What the author of Book of the Sultan’s Seal said about his companion, the protagonist of the novel and hero of the tale, after the events in the World’s Gate, or Downtown Cairo, from February to November 2011.
Eat your words
Youssef Rakha discusses the culture of revolution
Egypt has had Islamists and “revolutionaries”. So who are the nukhba or elite routinely denigrated as a “minority” that “looks down on the People”? Educated individuals, non-Islamist political leaders, the catalysts of the revolution itself… But, in the political context, this group is to all intents synonymous with the cultural community. As per the tradition, which long predates the Arab Spring, writers, artists, scholars and critics often double as political activists/analysts and vice versa; and in this sense much of “the civil current” (anything from far-right conservative to radical anarchist) is made up of “the elite”—of intellectuals.
Construed as a political player, the cultural community in Egypt has been the principal challenge to the Islamists since January-February 2011, when the revolution took place—an understandably weak rival among the uneducated, materialistic and sectarian masses. Yet how has the cultural community dealt with the revolution regardless of this fact, assuming that what took place really was a revolution?
Considering that the speaker belongs in that community, however reluctantly, the answer will be a kind of testimony. It is up to the disentangled listener to make up their mind about imagination, politics, identity and the Role of the Intellectual: an unduly popular theme since long before the revolution. In the last two years, the meaning of each has changed repeatedly; and, as guardians of such values, intellectuals were forced to reinvent themselves in new, unstable contexts—something that has tested their creativity, integrity, sense of belonging and worth.
It would be easy to regurgitate platitudes to the effect that, as Conscious Agents, “we” were defeated yet again in the fight to spread enlightenment—which is good, and eliminate backwardness—which is bad, aiming towards Social Consciousness in the underdeveloped society-cum-postcolonial state in which we live. As activists, theorists, historians and politicians, however, how can we be sure that our enlightenment isn’t a symptom of the very backwardness we think we’re fighting? Since the dawn of modern Egypt under Muhammad Ali Pasha, after all, the very existence of a cultural community has been subsidised/tolerated, and the range of its action delimited, by the (military, anyway non-intellectual) powers that be.
What took place in January-February 2011 was a revolution insofar as it achieved regime change, however unlike its champions are the beneficiaries. In practise, of course, the nukhba—where it did not actively seek alliances with political Islam or otherwise condone its undemocratic practises—failed to show enough belief in the possibility of a viable alternative distinct from “the first republic”. This is not to say that, as the “ruler” at the helm of “the second republic”, the MB is not in most ways an extension of the Mubarak regime. But, unlike the nukhba, political Islam had established itself as the well-meaning underdog—a ploy even the nukhba itself seemed to fall for.
But the underdog ploy could not in itself explain why, when we had the opportunity to help establish a functional democratic state in place of the dysfunctional quasi-military dictatorship we’ve had since the early 1950s, what we did, consciously or unconsciously, was to help establish the even more dysfunctional quasi-theocratic dictatorship now emerging. In the same way as political Islam has continued to play the role of Opposition even after it came to power, intellectuals seem to thrive on the absence of the Social Consciousness they purport to work for. It’s this absence that makes them look useful, after all, saving them the trouble of asking how, without either killing themselves/emigrating or openly giving up all pretensions of a Role/all socially “committed” activity, they might remain relevant to society.
The failure of the cultural community to make use of young people’s sacrifices—to take social-political initiative, adopt a clear moral stance or seriously revise half a century’s worth of historical “givens”—should illustrate how. In the course of regime change, “enlightenment” has cast the intellectual in one or more of their accepted roles: as Conscience of the Nation, as Voice of the People or as Prophet of Better Times. In each case the intellectual not only failed at their role but also actively compromised it, partly because the rhetoric attached to the process of engagement, which the intellectual as a rule will prioritise over the process itself, tends to be irrational, self-contradictory or absurd.
Too often that rhetoric is at once progressive and conservative, idealistic and pragmatic, moral and insincere—”poetic” in the worst (Arab) sense. What is presented as a cause—Palestine, for example—is in fact a festering status quo. Commitment to the Palestinian question was for decades on end a pretext for the worst forms of repression in much of the Arab world; and how exactly has that benefited Palestinians?
As in all discourses that apologise for totalitarian measures or tendencies, euphemism abounds. Social unity through wasati or moderate as opposed to ussouli or fundamentalist Islam, for example, has helped shift the emphasis away from universal rights and freedoms to a normative, sect-based (and, as it turns out, completely fantastical) status quo. As the catchword of that faction of formerly/nominally left-wing intellectuals who have supported the ex-Muslim Brotherhood leader, presidential candidate Abdelmoneim Abulfetouh and/or his subsequently established Strong Egypt Party, wasati has in effect extended the space in which fundamentalist dictatorship is to be taken for granted.
Likewise, instead of appeasing the Salafis—its avowed reason—the decision to replace ‘almani or “secular” with madani or “civil” in early campaigns helped to confirm the idea that the former word is in fact a synonym for “atheist” or, as a Salafi would put it, “apostate”, ceding the Salafis even more ground without granting “us” any more popularity or credibility among the Islamist-sympathetic grass roots.
For its part the discourse of “social justice” championed by (among others) the Nasserist presidential candidate Hamdin Sabahi, while reflecting an age-old obsession with class, fails to improve on Nasser’s more or less catastrophic legacy of state control; it does not address the issue of where wealth will come from, let alone the effectual means to its redistribution…
As Conscience of the Nation, the nukhba betrayed its role early on. Starting with the referendum on constitutional amendments that practically gave the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces absolute power in March 2011—and whose “yes” result Islamist forces were instrumental in obtaining—the cultural community condoned, participated in and often promoted the kind of “democratic” process undertaken with totalitarian intent. As a result, both the parliamentary and presidential elections were held in the absence of a constitution, and the vote-based process whereby political Islam aims to eliminate democracy is already underway.
Serving SCAF and MB interests and alliances, these “democratic weddings” took place under bloody circumstances, if not actually (as in the case of the parliamentary elections) directly at the expense of young protesters’ blood. Considering the MB’s underdog appeal and its tribal (increasingly ruling party-style) hold on much of the countryside, not to mention the Gulf’s Wahhabi influence on the culture, with vast numbers of susceptible Egyptians importing backward practices from their place of work on the Arabian peninsula—the pro-Islamist results of ballot-only democracy are a forgone conclusion. (I believe this holds for the constitutional referendum, whose results are to be announced.)
Instead of exposing such travesties of democratic process for what they are—by, at least, refusing to be part of them—each time the cultural community, including not only politically aware “revolutionaries” but, most recently, the openly anti-MB National Rescue Front—reverted to proactive and community-aware attitudes which, dictating a game whose rules “we” already knew to be unfair, was bound to serve Islamist interests. In so doing the nukhba also gave credence to the increasingly untenable assumption that what has been happening is political participation. Had the protesters of 25 January-11 February played by the rules set by the Mubarak regime and SCAF—as their “oppositional” predecessors had been doing for decades—no revolution would have occurred at all.
Undertaken on the scale of “the revolution”, a rigorous boycott of all such events—which would be the correct stance from the moral and “revolutionary” standpoint while not necessarily undermining the social status quo or being any less pragmatic as a course of action—might have stopped the forward march of the Dark Ages in its tracks, or at least presented it with a significant obstacle. If nothing else, it would have given meaning to a string of million-man demonstrations whose demands, while sometimes just as bloody and authoritarian in their way as the policies of the powers that be, were always muddled and unclear. If it isn’t the job of the Conscience of the Nation embodied in the icons of the revolution to give the lie to the ballot box as a means to dictatorship, I don’t know what is.
Yet, having agreed to enter the presidential race in the absence of a constitution determining their powers—and this is but one example of the nukhba failing to be consistent enough to act as its own conscience, let alone that of any nation—both Aboulfetouh and Sabahi were happy to lead a million-man demonstration protesting the results of the first round, which narrowed down the choice to the representative of the former regime, Ahmed Shafik, and the MB’s second choice, Mohamed Morsi. Neither Aboulfetouh nor Sabahi showed the least respect for the democratic process of which they had agreed to be part, nor the least concern about the rise to power of the MB through Morsi; apart from bolstering up the chances of the latter and helping identify the anti-nukhba MB with a revolution instigated by the nukhba, that million-man demonstration served no purpose whatsoever.
Now that the MB has virtually declared civil war on its opponents, who might be the People in whose name the nukhba prophesied better times after SCAF? Surely they are the ones who, while protesting Morsi’s singularly autocratic, blast-the-judiciary constitutional declaration of 22 November 2012 (a typically MB maneuvre to speed up the completion of and pass the Islamist-dominated draft constitution), were attacked/murdered, arrested and tortured by MB members and Salafis in no way officially affiliated with government institutions—and if not for the courage of individual prosecutors would have been framed for thuggery as well. Guided if not by their nukhba then by “revolutionary” ideas in which the nukhba had trafficked, many of these protesters had actually voted for Morsi.
When the People were able to force Hosny Mubarak to step down after 30 years in power, the People were a unified entity, unequivocally synonymous not only with “the revolutionaries” in Tahrir Square but also, very significantly, with the nukhba that had blessed their being there, the cultural community. Since that moment we have come a long way, especially in the light of the by now absurd statement that (as the slogan has it) “the revolution continues”: athawra musstamirra.
Now the most we can do, whether as revolutionaries or intellectuals, is to vote no in the referendum on a constitution that compromises some of the most basic rights and promises to turn Egypt into both a worse presidential dictatorship than it was under Mubarak and a Sunni-style “Islamic republic”—its drafting, thanks in part to our failure to boycott parliamentary elections, having been monopolised by Islamists—a referendum whose ultimate result, due as much to our dithering and lack of imagination as to Islamist power, influence and politicking, will almost certainly be a “yes” vote.
Being the champions who have not managed to become beneficiaries even in the most noble sense, indeed in some cases being the very (presumably involuntary) instruments of political Islam, how are we to see ourselves two years after the fact? Not in the kind of light that obscures the possibility that the pose we adopt, our Role, might be simply that: an affectation that helps us with upward mobility and individual self-esteem, but whose social-cultural function—like political Islam, identity-driven, with a chip on its shoulder vis-a-vis the former coloniser—is ultimately to legitimise systematic incompetence, economic dependence and sectarian tribalism.
On the 30th anniversary of the Sabra and Chatila massacre, it is worth rereading Jean Genet’s song to the beauty of revolutionaries
“Martyrs’ Square”, Beirut, 2005. photo: Youssef Rakha
For me, the word “Palestinians,” whether in a headline, in the body of an article, on a handout, immediately calls to mind fedayeen in a specific spot—Jordan—and at an easily determined date: October, November, December 1970, January, February, March, April 1971. It was then and there that I discovered the Palestinian Revolution…
When I went to Sabra and Chatila in April 2005, I had already read Jean Genet’s “Four Hours in Chatila”—and loved it. It is a rambling meditation on death and revolution, written within a day of the killing of the entire Palestinian and Shia population of the two refugee camps within greater Beirut—ostensibly in retaliation for the killing of the pro-Israeli Kataeb leader Bachir Gemayel after he was elected president. Kataeb militiamen did the work for the Israeli army on 16-18 September 1982.
“Goyim kill goyim,” Prime Minister Menachem Begin told the Knesset, “and they come to hang the Jews.”
In the end neither Jews nor Maronites were hanged. With the PLO already in Tunis, what transpired was the termination of the Palestinian (Arab) Revolution so conceived—the apex of the counterrevolution led by Israel’s allies, and the end of the glorious legend of the fedayeen.
For reasons that had more to do with where I was in my life than sympathy with the Palestinian cause, when I went to Sabra and Chatila, I broke down in tears. It happened at the end of my walk through the site, at once so inside and outside Beirut that, spending time there, you feel as if you’ve travelled in time. It happened when I got to the tiny cemetery where the remains of some victims of the massacre are buried. There was no obvious context for crying in public, and it must’ve looked ridiculous.
But I was in Beirut for the first time to witness the Cedar Revolution: the young, apolitical uprising against the hegemony of the Syrian regime and its sectarian practices in Lebanon, directed at the army and mukhabarat whose personnel had enjoyed arbitrary power over the Lebanese for as long as anyone could remember. After Iraq’s disastrous liberation from Saddam, this was the first ever evidence of an Arab Spring—and, thinking about being “a virtual Palestinian”, as I had been called in Beirut, my tears anticipated another moment almost six years later, here in Cairo.
A photograph doesn’t show the flies nor the thick white smell of death. Neither does it show how you must jump over bodies as you walk along from one corpse to the next. If you look closely at a corpse, an odd phenomenon occurs: the absence of life in this body corresponds to the total absence of the body, or rather to its continuous backing away. You feel that even by coming closer you can never touch it. That happens when you look at it carefully. But should you make a move in its direction, get down next to it, move an arm or a finger, suddenly it is very much there and almost friendly. Love and death. These two words are quickly associated when one of them is written down. I had to go to Chatila to understand the obscenity of love and the obscenity of death. In both cases the body has nothing more to hide: positions, contortions, gestures, signs, even silences belong to one world and to the other…
In the middle, near them, all these tortured victims, my mind can’t get rid of this “invisible vision”: what was the torturer like? Who was he? I see him and I don’t see him. He’s as large as life and the only shape he will ever have is the one formed by the stances, positions, and grotesque gestures of the dead fermenting in the sun under clouds of flies. If the American Marines, the French paratroopers, and the Italian bersagliere who made up an intervention force in Lebanon left so quickly (the Italians, who arrived by ship two days late, fled in Hercules airplanes!) one day or thirty-six hours before their official departure date, as if they were running away, and on the day before Bashir Gemayel’s assassination, are the Palestinians really wrong in wondering if Americans, French and Italians had not been warned to clear out pronto so as not to appear mixed up in the bombing of the Kataeb headquarters?
I’m pretty sure that circle of sparse vegetation where people are buried is in Sabra, not Chatila. But Sabra and Chatila are so interwoven in my memory it really hardly matters.
The walls and the unpaved ground were white, and white was the dust staining what asphalt there was. As I sobbed uncontrollably before the unmarked graves, what my tears anticipated—unbeknown to me, of course—was the night of 25 January 2011. That evening on my way home from the offices of Al Ahram, having laughed at the concept of revolution-as-Facebook-event, I decided to walk through Tahrir to see if the demonstrations planned for Police Day were any different from endless—useless—protests I had seen since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Then, arriving there, I realised something was happening. The sight and especially the sound of unbelievable numbers of young Egyptians willingly offering up their bodies—not for abstract notions like “resistance” or Islam, not against any greater or lesser devil, but for the right to live like human beings in their own country—made me weep. “It is not Islamist,” I wrote feverishly in my Facebook status later that night. “It is not limited in numbers. And I saw it with my own eyes in Maidan Al-Tahrir.”
After Cedar, it had taken five and a half years for Jasmine to break out in Tunis, driving what would sometimes be called the Lotus Revolution here. Events were not to start for real until 28 January—two days after, hearing the national anthem in a meaningful context for the first time in my life, I sang tunelessly along, tearfully ecstatic. But already, through phone and other communications after midnight, I realised the killing had started. “I want to go out,” I remember telling a Canada-based friend over Facebook chat in the small hours, “but I’m scared.”
At that same moment a younger, renegade-Muslim-Brother friend was running through the streets of Shubra, tattered, soiled and in tears, pursued by armoured vehicles whose siren almost two years later still gives him the shivers. Another, even younger Catholic friend had fielded a load of Central Security pellets at close range; some barely missed his eyes, and he couldn’t get up unassisted; after receiving first aid in the nearest government hospital, he was sneaked through a backdoor to avoid arrest by State Security. During the day, a young woman friend had fainted from an overdose of tear gas and barely escaped being run over. Hundreds were in custody without charge; a good few were beaten up or detained for hours in police cars; some had been haplessly killed, too…
But, on the morning of 26 January, it was as if nothing had happened. The front page of the daily Al Ahram (already notorious for the “expressive” wire picture in which Mubarak was Photoshopped from the back to the front of a group of heads of state) did no so much as mention unprecedented numbers of demonstrators protesting police brutality and corruption in Tahrir. A minor demonstration in Lebanon of all places was highlighted instead. Downtown, I noticed, people went about their business.
What pained me was not “the beautiful young” dead or injured “for nothing”; “nothing” was a condition of their beauty, after all, and perhaps there weren’t enough casualties yet (though in this context what do numbers mean?) What pained me was that a turn of events that promised to yield a voluntary communal purge of society, a sort of post-religion repentance, seemed to come to nothing the next day. It hadn’t, of course; but later when it did come to something that thing very quickly became political, which meant that power would pass into the hands of religion mongers leaving society intact, with all the evil inside it.
By the time Mubarak stepped down on 11 February—not that this is technically true—there was hardly a young or a secular person in Tahrir. There was to be much more death from then on.
The statement that there is a beauty peculiar to revolutionaries raises many problems. Everyone knows, everyone suspects, that young children or adolescents living in old and harsh surroundings have a beauty of face, body, movement and gaze similar to that of the fedayeen. Perhaps this may be explained in the following way: breaking with the ancient ways, a new freedom pushes through the dead skin, and fathers and grandfathers will have a hard time extinguishing the gleam in the eyes, the throbbing in the temples, the joy of blood flowing through the veins. In the spring of 1971, in the Palestinian bases, that beauty subtly pervaded a forest made alive by the freedom of the fedayeen. In the camps a different, more muted beauty prevailed because of the presence of women and children. The camps received a sort of light from the combat bases, and as for the women, it would take a long and complex discussion to explain their radiance. Even more than the men, more than the fedayeen in combat, the Palestinian women seemed strong enough to sustain the resistance and accept the changes that came along with a revolution. They had already disobeyed the customs: they looked the men straight in the eye, they refused to wear a veil, their hair was visible, sometimes completely uncovered, their voices steady. The briefest and most prosaic of their tasks was but a small step in the self-assured journey towards a new, and therefore unknown, order, but which gave them a hint of a cleansing liberation for themselves, and a glowing pride for the men…
Here in the ruins of Chatila there is nothing left. A few silent old women hastily hiding behind a door where a white cloth is nailed. As for the very young fedayeen, I will meet some in Damascus. You can select a particular community other than that of your birth, whereas you are born into a people; this selection is based on an irrational affinity, which is not to say that justice has no role, but this justice and the entire defense of this community take place because of an emotional – perhaps intuitive, sensual – attraction; I am French, but I defend the Palestinians wholeheartedly and automatically. They are in the right because I love them. But would I love them if injustice had not turned them into a wandering people?
Genet just didn’t know about political Islam, did he? He didn’t appreciate the effects on collective consciousness of nearly a century of social-cultural-sexual—forget political—repression, of systematic misinformation, humiliation and discouragement of initiative, of words denoting things other than what they say even in life-and-death circumstances, actions failing to yield consensual meaning, courage going unnoticed and festering “tradition” prioritised over such birthrights as sense, sensibility and sensation.
It was all through Friday 28 January, from noon to midnight, that I drew my own connections between youth, death and the—revolutionary—identity of the tortured. However partially or peripherally, I had that identity too; and I was no longer scared. Without the leisure of Genet’s macabre stroll, without the mythical underpinnings of the Arab Revolution or the feeling that I was a Frenchman among Palestinians with no more reason to be there than the fact that I “loved” them, I perceived how the human body responds to being run over by a speeding vehicle, the colour of what comes out of the head when it is gashed open against a solid surface, the smell of sweat on a dead young body mobbed by loud mourners and the sound of fear. There was water-hosing, live ammunition, slaughter and many things besides.
People trembling before the murder of others on the side of the road, adolescents taking metal fences apart to use as weaponry, valiant, bare-chested battles with tear gas canisters and the increasingly expert hurling of stones and Molotov cocktails: it was a bonanza of desperation, a grafting onto the scene of “revolution” of all the violence and madness prompted by living for decades under inhuman conditions; fear and loathing in the Maidan.
That day there was plenty of opportunity for political identification with Palestinians—Qasr Al-Aini Street looked and felt like the site of an Intifada against a repressive power less competent or self-respecting and so even more brutishly undiscriminating than the Israeli army—but it wasn’t the sight of stone-throwing children facing armed men in uniform that evoked Palestine.
It wasn’t being Arab, or to the left of a counterrevolutionary, pro-Israeli status quo. As would later be confirmed on finding out about Hamas’s atrocious response to Arab Spring demonstrations in Gaza, it was my social (human or cultural) connection with Palestinians that Friday 28 January made me aware of in a new way. And that was practically beyond tears.
As the Lebanese already knew, the position of the secular Arab as a Palestinian—state- or citizenship-less, disinherited, disgraced, betrayed and blamed for being who they are—is even more pronounced under resistance-mongering regimes like the Assads’ than elsewhere. All Arabs have their little Israels to torture them through their respective Kataeb in full view of the international community; even the Islamist banner—“Death to the infidels,” in which the latter word replaces the conventional Arab nationalist “traitors”—does not prevent that.
Many died in Chatila, and my friendship, my affection for their rotting corpses was also immense, because I had known them. Blackened, swollen, decayed by the sun and by death, they were still fedayeen. They were still fedayeen. Around two o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday three soldiers from the Lebanese army drove me, at gunpoint, to a jeep where an officer was dozing. I asked him: “Do you speak French?” — “English.” The voice was dry, maybe because I had awakened it with a start. He looked at my passport, and said to me, in French: “Have you just been there?” He pointed to Chatila. “Yes.” — “And did you see?” — “Yes.” — “Are you going to write about it?” — “Yes.” He gave me back my passport. He signaled me to leave. The three rifles were lowered. I had spent four hours in Chatila. About forty bodies remained in my memory. All of them, and I mean all, had been tortured, probably against a backdrop of drunkenness, song, laughter, the smell of gunpowder and already of decaying flesh. I was probably alone, I mean the only European (with a few old Palestinian women still clinging to a torn white cloth; with a few young unarmed fedayeen), but if these five or six human beings had not been there and I had discovered this butchered city, black and swollen Palestinians lying there, I would have gone crazy. Or did I? That city lying in smithereens which I saw or thought I saw, which I walked through, felt, and whose death stench I wore, had all that taken place?
I know Sabra and Chatila was about racism, imperialism and the ugly side of humanity. I know it had to do with the accepted construction of the Palestinian cause and (confirmed by it) the perennial suspicion that minority (as in non-Muslim) Arab communities are potential traitors to the greater nation even when that nation pretends to be other than the Umma (a pretence now backfiring throughout the region in the worst possible ways). What I have learned from the Arab Spring is that Sabra and Chatila may also have been about something else, something like a mirror image of what Genet saw in the fedayeen. Like the sectarian aftermath of the Arab Spring, like the failure of the so called international community to reign in all the little Israels whose existence Nazism’s progeny justifies, like the failure of Arab societies to make use of the sacrifices of the young and the beautiful, Sabra and Chatila was about Arab self-hatred. It was about the ugliness peculiar to revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries in times of grand narratives that, in the absence of societies to support them, are bound to end badly. In the most oblique way imaginable, Sabra and Chatila is about the ugliness of the fedayeen.
Genet’s text (in italics) quoted as is in Daniel R. Dupecher and Martha Perrigaud’s translation
Send 3 female artists to Ramallah to document the lives of 9 young Palestinian actors and how they use Shakespeare to bridge gaps in their communities.
Manhattan Shakespeare Project is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions for the purposes of Manhattan Shakespeare Project must be made payable to Fractured Atlas and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.
We have received a $1000 travel grant from Columbia University! We are very excited! Thank you so much to those to have contributed so far. We are on our way!
Shakespeare For A New World; The Palestinian Voice
Manhattan Shakespeare Project goes global!
Help send three women (two teaching artists and a documentary film director) to Ramallah to document the lives of 9 young Palestinian actors and how they use Shakespeare to bridge gaps in their communities.
They are 9 young Palestinian actors and students at the Drama Academy Ramallah. They have lived through curfews, checkpoints, tanks, barricades, raids, arrests, isolation, and marginalization. And they have chosen to be actors. They have chosen to funnel their passion and energy into the arts; into creating a voice that is louder than the authority of occupation. They have chosen to cultivate the imagery of what can be different; to fuel the imagination to dream beyond the restrictions of occupation, and make possible what seems today impossible and unimaginable: to envision peace and the paths past violence.
Since 2010, Manhattan Shakespeare Project – Manhattan’s All-Female Shakespeare Company has been dedicated to fostering the growth of the female artist and using Shakespeare as an educational tool to empower and reach diverse communities, especially those marginalized as a result of socio-economic status and geographic location.
In November 2011 we had the amazing opportunity to perform with the very passionate and talented students from the Drama Academy Ramallah in an international “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by William Shakespeare. Since then we have been putting together a project that would send three women artists to Palestine to work with the DAR students in an exchange program to create a way of creating theatre. We want to answer the question “How can artists from wildly different backgrounds, cultures, and languages create theatre together, bridge diverse communities, and teach each other and audiences how to grow and live in harmony?”
In September 2012 (yes, only 2 months away, yikes!) we will spend two weeks in Palestine at the Drama Academy Ramallah teaching a series of workshops on Shakespeare Text & Performance, Viewpoints, and movement. During that time we will be collaborating with the DAR students to create an ensemble-based original devised theatre piece incorporating Palestinian youth songs, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (both in English and Arabic), and movement which will tell their story of what it means to be an artist in Palestine. This piece will then be presented to the public in Ramallah.
This original theatre piece will then be presented at The Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp, and for one week the DAR students will mentor Jenin high school students through the theatre creating process. This will result in another original piece which will be publicly performed in Jenin.
This whole process will be filmed and a documentary of these 9 Palestinian artists will be created, sharing the work, methodology, and stories of these students with an audience beyond the Palestinian borders. The film and methodology will be used for educational outreach to symposiums across the US, and made available worldwide to students to create collaborative theatre pieces and mentor new students and communities.
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Youssef Rakha, Islamophobe
Youssef Rakha thinks about the Brotherhood, the military and the modern state
A long time ago — it must have been 2000 — I was briefly in trouble at work for apparently belittling the achievement of Hezbollah against Israel in an article I had written.
The censure came from a left-wing, thoroughly secular editor; and I wasn’t particularly distressed to have to redraft the paragraphs in question. Perhaps, I thought, I had let my Islamophobia get the better of me. (I should point out that, though steadfastly agnostic, I am still Muslim, as eclectically proud of my heritage as any post-Enlightenment individual can reasonably be; so my self-acknowledged Islamophobia refers neither to the religion nor the historical identity but specifically to the far more recent phenomenon — perhaps I may be allowed to say “catastrophe” — of political Islam.) I was to realise that much of the Arab left’s respect for Hezbollah centred on the concept of resistance and, especially, its perceived triumph over a materially superior power, independently of a quasi-commonwealth of incompletely constructed modern states whose majority’s compromised position had rendered it an ineffective rival to “the Zionist entity”.
In the same context though perhaps not from the same time, I remember having mixed feelings about a Moroccan activist in a demonstration on Al Jazeera crying out repeatedly, “I am secular, but I support the Islamic resistance in Lebanon.”
Admittedly, when I wrote that article, what bothered me the most about Hezbollah was its underlying (theocratic) totalitarianism, not its armed struggle per se. But since then, over many years in which I have been exposed to much more historical-political material as well as experiencing regional and local developments first hand — and without losing any of my contempt for Israel or the postcolonial order that sustains it, for which my being an Arab or a Muslim is by no means necessary — I have come to see very major issues with the concept of resistance itself: so much so that, like Jihadism, it sometimes seems to me one of the postcolonial world powers’ less visible instruments.
Notwithstanding how Hezbollah has renounced the moral high ground by supporting Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Syria — one of the few supposedly uncompromised states whose “resistance” status has allowed it to practice genocide against its own citizens with impunity since the 1980s while in no way improving its situation vis-a-vis Israel — it is of course less about the Arab-Israeli conflict that I am thinking than the confluence of the left (socialist, Arab nationalist or “Nasserist”) and political Islam in the aftermath of January-February 2011 in Egypt: the Arab Spring. I am thinking about how that confluence, perhaps more than any other factor, has emptied “revolution” of any possible import. To what extent did the theory and practice of resistance in what has probably been the most important of the compromised Arab states lead to the perpetuation of both military hegemony and systematic deprivation of basic rights and freedoms, including freedom of belief?
The current “transfer of power” to the Muslim Brotherhood is not happening as a result of the protests and sacrifices that made regime change possible over 18 months ago. It is not happening against the will of the postcolonial world order. It is happening as a result of West-blessed, SCAF-mediated “democratic” politicising — facilitated precisely by standing in ideological and practical opposition to the former status quo (an advantage the more or less liberal, as opposed to Islamist, protesters who staged “the revolution” never had).
Unlike agents of the modern state but like Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood have helped to provide citizens with services, garnered their tribal loyalty by encouraging their conservatism and fed them an identity-based discourse of heroism, piety or renaissance. Preying on their raw emotions, they have also given them material rewards in return for their votes.
Now, contrary to what the left has been preaching since the start of the presidential elections, the “transfer of power” at hand will keep all the military’s unlawful privileges intact: the enormous military economy will continue to operate unscathed; crimes against humanity committed in the last 18 months will go unpunished; “revolutionaries” who have been subject to military trial will neither be re-tried nor released without high-profile intervention, etc. At the same time, while other beneficiaries of institutionalised corruption may change, the security and judicial apparatus that sustains it will not.
Thus resistance: somewhere in the collective imagination, irrespective of historical fact, the Muslim Brotherhood is not the capitalist, scheming, dictatorial, corrupt and abusive entity that the Mubarak regime was. It is a force of resistance. Never mind that it is sectarian, misogynistic, totalitarian, irrational and just as postcolonially compromised (hence just as capitalist, scheming etc.): as the de facto custodian of a religion and a culture it has only actually acted to humiliate, the Brotherhood is seen as an alternative, in exactly the same way as Hezbollah was seen as an alternative, to the failed state. What is either not seen or purposely overlooked is that the alternative’s existence depends on the failure of the state and modernity, which to one degree or another political Islam has always encouraged or helped to perpetuate.
So, while Islamophobia in the West is fear of the physically violent monster secretly created to combat communism during the Cold War, my own Islamphobia is fear of the morally violent monster covertly spawned by the failure of the postcolonial nation state and increasingly integrated into the world order at the expense not of Western (or communist) lives but of Muslim minds and souls. My Islamophobia is in fact a profoundly Muslim response to “revolution”.
Yet it is resistance as a concept that seems to hold the key. Not that the Muslim Brotherhood has used the term recently, but it is written into the proposed political formulation of a collective and supposedly efficacious identity that that identity should be against something.
What is required for this is not that the orientation in question should actually be against anything in practice, whether that thing is the world order, Israel or institutionalised corruption in the Egyptian state. It is interesting to note that, while their raison d’être is to be a distinct moral improvement on the corrupt, compromised political status quo, the Muslim Brothers, whether in parliament or beyond, have so far replicated the Mubarak regime’s conduct and mores, from pledging alliance to Washington and guaranteeing Israel’s security to monopolising and abusing power (the Freedom and Justice Party being, in effect, the “Islamic” variation on the now dissolved National Democratic Party).
What is required, rather, is that the resisting entity should espouse a certain degree of (moral if not physical) violence, drawing on both a totalitarian sense of identity and a paranoid conviction of victimhood. This is not to deny that the Muslim Brotherhood had been subject to persecution since its foundation in 1928; it is to say that, in the absence of any holistic vision even for the future of Islam (one that would crucially include ways to eliminate rather than perpetuate those anachronistic and obstructive aspects of the faith that alienate Muslims from the modern world and prevent them from contributing to human civilisation), the victimisation of the Muslim Brotherhood can only mean a justification for getting their own back — not actually changing anything for the majority of Egyptians.
Without any aspiration to reform, let alone revolution, and while they continue to provide cover for less sophisticated Islamists, the Brothers can only remain aspiring Mubaraks.
Even more fascinating, however, is the way in which the apparent triumph of the opposition embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood has automatically resulted in the opposition embodied by the left giving up all that it supposedly stands for in order to be in the seemingly right camp— an ideological paradox resolved with relative ease once what the left actually has in common with political Islam is identified: totalitarian identity, contempt for the modern state, paranoid victimhood, bias for the (class) underdog and, most importantly of all, the resistance imperative.
Egypt’s recent variation on the confluence of the left with political Islam is particularly ludicrous in that, while what the left supported the Muslim Brotherhood in order to resist was SCAF, it was arguably SCAF that brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power. It occurs to me now that, taking this into account, Islamophobia should really also be understood as opposition to the military — a fight on which the left was willing to give up when it allied itself with the Islamists.
(c) Youssef Rakha
The Gaza Spring
At the time I had Islamist tendencies. I was still a schoolboy when the inqilab happened in 2007. (Thus spoke Amin, which is not his name: 22, author, activist, affiliate of Fateh, lifetime resident of Palestinian Rafah. We spoke on the roof of a mid-range hotel in Gaza City late last week. By inqilab, the accepted term—literally: “overthrow”—Amin was referring to the post-democratic, forcible overtake of power in the Gaza Strip by Hamas. Now I notice that, every time he said “they” in the abstract, “Hamas”, especially its security apparatus in Gaza, was what he meant.) At first they blew up all the security agencies; it’s unclear why, the buildings were empty. But they did. And they arrested everyone who said ‘I am Fateh’: all the militias, of course, but also civil servants, citizens, students…
We thought it was an overthrow of the Palestinian Authority but it was really an overthrow against Fateh; and it was driven by power hunger… I happened to have relations in Fateh so I could see how they dealt with people. They would give you something called “the acquittal”: ‘Hand over your weapons and you can go, but don’t engage in any activity of any kind whatsoever.’ Sometimes they kept you under house arrest. That was the earliest period. Later President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decision that everyone should stay at home: all the Authority employees. He never called it that but it was a form of civil disobedience—a general strike. Everyone did stay at home, more or less. And so we discovered that they already had a full team of professionals in every field imaginable: security, health, education, everything; it was predictable that they should have security forces since they were a force of the resistance but they turned out to be ready to replace the Authority in every aspect of life.
The next day people just accepted the situation, with unexpected equanimity. We were thinking there would be explosions or attacks, that life would be disrupted as a result of the sudden substitution—nothing happened. Maybe that was the result of people’s discontent with the Authority, because the Authority was somewhat corrupt even though we had lived well under it and you can tell it wasn’t very repressive by the fact that Hamas, its greatest opposition, was allowed to grow, and grow.
In time I slipped out of the crucible of the Islamists. I had no political interests per se but I decided to question what I had believed about Palestine, and I watched from outside. Eventually I became an organised member of Fateh through friends from university. They told me what was Fateh, who were Fateh. I was convinced; maybe because I’d seen the injustice against Fateh, I liked it. But then I also began to understand what was Oslo which at the mosque, within the crucible, they had taught us was wrong, the way they taught us that Fateh were all Zionized: traitors and apostates.
I began to understand the meaning of peace, the different forms the struggle could take, things we used to consider haram (or prohibited by God) without thinking. It may be true that many members of Fateh really did collaborate with the Zionist occupation but the way the security-coordination terms of the Oslo agreement were misrepresented and the way you were supposed to dismiss all of Fateh as godless traitors—that was hugely exaggerated and manipulative, a lie. My first ever political activity was to join a gathering commemorating Arafat on the anniversary of his death. On campus. And I was beaten up: Islamist students from a number of universities attacked and cut it short.
That day I ran away and got on a bus. They stopped it and searched the passengers for the black-and-white kufiya, which they associate with Fateh even though it’s a symbol of Palestine; but I wrapped my kufiya around my torso, underneath my shirt, and I got away. Before that I was neutral—I am not with you, guys, but I’m not against you. Now I am against you. Because something is seriously wrong. We commemorated Abu Ammar (i.e., Arafat) again, and we commemorated Abu Jihad (i.e., Arafat’s comrade in arms, the fidayeen leader and cofounder of Fateh Khalil Al Wazir, who was assassinated in Tunis in 1988); and every time we were subjected to verbal abuse as well as physical attack, and then arrests and summons as well. For a while I even stopped going to university because I was under pressure from my family who didn’t want me involved in any political activity, realising what could happen. So I started reading and finding out about things—what is Hamas, why Hamas, what is Fateh, whatever—and gradually developing an opinion and orientation of my own.
As I fell on the wrong side of them, in the end, the main question was, Eish fih (or, “What’s wrong?”) We wanted to know where they thought they were taking things, what the purpose of the division was (between the Fateh-dominated Authority and Hamas): what is your issue with peace if you are not waging any resistance? Why do you even have a problem with Fateh if you’re adopting the exact same policy? Eish fih…
First we staged a protest against the closing down of Sharik, which is an NGO for young people and creativity and such; it was closed down on the pretext that prostitution went on in there, and that the activists and artists and civil society developers who worked there were in the employ of Israel. The second time I was arrested was on 29 January 2011, the day after the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution (i.e., Angry Friday, as opposed to the 25 January demonstrations that led to it) when we staged a march in solidarity. I was abused. Not beaten up, just insulted, questioned, told, “You are supporting people who are American agents. And what do we have to do with it anyway?” I was held for four hours.
The way it happened was they would send you a summons and you would turn up the next day. You were a prisoner of course but you were treated with relative respect. There were no beatings though the questions were extremely personal and probing… They would shoot us with their cameras, and during the questioning they would review the images and if you were sitting next to a girl you would be asked who that girl was and why she was dressed provocatively and, whatever your response, called all sorts of names. Even when you went to Egypt for a holiday—everyone in Gaza spends part of the summer in Egypt—you could be filmed there and questioned about what you were doing on your return. But no matter how hard you try to cooperate with them they never believe what you tell them. That’s what I discovered the first time I was under clear-cut political arrest, on 27 February, 2011, when I was held for two days.
Already at this point something called the Dignity Revolution has attempted a Fateh overthrow of Hamas. It was a disastrous failure and the suppression was truly stupid, heavy-handed and humiliating; I was among those arrested but I had been interrogated before and they quickly realised I had nothing to do with it… I was arrested again on 11 March and they wanted to keep me till 15 March to prevent me from joining the protests planned for that date, because they believed I could be an influential party. In the end they released me and told me to come back on 14 March before anything happened; I did not, I went to the demonstrations, which on purpose we staged a day earlier than planned.
Anyway, people who were arrested on those occasions formed the core of the group who staged the 15 March protests last year (i.e., Gaza’s mini-revolution and principal contribution to the Arab Spring, which went almost entirely unreported here as elsewhere); the demonstrations were staged simultaneously in coordination with protests in the West Bank. Our purpose was to end the division; we didn’t care who was to blame, we wanted national unity. It’s clear to me now that a party who stops me from pursuing this aim is a party that’s against national unity, maybe even a party who has a vested interest in Gaza’s isolation considering that goods are smuggled in from Israel despite the siege.
We went out on 14 March. We gave a press conference and announced we would start a sit-in then and there; we wanted to stage a carbon copy of the Egyptian revolution. We had the support of all the political factions including some Hamas figures—Ghazi Hamad and Ahmad Youssef, for example—though at this point we were all in the 18-25 age bracket; no one was older than 25. So we stayed the night of 14 March; we had said that no flags would be raised apart from the Palestinian flag.
On 15 March the biggest march we had ever seen arrived in buses and they raised flags that were the Palestinian flag on one side, the Hamas flag on the other. When we argued with them they said the shahadah on the Hamas flag could not be dropped, it was the statement of our faith—”There is no God but God, Muhammad is the Messenger of God”—the usual religious discourse, that is.
In the West Bank it was a slightly different story: after very slight encroachments on the protest, President Abbas ordered the distribution of shawerma sandwiches and drinks to the protesters—I’m sure he was trying to contain the situation but it made him look good.
So on the spot we invented the slogan: ‘Al katiba ya shabab, khalli ej jundi lal ahzab: “To Katiba, young men. Leave the [Unknown] Soldier to the [political] parties.” Katiba is a spot near the university campuses, which are very close together, while the Unknown Soldier you could say is Gaza’s answer to Tahrir Square. What we didn’t have time to think about was that Katiba was a very bad choice from a security standpoint: it’s very easy to be surrounded and controlled there. Anyway, we headed over to Katiba where we put up posters and slogans to make it clear that we had withdrawn from the protest that was misappropriated by the government. They sent people who told us we had to leave by five pm; we said we were not leaving. People went off to bring over tents and supervisions and transported the stuff we had installed in Unknown Soldier the previous day. All was set for spending the night.
At seven pm I was standing with a young man with a beard who was raising the Palestinian flag and I was handing him a glass of tea. I was saying, “You want some tea?” and he was saying “Yes”—and the next thing you know is this surge of bearded civilians with sticks. I won’t even pretended they were just ordinary people because we knew some of them and they were Hamas. (Those are virtually identical to the pro-Mubarak and pro-SCAF “honourable citizens” who attacked demonstrators in Cairo.) Anyway, the first person to hit me, across the chest, was the young man I was handing the tea. Afterwards we found out there were many such infiltrators.
It was like an charge of the Mongols, the most brutish attack you can imagine: beating, insults, abuse of women, even some of our mothers who were there. Some of my friends were so badly hurt they could not move. An activist friend of mine and I escaped and spent the night at a friend’s in Gaza City, and apart from brief appearances on campus we never went home; we stayed hidden for a week because, as we heard, they had distributed our pictures to security so that we could be arrested at checkpoints.
The next day there was a demonstration on campus and it was brutishly suppressed. On 17-19 March we tried again but the numbers had dwindled and many were arrested. Until 30 March, Land Day, when we were arrested on the charge of raising the Palestinian flag to spread sedition.
This is my experience with political suppression. Intellectual suppression is another story. In the briefest possible way: whoever is not with them is against them; and this is hardly unusual for Islamists. I am not the only the example. A female blogger was arrested because of what she wrote on her blog—nothing to do with politics. The first time I was arrested because I had written about my arrest in the Egyptian revolution solidarity protest. Another time, also because of something I had written, on the charge of “spreading secularism and falsifying (not simply misquoting) the Quran”.
After the second arrest we were released to find we had turned into atheists on the street. I even had trouble with my own family. It was a systematic defamation of character. What happened was—I stopped writing poems and articles; and when I started writing again I did it in a different way, not just to protect myself but to protect my family. Later, after a long bout of depression—for weeks I didn’t even step out of the house, I would ask my brother to buy me cigarettes—I decided I wanted to leave Gaza altogether. That was perhaps the strongest effect all this had on my life.
It happened after a visit to Cairo, I was arrested a while after my return on the charge of collaborating with foreign intelligence and being an agent and things like that. This created problems with my friends and even with myself… I stopped undertaking any activity: neither political nor civil nor literary nor intellectual. Once again on my brother returning from Egypt while I was still there, they wanted to arrest him because of me. I couldn’t sort out residency in Egypt and I had to cut short my stay and come back to deal with it.
On all these occasions I was insulted, maybe even pushed around a little, but there was no beating as such. It was nothing compared to people we heard about: someone detained for 180 days; someone forced to stay standing for 40 days; someone suspended from their hands or feeds for extended periods. But the last time I was arrested was after talk of unrest because of the lack of electricity—you know electricity is only available for a few hours a day in Gaza, but if you object you are spreading rumours and perpetrating sedition. There was talk of another attempted overthrow and I had nothing to do with that either but I was arrested again. And this was my worst experience of humiliation and beating. It was only one day, but I went home passed out.
But it was being accused of working for foreign powers that affected me the most. Family relations intervened and negotiated on my behalf until my release was finally secured, but I fell into a long depression. You try to serve your homeland and this is what happens to you? I won’t deny it, it was then that I started thinking, and I continue to wonder about it now: “The homeland is the thing raises you up, that is why you hold it sacred. It is not the thing that humiliates you.”
Interview by Youssef Rakha
Right-click for image url, (c) Youssef Rakha
The bus is more than half empty when I get on…
An old woman in black scuttles down the aisle to my right; before I’ve had a chance to see her face, two glossy pamphlets are in my lap. They are manuals of prescribed supplications, precisely classified by subject, object, even time of day. I’ve seen them too often to maintain an anthropological interest. Looking out the window to my left, I slip the pocket-size compendia into the pouch on the back of the seat in front of me, where someone better disposed could pick them up. I manage to extract some change from my shirt pocket just in time for the dark-robed ghost scuttling back to pick up on her way; the briefest glimpse reveals unusually personable features.
Already we are moving… But if so few passengers are headed for the North Sinai resort town of Arish, why was it so hard to obtain a ticket last night?
Not until we’ve reached Almaza Station, the last stop before the Ismailia highway, do the holidaymakers arrive in droves. (Beyond Ismailia itself, you have only to cross a bridge over the Suez Canal to be on your way to Gaza). With permission from the driver, this is my chance for a last-minute cigarette. All my possessions are neatly bundled in a small vinyl “manbag”, so it’s easy enough to take everything along on my smog-infused stroll round the vehicle. I leave only my book, open face down where I was seated: a very common indication that the seat in question is occupied.
Outside, the upper half of the driver has disappeared into the baggage dungeon that makes up the underbelly of the vehicle, where cases are no doubt being cast into the East Delta Company’s shadowy geometry of departure. Passing his contorted rump, I must dodge more bag-bearers in the heat. Finally, back on board, I’ve shoved my way to where the prayer-dispensing woman first materialised. An extended family fills up the aisle like revolving stalactites.
Among them are three stunning female teenagers; only one wears a headscarf: having closed and cast aside the book, she is plonked happily in my stead. I protest weakly, addressing myself to the nearest grown-up man. Immediately he obliges, but, as if in a punitive gesture, he selects the largest of his male children to position firmly by my side.
YOU CAN generally judge your distance from greater Syria by the taste and texture of Turkish coffee: the more satisfying the beverage, the closer you are. We have barely passed Qantara East, the first major stop on what would be the shortest ground route to Palestine — and, thanks to its identity with Qantara West, a vital link between Sinai and the Nile Delta province of Sharqiya — but the coffee is already superior to what you would get at the offices of this newspaper.
The “rest-house” here is more modest than its Alexandrine counterparts, which makes such quality all the more remarkable. Watching the sun dip lower and lower on the horizon, I make phone calls from the edge of the highway, some distance away from the din of the buses and their patrons. Then, determined to chat up the waiter, I walk back to the cafeteria, make my order and sit down.
Back on the bus the prayer pamphlets have already disappeared. Was it the pretty girl in hijab ? The impending darkness renders watching the video a kind of tunnel vision. Now that the dialogue is English, the volume has thankfully been turned down.
But the second film is Speed, the action flick about a bus with a bomb on it. When I start watching, the driver has been shot in the arm; to avoid an explosion, the woman who takes his place must charge ahead at more than 60 miles an hour irrespective of traffic. Under the circumstances, one vehicle will inevitably be confused with the other as we charge ahead in the dark. It is dizzying.
I’VE BARELY broken into a run on the asphalt when the truck swerves violently, braking a few steps away from me. In a typically North Sinai automotive idiosyncrasy, one half of the highway just outside Arish is set aside for pleasure cycles and promenading; the other, where I’m rushing towards the white Mercedes taxi after what feels like a long wait, is consequently a two-way road.
“I was going to die trying to get in next to you.”
“You might as well admit it: you’re in too much of a hurry.”
I am. The brevity of my stay is weighing on me and a plan spontaneously forms in my head — so I gush it out to the red-faced Bilei tribesman at the wheel:
“I have a booking with the Coral Beach but I’m told that’s too far from town. Can you take me somewhere closer? Will there be rooms available, though? Listen. I want to go to Rafah in the morning, come back in a few hours. Can you do it? How much would it cost?”
Arishi Arabic is a surprisingly organic mixture of Bedouin and Delta dialects very much like the Palestinian colloquial spoken in the Gaza Strip. Whether this is a result of the same tribal roots stretching across the border or of more recent, politically vexed exchange, it makes a pleasant counterpoint to the Hollywood English of the film. They say a Bedouin lives up to his word. By the time I have settled in my mosquito-infested “chalet room” at the “Ubarwai” (as everyone here refers to the former Oberoi, the venue’s present name being Arish Resort), I feel my plan is truly under way.
Ten minutes later another truck is swerving, but this time I’m out of its collision course. The silent, perfectly metropolitan taxi driver will charge me LE4 instead of the LE3 quoted by the Bilei but I don’t mind. He is silent. As I edge out of the Mercedes, winding an improvised path through a crowd that could have been anywhere urban and poor in Egypt, my concern is rather to find someone to talk to.
It hasn’t occurred to me yet, but in the 36 hours I am away from Cairo, it is drivers who will be my salvation. For half an hour at the café I can’t bring myself to approach anyone without feeling too intrusive. I just observe: young backgammon players with interesting hair-dos; middle-aged civil servants drawing on their shisha as they affectionately exchange news; old sheikhs meditating…
My close-cropped hair can’t be helping, I know. Then again, this is hardly a question of my appearance alone. There has to be a convincing excuse for making conversation — a context both fleeting and intimate as well as, crucially, informal. I finish my Coke and find an Internet café. Phenomenally tired by now, I just stand there, roughly adjacent to the high street, waiting to catch a ride back.
A cigarette is all it takes to engage this driver. He is young, slight and pissed off: had he bought cigarettes in his present state of mind, he says, he would have smoked three packs by now. “When I feel suffocated, I just switch on the Qur’an” — the same Saudi recitations are booming all through the five- minute journey — “and drive along.” He only ever smokes this brand, he says, smiling.
What is bothering him?
“The way things are, no one has the luxury to think of politics or the political situation and so begin to do something about them; no one is in any position to do anything but feed himself and his family. Someone says, ‘Come along to a demonstration,’ and all you can think of is the time you’d be wasting there when you’d rather be doing some lucrative work. So there is no activism, though God knows we need it. There is only this breathless running around, and where does it lead to?”
A TRUE PILGRIMAGE is best preceded by a fast. That way the senses are heightened, the body purified; the soul becomes more receptive to the presence of the (political) sacred.
I forgo breakfast too often to claim that this is my intention when, as per my agreement with the Bilei, I set out for Rafah the next morning. I could hardly have thought of it as a pilgrimage, either. But the fact that my driver, Akhdar — a “relation” of the one I contracted — is quick to say, “I am Palestinian”, and the sight of prickly pear-flanked sand dotted with olive groves… the smell of sea air, entirely distinct from that of the western Mediterranean, which I’m used to, and the vague sense of danger as the checkpoints become more frequent — all imbues the experience with a sense of transcendence, a feeling of crossing over into a space both rightful and forbidden, suddenly too close to ignore.
Akhdar is young and serene, subdued. “I’ve got a passport and everything,” he explains with remarkable calm. “But for years now they won’t let me in. I’ve been many times, of course, to see my family. People want to come in here to see their family; sometimes they’re working in other countries and, stopping over in Gaza, they have to come here to travel back to their work places. More often they just need to go to hospital… No, no, I was born here. My mother is [a Bilei?] from Sharqiya. When you have residence you can go anywhere you like, just like an Egyptian citizen, but in other ways it’s not the same.”
He is about to marry, he tells me, but his wife won’t be a Palestinian. Marrying an Egyptian — a girl from Sharqiya, in his case — can raise your chance of obtaining nationality, according to recently introduced laws; that way you can leave the country if you want to, you can claim social and health care; you can feel, as he puts it, “in one piece”. Turning slightly to identify the local headquarters of the country’s most notoriously influential plain-clothes police force, the State Security, Akhdar switches his 1970s Egyptian pop back on. No one cares any more for the Palestinians, he says.
A string of stories about sneaking family members from the other side in through Rafah’s automotive waterways — once, he reports, he was surrounded by no less than 12 machine guns, their muzzles all over his vehicle — is interrupted by a low-rank policeman gesturing for us to stop.
“What is that you’ve got in there?”
His head half inside the window on Akhdar’s side, the policeman nods accusingly towards me, apparently confident that I can’t understand what he says.
” Essalamu alaykom,” I intervene in perfect Arabic, watching the sheepish smile that forms on his lips gradually dissolve into an expression of welcome while I explain who I am and what I’m there for. He nods knowingly to “the opening of the maabar “; I can see him waving in the side-view mirror.
“When people have hair like that, they tend to be Jews,” for which read “Israelis”. Akhdar smiles apologetically while he removes his seat belt again, now that we’re clear of checkpoints; he accepts yet another cigarette, looking ahead. Had he known what I was after, he says, he would have taken me to his paternal uncle, back in Arish; the old man knows a lot of border-passage stories. As it is, speeding, we will wend our way to the maabar first, seeking what relations we can find later in Rafah.
“So what did you do?” I am sounding increasingly disjointed as I take in the surrounding sights. “When you were stopped by those armed policemen, what did you do?”
By now the landscape is more or less identical with film images of the Gaza Strip stored away in the global memory; that strange, green gateway — not a frontier, not a tollbooth — comes within sight. I expected car-studded crowds raising an energetic cacophony. As we approach, slowing, except for a handful of policeman lounging in the shade, the place is in derelict stillness.
“Nothing,” Akhdar is saying, still perfectly calm. “They got us out and searched every nook and cranny of the car. In the end I just left him standing there on the sand — what else? I headed back.”
SINCE the outbreak of war in Lebanon — Israelis levelling Beirut in response to Hizbullah taking two hostages in the south — I have been tormented by the dilemma of how to support the resistance while opposing political Islam, an ideology I take issue with regardless of creed. Still, while people are resisting the insane excesses of empire, can you really reject their driving force?
Akhdar will take a shortcut before slowing down a narrow lane outside his cousin’s house, explaining that this is one of the roads he has used for people smuggling. The maabar is behind us as we turn. Gesturing derisively in its direction, he will point out, again, that it would be pointless listening to the advice we got there… On seeing my press credentials, one uniformed low-rank policeman had started to explain what it means to work at the maabar, day in, day out, when another, plain-clothes one interrupted the conversation, insisting that, before I can speak to anyone, I must have State Security permission.
“You’re a driver, right?” The uniformed officer said to Akhdar, through a window in the gate itself, feigning a helpful tone for my benefit. “You know where it is.”
If I want information I must go to State Security.
In the shade of a tree on the other side of the road, another uniformed officer was dozing off when the plainclothes policeman who had intercepted me went up to him; he raised his head from the table, he put it back down. His plainclothes companion — himself State Security, I suspect — didn’t bother to remove his leg from the seat on which it was placed when he shook my hand. “Nothing at all happened here,” he said, his tone verging on the intimidating. “Nothing worth reporting on, anyway. Do you see any activity around you?” He looked behind him. “A real pleasure meeting you, though…”
Breathing Palestinian air, now, the Islamic resistance dilemma no longer seems to bother me. We have stopped momentarily by an olive field, and it’s hard to believe that the poles in the distance are actually in Palestine. (“I saw Palestine,” I will keep telling friends on coming back to Cairo. “Yes, the country.”) But as we take our seats on the floor at Akhdar’s cousin’s — an older taxi-driver whose large one-storey house might as well be in a refugee camp — it dawns on me with unprecedented intensity that here are the people on the ground, that their lifestyle and beliefs are in no way undermined by Islamism, and that no one, not a single force except for the militants of political Islam are fighting on their side.
Over 500 families are supported by taxi trips from the maabar to Arish, my gracious host explains — his language is even more like Palestinian than anything I’ve heard so far — making at least 2,000 people dependent on the maabar being open, the only time when “there is work”. The Egyptian authorities have nothing to do with it, he insists. “It is the Jews, the Jews,” he says, over and over, “may God bring down their houses.” (There would be no point opening the maabar while the border is closed, and the border, however indirectly, is controlled by the Israeli authorities). The other day when it was open, he tells Akhdar, sipping the fresh mango-and- guava juice he has offered us, the work flowed “like honey”.
Before we leave — just in time for the camel races, back on the outskirts of Arish — he has made two separate points that bring the resolution of the dilemma to a safe harbour in my head:
“People are too concerned with having enough to eat to think about politics, whether or not they would support Hamas if they did;” and “Egyptians get along with Palestinians in Rafah, of course they do, because they are all Muslims; why should Muslim neighbours have problems with each other?”
After so many years of liberalism and enlightenment, I am born again.
The cousin ends up coming along part of the way to ask at the mechanic’s whether a particular spare part is available; there would be no point bringing the relative who needs it all the way from Arish if it wasn’t. (Many such commodities come straight from Israel; and trading in things like clothes and electronics originating there forms a significant part of North Sinai’s informal economy). At one point we take a sharp turn and he taps my shoulder from the back seat:
“See that building there?” I’m wincing in the sun. “That’s Palestine.”
THAT morning when I woke up, there were so many Arabian head-covers in the Ubarwai lounge I couldn’t help suspecting a Gulfie take-over. Only on speaking to one of their wearers — he turned out to be a camel breeder from Aqaba — did I discover what this was about: the Mahrajan Al-Hijjin, one of several three-day “camel festivals” held annually across the country, which draws together tribal Arabs from all over the Middle East and North Africa — all of whom wear the Peninsula’s trademark uqaal. (Several sources pointed out that the colour of the headscarf is a matter of personal taste, nothing to do with tribal affiliations: the blue, Tuareg-like varieties are increasingly popular among the young).
Finding out there would be races this afternoon, I’ve been looking forward to attending them all day — a relaxing denouement to the strain of Rafah — grateful that an unexpected gift should crop up just before I go. Arab nationalism aside, camels are among my favourite animals; and what better way to unwind than standing on the dunes watching them accelerate majestically in the sand, with beautifully decked out child jockeys bouncing in rhythm on their backs — or so I think.
They too will have had no breakfast, according to my Aqaba interlocutor, having spent the last two weeks eating and drinking half of their usual diet in preparation — something that intensifies my empathy now that hunger is wringing my stomach. By the time Akhdar puts on a Bedouin tape — also from Jordan — the horrors of “security” have been cast away.
At the rink we must wait; some say for an hour, some for two. One foj — that is how a single group of competing camels is referred to — is finished; the next hasn’t started yet. Akhdar and I consider the possibilities, setting off for the Ubarwai only to retrace our steps five minutes later: the cars are converging on the area, he says; the foj must be about to start.
Back on the sand we bump into Rabi, the brother of the driver who took me to the Ubarwai in the first place; without changing significantly, Akhdar’s speech appears to emphasise Bedouin over Palestinian inflections when he speaks to him. Rabi is in one of the sedans in which he deals, as he informs me, bringing them back and forth from Cairo. He invites me to sit in the back; later, when the action starts, thanks to his brother’s hospitality, I move next to him in the front.
My right arm will go on stinging for many days from exposure to sand bursts while sticking the camera out the window. The way you watch the race is to speed after the camels alongside the rink, mostly in Toyota pickups bearing up to 20 people in the back, taking pictures where you can — camera mobile phones are incredibly plentiful — and egging along your stud.
Afterwards, in the open space adjacent to where the single, circular lap starts and finishes, the onlookers perform car stunts, competing in daring and aptitude.
That the sedan, also a Toyota, was not meant for sand stunts doesn’t stop Rabi from joining in the show, at which point I’ve been in the car for more than three hours and am desperate to get out. For a long, long time before the foj started, he was crawling around making phone calls and looking for friends, never stopping for more than a few minutes at a time. For a traffic-suffocated city dweller it seemed counterintuitive to call this fun; but for everyone else it was a perfectly natural pastime.
No chance of a contemplative time on the dunes, then. Instead, this adrenaline-pumped ride round and round, with only a few moments to stretch my legs every so often. All the while the slow sundown is doing creative things with the sky — and not a single stationary camel to spend time with so far.
When Rabi disappears in the ring of vehicles waiting for their turn at a stunt, leaving the three of us near the rink to watch, I notice the lone figure of an evidently defeated competitor tethered unpleasantly to the wood. He is performing strange movements with his neck, looking like an ostrich and a bloodhound in turn, apparently unsettled by the presence of so many motor vehicles in the same place. He won’t give me a chance to touch him, though he poses for a few pictures willingly enough, from a distance. At least I step over and exchange a few words.
RABI is Arab to the bone; that means he badmouths other Arabs, making fun of the dha sound with which South Sinai tribes replace the more city-like da of the north (something I remember his red-faced brother doing too). It also means he will do anything for a guest — anything but listen carefully enough to realise that that guest would really like to go now, please. Instead he points out people firing guns into the air, carried away by the all- male, sand-and- uqaal excitement.
On a day like this, no guest or policeman will prevent him from driving on and on in circles, racing ahead like a madman to make sure “those water buffalo” don’t get ahead of him alongside the rink, and identifying tribes by facial features — a process that involves the most outrageous statements: “They will sell everything to buy a car for the mahrajan, come over in it, then sell it off once the mahrajan is over”; “The black ones are Arabs too, but they are black; they’re the worst killers, the black ones”; “Those guys you see over there, each of them has three to seven life sentences to his name, but they go on as before and there’s nothing the police can do to stop them; the police are scared of them”…
When he bumps into a group of resident policemen, indeed, he treats their practise of extortion as a given — a way, for him, to assert generosity or withhold favour. For a similarly long time he complains of not having any cannabis on him; the same goes for water. A need, though pressing, is never pressing enough; it just persists. And the concept of solitude doesn’t exist in any meaningful sense. Always people are coming and going, sometimes summoned by mobile phone, insulted when they fail to answer. Like a true stoner, Rabi has the shortest concentration span.
“The nicest thing is to get high and go round like we’re doing now,” he tells me at one point. And at another: “Do you get high?”
I know I have answered this question before now, so I insist, firmly but gently, that I must go; and following another 15 minutes of pleading on the part of both his brother and Akhdar he finally drives us back to where the taxi is parked.
“You’ve seen enough of this anyway,” he says as I edge out. The real fun is up on the mountain. Over there, there is neither police nor outsiders; people are completely wild…”
FIVE minutes later Rabi phones to say that he is going to Cairo tonight and would I like to go along with him, now that it is too late for a bus. We exchange phone numbers and he promises to phone in an hour. “An hour?” I ask incredulously. He is still at the rink.
Several hours later — I am at another “rest-house” beyond Ismailia, almost at the end of my journey, and the coffee tastes like excrement — Rabi still hasn’t phoned.
“Why in such a hurry?” I remember him saying.
Al Ahram Weekly 1 – 7 November 2001, Issue No.558
|FOUR HOURS IN CHATILA|
… of all the Palestine-inspired fare, no gesture in the direction of the ongoing Intifada could have hit the nail on the head with greater precision than the Swiss filmmaker Richard Dino’s Genet à Chatila, a Panorama screening.
The film is a long, audiovisual document of Jean Genet’s experience of the Palestinian revolution in Lebanon and Jordan in the early and mid-1970s, and again in 1982, when the aging Genet, already a well- known supporter of the Palestinian cause and now accompanied to Beirut by Leila Shahid (the Palestinian ambassador to France, then a university student in Paris), witnessed the immediate aftermath of the Chatila massacre just outside Beirut. The Lebanese Phalangist militia, under the direction of the Israeli army, had undertaken a “barbaric feast,” and Genet couldn’t help but revel in it in his way: “A photograph can’t capture the flies,” he states, “nor the thick white smell of death, nor can it show how you have to jump when you go from one body to another.”
This was, so Shahid tells us, a phenomenal encounter, which compelled Genet to start writing after almost 20 years of reticence. The pages Genet worked on in silence in Beirut, just after his four-hour stroll through the Chatila camp, were to grow into Prisoner of Love, his last book, from which Dino’s work takes its cue. Reviewing, in merciless detail, the excellent work General Sharon (otherwise known as the current Israeli prime minister) achieved in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila, Genet à Chatila moves back in time, into the minds and houses of the feda’iyeen lurking in the Jordanian desert, further away from the facts of the resistance (of which no trace remains at the time of filming), and deeper into the realm of Genet’s poetic genius, to which the book bears ample testimony: “These trees come back to me,” he recalls, referring to his two-year stay with the feda’iyeen, while an empty expanse of desert, punctuated by the trees in question, implants its likeness into the mind of the viewer. The words are more than evocative: their power of suggestion is such they imbue the images with a larger-than-life, not-as-boring-as-it-seems, multi-dimensional reality. “I haven’t said enough of their fragility. Everything was trees.” At the time of writing, Genet listened constantly to Mozart’s (ultimately unfinished) Requiem, which provides a large part of the soundtrack, then he too died while correcting the proofs, Shahid supplies meaningfully.
| Chatila Refugee Camp, Beirut 1982
She is standing in a typically nondescript hotel room in Paris, which was Genet’s last home. He died, as he so often described himself, a stranger among strangers, terminally tired of hunting down the superficially trivial memories from which he forged his own mythology. In one of many passages recited, with a dogged repetitiveness, through the journey, Genet wonders offhandedly, “Why talk about this revolution? It too resembles a long drawn out burial, with me following the funeral procession from afar.”
And yet revolution “is the happiest time of life,” the viewer is persuasively informed. “The feda’iyeen didn’t want power, they had freedom,” and “the death of a favourite fada’iye” paradoxically seemed to cheer them up, give them more determination. Their life, “in a Muslim country, where the woman is far away,” was an almost indelible “celebration.” Reflecting on the subsequent fate of his doomed companions, Genet insists, “It must be stated… that hundreds of years are not enough for the final destruction of a people.” In the light of current affairs, this is a salutary assertion indeed.
So much for affirmation: even here, Genet cannot help being subversive; and his position as a lone European among Palestinians is perpetually brought into focus. It was as if, living in a dark dungeon, the feda’iyeen’s heart’s desire was merely to intensify the darkness, to sink deeper and deeper into despair. Helpless and without hope: this is how Genet seems to like his Palestinians; that, in being part of the revolution he felt he was living “in his own memory” is the core of his sympathy, unconditional and ultimately of no use. He was a Frenchman, he says, but he could only find himself “amongst the oppressed risen against the whites.” The struggle of the Palestinians was “right,” not necessarily good or objectively justified. They were right simply because he loved them, and he wonders whether such love would have been possible had injustice not turned them into nomads. It is this distance, his self-awareness, that makes Genet’s account of the revolution so relevant: neither patriotism nor reason is brought into play; only the “incredible fact” of his being among them, like a shadow, colours his awareness of their suffering.
In reenacting his journey — at first she appears to be impersonating the young Shahid, but eventually she seeks out Genet’s surviving friends or their relations, spends a night in the desert with a cheerful band of former feda’iyeen, reads and recites Prisoner of Love, listens to the Requiem and steps pointlessly into the scene of the massacres, the killings, the simple acts of courage and kindness that enthralled Genet — Mounia Raoui, a young Algerian Frenchwoman, seems to be underlining the emptiness to which Genet alludes. It is true that her conversations with survivors and other Palestinians illuminate their plight in an incomparably immediate way — such, many would say, is the mark of a successful documentary — but it is her outrage at the lack of any record, in present-day reality, of what Genet reported, that makes her presence indispensable. Mounia is Dino’s counterpart for Genet’s writing, “the silent face” that makes up his account of the revolution: “So many words to say this is my Palestinian revolution,” which, to Genet at least, is not quite the same thing. Yet no one, “nothing, no narrative [or, by extension, cinematic] technique could ever describe” the real Palestinian revolution.
It has been buried, along with Mozart and Genet; and, like the graves of Chatila’s victims, its burying places have never been marked with tombstones. Genet was right, however, for, even as General- Prime Minister Sharon’s broad grin gives off the thick white smell of death, we know the final destruction of the Palestinian people is not nearly about to take place.
When a Palestinian school child in Abu Dhabi is asked what the difference is between Israelis and Jews, and he replies that, while the Jew is somewhat of a Muslim, the Israeli remains a fully fledged idolater, you automatically conclude that this child must be a Muslim. But it makes you wonder about the presence of Palestinian Christians in local consciousness, and whether the identification of the resistance with militant Islam over the last few decades has wholly precluded them from global debate (the late Edward Said, Allah have mercy on him, may have been a spokesman for Muslims as well as Arabs, but he was not Muslim).
The more you pay attention to the answers given by grade-four students of the Azhar Palestine Private School, one of Abu Dhabi’s less glamorous co-ed institutions, to questions posed by the Zayed University student-cum-film maker Salma al Darmaki in her 35-minute documentary My Palestine, the more you wonder.
You wonder where these little girls and boys got the idea that it was the Shia who invaded Lebanon, kicking the Palestinians out (could this be a warped reference to that episode of the Lebanese Civil War during which Shia militias of the Amal movement fought the refugee camp-based guerillas of the PLO?) You wonder how Israeli military atrocities against Palestinian civilians came to be symbolised by the mythical act of soldiers cutting open a pregnant woman’s stomach, removing the foetus, killing it, and placing a live cat in its place before sewing the stomach back up – leaving the woman, who is still alive, heavy with cat. You wonder whose mistake it was to forget that the post of Lebanese prime minister is open only to Sunnis, leading to the belief, among many of the students, that the late Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri was assassinated because he was a Palestine-hating Shiite.
You wonder if there could ever be any excuse for a parent to teach their child the second half of the broken rhyme Falastin bladnah welyahud klabnah: “Palestine is our country and the Jews are our dogs”.
With less outrage, you wonder what the Danish cartoon crisis, re which the students chant an anthem calling on Arabs, Muslims and the rightful to boycott Danish products, could really have to do with the Palestinian cause, when all is said and done. And you wonder whether religion class, extensively and beautifully featured so that you hear the bigoted, sexist and dogmatic woman teacher without seeing her, might have a role to play in the washing of palpably innocent brains with such hideously subverted narratives about who they might be. You wonder about this and other questions relating to “the construction of identity and how it is being debated”, as the deceptively quiet Darmaki, a petite, modest, focussed, extremely self-possessed 21-year-old in a abaya, phrases the issue at stake.
An international relations student, by the time she embarked on My Palestine Darmaki had, with her colleague and assistant on My Palestine, Hermeen Adam, co-directed two films – Katkout, about real-life dwarves in Abu Dhabi, and Chained, Stripped and Branded, about women’s prison – as part of a course named Peoples of the World, taught by the humanities professor Nizar Andary, who required, in place of the written word for by way of assessment, visual ethnographies. “But the quality was so bad. We didn’t have experience,” she says.
The outcome of an independent-study class devised by Andary specifically because they loved making films, Darmaki’s better planned project for a documentary on plastic surgery was falling through when, curious about the curriculum taught to stateless expatriates (as opposed to schools servicing communities like the Pakistani, for example, which taught their state curricula), she started spending time at the Azhar School. The subject gradually shifted from school curricula to Palestinian identity, however, and when she eventually found the required rapport with fourth graders, she was all too happy to record their unadorned views in impressively seamless cinema verite. Even on the horribly noisy ground floor of the Marina Mall, where she refuses to drink anything and categorically forbids me from smoking, Darmaki will not comment about what the students have to say. Subtly, she explains, the question of UAE solidarity with the Palestinian people is raised. And subtly, when the students chant a salute from the Emirates to Palestine, it is answered, she says, in part: “I too will support the cause but in a less violent way.”
What she supports is the undifferenciated dynamism of underprivileged members of the Palestinian diaspora in an oil rich Gulf state – something about which she is understandably reticent. Darmaki’s homage to Palestine has less to do with either Palestinians in the UAE or the insane reactions of these children’s evidently uneducated parents to the political situation than with the intensely moving humanity of the children, their energy and sheer good will sharply contrasting with what they have to say. Under better circumstances, you wonder, would they be saying the same things? And then you remember the little boy who, conceding his teacher’s view that, “yes, of course, Shia in itself is bad”, points out that individual Shiites are not all bad, actually. “My father has a friend who is Shia and he comes over sometimes so I sat with him,” he says, with heart-rending earnestness. “He really is totally normal.”