Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Shifting to

I am posting new articles and most of the old stuff on this blog over at Please join me there.

The Green Still Resists

In one of the most contentious sections of his thoroughly contentious Cairo speech, Obama declared: “Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.”

It’s difficult to know where to start with this. Perhaps by registering just how insulting it is for the representative of the imperial killing machine – responsible directly and indirectly for millions of deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Somalia – to lecture the dispossessed and massacred Palestinians on their occasional attempts to strike back. We can be sure that the sleeping children Obama is concerned with here are the Israeli children who live on the stolen land of Palestine, not the unsleeping, traumatised children of Gaza, several hundred of whom were burnt and dismembered six months ago. Then it’s worth remarking how the erudition and intelligence shown in Obama’s pre-presidential book 'Dreams from my Father' have been immediately crushed on his assumption of the presidency. How otherwise could his historical vision be so partial and simplistic? There was certainly a key non-violent aspect to the struggle for civil rights in the United States, but pretending that violence played no role in the process makes it necessary to ignore the American Civil War (half a million dead), Nat Turner, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and rioting Chicago. Violence, or the threat of violence, was important in South Africa and India too, and certainly in Obama’s ancestral Kenya, and was the dominant anti-imperial strategy in Vietnam and Algeria.

In the Palestinian context, it is essential to emphasise once again that while Palestinians have a right to violent resistance, most resistance to the extreme violence of Zionism has been, and continues to be, non-violent. A small minority of Palestinians fight in the militias, but most Palestinians have participated in tax strikes, unarmed demonstrations, non-cooperation with Israeli bureaucracy, and similar actions. Penned in with US-made and granted weaponry, and ignored by the Western media, these tactics have not yet done the Palestinians any good.

Yet the act of resisting, when it becomes a habit, makes the actor stronger than he was before, and changes him, so that each of his acts becomes infused with resistance. The great Palestinian thinker Edward Said said, “Culture is a way of fighting extinction and obliteration.” For 61 years Palestinians have engaged in cultural resistance, in the widest sense. This means farmers continuing to farm even when their trees are slated for uprooting. It means couples building a house of their own even when they know it will be bulldozed. It means giving birth to children even though it is forbidden to dream of their future. It explains why Palestinian children in Damascus, Dubai and San Diego still speak Arabic in the Palestinian dialect, and in the accent of a village not even their parents have seen.

Students resist by studying. Palestinians are among the world’s best educated people, despite the school closures and curfews, the bombs and enforced poverty. Raja Shehadeh resists by walking in the hills, which themselves seem to rise up against the weight of settlements and military roads. Mourid Barghouti writes in “I Saw Ramallah”: “There is less green now. Israel has been stealing the water since 1967, but even so the green still resists.”

Most persistently, Palestinians resist by remembering. The refugee camp alleyways are named after the raped villages their inhabitants fled. Refugee families keep the keys to their homes on hooks or framed in their temporary shelters. A giant key hangs over the entrance to the Aida camp in Bethlehem, and many Palestinians are named Ayid (Returner), or Jaffra or Falasteen (both mean Palestine), or Bisan (a city in Palestine). Perhaps the most characteristic Palestinian name is Sumood, which means endurance and remaining.

A common motif of Palestinian art is an olive tree wreathed in barbed wire. Another is the crucified Christ (Jesus is surely the most famous Palestinian of all, even if the American Christians haven’t worked it out). Hanzala, assassinated Naji al-Ali’s cartoon creation – eternally eight years old because that was Naji’s age when he was driven from his home, and always with his back to the world because the world has turned its back on Palestine – stands on almost every wall. The body of Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine’s ‘national poet’ who died last summer but who is obviously not yet dead, is imprinted in the marketplace and near the checkpoint. In every cafĂ© and sitting room stories are told of the struggle and the land and the days before.

These memories are the symbols of Palestine and also Palestine’s first weapon of refusal, because the destroyers of Palestine insist on forgetfulness. This is why stones are stolen from the walls of old Jerusalem and used to build houses for Jews, to give them an air of age and authenticity. This is why archeology in Israel is a matter of military security. This is why the Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are described as ‘Arab-Israelis’, as if they’ve recently arrived from Algeria or Kuwait. It is why Zionist-compliant media never explained that the refugees in Gaza come from Ashkelon and Sderot.

Memory is related to truth and justice, and constitutes a fundamental challenge to the Zio-Disney version of the Holy Land, and to any oppressive system. Yet memory can also burn the oppressed.

The danger of memory, particularly traumatic memory, is that it freezes the rememberer in eternal retrospection. The flow of the present coagulates in him, and he dies. But the Palestinians are focused on the present moment too, on today’s existence and endurance. When their land calls to them it calls with immediacy. The refugees don’t want to return to the past; they want to return to their land today, they want their rights today.

And right now there is an explosion of Palestinian expression which more than compensates for the deaths of Darwish and Edward Said. Palestinian films are now the most sophisticated in the Arab world, and the most accessible to global audiences. Paradise Now, for instance, was shortlisted for an Oscar for best foreign film. Palestinian hip hop is powerful and distinctive and has an international fan base. A new crop of poets completely at ease with contemporary mass media include Tamim Barghouti, Suheir Hammad and Nathalie Handal. Politically, websites like the Palestine Chronicle and Ali Abunimah’s Electronic Intifada are signs of the beginning of an effective lobby.

It would be difficult to find a nation more alive. The Palestinians are solidifying and prospering as a nation – an imagined community – even as the earth disappears under their feet. Mourid Barghouti says, “The long Occupation has succeeded in changing us from children of Palestine to children of the idea of Palestine.”

Ideas can be more fertile even than bank accounts. Eventually, they can prove more powerful than anything. The apartheid Wall is painted with Palestinian identity, and with messages of solidarity in any language you can think of.

This changes the equation in the long term, and the equation needs to be changed. All that we can currently hope for is that Obama is as radical as Carter has become. In other words, all we can hope for is a bantustan on bits of the West Bank and Gaza. Israel will continue to be a sectarian settler state which disenfranchises its Palestinian citizens. It will continue to hold Jerusalem. Palestinian refugees will have their moral and legal right to return to their land denied.

No self-respecting people would acquiesce in this, least of all the Palestinians, with their thousands of years of history and their enormous cultural momentum.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Entering Palestine

I love it when Arab Christians have names like Omar. It shows, on their fathers’ part, a rejection of the sectarianism which cripples us. I know of a Christian family in Beirut which named its eldest son Jihad, and Muslim families with sons called Fidel and Guevara. Omar is not merely a specifically Muslim name; it’s more particularly a Sunni name, disliked by some Shia for theological-historical reasons. Omar is not a good name to have written on your ID card while driving through a Shia-militia-controlled area of Baghdad. But I know an Iraqi Shia woman whose brother is called Omar, because her father rejected the whole sorry sectarian business.

By and large, the Palestinians have avoided the curse. It’s still the case that if you ask a Palestinian whether he’s Muslim or Christian he responds, “Palestinian!” I mention this because our guide from Amman to the Allenby Bridge was a Palestinian Christian called Omar, and because the Palestinians, unlike their enemies, are proud of their diversity and pluralism.

Swaying in the bus aisle, Omar explained that Jordanian officers would check our passports but would not stamp them. “The Jordanian government has recognised Israel, but not Israeli control over the West Bank. Why are there Israeli police on the border and not Palestinians? Jordan recognises this as a crossing, but not a border.”

Surely Omar was pleased that, since the peace agreement, he could visit his family in Bethlehem? Not really: “Jordan allows every Israeli to come here. They get visas automatically when they come in. But we have to apply at the Israeli embassy, where they treat us badly, and 95% of applications are refused. I tried to go in for my uncle’s funeral, but they wouldn’t let me. This is the balanced peace we have with our neighbours.”

The Jordanian side of the crossing takes less than ten minutes. Omar collects our passports to flash at an officer while we drink water in the shade. Then back onto the bus, without Omar, and over the bridge.

On the Israeli side there are even more flags than in an Arab country, and a sign offering ten million dollars for information concerning two Israeli soldiers gone missing during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Ten million dollars! For men missing for 27 years, who must be dead. I exclaim aloud, and Ahdaf remarks that the sign’s true purpose is to demonstrate Israel’s commitment to its people, and the money in its hands.

We give our bags to a Palestinian worker. They will be given back when we’ve been processed through the border. Past plainclothes men with sunglasses and fingers on the triggers of enormous guns (I’ve never seen guns the size of the guns I saw hanging off Israeli backs – science fiction guns, guns from the film Men in Black) and into a queue. When I reach the girl in the booth she gets on the walkie-talkie and sticks a green sticker on my passport. Another girl arrives and tells me to wait on a bench.

A couple of minutes later I’m taken into a separate room, by yet another girl, and my first questioning begins. Why are you here? Are you married? Do you have children? What are their names? Where is your father from? Have you been to Syria? When was the last time? Where will you visit in Israel? Where will you stay in Jerusalem? Why do you have a new passport? Do you have any other passports? What kind of writer are you? Do you have a weapon?

It took ten minutes. Then I was told to stand inside a machine which blows wind over your body to pick up any forgotten traces of explosive. And I was waved on.

I thought I’d done it then. But around the white-walled corner the process began in earnest. Maybe eight windows processing eight queues. Our Palfest group dominated two of them. Victoria Britain was at the front showing the British Council letter of invitation with all our names. Slowly we moved up, interspersing Arabs with Anglos, to dilute the Arabs in the consciousness of the Israelis. Jamal got through with no trouble. But Suheir was turned back. Victoria suggested I join the other queue. “That window seems more tolerant,” she said. “I’ve been comparing.” Her harsher official was a prettyish Sephardic girl. Mine was very white. Which made no difference. When my turn came I was directed to a bench which already seated a mainly Palestinian crowd, including Suheir. In total four of our group, all with Arab or Muslim names, were stopped.

I sat down to begin the wait. I wished I’d taken a book from my bag before handing it over, and perhaps a nicotine mint. If I’d been told that I had a five-hour period of stillness ahead I might have meditated. But I was in a place of noise and distress, peppered with distractors. I observed the Israelis as they flitted or slouched, expecting one of them to call my name. During this long time I was oppressed by their low-slung trousers. I mean, maybe it works for people with the right kind of buttocks, I don’t know. But I’m sure it doesn’t work for Israeli kid-soldiers.

After three hours a slight young man in short-sleeved casuals summoned me quietly to a second interview. I told him I was part of a group of writers and that I planned to do a reading in Jerusalem.

“How many editions of your novel are there?”

“Only one, I’m afraid.”

“And what is the plot?”

“You should buy it,” I grin. “If you buy it it might run into a second edition.”

His smile has gone.

“No. I was hoping for a PDF.”

The European holding me at the border of Arab Palestine wants me to send him a PDF of my novel.

I gave an inevitably partial account of the plot. He nodded, and then smiled again. “I know you’ve been waiting a while already. It’ll only be another couple of minutes.”

It took another couple of hours.

As well as playing psychology, I think they were googling us. My interviewer had suddenly asked, “Why is Suheir with you? She isn’t a writer. She’s an actress.” Suheir is an actress, most recently in Salt of this Sea, but she and her interviewer had only talked poetry. And then there was George, a neatly dressed young American of Egyptian origin. He waited from nine in the morning to four in the afternoon, when a very aggressive Israeli came at him with a document. “Sign this or you go!” she sirened. The document forbade George entry to ‘Palestinian-controlled’ areas on pain of immediate deportation and the denial of entry visas for a decade. “I can’t sign this,” he told her. Her answer was nearly a scream: “So you go back to Jordan!”

“What’s their problem with you?” I asked George. “You have an American passport and a Christian name.” “I’m a pro-Palestine activist in the States,” he explained. “They haven’t said a word about it, but I presume they looked me up.”

So the visit began with intimidation, and continued the same way. I wouldn’t say I was ever scared in Palestine, but part of my brain was constantly occupied with sizing up the occupied landscape – finding the Wall on the horizon, judging vehicles and the distance and mood of soldiers, being aware of the positions of towers and checkpoints.

It’s worse, of course, for the Palestinians. Several of them were held all day at the border, including a sad-faced woman in late middle age. The Israelis regarded her with open disdain. Her demeanour made me wonder if she had a funeral to go to. At one point she begged, and when she was finally allowed through she asked God to bless her tormentors.

Suheir was asked this question: Why did your father leave? A survey of the others on the bench established that it’s a routine question for Palestinians from the lands occupied in 1948. Of course, you won’t get through if you tell the truth: He left because he was driven out at gunpoint, because his sister was terrified of being molested, because there had been a massacre in the town, because he feared for his life. That won’t work. So for the purposes of the crossing, the correct answer is: I don’t know. He died, and I never asked. Or perhaps, He left because this place was a desert before you came; he wanted to live somewhere more civilised.

Your visit must begin with a lie.

For us internationals with our semi-official backing, it was a difficult entry, but not a forced entry. Obviously not. At the many borders the Israelis have constructed I surprised myself with my capacity for calm, good grace and repartee. I worried beforehand that I would find it impossible to remain polite, but the reality is something different. My aim was to pass, to enter, and I played my role to make the entry smooth.

And all this talk of entry, difficult and forced, reminds me of the Arabic word used to describe assaulted Palestine and its hundreds of bulldozed villages: al-mughtusiba, which means both ‘usurped’ and ‘raped’. The alleys of the Azzeh camp in Bethlehem, for instance, have wall signs announcing their names, which are the names of the villages the refugees fled. I took a photo of one which reads: Al-Menshiyeh, two kilometres north east of Akka (Acre), population 810, occupied and raped 14/5/1948.

Obama (who I will call Osama since his ‘clash of civilisations’ Cairo speech), and the proponents of normalisation, forgetting and ‘balance’, believe that peace will be achieved when raper and rapist are taught to smile into each other’s eyes. I disagree. I believe the rape should be stopped, and the Zionist borders – between Jordan and Palestine, between the villages and towns in Palestine, between 1948 Palestine and 1967 Palestine, between a farmer and his land, as well as the borders in the minds of Israeli Jews which produce these physical manifestations – should be torn down.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

From Vanunu to the New Jew

I cannot keep silent … Disaster follows disaster; the land lies in ruins … My people are fools; they do not know me.” Jeremiah 4:19

Mordechai Vanunu is a Moroccan Jew, born in Marrakesh. Today he credits his humanity to having been born in an Arab country rather than in the Jewish state. He was nine when he was taken to Israel. He attended an ultra orthodox school, and after his military service became a nuclear technician at the Dimona plant. At this time his anti-Zionist politics developed. Later he flirted with Buddhism, converted to Christianity, and in London in 1986 told the Sunday Times what he knew of Israel’s nuclear weapons programme, backing his claims with photographic evidence.

He was then caught in a ‘honey trap’, lured by a beautiful woman from London to Italy, drugged and kidnapped in Rome by Mossad (with the connivance of British, French and Italian intelligence services), and brought back to Israel, where he served 18 years in prison for his truth-telling, twelve of them in solitary confinement. He says he survived because of his strong will (“the first thing I did in prison was give up smoking”), and by playing opera records. He refused to converse with the only human beings available – his guards. His lawyer describes him as “the most stubborn, principled, and tough person I have ever met.”

Out of prison, Vanunu is still imprisoned, forbidden to leave the state he so loathes, and not allowed to meet or even email foreigners. When I and several other foreigners met him in an east Jerusalem restaurant, I asked him, “Can I say we’ve met you? Will you get in trouble?” He thrust his arm skyward in a very Moroccan way: “Yes! Yes, I will have trouble. I don’t care about trouble. Let them make trouble!”

This was the end of an incredibly emotional week. I was physically and mentally exhausted from late nights, early mornings, and the slow absorption of what I was experiencing. I’d been weeping in the streets on a couple of occasions, and I’m not a particularly weepy kind of guy. Tonight our final Palfest event, at the Palestine National Theatre, had been closed down by Israeli troops, we’d relocated to read at the British Council garden, and then we’d eaten and danced. And another early start tomorrow – but Vanunu was across the table. Like everything else during my visit to occupied Palestine, meeting Vanunu was an experience worth being awake for.

I ordered another Taybeh beer and we started talking. Before long I was sitting next to him, putting my arm around his shoulders and telling him I wished I could have held his hand during those years when he was alone.

Vanunu is a proud Christian. His discourse is unrelentingly harsh on ‘the Jewish’, for their opposition to democracy, their brutality, their lack of humanity. Gently, indirectly, I hinted he might be wrong to generalise so. I mentioned Ilan Pappe and the Neturei Karta – fine examples, secular and religious, of Jewish opposition to Zionism. Next to us was a French Jew, a very intelligent academic, who had earlier said the obvious very clearly: Zionism has to be defeated, by force if necessary.

Vanunu liked the people I mentioned, but still didn’t like ‘the Jewish’. In awe of the man’s suffering, knowing that he has been tortured by the self-proclaimed Jewish state, I didn’t argue further.

It made me consider the tragedy of this people, the Israeli Jews, who have driven themselves into such a dark corner. The notable exceptions – people like Amira Hass, Gideon Levy, Jeff Halper – really are exceptions; and then there are the rest, over 90%, who support Israel’s right to be an ethno-state on the ruins of the pluralistic, ancient society that was here before, and who believe regular massacres of Arabs to be necessary.

I didn’t visit the theatre in Tel Aviv or have dinner in Ashkelon, so I don’t claim to be an Israel expert; but what I saw of the Israeli Jews in east Jerusalem, and manning the checkpoints in the West Bank, was quite unlike what I’ve seen of Jews elsewhere. These people were ugly, physically speaking. The Jews are not renowned for ugliness. But these people looked like oppressors, and they looked like oppressors who know what they are.

Vanunu refuses to speak Hebrew. He lives alone, in east Jerusalem. Israeli Jewish society considers him a traitor. Only one member of his large family will speak to him. The Palestinians are friendly to him and often invite him into their homes, but he politely refuses, explaining that he can’t tell who is a collaborator and who isn’t. He knows the state is following him, and he knows there are many Palestinians who – for money or drugs or to keep the silence of a blackmailer – help the state. What he does all day, every day, is walk – “from the checkpoint to the wall, from the wall to the checkpoint.”

Suheir Hammad told me it took her several visits to Palestine before she summoned enough courage to visit her family’s town, Lydda, one of the towns ethnically cleansed in 1948. But once in Israel proper she relaxed a little. When she saw how badly Israeli Jews treat each other, it became less personal. For they too are suffering: you can’t be happy when you torture others, not really happy. Wifebeaters may look happy in the pub, but they aren’t. According to a British Pakistani friend, someone who worked at a West Bank university and spent plenty of time in Tel Aviv, the only glue holding Israeli Jews together is their hatred of the natives. His argument is repeated by Eva Figes, whose ‘Journey to Nowhere’ I’ve just read. This compulsive memoir of a German Jewish family’s forced migration to London is eloquent in its denunciation of Zionism, and also of American pro-Zionist but anti-Jewish immigration policy following World War Two. The family’s housemaid Edith, a survivor of Nazi Berlin, spends a decade in Palestine-Israel before coming to London. Why had she left? Because in Israel, “everyone hates everyone else.”

Eva Figes writes: “The New Jew looked like someone out of a Leni Riefenstahl film, handsome in a Hellenic sort of way. The New Jew struck out first, was secretly ashamed of those who had allowed themselves to be killed without a struggle, and so rejected them, even though using them for his own political ends. The ideals of the New Jew who set out to create Israel after the war were remarkably similar to his mirror image, the old Nazi. Not a good omen for the future.

Deborah Moggach and Sousan Hammad write about Palfest here.

Jeremy Harding writes about the workshop he and I ran at Bir Zeit here.

Jeremy's LRB diary piece on the wall and the web is here, and another one on cultural liberation is here.

At the end of this post there are links to four of my photo albums from Palestine.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Suheir Hammad

Suheir Hammad is one of the Palfest participants who deserves a post to herself. A Palestinian-American, Suheir was born to refugee parents in Amman. She spent her first years in civil war Beirut before moving to Brooklyn, where drugs and gang wars raged. She is a poet, prosewriter and actress. Her poetry erases any distance between the personal and political, and is humane, passionate and particular. Greatly influenced in its rhythm, diction and pacing by New York hip hop, it fits snugly into the tradition of Palestinian oral delivery exemplified by the late poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Suheir stars in the film Salt of this Sea, but it is surely time someone directed her in a poetry performance DVD. You have to hear her read to really appreciate what she does. A good place to start is the poem First Writing Since, which concerns 9/11. Here is We Spend the Fourth of July in Bed. And one for Rachel Corrie. Here is part one and part two of an al-Jazeera International interview, and here she is reading for Palfest in Ramallah. I hope the Palfest film-makers have more to come. The most powerful part of her reading in Ramallah – powerful enough to bring the audience to tears – was her series of poems for Gaza.

Jeremy Harding describes Suheir as "a younger, image-conscious, thoughtful militant for Palestine, one of a new generation who do the writing, while the Israelis oblige by extending the wall."

Ali Abunimah on Obama's Lecture

Personally, I found it unpleasant to see Obama lecturing the Arabs, and the handpicked audience clapping as ecstatically as trained apes whenever the President (rather like Napoleon in Cairo) made an Islamic allusion. No matter that he said 'hajib' intead of 'hijab'. Most depressingly, Obama’s address was heavily influenced by the Bernard Lewis school of Orientalism – Arab and Muslim anger is caused by the cultural trauma of modernity and a “self-defeating focus on the past,” rather than by very present realities, such as the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the destabilisation of Pakistan and Somalia, the unwelcome military bases in the Muslim world, and the support of dictatorial regimes such as Mubarak’s. Obama’s assumptions repeated falsities, such as the notion that Arab regimes focus on Palestine to distract the people from their own failings. In fact the Arab regimes do everything they can to take the focus off Palestine, as the Palestinian tragedy is the key symbol of the bankruptcy of the client regimes. And Obama mocked violent resistance while not saying a word about the 1400 just killed in Gaza or the million slaughtered in Iraq.

The best response I've seen to the speech is by Ali Abunimah, who studies Obama’s phrases well: “Suffered in pursuit of a homeland? The pain of dislocation? They already had a homeland. They suffered from being ethnically cleansed and dispossessed of it and prevented from returning on the grounds that they are from the wrong ethno-national group. Why is that still so hard to say?” Ali goes on:

Once you strip away the mujamalat – the courtesies exchanged between guest and host – the substance of
President Obama’s speech in Cairo indicates there is likely to be little real change in US policy. It is not necessary to divine Obama’s intentions – he may be utterly sincere and I believe he is. It is his analysis and prescriptions that in most regards maintain flawed American policies intact.

Though he pledged to “speak the truth as best I can”, there was much the president left out. He spoke of tension between “America and Islam” – the former a concrete specific place, the latter a vague construct subsuming peoples, practices, histories and countries more varied than similar.

Labelling America’s “other” as a nebulous and all-encompassing “Islam” (even while professing rapprochement and respect) is a way to avoid acknowledging what does in fact unite and mobilise people across many Muslim-majority countries: overwhelming popular opposition to increasingly intrusive and violent American military, political and economic interventions in many of those countries. This opposition – and the resistance it generates – has now become for supporters of those interventions, synonymous with “Islam”.

It was disappointing that Obama recycled his predecessor’s notion that “violent extremism” exists in a vacuum, unrelated to America’s (and its proxies’) exponentially greater use of violence before and after September 11, 2001. He dwelled on the “enormous trauma” done to the US when almost 3,000 people were killed that day, but spoke not one word about the hundreds of thousands of orphans and widows left in Iraq – those whom Muntazer al-Zaidi’s flying shoe forced Americans to remember only for a few seconds last year. He ignored the dozens of civilians who die each week in the “necessary” war in Afghanistan, or the millions of refugees fleeing the US-invoked escalation in Pakistan.

As President George Bush often did, Obama affirmed that it is only a violent minority that besmirches the name of a vast and “peaceful” Muslim majority. But he seemed once again to implicate all Muslims as suspect when he warned, “The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer.”

Nowhere were these blindspots more apparent than his statements about Palestine/Israel. He gave his audience a detailed lesson on the Holocaust and explicitly used it as a justification for the creation of Israel. “It is also undeniable,” the president said, “that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation.”

Suffered in pursuit of a homeland? The pain of dislocation? They already had a homeland. They suffered from being ethnically cleansed and dispossessed of it and prevented from returning on the grounds that they are from the wrong ethno-national group. Why is that still so hard to say?

He lectured Palestinians that “resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed”. He warned them that “It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.”

Fair enough, but did Obama really imagine that such words would impress an Arab public that watched in horror as Israel slaughtered 1,400 people in Gaza last winter, including hundreds of sleeping, fleeing or terrified children, with American-supplied weapons? Did he think his listeners would not remember that the number of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians targeted and killed by Israel has always far exceeded by orders of magnitude the number of Israelis killed by Arabs precisely because of the American arms he has pledged to continue giving Israel with no accountability? Amnesty International recently confirmed what Palestinians long knew: Israel broke the negotiated ceasefire when it attacked Gaza last November 4, prompting retaliatory rockets that killed no Israelis until after Israel launched its much bigger attack on Gaza. That he continues to remain silent about what happened in Gaza, and refuses to hold Israel accountable demonstrates anything but a commitment to full truth-telling.

Some people are prepared to give Obama a pass for all this because he is at last talking tough on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. In Cairo, he said: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”
These carefully chosen words focus only on continued construction, not on the existence of the settlements themselves; they are entirely compatible with the peace process industry consensus that existing settlements will remain where they are for ever. This raises the question of where Obama thinks he is going. He summarised Palestinians’ “legitimate aspirations” as being the establishment of a “state”. This has become a convenient slogan to that is supposed to replace for Palestinians their pursuit of rights and justice that the proposed state actually denies. Obama is already on record opposing Palestinian refugees’ right to return home, and has never supported the right of Palestinian citizens of Israel to live free from racist and religious incitement, persecution and practices fanned by Israel’s highest office holders and written into its laws.

He may have more determination than his predecessor but he remains committed to an unworkable two-state “vision” aimed not at restoring Palestinian rights, but preserving Israel as an enclave of Israeli Jewish privilege. It is a dead end.

There was one sentence in his speech I cheered for and which he should heed: “Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.”

• Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country, A Bold Proposal to end the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.

Editor’s note, 5 June 2009: This article originally included a sentence saying “the last suicide attack targeting civilians by a Palestinian occurred in 2004″. This was incorrect and Ali Abunimah posted a clarification here in the discussion thread.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Visit Palestine

I have just returned from a physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting week in Palestine. I was a participant in Palfest 09, the second Palestine Festival of Literature. It was a great honour to be in the company of writers like Michael Palin and Debborah Moggach, and Claire Messud, MG Vassanji, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Ahdaf Soueif and Jamal Mahjoub, the lawyer for Guantanamo Bay prisoners Ahmad Ghappour, Palestinian poets Suheir Hammad and Nathalie Handal, and all the others. I’ll do a post at some point on everybody there. It was an even greater honour to meet Palestinian academics, students, and people on the streets and in the camps, to witness their incredible resilience and creative intelligence. Something fearless in them slipped into me, and gave me optimism. A people like this can not be kept down indefinitely.

They will stand up, even if I can’t tell how they possibly can. What I saw in Palestine confirmed me in my belief that a two-state solution is impossible, but also made me very pessimistic about the only real solution, the one-state solution – such is the level of Zionist hatred and arrogance, so deeply entrenched is Zionist settlement on the landscape and Zionist assumptions in the minds of Israeli Jews.

There was inspiration and conversation. There were great meals. At one I harangued Mahmoud Abbas’s chief of staff (Rafik Husseini took it like the gentleman he clearly is), and at another I was talking to the heroic Mordechai Vanunu. There was a walk in the beautiful, Zionist-vandalised hills outside Ramallah, in a thin gap of olive trees between the thick scars of occupation. There was even dancing. But there was weeping too. For me, two afternoons of weeping, in the Aida camp in Bethlehem and in the old city of Hebron/ al-Khalil. And I’m not such a weepy person. I will write about all of this in the coming weeks.

What I can tell you in brief is that the tragedy is much worse than we imagine. I didn’t learn anything new in terms of the facts. I’d already seen videos of the brutal settlers of Hebron. I knew already that most Palestinian children need psychological treatment because their homes are fired on from snipers in the panopticon towers which shadow villages and camp alleyways, because they’ve had their front doors kicked in at night and seen their fathers beaten and dragged away. But to see it with your own eyes, to experience the humiliation of the checkpoints and the walls yourself, to be held for five hours at the border, to breathe the air of oppression – this is very different from what my happy imagination could produce.

I’ve been fascinated by Palestine for 25 years. My aunt’s house in Beirut was destroyed by Zionist planes. I have a Palestinian brother-in-law, and I don’t know how many wonderful Palestinian friends. I’ve read books and articles, I’ve listened to music, I’ve watched films, I’ve written about it. But this was my first visit. I always said I wouldn’t go unless I had a real reason to go, unless I would be doing some good. Plus as a Syrian (although my only passport is British) I’m not allowed to go. Yet I think I was wrong to wait so long. The Palestinians need our solidarity, and we need to see what is being done on the eastern Mediterranean with the support of our media, governments and money. Therefore I would advise everybody to visit Palestine. Not only because it is worthy to do so, but also because visiting Palestine is a fascinating, inspiring, unforgettable experience.

There are organisations which can arrange tours of West Bank towns and meetings with Palestinian NGOs, teachers, and ordinary people. Organisations suggested to me by American Christians in Hebron include Jeff Halper’s Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, the Friends of Sabeel, and the Christian Peacemaker Teams. I’m sure there are many more.

The first and last nights of the Festival were supposed to have happened at the Palestinian National Theatre in Jerusalem, but on both occasions heavily armed Israelis closed the theatre and forced people out. Here’s the Guardian report on the the first night, and here’s Karl Sabbagh’s letter to the Guardian:

I was at the opening of the Palestine literary festival in Jerusalem on Saturday night, when heavily armed police pushed their way into the midst of talks by Michael Palin, Deborah Moggach, and Henning Mankell, along with many of their readers from Palestine, Israel and elsewhere. The police had come to close the festival down, and in another PR debacle of the type for which Israel is becoming famous, their clumsy actions drew far more attention to Israel's oppression of the Palestinians than if they'd allowed the event to continue.

The sight of the expelled participants and audience as we filed down East Jerusalem's main street, some people carrying dishes of canapes, to the new and hastily organised venue at the French Cultural Institute might have seemed merely odd or amusing. In fact, it was a vivid reminder of Israel's fear of anything which might suggest that Palestinians are as cultured, civilised and deserving of respect as their Israeli neighbours.

Karl Sabbagh.

Much more to come.

Click here to see my photo album of people.

Click here to see my photo album of walls.

Click here to see my photo album of al-Khalil/ Hebron.

Click here to see my photo album of Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Please read the captions.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Muslim Writer

Something for the Muslim Writers Awards:

Am I a Muslim writer? American Jews and Russian Christians are what I read when I write. I like Syrian poets and Egyptian novelists too, but it would be difficult to argue that Nizar Qabbani is more ‘Muslim’ than he is ‘Arab’ or ‘Modernist’.

Is Islam a defining part of my personality? To be honest, it depends on the year. And what determines Muslim belonging anyway? Geography? Ideology? Linguistics? Surely not skin colour. Should Muslim writing be halal, and avoid beer and heresy? Should it intend to prevent vice and promote virtue? – if so, late Tolstoy was a Muslim writer.

It happens that my novel discusses tawheed, and that its most balanced character is a prayerful Muslim who wears hijab. I used the ideas and characters I found before me. But if I set my next novel amongst anarchist philosophers in the Ukraine, will I still be doing Muslim writing? It’s problematic, certainly.

I suppose if you can have Black writing and Gay writing and London writing you can have Muslim writing too. The label, like any other, is limiting if it’s used as a box, but liberating if we use it as a springboard. The point is, that as Muslims in Britain, many fictions are being written about us. Many are presented as fact. The Muslim label already looms large in the cultural imagination, and is skilfully brought into play by everyone from Martin Amis to Madonna. So we should write back. We – and I mean nothing more definite by ‘we’ than those who share a few key Islamic references, who don’t see Islam as foreign – have a million tales to tell. In Britain we are immigrants and natives, black and white and brown, rich and poor, taraweeh-praying and whisky-swilling, and mixtures of the above. For us to be heard in our variety is important, because heard voices empower. Voices heard through novels also work against ignorance, because novels, unlike the BBC, humanise. They deal in characters instead of abstractions, and raise questions, and so provide the human texture which the most well-intentioned news media cannot.

As Muslims in a non-Muslim or even Islamophobic society, I think we have something especially strong to contribute. We possess not only a fresh stock of stories and a range of new cultural forms, but also the enriched perspective and impatience with assumption that otherness and in-betweenness give you. To see all lands as foreign, through the eyes of a musafir – there is something in this which Islam and novel-writing share.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Syria's Tolstoy

A book review for the Guardian:

Syria, more than most, is a land of stories and storytellers. The farmers and shopkeepers describe early Islamic battles or episodes from the Crusades as if they’d attended in person. A gathering of friends is quickly elevated into group performance of jokes, laments, myths, and conspiracies. Even the Syrians’ surnames suggest stories: there are families called The-Milk’s-Boiled, Sip-The-Yoghurt, and Undone-Belt. “The deeper you swim into our stories,” a village rhetorician once told me, “the more you understand that they have no floor.”

Yet Syria is better known for its poets, and its TV dramas, than for its novelists. Egypt, with its unending metropolis, is the home of the Arabic novel, and Egypt produced the Arabs’ master of fiction, Naguib Mahfouz. But a flame equally bright now burns from Damascus, via Germany. Here is the Great Syrian Novel, and its author Rafik Schami.

In “The Dark Side of Love” Schami exploits all the resources of the classic realist novel and then goes a little further, forging a new form out of Syrian orality. His basic unit is not chapter or paragraph, but story; a thousand bejewelled anecdotes and tales are buried here, ready to spring, but each is sculpted with such dazzling surety into the whole that reading the book is always compulsive. In its final, self-exposing passage, Schami compares his method to mosaic work, in which every shiny object is a beauty of itself, yet which in combination, at a distance, reveal a still greater beauty. The novel is even Tolstoyan in its marrying of the personal, social and political spheres, of private with national life.

It starts with an unsolved murder. “Knowledge is a lock,” says a policeman, “and the key to it is a question, but we’re not allowed to ask questions in this country…which is why there isn’t a single good crime novel in Syria. Crime novels feed on questions.”

Commissioner Barudi dares to ask. The answer is an epic of violent enmity between families, and between clashing ideas of love. The first idea is easily stated: “Love in Arabia depends more on what your identity card says than the feelings of your heart.”

‘Identity card’ means religion and sect and, more fundamentally, the all-powerful clan – that haven of solidarity and comfort which “saved the Arabs from the desert, and at the same time enslaved them.” In the mountain village of Mala, the Catholic Mushtaks and the Orthodox Shahins feud and kill for honour and revenge. In nearby Damascus, Farid Mushtak and Rana Shahin prefer the approach of Syria’s greatest Sufi saint, Ibn Arabi, who cried, “Love is my religion!” Like Romeo and Juliette, or Majnun and Laila, Farid and Rana’s romance shines secretly, ill-fatedly. It is a compelling and complete love story.

Schami’s Mala is on a par with Marquez’s Macondo for colour and resonance, although nothing more magical than real life happens here – only seductions and insanities, a visit by a dangerously drunk president, a peasant uprising, a bandit siege.

Damascus, “a lost luggage office” refined and trampled by 40 civilisations over 8,000 years, is experienced through its cafes, hammams and family homes, its puppet shows, Eid festivals, and hunger riots, via the underground press, a boxing match, and a brothel. The canvas is vast and closely painted. It feels encyclopedic, in psychological observation as well as social breadth.

There are no faux-magical pyrotechnics in the telling, but richly detailed characters working through real situations, characters whose inherited wounds the reader comes to care deeply about. Each is vividly drawn, with quiet and acute intelligence. The patriarch George Mushtak is an elemental force. So too is his philandering, repenting son, Elias. Farid, who we know best of all, grows by enduring a tyrannous father, Israeli bombs, and a ‘political’ prison camp.

“The Dark Side of Love” is a fiction which accurately (if selectively) documents Syrian social history. Its sweep reaches from 1907 to 1970, through the French occupation, the chaotic coup years, the rise of the Ba’ath, and the disastrous June war. Farid and Rana swim on the great currents of 20th Century Syrian thought – Communism, feminism, nationalism, Islamism – and witness the poisoning of the waters. Farid’s torture scenes are painfully, brilliantly narrated. Relations between Christians, Jews and Muslims, between the countryside and the city, between men and women, and between political factions, are explored with subtlety and honesty.

It is translated very well from the German, although annoying Germanic orthography remains – so that Yusuf is written ‘Jusuf’ and the Damascus quarter Muhajireen becomes ‘Muhayirin’. And perhaps a glossary of dictators’ names would have been useful. Schami disguises the actual characters with names whose comic impact will be lost on those who don’t speak Arabic. Abdul Nasser, for instance, is called Satlan, which means ‘stoned’.

The weakest part of the book is its title. “The Dark Side of Love” illumines almost every side of love, as well as fear, longing, cruelty and lust. Darkness and light alternate like the basalt and marble stripes on Damascene walls, and the novel’s structure is as strong. A book like this requires a less limiting title. I suggest something as expansive, as comprehensive, as ‘War and Peace’.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Rant against Hypocrisy

I don’t quite know why, but hypocrisy is the element in political discourse which catalyses my most murderous responses. Perhaps it’s because I like language, or respect it, and believe it shouldn’t be raped.

I remember Tony Blair making a speech in Gaza in November 2001. This is when I realised for certain that he was not a mere fool but a dangerous and filthy murderer. Away from the hall and its selected attendees, for the visiting dignitary’s comfort, a demonstration against British Zionism was being violently suppressed. And at that very moment British warplanes were ravaging Afghan villages. And Blair lectured his audience, representatives of those who’d been hounded and attacked for six decades, in the following terms: What you people must understand, he squeaked, is that no cause, however just you think it may be, justifies violence. Not a flicker of irony nor a trace of self-doubt wrinkled his ugly face.

Let me be clear about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He is the president of a state which has achieved a mild but relatively remarkable degree of economic independence, and which leads a principled opposition to imperialism in the region. Compared with its neighbours, it is prosperous and free. But the Islamic Republic also interferes in its citizens’ personal business by trying to enforce dress codes and the like. Its rate of judicial murder is higher even than America’s. Corruption is endemic, as it is almost everywhere, and hypocrisy bedevils the religious establishment as much as it does politicians in the West. Ahmadinejad is a populist demagogue in the mode of Berlusconi or Jack Straw; his function is to distract from his regime’s failures by means of a grandiose and imprecise rhetoric. This means he often ends up with his foot in his mouth. “We don’t have homosexuals like in your country,” he informed Columbia University, “We don’t have this phenomenon.” He may or may not have meant that Iran has a different cultural approach to sexual categories, and his claim was certainly no less absurd than the university president’s claim that Ahmadinejad was a “dictator”, but his words were clumsy at very best. It almost seemed that he’d made a deal with Fox News to play the oriental buffoon. Ahmadinejad often doesn’t seem very clever. Iran is a clever country full of clever people, and it deserves better.

In a 2006 interview with Der Spiegel, Ahmadinejad said, “..there are two opinions .. in Europe. One group of scholars or persons, most of them politically motivated, say the Holocaust occurred. Then there is the group of scholars who represent the opposite position and have therefore been imprisoned for the most part.” This may or may not be outright Holocaust denial, but it looks very much like it, and his comments occasioned criticism from within the Iranian establishment, including from the Supreme Leader. The two-fingers aspect of such flourishes goes down well with some less thoughtful Muslims; the glee of it is in trampling the Western taboo. But it remains ignorant and offensive. It’s particularly offensive to the memory of those Jews slaughtered by fascism who were not Zionists – the majority – people slaughtered not for any political crime but because Hitler thought they were Semites and therefore subhuman. It’s personally offensive to such children of Holocaust survivors as Norman Finkelstein, who has done so much to oppose Zionism. Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial, or near-denial, wounds the Palestinian cause because it fails to understand the larger structure of European racism which permitted both the Holocaust and the Nakba. And it plays into the hands of Zionists who shout, “these filthy Semites hate us because they are anti-Semitic.” This obscures the truth, which is simple: We don’t hate them for their race, and only a hysterical few of us hate them for their religion. We hate them – from a deep and blackly bubbling well – because they are thieves and murderers and racists and liars. A Zionist is a Zionist, whether he’s a Jew like Olmert or a WASP like Bush. And some of the greatest, most heroic enemies of Zionism are Jews, people like Ilan Pappe, Jeff Halper, Israel Shahak, the Neturei Karta, Philip Weiss.

Yet we must also remember that Ahmadinejad has been slandered, mistranslated and misrepresented. He is not a puppet tyrant in the Mubarak mould but a democratically elected leader who exercises his powers according to a constitution. Of course, Iranian democracy is by no means perfect; it is formally limited by the Council of Guardians, just as American democracy is formally limited by the corporations. But Iran is certainly more democratic than Israel, a state which allows the full benefits of citizenship to only half of the people under its rule. When Ahmadinejad quoted Khomeini’s opinion that “the regime occupying Jerusalem would be wiped from the page of history” – an event any decent human being should hope for – he was interpreted as calling for the genocide of Israeli Jews. The neo-cons also had a field day with their entirely false story about Nazi-style yellow badges to be worn by Iran’s Jews. The real blood-and-soil racists amused themselves by inventing Persian Hitlers.

When considering Ahmadinejad’s spirited comments on Israel we must remember not only the disgust an informed person feels over the theft of Palestine but also that the Zionist state has nuclear missiles targetted at Iran, a country which has not attacked anyone in 300 years. We must remember too that Zionism has recently helped engineer the destruction of Iran’s western neighbour.

In any case, in his speech to the Durban Review Conference on Racism, Ahmadinejad seemed to have learnt his lesson. Perhaps mindful of the hadeeth “A true jihad is a word of truth spoken before an unjust ruler,” he steered clear of Holocaust denial and argued instead that Jewish suffering had been used as a pretext for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the establishment of an apartheid state. And this is the plain unvarnished truth. Because how can Germany’s murder of six million Jews possibly justify the dispossession of the ancient Canaanite-Arab Palestinian people, the descendants of the Biblical patriarchs? It can’t. No more than the legacy of trans-Atlantic slavery can justify the creation of a blacks-only state in Finland. No more than the Holocaust and continuing persecution of the Gypsies justifies the establishment of Gypsy rule over the people of France. Should the poor Tutsis be granted Belgium, and the Belgians driven into camps, and massacred? I’m not talking about Tutsi immigration to Belgium, or even the founding of a Tutsi defence force in the country. I have no problem with that, and I have no problem with Jewish immigration to Palestine. I have a problem with Tutsis expelling Belgians from Belgium.

The examples above seem immediately absurd, but the Palestinian case, to many in the West, doesn’t. I wonder why? But I don’t wonder very much. Finland, France and Belgium are white European countries with advanced capitalist economies. The Palestinians, on the other hand, are not proper human beings. They are brown people, Arabs, Muslims, people of the South. That’s why. It’s only recently that the official West has accepted that Palestinians even exist.

Ahmadinejad called Israel a racist state. This view is considered controversial or, according to an American spokesman, “hateful.” But Israel was created by an act of massive ethnic cleansing. That means murdering and expelling on the grounds of ethnicity, of race, of religion. Today Israel’s absurdly-named Law of Return allows automatic citizenship to anyone of Jewish origin anywhere. Meanwhile millions of Palestinian refugees are refused the genuine return which is their legal and moral right. Those Palestinians who currently hold Israeli passports (but not for much longer if Israel’s fascist foreign minister has his way) are concentrated in deprived zones, intimidated, kept out of all coalition governments by Jewish agreement, and their houses demolished. Recently an Israeli Jewish policeman was given six months community service for shooting dead an unarmed Palestinian Israeli. Israel also rules over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who have voting rights only to a non-existent ‘authority’, who are concentrated in refugee camps and townships, who are forbidden to travel on Jews-only roads, who are trapped by walls, whose drinking taps run dry while the Jews on the hilltops keep their swimming pools topped up, whose schools are closed, whose hospitals bombed, whose mothers die in labour at checkpoints, whose children’s brains can’t grow for the micronutrient deficiencies deliberately planned by the siege.

If Israel is not a racist state, if Zionism is not a racist ideology, then I do not speak English.

A gaggle of white delegates walked out during Ahmadinejad’s speech. Britain’s envoy pigeon-toed it from the hall wearing an inbred public-school jowliness which he perhaps thought was manly. One genitally-challenged weasel took the revolutionary action of shaking his fist in the President’s direction, for all the world as if his fist and all its blood and hypocrisy were not, like the rest of him, too obscene to be put on public show.

The countries which walked out, or refused to attend, are Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, the UK, the US, and the Zionist terror state. Half of these states were founded on genocide, and the rest have been guilty of it. All are complicit in the six-decade-long ethnic cleansing of Palestine – the actual, not imagined, destruction of a nation. The self-righteous hypocrisy of these criminals is nauseating.

None of them walk out of speeches by their mass-murdering darling Shimon Peres. All of them will shake Avigdor Lieberman’s repulsive hand. Their response to the massacre in Gaza was to help Israel tighten the seige. And it is no surprise that Israeli war crimes strike them as morally correct, for they themselves have committed enormities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The outrage expressed by the criminals and drones who walked away from Ahmadinejad’s speech is proof, if proof were needed, of the hopeless racism of our world system, and proof too that the system will fall. How long can the earth be ruled by people who rape their own languages? What human depth or stability is there in a discourse founded on dishonesty? These are people who maim, starve and kill in the name of human rights, who bolster apartheid in the name of anti-racism. Changez Khan and Attila were a league ahead in civilisational terms, and so too is Mahmoud Amadinejad.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Writer Talk

Notes for a talk to the Dumfries Writers Group tonight. It’s pretty narcissistic, but narcissism is what I do. I’ll also talk about the practicalities of finding an agent and a publisher, and about blogging.

Where does the urge to write come from?

It comes from the fear of death. From where all human effort beyond eating comes from. Maybe eating too. But the fear of death is only one way to say it. Writing is the attempt to control what can’t be controlled, to impose pattern on confusion, to battle time by recording it, to immortalise thought and sensation, and so to make them sacred. A vain but very human enterprise.

The film director Werner Herzog said, “I believe you can discover a very deep, ecstatic truth by fabricating.” I’m not sure what this means, but I’m sure I agree with it.

Also, for me, fabrication is a channel for passion which might otherwise express itself as anger.

But to be more specific, about my own case: I returned to Oman from Sri Lanka with tropical bacteria eating their way up my leg. I was hospitalised for two weeks. The leg was nearly amputated.

While I was lying there, reading Bellow’s Augie March, worrying about my rotting body, about death, I decided to start writing. Just to write. I’d always wanted to be a writer, because I’d grown up with the idea, probably learnt from my grandfather, that writers were the most valid type of human being, most worthy of fame and respect, the most honest, the ones who see most clearly. The ones who win immortality. Proper Writers.

But I’d never written. Not in a sustained way. So I started, and discovered something remarkable: a writer is someone who writes.

It is. You see, I’d thought a writer was a culture hero. I’d dreamt about being rather than about doing. Dreaming about being a writer but not being one made me very depressed, with the insignificance of my job and with my life in general. Once I started doing the writing, however, I became much happier. Writing became an action, a process, and no longer an impossible ideal. The glory of it is the constant engagement and struggle, not the book in the shop window. The book in the shop window was actually something of an anti-climax, although I remember an hour-long drugs-free cocaine rush on the hot pavements of Souq al-Khoud the night my agent called to say she’d sold the novel.

To make a novel you need characters and you need a journey, because the human Ur-plot is a journey – of departure, initiation, and return. This is how we understood life when we were hunter gatherers, and this is how we understand our lives now.

The journey can be enacted on any scale. It could be: depart to the pub, argue with girlfriend, return home changed. It could be depart up the Congo, see the heart of darkness, return home with wiser eyes.

Plot – the mechanics of the journey – arises from conflict, and from the character itself. “Character is plot,” F. Scott Fitzgerald said. The conflict could be between characters, or within the heart of a character, or between the character and some greater power.

When I started I had two characters, a man and a woman. They had no distinctive features, no history, no identity. But they came into focus as I worked. It seemed the more I wrote the more I uncovered them and their story. As if it was all pre-existent, and I just had to chip away to reveal it. Chipping away, that’s what writing is like. A struggle to chip away at your own limitations and blindnesses, at the layers of clichĂ© and received thinking built up inside.

In my novel the conflict is between the main protagonist and his wife, and between the protagonist’s parents, and between atheism and Islam. The protagonist’s journey is from belief in atheist and nationalist myths towards an Islamically-tinged agnosticism, from denying and ignoring an unwelcome piece of information towards accepting and digesting it, and from being a bad human being towards being a better one. The novel is also in some very partial way a glimpse of the world’s journey towards September 11th and what followed. In some novels, the world is a very important character.

It is amazing to watch your words slip your conscious control and take on their own life. I belatedly discovered I had written about some of my own life issues, without planning to. For instance, I was a teacher (a good teacher), and the novel is filled with bad, or strange, teachers. Also some of the father stuff looks suspiciously like my relationship with my father, although mine is a very different character. And it’s astonishing to see the characters behave according to their own logic, and not yours. Whenever I bent the characters to my will I failed. It would have been a better novel if I’d allowed them more freedom.

Do I enjoy writing? Not so much enjoy as thereby feel justified in existing. I have bad justification anxiety. When I’m not writing I worry: what’s the point of me? or What’s the point of the universe? Or more positively, I sense that the universe, and my chance to glimpse it, has a point, but the chance is passing me by. I am wasting my time. It is all waste – until I start writing. Writing helps me to stay awake, to notice, to engage. Perhaps I feel I cheat time by recording it. Otherwise, I can’t explain why it’s good, other than to say that writing like praying is beneficial to my mental health. And the exhilaration that you experience when you write a good sentence is like nothing else. The whole process is wonderful. Except when it hurts. When you write a bad sentence, or chapter, or book, or when you fail to write at all. And when it hurts it hurts as much as a wayward child. All that investment. The late nights and early mornings. The emotion. The sense of potential. When you see it going off the rails, when it reads back flat, you feel anger, terror and despair.

But more on the process: After a lot of writing – by hand – and a lot of crossing out, I could see something of a structure. Structure was the product of a million tiny decisions rather than the imposition of a single decision from above. I did a year of part-time writing before I saw a novel in it. Then I moved to the computer (always keeping a pen nearby to work through knots) and started laying it out chapter by chapter. Within each chapter, I worked scene by scene. The writing became much easier at that stage.

Editing is a difficult stage, or at least a different stage. It doesn’t have the same flow to it as writing on a blank page, but it can be very stimulating. I did most of the editing when I still had three chapters to write. Or to complete. Surprisingly, the tension increased as I reached the end. I could see a hundred little things to do on the way, and I couldn’t relax until the job was finished.

In retrospect, I have ideas on what’s wrong with the novel, or what I would like to do differently. The first thing is, when it moves beyond the main two characters, the novel’s dominant genre is satire. And satire is the easiest thing to write. I’d like to write prose just as exciting but calmer, if you know what I mean.

Second, the last third of the book becomes very digressive. Allan Massie in the Scotsman was kind enough to call the book ‘remarkable’, but felt that it could lose fifty pages. One reason I kept those late chapters in was simply that I liked them. By the time I wrote them I’d become much more fluent and exuberant, and I was proud of myself. Another reason, more serious, was to set up belief systems to parallel the main two that concern my characters – Islam and atheism. So I have episodes to show other religions such as pyramid-scheme capitalism, reductive brain science, black nationalism and art-as-spirituality. I don’t particularly regret the structure, even if a straightforward plot movement would have sold more books. Damn, I like Thomas Pynchon as well as I like Truman Capote. But I recognise that my novel is more of a narrative than a novel, and I would like to be able to deliver a nicely tied together plot, with suspense and pay off and the rest. I’d like to understand how to do that.

Anita Sethi in the TLS also liked the book, but wrote that the style at times degenerates into ‘theoretical disquisition.’ I think this is true, and those sections and word choices look ugly to me now. For that reason I wish I’d put it in a drawer for six months after I’d finished writing.

And now for the ‘difficult second novel’, which contains at this point much more difficulty than novel.

D.H.Lawrence said this: “Publishers take no notice of a first novel. They know that nearly anybody can write one novel, if he can write at all, because it’s about himself. A second novel’s a step farther. It’s the third that counts, though...If [a novelist] can get over that ass’s bridge he’s a writer, he can go on.”

It took Nadeem Aslam a decade to write his beautiful second novel Maps for Lost Lovers. Zadie Smith, so I hear, considered getting a real job while failing to write her second. Ralph Ellison never finished his.

Here are some of my problems. Nine months ago I moved from Muscat to Castle Douglas. This change has thrown me in every direction. The time in Scotland feels like a pregnancy, and I feel that now something new is being born. Whether human child or demon I know not.

Another problem is the self-consciousness that comes with being published. I ask myself the useless questions a Proper Writer is expected to ask, like What kind of a writer am I? and What kind of writer should I be? Some questions help, but not these. Because I don’t have answers to them, I feel less qualified to write a novel now than I did five years ago. Five years ago I didn’t ask the questions.

I might have told myself that as a published Proper Writer I could now choose what to write about. This might be wrong. Perhaps I should only write about what I must. Perhaps there is no should.

In my failed attempts at a second novel I was trying to do too much, and trying to do contradictory things. I wanted to do something brisk and pared down, yet also felt I had to be flowery, like a Proper Writer. I wanted to write something concerned with memory and timelessness, but also something locked urgently into time. I wanted my setting to be both Edenic and apocalyptic. Perhaps I’ll be able to tie these contradictions into an artful tension when I’ve written a few more novels, but not yet. I’m not capable.

I wrote what seemed to be two thirds of a novel, and then started again, in the first person. That time I wrote about half a novel, whatever ‘half a novel’ means, before I came to a halt.

And come to a halt I have. It stopped being fun. The flow stopped. This has been tremendously depressing, as if the Scottish dark wasn’t enough. But I feel I am just out of the trough. I’m reading a lot, and scribbling little nonsenses in notebooks. I have a couple of ideas, which may or may not lead to products. I may skip the second novel and move directly to the third, or I may revisit the second. Maybe I’ll never achieve another finished product. But I remind myself that it doesn’t really matter: writing, like life, is a process, and it’s only the process that counts.

(Since I'm linking to reviews, you'd better read the best, by the lovely Aamer Hussein.)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Gulf Between Us

Another book review, fairly horribly edited by the Guardian. Here's the unedited version:

The Arab world’s bestselling novel of recent years has been Alaa Al Aswany’s “Yacoubian Building”, which features a gay journalist, a corrupt minister, and sexual abuse in police cells. The very grown-up film of the book has reached a huge audience. Arabic novels on sale in the Gulf discuss taboos from pre-marital romance to sectarian conflict and slavery. Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera broadcasts from Qatar, offering the Arabs a range of political debate which shames the BBC, and which would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. Satellite and the internet have effectively finished the Arab age of censorship. As for books in English, the ‘Arab World’ sections of many Gulf bookshops could be renamed ‘Harem Fantasy for Whites’, concentrating disproportionately on more or less fraudulent revelations of the “Princess” variety. So long as it sells, very nearly anything goes.

Given the new level of official Arab tolerance, it was surprising to hear that Geraldine Bedell’s “The Gulf Between Us”, a romantic comedy narrated by a middle-aged Englishwoman, had been banned from the International Festival of Literature in Dubai, and this because the novel contains a ‘gay shaikh’. Both author and publisher cried censorship, plunging the festival – Dubai’s first – into a swamp of bad publicity. Margaret Atwood cancelled her appearance.

A few days after the damage had been done, the truth came out: the book hadn’t been banned. Like many others, it was not selected in the first place. Maragaret Atwood regretted her cancellation.

The phantom censorship drama may help sales, but does a disservice to Bedell, whose novel treats the Gulf with affection and understanding. The protagonist, Annie Lester, is single parent to three unruly sons in the fictional emirate of Hawar. Annie thinks her eldest son’s wedding is the most disruption she has a right to expect, but another son has a secret to reveal, and her childhood boyfriend – now a sexy film star – has arrived at the reception. One thing leads very cleverly, with great pace, to another, until Annie’s future in the emirate, and the safety of her sons, hangs in the balance. The story unfolds in the months leading up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. The metaphorical temperature constantly rises.

Hawar (the word means ‘discussion’) is obviously based on Bahrain, with its pearl divers, Sunni-Shia tensions and barely concealed royal disputes, but is a recognisable portrait of any Gulf state: – “an affluent bubble in a cloudless sky, confected in a few decades from desert subsistence into cities, hotels and high rises.” Bedell skillfully sketches the enbubbled communities of the Gulf – Western, Arab, Asian – and their internal stratifications of class, status and tribe. She is as good on human commonalities as she is at communal distinctions.

Her treatment of attitudes to gays is balanced and accurate. Her homophobes are as likely to be Anglos as Arabs. Indeed the book’s serious theme is prejudice of all varieties, secular and religious, political and sexual, anti-Arab and anti-Western. The novel has a generosity of spirit which the allegations of censorship do not.

Most impressively, “The Gulf Between Us” offers a living breathing portrait of a family, not just the individual characters but also their continual, understated effect on each other. In considering the ramifications of each event on her sons as well as herself, Annie sounds like an entire family talking. In plot terms, her romance is nicely interwoven with her sons’ ardent adventures. The novel has stirring climaxes and endless twists, and is all gripping stuff, even if comic realism slides into genre formula towards the unconvincing end. But at its worst it’s still great escapism: light, finely-observed, funny and reflective.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Stranger to History

A book review of Aatish Taseer's “Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands” for the Guardian.

Aatish Taseer grew up in secular, pluralist India. His early influences included his mother’s Sikhism, a Christian boarding school, and He-Man cartoons. Nagging behind this cultural abundance, however, was an absence: of his estranged father, the Pakistani politician Salmaan Taseer.

The best of “Stranger to History” is the “Son’s Journey” of the subtitle: the movement towards – and away from – his father’s world. Taseer describes the embarrassment, frustration and occasional joy of meeting his father and half-siblings, and of approaching a cultural and national identity which painfully excludes him. Alternating with this story is a more generalised journey into Islam, from the Leeds suburb which produced the 7/7 bombers, through Istanbul, Damascus and Mecca, to Iran and Pakistan. On the way Taseer observes the ‘cartoon riots’, is interrogated by Iranian security officials, and watches the response in his father’s Lahore home to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. The writing is elegant and fluent throughout, the characters skillfully drawn.

In Pakistan Taseer concentrates on particularities, and here his writing is particularly good. His descriptions of rural Sind and the troubled feudal landowner he finds there are unforgettable. By depicting the homes deserted by the Hindu middle class and the crumbling shrines where Hindus and Muslims once prayed together, he makes his parents’ separation an image of the rupture of partition, one of the two great ethnic cleansings of 1947 whose effects still plague us all. For Taseer, unified, diverse India becomes a father-sized absence.

Another absence is traditional, diverse Islam. The religion, in its varied manifestations, was once “a whole system of belief, complete with ideas of politics, law and behaviour.” What we see now, whether in corrupt police states or in the ‘revived’ Islamic regimes, are the signs of the loss of that older society. Beyond population transfers, Islamic modernity, like its European predecessor, has often brought a fierce homogenisation of culture and belief.

Taseer diagnoses the loss of tradition and some of its symptoms – indeed the book is a lament for what has gone – but once out of the subcontinent and into the more abstract search for Islamic identity, his journey is less compelling.

It is unfortunate that this more media-driven section of his journey (for his assumptions and concerns here are those of the Western media) begins by meeting the high-profile British ‘Islamist’ Hassan Butt, recently exposed as a “professional liar” who told the media “what the media wanted to hear.”

Further east on his self-limiting (and, one suspects, publisher-imposed) search for ‘transnational Islam’, Taseer misses the diversity which does still exist. The angry unreflective Islamism he meets in Syria is only one aspect of the country’s multicultural life, and by no means the most obvious. He presents a unidimensional picture of his transit lands, sometimes verging on the paranoid. He is too often “chilled” by what he hears, and he too often leaps to the worst conclusions. Syrians certainly know how to avoid political taboos, but Taseer’s assertion that they only talk politics in the privacy of their cars couldn’t be further from the truth. The Syrian Mufti is awarded the epithet “ferocious”, but Mufti Badr Hassoun is a liberal Muslim of Sufi background who repeatedly condemns terrorism and sectarianism, and campaigns against honour killing.

Ironically, Taseer’s secular perspective would benefit from a dose of materialism. In Syria he recognises an amorphous Muslim sense of ‘grievance’, but not the millions of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. A native informant in Iran explains the causes of the Islamic revolution rather too simply: “we had nothing better to do.” Taseer describes the growing “demand for a literal Islam” in Pakistan without mentioning the 11,000 dead in the spillover of America’s war into the Pakistani tribal areas. The only time the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are mentioned, the O word is bracketed between inverted commas, as if it were no more than a Muslim fantasy.

There is at times a certain clumsiness in definition – is the Muslims’ problem an obsession with or a denial of history? – and there are clumsy mistakes, as when Taseer drastically mistranslates an Arabic slogan.

These weaknesses perhaps say more about our publishing and reading culture than they do about Taseer. After all, how seriously would we take a cultural analysis of Britain written by someone who speaks no English? Writers such as Pankaj Mishra and William Dalrymple offer much more interesting insights into modernity’s cruel impact on traditional Islam, but “Stranger to History” shines when Taseer concentrates on what he knows best: the scar across the subcontinent, and across his own heart.

(link to article on Hassan Butt: The quotes in paragraph 6 are taken from this Inayat Bunglawala article.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Deconstructing the War on Terror

Here's a link to my talk on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Forgive the screwed-up face. It's the fault of those Palestinians that took me dancing -

I wrote the following for a Norwegian newspaper to introduce "Deconstructing the War on Terror", a seminar at Chateau Neuf (Storsalen), Slemdalsveien 11, Oslo, from 12-7pm Sunday 22nd February. George Galloway, Massoud Shadjareh, Yvonne Ridley and Dr Erik Fosse will speak. I'm giving a talk on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Did the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 provoke an unprecedented rupture in American relations with the rest of the world, specifically the Muslim world? Was that day really the day everything changed, as much of the media tells us?

Almost immediately after the attacks a taboo was imposed – most strongly in the US itself, but also in Europe – on serious debate concerning the motivations of the terrorists. (This is the same taboo Israeli society has imposed on itself since 1947). In the new rhetorical climate, to ask why was to justify. “You’re either with us or against us,” announced President Bush in typical Global War on Terror language. Indeed, the control of language has been the most distinctive domestic tool of the GWOT, working by simplification, generalisation, and suspicion of critical thought.

So what were the causes of September 11th? First, ‘blowback’ from America’s longstanding alliance with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabi-nihilist stooges – useful idiots who had contained the Soviet Union and then revolutionary Iran on America’s behalf but in the name of ‘jihad’. Second, Arab and Muslim rage at unconditional American military, financial and political support for Israel’s steady colonisation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Third, tremendous anger at the suffering of the Iraqi people under the US-led sanctions regime, which two assistant secretary generals of the UN described as ‘genocidal.’

None of these American policies changed fundamentally in the Bush years. America gave up its alliance with the Afghan Taliban, but continues to work with the Saudi dictatorship and to fund Wahhabi extremists from Iranian Baluchistan to Lebanon. In fact, America has been more wholehearted than before in its support for a Sunni extremist world view, encouraging its Arab clients to sectarian rabble-rousing and scaremongering over an imaginary ‘Persian-Shia crescent’.

US (and European) support for Israel solidified even as the last chance for the two state solution was strangled, and as Israel launched murderous onslaughts on Lebanon and Gaza. The mainstream American media equated America’s amorphous war with Israel’s war on the Palestinian people. The torture tactics of Abu Ghraib and Bagram were refined for Muslim victims by Israeli ‘expert’ input. Neoconservative ‘Israel-firsters’ ran policy from Washington.

Sanctions against Iraq were replaced by an invasion which resulted in the disintegration of the country’s ancient social fabric. At least a million Iraqis have died as a result of the war. At least four million are now refugees. Many Iraqi cities and villages have been ethnically cleansed.

There was a fourth factor behind September 11th: America’s support for brutal dictatorships across the Muslim world. This was less of a taboo issue; ‘democracy’ was belatedly adopted as justification for the Iraq war, and Condoleezza Rice even made a few speeches about the need for Arab democratic reform. Again, however, all that really changed after September 11th, and only for a few years, was the rhetoric. Dictators in places like Egypt continue to rely on American money and miltary bases for protection, despite increasing repression of their people. Israel and the West demanded elections in Palestine, but then refused to accept the results. Shamefully, Europe has been fully complicit in the ongoing seige of Gaza, sanctioning not the occupiers but the occupied, the repeat-refugees who have dared to exercise their democratic rights.

So what came after September 11th was more an intensification of existing trends than a radical break. In that respect, GWOT was an illusion. Its importance was as discourse, as culture, as myth.

No less a figure than former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski writes that “constant reference to a ‘war on terror’ … stimulated the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue.”

The terror threat to the West is real, but vastly exaggerated. In its name military budgets swell and potential dissenters are intimidated. There were 498 terrorist incidents in Europe in 2006, only one of which was attributed to Muslims, yet half of terrorism-related arrests were of Muslim suspects. In Britain the Prevention of Terrorism Act, particularly its criminalising of the ambiguous ‘glorification of terrorism’, has led to many abuses. In the US, the Patriot Act’s curtailment of civil liberties was smoothly accepted by a terrified populace while organisations like Campus Watch rooted out anti-Israel dissent in academia. A dragooned ‘popular culture’ endlessly represented images of evil, irrational Muslim terrorists in conflict with the forces of good.

With the election of Obama, the most extreme rhetoric of GWOT seems to have had its day. (It may be to Israel’s long term cost that it used GWOT rhetoric to package the recent massacre in Gaza, just at the moment when GWOT had been discredited in the West.) But if fundamental pro-Zionist and imperialist policies did not in fact change during the Bush years, not much will change, practically, in the post-Bush years. The passing of the War on Terror is as illusory as its sudden birth after September 11th. It is likely that economic decline will now limit the scope of Western intervention in the Muslim world, but the same old policies are set to continue with minor adjustments under Obama’s leadership. Linguistically, morally, and militarily, we continue headlong into disaster.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Four Solutions

This was published at The Palestine Chronicle.

“I do not hate (Israelis) for being Jewish or Israeli but because of what they have done to us. Because of the acts of occupation. It is difficult to forget what was done to us. But if the reason for the hate will not exist, everything is possible. But if the reason remains, it is impossible to love. First we must convince in general and in principle that we have been wronged, then we can talk about 67 or 48. You still do not recognize that we have rights. The first condition for change is recognition of the injustice we suffered.”

– Said Sayyam, martyred in Gaza January 2009, to Ha’aretz, November 1995.

All Palestine is controlled by Zionism. The Palestinians (not counting the millions in exile) are half the population of Israel-Palestine, but they are victims of varying degrees of apartheid. The Jewish state has already lost its Jewish majority, and is more hated by the Arab peoples than at any time in its brief, violent history. Let’s take it as given that continuation of the present situation is untenable for everyone concerned. We need a solution.

There are four solutions. The first is for the Arabs to push the Jews into the sea. On the surface this seems like a reasonably just solution. It is, after all, what the Algerians and Vietnamese did with the French, what the Kenyans and Indians did with the British, what the Chinese did with the Japanese: they expelled their oppressive colonist class in order to achieve national independence. In the Palestinian context, all Jews who arrived with the waves of Zionist invasion would be sent home. And this is what most Palestinians understood by the ‘democratic secular state’ which the PLO called for until the 1980s.

There are two problems. The first is that most Israeli Jews don’t have a home to be sent to. They captured their colony not only out of desire for plunder, but also out of the trauma of displacement and genocide. Several generations of Hebrew-speaking Israeli Jews have now been born in the colony. They have their own distinct culture and national identity. In these respects they are similar to the Afrikaans-speaking Boers of South Africa, to contain whom the British invented the concentration camp.

The second problem with the Swimming Jews Solution is that ‘the Jewish state’ possesses a vast fleet of war planes, massive financial, political and military support from the rich white world, and nuclear bombs. It is quite impossible for any combination of Arab or Muslim forces to physically annihilate the settlers without large chunks of the Arab world also being annihilated.

The second solution is called in Israel ‘transfer’. It means pushing the Arabs into the sea. This solution is difficult to distentangle from the present situation, as a slow ethnic cleansing – through destruction of homes, disruption of education, massacres, land confiscation, theft of water resources – has continued after the mass expulsions of 47/ 48 and 67. The ‘transfer’ solution involves another mass expulsion, of the Palestinians in the ‘occupied territories’ or of those in ‘Israel proper’, or of both. Open proponents of transfer now have more seats in the Knesset than the Labour Party. (This means that the ‘centre-left’ of the Israeli spectrum is occupied by those responsible for the Gaza massacre.) Avigdor Lieberman’s ‘no loyalty, no citizenship’ slogan points to Zionism’s growing discomfort with its existential demographic crisis. Inside ‘Israel proper’ Palestinians are 20% of the population, and more fertile than the Jewish population. If circumstances (such as a major regional war) permit, these Arabs could be driven out. If circumstances don’t permit, the Jewish state will have to intensify its concentration of these people and turn partial into total disenfranchisement. The heads of Likud, Labour and Kadima all called for Arab parties to be banned from the recent elections. The high court didn’t allow it this time, but it’s a sign of things to come. It goes without saying that a further mass expulsion will be vigorously resisted by all forces in the region. It is unlikely that even Zionised America would stand for it.

Disenfranchisement and the concentration of populations into ghettos brings us to the third solution: partition. And this looks like the consensus solution. Olmert, Barak and Livni support it. All the Arab states support it. George Bush and Tony Blair support it. Liberal ‘peace activists’ the world over support it. Abbas and Dahlan support it. Since the late 80s the PLO and then the Palestinian Authority have repeatedly declared that they would accept a state on 22% of Palestine. Hamas too has repeatedly expressed its willingness to abide by any solution accepted by the people, and has said specifically that the conflict would become ‘cultural’ if the occupation of the territories captured in 1967 ends.

22% of their own country. Has any other people throughout history made such a compromise? But the best the Palestinians have ever been offered (at Camp David 2) was 16%. According to Ali Abunimah, the Israeli offer

“...depicted a Palestinian ‘state’ in 76.6% of the West Bank, broken into pieces, with all the major settlements remaining in place under Israeli sovereignty. Israel would annex 13.3% outright and continue to occupy the remaining 10.1% for a period of up to thirty years, during which time there would be no restriction on Israel continuing to build settlements and infrastructure....It should be noted that even before these percentages were calculated, the Israelis already subtracted East Jerusalem and the territorial waters of the Dead Sea, so, in fact, the 76% offer was based not on 100% of the occupied territories, but only on those parts that Israel was prepared to discuss. Leaving aside the disjointed nature of this ‘state’, its territory would amount to just 16% of historic Palestine..”

When Arafat turned this down, Israelis including the pretend peace camp, with the help of Bill Clinton and the western media, trotted out the old propaganda line about the Palestinians never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Everyone that mattered agreed that there would never again be such a generous Israeli offer. The unofficial Beilin/ Yasser Abd Rabbo Geneva Plan – which excited liberal peacelovers so much – didn’t dramatically change the shape of the imagined ‘state’: Palestinian cities would be cramped between annexed settlement blocks and so would have no room for growth. Palestinians would have non-sovereign autonomy over little bits, following the South African bantustan model. Whatever the rhetoric, every partition plan centres on securing Palestinian agreement to bantustan autonomy.

There will never be two sovereign states peacefully coexisting between the Jordan and the sea. Gaza – cramped behind a wall, impoverished and traumatised, cut off from its natural markets – is a better image of what the two state solution would look like.

Partition would involve tremendous pain for both Jews and Arabs. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers would have to be moved. Jews would never be able to live next to their holy sites on the West Bank. (The West Bank has far greater historical and religious significance to Jews than the coastal plain where the Jewish population is currently concentrated). Palestinian refugees would never be able to return to their villages and cities in the Jewish state.

Even if the will was there, a viable partition is no longer possible. Israel-Palestine has one highly integrated transport and water infrastructure. It’s a great infrastructure; the problem is that many roads are for Jews only, and the water for settler swimming pools rather than for Palestinians to drink.

And even if partition was possible, if there was a sovereign state on all of the 67 lands and no return of refugees to Israel proper, Israel’s demographic crisis would continue to grow. Even with two states, solution number two, the transfer solution, would become inevitable.

Unless we think creatively – which means thinking beyond the dominant forms of Zionism. It means thinking of the fourth solution, which is in fact the only solution: one binational state, in which Jews, Muslims and Christians have equal rights and responsibilities, in which both Arab and Jewish histories and identities are respected and protected. It’s hard to imagine, but we can start by thinking of Israel-Palestine as it is now, but without walls, fences and checkpoints, without Jews-only roads and Jews-only settlements, without discriminatory laws. The state would still house a thriving Hebrew culture, but it would also allow a Levantine Arab culture to fully express itself.

Israeli Jews worry that, as a minority, they would be oppressed or expelled. The answer is that the constitution of the state would have to guarantee communal as well as individual rights. The constitution could in turn be guaranteed by the United Nations and a collection of superpowers. An American threat of force to defend a democratic constitution would make a lot more sense than current American threats to defend apartheid and ethnic cleansing.

It isn’t easy for a settler society to get over its fear of the oppressed. F. W. de Klerk said,

“For white South Africans acceptance of a one-man, one-vote solution evoked very much the same fears and reaction that could be expected from Israelis were they ever asked to consign their fate to a one-man, one-vote election in a greater Israel/ Palestine in which they would be heavily outnumbered.”

But still in South Africa the settler society, when faced with native resistance and international sanctions, managed to confront its fears and to move to a better future.

Israeli Jews may also worry that Palestinians intend to build an Islamic state. After all, didn’t the Palestinians vote for Hamas? This fear betrays ignorance of the Palestinian people, who voted for Hamas in protest against Fatah’s corruption and collaboration with the occupation. Many Palestinians are strict Muslims, but opinion polls show that only 3% support the establishment of an authoritarian Islamic state. Hamas knows this, which is why it has made no moves to impose sharia law since it came to power. In any case, if Islamist ideas strengthen in the future, creative thinking offers ways of allowing religious and secular, Islamic and Jewish communities to coexist. There are already three education systems available to Israeli Jews: secular, orthodox and ultra-orthodox.

Before Zionism, not very long ago, relations between Jews and Arabs were generally good. Sometimes Arab sectarianism targetted Jews (and sometimes Shia and other groups), but the more representative story is of Jews living safely and prosperously in the Arab world. Nothing remotely resembling Hitler’s racist genocide or the Russian pogroms happened to Arab Jews. On several occasions Arab and Muslim powers gave sanctuary to Jews fleeing European persecution. Even after the bitterness of this conflict, Jews and Arabs could be friends again, and more than friends. A state with a large and powerful Jewish population would no more offend its Arab neighbours than a state with a large and powerful Christian population (Lebanon) or a large and powerful Shia population (Iraq). And once Palestinians receive the rights they deserve, they will have no reason to be angry and resentful. Recognise them as equals, seek to understand them, and your fear will dissolve.

This was a response to Ali Abunimah’s excellent little book “One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.”