Believing their story is never allowed to be heard, Palestinians have a feeling of dispossession described most eloquently by the late Edward Saidi. Now Gazan youth are pleading for the world to listen to their rage, sorrow and frustration, and their commitment to a cultural and political project that will endow them with rights and possibilities for life.
Nearly a decade ago, in November of 2003, I joined Kahlil Barhoum and Ghada Karmi, two close friends of the prominent literary critic, activist, and public intellectual Edward Said, at a memorial in his honor. Said had succumbed to a long illness in September, but not before producing an astonishing body of scholarship and political work.
After our comments, we opened up the floor for questions and discussion. One person asked why and how it was that the voices of Palestinians were never heard. Karmi replied that it was not necessarily that they were not heard, but that the Zionist side had “captured the narrative.” That is to say, no matter what “facts” or “voices” we might present to the world, for many living in the West, all that data was subordinated to a dominant narrative that rationalized, and indeed made right, the continued repression and containment of Palestinians.
Karmi spoke of Said’s major text, Orientalism, as a momentous effort to tell a different story, against the grain of the dominant history:
“From the start of Israeli statehood, that evasion took on an air of obsessive denial. To maintain its fiction of innocence, Israel set about eradicating all traces of Palestinian presence on the land. Over 400 villages were demolished and new settlements sprang up in their place. The history of “Israel” taught to Israeli children distorts the facts to exclude reference to Palestinian presence. An intricate mythology of Israel’s origins maps a Jewish continuity from Biblical times to the present, interrupted only by phases of transient settlement by Romans, Ottomans and British. If you knew no different, it would be entirely possible to believe that no Arabs had ever existed in the country apart from a few nomadic Bedouin tribes. Thus the Israelis have attempted to annihilate an entire people, including their history, memory, language and culture.
All Palestinians feel this insult of a double dispossession, aimed at their bodies and souls: their existence as a separate people with a history denied and their resulting sufferings unacknowledged. Edward Said felt this acutely, and his writings reflect it in one way or another. Orientalism must be understood in this way. Orientalist writers attempting to describe the Arab people also contributed to their dispossession, though elegantly and with erudition. For a people recreated through the prism of an alien scholarship influenced by alien notions of supremacy are also robbed of their true identity. Which is also a form of dispossession.”
Nearly a decade later, this past November saw the horrible and seemingly inexorable repetition of the same strategies of silencing and distortion. Nearly every major news outlet either took a position that could easily be reduced to the banal “two wrongs don’t make a right” (most disappointingly and bizarrely this was the gist of a contorted statement issued by Occupy Wall Street), or that Hamas had started a cycle of violence and that no sovereign nation could, or should, stand idly by. The total delink from reality this position evinced might have best been articulated on November 18 by our President Barack Obama, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and final decision-maker on US drone attacks in Pakistan: “There is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.” How to explain the blindness that informs such a statement defending Israel’s actions other than the utter inability or unwillingness to give any hearing to the story from the other side?
The President has his political cards to play, but how do we as “ordinary people” account for our readiness to buy that dominant narrative? Perhaps because it rehashes an old formula that places and secures blame on the side whose case will never be heard, perhaps too because then we are exculpated. As Vijay Prashad puts it: “There are at least two framing narratives that were utterly unchanged. The first one is of Israeli innocence, that Israel is somehow not responsible for what occurs, that it is simply reacting to issues. . . . There is no sense that Israel is occupying Gaza, occupying the Palestinian lands. There is no sense that when you occupy a people they will resist. [The second being the occlusion of American complicity, the UN’s support for Israel’s actions, arms provisions to Israel].”
The coverage by the liberal American media was appalling – for instance, on NPR not only were no Palestinian voices heard (their “side” was more often than not represented by a few dry statistics), but huge swatches of air time were devoted to the pained voices of “every day” Israelis. If NPR wanted to give a life-like representation of the events, it could have done more than simply quote the death counts, which had the number of Palestinians killed at over 140 and Israelis at a dozen. But if liberals in the US hoped that their old mainstay for international news, the BBC, might offer another set of options, they were sorely disappointed. As John Pilger chronicles in his excellent piece in The New Statesman:
“The Israeli state has successfully intimidated the BBC into presenting the theft of Palestinian land and the caging, torturing and killing of its people as an intractable ‘conflict’ between equals. Standing in the rubble from an Israeli attack, one BBC journalist went further and referred to ‘Gaza’s strong culture of martyrdom.’ So great is the distortion that young viewers of BBC news have told Glasgow University researchers that they are left with the impression that Palestinians are the illegal colonizers of their own country.”
My remarks here do not aspire to a critique of media coverage – journalists and scholars like those quoted above have taken that on. I want here to dwell instead on what Karmi said at the memorial – and focus on the power of stories both to hide facts, but also to surpass them in liberating, visionary, even utopian ways. I hasten to add that achieving this imaginative capacity to think otherwise is not meant to be an end point, but a starting point for real political thinking and political work. Ghada Karmi herself is a prominent activist, advocate, physician, and a novelist. Her autobiographical novel, In Search of Fatima, tells the story of her emigration to England, her education there, and her politicization. All these separate “professions” blend into her work.
It is easy to dismiss cultural work as merely ancillary to political work. To me this seems a particularly US-based kind of reasoning. Nearly every other country on earth has a vibrant history of poets, novelists, artists and musicians playing a key role in the shaping of public and political opinion. Here we are too ready to hand over opinion-making to “professionals,” and to grant them “expert” credence, mostly for the worse. Again, this attitude is enabled to no small degree from our willingness to reduce complex and nuanced issues to either/or narratives, “It’s too complicated for me” gestures or giving in to the standing narrative. As Gabriel Garcia Marquez noted in his speech accepting the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature, “I do believe that those clear-sighted Europeans who struggle, here as well, for a more just and humane homeland, could help us far better if they reconsidered their way of seeing us.”
But we do not need to listen to only novelists and professional artists for their representations of other perspectives, desires, suffering and hope. A comprehensive, passionate statement, “Gaza Youth’s Manifesto for Change,” was issued by a few young people – three women and five men calling themselves “Gaza Youth Breaks Out – online, and immediately found a wide readership. As The Guardian portrayed it, it was “an extraordinary, impassioned cyber-scream in which young men and women from Gaza – where more than half the 1.5 million population is under 18.” Here is the opening:
“Fuck Hamas. Fuck Israel. Fuck Fatah. Fuck UN. Fuck UNWRA. Fuck USA! We, the youth in Gaza, are so fed up with Israel, Hamas, the occupation, the violations of human rights and the indifference of the international community! We want to scream and break this wall of silence, injustice and indifference like the Israeli F16’s breaking the wall of sound; scream with all the power in our souls in order to release this immense frustration that consumes us because of this fucking situation we live in; we are like lice between two nails living a nightmare inside a nightmare, no room for hope, no space for freedom. We are sick of being caught in this political struggle; sick of coal dark nights with airplanes circling above our homes; sick of innocent farmers getting shot in the buffer zone because they are taking care of their lands; sick of bearded guys walking around with their guns abusing their power, beating up or incarcerating young people demonstrating for what they believe in; sick of the wall of shame that separates us from the rest of our country and keeps us imprisoned in a stamp-sized piece of land; sick of being portrayed as terrorists, homemade fanatics with explosives in our pockets and evil in our eyes; sick of the indifference we meet from the international community, the so-called experts in expressing concerns and drafting resolutions but cowards in enforcing anything they agree on; we are sick and tired of living a shitty life, being kept in jail by Israel, beaten up by Hamas and completely ignored by the rest of the world.”
The ending of the statement is equally powerful, and reaches out to the world community:
“We will start by destroying the occupation that surrounds ourselves, we will break free from this mental incarceration and regain our dignity and self respect. We will carry our heads high even though we will face resistance. We will work day and night in order to change these miserable conditions we are living under. We will build dreams where we meet walls.
We only hope that you – yes, you reading this statement right now! – can support us. In order to find out how, please write on our wall or contact us directly: email@example.com.
We want to be free, we want to live, we want peace.
FREE GAZA YOUTH!”
This is a noble and utterly compelling ending to a remarkably powerful statement. The program is to end an “occupation” that is both insistently material (as evinced in the opening moments of the statement) and psychological, but cultural as well – whole ways of life and value-making have been suppressed and destroyed. This statement is calling for the end of “mental incarceration” and a re-imagining of the cultural and political sphere to fill the void. This will allow for the regaining of dignity and self-respect (though I would say that these young people already have achieved that, for certain). The building of dreams is precisely what is needed, and here the reach to the world community could not be more urgent. They are asking us not only to listen to their rage, sorrow and frustration, but also to their commitment to a cultural and political project that will endow them with rights and possibilities for life that many of us in the US and elsewhere are too willing to set aside blindly as we cling to the false comforts of an old, pernicious, and false narrative.