches and cane
Are you satisfied with my status?
I have a name without a title !

Record !
I am an Arab
You have stolen the orchards
of my ancestors
And the land
which I cultivated
Along with my children
And you left nothing for us
Except for these rocks..
So will the State take them
As it has been said?!

Therefore !
Record on the top of the first page:
I do not hate people
Nor do I encroach
But if I become hungry
The usurper’s flesh will be my food
Of my hunger
And my anger !

Mahmoud Darwish (13 March 1941 – 9 August 2008), Palestinian poet:

I will continue to humanise even the enemy… The first teacher who taught me Hebrew was a Jew. The first love affair in my life was with a Jewish girl. The first judge who sent me to prison was a Jewish woman. So from the beginning, I didn’t see Jews as devils or angels but as human beings.

Scenes from Notre Musique directed by Jean-Luc Godard. The film reflects on violence, morality, and the representation of violence in film, and touches especially on past colonialism and the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this clip Mahmoud explains why he feels the need to be ‘the poet of Troy’.

We have on this earth what makes life worth living

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: April’s
hesitation, the aroma of bread
at dawn, a woman’s opinion of men, the works of
Aeschylus, the beginnings
of love, grass on a stone, mothers who live on a flute’s sigh and
the invader’s fear of memories

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: the
waning days of September, a woman
keeping her apricots ripe after forty, the hour of sunlight in
prison, a cloud reflecting a pack
of creatures, the applause of a people for those who face their end
with a smile, and a tyrant’s fear of songs.

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: on this
earth, the Lady of Earth,
the mother of all beginnings, the mothr of all endings. She was called
Palestine. She came to be called
Palestine. O Lady, because you are my Lady, I am worthy of life.

Mahmoud Darwish: obituary

Mahmoud Darwish, the poet widely regarded as being the voice of the Palestinian people and chronicler of their struggle following the creation of Israel, died last Saturday, August 9 after undergoing open heart surgery in a US hospital. This is his obituary in today’s Guardian:

They fettered his mouth with chains,
And tied his hands to the rock of the dead.
They said: You’re a murderer.
They took his food, his clothes and his banners,
And threw him into the well of the dead.
They said: You’re a thief.
They threw him out of every port,
And took away his young beloved.
And then they said: You’re a refugee.

With poems from the 1960s such as this, Mahmoud Darwish, who has died in a Texas hospital aged 67 of complications following open-heart surgery, did as much as anyone to forge a Palestinian national consciousness, and especially after the six-day war of June 1967. His poems have been taught in schools throughout the Arab world and set to music; some of his lines have become part of the fabric of modern Arabic culture.

Darwish was born in the village of Birwa, east of Acre. His parents were from middle-ranking peasant families. Both were preoccupied with work on their land and Mahmoud was effectively brought up by his grandfather. When he was six, Israeli armed forces assaulted the village and Mahmoud fled with his family to Lebanon, living first in Jezzin and then in Damour.

When, the following year, the family returned to their occupied homeland, their village had been obliterated: two settlements had been erected on the land, and they settled in Deir al-Asad in Galilee. There were no books in Darwish’s own home and his first exposure to poetry was through listening to an itinerant singer on the run from the Israeli army. He was encouraged to write poetry by an elder brother.

Israeli Arabs lived under military rule from 1948 to 1986. They were curbed in their movements and in any political activity. As a child, Darwish grew up aware that as far as those in control were concerned he, his family and his fellow Palestinians were second-class citizens. Yet they were still expected to join in Israeli state celebrations. While at school, he wrote a poem for an anniversary of the foundation of the state. The poem was an outcry from an Arab boy to a Jewish boy. “I don’t remember the poem,” he recalled many years later, “but I remember the idea of it; you can play in the sun as you please, and have your toys, but I can’t. You have a house, and I have none. You have celebrations, but I have none. Why can’t we play together?” He recalls being summoned to see the military governor, who threatened him: “If you go on writing such poetry, I’ll stop your father working in the quarry.”

But relations with individual Jewish Israelis varied. Some he liked, including at least one of his teachers, some he loathed. Relationships with Jewish girls were easier than with girls from the more conservative Arab families.

At his school, contemporaries remember him being very good in Hebrew. Israeli Palestinian culture was cut off from mainstream Arab developments. Arab poets who did impress him were the Iraqis Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati and Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. Exciting innovations such as the Beirut group that clustered round the magazine al-Shi’r and the prosodic and thematic innovations of the Syrian poets Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Asbar) and Nizar Kabbani did not reach the beleaguered Palestinians directly. Instead, much of Darwish’s early reading of the poetry of the world outside Palestine was through the medium of Hebrew. Through Hebrew translations he got to know the work of Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda. He also became influenced by Hebrew literature from the Torah to the modern poet Yehuda Amichai.

His first poetry symbolised the Palestinian resistance to Israeli rule. His first volumes, Leaves of the Olive Tree (1964), A Lover from Palestine (1966) and End of the Night (1967), were published in Israel. During this time Darwish was a member of the Israeli Communist party, Rakah, and edited the Arabic edition of the party’s newspaper, Al-Ittihad. Israeli Palestinians were restricted in any expression of nationalist feeling. Darwish went to prison several times and was frequently under house arrest.

His earliest poetry followed classical forms, but, from the mid-1960s, it became populist and direct. He used imagery that he could relate intimately to Palestinian villagers. He wrote of olive groves and orchards, the rocks and plants, basil and thyme. These early poems have a staccato effect, like verbal hand-grenades. In spite of an apparent simplicity, his short poems have several levels of meaning. There is a sense of anger, outrage and injustice, notably in the celebrated Identity Card, in the voice of an Arab man giving his identity number:

Write down at the top of the first page:
I do not hate people.
I steal from no one.
If I am hungry
I will eat the flesh of my usurper.
Beware beware of my hunger
And of my anger.

But his poetry also contained irony and a universal humanity. For Darwish the issue of Palestine became a prism for an internationalist feeling. The land and history of Palestine was a summation of millennia, with influences from Canaanites, Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, Ottoman Turks and British. Throughout all this has survived a core identity of Palestine. He was able to see the Israeli soldier as a victim of circumstances like himself. He expresses the bureaucratic absurdities of an oppressive military occupation.

Darwish left Israel in 1971, to the disappointment of many Palestinians, and studied at Moscow University. After a brief period in Cairo he went to Beirut and held a number of jobs with the Palestine Research Centre. He remained in Beirut during the first part of the civil war and left with Yasser Arafat and the PLO in 1982. He moved on to Tunis and Paris, and became editor-in-chief of the influential literary review Al-Karmel. Although he became a member of the PLO executive committee in 1987 and helped to draft the Palestinian Declaration of Statehood, he tried to keep away from factionalism. “I am a poet with a particular perspective on reality,” he said.

His literary work was changing. He wrote short stories and developed a style of writing poems that was a mixture of observation, humanity and irony. He argued that poetry was easier to write than prose. But the poetry continued inspired by incidents or relationships. There is often an optimism against all the odds in his works of the 1980s:

Streets encircle us
As we walk among the bombs.
Are you used to death?
I’m used to life and to endless desire.
Do you know the dead?
I know the ones in love.

During his Paris years Darwish wrote Memory for Forgetfulness, a memoir of Beirut under the saturation Israeli bombing of 1982 which has been translated into English. A poem in prose, it is a medley of wit and rage, with reflections on violence and exile.

His later work became more mystical and less particularly concerned with Palestine. Often it was preoccupied with human mortality. He was careless of his own health and suffered heart attacks in 1984 and in early 1998.

Darwish resigned from the PLO executive committee over the 1993 Oslo Agreements between Israel and the PLO, which he saw as a “risky accord”. He was able to return to Israel to see his aged mother in 1995. The Israeli authorities also gave him permission for an unlimited stay in the self-ruling parts of the Palestinian West Bank, and he spent his last years in Ramallah and Amman, the capital of Jordan.

In 2000 the Israeli ministry of education proposed to introduce his works into the school curriculum, but met strong opposition from rightwing protesters. The then prime minister, Ehud Barak, said the country was not ready.

Darwish’s work has been translated into Hebrew and, in July 2007, Darwish returned to Israel on a visit and gave a reading of his poetry to 2,000 people in Haifa. He deplored the Hamas victory in Gaza the previous month. “We have triumphed,’ he observed with grim irony. “Gaza has won its independence from the West Bank. One people now have two states, two prisons who don’t greet each other. We are dressed in executioners’ clothes.”

Over the years Darwish received many honours. He was given the Soviet Union’s Lotus prize in 1969, and the Lenin peace prize in 1983. He was president of the Union of Palestinian Writers. Married and divorced twice, he had no children; his first wife was the Syrian writer Rana Kabbani, who elegantly translated some of his poetry into English.

Margaret Obank writes: Mahmoud was a completely secular person, rather philosophical, an avid reader, elegant in his dress, and supremely modest in his opinion of himself. He liked to be alone, but would always be ready to speak on the telephone.

While I had been reading his poems since the early 1970s, I got to know him through my husband, the Iraqi author Samuel Shimon. Mahmoud supported Banipal, the literary magazine we founded in 1998, and took pride both in issues of the journal and the many dialogues we helpled to promote.

It presents work by Arab authors and poets in English for the first time. When we rang Mahmoud three months ago about doing a special issue on him, his reaction was: “Do you think I deserve that? If you think I do, then I like the idea.” Now it will be a tribute to him.

We were with Mahmoud when he was awarded the Prince Claus Fund of principal prize in Amsterdam in 2004, the theme being asylum and migration. His acceptance speech was both powerful and thoughtful: “A person can only be born in one place. However, he may die several times elsewhere: in the exiles and prisons, and in a homeland transformed by the occupation and oppression into a nightmare. Poetry is perhaps what teaches us to nurture the charming illusion: how to be reborn out of ourselves over and over again, and use words to construct a better world, a fictitious world that enables us to sign a pact for a permanent and comprehensive peace … with life.”


Tony Benn and Roy Bailey

To the Phil tonight to see, as part of this year’s Writing on the Wall Festival, Tony Benn and Roy Bailey. Winner of the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for Best Live Act in 2001, Roy Bailey and Tony Benn’s show (also called The Writing on the Wall) is a sell out success at theatres and festivals up and down the country. A presentation of an alternative view of how we got where we are today and where we could be going next, Roy and Tony give us a history of dissent in words and song, drawing on first hand experiences and the stories of the people they don’t teach us about in schools. A hugely entertaining, and inspiring, show.

Tony Benn and long-time friend Roy Bailey have worked up a powerful show about the history of political dissent. Folk singer Bailey, who once returned an MBE in protest at the situation in Palestine, used his lyrics to strong and often poignant effect.

Each took turns at the microphone while the other relaxed in his own armchair – in Benn’s case, with pipe and a mug of his tea, clearly ignoring any smoking ban that may have applied to performers.

Benn, who has called Liverpool “the most political city in the world”, clearly enjoyed himself. He read short statements from historical figures such as Thomas More (comparing his vision of Utopia to the original idea behind the NHS), Oscar Wilde, and Keir Hardie. In between, Bailey sang the most appropriate folk song relevant to the particular time or figure in history.

At the end of the show they received a standing ovation.

Tony Benn and Roy Bailey

Roy Bailey sings about Palestine

The Band’s Visit

We’ve just seen The Band’s Visit, Eran Kolirin’s highly-enjoyable Israeli film, the story of an Egyptian police marching band stranded in a small Israeli town.  The film is the first by director Kolirin; it has some sharp points to make about Israeli-Arab relations, but most of the laughs spring from good old-fashioned miscommunication and embarrassment. Stranded and unable to contact their embassy, the marching band are forced to seek shelter with the bemused locals, and must endure a long night of confusion, social gaffes and unrequited lust.

There is a lovely performance from Sasson Gabai as Tewfic, the rigidly traditional band leader whose formal facade gradually crumbles beneath the gaze of Ronit Alkabez’s lonely Jewish restauranteur.  Tewfic’s stoic acceptance of his farcical situation – completely lost in an unfriendly country and seriously overdressed to boot – gives the film a melancholy feel.

From the New York Times review:

Much of that melancholy involves Tewfiq; the band’s roguish violinist, Haled (Saleh Bakri, smooth as glass); and an Israeli restaurant owner, Dina (the great Ronit Elkabetz), a brusque, untamed beauty who offers the two shelter. (The other band members bed down elsewhere.) Over the course of a long, peripatetic evening, these three will unite and separate, fumble and parry. Finally they will reunite in Dina’s apartment, where, as they sit wearily around a table, Mr. Kolirin will cut from one face to the next in tight close-up. Despite their tentative, sometimes tender exchanges, the three remain essentially alone, an isolation underscored by the shallow depth of field that leaves only their faces in poignant focus.

The terminal loneliness that haunts this scene may be universal, but Mr. Kolirin also seems to be saying that a specific loneliness haunts Israel as well. At one point Dina blurts out to Tewfiq that she and her family used to love watching Egyptian movies on television. The streets of Israel, she says, her voice swelling, were empty because everyone else was watching too. But that was then, and now Dina and the rest of these Israeli townspeople sit in this seemingly barren land with its pregnant silences and wait. Surrounded by desert, a few longingly invoke the sea, summoning a desire, but for what? Mr. Kolirin, I think, suggests that this longing is for something the poet Marcia Falk calls the “Eternal wellspring of peace.”

From Roger Ebert’s review:

As Dina and Twefiq, Ronit Elkabetz and Sasson Gabai bring great fondness and amusement to their characters. She is pushing middle age, he is being pushed by it. It is impossible for this night to lead to anything in their future lives. But it could lead to a night to remember.

Gabai plays the bandleader as so repressed or shy or wounded that he seems closed inside himself. As we watch Elkabetz putting on a new dress for the evening and inspecting herself in the mirror, we see not vanity but hope.

In the morning, the band reassembles and leaves. “The Band’s Visit” has not provided any of the narrative payoffs we might have expected, but has provided something more valuable: An interlude involving two “enemies,” Arabs and Israelis, that shows them both as only ordinary people with ordinary hopes, lives and disappointments. It has also shown us two souls with rare beauty.


Extract: final ssene and credits

Songs in this extract: Ayam Fi Hodnik by Elias Attallah (Arabic); Kol Shee Helo by Reem Talhami (Israeli); Ayam Fi Hodnik (Days Spent in Your Arms) by Habib Shahadeh Hanna.

Extracts featuring ‘Kol Shee Helo’ sung by Reem Talhami