Tuesday, July 31, 2012

My Road to Palestinian Solidarity

Today I am posting an essay I wrote in 2009, and that was published in German translation in the book Denk ich an Palästina, edited by Guenter Schenk. In this book 26 activists, mostly German, described how they came to Palestine rights activism. Alas, its publisher went bust, but the book may still be sourced online or directly through Guenter (indirectly, through myself) for €18, free postage worldwide included. You will find a review of it here.

                                      My road to Palestinian solidarity.
                                                            Raymond Deane

When I was 10 years old I decided that I would become a classical composer, and have lived with the consequences of that decision ever since. A little later on, I began to read fiction, poetry, and even philosophy as if print were soon to become obsolete (as perhaps it will!). From my mid teens I added theatre, cinema, and painting to my interests. In short, I was and have remained a "culture vulture".

Of course the culture that I absorbed and that absorbed me was entirely western, and predominantly European. It comes naturally to classical musicians to feel that their "roots" are in countries other than (even if including) their place of birth, so from an early age I had little sense of nationalism and a kind of extraterritorial loyalty to countries like Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Russia, Czechoslovakia - the great centres of the European classical tradition.

In literature and philosophy, I soon found that many of the writers who most excited me were Jewish. If Joyce was a hero, Kafka was a God. In poetry, Paul Celan made every other poet seem irrelevant. In philosophy, Jacques Derrida magisterially swept away the metaphysics of presence. In music, too, although the classical mainstream was gentile, Alkan, Mahler, Schoenberg and Ligeti were all Jewish. Like the Europeanised American poet Sylvia Plath, I used to declaim "I think I'm a bit of a Jew..."

In 1990 I moved part-time to Paris. I witnessed huge demonstrations against the imminent Gulf War. I read Chomsky's Deterring Democracy, and became friendly with Arabs – including Palestinians – who denounced the hypocrisy of ejecting Saddam Hussein from Kuweit while allowing Israel to remain in the Occupied Territories.

My previous political involvement had been on the fringes of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign, and I was beginning to take an interest in East Timor. I had always felt uneasy about Palestine, believing that terrible things had happened there but that the Jews "were an exception" because of what they had suffered. My sense of cultural affinity with Jews made it easy for me to think this way, but also contributed to my uneasiness – because not all Jews supported Israel.

I paid my first visit to the Middle East in 1993, witnessing the startling contrast between Jewish and Arab Israel, the still greater contrast between Israel and "the territories", and the turbulent misery of the refugee camps. I witnessed the results of Israeli bombing in Lebanon, and read Robert Fisk's Pity the Nation while I was in that country.

Later that same year, I was Ireland's delegate at the World Music Days of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Mexico City. I was one of those who spearheaded a revolt of smaller countries, angry that their composers were almost never represented at ISCM festivals while those of Britain, France, and Germany were over-represented. One of my allies was the Israeli composer Menachem Zur, a liberal Zionist, with whom I became – and have remained – warm friends. Subsequently I even worked together with the Israeli Embassy in Dublin to organise an exchange between Irish and Israeli composers, one of whom, Hagar Khadima, came to Ireland and stayed in my flat in Dublin, while I travelled to perform at a music festival in Kishinev, Moldova (unaware that this had been the site of a horrible pogrom against the Jews in 1903, commemorated in the great poem City of Slaughter by the Zionist poet Chaim Bialik).

So I still had inhibitions about getting involved in a campaign against Israel. Until, in 2001, Ariel Sharon became Prime Minister, and it was no longer possible to sit on the sidelines. East Timor was moving towards independence, and the chairman of the East Timor Ireland Solidarity Campaign, the legendary Tom Hyland, was already looking for new territories to liberate. Together with a number of activists including myself, Tom founded the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) in November 2001, shortly after the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada.

For a time, the IPSC didn't do much except organise itself. With "Operation Defensive Shield", the brutal re-invasion by Sharon of West Bank towns and refugee camps, all that changed. A massive propaganda war broke out, in Ireland and elsewhere, and I suddenly found myself obliged to write several letters daily to different publications, including some quite obscure provincial newspapers – Zionists, as Edward Said repeatedly insisted, pay great attention to detail. I had to acquire some basic knowledge of international law and humanitarian law, as well as of history, and I read voraciously. Meanwhile, Tom Hyland had resigned the chair of the IPSC for health reasons, and I took over the organisation, remaining its Chairperson for 3 years.

Slowly but surely all my doubts vanished and a new realisation took their place: with all my liberalism and concern for human rights worldwide, I myself had represented everything that I was now fighting against. I had failed to look either at myself or at the culture which had produced me and of which I was a producer, and to recognise the seeds of discrimination planted alongside those of emancipation. I began to understand that "making an exception" of the Jews was what anti-Semites did, that philo-Semitism is only the other face of anti-Semitism. And yet it is this exceptionalism that allows Israel to continue breaching every law known to humanity, and to be defended unconditionally by politicians and commentators who salve their guilt about Europe's past crimes against the Jews by facilitating Israel's present crimes against the Palestinians.

None of this has turned me against my cultural background, or changed my admiration for Kafka or Celan or Mahler! However, I have come to understand the truth of the Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin's words: "every document of culture is at the same time a document of barbarism". I have begun to learn about the wealth of Arab and Islamic culture. I have come to see the struggle for the liberation of Palestine as simultaneously a struggle for the liberation of Europe from its worst and most atavistic imperialist and racist impulses.

For me, this has also been a liberation.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Book review: Magic Realism with Footnotes


Magic realism with footnotes: novelist Nasrallah creates a genre of his own

28 July 2012
In an article for The Electronic Intifada some years ago I lamented that the Jordan-based Palestinian poet Ibrahim Nasrallah was only known to English-speakers as a novelist for two “nightmarish, anti-realistic essays in poetic prose.” I added that “Nasrallah has written realistic historical novels that have not as yet been translated. Until this happens … our view of this humane modernist will remain severely restricted.”
This restriction has diminished with the appearance in English of the 600-page Time of White Horses, published in Arabic in 2007 after a 20-year gestation period. Indeed the first assumption to collapse is that the term “realistic historical novel” is at all applicable. Time of White Horses is less a Palestinian War and Peace than a work of historical magic realism with footnotes — that is to say, it belongs in a genre entirely of its own invention.
Nasrallah chronicles three generations of a fictitious Palestinian family in a village called Hadiya (meaning, among other things, “peaceful”). Although Hadiya is fictitious, the author tells us in his preface that this “is the story of my village.” Such teasing ambiguities are typical of the book, and might well be described as “postmodern.”
The way in which realism and symbolism are linked throughout is best illustrated by reference to the white mare Hamama (meaning “dove”), whose arrival in Hadiya at the start is described as a kind of apparition: “A perfect miracle had taken on flesh” (3). The thief who is riding her cannot “control the mass of light … offering him such stubborn resistance,” but dismounts and flees when she comes to a halt before the village elder and his son Khaled, the novel’s central character.
Khaled “knew that if he had lost a mare like her, he’d go on looking for her for the rest of his life” (5). One night he strips and rides her “until he felt as though Hamama had sprouted wings and that they were soaring through the sky … And when he started walking alongside her, he realized that he had turned into a horse” (26).
In 1948, the word “Hamama” is used by the villagers as a password or shibboleth because the guttural Arabic “ha” cannot be pronounced by the Jews and the British (610). When Hadiya is finally abandoned, Khaled’s widow has a vision of the long-dead Hamama standing by her late husband’s grave (623). Between the mare’s first appearance and her final apparition, Palestine has descended from the Ottoman Empire to the British Mandateto the Israeli occupation, and perdition.

True villains

The Ottomans leave the Palestinians in (very) relative peace as long as they pay their taxes. With the collapse of their empire, their exercise of power becomes ever more brutal and arbitrary. Taxes are imposed on everything imaginable including “a ‘hat tax,’ which was levied on everyone who wore a cloth head covering” (55).
The British, who take over Palestine from the Turks in the wake of the infamous Balfour Declaration (“His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people …”), are the true villains of the piece — even more so than the Israelis. Perhaps the most vivid character is the fictional English officer Edward Peterson, a sadist who hates Arabs but loves their horses, and writes ethereal surrealist poetry by night (321). His assassination is narrated with a relish that is almost infantile: “The shot that pierced Peterson’s head left part of his brain clinging to the restaurant’s front window” (499).
A footnote tells us that “the number of executions that took place over the course of six years under the British in Palestine alone was greater than the number that took place in the entire Ottoman Empire under the rule of Sultan Abd al-Hamed, which lasted for more than 30 years” (325). Another footnote relates that during the 1936-9 Arab uprising “Britain stormed all of Palestine once more, killing more than 5,000 Palestinians and wounding more than 15,000 others. It exiled and executed the Palestinian leadership. In addition, it organized death squads made up of British soldiers and Zionist forces … which attacked Palestinian villages by night” (448).

Bewildering labyrinth

These footnotes, which increase in number and length as the book proceeds, are essentially historical yet sometimes bear on fictional characters (like Peterson). In addition, numerous italicized passages are directly taken from interviews conducted by the author during the years of its composition — yet some also refer to characters from the fictional narrative. Despite, or because of, this sporadically scholarly apparatus, it is imperative that the reader should know in advance something about the history of the region. Nasrallah has a habit of omitting transitions: in particular, the Arab revolt seems to segue abruptly into the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and no account is given of the foundation of the Israeli state.
This is a bewildering labyrinth of a book, yet its very untidiness conveys a powerful sense of the textures of place, time and custom that eludes a more conventional narrative likeSusan Abulhawa’s otherwise admirable and in many respects comparable Mornings in Jenin. With the publication of Time of White Horses, lovingly translated by Nancy Roberts (who should, however, have resisted the temptation to attempt rhyming translations of the verse interpolations), our understanding of the history of modern Arabic literature has taken a giant leap forward.
Raymond Deane is an Irish composer and political activist.
Image of Time of White Horses (Modern Arabic Literature)
Manufacturer: The American University in Cairo Press
Part Number:
Price: $27.95