Thursday, 22 November 2007

Annapolis or bust

By Khaled Diab
Ahead of the Annapolis conference, a TV debate in which I appeared was broadcast on Wednesday 22 November. In it, I argued that Annapolis was little more than a photo op and that the hopes it raised would be dashed in a camera flash. If the gathering fails, then the time would be ripe to experiment with creative and radical approaches to peace.

Nadia Abu Zahra hosted Middle East Today, an hour-long debating programme on the new London-based satellite channel, Press TV*. The other members of the panel were Ghayth Armanazi, a former Arab League ambassador, George Lambrakis, a former US diplomat, and Simon Tisdall of the Guardian.

The discussion revolved around the prospects for a breakthrough at Annapolis, the aims and agendas of each of the parties, whether or not Israel was missing an opportunity, and what the different players – the EU, Russia, the Arab League, etc. – from the outside world could do to improve prospects.

When asked whether and why Israel was missing an opportunity, I pointed out that the Israeli peace camp is too weak to hold back the vested interests that want to hold on to the settlements and large chunks of the West Bank. I added that there is a lot of public disillusionment and apathy, with a lot of Israelis reconciled to the idea of an indefinite conflict.

When quizzed on why the Palestinians were going to Annapolis despite the low expectations attached to the event, I suggested that, given the desperate situation Palestinians endure, certain Palestinians are compelled to clutch at straws in this way.

The road less travelled
Given the resounding failure of top-down diplomacy, I speculated that perhaps we were tackling this conflict the wrong way round. I argued that involving all the stakeholders to the conflict was crucial and that means engaging the citizenry directly in the peace process because the leadership on both sides do not enjoy the mandate necessary to make the necessary concessions.

I also suggested that it might be time for the Palestinians to do something daring if Annapolis did not deliver: give up their national struggle and demand full civil rights and Israeli citizenship.

*Press TV is a new Iranian satellite channel based in London. I had never heard of it before they contacted me and was somewhat concerned by the fact that it was owned by the Iranian government and whether that would place restrictions on what I could or couldn’t say.

The station’s fixer assured me that Press TV operated on the “BBC model”, i.e. it is funded by the state, but there is no governmental interference, and that I would have complete freedom during the programme to speak my mind. She also informed me that the programme was taped as live and none of it is edited. However, after the debate, a journo friend told me that he’d heard that the channel cuts out the bits it doesn’t like – which worried me a little bit. Fortunately, as far as I could tell, every single word was broadcast.

This was the first time I’d taken part in a TV debate and the frequent breakdowns in the satellite connection did not help the flow. In addition, the fact that I could not see the other panellists and could only hear them like ghostly apparitions in my ear while gazing into the impassive eye of the camera, made it a lot tougher to get my points across than in an article!

Monday, 19 November 2007

A civil solution?

If the Annapolis peace conference fails, then Palestinians should abandon their national struggle and demand their civil rights.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Desiring recognition of Palestinian gays

Marhaba Prof Joseph Massad,

Allow me to express my deep gratitude for your articles, research and advocacy on behalf of my/our people, the Palestinians. After Edward Said, we do need an advocate for a truly downtrodden people, their shattered identity and a pillaged existence. Whereas we are not the only population to suffer, I am allowing myself a certain selfishness after the thorny mess of the diaspora.

I have, and at times still, read your articles and admittedly use many of your arguments where the mere uttering of the words "I am Palestinian" bring on unwarranted contentions. All is not well when not abiding by any invisible law denoting shame for one's heritage.

I love the image of a country I have never known, the eyes of a mother who can never seize the trauma of the Nakba, reflected by the women of Palestine and the gestures of defiance of a father carried by many of the men of Palestine. That country is no longer a place, it is a part of a lost soul. Peace of mind and heart that many of us are still trying to find.

Sadly, I was recently reminded of the fragility of human judgement; Palestinian have every right to fight for the simple right of statehood, yet when they are homosexual they are merely the puppets in a plot created by the "Gay International"? They are, therefore, of lesser Gods, lesser men and, according to you, the source of the what the West still has in store for us!

I am a queer Palestinian having to put up with the partiality of daily life in the West. When followed around a drugstore, frowned upon for asking a rightful question, called a terrorist, I am being treated as an underdog for being non-white and Palestinian. Imagine the type of refuge I receive when among Arabs with their all too rigid, even sordid, views on manhood.

Nor am I an imaginary product of the "West". Born and raised in the Arab world, I have taught myself the "white man's" tongue.

Nor am I some freak of one parental dominance over the other. If you have lived with Palestinian parents, I assume you would know that male dominance is prevalent in our society, whereas a Palestinian mother might as well open a college teaching Jewish moms what real control looks like!

I am not an academic, nor do I pretend to be one. I am angry at the racism of the winners and the hypocrisy of Arabs and the West. I would rather live in Beirut, Cairo or Abu Dhabi, listen to the morning Athan and have a family that will not view me as morally corrupt than enjoy the stifled freedom in a black-and-white society. The only difference is that back home my life is under threat for the mere assumption of immoral behaviour, thus forcing me and others like me to lead double lives. The West still offers a minimum of legal protection from discrimination. Yet, it does not offer the warmth of an Arab family.

If our intellectuals are as bigoted in their opinion as you are, how is the rest of the populace faring?


Wikipedia entry on Massad's Desiring Arabs

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Middle Eastern cult heroes

With political disillusionment at an all-time high, a certain brand of hardline Middle Eastern leader is being elevated to the status of cult hero.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

A perfect spy?

An ageing billionaire falls to his death in Mayfair. Vital evidence disappears. The latest Le Carré novel? No, a real life Middle Eastern spy thriller.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Ramallah for real: Taybeh Oktoberfest 2007

By Tom Kenis

We’re in a small village called Taibeh, a stone’s throw north of Ramallah. Here, an eponymous brewery was set up in the middle of the nineties by two Palestinian brothers, returning from the United States in the optimistic wake of Oslo. Since then, among connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike, their brew has gained an unshakable reputation. It’s on sale, bottled or draft, in most of the bars and restaurants of Ramallah, Bethlehem, and East-Jerusalem. Select places as far West as Belgium offer it, perhaps logically since the latter country’s hop, together with local spring water, is what gives Taybeh beer its distinguished taste.

For a number of years now, the village of Taibeh has hosted an ode to song, traditional Palestinian debke dancing, ‘oud play, and of course the flow of fermented malt. Lots of it. Ten shekels for a half-liter pint. Get your Taybeh. This year, because of impending Ramadan, the festival is pushed forward by a month. Einstein arches an eyebrow, then lowers it again to indicate that the explanation has satisfied him. He quickly crosses out a few equations and folds away his notes.

Image: ©2007 Khaled Diab. All rights reserved.

Further reading:

Friday, 7 September 2007

The art of peace (2)

Last week, I invited Arabs to come out of their trenches and explore the no-man's-land of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Now it's the turn of the Israelis.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

The art of peace

It is time for Arabs to come out of their trenches and explore the no-man's-land of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Back to Gaza

By Khaled Diab

Earlier this week, the BBC’s Panorama programme featured a depressing episode entitled Return to Gaza in which Jane Corbin bravely returned - six weeks after kidnapped BBC journalist Alan Johnston’s release - to that strip of land forsaken by the entire world .

In introducing the episode, Jeremy Vine observed that Gaza “could be a holiday destination like Turkey or Egypt”. And, in an ideal future world, it might become that. Now people are keener to flee it than flock to “what is basically now a huge prison”, as Corbin put it as she walked through the gates of the imposing Israeli wall surrounding the tiny slither of territory.

Watching the miserable situation on our TV drove home just how much the Palestinian people have been let down by the international community, Israel and their own leadership.

Already worn down by food shortages, rampant unemployment, an unending Israeli siege and weeks of near civil war, at about the same time Panorama aired, hundreds of thousands of Gaza residents had their bleak situation made blacker when the EU effectively switched off one of Gaza’s main power station because it feared that some of the revenue was being siphoned off by Hamas.

Corbin toured Gaza and saw the influence of its Hamasisation everywhere, including a gutted nightclub where the corrupt Fatah elite used to hangout. Despite the more restrictive Islamic influence, Hamas has also been providing Gazans with some entertainment by playing the popularity game. Corbin showed footage of bulldozers removing the barriers set up around exclusive Fatah beaches, declaring them open to all Gazans.

All my books were destroyed
One of the most touching parts of the documentary was when Amani al-Dramli, a bright and sensitive 21-year-old physiotherapy student, showed Corbin around her family’s destroyed apartment which had been hit by a rocket during the “battle of the rooftops” between Fatah and Hamas, as Corbin described it.

Calm until she entered her burnt-out study, she could barely suppress a tear when she told Corbin that all her books had been destroyed in the fire and she could no longer study without them. Her mother, unable to contain her anger, said that if Hamas and Fatah couldn’t agree among themselves, then: “We want neither of them!!!”

Articulating the 'flight' impulse many young Palestinians feel, including some I had met in the West Bank, al-Dramli said that she and her family were waiting for the border to re-open so that they could join other family members working in Saudi. “Life is easy and comfortable there,” she said sadly.

Katleen wondered how terrible it must be for all these highly educated Palestinians – still among the best-educated in the Arab world, despite all the Israeli closures and socio-economic problems they face – losing their youth in a straitjacket of unemployment, despair and destitution.

The main error Corbin made in her reportage was to claim that Hamas was unwilling to talk to Israel. In fact, considering its past, Hamas showed a great deal of pragmatism in the months following its electoral success. Faced with the reality of actual rule, it was seriously moderating its position vis-à-vis Israel, and said everything short of outright recognition of Israel – which for anyone who bothered to read between the lines meant that they were providing Israel with de facto recognition in a face-saving manner.

Rather than engage Hamas and woe it to further moderation, Israel brought down its iron fist and the international community followed suit. Does no one realise that strangling a people and robbing it of hope actually radicalises it more? Where is the humanity in all this? Does Israel really want an angrier neighbour? For how much longer will Israel continue actively to rear uglier monsters – after all, it once backed Hamas as a counterbalance against the then despised Fatah, today its doing the opposite, even though there are factions of Fatah, such as the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which may well use the weapons against Israel in the future – which it then turns around and tries to slay or starve?

I can understand what makes the Israeli public afraid but there are far more sensible ways of gaining security than this collective oppression.

Watch this episode of Panorama

Ramallah for real: a different generation

By Tom Kenis
I am horrible at time-keeping. It is eight o’clock, and I’m standing at the bar. Muhammad, the bartender, greets me with a smile. “Kif halak?”

“I’m fine,” I say, scanning the room. Ol’ Blue Eyes stares down at me from the wall, framed black and white. Welcome to Sinatra’s. On weekdays you can hear The Voice, crackling from a small array of speakers, while you check your Gmail over high-speed Wifi. At present, only a handful of people are present, including the two girls who’ll be stamping concert goers’ wrists shortly. They have yet to take up their position at the door.

It’s eight o’clock, and I’m standing at the bar, as I said, horrible at time-keeping. After two and a half years still a rookie. I cannot not be on time. Silly me. Frankie Boy shakes his head with the disapproving cool that only a twentieth century crooner-icon is able to muster. From the patio a murmur of sound-checks and last-minute cable-taping is carried in by a spiky draft. Summer evenings around these hills can be deceivingly chilly. Frank Sinatra doesn’t sing Stormy Weather. He merely tuts, and goes about his business hanging from a nail in twenty-first century Ramallah. I, the tutee, decide by taxi to quickly backtrack to my abode and pick up some textiles.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Friday, 10 August 2007

Ramallah for real: bigger than Jesus

By Tom Kenis

Are the Spice Girls in town?

No, not really.

Lebanese pop-singer Nancy Ajram, then? Or perhaps eighties one-hit-wonder Charles & Eddie? If no one else can help you, and if you can find them,… maybe Palestinians hired the A-Team? Quite unlikely.

And yet, the sulphuric tang of ignited powder abounds. There floats an excitement that is difficult to explain otherwise. Today, Ramallah is falling over itself, people dash about in thrilled flurries, and firecrackers litter the sound-spectrum. It’s the day of “tawjihi”, the proclamation of final-year high school student’s results, a local SAT or baccalaureate if you will.

Read on

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Ramallah for real: just a regular town

By Tom Kenis

I got the job. The phone interview with a crackly connection, one time zone away, had gone well. Belgian development money would pay for me to go and support a small organisation that’s active in the field of women’s rights, youth empowerment, and democracy.

As I was packing my bags, TV news blared out the increasingly alarming vital signs of Yasser Arafat. I had just about finished packing those bags when the curtain finally came down for the old man, and an era ended. It was November 2004.

Goodbye Belgium. My odyssey to the Palestinian territories had begun.

Photo courtesy of Tom Kenis. Tom's website is at

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Darfur: fighting fire with water

There is no military solution for the Darfur conflict - but peace may be achieved by better management of the region's dwindling natural resources.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

Faith and punishment

In Islam, apostasy and faithlessness are sins, but they are not worldly crimes. Those who claim otherwise are making a mistake.

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Do we really need another Madrid Conference?

By Khaled Diab

US President George W Bush's call for an international peace conference later this year has rightly been met with greater scepticism than its predecessor, the 1991 Madrid Conference. Although his father seems to be an important role model, when Bush Snr invaded Iraq or called a peace conference he did both as a relatively respected member of the international community.

But is another international conference really what we need? Well, a good place to begin when deciding this is to cast our minds back 16 years and review the outcome of the first one. Owing to its massive symbolic value - the first ever gathering of Arab and Israeli leaders in a single forum - many remember it fondly today. But the actual concerete outcomes of the conference were almost non-existent and the proceedings were farcical.

"God was about the only personality who received a clean bill of health at the start of the Madrid peace conference," writes acclaimed British Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk in The Great War for Civilisation. "If clichés could produce peace, the last shots would already have been fired in the Middle East."

Fisk, who attended the conference, saw his incredulity rise: "At times, it seemed as if degrees of suffering rather than legitimacy were supposed to deliver peace."

Describing the scene unfolding before him, he writes:

The 1st of November 1991 became Madrid's day of rage. The mullahs in Tehran, who that very week had organised their own 'day of rage' against the Middle East talks in Madrid, must have loved it. Saddam Hussein may have been tempted to uncork a magnum. For inside the banqueting hall of the Palacio Real, the last day of the first session of the peace conference was little more than a disgrace. Had I not been there, I would never have understood the nature of the venom the Arabs and Israelis displayed towards each other. It was not so much the mutal accusations of 'terrorism' that created so shameful a spectacle. It was not the extraordinary decision of the Israeli prime minister [Yitzhak Shamir] to stomp out after making the first speech because, he claimed, he wanted to return to Israel by the Sabbath. Nor was it the Syrian foreign minister's [Farouq al-Shara'a] decision to brandish an old British mandate poster of a young Jewish 'terrorist' called Yitzhak Shamir. It was because the Israelis and Arabs used the peace conference to talk about war.

The only person who seemed to have a sense of the purpose of the conference and tried to move ahead pragmatically was the head of the Palestinian delegation, Haidar Abdel-Shafie who, Fisk says, "emerged with credit, still pleading for an end to Jewish settlements, accepting Israel's need for security".

History repeating
Any 2007 peace conference looks set to repeat the worst errors of its 1991 predecessor - including the absence of a clear agenda and the exclusion of the most significant Palestinian faction (then Fatah/PLO, today Hamas) - without the redeeming grace of being a groundbreaking gathering which raised very genuine hopes of a resolution.

Writing in The Washington Post, Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab sounded a weary note: "I and many other Palestinians are much more sceptical now. Attending the Madrid conference felt essential, but the importance of summits has diminished as such forums have failed to produce results."

"The transcripts of conferences, peace initiatives, lofty speeches and UN agreements aimed at resolving the conflict could fill rooms," he noted.

Yossi Beilin, who was part of the Israeli delegation to the Madrid conference, said the time was not yet ripe for a peace conference. He suggested that the only point of holding one would be to bring together leaders who would otherwise not meet or to give an existing pact international backing.

"This conference does neither this nor that," he told Israel radio. This is particulalry the case, since Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has so far evaded the Arab peace offer extended to him a few months ago.

"What we need, as suggested in the Arab peace initiative and a number of Palestinian-Israeli peace initiatives, is an agreed-upon final status - something like the 1967 borders - and the process to implement terms that will be agreed to by all parties. Otherwise, future summits will continue to fail," Kuttab concluded.

And for such final status negotiations to succeed at a peace conference would require something that few politicians seem committed to implementing: true popular involvement. Far more productive than an international conference would be a bilateral gathering - mediated by the international community - in which the Israeli and Palestinian government meet, as well as representatives of all factions on both sides, from the peace lobby to the settler community to the Islamists and Jewish fundamentalists, not to mention the Palestinian diaspora. This Madrid for the people should be followed up with a referendum to endorse its findings.

©Khaled Diab. Text and images.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Song for the deaf

I'm sick of hearing the same old tune about how Muslims are silent in their condemnation of terrorism. Time for a song.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

The plot sickens

Why is it that, no matter how hard I try, I cannot seem to be able to share the euphoria at the Blair-Peres-Bush makeover of recent weeks?

Perhaps it is because appointing ex-British prime minister Tony Blair as the Quartet's Middle East envoy is one way of making that foursome even more irrelevant than it already is. How can a man reviled as a warmonger in the Middle East and other parts of the world (even in his own country), whose handiwork in Iraq is still visible for all to see, become a credible peacemaker in the region he played a big role in destabilising?

One wit likened his appointment to making Harold Shipman minister for women and health.

Some will say that Blair played little more than a supporting role in Iraq and it was US President George W Bush who cried havoc and let slip this poodle of war. But would Blair perform any more effectively as a poodle of peace, especially since he only has a mandate to help Palestinians reform their institutions and economy?

Some draw solace from the fact that Bush is showing more interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has called for an international conference at the end of this year. But this keener interest is only keener in Bushite terms. Besides, how can a president who can only see the Israeli side and whose answer to every international issue is war, war, war, be able to resolve one of the world's most intractable conflicts in the few months remaining to him?

Besides, as previous experience shows ,few US presidents are brave enough to address the tough issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with an election looming. It might be Bush's final term, but he would not want to put into peril the Republican candidate's chances, particularly if that candidate turns out to be Jeb Bush, or something!

Those clutching for straws point to the appointment of Shimon Peres as president. Some might think of him as Israel's 'elder statesman' but he is little more than its most dogged political survivor and comeback kid. Besides, he's new position carries no political weight and he has little political credit to push effectively for peace.

"I know that the president is not a governor, is not a judge, is not a lawmaker. But he is permitted to dream," Peres admitted in his inauguration.

And we're all dreaming if we think these three developments will make a shred of difference to the depressing situation on the ground. If I'm wrong, please pinch me!

A Christian jihad?

Many in the west fear the threat posed by political Islam. But there is a more ominous menace closer to home.

Friday, 13 July 2007

Sex and the medina

Khaled Diab
The time is ripe for a Middle Eastern sexual revolution and there are signs that a quiet one is in progress. But will young Arabs openly stand up for their right to get laid?

Arab societies are in desperate need of a sexual revolution. This idea may shock religious conservatives who believe that a righteous stance (moral erectitude, if you like) is the only thing standing between society and all-out anarchy, decadence and HIV/AIDS. But I believe that a love liberation is a great way to cure Arab society’s sexually transmitted dis-ease.

Every time I go back to visit Egypt, I’m struck by how much more conservative the country has grown in the mean time. Along with the increasingly overt religiosity has come American-style out-of-town mall culture and Muslim-style televangelism in the form of the apparently charismatic Amr Khaled.
In fact, the number of people I know wanting to make a decent Muslim out of me is so sobering that I sometimes find I need a drink as an antidote and we head off to one of the city’s fine watering holes.

On Cairo’s streets, the sexual, economic and political frustration is almost palatable. The discerning eye can pick out naked sexual desire pursuing young people like a lead shadow in the hot and sticky metropolis. With polite society being what it is, female desire cannot strut around as starkly as its male counterpart but must veil itself demurely in a telling fluttering of the eyes or seductive smile.

It is a tribute to Egypt’s power of social cohesion that, despite the pent-up rage of unemployment, sexual frustration and overcrowding, Cairo is still one of the safest cities on the planet.

But isn’t it about time that Egyptian youth cast off the shackles of restrictive tradition and idiotic, counterproductive attitudes?

I’ve always had trouble understanding why society views sex with such suspicion. Why is physical intimacy seen as so destructive? Perhaps the underlying reason is that, by controlling access to sexual gratification, the elders of society can better control the young.

If the religious brigades are to be believed, society’s stealthiest enemies have stockpiles of sex bombs which they use to incapacitate legions of unsuspecting youth. But it is sexual frustration that is a ticking time bomb, as people marry later and society comes under greater religious scrutiny.

At uni, I was baffled by those macho guys who gave themselves full sexual licence but branded any girl who would sleep with them ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ and said they would never marry a girl like that. Why not? If it’s okay for you, why not for her? These were questions I found myself regularly ask to that sort of lad.

Why is virginity – particularly amongst women – such a coveted condition, not just in Muslim countries, but in all traditional settings? Is it the ultimate sign of youth? Purity? Innocence? Shouldn’t experience be its own reward, too?

A sexual devolution
This Arab ‘sexual devolution’ raises the interesting question of why it is that the secular societies of the Middle East which had about the same level of sexual freedom as the west in the 1950s and 1960s have regressed in subsequent decades. Part of the issue is economic. The western sexual revolution was a by-product of wealth and the increased financial independence of young people.

In Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, most young people do not enjoy the same level of financial independence and often rely on their families for some support – which has made a distinctive youth culture less forthcoming. I’ve always believed that a crucial factor in my quest for personal emancipation was financial self-reliance – something I strove to achieve at an early age. If no one ‘owns’ you, no one can dictate your life.

After money, comes family. The majority of Arab youth – particularly women – are exceedingly reluctant to rebel against their families and the extended support network it provides. Many is the friend I’ve had who has kept certain fundamental aspects of their lives concealed from their loved ones or, worse, abandoned their dearest dreams to keep in line with their parents’ expectations.

At a more collective level is the issue of conflict and trauma. In Europe and the west, the value systems of the old world were buried under the rubble of Two World Wars. The ‘baby boomers’ of the post-WWII years grew up with an instinctive rejection of the staid values of their forebears – and they had the economic wealth to act on this and create a counterculture.

In 1967, while the West was mellowing out in its summer of love, the Arab world came face to face with the trauma of conclusive and humiliating military defeat. Although secularists continued to call the shots for the next few years, the trouncing had turned the tide and more and more people began to believe the Islamist claim that it was our moral transgressions which were behind our weakness.

In addition, Anwar al-Sadat, in a cynical attempt to sideline his political opponents started portraying himself as the ‘pious president’ and openly embraced the Islamists. This was a move he lived to regret, but the genie was out of the bottle and his attempts to force it back in through repression only backfired. Add to that, Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s earlier systematic persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood and the hundreds of thousands of expatriate Egyptians exposed to ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islam in the Gulf.

With discredited secularists who never recovered from 1967 and highly motivated and hardened religious conservatives determined to set the tone, society has drifted towards increasing conservatism over the last three decades.

All through this time, a sizeable minority counting in the millions have maintained and upheld liberal values. However, faced with the ire and unwavering conviction of the religious fanatics, many have been intimidated and go about their liberal lifestyles increasingly discretely.

But in Egypt and across the region there are growing signs that the young are restive. Islam has always been open to the recreational aspects of sex and a quiet, Islamic sexual revolution is occurring. Egypt has been hit by a tidal wave of urfi or informal marriages, often entered into between boyfriends and girlfriends to give their sexual relationships a sheen of legitimacy. There has also been the gradual emergence or re-emergence of temporary marriages. The Shia’a have mut’a, a time-limited marriage contract, and zawaj al-misyar (‘marriage in transit’) is emerging in some Sunni countries, including Saudi Arabia.

Of course, many of these mechanisms are an attempt to give outward social legitimacy to something people still, ultimately, regard as ‘wrong’. The next step is for society to drop the hypocritical devices and be honest about its sexuality.

©Khaled Diab.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Thursday, 5 July 2007

A history of violence

British-born 'jihadis' have been wreaking havoc at home and abroad for generations, lured by a heady mix of idealism, romance and rebellion.

Saturday, 30 June 2007

The Muslim faithless

Ridiculing and questioning Islam, Muhammad, the Qur'an and religion in general is an ancient tradition in Muslim countries.

Monday, 25 June 2007

Neither here nor Blair!

By Khaled Diab
After he hands over the reins of the premiership to Gordon Brown, Tony Blair intends to become a Catholic and is prime candidatefor the job of Middle East peace envoy for the largely dormant Quartet (USA, EU, UN and Russia).

This is a proposal that is hardly set to get the pulse racing at the exciting possibilities that, through the good offices of Blair, Israelis and Palestinians will move infinitely closer to peace. Given his own personal track record on Middle Eastern peace - namely invading Iraq and turning it into an anarchistic battleground and garnering a reputation in the Arab world as a 'war criminal' - his candidacy can only baffle and bewilder, not inspire. If you though Paul Wolfowitz at the World Bank was bad - think again!

One can just imagine him addressing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his team in a closed session, earnestly pressing his sweaty palms together as he earnestly urges them in a voice of feigned earnestness, to give peace a chance. "You chaps really ought to stop bombing Gaza."

"Well, you bombed Iraq," the Israelis would remind him.

"Well, that was different," he would protest. "We were liberating the Iraqis from that evil Saddam."

"Well, the Palestinians can hit us in much less than 45 minutes - and we don't need a sexed up dossier to claim that." "Well, how about you end the occupation of the West Bank?" "Well, how about you end the occupation of Iraq?"

And then how would Blair handle the Palestinians, given the fact that he was one of the engineers of the international boycott that has brought such misery and destitution raining down on them. I mean, as prime minister, he's hardly shown much visionary potential as a peacemaker. If he had, he would've urged the USA and Israel to engage with the Palestinian unity government, rather than turn the screws and help percipitate the current chaos and lawlessness in Gaza.

What would've been better: a moderating Hamas engaging with the outside world or a hardening Hamas stamping de facto control over the streets of Gaza? I don't see how Tony Blair could broker with the Palestinians. Hamas would probably refuse to see him and any moderate Palestinian who did would be committing political suicide. So, at the end of the day, this ridiculous proposal seems to be neither here nor Blair - and the conflicts endless cycle will continue to spin.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

The other right of return

Palestinians have not been the Middle East's only victims. We Arabs should recall the many Jews who paid the price for the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

The Middle Eastenders

Khaled Diab

This weekend I went to London for a mini trip to the Middle East for an encounter with Jewish, Israeli and Palestinian (not to mention Sikh!) intellectuals, as well as a reunion with old friends from Egypt.

After a massive delay on the Eurostar owing to a broken rail in one of the tunnels, I arrived in Hackney at around midnight. Hatem, one of my oldest and dearest friends, and I stayed up late into the night shooting the breeze, despite the fact he had to get up early to go to work, even though it was the weekend. We caught up on everything that had happened in the nine months or so since we’d last met, swerving and veering and flowing with the conversation – with Hatem puncturing the late-night silence with his rapid-fire fire and brimstone-style impassioned delivery. When he speaks, he can make an offer of coffee sound like a revelation.

The next morning we all got off to a late start, delayed by conversational congestion. We heard on the TV in the background that Salman Rushdie had been made a knight – and it disappointed me to learn that he’d accepted it. Why is it ageing radical rockers and novelists seem to go gooey at the knees in middle-age and allow the establishment they once pilloried to claim them as its own?

To my mind, the author of such daring and creative post-colonial literature as Midnight’s children, The Moor’s last sigh and The satanic verses, which mock, deride and sympathise with history’s human products and progenerators. For someone who was born, like the characters in Midnight’s children, the year of India’s independence, I would’ve expected him to turn down that ultimate symbol of empire and refuse to become a ‘knight of the realm’, particularly given how mocking he is of England.

But, then again, he has increasingly become an establishment figure in recent years, with his cheerleading of the American policy, etc. Despite his obvious talent and rebelliousness, elements of haughtiness and vanity bedevil his persona and his works. I also think his own condition must prey on him and this is reflected in the fact that the antiheros of his novels always seem to have fetched up in some degenerate cul-de-sac of the soul. Sir Salman, you’ve lost your edge.

As we discussed whether or not he should’ve worshipped the ground beneath the Queen’s feet, we thought London had been transformed into Baghdad as fighter jets flew overhead. Luckily, it was only the Red Arrows engaging in their acrobatic amaze and awe, rather than the Royal Air Force’s bloodier version, shock and awe.

Finding a break in the clouds and avoiding the pomp and ceremony around the palace, we headed for SOAS, where Manuela, Hatem’s girlfriend is doing an MA on Arab perceptions of their black minorities.

Would future immigrants have to attend trooping the colours ceremonies as part of their citizenship ceremony proposed by Ruth Kelly and Liam Byrne I wondered, as I overheard SOAS faculty lampooning the Kelly-Byrne package in the student bar. My interest in all issues multicultural meant that I could not hold my tongue and joined the fray in mocking the proposals.

Political encounters
Later, I met Brian Whitaker, The Guardian’s Middle East editor, in what has become something of a tradition whenever I’m in London. We went for a drink in Islington and talked about a Middle East angle for the ‘summer of love’, honour killings, the situation in Gaza and how the future might pan out.

In the evening, I went to dinner at Linda Grant’s place in north London. The novelist and writer had started up a correspondence with me during my trip to Israel and Palestine and I had been invited for one of her Middle Eastern ‘diwans’.

To get to her house, I had to go via Finsbury park, the famous one-time home of Abu Hamza al-Masri, or ‘Captain Hook’, as the tabloids colourfully call him. With some time to kill, I stopped off for a cappuccino at an espresso bar which turned out to be run by Algerians. When I remarked that they were a long way from the normal Algerian destinations, they told me that everyone was looking for a way out of that den of extremism.

When they counted zena (adultery, i.e. pre-marital and extra-marital sex) as one of the issues bringing down the country. I was flabbergasted that he could put sex on a par with political and financial corruption, nepotism, extremism and violence. “What’s sex got to do with it?” I asked.

“Well, they’re enraging God,” he replied matter-of-factly.

“Let’s leave religion aside for a second.”

“No, we can’t do that!” he said, slightly offended.

“Please, just for the sake of argument.”


“When a young couple go off and make love to each other, who are they hurting?”

“It’s haram. They might have an illegitimate child – they’ll be hurting that child.”

“But they’re not hurting society. If they are hurting anyone, they are only hurting themselves, whereas a corrupt politician or a violent Islamist is hurting everyone.” He conceded that I had a point. Depressed by the state of sexual liberty in people’s minds, I cheered myself up by with the thought that I’d dropped a small sex bomb into their cosy bigotry. Ahh, when the sexual revolution comes, they’ll realise that making love makes the world a better place.

Linda had invited Palestinian writer Samir el-Youssef, Israeli photojournalist Judah Passow and Sikh journalist Sunny Hundal. However, Judah was stuck in Amsterdam airport and so was unable to make it.

The conversation also went to Gaza and what could be done there. Samir also recalled his spectacular debate with a Hamas politician at the Hay festival in which he professed his atheism. I noted my view that agnosticism was the most rational choice, since no one could prove conclusively either way whether or not a god existed. This sparked a lot of controversy and a long debate on comparative religion. Sunny provided us who came from the Abrahamic tradition with a lot of interesting insights into Sikhism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

After much food for thought, it was off, with Hatem and Manuela, to a Moroccan restaurant in Covent Garden for the birthday party of an old friend from the Cairo days, Jessica. Sunday was spent in true Middle Eastender style, kicking back and wondering around the markets of the Eastend and strolling along the Embankment.

©Khaled Diab. Text and images.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

2048: a hundred years of interludes

By Khaled Diab
This month, there has been a general preoccupation with the 1967 war and the occupation that started 40 years ago. But all the retrospectives have done little to raise people's optimism that peace is attainable. It might now be worthwhile to cast our sights four decades into the future and consider Israel's first centennial.
In 2048, will it depressingly be 'business as usual' - only even more entrenched than it is today, with the land carved up into severed, separated and heavily armed Israeli and Palestinian bantustans and ghettoes? Will it possibly have turned 'apocalyptic', with the region-wide war many have been fearing finally engulfing the Middle East, spreading out from the two epicentres of Iraq and Iran, and Israel and Palestine, to subsume everything in between and a lot that lies beyond?
I'm going to be optimistic and dream of desirable and remote, yet plausible, future.
Israel celebrates first centennial
Staff and agencies
Israelis took to the streets today in jubilation to mark the hundredth anniversary of the painful birth of their once troubled nation. In Palestine, Palestinians, who also today celebrate 15 years of independent nationhood and the fulfillment of their national aspirations, extended warm congratulations to their Jewish neighbours.

The legendary one-time Israeli and Palestinian premiers, after attending separate Independence Day rallies in their respective capitals, Tel Aviv and Ramallah, came together in jointly adiministered Jerusalem, the two nations' spiritual capital, for a joint celebration with thousands of revellers.

"Words cannot express my pride and joy on this special day," a clearly emotional Shalom V___, the charismatic one-time Israeli prime minister, told the assembled crowd as he fought back the tears. "I am proud to be alive at this important moment in the Jewish people's history. After two millennia of statelessness, the Jewish people's dream of nationhood has gone from strength to strength over the past century. Today, we can truly hold our heads up high as proud members of the family of nations, now that we and the Palestinians have found a way of living together in peace and prosperity. I would like to take this opportunity to wish our brothers and sisters in Palestine a happy 15th birthday for their nation."

A deafening roar gripped the mixed audience of Israelis and Palestinians who spontaneously began to chant the name of Salama B____, the popular ex-Palestinian prime minister. "Just 20 years ago, the idea that a Palestinian leader could be standing here wishing Israel a happy birthday was still unthinkable. We've come a long way. It has not been easy for my people to come to terms with the painful reality that accompanied the loss of our land in 1948, but our Jewish brothers and sisters also suffered a lot in their exile. Now they are safe among their brethren. From the very bottom of my heart, I wish Israel many centuries more of prosperous coexistence."

The still youthful-looking Salama and Shalom, who prefer to stress the peaceful connotations of their first names, hugged like the two veteran comrades they were.

The path to peace
Back in 2007, while the world was marking the 40th anniversary of the 1967 war, Salama was into his fifth year in administrative detention in an Israeli prison. As a passionate young idealist, the pictures of Ariel Sharon entering the Al Aqsa Mosque complex with hundreds of troops had led him, the introverted medical doctor, to join the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. He was engaged in a number of gunbattles with the better-armed IDF soldiers, but was opposed to suicide bombings and attacking civilians. This set him on a collision course with the more extreme factions of the group, but the imminent standoff was averted by his capture and arrest during another shoot out with the Israeli army, ironically while tending to the soldier he'd critically wounded.

As he was a fairly senior member of the Brigade, the Israeli officer in charge of Salama did not symapthise with Salama's distinction that, in a war, it was legitimate to attack soldiers - besides he did not believe that Salama had no part to play in any attacks against civilians. "Even if what you say is true, you're my POW until the end of this war," the hawkish officer famously said.

Little did this officer suspect that he was aiding the prospects for peace. In prison, Salama learnt to speak fluent Hebrew and discovered a passion for history - and what he learnt about Jewish history did not quell the anger in his breast that he felt at the plight of his people, but it caused him to feel compassion for the other side. He also started up a correspondence with a junior Knesset member and historian, Shalom. Together, they realised the powerful explosive effect of history and ideology and so set about to defuse it. Slowly, they formulated a common history which gave credence to both sides. It sought to replace the current epic narratives of both sides, with more nuanced narratives, with some epic elements.

Although the Jews had seen conversion and intermixing in the two millennia since they were exiled by the Romans and the indigenous population that was left had seen a fair bit of immigration and converted to Christianity and Islam, the two young men came up with the appealing storyline of long lost brothers and sisters coming home to their family after years of suffering and pain. However, the ensuing family feud had made the reunion an ugly one, but now it was time to drop the familial bickering and work together for their common good.

They also agreed to work together on 'bread and butter' issues. Shalom, then only 31 and with no military background, began a clever and charismatic grassroots campaign calling for Salama's release. Once out of prison in 2009, Salama faced some suspicion of being a 'collaborator', but his natural intelligence and charm and his simple message of 'individual dignity before national pride' won him many converts among the hard-pressed Palestinian population, at a time of Israeli closures and crushing occupation, international embargo, civil war in Gaza and the West Bank, and regular bloody skirmishes with the Israeli army. And the many scattered groups involved in non-violent activism found in him and Shalom natural leaders.

Timeline to independence
Together, Salama and Shalom effectively turned the Palestinian struggle into a civil rights movement for the next decade or so. By around 2018, the movement they'd spawned turned its attention to Palestinian autonomy, which was achieved in 2021. The vexed issue of refugees was handled through a sustainable number of Palestinians being allowed to return each year, compensation for those willing to stay away - and the entire Palestinian diaspora being allowed to visit. The Arab countries which had had significant Jewish populations also instigated a right of return for those Middle Eastern Jews who had been made refugees after the creation of Israel and their offspring wishing to return to their ancestral homelands and revive the once vibrant Jewish minorities there. Most who returned came from Europe or the USA, but some also moved from Israel.

After a dozen years of autonomy, rapid economic growth and convergence between Israel and Palestine, the time came to decide on the fate of the two nations. In 2033, two separate referendums were held among the two peoples outlining the options ahead. Surprisingly for some observers, a majority of Palestinians and Israelis voted for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, but then for its immediate entry into a federal union with Israel. The Palestinian state was born on the same day as the Israeli one 85 years previously, so that the day of Israel's joy - traditionally associated with Palestinian tragedy and despair - would also be that of Palestine's, set according to the lunar calendar common to Judaism and Islam. In addition, Israeli remembrance day was broadened to include the Palestinian 'naksa'.

'Given the size of this land and the proximity of our two peoples, that is the only sensible option," Shalom said at the time.

"In the past, we had our hands at each others' throats. Today, our two peoples have voted to walk into the future hand-in-hand," said Salama, independent Palestine's first premier.

Friday, 8 June 2007

Testing times

Across Europe, the real challenge when dealing with minority groups is not integration but marginalisation.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Of bombs and bombast

By Khaled Diab

While the west was discovering new self-confidence and freedom as it basked in its ‘Summer of Love’, the Arab world was waking up to the winter of its humiliation.

Although the eight-year-old Vietnam war was preying on the conscience of western youth, it didn’t spoil the baby boomer party back home. June 1967 saw the world’s first major rock festival, the Monterey Pop Festival. The Beatles released their groundbreaking album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club on 1 June 1967.

Less than a week later, Israel attacked its Arab neighbours. It is said that God made the heavens and the earth in six days and on the seventh he rested. In six days, Israel brought the heavens crashing down around the Arabs’ ears and, on the seventh day, the Arabs were left to sweep away the debris of their shattered pan-Arabist dreams.

It will remain a bone of contention why Israel started that conflict. Israel claims the war was a ‘pre-emptive’ strike. Although the Israeli public were terrified and felt that Israel’s imminent destruction might be at hand, the military’s hawkish top brass had a different idea. The country’s dovish prime minister Levi Eshkol did not want a military confrontation with the Arabs and tried to beat back the warmongers, but the hawks proved tougher than the doves and flew Moshe Dayan in as defence minister to guarantee a standoff.

Then IDF chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin, who had not yet been reborn as a dove and was still a hot-headed militarist escalating the confrontation with Syria and threatening to invade it, later admitted that: “Nasser did not want war.”

Even the conservative and Israel-leaning The Economist concluded in its 26 May 2007 issue: “It was a war prompted by a gung-ho [Israeli] military, a misreading of the enemy’s intentions and political expediency”.

It seems that the Israel’s military leaders were convinced that they had to crush the Arabs while Israel still enjoyed massive military supremacy and that any delays could result in a protracted conflict further down the road. In addition, if the war was not about land, resources and ‘strategic depth’ as it later became known as, why are the Israelis still holding on to most of the prime real state they captured four decades ago? If they were only interested in forestalling an Arab attack, why didn’t they pull out once they’d so comprehensively crushed the Arabs?

The catastrophic price of bluster
But the Arabs have their own difficult questions to confront. If Nasser did not want war – as the sorry state of Egypt’s economy and military at the time, as well as government documents and private memoirs reveal – why did he feel compelled in such dangerous and risky brinkmanship?

Israel had bombs to back up the swagger of its generals; Egypt was armed only with bombast. If wars were won and lost on oratory, then Egypt would’ve been a superpower under Nasser.

“Because there was enough information available to Arab governments and the PLO which should have told them that they were not ready to do battle with Israel, it resembled an act of mass suicide,” writes Said Aburish, in his incisive biography of Nasser.

Aburish blames Nasser’s flawed and awful decisions on the ‘Arab street’ which this people’s dictator listened to very closely, and the longing of ordinary Arabs to go to war with Israel and win back some lost pride.

But the malaise ran far deeper. Nasser was Egypt’s first native son to lead her in 2,300 years, who hailed from a small, unprepossessing town in upper Egypt and was raised in Alexandria. He looked and spoke like an ordinary Egyptian, albeit more eloquently. Most importantly, he held out the promise to restore Egyptian – and later Arab – pride.

But that promise was not rooted in any reality or realistic road map; it was an illusion, even a delusion, which the Egyptian and Arab public lapped up gratefully and Nasser and his crew administered liberally. For the first few days of the war, the radio was full of dispatches from the ‘front’ claiming one improbable victory after another.

Ahmed Fouad Negm, who after the defeat would become Egypt’s leading ‘street poet’ and made colloquial Egyptian an acceptable language of poetry, bought into the illusion and was completely thrown asunder by the comprehensive defeat. He penned a biting satire which Sheikh Yassin, his future duet partner, put to music and sang.

Oh people of Egypt guarded by thieves
Cheap food is plenty and everything is okay
Thanks to people who sing to fill their stomach
Sing poems that glorify and appease even traitors
While Abdel-Jabbar is destroying the country

But the Arabs awoke from their collective delusion, the secular pan-Arab dream was dealt its final death blow. Long gone were the heady days of optimism of the 1950s; to a collective sigh of relief in western capitals where Nasser was seen as a bogey man, despite his early pro-western inclinations, because they failed to understand that ‘non-aligned’ did not mean ‘enemy’. Besides, the novelty of a ‘third world’ leader talking back and demanding to be treated as an equal was not something they appreciated. But with secularism slayed, Islamism rushed to fill the void.

The only silver lining for Arabs is that they lost their bluster and now pursue a far more realistic foreign policy. In fact, in the long term, it is Israel that is proving the victim of her own success, falling prey to the arrogance of the victor, it is unwilling to make the compromises needed to reach peace and ensure the country’s long-term sustainability.

©Khaled Diab

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Streets apart: two women’s view of people, not politics

By Khaled Diab

Two books I read back to back do something that few books about the Israel-Palestinian conflict achieve: they look at the ordinary people, with the politics serving as mere backdrop to their human stories.

Since my tour of Israel and Palestine was all about humanising the conflict, I think it would be approporiate to meet the Palestinians and Israelis Suad Amiry and Linda Grant encounter in their highly readable and compassionate books: Sharon and my mother-in-law and The people on the streets: a writers’ view of Israel.

The first of the two books I read was Amiry’s – whom I had planned to meet while in Ramallah, but unfortunately she was delayed in Amman – which contains her regular correspondences from her house arrest in reoccupied Ramallah during Ariel Sharon’s famous offensive in 2002. The version I read also collected together this Palestinian architect’s diaries from the past quarter of a century and chronicles her move from Amman to Ramallah, including the epic journey to get official residency there, her PhD; her first-ever visit to Jaffa, her ancestral home; juicy gossip from the Ramallah grapevine; not to mention the cynicism, humour, compassion, resourcefulness and monotony of everyday life.

Linda Grant, a British Jewish novelist and journalist of a progressive persuasion, long ago came to the conclusion that there was not much she could do to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but decided that there was a human angle to it she was duty bound to highlight. And she does just that in her book, which mainly revolves around life in the colourful Ben Yehuda neighbourhood of Tel Aviv where she stays when she visits the country. But she also goes to Jerusalem and visits the Gaza settlements during the period of evacuation. She even recalls her first visit to Israeli as a starry-eyed teenager in 1967, just after the Six Day War; more interested in meeting boys than in politics and her anti-Zionism of the time being as much a teenage rebellion against her father as against the politics of the Israeli state.

Explaining her motivation for the book, she told me: “As I writer I can expend my energy on something which no writer should stand by and watch – the demonisation and dehumanisation of Israelis and Palestinians by each other and by their cheering sections abroad. That’s why I am such an admirer of your blog and your willingness to enter into dialogue.” In fact, I’ll be meeting up with her and some Palestinians and Israelis in London in a couple of weeks.

The human face of war
Between 29 March and 1 May 2002, there was a general curfew in Ramallah which was lifted for a few hours every few days to allow residents to run essential errands and restock their cupboards and fridges. Unfortunately for Amiry, her husband had been abroad on business and was stuck in Jerusalem for much of the duration, leaving her alone to rescue and live with her 92-year-old mother-in-law.

“Writing was an attempt to alleviate the tension caused and worsened by Sharon and my mother-in-law,” Amiry explains in the foreword.

Another unfortunate coincidence was that Amiry’s mother-in-law lived very near to Al Muqata’a, Arafat’s besieged and destroyed headquarters. The old lady’s electricity and water supply were cut off for all the days before her daughter-in-law could reach her.

After tremblingly coming face-to-face with Israeli tanks and military jeeps one time too many, Amiry decided to jump over the walls of people’s backyards in order to get to her mother-in-law’s house. “Those few hundred metres felt more like a few hundred kilometres,” she confesses.

Despite Amiry’s amateur heroics, her mother-in-law, Umm Salim, was not impressed when she opened the door: “Where, in God’s name, have you been?” she cried out, “I’ve been waiting for you for days.”

The distressed old woman flitted around her apartment fussing over what to pack. “Shall I pack my purple dress?” she asked concerned. Amiry, more concerned about how she was going to get the 92-year-old over all the walls, replied: “Just leave it. We’ll be back soon to pick everything up.”

“That’s what we said in 1948, too, when we left our house in Jaffa, and then it was also May,” recalled the worried old woman. When Amiry heard this, she stood still and began to cry.

A neighbour dissuaded her from trying to get the old woman over the walls. “You have to take the front door,” he told her. And, so, a terrified middle-aged woman and her aged mother-in-law stepped out into a war zone.

“You have to see these tanks,” Umm Salim. “Goodness me, look how big they are!” But the last thing Amiry wanted to do was to stop and admire the size of those killing machines.

Looking from the other side of the fence, Linda Grant visited and spoke to some soldiers. “I wanted to meet some soldiers, to find out what they thought and felt,” she writes. “because one thing I was sure of, they were not metal men, not terminators, manufactured in a Negev factory out of cyber-energised spare tank parts, but flesh and blood.”

She visited a mobile military unit charged with patrolling and guarding the West Bank. “… all around were these soldiers and all I could think of to say, on this first impression, was, ‘Kids! They’re just kids!”

“We peered inside the huts. I thought I was going to see bunks with neat rolls of olive-green bedding, anally retentive army tidiness, gleaming weapons. I was expecting order, and instead there was juvenile chaos.”

Every dog has its days
It took Amiry some seven years of toing and froing before she managed to get her permanent residency – and only after a dramatic confrontation with the city’s Israeli military chief. For her dog, it would prove to be an entirely different affair. “I didn’t know what would be harder: to end my boycott of Doctor Hisham [Ramallah’s only vet, who was sexist and bigoted] or to go to an Israeli vet who probably would have something against Arabs, but not against dogs,” she writes.

In the end, she decided the Israeli would be the better bet and headed off to a nearby settlement. The friendly vet, Dr Tamar, vaccinated Nura and delivered Amiry with a surprise: she gave the dog a Jerusalem ‘passport’. while her mistress could only dream of the human version. “You know what, Nura,” Amiry told her dog. “With this document, you can go to Jerusalem, while I and my car need two different permits.”

But, with some lateral thinking, Amiry put it to good use when she pretended to be the dog's chauffer to get through a checkpoint to Jerusalem without a permit. "As you can see, she is from Jerusalem and it is impossible for her to drive herself," she told the bemused Israeli soldier, who patted the dog on the head and waved the car through.
"All you sometimes need is a sense of humour," Amiry reflected.

Amiry also recounts a memorable incident of non-violent resistance. In September 2002, her entire neighbourhood got up in the dead of night to bang on pots, pans, lampposts, pylons, bins and even water tanks on rooftops to protest their house arrest and annoy the Israeli soldiers who had reoccupied Ramallah. Looking around to observe the madhouse, Amiry noted: "Even if Sharon and his occupation forces never get this message, it was good group therapy."

The trappings of nationhood
Israel was partly built on the Jewish desire to avoid future persecution and the dream of the Jewish people to enjoy the ordinary trappings of nationhood. “The urgent need for a superhero, for a Jewish tough guy who could take on the bad men of Nazi Germany, was rooted inside my father and all of his generation,” Grant observes. She tells of how her father’s most vivid and bewildering memory of his first trip to Israel was that a Jewish soldier was guarding a Jewish prime minister.

In the 1950s, some observers began asking why it was that Jews had gone “like sheep to the slaughter” in World War II. “And many Jews took that question personally… and decided that the Jews’ best defence was going to be not only retaliating, but getting the retaliation in first, to be on the safe side and to make sure the enemy knew what was what,” Grant describes.

And many of the older Israelis she met had moved there for the reason of not wanting to be ‘guests’ in ‘someone else’s’ land. The Russian grandmother of one Israeli she met had decided that “she was never going to live at the beck and call, generosity and mercy of a goy ever again”.

The Palestinians share with Israelis a sense of embattlement and having been betrayed by the entire world. In fact, it surprised me just how many Israelis believe, despite the obvious advantage of their position and their government’s efficient PR machine, the international media is against them. Palestinians, of course, believe the opposite.

Palestinians also possess the earlier Jewish yearning for the ordinary trappings of nationhood – which the Israelis managed, ironically, to achieve but only by, so far, denying it to the Palestinians.

In her book, Amiry expresses the desire for the normal things most of us take for granted. “One of my dreams;” she writes modestly, “is that my husband can come and pick me up from the airport or the Allenby Bridge when I come back home from abroad.”

“I have always been envious of my parents, as well as my grandparents, who lived at a time when travelling between the beautiful cities of the Levant was not such a huge ordeal,” Amiry recounts.
Let's hope one day that kind of freedom and mobility can be enjoyed again in the region.

©Khaled Diab.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Aswat gives voice to Palestinian lesbians

Being gay in most of the Middle East is tough, although the issue is coming out of the closet in several countries, including Lebanon and Egypt. In the case of Palestinian homosexuals, they not only have to deal with conservative traditions but also the politicising of sexuality in the context of attempts to construct false ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomies. Lesbians have traditionally been invisible in Arab society. In this article, Aswat staff explain their efforts to open the eyes of Palestinian society to their plight, the support they have received from Israelis and how sexuality is acting as a bridge between the two sides.


On 28 March 2007, Aswat (Voices) held the first conference of Palestinian lesbians in Haifa (Israel). On this day, Aswat celebrated five fruitful years of engaging in social change and raising awareness in the Palestinian community in Israel; and launched the publication of its first book in Arabic: Home and Exile in Queer Experience: a Collection of Articles about Lesbian and Homosexual Identity.

The conference was considered a great success, as many experienced a feeling of intoxicating joy and pride in the air. Many said Aswat provides them with a safe and beautiful space, some called Aswat a challenge, some even declared that Aswat is living the impossible and writing history. Among the participants were Palestinian, Israeli and international lesbians and homosexuals, funders, journalists, and gay and human rights activists.

Attempts to silence our voices
Two weeks before the conference, the Islamic Movement had issued a statement to the press denouncing the event and claiming that Aswat is “a fatal cancer” that is “corrupting the Palestinian society, that should be forbidden from spreading in Arab society and should be eliminated from the Arab culture” and demanded the immediate cancellation of the conference.
Although this appalling statement had caused much stress, Aswat decided to proceed with the conference and not to break under the Islamic Movement’s intimidation. Ironically, this negative publicity drew even more attention to the event: 250 people registered for the conference in advance and an additional 100 joined on the day.

A celebration of Aswat’s groundbreaking work
The conference was structured around two main panels. The first panel discussed homosexuality and lesbianism in the Arab community. Rauda Morcos – the general coordinator of Aswat – talked about the fact that most women in Arab society, and not only lesbians, live their sexual identities in secret. Aida Touma-Solaiman – the director of the Palestinian feminist organisation Women Against Violence – said that Aswat represents a challenge, because it questions society’s social engineering and patriarchal hierarchy. Yousef Abu Wardy – a well know Palestinian actor – talked about the role Aswat plays in the chain of freedom, and how important it is for the people who believe in freedom of expression to support and empower that chain. Ruti Gur – a Mizrakhi feminist and activist – expressed her excitement as she called Aswat “a dream that came true and that no one had allowed herself to dream”.

The second panel discussed the new Aswat book. In this panel, Raafat Hattab – a young Palestinian gay and representative of Alqaws (Rainbow), a Palestinian community project – talked about his experience as a gay man and quoted a poem by Nizar Qabbani when he said “revolution begins in the womb of sadness.”

Nabila Espanioli – the director of Altufula Centre for early childhood education and women’s issues – spoke about Aswat’s role in writing history and in breaking taboos. Dr Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian – a lecturer at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem – discussed the significance of Aswat’s book for the Arabic language; she defined the linguistic revolution Aswat has initiated as one of “naming the nameless”. Haya Shalom – a Mizrakhi lesbian feminist activist – spoke about Aswat’s role in shaping the process that will bring about social change in the Arab and Jewish societies.

In addition to the panelists, guests of honour attended the conference and spoke in solidarity with Aswat. These included Leslie Feinberg, a lesbian transgender and Jewish communist and the author of Stone Butch Blues.

Aswat gains visibility and strength
The conference was a great success for Aswat on many levels. It put Aswat on the map of political and social change. Indeed, as the event got significant media coverage in the Arab, Israeli and international press, the Palestinian community has become more familiar with Aswat and its mission. In addition, more and more people are referring to Aswat for information about the gay, bisexual and transgender community within Palestinian society; and more women who are questioning their sexuality are now approaching the organization to receive support.
The conference also has given Aswat the opportunity to test the will of local human rights and feminist organisations to stand by its side; to verify the strength of existing alliances and to consider the possibility of further co-operation with local NGOs.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

There's more than one way to resist an occupier

By Khaled Diab
Hamas's political leader Khaled Mashal must have a death wish. His uncompromising discourse is certainly hurting - even fatally wounding - the Palestinian struggle.

In an interview with The Guardian, he said: "Under occupation people don't ask whether their means are effective in hurting the enemy." When I read this, I did a double-take. Surely, that's the first question they should ask! After all, the overwhelming goal of any people under occupation is to find the most effective means of ending the occupation and alleviating their own suffering.

And, in the case of the Israelis and Palestinians, violence has proven itself entirely ineffective - on both sides. Palestinians attacks do not bring them any nearer to statehood and even result in Israel tightening its stranglehold on Gaza and the West Bank, as well as the further international isolation of the Palestinians. As for Israeli attacks, they do nothing to make the country any securer (particularly in the long term), just more reviled.

As I have argued in previous articles, non-violence is the most powerful weapon the Palestinians can and do deploy. However, its effectiveness is neutralised by the factions that insist on using violent means.

"What caused Sharon to leave Gaza, Barak to leave Lebanon in 2000? And look what's going on in Iraq where the greatest power in the world is facing confusion because of Iraqi resistance. Time is on the side of the Palestinian people," Mashal commented.

Violence may have had some part to play, but many complex factors led to these situations, and each was very different in its nature. In Lebanon, non-violence even had a part to play, with the Israeli peace movement lobbying hard to end the bloody 18-year occupation. In fact, in the case of Gaza, I would argue that the violence delayed an Israeli withdrawal. A hardliner like 'bulldozer' Sharon may never have been elected had Israelis not felt so insecure, and the situation in Gaza and the West Bank would've been a lot better.

"The Palestinians are steadfast and there are many ways of resisting according to opportunities and conditions," Mashal said. Palestinians 'sumoud' (steadfastness) has been admirable, particularly in the face of the unfair and counterproductive collective punishment being meted out on the hapless population.

And, Mr Mashal, there may be many ways of resisting but, in my humble opinion, there is only one effective way for the Palestinians - and that is to lay down their weapons and win hearts and minds. The last two weeks of violence have seen Palestinian rocket attacks kill two Israelis, while Israeli rocket attacks have killed 50 Palestinians. Is this the kind of balance sheet the Hamas leader wants on his conscience?

It is selfish of you living comfortably - if under constant threat - to demand of your people to make such huge and unnecessary sacrifices. Your first priority should be the dignity of your people, not some foolish notion of pride.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Middle East sans frontières

By Khaled Diab

The first days after my return home to Belgium were like a period of decompression following a deep-sea dive. Going from a situation in which even the air I breathed felt politicised and charged with conflicting passions to the more temperate and mild air of Belgium required some readjustment.

After all those days during which I tickled the curiosity of everyone I met, it was welcome to be back in the land of cultivated disinterest, in which privacy is so holy that people turn their eyes away rather than trespass on the sacred space that encircles each one of us. Riding the morning commuter train to Brussels was an opportunity to revel in obscurity, although, after all the intensely passionate issues I had been dealing with, it was a bit of a slog refocusing my mind on obscure EU issues.

It was great to see Katleen again and talk about all those things I had been dying to discuss with her during my trip. Next time I go, she hopes she has the time to join me. We were also careful to spend quality apolitical time together, i.e. make room for rest, relaxation and romance.

But the world insisted on intruding. While I was in Israel, Katleen had been in Geneva talking landmines and had spent the last three months or so working inhumane hours to shed light on the human cost of cluster bombs - on a personal level, I was concerned about the human cost it was exacting on her.

Weekend escape and unwelcome intrusions

The first weekend after my return, my father-in-law invited us on a weekend away to Doornik/Tournai to celebrate his 60th and Katleen's 30th birthday. Interestingly, my last birthday also made me, at 33, exactly half the age of my own father.

The setting was idyllic: gentle rolling hills (quite rare in flat Belgium); beautiful country houses; cows chewing lazily on grass (or human-imposed bovine gender segregation and forced mating programmes!).

My conflict sensors being on such high alert, I quickly spotted another possible reality hidden behind the picturesque scene. Doornik lies somewhere along Belgium's language faultline. It is a city with, historically, a strong Flemish influence but is today part of Wallonia. I recalled that when I mentioned that Belgium had quite a few parallels with Israel-Palestine, Tzachi had quipped: "What have Belgians got to fight over except for chocolate?"

But there is a lot to fight over, if the wrong dynamic ever took over and Belgians took the Flemish-Walloon struggle out of the political process and abandoned their famous ability to compromise. As we wondered around the town and its environs and admired its distinct Flemish architecture, spectacular cathedral and belfry (the oldest in Belgium), we speculated about how different it could be. We even imagined what if the quaint hilltop houses were actually to become 'settlements' taken over by aggressive Flemish nationalists wishing to reassert their ancient claim to their entire fatherland.

Doornik is the oldest city in Belgium and started life as a Frankish settlement and was actually the capital of the Frankish empire until that was moved to Paris in 486AD. Over the years, it has been ruled by the French, Spanish, and others - it was even the only Belgian city to have ever been ruled by the English and King Henry VIII built a castle there which we saw.

For hundreds of years, Doornik and much of northern France was part of the county of Flanders as can still be seen in the names of towns and cities: 'Lille Flandres' (Rijsel, in Dutch), Dunkirk, or Duinkerken, i.e. Dune Churches, etc.

We also ventured across the 'border' into France, to Lille Flandres. Of course, even for a practiced eye, it is very difficult to work out where Belgium ends and France begins. The same Flemish architectural heritage could be seen in Lille's town centre, mixed in amid the more recent French elements. We were there on the Sunday the French went to the polls to choose their new president.

Even though they choose the intolerant and divisive Sarkozy, our little escapade across the frontier drove home to me what I love about Europe: its head-spinning mix of cultures and languages and its absence of borders. If only the same could happen elsewhere. I look forward to a Middle East sans frontières.

©Khaled Diab. Text and images.

Friday, 25 May 2007

Extinguishing the campfire

By Khaled Diab
The violence in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al-Islam fighters raises serious worries about the short-term stability of Lebanon and has been yet another sad episode in the desperation and violence engulfing Palestinians. The fighting also resonates with worrying echoes of 1982.

I will not engage in the speculation and finger-pointing as to who is behind the violece - plenty of others have done that. My question is: why have these refugee camps, breeding grounds for frustration and extremism, been allowed to exist for so long? Would it not be to the advantage of both the Palestinians refugees and Lebanon that these ugly and depressing camps are dismantled and the Palestinians living there given Lebanese residencies?

I know Lebanon is sensitive to maintaining a balance in its delicate and fragile sectarian mix, but concentrating so many poor Palestinians for so many generations in one place and marginalising them is, in my view, far more destabilising than allowing them to integrate better into Lebanese society.

Some will raise the issue of keeping the memory of the Palestinian national struggle alive. But allowing Palestinians to live in dignity will not erase memories of their struggle. Some will argue Israel has to take responsibility for the refugees. Well, until it does, Palestinians deserve a better life and it is in Lebanons interest to help them gain it.

©Khaled Diab

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Small bombs, big trouble

By Katleen Maes

There are renewed hopes of an international treaty on cluster munitions - although the only way forward is to ban them.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

A war on error

It is time to dispel the myths surrounding Muslims - namely, that we are all terrorist anti-feminist teetotallers.
Read more:

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Borat: cultural leanings of Jerkmenistan

By Khaled Diab
I finally got round to watching the film version of Borat at the weekend. While the original sketch version was often pretty hilarious, the format did not transfer well to a full-length feature film.

The reason I mention it in a blog about Israel and Palestine is that Sasha Baron Cohen purports to have made the film partly to touch upon the issue of anti-Semitism in the West.

Interestingly, I found, was that the film’s only episodes of explicit anti-Semitism were those played out by Baron Cohen himself: the Jew chase in Kazakhstan; the incident where Borat is terrified that he’ll be eaten alive by the Jewish proprietors of a guesthouse; or when he walks into a gun shop to ask the bewildered shop keeper for a gun that can kill Jews.

In contrast, there are explicit examples of bigoted behaviour, racism and discrimination targeted at blacks, homosexuals and Muslims. One memorable example is when a southern gentleman at the rodeo advises Borat to shave off his moustache because it makes him look like a Muslim and that was not welcome around those there parts.

Of course, given their history of being persecuted, Jewish sensitivity to anti-Semitism is understandable, but attempts to make a major issue out of it in the contemporary western context are misplaced. Ironically, the real Kazakhstan has many problems, but anti-Semitism is not really one of them, according to the Union of Council of Jews in the Former Soviet Union. Baron Cohen would’ve been better off choosing Russia or the Ukraine where neo-Nazism is alive and kicking.

Today, the worst forms of discrimination are targeted against other minorities, such as blacks, Arabs and Muslims. However, even in these cases, it would still be a stretch to label it persecution, since, fortunately, there are plenty of checks and balances in place to protect minorities, and most people are more enlightened than they were a few decades ago.

That doesn’t mean we should not be vigilant – we must be. But that doesn’t mean we should cry wolf when what we mean is barking Chihuahua. In addition, minorities should stick together and defend their collective rights. That’s why I find it shocking that, for instance, the Jewish community of Antwerp has weighed in behind the far-right Vlaams Belang. Do they not realise that, given half the chance, the party would turn on them, too, and this is only an alliance of convenience? Or how about the stories of certain extremists Islamic groups aligning themselves with neo-Nazis? Don’t they realise that in the Nazi order of things Arabs feature lower down the pecking order than Jews?

Proud to be Kazakh?
The film also raises the question of how quasi-racist or culturally chauvinistic one is allowed to be in their attempts to highlight bigotry. In other words, can you be a bigot when trying to reveal bigotry? I mean, with this film and the hype surrounding it, aren’t you glad you’re not Kazakh? I certainly am glad Baron Cohen passed over the Egyptians and decided to portray another Johnny Foreigner as incestuous, lascivious, macho, uncultured and perverted!

In his own defence, Baron Cohen has said that his depiction of Kazakhstan is not meant to bear any resemblance to the real country. And his ignorance of the mineral-rich Central Asian state which is actually the size of western Europe shines through. For instance, Borat comes complete with his own Orthodox cross, even though the vast majority of Kazakhs are Muslims or follow one of the indigenous religions, referred to locally as nanim, or beliefs.

The question also begs itself, if Baron Cohen had wanted a country that few in the west had heard of or knew about, why not go the full hog and really make fun of people’s ignorance by creating a fully fictional ‘-stan’? My suggestion is Jerkmenistan.

Here are some facts about the real Kazakhstan:
* It is 2.7 million km2 which is bigger than western Europe
* Horses are believed to have been first domesticated here
* In medieval times, the Kazakh Khanate was located on the Great Skill Road and attained a decent level of prosperity until infighting between the different tribes weekend the Khanate
During the so-called Great Game between the major European powers, the Khanate fell under the control of the Russian empire, which later became the Soviet empire
* Kazakhstan declared its independence in December 1991 and strongman President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been president ever since. In fact, in 2000, the parliament ‘granted’ him lifetime powers and privileges.
* Kazakhstan is a semi-authoritarian country whose vast oil and mineral reserves mean that the government can afford not to be accountable to the people

©Khaled Diab.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

My son, the peace broker!

By Khaled Diab

My mother worries about her kids. Despite her commitment to independence, personal choice and individual freedom, she sometimes cannot help herself. Part of the problem is that she’s the proud owner of a fully functioning, top-of-the-range, active imagination (anyone who thinks my solutions to the world’s ills are quirky ain’t met me ol’ mam!).

Then, there’s the Egyptian in her. She may have travelled quite widely and lived in three different countries but, like most Egyptians, the idea of venturing too far away from the beloved embraces of the Nile Valley is seen as an adventure, a grand voyage into the strange.

So, you can image my trepidation about telling her that I, son of one of the most grounded and placid countries on Earth, was trekking off to the volatile land of the dispossessed. Although I’d mentioned, during my last visit to Egypt, a vague desire to go to Israel and Palestine to see for myself the situation on the ground, I was still not entirely sure how she’d react to an actual visit.
With all the other challenges of the trip, I decided it was best not to have a worrying, or worse, potentially disapproving mother to deal with. So, I phoned her before I left on the pretext of some family business but did not mention my trip.

The day I returned, I called her. “Mama, do you know where I’ve been?”

“No, where?” she asked with curiosity.

Then, I dropped the bombshell. “I’ve been doing my bit to try and solve the Middle East conflict,” I began sheepishly. “I was in Palestine and Israel.”

“Weren’t you afraid?” she asked predictably, although her tone was surprisingly light.

When I explained to her the purpose of my visit, she responded proudly: “My son, the peace broker!” Luckily, it sounded more tongue-in-cheek than her normal proud pronouncements about her children and so didn’t wind me up.

“Are Israelis as frightening as we’re led to believe?” she queried.

“No, they’re not. They’re actually a lot like us. May be half of them are originally from Arab countries.”

“That was the biggest mistake the Arab countries made in this conflict: expelling their Jewish populations,” she reflected melancholically. “Do you think any of them want to come back and live here?” she asked in the naïve innocence she sometimes displays.

Some of the older ones might be interested in returning to their former homes and others might want to visit, but a couple of generations have been born there and their home is Israel, I ventured.

She asked me about my impressions of Israelis. “Most ordinary Israelis just want peace and to get on with their lives,” I said.

“That’s one of the troubles with the world: ordinary people get on just fine, but their leaders spoil it,” she reflected.

“The Arabs have been begging the Israelis to sign a peace agreement for years. Why haven’t they then?” she asked more soberly.

We talked about Israel’s fractured, fragmented and factionalised political landscape and other factors holding back peace. To be fair to the Israelis, I also pointed out that the Arabs have missed opportunities to reach peace with Israel over the decades.

“But we were concerned with questions of justice back then. What kind of modern world would we have built had we just approved of a country that was created on the dispossession and displacement of an entire people? We dreamt of a better world than that,” she said, revealing the pan-Arab idealism of her youth.

She had grown up at a time when the charismatic Gamal Abdel-Nasser was the first indigenous Egyptian leader (apart from Mohamed Neguib, who was actually a Nasserite figurehead) in some 2,300 years. The last native Egyptian pharoah was King Nectanebo II, who ruled from 360-343 BC!

Jews talk of the two-millennium long exile. Well, Egyptians had their own version: an internal banishment. For more than two millennia, a continuous string of foreign rulers took over the Egyptian mantle and the natives were deprived of their right to self-determination, second-class citizens in their own country. Sometimes there were periods of great prosperity’ at others, there was persecution; but at all times, Egyptians were not masters of their own destiny.

Nasser had appeared like a saviour and promised to change all that; to return pride to the Egyptian people – a message he later extended to the whole Arab people. My mum had grown up in those optimistic, idealistic times. But the domestic and regional failures kept coming in thick and fast and the Egyptian nationalist and pan-Arab dream gradually faded until it was dealt a killer blow by the comprehensive military humiliation of 1967.

“No modern country should be founded on religion,” my mum remarked. “The answer is a secular society for Jews, Muslims and Christians.”

©Khaled Diab.