I have given quite a few presentations during my life, especially during my activist years. I chose only some to share and comment on herein.
DATE: SATURDAY, MARCH 28, 1987
CONFERENCE: PALESTINE HUMAN RIGHTS CAMPAIGN: FIRST WOMEN’S CONFERENCE
TITLE OF PANEL: IMAGES OF PALESTINIAN WOMEN
MY SUBJECT: EXPATRIATE PALESTINIAN MOTHERS
My novel, “A Woman of Nazareth,” had just come out when Laila Diab called and asked me to participate in the Palestine Human Rights Conference.
I had been an author for 23 days. Barely had I earned the title, so to speak. And here I was being asked to make speeches.
At first I was flattered.
As an author, I am an amateur. I have no expertise. I felt I had to write this novel and I did. Some have said it is marvelous. Others didn’t think so. In any case, in the field of writing I still have a long, long way to go.
Yet . . . I had been a mother for 23 years and no one had ever asked me to make a speech. In the field of mothering I am a professional.
Unfortunately, there are no colleges that give degrees in mothering. If there were, I would, by now, have a couple of doctorates.
As an author I have just one book on my records.
As a mother I have four children on my record. I am a walking encyclopedia. I have pregnancy scars; worry lines, white hairs, thousands of sleepless nights and tons of experience.
And so, with all due respect to the “PHRC” for inviting me here in my capacity as an author, I am going to be speaking to you today in the field of my real expertise: Mothering.
And to begin with, please join me in a big round of applause to all mothers everywhere.
I met Imm Mohammad in 1967 In the Palestinian refugee camp of Sabra. I was then in my twenties. Imm Mohammad was in her forties. She was illiterate, simple and very, very gentle.
Shortly after meeting her I was incorporated into her family and spent many hours talking with her and her three wonderful daughters.
One morning, as we were sitting around chatting and sipping our coffee, Abu Mohammad walked in. It was the first time he had joined us ladies for a cup of coffee, and I knew then that I had really become a part of that family.
As Abu Mohammad poured his cup, Imm Mohammad left the room and came back within seconds carrying a big, white towel which she unfolded and gently but firmly laid across my lap.
In the meantime, the conversation was going on around me without any interruption.
You see, it was the sixties. The fashion was miniskirts. In my unthinking youth I had put on a mini skirt that morning which Imm Mohammad had to do something about when a man appeared on the scene.
I was terribly ashamed of myself. And I was flabbergasted at the finesse with which all the family had handled the situation by continuing with their conversation as if nothing had happened.
From then on, I never wore any skirts to the camp. I wore pants. Very baggy pants.
That was the gentle, traditional side of Imm Mohammad. I was to witness an opposite side shortly.
That side manifested itself during one of the many Israeli raids on the Palestinian camps.
It was the first time I had been in the camp during a raid.
As the sirens went off, and the sound of the fighter planes drew closer, Imm Mohammad pulled me to shelter as she started cursing in a language that I had never expected this gentle, traditional woman to utter.
I had never seen her that way. I even forgot to be scared as I saw her in that state.
Later on, back at the house, she sobbingly told me the story of her son, Mohammad, whom I had never seen.
I had never asked about him assuming that he was either a fedai (freedom fighter) in some training camp, or in a jailhouse in Israel. It wasn’t so. Baby Mohammad had died a couple of months after the exodus of 1948.
In her words Imm Mohammad told me: I was so upset, so angry. I had lost everything and had become a refugee living in a tent. I couldn’t deal with it. So, my milk turned to poison, and not knowing, I went on suckling my son, who . . . then . . . died.
We cried together.
Probably no doctor would endorse Imm Mohammad’s story of the cause for her son’s death. I do.
Mohammad died because of his mother’s sad and angry soul.
He wasn’t the first one.
He isn’t the last.
Our Palestinian and Arab children are still dying in that same camp in Sabra.
The air raids never stopped.
The massacre is not over.
In 1978 Imm Mohammad and Abu Mohammad died as a result of bullet wounds.
I had left Lebanon by that time. I never knew what happened to the girls.
They probably died in Sabra too.
Sabra and Shatila, Tal el Za’atar, El Buss, Burj el Barajneh and many others are Palestinian graveyards.
Imm Michel, like Imm Mohammad was another illiterate and simple woman. Both women had been prepared for the role of motherhood since their infancy.
It was a role they were content with. They had no other aspirations, and, therefore, their children were their whole life.
Unlike Imm Mohammad, Imm Michel was an affluent lady and after 1948 she went with her Lebanese husband to his village in northern Lebanon. Her children were grown and married.
Imm Michel was my grandmother and with her, being the eldest grandchild, I spent many summers. Sometimes with my family, others on my own.
She used to smoke an argileh (water pipe) and had a resounding laughter. Over the years that laughter disappeared. The hijra (uprooting) was becoming a reality.
We were not “going back” as was generally believed.
With each passing day the chances became more dismal.
One day, I was probably nine at the time; I was passing by the kitchen where my grandmother was rolling grape leaves.
I heard her mumbling to herself.
I waited outside the door and heard her calling out the names of her children; my mother, my aunts and my uncle.
None of them at the time was living around her.
As she mumbled the names repeating them like the prayers of the rosary, she was crying.
It was the first time I had noticed an adult crying. I was devastated. Adults were not supposed to cry.
Not knowing what to do, I softly walked up to her and just stood there. Quickly, she wiped away her tears and went into an avalanche of curses.
She was so, so angry.
Naturally, in my childhood, I forgot that incident completely. I never thought about it until I had been in the United States for some time.
Beirut was devastated.
It had been under siege by the Israelis. And the price for the Israeli withdrawal was, once again, the Palestinians.
Very soon after an agreement had been reached, the massacres at Sabra and Shatila were ferociously underway.
I was overwhelmed with grief, nostalgia, an immense sadness and a mad, sizzling anger.
I sat gazing out of my window in my suburban home and crying my heart out.
I was away from my parents, my friends, my roots, and my people.
All my insecurities, neurosis, complexes, fears and traumas emerged during that one afternoon.
Visions of Imm Mohammad and my grandmother appeared before me.
I was a refugee.
So were they.
They had both yearned and cried for Palestine.
So was I.
My grandmother was in her sixties in 1967.
Imm Mohammad was in her forties.
I was in my twenties.
We were three generations of scarred and maimed human beings.
It is not over.
It will not be over tomorrow, or next year, or the year after that.
Our children will, somehow or the other, be scarred too.
Imm Mohammad’s and my grandmother’s stories are not the only sad or tragic stories. In the Palestinian repertoire there are hundreds of thousands of case histories that are much more tragic.
But we, as the generation of “modern mothers” have numerous dilemmas to deal with. Problems that Imm Mohammad and Imm Michel never had to face.
There are dilemmas within us and dilemmas concerning our children.
Our dilemmas within ourselves we share with women the world over.
Our feminist issues as women are, with some mild variations, the same as all other women.
Our dilemmas concerning our children are, also, the same.
My mother calls me every month and, invariably, she lectures me to watch out for the children from drugs, AIDS and teenage suicide.
She is convinced that these are “American diseases.” I try to convince her otherwise.
But Mama, I say, Lebanon grew and exported hashish before the Americans knew what it was! She won’t buy that, of course.
Anyway, to come back to the dilemmas of our children: we as a generation of hurt, disillusioned, exasperated and expatriate Arab mothers have tried to protect our children from going through what we did of disappointments.
I feel that we have sheltered them from their political issues and their social upheavals. Globally, this withdrawal of all youth from their issues has been happening since the sixties. It happened in France for instance, after the youth riots of those years.
It happened in the United States after Vietnam and the Kent State tragedy.
In our case, moreover to what was going on in the international community, we acted upon a natural defense mechanism that we developed on behalf and for our children.
Because we are expatriates, it was easier to isolate them from their pain and frustrations while their compatriots in the Palestinian camps, in Gaza and the West Bank were still managing to be militant in the face of extreme oppression.
We were wrong in that.
Yes, we must shelter our children from drugs, promiscuity and teenage suicide.
We must not shelter them from their political and social upheavals.
We must guide them into being very aware and involved in their issues. We are the “Todays” and “Yesterdays.” They are the “Tomorrows.”
Their heritage, their culture, language and religion are not Kibbe and hommos.
Their political issues are not Abdel Halim Hafez and Fairooz.
Because of the hurt, I, too, had isolated myself since 1975.
I was waiting for the “solution,” one that cannot and will not happen if I do not become an active participant in this process.
It cannot and will not happen unless all of us participate effectively.
And when we do, our children will, as they must.
It is our duty as Arab and Palestinian mothers to see that this happens.
Enough of fear.
Enough of being closet Arabs.
It is time to support our oppressed brothers and sisters in the occupied territories.
And it is time to support each other, we, who are expatriates and immigrants; so that we may all demand our human rights loudly and with perseverance.
As Imm Mohammad, my grandmother and all the images of sad, angry and oppressed Palestinian mothers come to our minds; we should also allow a space for the human rights demands of other mothers; the mothers of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Ireland, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, the black mothers in these United States and the mothers in the bankrupt farms of the Midwest.
And let us, also, not forget the Israeli mother.
We are all mothers; all sisters.
None of us has a monopoly on tragedy.
By uniting our tragedies and demands for our human rights we will have surmounted one of the major obstacles to any peace process.
We owe this to our children. We owe it to our motherhood.
I guess in this sad, mad, angry spirit I wrote “A Woman of Nazareth.”
I was born in Jerusalem, and so people have been asking me: why Nazareth and not Jerusalem?
There is another image here; the image of the Palestinian woman resembling that famous son of Nazareth, Jesus.
Irrelevant of what our religion is as Palestinian women, we have been nailed to the cross, so to speak.
Every time I see a dead war-torn Palestinian child I feel as if another nail has been hammered into my soul.
Every time I see a wailing Palestinian mother another nail pierces me.
And every time the media go over our Palestinian tragedy just lightly brushing the surface of that issue, a hundred nails go through my body.
This is when I feel that everybody else’s human rights seem to be taken into consideration but ours.
Amal, the heroine of my novel goes on fighting for her cause in spite of her tragedies and all the odds.
She realizes only too well that Palestine is the core of her entire existence.
Yet, in spite of all her tragedies and those of her people, she remains a strong supporter of human rights. And in the last part of the novel, she sums up her thoughts and mine as she is writing to an imaginary Israeli woman saying to her: What will it take, after all, for us to build a bridge of peace rather than a fortress of war?
What would it really take?
And I’ll tell you part of what it will take: active participation from all of us, from our children and from all advocates of human rights across the world.
Let us together translate this active participation into the reality of a free Palestine for all of us.
AUTHOR’S COMMENTS: My presentation was met with tears and strong applause. The sad thing that I find now – twenty-six years later – is that I could give this same presentation today (with very minor adjustments and updates) and it would still apply. Nothing much has changed, except that the situation is even much worse. It is heart-breaking! However, it should also be an impetus for more diligent efforts.
I know that today there are more Israelis, more American Jews and more Jews worldwide who are seriously participating in these efforts alongside the valiant Palestinian people and the many, many young, beautiful and so very knowledgeable men and women who are the spokespersons for the Palestinian and Arab cause. I read their articles; I see them on television. I am so very proud of each and every one of them. My generation of women spear-headed these efforts on all levels; we are now in our seventies (or whereabouts) and it is time for us to leave the stage gracefully and leave behind us a record of our efforts as an affirmation that in spite, and despite, all efforts to obliterate us and our identity, we are still here, and will continue to do so. I fervently hope that the new, young Palestinian women will acknowledge our pioneering work, and our having paved the way for them, as they continue their terrific and heroic efforts.
It was not an easy thing to do for my generation of women! We were up against very strong counter currents from our political and patriarchal societies. We had to challenge and be challenged every which way, and sometimes we did things “just because” we could and, “just because” we knew that it lay on our shoulders to begin breaking away from the mold and setting the stage for those who were standing in line behind us. We could not let all these young women down. We had to prove to them that change was necessary, and could be done, if we were ever to be free and equal human beings. Perhaps the only shocking part of my presentation to some was when I said that we have to look out for the human rights of all women, including Israeli women. Remember that this was March of 1987 and mentioning Israeli women as sisters was still unthinkable! But sisterhood was my conviction then, as it is now. And I felt that it was time for this to be articulated by an ordinary Palestinian woman. It was time to think, and to believe, the unthinkable!
Many educated, intelligent young women, now in their twenties, thirties and forties sometimes give me the impression that they believe that the rights that they now enjoy had always existed for women. Their busy wired lives and short memories take for granted that it was always as easy to speak freely, to be independent, and to choose the path they aspire to follow. The truth is that it wasn’t that long ago when this was so very taboo. A mere fifty years ago!!!
DATE: FEBRUARY 25, 1991
CONFERENCE: CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY
TITLE OF PANEL: DISCRIMINATION & STEREOTYPING
MY SUBJECT: STEREOTYPING IS A RESULT OF DISCRIMINATION
To stereotype an object is to make a mirror image of that object, like a carbon copy, almost a clone.
To discriminate against an object is to distinguish it from another object, usually in a negative way.
So we first have to identify something or someone – distinguish them from another – in order to be able to stereotype them or to recreate a mirror image of them.
In this hall, we are all people – persons – some are young, some are old; male; female; black; white; Arab; American.
I cannot stereotype all of us. We are not similar to each other. And in order to be able to stereotype at least some of us, I have first to distinguish – or discriminate – those whom I wish to stereotype.
I will have to distinguish – or discriminate – my object. Let’s say I pick females. After identifying the females, I can then proceed to say: All females are cry babies.
I have, therefore, stereotyped females. I have assumed that because some, or many, are prone to crying easily therefore, all females are like that and so they are all cry babies.
And I can then proceed to reinforce my argument with examples from my repertoire including, for instance, that “even Pat Schroeder cried when she was running for office.”
Here I have given a visual reinforcement to my argument. Most people would remember how poor Pat Schroeder, a lovely woman, had to go through the ordeal of being photographed at a very emotional moment in her life and, having had that moment not only headlined in every newspaper, magazine and TV station, but also held against her as the worst shortcoming of any woman running for an important office. Thus we began by distinguishing Pat Schroeder, who I hope will forgive me for using her as an example tonight, and then went on to stereotype all women through her.
And this brings me to discrimination and stereotyping in general.
In general, and unfortunately, all human beings discriminate and stereotype each other; all; and in all parts of the world.
They do it in Mexico and they do it in Russia, in Europe, in the Middle East and here. Moreover, it has been done throughout history.
The Romans sent the Christians to the lions and to the gladiators. That was discrimination.
The Crusaders went to the Middle East to rid that area of the Muslims; again, discrimination.
Ant the Muslims when they conquered Spain strove to convert all the population to Islam thus discriminating against the religious beliefs of others.
And the Nazis tried to rid the world of Jews.
Colonialist Britain dehumanized the people of India and of Africa in order to justify ruling them and utilizing their resources.
The French did that in their colonial years and so did the Spanish, the Portuguese and others.
During the second world war, the United States, after Pearl Harbor, rounded up the Japanese in this country and interned them in prison camps thus assuming that because the Japanese government had bombed Pearl Harbor therefore all Japanese are criminals. This is discrimination.
Twenty or thirty years ago we, the United States, dehumanized the Vietnamese so that they ceased to be human in our thoughts in order to be able to kill them and to justify our going to war against them.
What I am trying to say is that discrimination and stereotyping are an international trait, not an American one; which is not to say that such traits are right, justifiable or acceptable.
However, the United States is considered to be the bastion of freedom and justice, an open democratic society that in its very constitution grants equality to all people.
Because of that, the United States sets up itself for criticism, in this regard, much more than other nations and we tend to hold it more accountable than we might hold other less democratic societies. And, the United States accepts to be held accountable.
This is very important. The United States, because of its constitution and the nature of its government, accepts to be held accountable.
And it is precisely because of that accountability that the civil rights movement in the United States succeeded. When Rosa Parks took her seat on the bus and when Martin Luther King Jr. marched in the south, they inherently knew that the government of the United States, at one point or another, would have to address their issue.
Unlike most of the world, the constitution of the United States of America enforces upon the governors of this nation to address rather than suppress.
That was my general picture. Now I would like to speak a little about the subject of the day and the reason why I was invited to address you tonight. That subject is discrimination against people of Arab descent.
The United States is at war with an Arab country. That country is Iraq. In order to justify going to war every government seeks to find plausible excuses and facades in order to convince its population of the necessity of going to war.
The Nazis, as I said previously, dehumanized and demonized Jews in order to massacre them. They had to convince their people, the German people, that the Jews were bad and that killing them was therefore necessary.
The Israelis have dehumanized the Palestinians. Here, again, in order to justify occupying Palestine and uprooting its people, Israel had to convince the world that the Palestinians were bad, sub-human, backwards etc.
And the United States in its war with Iraq had to demonize Saddam Hussein in order to justify fighting him.
However, the United States was very careful to distinguish between Saddam Hussein and the people of Iraq. Although thousands of Iraqis have died, the government and the media have been careful not to demonize and dehumanize the Iraqi people. Moreover, care was also given to the Arabs as a people, mainly because some of the Arab governments are our allies.
Why then are Arabs today and especially now, feeling discriminated against?
Let me just pause for a second here and explain that historically, discrimination against Arabs has been based on two important reasons:
1. Political: The colonialist/imperialist history, or having many occupiers who, as we said before, needed some sort of a justification for their political desires and had to make the occupied appear inferior.
2. Religious: the western world being of the Christian faith and having colonized the Arab world for many, many years had another justification for its imperialism: the Infidels. That is, since the people of the Arab region had a religious faith different from Christianity, it was more justifiable and easier to discriminate against them and their religion of Islam.
The political jargon, the print media as well as television and movies have capitalized on these two reasons and magnified and utilized them to an optimum level so that what permeates the national consciousness today is the image of the Arab oil sheikh, the terrorist, the barbarian, the infidel and madman.
These are the historical reasons.
So back to the reasons why Arabs – now and today – are feeling discriminated against.
1. Ignorance: Arab history with the media and the American people has been rampant with discrimination. The American people discriminate against Arabs out of ignorance of Arabs. Ignorance of Arab culture, traditions, religions and language. And if one can say that there are any positives to our war with Iraq then one of those would be that schools, universities, people on the whole are curious and want to learn more about the Arabs. I am told that area stores have run out of Middle East maps, books and reference materials. That is a positive sign. Anyway, the media has followed the ignorant route, and, visualized the ignorance and maintained it in the movies and on television portraying that all Arabs are the same backward, barbaric, camel-riding Bedouins. This negative image reinforces the ignorance and helps to maintain and augment the misconceptions. You might recall, for instance, “Ishtar” and “Protocol” amongst many others.
So reason number one why Arabs in the United States are feeling discriminated against is Ignorance.
2. The “suspect” community: the FBI interviews and the Pan American Airlines issue. The FBI in its alleged efforts to counter the backlash which might happen against Arab-Americans as a result of the war was overzealous in the conduit of its interviews and in the nature of the questions it was asking Arab-Americans. These questions were of a political nature, a probing nature, an infringement on civil liberties and were asked of hundreds of Arab business people, activists and community leaders across the nation. More importantly, they are now being addressed to students on different campuses and are being coordinated with the INS. Following the FBI interviews, Pan American Airlines began harassing Arab-Americans who were trying to buy airline tickets, and especially Iraqis. These two events became the subject that quickly alarmed all of the Arab-American community and caused great stress, distress and anxiety to Arab-Americans and to Arab visitors and students. They made the community seem “suspect” and reinforced any feelings of discrimination which Arabs were already suffering from due to ignorance about them.
3. Ethnic Emotions, or Arab-American ethnic identification with Iraq; not political, not an identification which is in support of the government of Iraq, but an ethnic identification; that of empathy and sympathy with the Iraqi people as an Arab people, and with a country that is one of the cradles of civilization. This is a very important point here and one which is greatly misunderstood in this country. Every Arab, even our Arab allies in this war, cannot but have this tremendous feeling for Iraq and the Iraqis and a very deep sense of sadness at seeing the Iraqi infrastructure demolished. It is, in an Arab mind, similar to the systematic destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure and another enormous setback for the region and for Arab aspirations of catching up with the modern world.
And, because Arab-Americans have identified with Iraq emotionally and ethnically, they have been discriminated against and rendered a “suspect” community. They have been harassed by Pan-Am, by their neighbors, on the street and in their schools. They have thus been made scapegoats for society’s feelings against Saddam Hussein. In effect, they are being made to feel that they are little Saddam clones.
And I would like to make very clear that there is a very big distinction in most Arabs’ minds between an Arab government and an Arab land and people. The governments of the Arab world are not “governments for the people, of the people and by the people.” Most of them are dictatorships which have victimized their own people. And that is why Arab-Americans make a very clear differentiation between ethnic identification with all the peoples of the Arab world and political identification with their governments.
Maybe the one exception to this rule is Palestine. In the case of Palestine, almost every single Arab man, woman and child has a political as well as an ethnic identification. There might be differences on the course of action required, the ways and means, so to speak; however, the goal for securing the political and human rights of Palestinians has unanimous agreement amongst all Arabs and all Arab-Americans. And this is probably why the “linkage” issue was one that aroused the passions of the Arab masses.
To conclude, I would like to urge you all, as the leaders of tomorrows world and as mothers and fathers of its children, to discard discrimination and stereotyping – this terrible inheritance which my generation and generations before me bestowed upon you – discard them as excess baggage from the twentieth century and walk into the twenty-first century harboring no discriminatory feelings for anyone; not for color of skin, not for gender, not for ethnicity, not for nationality or religion, and certainly not for the environment.
AUTHOR’S COMMENTS: What can I say as a commentary on this presentation? That more than twenty years later things are still the same, if not, after George W Bush’s wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, much worse? Do I tell you that in 1991, my neighbors told me that the FBI (or whatever spooky agency) had come to my neighborhood and were scouting my home too? My American neighbors knew the black, unmarked cars with their strange antennas. They realized that I was one of the “suspects.” Friends told me that their homes had been searched; their books scrutinized; their phones tapped. Really, America? Really? And then with the present wars and all those new laws that are surreptitiously depriving Americans of their civil rights, I find us going from bad to worse, and from a free democratic country to a third world police state where, rather than leave discrimination and stereotyping behind in that bloody twentieth century, we are dragging them with us into this century. I declare to you, America, the State Of Our Union, and of the world, is quite dismal at the moment!!
DATE: THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 20, 1992
CONFERENCE: GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY
TITLE OF PANEL: LITERATURE AND REVOLUTION
Let me start by quoting the dictionary synonym for revolution: a revolution is a fundamental change, or, the forcible substitution by subjects of a new government or ruler. (Oxford Dictionary)
A forcible revolution may be bloody or bloodless. However, it is always violent and passionate. Someone once said: revolutions are not made with rose water! The revolution in Poland was almost bloodless. Yet, it was violent, in the sense that it had the potential for bloody repercussions had the people’s expressed desires been thwarted, or had the ruling body decided not to heed the people’s aspirations. In Poland, therefore, there was almost no bloody or armed confrontation leading to dead bodies and terror. It was almost the same in the storming of the Bastille of July 14, 1789 in France. Very few people died. Yet, that revolution could have turned very violent because the people were very passionate about their demands for change.
The Intifada, the Palestinian Uprising, is both a violent and bloody revolution, which has not yet yielded any tangible results, but which has prompted the world body to address this conflict very seriously and to call for the convening of the Madrid Peace Conference in order to resolve this festering issue.
I would like to focus for a moment on change as pertaining to revolutions because that is related to literature. Literatures can either Record Change, or, Promote Change.
In “recording,” we write history, sociological pieces, and journalistic articles and make other such studies which are supposed to be objective, and I will discuss this later on.
In “promoting,” we use other forms of expression such as cartoons, underground literature, poetry, fiction, editorials and such, which are very subjective.
The literature of revolutions, as written by the parties calling for upheaval, is, usually, passionate and unadulterated. It is one of the purest forms of writing because it comes from within a tormented soul that is crying out against a societal error and calling for its correction. And, in this sense, it promotes a revolution in the process of thinking.
The literature of a revolution usually precedes the actual revolution. Therefore, it promotes revolution. It is the personal expression of writers, artists and the intelligentsia who have picked up on the reverberations coming from the street and who have articulated the discontent and dared to express it. Literature formulates the passions of the masses and is, usually, a summation of the collective thinking of a people.
Once the revolutionary literature and ideas have been expounded, then, if they are truly a reflection of the popular thought, and if they are feasible, they are translated into political thought where they get organized and where they begin to mobilize the populace in order to manifest themselves. Therefore, forcible revolutions, like literature, also begin with fervor and passion: a passion for change.
How does the literature of revolutions evolve? In answering this, I am going to speak mainly from my own personal experiences as related to the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis. Naturally, it may also be related to other revolutions and I will give examples as I go.
Step Number One: as I mentioned, that is when the literary body translates the aspirations of the masses and articulates them in the literally art form. This usually precedes the actual revolution.
In Palestine this happened when the poets, artists and writers began writing about Palestinian aspirations and expressing the people’s desires for freedom. And, while this expression had been happening since 1948, nevertheless, it was very subdued up until 1967. Since then it has been flourishing and evolving. The reasons why the literature was subdued – as were all Palestinians – are: Reason Number One is that the Palestinians were in shock. They just couldn’t believe what had happened to them. Neither their intellect, nor their emotions could deal with such a massive assault. Reason Number Two is that they were helpless and controlled by the host governments within their refugee camps. Outside the camps, the city-dwelling Palestinians were feeling threatened, violated and greatly maligned. They were also treated with great suspicion mainly because they were discontent and could, potentially, promote revolutionary ideas. Due to these circumstances, they kept a very low profile. In 1967 – with the emergence of the PLO – there was a renaissance of Palestinianism. And that’s when the literature began flourishing.
Step Number Two: is, usually, propaganda. This is when the literary body starts appealing to the governing body and forcefully shouting, threatening, instigating the masses to articulate their demands for change. This step takes place either right before the revolution or/and alongside it in order to keep fuelling it.
With the intifada, this happened with the underground literature: pamphlets and publications (which were written by the literary and political bodies) and which fuelled the masses as well as organized them. This kind of writing also promotes the heroes and heroines who can later be incorporated into fiction and non-fiction writings.
Interestingly enough, TIME magazine of this week is analyzing the connections of the Pope and President Reagan to the revolution in Poland, stressing how word processors, computers and fax machines as well as other tools of writing were secretly shipped to Poland in preparation for that revolution. These tools were needed to start the propaganda machine that would be fuelling events in Poland. I gather from this, therefore, that without literature to promote it, that revolution, as any other, could not have occurred.
Step Number Three: is when the literary body of the concerned party, as well as other literates from outside the sphere of conflict, begin to analyze the facts which led up to the revolution and to the expression of revolutionary ideas. This happens either when others realize the looming possibility of revolution, or when the actual revolution is happening, or, sometimes, even after it is over.
With the Palestinians, this analysis has been happening since 1948. Numerous books and published materials have constantly been analyzing all the facts and aspects of this conflict. However, outside the Arab world, this literature was consecrated to academia, think tanks and political circles. And, with the Intifada, it turned from addressing a specialized audience to addressing the general populations. This is because the Intifada could not be contained or arrested. It was brought home to the ordinary people through the television screens and, ensuing, it created huge question marks regarding that conflict which the general population was demanding answers to.
The writings of Edward said, a Palestinian-American writer, who wrote “The Question of Palestine” are an example of this analytical writing. Dr. Said was barely known outside his community and academia before the Intifada. With the Intifada he became very sought after as an analyst and resource person.
In such writing, there is sometimes a danger. In the case of the Palestinians, the danger was that their issue, especially during the early years (pre 1987) was being addressed by their enemy, who disfigured and demonized them, and by the Orientalists and Arabists who were non-Arab and who have misrepresented the facts on numerous occasions. This is, usually, a discriminatory form of literature which seeks to discredit and to legitimize the wrongs. I believe one of the vehicles which exposed such literature was the publication of the book “The Ugly American” in the sixties. That is when American writers and people started becoming more objective, more sympathetic to other people and aware of the enormity of other conflicts which they had previously misjudged and misexplained and addressed from only one narrow perspective. In other words, writing which is done by others, while claiming objectivity, was very subjective and had presented the Palestinian issue from the colonialist stance. That is: I, the Western white man, know what is better for you and what your problem is.
Moreover, because the Palestinians, and partly through their own shortcomings, were rendered “invisible” others assumed writing on their behalf. And because there was such a strong feeling of discrimination against them those “others” had more credibility than they themselves did in narrating their experience. During the period prior to 1967 and, particularly before 1987, Palestinian writers, generally, had no voice, but spoke through the voices and pens of “foreigners.” Most of the writing addressing the Palestinian conflict at that time was written by people such as Jonathan Dimbleby who wrote “The Palestinians” and David Hirst who wrote “The Gun and the Olive Branch.” “My Home, My Land” was written by Abu Iyad – the second in command to Arafat – with Eric Rouleau who was a correspondent for “Le Monde.” Rouleau’s name added credibility to a man who was associated in the Western mind with terrorism, barbarism and ignorance; perfect case of stereotyping. These three writers, as many others, had addressed the question of Palestine and were read more than were Palestinian writers who were thought to be less credible at that time and who were still in the “invisible” stage.
Step Number Four: is when the literary body begins to relate and narrate the experience. This is usually a less passionate expression, but full of an emotional outpouring, angst, catharsis, suffering and so on, and usually takes place after a revolution or after the issue is brought to the surface from where it assumes a global dimension. At this stage the literature takes on the fictional narration alongside with the non-fictional.
We can observe this in the writing of novels, plays, songs as well as in paintings, graffiti, jokes, anecdotes, photographs, cartoons and other popular art forms. In today’s world – and there again as in the case of the Intifada – this literature could not be contained. In other words, it wasn’t only the Palestinian literary body which was writing about its experience, but, also, many writers from outside that conflict were contributing their work. Unlike Arabists or Orientalists, though, such writers had a much more objective and empathetic perspective. Pictures could not lie. Writers could not dismiss what was on television screens. They could not write from their own warped focus anymore. They were forced to become more objective. The reality on their television screens forced them to do that. The Intifada had generated global interest, not only because it is a very serious issue with huge global implications, but, also, because of the media and due to telecommunications which could not ignore it. Likewise writers could not ignore Poland, Tiananmen Square, events in the Soviet Union and so on.
The beauty of telecommunications and this fantastic revolution is not only that it succeeded in bringing more truths to the attention of a global audience, but it also forced the revolutionaries to take the cameras into account. This generated a more disciplined ethics within the revolution. The Israeli soldiers seen clobbering twelve year old kids could not claim to hold the moral high ground anymore. Likewise, the Palestinians were playing to the cameras also. Both parties to the conflict had to watch over their shoulders for the cameras lest their actions be detrimental to their cause. Censorship was becoming less and less possible. I think we can say the same about other current revolutions. They have to figure in the cameras and could no more portray the ruthlessness and ferocity of repression that they could have previous to telecommunications. Literature reflected what was going on in the political arena. Also, no secrets can be kept for long anymore. Today we can know what is happening elsewhere in the world almost instantly.
In the revolution of blacks in America, black writers started coming out with their narratives and their own interpretations of their history. Alex Haley wrote “Roots” in the sixties – right after the Civil Rights Movement or, as I prefer to call it Revolution. His narrative of black history beginning in Africa when Kunta Kinte was enslaved and forcefully transferred to America was very moving, and unlike anything that was previously narrated by “others” (whites). Wallace Terry wrote “Bloods,” a narrative of the black experience in Vietnam – another very moving narration of black soldiers.
Neither Alex Haley, nor Wallace Terry would have been accorded a publisher’s interest had not Civil Rights and the issue of Blacks in America taken on a different dimension from the one it had. They would certainly not have been published then and there would not have been a readership interested in their narration. This is, in a way, similar to the Palestinian literary experience and the fact that credibility was doubtful in both cases prior to their revolutionary expressions.
Step Number Five: the revolution is successfully over, or about to be over, or on the way to being over, and the literary body assumes the stance of rapprochement, of dialogue, of sensitization leading to abandoning the maximalist positions and assuming less discriminatory and belligerent attitudes. This step eventually leads up to correcting many of the historical misrepresentations and wrongs.
This is happening now between the Israelis and the Palestinians as both parties to the conflict are searching for ways to close the gaps between them, and to reevaluate the myths which they had both been promoting.
It also happened very clearly in Germany once the Berlin Wall was dismantled. The reunification had the literary bodies of both East and West Germany, rushing to rewrite the history books and other literature and to remove all the negative propaganda and materials which had demonized the other. This also happened, just recently, with Columbus, when the literary body was seeking atonement from Native Americans by rewriting the history of that period and portraying Native Americans not as wild savages and killers, but as a people with a beautiful culture, traditions and a great way of life.
I think what I most want to convey is that Mea Culpa had to be said to all those who were historically maligned and who, consequently, had their entire way of life stereotyped. And literature is one of the first places to start on this.
I mentioned earlier that history books have proven their un-objectivity. We are today realizing how those who recorded historical events were doing so from a certain perspective and only from the way that they and their governments viewed those events. It seems to me that history books were always written by the winners, the conquerors who portrayed their enemy as deserving of oppression. And the literature reflected that biased history also. In this century, in particular, narrations of history were written by the colonialists and the occupiers; with one exception and I will address it shortly. Therefore, we are finding that the history and literature written about blacks in the United States was distorted, the history of Native Americans was misconstrued and so with the Palestinians. An example of that can be clearly seen in Leon Uris’ novels: Exodus and The Haj, which portrayed the Palestinians in a starkly negative and incorrect light. In documenting history, there is an effort now to encompass not only the historical events, per se, but also to take into account popular folk tales, literature, architecture, sociology, economics, religion and all the other components as they are all interrelated and then to put them all together and write a historical account.
The exception I made earlier is in reference to the Holocaust. This abominable and inhuman crime was camouflaged for a very short period. In the absence of telecommunications it could have been almost totally extinguished. However, the Jewish people did not allow it to be smothered. They spoke out loudly. They are still doing so; and rightfully so. Such a crime cannot be accepted by anyone in this world. It is not a crime against Jews only. It is a crime against all humanity. And if we allow it to be relegated to unimportance we would only be inviting similar genocide on any people. We cannot do that. By the same token, what is happening to the Palestinians is also unacceptable.
Today we are in the process of redefining so many things: Our existence, our relationships to each other and to the environment, our politics, our work habits, our leisure time, sexism, feminism. Everything is being reexamined. It is a very exciting era! And you are part of it. You can help to define it. You can be actively involved in the new configurations that are bound to emerge.
And in order to succeed in your mission and to really save humanity from its demise, you should – and please allow me to address you as a mother and a humanist – become more involved with the humanities, with intellectualism and idealism. Edmund Burke said in the 18th. C: But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophistry, economists and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.
Some of you might be working at some time in your life in countries where revolutions are germinating right now; at this very moment. Try to smell a revolution before it happens. Put your ears to the ground and really listen. Listen with your heart and with your eyes and with your intellect. Listen to the street, read the popular literature, the underground newspapers and the graffiti. Try to preempt revolutions before they turn bloody as happened in Iran. This globe has many problems. Aside from the ozone and our concerns as a nation, there is a huge so-called Third World out there where nations-states are in the process of formation, where the people’s aspirations have not yet been realized and where the stage is ready for strife, for blood and heartache.
These events are bound to affect us. It is inevitable that they do. And it is up to us as educated, enlightened humanitarians to end revolutions against each other and to start revolutionizing our common problems: health issues, environment, education, hunger and decent living conditions as outlined by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
Unless all human beings become educated in the humanities and in classical literature; become aware that wars and revolutions have been man’s scourge for twenty centuries then we will not survive as a species and we will not evolve or change or better ourselves.
Lastly, let me just say that the literature of revolutions differs from place to place but, basically, it is a reflection of the aspirations of a people and one that should be carefully read and analyzed.
AUTHOR’S COMMENTS: One of the first things that invaders aim for upon conquering a place is the libraries that have forever been ransacked and burnt in order to obliterate the enemy’s culture and history. It is one of the first things that the Israeli army did upon invading and occupying Palestine, and later on each time they invaded a Palestinian camp, or a Palestinian enclave in Beirut or elsewhere. Benny Brunner, a Romanian born Israeli documentary film maker spent five years producing: The Great Book Robbery about how the Israelis ransacked and took possession of thousands upon thousands of Palestinian books. (They also confiscated thousands and thousands of documents and files.) Asked why Israel won’t return the books to Palestinian libraries, Brunner said: “. . . it would challenge the myth of Zionism that if it was not a land without people, it was at least a people without a culture. . . ” (The Washington Report on the Middle East, April 2013, page 47) Sad, isn’t it? Sad that burning and stealing literature would be a tool of war, just as the rape of women is. Twenty centuries of this! Twenty centuries in which the man made wars that have so devastated this planet in every way are still being waged using the same tools of dehumanization, but more lethal weapons with which to execute them. Twenty centuries and not enough of us have risen up to tell men (and the women who support this kind of violence) that we have had enough!! I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime. As the so-called Arab Spring went into revolutionary mode (preceded by years of protest writings by dissenters), and as strife and violence pervade many corners of our world, and as the Palestinian travesty continues to happen and intensify, it seems as if our globe is doomed to violence and violent expression. Again, not until enough of us are involved and standing up to that will it ever stop.
DATE: OCTOBER 22, 1993
CONFERENCE: INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF BLACK PROFESSIONALS IN INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS, INC.
TITLE OF PANEL: INCLUSIVENESS AND CONSTRUCTIVE CHANGE IN INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS
MY SUBJECT: WOMEN AS PEACE NEGOTIATORS
Thank you, Maigenet, for inviting me here today.
Thank you, everyone for attending.
I have divided my presentation today into three parts and hope, in this way, to walk you through my experience.
BACKGROUND/AMERICAN EMBASSY 1976
In this first part, I am going to try and give a background on what it has been like to be a Palestinian for the past fifty years, or since the establishment of the state of Israel in Palestine.
And, as an example, I am going to cite an incident which happened in 1976. I was living in Lebanon at that time. The civil war was raging with all its intensity. My husband decided that we were going to immigrate to the United States. So, there we are at the American Embassy filling out all the paperwork.
Date of Birth: July, 1943
Place of Birth: Jerusalem, Palestine
The aide takes our applications and returns soon thereafter. “Mrs. Jabbour,” she says. “The Counsel would like to suggest that you state either Jerusalem, or Jerusalem, Israel as your place of birth.” When I asked her why, she responded: Because there is no country called Palestine now.
Just like that! As a human being, with all my history, heritage and identity I was, by the stroke of a pen, practically canceled from existence. Enraged? You better believe it! Somebody was telling me that I had simply ceased to exist within my Palestinian identity. That is how it has been for me during the past fifty years. I was a “terrorist,” a “grasshopper” as Shamir said of the Palestinian people, a faceless monster threatening the poor defenseless Jews, and not an enraged human being wondering why she had to pay the price for the Holocaust by giving up her home and identity.
Anyway, going back to the Embassy incident, I insisted that when I was born it was in Jerusalem, Palestine. And, to make a long story short, the application was finally accepted as is. I mention this story because things can and do change. Not on their own, but only through persistence. On September 13, when the Declaration of peace was signed by Rabin and Arafat in Washington, DC, I was, again, and as if overnight, reinstated as a human being with a Palestinian identity. I had, once again, a right to claim my identity. I had a face; a history; traditions; culture; personhood and rights. So do I have an identity, or don’t I? Am I, or am I not? Whose decision was it that I cease to exist, and whose decision is it now that I do? It’s called politics. Male politics – because that’s what politics have been during the past centuries.
Anyway, I moved to the United States in 1981.
In 1982, with Israel’s tacit complicity and logistics provided by Israel’s Ariel Sharon – who was later indicted in an Israeli court – one of Lebanon’s Christian factions went into the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps and for three days and nights conducted a slaughter of the most ferocious intensity. Men; Women; Children; Old; Young; 3000 of them! It was barbaric and very savage. And this brings me to the second part of this presentation.
PEACEFUL MINDSET/1982 LEBANON
Hearing about the brutality, I just broke down. Finally, with all my pain and anguish, I wrote a letter to an imaginary Jewish woman, asking her when it was all going to be over. When will we say: Enough! I had become saturated with the sight of blood, violence and rage. It had become senseless and seemed to be causing more damage than achieving any higher ideals.
I believe that I shifted my mindset at that point from belligerency to a guarded friendliness; from anger to understanding; from war to peace. I had made a choice. It sounds quite simple as I say it to you now. However, it was the most difficult choice I have ever had to make.
And, since then, I became terribly convinced that there comes a moment in the life of a person, a people, or a nation, in which they must make similar choices. And such choices cannot be based on anger, pride, revenge or hurt. They have to be made rationally and not as a reaction to the other’s vindictiveness or oppression. This was the choice I faced, and the one that the Palestinian people have chosen. It is a choice based on what is best for the children and humanity. And it involved a lot of compromise and painful decisions, as well as a reevaluation of the trauma that we have been struggling with for over fifty years.
Then, in 1987, I joined a dialogue group: Jewish and Palestinian women discussing peace.
Slowly the barriers began coming down. The ice was melting. The enmity was thawing. We began to relate to each other as human beings not as enemies. And, in 1990, the Madrid Peace Conference was convened and the rest, I guess, is history. Again, it sounds like an easy process when I concise it into a paragraph like this. But I cannot tell you how excruciatingly difficult it is to humanize someone whom you have consistently dehumanized. To forget all the hurts, the indignities and blood is a monumental task. I think both the Palestinians and the Israelis did that. And it was more difficult for the Palestinians, being that they were the oppressed, than it was for the Israelis who were the oppressors.
And now for the last part of our talk: What have we, as women, contributed to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Through numerous dialogue groups and organizations we created a groundswell for peace; we prepared the terrain for the politicians to come up with the political decisions, and we influenced our families and communities.
This is not a small feat. However, let us not delude ourselves. Our role is a supporting role. We have not, as women, been able to assume the reins – assume the decision-making itself. We are only part of the process, the preparatory work; a façade; just a necessary inconvenience, if you wish. As soon as the politicians get together, we seem to disappear into the shadows where we have been placed for centuries. And this is not only a phenomenon particular to my part of the world. It is all over; even here, in the progressive United States – at least until very recently.
The only way in which we can become real instruments of political and social change, peacemaking and negotiations is to increase our numbers in the corridors of power, in the legislative as well as in the political branches. And in order to get to that we have to go into our communities and preach peace, dialogue and negotiation. We have to vote for women representatives and involve ourselves.
My fear, where Palestinian women are concerned, is that once the peace is in place, they will be sent back to the kitchen. It happened in Algeria during that country’s war of liberation with France. All of the gains that women had achieved while the struggle was going on were lost the minute liberation was in place. I hope that Palestinian women have learned from that experience. I hope that they will not allow anyone to strip them of the little gains achieved during the past years.
Lastly, and this is a point which I assume many women will disagree with me on, I believe that our role as women is to bring our feminine attributes: love and understanding; empathy and inclusion; non-violence in all its shapes and forms into the political process. However, I hear many women today encouraging their sisters to join the military, to become warriors, to be able to kill, to throw a bomb from a plane and annihilate populations and to partake in the very male-oriented military solutions that we, as women, stand against. Maybe for Palestinian women that kind of equality wasn’t that much of a choice being that we come from very traditional and patriarchal societies in which we have not yet attained the levels of freedom available to women living within democratic societies. Consequently, we do not yet have the choices of being, or not being, part of any military. But, if this is the equality we are seeking than I, personally, do not want to be a part of it. At the very least, and with the way things are today, I can always say that war was not my decision or choice. However, if I am a general or a major, or an Ace flyer then I would become an accomplice in murder. I do not want that. I refuse this kind of equality and I am, having said that, still a feminist and, yes, a woman who demands an equal voice, equal representation and equal pay in the running of my children’s future.
AUTHOR’S COMMENTS: This presentation, this fervent prayer for a more feminine and compassionate world seems a bit of a joke now that I read it twenty years later. How terribly sad! Our women are now in the trenches where they can kill and maim and torture the enemy just like men have been doing for centuries. Our female politicians are voting to go to war, to kill, to maim, to uproot and to uphold torture jails and drone attacks and prejudiced violence. Yes, we have come a long way! But is this the equality we were seeking? Is it for this that we elected women to our governments? Is this what the feminist revolution was about? Is it for our women to adopt violent male traits in order to “belong” and to be “equal,” rather than seek to bravely and boldly refuse the violence and change the script? Not until we renegotiate our social contracts and change our behavior should we hope to ever have any form of violence reversed: not rape; not murder whether it is perpetrated by an individual or ordered by states; not capital punishment and not any crimes of this sordid nature.
DATE: APRIL 20, 1998
CONFERENCE: AMERICAN UNIVERSITY
TITLE OF PANEL: WOMEN AND COLLECTIVE MEMORY
MY SUBJECT: RECORDING HISTORY IN FOREIGN TONGUES
During the years when my daughters were dating, I saw a cavalcade of young men passing through my doors.
And I remember one young man in particular who described my daughter as a “goddess.”
A few days later, I realized that he was referring to my daughter’s sex appeal rather than to her intelligence or other abilities.
Needless to say, that was his last visit.
However, that goddess image remained nagging at me, and it wasn’t until last summer that a British author by the name of Scilla Elworthy answered most of my questions regarding goddesses.
In her book: Power & Sex, the author explained to me how male archeologists had basically indulged in a “Passover” party when it came to female artifacts. They would come upon statues, etchings and figurines of females without even attempting to explain their historical significance. And it is only when Women archeologists began going into the digs and archeological sites that a new perspective was shed on these artifacts depicting the Goddess culture as the prevailing culture 5000 or so years ago. Females then were revered for their wisdom, their instincts, and their keen sense of justice, their life-giving powers and, yes, their sexuality. They had immense power.
How and why then did women become the second class citizens of this world?
This is the story that women are now writing. And it is only by researching Her-story that we will eventually be able to arrive to Our-story: an inclusive story which should restore a balanced view of our evolution and history as human beings.
Many feminists have used the word: Colonized to describe the status of women during the past five thousand years.
I subscribe to that. And having been doubly colonized: because of my gender and through politics, I feel that I can fully understand how we acquired that second class citizenship.
It is a known fact that colonizers always seek to undermine, intimidate and demonize the colonized. It is an effort aimed mainly at harnessing control effectively.
Likewise, we women have been called whores and witches by male religious and political hierarchies who sought to consolidate their control by undermining, intimidating and demonizing our role. Our wisdom was perceived as witchcraft; our life-giving powers and sexuality became a threat. And, over centuries, we slowly turned into dependant, powerless, child-bearers whose sexuality had to be controlled by laws and monitored by a vigilant society. The result was a loss of self-esteem and confidence which turned us into slaves and second class citizens.
The same thing, I believe, occurs to a people when they are colonized. This has happened to Native Americans – proud people who were stripped of their dignity and humanity and rendered into second class citizens, if not worse. This same syndrome occurred on the African continent, in South America, in India and in the Middle East where a vicious colonization process stripped the indigenous populations of any sense of self-worth.
As an example: why are the African continent and the Middle East – specifically – tagged as the “Third World?” recently, this has been ameliorated to “Underdeveloped.” However, the term is still frequently used.
Who decided that? Why?
Because whether we believe in creationism or Evolution, all research points to the fact that human life emanated either out of the Garden of Eden – designated to be somewhere in the Middle East – or from Africa where the first humans are said to have emerged.
I would think that would classify those parts of the world as the “First World.”
And, if we are to put the origins of humanity aside, and look at inventions, creativity and literature then the Middle East is where the alphabet originated from as did medicine, astrology, law, arithmetic, philosophy, agriculture and so much more. In fact, when Europe was experiencing its Dark Ages, the Middle East was having a fantastic renaissance. Shouldn’t the First World then be the place where civilization began?
It is examples like these that convince the people of the so-called Third World that they have been – and still are – discriminated against. That colonialism and the colonialist, racist attitudes have sought to undermine, intimidate and demonize them. And all the upheavals and revolutions, civil wars and slaughterhouses that have – and still are – taking place during this century are, in my opinion, a direct result of colonialism and not due to any ethnic, religious or other differences.
The feminist revolution was a direct result of the male colonization of women and the revolutions and wars of the Middle East and Africa are a direct result of the white people’s colonization of those nations.
And, until very recently, the images conveyed in the West served only to bolster the argument that the people of Africa, the Arab World and the Middle East are backward, illiterate, and ignorant and, basically, just a notch above savages.
I spent my summers in my grandfather’s village in northern Lebanon where all the inhabitants felt that they could love me as much as my parents did and admonish me with that same fervor. Whether it is in administering punishment, passing on the knowledge or caring, there is a sense of communal and collective responsibility for each person living within these communities. Hillary Clinton saw that and came back to write “It Takes a Village.”
However, had Florence, for instance written about her village, her book would not have made the best seller list and, ensuing, would not have reached such a wide audience. When a white woman – irrelevant of whether she is the president’s wife – writes about the Third World it is considered fact. When a colored Third World woman writes about the exact same subject it is charming and quaint at best, suspicious and propaganda at worst.
Another example: the now famous Dr. Andrew Weill wrote his bestselling books about herbal healing and medicines which all of us who come from the Third World grew up knowing, using and practicing. They were a fantastic revelation to the Western World; an old story for us Third Wolders – a story which we were told by the advanced doctors of the West, and not too long ago – was merely old-fashioned witchcraft and voodoo. It’s not witchcraft anymore, it seems. Not after a white man has endorsed it.
One last example of how colonialism and white racism distort the truth. This is an example that, despite all this time in the West, I still find to be incredulous.
Jesus Christ was a Semite. He had Semitic features as did all inhabitants of that region of the world. He must have been dark-haired, brown or black-eyed and olive skinned. Yet, at the age of nine when I received two picture books about the Old and New Testaments from my aunt in London, Jesus’ hair was blond, his eyes were Paul Newman blue and his skin was very fair.
During my lifetime he has gone from Clairol’s ash blond to Clairol’s light chestnut. Sometime during the rest of my life, I expect he might become a Semite again.
In fact, I think his transformation will only be completed when colonialist attitudes are finally dead, and when the white man’s children are allowed to worship a man of color!
So pervasive and insidious has been the effort to undermine the “colored” cultures of the world that even we, the Third World populations, have almost forgotten our history, our lore, our stories and our heroes and heroines.
In countless books of poetry – ones that mention French poets and Latin American amongst others, for instance – no mention is ever made of Al-Khansa’a, a poetess in pre-Islamic Arabia who was a known lesbian and who was respected and accepted for who she was and for her poetic contributions. So successful was the colonialist attitude of the twentieth century in replacing ethnic literature that we, ourselves, have come to appreciate their literature over ours.
In countless books recounting stories of courageous women no mention is made of Khadije who was the Prophet Mohammad’s first wife, a trader and an affluent woman who was fifteen years older than the Prophet and who went against all traditions by proposing to him.
I was giving a presentation about Arab women once and a gentleman in the audience asked me whether I walked ten steps behind my husband as he was led to believe is the Arab tradition. When I responded that if any one of us was to walk behind the other it certainly wouldn’t be me, he was dumbfounded.
Anyway, due to such examples – and there are many, many more – recording facts becomes imperative to people of the Third World in order to, again, restore that sense of balance to our human epic.
My politics as a woman has played as important a role in my life as feminism. To be fair though, Middle Eastern men have also written about politics and so I have not, not have other Arab women writers, opened up a new horizon with our political writings.
Our contribution to the world of politics is simply that we have demonstrated and proven our abilities in that field. And that was extremely important in order for us to be able to participate in the political process and through that empowerment to eventually be able to bring our feminist concerns to the discussion table.
The more important aspect though is a two-folded one;
The first is that we have relayed our feminist issues and concerns to the world feminist body. For instance, we have addressed the issue of female circumcision – a phenomenon unknown to Western women, and one which should be – and it has become an international issue.
The second is that through some of our published works in the west we are, not quite inadvertently, relaying a message to our own sisters; telling them to raise their consciousness, urging them to demand their equal rights, prodding them to break with the archaic traditions imposed by their male dominated societies.
Eleven years ago when my novel was first published in the US, it created quite an echo in my own society. Young women were calling me, writing me and telling me how courageous it was of me to write about how one can break away from societal norms. That is extremely difficult when you live in undemocratic societies, and one can impart hope simply by writing about these matters and outlining that women do have choices.
When Gloria Steinem writes about feminism, Middle Eastern and other women from traditional societies might say: oh, she’s a strident American female. They consequently might not identify with her politics or message.
However, when I and other Middle Eastern writers address feminism, equal rights or peace with Israel our words may cause an uproar, might be denounced but, eventually, some will say: Why not? Look at her. She said those things, she believes these policies and she’s surviving pretty well. In other words, no one has slit my throat yet in order to preserve the honor of the nation, nor have I been whisked off to a cell somewhere never to be heard from again.
So writing her-story becomes an ever greater responsibility for us. Whether we write about female circumcision or politics; culture or sexuality, we bring in a novel dimension to the human discourse – a discourse which shall, hopefully, make the human story a more balanced and honest one.
I’d like to close by addressing one last issue.
The title of this panel is: recording her-story in foreign tongues.
I read that once, twice and then again.
What, I said to myself, do they mean by foreign tongues?
I am not a foreigner. I am as American as anyone else if it is the citizenship document that makes us so.
I will not be speaking in Arabic. My presentation will be in English. So, how is that foreign?
Then my sensitivities were aroused. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman of color according to ethnic classification. But if that is the case, then are Native Americans foreigners?
And who would be included as native? And who would be excluded as that foreign other?
I really couldn’t determine what was meant by foreign tongue. However, I do hope that even though you might disagree with some of my ideas, you have all understood what I said this morning.
AUTHOR’S NOTES: This presentation did not go down well at all! And not because of what I said, but because the coordinator and I totally crossed wires and she wanted me to focus on my Palestinian experience while I stupidly thought that she wanted an overview of “her-story.” Misunderstandings sometimes happen! I do however like what I said, believe it and hope that it brought a new perspective to the audience. I specifically wanted to draw attention to the fact that archeologists had indulged in a Passover when it came to female relics and the powers that women once enjoyed; that the Middle East should be the First World and not the Third as white people decided it should be; that Jesus Christ was not a blond, blue-eyed man, but a dark skinned Semite; that Arab women writers have a two-fold responsibility: that of correcting the Western narrative about us and, that of standing up for our sisters back home. I relayed my points to the audience and am glad that I did. Our words do sometimes effect change. They might light a spark germinating within someone else, or they might open a window for someone and invite further thought and dialogue. So it is important to throw our ideas out there whenever and wherever possible and then hope that the seeds will grow and spread.