Sunday, May 9, 2010

Musings of a Lowly Scribe

Usually I only leaf through Al-Ittihad, the only Arabic daily in Israel, glancing rather fleetingly at its headlines. This morning, however, I read the text of the speech delivered by the chair of the Arab (meaning us, the Palestinian citizens of Israel) High Monitoring Committee at the meeting of our political spokesmen (including one single woman!) with the Libyan Leader in his capacity as the head of the recent Arab summit. It struck me as a significant document for more reasons than one: It apparently spoke for the consensus opinion of all attendants of this meeting, a rare display of unity worthy of celebrating; it covered our most significant issues; it was relatively brief, frank and to the point, or so I thought at first; and the occasion was unique, for, with the exception of the late Arafat, no Arab leader has ever condescended to this level of collective discourse and interaction with all factions of our community. This was an unprecedented breakthrough in another way, the first official recognition by a standing head figure of the Arab world of our community, we the Palestinians within, as a potential player in the field of inter-Arab politics, murky as this field usually is. We have been excluded from consideration by all concerned since ever we were separated by the events of Nakba as a suspect, maligned, and neglected, or intentionally side-stepped, group.

Both Israel and the Arab world have preferred to deal with us as individuals, or at best, as a collection of separate faith-based groupings lacking a unified voice, identity, or influence. Conveniently, we have adapted to this unnatural mold and adopted daily ‘struggle’ (I almost shudder at the mendacity of this overused term when others use it) for individual survival as our modus vivendi. As Toufiq Zayyad, the late poet Mayor of Nazareth, had put it, we will always be a thorn in Israel’s [Zionist] throat. To the Arab world, we are a less significant but more nagging disturbance to their figurative anatomy, not unlike a hemorrhoidal affliction: a constant bother and embarrassment. And here, out of the clear blue sky, comes a unifying and significance-laden gesture of recognition. It comes not from the prince of Arab liberation dreams, the Saladin plotting his hour of glory just north of the border, not from the obstinate ophthalmologist to the north-east, who had inherited his father’s long breath and extended vision, not from our tame and impoverished son-in-law to the east, nor from the latter-day pharaoh to the south, but from the original and inventive high-wire trapeze artist. Much can be said about the man but one thing is sure: he has gained his kosher certificate from the Americans, and though he is no Zionist, of late, contact with him has gained legitimacy. The whole thing sounded right. I made up my mind that this was a historical document worthy of the widest possible distribution in the international media.

Out of the group of two dozen invitees two were barred from attending by Israel: The first was Ameer Makhoul, the Director General of Ittijah (The Union of Arab Community-Based Associations, an umbrella organization that I had initiated while still active in the civil society sphere) who was informed at the border crossing to Jordan that the Minister of the Interior considered him a security threat to the state of Israel and hence he could not leave the country for two months. The second was Omar Said, a political activist and a pharmaceutical scientist and entrepreneur who had cut his professional teeth at the Galilee Society for Health Research and Services, the civil society home-base that I had established in 1981. He was arrested at the border and barred from seeing his lawyer and family. Though I was pleased I wasn’t the subject of Israel’s civic terrorism, I still felt good about being so closely associated with the two that were. Indirectly and perhaps subconsciously, this must have added to my initial enthusiasm about the piece that I read: I decided to translate it and place it on my blog. I called Ameer, jokingly congratulated him on having reached the level of being acclaimed as a peril to Israel’s security and enquired who exactly wrote the piece and if it had the approval of all participants. His answer confirmed my suspicions, a fact that, somehow, fed into my cumulatively escalating self-esteem this morning.

I sat down and started the task of translating. I had just finished reading Tariq Ali’s “The Book of Saladin” which is narrated by the fictitious scribe, the Jewish Ibn Yakub. As I commenced my mechanical function, a sense of rapid deflation came over me: Like Ibn Yakub, I felt lowly and subservient: If this is such a worthy document how come I had nothing to do with its drafting? Mohammad Zidan, the community leader who delivered it orally in the presence of Colonel Gadhafi, is a good friend of mine from the good old days of the Galilee Society when we ran a Ford Foundation-funded project in his village while he served as its mayor. I know my mastery of high classic Arabic is no less than his. So how come I am relegated to the role of his scribe, offering my uninvited services and on voluntary basis at that?

With considerably devalued sense of duty I continued the thankless task of translating. This meant that I had to ponder the exact meaning of every word in the one newsprint page-long speech and to select the best English word that carries the hidden meaning and exact flavor and nuance of so many highfalutin pronouncements. My God! Why couldn’t my friend cut through the fog of flowery and pretentious wording and say what was on his mind directly? Perhaps I should do that for him in translation. But that would be inaccurate if not dishonest. In the sociopolitical context in which the speech was given, the ostentatious language and the hyperbole serve a definite purpose; they are an integral part of the message being delivered; you can’t skip the flowery verbiage and say what actually is on your mind. The inner meaning is conveyed to a great extent by the style itself; I am reminded of the famous axiom: “The medium is the message.” But this still doesn’t say exactly the sense of obligatory grandiose mantle in which an idea has to be cloaked to be befitting when one is making a formal presentation in high places. To hell with exactitude; I am going to skimp on some of my friend’s superhumanly pompous idioms and let the English reader suffer!

I still am less than comfortable with my rendition of the content of the speech I found so impressive only an hour ago. Something else is nagging at my subconscious and I am having trouble dragging it up to the surface where it would stop belonging to the “sub” category so I can confront it; I want to deal with it frontally. I am uncomfortable with what I am writing in English though I had just read the piece in Arabic and thought so highly of it. I look at the paragraph I have reached and read it in Arabic. It is an accurate statement of what the great majority of Palestinians, and possibly most Arabs, would consider factual; the discourse is sensible and civilized. I turn to my English translation of the same and it reeks of sloganism and of anti-Israel language that verges on rejectionism and would surely qualify in average Israeli thought as anti-Semitic. Americans would dismiss much of it as Israel-bashing rhetoric. Now I think I understand the source of my insecurity as a scribe: When I read the Arabic version I was an Arab who had internalized all the cultural and psychological residues of the historical Islamic-Christian clashes from the conquest of Constantinople, the battles of the Crusaders (in nearby Hittin and Acre, and extending, as per George W. Bush, across a millennium to Iraq and Afghanistan) and the rape of Andalusia (who was raped by whom depends on who you are.) I took for granted the Arab/Palestinian discourse with all its sense of injured pride and suffered injustices at the hands of the West and their Zionist colonial project. As I switched over to my English version I was unconsciously transformed into my ‘American’ alter-ego; I read the piece through the Israeli-inspired American spin-doctored miasma of prejudices and ill-assumptions; I was instantaneously transformed to an American reader, mindful of the accepted American ‘civility’ based on decades of the internalized sense of ‘our’ special relationship with ‘the only democracy in the middle East’ and on centuries of wary orientalist alarm at the subterfuge designs of Mohammadans (after all, the spokesman of the group in Libya is named Mohammad and several other members carry other names of the Islamic Prophet) inimical to ‘our’ Judeo-Christian traditions.

I have to stop this confusing pursuit of self-interpretation. The subject of my admiration in the original Arabic turns out to be a piece of trash when rendered literally in English. It simply sounds different in English. I shouldn’t have translated it. I can sleep better with it in the original. Here it is:

Speech delivered by Mr. Mohammad Zidan, Chair of the Monitoring Committee, at the Meeting with Colonel Muammar Gadhafi on 25 April, 2010
(Unauthorized Translation)

The leader of the Libyan revolution, brother Muammar al-Gadhafi;
Brothers in dear Libya,
Peace and Gods Blessings upon you.

Let us open by thanking brother and leader Colonel Muammar al-Gadhafi and our brethren, the people of Libya for this kind gesture of inviting a delegation from the 1948 Palestinians for a meeting with you. This invitation reveals many a meaning in its name and content, especially with you heading the current Arab Summit of Serit in which capacity you have been conducting a series of Arab meetings. Even before we landed on Libyan soil, we felt proud in anticipation of this meeting and brotherly embrace.

We highly value, dear Colonel and brother, your initiating this brotherly meeting. We hope that it will be a good start for more meetings and communications so that, with your rich experience and insightful vision, the meeting of the branch with its mother-tree and of the child with its family and people is complete. This meeting empowers us with a moral energy that we need greatly in our strategic position so as to continue our steadfast and existential trip in confronting the challenges that has faced us repeatedly as we stayed in our ancestral lands,

At about this time sixty-two years ago, the Nakba earthquake leveled some 530 Palestinian villages and cities. The Zionist movement, backed by colonial powers, drove out the majority of our people leaving only some 150 thousand whose persistence in their homes was not unlike ‘grasping embers’ for decades. We have remained on our lands, maintaining a grip on our identity, our language, our traditions and our convictions despite all Jewishizing and falsification attempts, till we have become today about one million and three-hundred thousand, the equivalent of one-fifth of the country’s population.

The dust of the Nakba’s volcanic eruption continued settling till we realized that we have experienced two heavy nightmares, the first the handiwork of the racist practices of Israel’s governments, and the second shown by the Arab world’s estrangement from us.

Six decades have passed while the suffering and threats have mounted, covering all walks of life: land, residence, education, labor, unemployment, poverty, budgets, and all civic and national rights. Six decades have elapsed with the citizenship imposed on us still conditional and constrained due to racist policies and practices against us.

Despite the nightmares and the variety of subjugation and suffering, the ‘internal Palestinians’ have achieved the near impossible, thanks to their struggle, their belief in the truth and justice of their claims, their attachment to their culture and history which infused us with tremendous ability to crystallize our national identity and to maintain the solid basis of our national struggle. In the past, racism against Arab citizens was practiced secretly. Currently its slogans have become a basic part of the establishment and the mainstream. Tens of unprecedented racist laws for Jewishizing space and the populous are now passed openly and affect Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line, while the world continues to deal with pampered Israel with silk gloves.

In parallel, with talk of negotiations and the peace process, land theft in the West Bank continues while Jerusalem faces nonstop Jewishizing and cleansing of its Arab population as the recent decision of evicting seventy thousand of its residents and of the residents of the rest of the West Bank using various excuses.

In the Jewishizing and falsification campaign, the al-Aqsa Mosque, as a religious, a cultural and a national symbol, faces continued assault: tunnels are dug under it, synagogues surround it above, calls for breaking and entering it are rife, and plans for tearing it down and for constructing the presumed temple are drawn by settler groups under the protection of occupation authorities. They do not shy away from soiling Islamic and Christian holy sites: Mosques and churches have become cowsheds and wine cellars while others have been converted to synagogues with little attention to the laws of heaven or of this world.

Despite the policies of control and oppression and despite persecution of their political leaders and the subjugation and domestication attempts, the Palestinians within did not change their skins but rather persisted in accumulating gains, struggling collectively with ant-like diligence to extract our basic and national rights with blood and tears as the native people of the land who put down their permanent deep roots in the face of threats, impositions and danger.

In keeping what is left of their land, and in maintaining their identity and ties to their people and humanity, the Palestinians within paid a heavy price: tens were martyred and hundreds were injured in Kufr-Qasim in 1956, on the first Land Day in 1976, and in the uprising of Jerusalem and al-Aqsa in 2000, all in defense of rights, land, holy sites and belonging, while tens were killed between these blood-drenched landmarks. Every day, the Palestinians within, whether in Galililee, in the triangle and costal cities, or, especially, in the Negev, face up to expulsion and ethnic cleansing operations with their bare bodies, full hearts and conviction as solidly founded as the mountains of Galilee that, if it must be, then death is better than departure.

Under the weight of confinement, oppression and persecution we continue in our struggle to solidify our presence in our homeland for which we have no alternative and to secure a decent living with nothing less than our full national and civil rights. We are part of this land and didn’t immigrate to it. Born and rooted in it as the hyssop and the olive, we find “on this land much that deserves living” [as our poet Mahmoud Darwish said.] It is truly the mother of all beginnings and, despite the pain, we will not abandon the path of justice and belonging.

Brother leader,
We come to you from our land to our land, so that Nazareth, Haifa, Acre and the rest of our cities and towns will embrace their sisters Tripoli, Benghazi and Serit. We come to seek your moral support, to connect, to consult, and to complement one another while still nurturing a sense of blame toward the Arab world, the blame between brothers. After our people’s Nakba, and for long decades, we suffered doubly: the bitter taste of oppression, Jewishizing, dispossession and expulsion at the hand of Israel, and, in parallel, the injustices from our brethren who blamed us, we who remained on our land, falsely and cruelly. We were viewed with suspicion and doubt as if we had sold our souls and abandoned our roots and religion, all because we preferred staying over departure and were forced to carry blue [Israeli] identity cards and accepted a citizenship we inherited and practiced against our will.

Within sight of the oppressors, the wheat grains grew to fill the precious land with wheat spikes and the fields of Jezreel Valley swayed with joy in welcoming those who remained to reap it and to grind it into flour from which they made historic monuments and proof of the Arab nature of the place. Those who were abandoned as orphans at the feast of the wicked grew and filled the land and its prisons with their freedom songs, awaiting the dawn of that long night. The land sang with them like a mother, happy for her growing children morphing literary figures, poets and freedom lovers. They have become a symbol of resistance literature and human creativity. Indeed, our giant poet, Mahmoud Darwish, has expressed our love and priorities well:

We love the rose
But we love wheat more
And we love the perfume of roses
But the wheat spikes are purer.

We did not shirk our responsibilities in our homeland. We stood high in the face of our oppressors even as barefoot and naked orphans. Today, recognition by the Arab world, most of which is ignorant of our achievements, is still lacking.

Despite all of that we repeat the song of hope by our famous poet Samih al-Qasim:

Despite doubt and despite sadness
I hear, yes, I hear the footsteps of dawn
Despite doubt and despite sadness
I will not lose my conviction
That the sun will rise
Spreading victory flags
Spreading all that it carries of longing and hope
My red pronouncements
My green pronouncements

Therefore, we value highly this visit to Libya. We view it as a form of return, as support for us and for our issues, and as recognition of the need for parts of the same nation to connect and for the lie of normalization to be eliminated. Nothing is more natural than for brothers to meet, even if after a long absence.

Before this august gathering we offer our thanks to the descendents, the followers and the emulators of the martyr Omar al-Mukhtar and his school of struggle and sacrifice, for hosting us. We call on our Libyan brothers led by brother Muammar el-Gadhafi to move toward ending the historic injustice that has blocked our way by promoting, supporting and institutionalizing this natural reconnecting between people of the same nation.

Brother Gadhafi,
We need the moral support of the Arabs and for them to stand with us in the continuing struggle for our survival and our rights. Likewise we look to your help in extracting our brethren in occupied Gaza and the West Bank from their plight of internal conflict and to lift the oppressive external isolation of Gaza.

We take this opportunity to emphasize that all Palestinian blood is one, all their pain is one, and the road to the realization of our nation’s dreams is one: and that is through unity and agreement. Without that we will continue to be lost in the darkness of the unknown.

With you heading the Arab Summit, we hope that your good efforts will aid in ending the Palestinian internal conflict and in stopping the dangerous hemorrhage so as to reunite the Palestinian people. Unity is the only guarantee for guarding the national project of freedom and independence in a Palestinian State with holy Jerusalem as its capital.

We hope that your presidency of the Arab Summit will be the start of Arab unity, of speaking in one voice regarding all issues in our area. That will aid in resolving obstinate problems and promote stability and progress in the area.

Last but not least, based on what we have said and to correct the mistakes of the past and protect future ambitions, we hope that Libya, as the current head of the Arab Summit, will seek to extend to us the moral support of the Arab world against the campaigns and plans of evacuation and Jewishization. Again, we thank you for this festive reception and generous hosting hoping that God will preserve you and that the Libyan people will advance under you