It’s been more than 18 months since I wrote on this blog about my childhood as an Arab-Canadian and how it coloured both my self-perception and my outlook on the world. It was the late Spring of an uprising in the Arab world that had resembled a weather system, shifting from one place to the next in a pattern that seemed at once inevitable and unpredictable. Each iteration was like a thunderstorm on a suffocating summer’s day: bounteous, cathartic, its immensity in exact proportion to the light and air it promised.
Thinking about what’s happened since, I quickly run out of fingers and breath. The birth of two babies, the death of a sister, an old house in a new neighbourhood. The unseating of the US-backed Egyptian president and his replacement by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Female protesters raped in Tahrir Square. Civil war in Syria; Assad an immovable object, his wife moved mostly by shopping. The clamour to ‘free’ Libya culminating in the gruesome death of the cartoonish fiend Colonel Gaddafi. The clamour for Iranian blood growing louder each day. In the meantime, US drones remotely controlled from the comfort of New Jersey and Nevada have continued to slaughter faceless ‘enemies,’ while Barack Obama promised change, again. And America believed him, again (for what else was there to believe in?).
There were predictable I-told-you so’s: those pleased to conclude that the Arab world ‘wasn’t ready for democracy,’ that it was destined to fall for the crafty certainties of the mullahs, that vacuums were being created and quickly filled by long-repressed conflicts among competing factions. But the Arab world is just like any other and – whatever the romantic spin – revolutions rarely happen overnight. The ‘French Revolution’ lasted about a decade and is more rightly described as a period of transformational change than a single act. Boris Yeltsin delivered a speech from atop a tank in 1991 and yet, as the writer Michael Weiss wrote recently, ‘Russian democracy has been in a state of arrested development for 12 years’, its resources plundered by home-grown pirates who now send their children to school in Belgravia and Hampstead.
Still, today’s announcement by the Foreign Secretary William Hague that the UK will abstain on a UN vote on recognition of a Palestinian state unless the Palestinians agree to unconditional talks with Israel is merely the latest in a depressingly familiar chorus from the US and its parrot states, a chorus of which barely a note has changed since the Arab Spring began. The announcement follows by just a few days Hague’s pronouncement that the Palestinians are the architects of their own misfortune in the current Gaza siege and confirms that the message is as it ever was: we know who are the intransigent ones, the dangerous ones, the difficult ones. And we know who are the victims in need of our protection. It’s not the dispossessed population living in an open-air prison and facing one of the mightiest armies on earth. It’s not the children with stones in their hands. It’s that very army, and the people in whose name it acts, who need us to protect them from any ‘conditions’ whatsoever, including the prospect that others might view their exploits as criminal and take these claims to The Hague.
In other words, don’t believe your eyes.
Indeed, the central issue here is how the collective imagination is animated and deployed to reinforce the assumptions that underlie this perverse and stubborn narrative. For me, this strategy was summed up best long before the Arab Spring, during the 2008-9 siege of Gaza when 1417 Palestinians were killed with the collective force of 78 attack helicopters, 299 F-16s and 3650 tanks. Thirteen Israelis were killed, four of them by Hamas-launched rockets.
In explaining his policy of unconditional support for Israel in this farcically one-sided and lethal campaign, the newly-elected US President Barack Obama – who rode to power on a vague platform of ‘hope’ and ‘change’ – told us that the thought of rockets being aimed at villages on the Israeli side of the border made him think of the danger such rockets might pose to his own daughters if they were young Israelis. At the time, I was deeply struck by the imagining Obama chose for himself, and the imagining he invited us to share. By then, we were all familiar with the bright, smiling faces of Malia and Sasha, their lanky frames belying their age while attesting to their parentage. If ours were the children of Israel, asked their father, how would we feel?
As a feminist of Arab origin, I am often irritated by lazy, populist sexism and racism. (Indeed, I’m never sure whether to be more offended by comments from people who don’t know my background, or those who do but who have decided to confer honorary ‘non-Arab’ status on me because I look and sound like they do.) Yet when confronted by this rhetorical invitation from a US President, carefully framed in the language of empathy, one thought came sharply into focus: this is how the Palestinians are ‘disappeared.’ This is how Ariel Sharon’s son can call for the annihilation of Gaza and all its citizens and elicit barely a whisper, barely even an involuntary intake of breath by people whose sympathies were long ago spoken for.
This memory came back to me with force recently, not on the birth of my own children but at a fundraiser I attended just last week for the group Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East. The event was a rubber chicken affair, organised months before by a dynamic and energetic woman named Grace Batchoun, and held in an Ottawa hotel whose decor had yet to brush up against the 21st Century.
Despite the coincidental urgency of the occasion, which fell on the first day of the Gaza ceasefire, I confess that I was distracted away from the speeches by the slideshow on a seemingly endless reel that appeared on a screen over my shoulder. There was a shot of Palestinian schoolkids – perhaps 8 or 9 years old – smiling hopefully for the camera. There was a boy of 4 or 5, bewildered and crying in front of the remains of his house which had been destroyed by the IDF. They’re just a click away, these Palestinian children. Try here or here or here. I thought, these could be my children living a life where no place is safe, where you learn to walk in case you need to run, and my heart broke.
But the Arab Spring did not change the Palestinian issue, which was never about children in the sentimental sense embraced by spin doctors and PR professionals. It remains about justice for a people whose dispossession has been aggravated by demonisation at their refusal to conveniently disappear. They are afforded no protection under the Fourth Geneva Convention on the treatment of civilians during wartime, and today the UK government assured Israel that war crimes won’t count when they are perpetrated against Palestinians.
When I last wrote on this topic, I stuck a tentative toe into a luxurious pool of ‘pessoptimism’ and I liked it. It felt good to be an Arab for a change. Now I am very, very tired, and once again bracing myself for what’s next.