In 1973, when I was 7 years-old, a girl in our class scrabbled on top of her desk one morning before the teacher came in and conducted an ad hoc poll about the Yom Kippur war. ‘Who wants Israel to win?!’, Brenda K. demanded loudly. Looking bewildered, most of the other girls put up their hands. ‘And who wants the Arabs to win?’ she asked rhetorically. Not a single hand was raised, not even by me or my sister, despite the fact that our family comes from southern Lebanon and our childhood was steeped in Palestinian-Israeli politics. Of course, these biographical details were beside the point, for what did a bunch of 7 and 8 year-old girls really know about this war? The relevant facts were these: Palestinians were hated and despised, and Arabs were bloodthirsty and irrational. And what our hearts told us as we blushed and fidgeted was that Brenda’s poll was not about politics. It was about acceptance and shame.

Though it was close to four decades ago now, I’ve often had occasion to look back on that episode and others like it, and think about how we learn which parts of ourselves are acceptable and which must remain hidden. Despite being born and raised in Ottawa, Canada, my mother was labeled a ‘black Syrian’ throughout her childhood, and some parents wouldn’t let their daughters play with her. They especially hated the fact that she outshone their children at school. Nonetheless, she has always been outspoken about the Palestinian cause and myriad other political and social justice issues.

In fact my mother, who is now a successful entrepreneur in the music world and a well-known arts patron in Ottawa, told me recently that it wasn’t racial discrimination that she felt acutely as a child; it was simply difference. ‘I guess I felt they were superior – what they ate, where they lived,’ she said. ‘We always lived behind a store or upstairs, and I wished we had a house with a front door.’

‘MRS BEECHAM’, IF YOU PLEASE

Ironically, my grandmother – who was born in Syria and lived there till she was 11 – was a true integrationist. After she married my grandfather, whose Arab surname ‘Boushey’ had been transformed into the French-Canadian ‘Beauchamp’, nothing gave my grandmother greater pleasure than having an English person mistakenly refer to her as ‘Mrs Beecham.’ She used to wear kilts and knee-highs that were never quite high enough, and in her older age she was invited to join the stuffy Chelsea Club, a women’s organisation in Ottawa, which offered blue-haired ladies white bread sandwiches slathered in butter in an atmosphere about as joyful as a library. As a ‘treat’ she took me there for lunch once, maybe it was my 14th birthday. I sat across from her rigid with terror, not daring to make a peep and risk the sharp pinch she was sure to mete out under the table at the slightest transgression of etiquette.

My father managed somehow to straddle two identities, being at once an outspoken Arab nationalist and critic of Israel, and a fervent Canadian immigrant and fiscal conservative. His family is educated, intellectual: doctors, engineers, teachers. In 1928, his mother was the valedictorian of her high school class; his father was the mayor of their town in southern Lebanon. My father arrived in Canada at the age of 19 after his family’s land in northern Israel was confiscated, and he worked for several years for the Iron Ore Company of Canada in Schefferville, Quebec, a godforsaken Northern outpost where he learned to wear flannel shirts and drink Molson beer and smoke DuMaurier cigarettes. Later, he took enormous delight in zipping up me and my sisters in our one-piece snowsuits (‘close on your chest, Jules!’) and taking us to the local hill for skiing lessons. And then at my sister Darya’s insistence, we got Arrow, our delightful collie, because what suburban Canadian family was complete without a dog, for goodness sake?

COLLAGE OF HISTORIES

Although our parents split up when we were young it was within this collage of histories, talents and inclinations that my sisters and I became who we are: outspoken in manner, feminist in perspective, international in outlook, articulate, academic and sporty. Among us, we have dabbled in Buddhism, competed in gymnastics, made films, won scholarships, attended marches, written poetry. Like many second generation immigrants, we occupy myriad identities. Some of these we wear lightly; with others, the fit is imperfect.

In 2005, I embarked on a Masters degree in Arts Administration and Cultural Policy at Goldsmiths College in London. As we neared the end of the course, we had to choose a topic for our dissertation, and I decided to write mine about the role of culture in the Palestinian resistance. I was interested in protest poetry and reconciliation through music, and I wanted to know what (if anything) art could offer in such a bitter dispute.

Even before my work began, I was struck by many people’s reactions to my subject. They were not hostile; instead, they looked confused, bewildered even. I’m not sure many of them had heard the the words ‘Palestinian’ and ‘culture’ in the same sentence before. Isn’t it the Israelis who are like ‘us’, their eyes said, writers, scientists and philosophers in the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’, under perpetual existential threat from neighbouring Arabs, with their blood-lust, barbaric religion and racial predisposition to violence? They didn’t ask these questions, of course. Instead, they offered hard, tight smiles.

It was only when the real work started, however, that I began to appreciate the thicket into which I had wandered. I quickly understood that I was asking the wrong question altogether. The central issue was not whether poetry can be as effective as a pistol, or whether music-making can turn enemies into friends. We know what meaning to ascribe to a man with a bomb strapped to his body. But what do we think when we see a man with a paintbrush in his hand, or a woman with a flute at her lips? How do these images confuse the narrative of ‘us vs them’, and disrupt the status quo? Culture is powerful not because it can stop tanks or defuse bombs, I concluded, but because it shifts our attention to those who create it, and asks us what we know about them and what we think we know.

THE ARAB SPRING

As the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ has unfolded over recent months, I have been amused by how bemused much of the Western media and many of our politicians have been by events in the Middle East and North Africa. I was about to write ‘unexpected events’ but I changed my mind, for were these events really unexpected? Only if you had accepted in the first place the relentlessly one-dimensional characterisation of Arabs as a homogeneous and uncivilised mob of anti-Semitic and anti-American thugs who hide their meek and oppressed women behind veils. If so, you might well ask where all of these doctors, lawyers, writers, students, clerics, teachers, fruit vendors, shop clerks, and secretaries pouring into Tahrir Square had come from? And how come nobody told us about them?

I don’t make these observations with any special cynicism. Indeed, cliched images of Arabs have been the only ones on offer for so long now that I suspect the logic of trading the freedom of millions of Arabs for Israeli security and reliable oil supplies reflects Western assumptions which no one really thinks about much. This might seem far-fetched, but how else to explain why so many politicians and journalists have appeared genuinely flummoxed by this uprising from the Arab ‘street’ in response to decades of corruption, cronyism and suppressed aspirations? If Westerners believe Arabs are human, then why are they surprised when they act human?

Of course, I have a personal interest in these global events which have called into question the assumptions at the heart of my own struggle to accept a complex identity without apology or shame. As Tahrir Square and Bahrain, Tripoli and Tunis have up-ended many stereotypes about Arabs and the Arab world, there’s now a discernible chink in the armour of the ‘us vs them’ paradigm, a chink through which I can see to the other side. Sure, the hawks and neocons are desperately struggling to fill it with their shrill forecasts of doom, while Israel responds with the brute force that is its only modus operandi. But these days they sound tired and out of touch. Call me a pessoptimist but it feels as though the narrative is finally up for grabs.

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