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I was in Washington, DC in the late summer of 2006 showing a Palestinian friend around, and I remember looking down the street at the US Capitol building. The intricate white dome soared into the sky, a breathtaking beacon of possibility that left both of us, for a moment, speechless.
It was shortly after Israel’s 2006 assault on Lebanon, a chilling bout of carnage that killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians, including hundreds of children. Entire families were incinerated in their cars as they fled the heavy bombardments, all while Washington blocked any attempt at a ceasefire. The trauma was all the more unbearable because of its utter pointlessness. The stated objective was to neutralize Hezbollah. Immediately after and up until now, Hezbollah has only been gaining strength.
I turned to my Palestinian friend and said with real pain, “I was raised to respect what this building is supposed to stand for. Freedom. Democracy. Opportunity. But now… It’s all superimposed with bound men being terrorized by attack dogs. With families lying on the side of the road, charred beyond recognition.”
My Palestinian friend sighed. “I was, too. I always thought there was one place in the world where things were fair. Where everyone had a chance. A place we could aspire to be like. But now…”
A few nights ago I was in a club talking with an Albanian friend and a Turkish friend. The Albanian (who was born and raised in Germany) was talking about a recent visit to Kosovo, and how Albania and Kosovo were two of the few remaining countries in the world that steadfastly love the United States of America.
“I remember when George W. Bush visited one time after some economic conference in Europe,” he said. “The people in the European countries all hated him, they were protesting, yelling, insulting him. Then he came to Albania, and everyone was waving American flags and trying to hug him and kiss him. He looked so happy!” He laughed. “It almost made me identify with Bush. Just to see him as a human, looking so happy.”
“It wasn’t because they like him,” I said contrarily.
“Of course. It was because of Clinton [bombing Serbia in what’s widely believed to be the first war fought on humanitarian grounds]. But it doesn’t matter. People really appreciate what the US did.”
My Turkish friend said, “I know exactly when Turkish public opinion of the United States reached its highest level. It was after the earthquake in Turkey in 1999, when Clinton was visiting some of the villages that were hit hardest. Someone handed him a baby, and the baby started playing with his nose. And he just smiled and stood there while the baby played with his nose. At that moment everyone loved him, because he was just being human, and you could see that.”
The Albanian said, “People love the US, really. You guys are much more open to outsiders than Europe.”
“I’ve heard that,” I said. “But the stereotype here is that Europeans are so much more enlightened than Americans.”
He shook his head. “It’s not the case. Look, I was born in Germany, I’m more educated than most Germans and I speak exactly like a German. But as soon as someone hears my name, his expression changes and he asks, ‘Oh, where are you from?’ Because they know no ‘real’ German could have my name. And I don’t want to raise kids in a place where I know we will never be accepted. Here, it’s different. Nobody cares where you’re from. You have a great country, really. Everyone knows it’s the best place in the world for immigrants willing to work hard. It seems that even the Arab world likes America. It’s just this thing with Israel/Palestine, and Iraq and the other stuff.”
“I know. I lived there for two years, and everyone said the same thing: We love America, hate the policies. What’s funny is, the policies don’t even make sense. Think about it: What does a country need to be successful? Jobs at home, a good educational system, not spending all your money on wars…”
“And having a lot of allies who stand with you. I mean, who really stand with you. Not who just do what you say because you give them money or threaten them.”
“Yeah! China’s totally laughing at us right now. We’re destroying our own power, for no good reason.”
And who is leading the US toward weakness and irrelevance? The Obama Administration’s halting, out-of-touch response to the Egyptian uprising and its humiliating veto of a UN resolution condemning illegal Israeli settlements (which carefully and cleverly used only wording that the US itself uses in official policy statements) revealed more clearly than ever who’s in charge: corporations and special interest lobbies (many of whose ideologies are employed, wittingly or not, at the behest of corporate interests).
They have ensured that innovation in vital areas like alternative energy have practically ground to a halt and real wages in America have stagnated since the 1970s while the rich get vastly richer and the teachers and schools and public health clinics and other services for poor and ordinary people are told they must ‘cut back’ — the same IMF and World Bank policies that have brought ruin to much of the so-called Third World.
In short, writes Alfred McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Congress and the president are now in gridlock; the American system is flooded with corporate money meant to jam up the works; and there is little suggestion that any issues of significance, including our wars, our bloated national security state, our starved education system, and our antiquated energy supplies, will be addressed with sufficient seriousness to assure the sort of soft landing that might maximize our country’s role and prosperity in a changing world.”
But there’s reason for hope, and that hope has an address: Tahrir Square. At this moment, when the Arab world is waking up and realizing things don’t have to carry on as usual, perhaps it’s time for us to do the same.
Ironically, the computerization of the world has led to a more human world. We’re still the same animals with the same brains programmed by our evolution as a species that has spent most of its history in small tribal units. And our natural human affinity for an ‘in-group’ is rapidly expanding to take in the entire world on the level playing field of independent and social media. It’s not rationally tenable to believe we’re fundamentally different or better than other people after we’ve seen enough videos of them holding up hilarious protest signs in Tahrir Square that speak to our deepest values.
With the rise of independent and social media, individual human consciences have more power than they’ve ever had in the history of humankind. Which means that power now, more than ever, comes from the most elemental source — being human, being honest, being real, and speaking to the values shared by the vast majority of human beings. People can tell, and they respond to it.
They responded to it in Barack Obama when he was campaigning for President. When he wrote his great books. When he spoke to us like adults. Which is why it came as such a disappointing shock when he took office and immediately started talking like a politician rather than a leader. It wasn’t because he failed to be a super-liberal. Anyone paying attention knew he wouldn’t govern as a lefty. It was because he stopped being human. I would almost welcome him backing a policy I opposed, if only he did it while telling us the real reasons he was doing it instead of bowing to special interests while spouting platitudes. That kind of thing naturally turns the stomach of any thinking adult.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. My Palestinian friend in 2006, my Turkish and Albanian friends, and every Egyptian who dreams of a better world — all of these people long for the US to live up to its potential, its values, the leadership role it could have if only we would seize it, instead of being buffeted in the tides of business interests presiding over a system so broken, it’s beginning to eat itself.
Those vaunted ‘business interests’ are just systems, and those systems are composed of human beings. And the people of Egypt showed us just how illusory a seemingly unshakeable power can suddenly prove to be.
The US can continue down this road until it goes the way of Hosni Mubarak, despised and deposed in a convulsion of disgust after a long and increasingly cruel disengagement from reality. Or we can realize that we, as citizens and globally-connected human beings, have more power than we can imagine, and we don’t have to let remote and unaccountable powers decide our fate.
Our politicians can begin to fathom that, as long as everyone is afraid to raise his or her head for fear of being decapitated, the lobbies automatically win. But if enough of them make a decision to speak to their constituents like adults, and be genuine and honest, and get votes the old-fashioned way — by upholding the public interest — instead of through deceit and ideological distortions and cash, the lobbies will no longer enjoy an easy stranglehold.
Personally, I would like to restore enough of America’s prestige that we won’t end up unwilling subjects of whatever superpower comes along next and whatever values they happen to possess. I want our best values — liberty, democracy, justice, innovation, truth-seeking, equality, tolerance, humility, and an optimistic belief in the better angels of human nature — to be represented on the world stage, because I believe in those values. It just so happens that what we need to do in order to remain relevant is also the right thing to do, the moral thing to do.
Of course, a foreign policy based on values needs legitimacy, which means honesty and consistency. We can’t try to impose democracy on Iraq while stifling it in Egypt and undermining it in Palestine. We can’t preach clean governance and then commute Scooter Libby’s sentence. The world is not stupid. And we can’t count on them being complacent much longer.
The longer we wait, the more moral power we lose, and the harder our crash landing with reality will be — and the less we will have a say in how the world is run once the American Century is over. No one expects us to be perfect, and we never will be. But if we can begin to get out of the grip of corporations and lobbies and show leadership based on the timeless progressive values for which the world loves us despite our flaws, we can remain great on the world stage for a while yet, and be worthy of that greatness.
P.S. Phil Weiss says it very well:
“Our politics are hopelessly corrupted on a question of basic fairness, as they were corrupted by the slave power, which everyone knew was wrong in the 1850s. Still the Establishment kept extending slavery. Other countries were abolishing slavery; but both our existing political parties were for it, and the Supreme Court made the historic decision in the Dred Scott case in 1857 to return a slave to his owner. And the president supported the decision, thinking that if the court so ruled slavery could be removed from politics. And look what befell the country in 3 years — an issue that was never fully politicized was the cause of a terrible war.”
- I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
I could hardly believe my eyes on Friday — the fabulously symmetrical date of 11/02/2011 in European and Egyptian terms — when I woke up to the astounding news that Mubarak was gone.
Mubarak, a man who came to power when 8-tracks were still the rage and Jimmy Carter held the most powerful office on earth, a pillar of American and Israeli hegemony in the Middle East for three long decades, a cruel torturer and corrupt and despised dictator who seemed as solid and immovable as the Pyramids themselves, was eighty-sixed in eighteen short days. Without violence. And without anyone else’s help.
It’s hard to overstate what a staggering turn of events this is, though I hardly need to state it. You can just look at Yemen, at Bahrain, at Jordan, even at the Palestinian Authority (which recently sacked its cabinet and promised new elections in September), to see that this week is very different from last week. No longer can Arabs, driven under the heel of imperialist shenanigans for so long, be counted on to quietly tolerate whatever’s dished out to them because of misinformation and fear. Equally, not for much longer can they place the blame for their situation on external actors. They’re taking matters into their own hands. They’re preparing to take up both the blessings and the burdens of freedom.
Before anyone gets carried away and says something silly like, “See, George W. Bush was right!”, er, well, first of all, as Jon Stewart pointed out, George W. Bush didn’t invent freedom. He turned Iraq into a graveyard and a basket case, wasting lives and tax dollars with equal recklessness, all based on what’s now come to light to be indisputably a lie when Bush’s primary source admitted he made the whole thing up about WMDs. If Iraq climbs its way out of this miasma, it will be despite the US government’s meddling, not because of it.
This picture tells you everything you need to know about fake revolutions stage managed by foreign powers vs. real revolutions surging through the streets of life, riding on the pulse of public sentiment.
The Egyptian people have been longing for freedom since long before the neocons started playing checkers on the chessboard of the Middle East. And now — despite Mubarak’s secret police armed and trained and given impunity by the United States — they have risen up to claim it, all on their own. They vanquished not only Mubarak but the vile stereotype of Arabs as fundamentally less inclined to freedom, democracy, non-violence, and rationality than us white folks. As people who “crave” a strongman dictator because they’ll never be able to manage their lives themselves. This kind of rhetoric is the most transparent throwback to 19th century colonialism, yet it’s allowed to foam forth unchecked from our mainstream airwaves.
No more. Despite Mubarak’s best efforts, all the world’s media were there, watching the events unfold in real time, and the reality of it simply couldn’t be denied. I was frankly surprised they didn’t try harder to hide the reality. But with Al Jazeera English’s ratings surging, and with them reporting live and able to call any bullshit in real time, I guess CNN felt like it had better catch up or fade into irrelevance. It probably didn’t help Mubarak’s cause when some of his henchmen punched Anderson Cooper in the head.
(Check out the shockingly, brutally honest report from Anderson Cooper posted here.)
I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a Twitter Revolution. But the easy organizing and information dissemination of Facebook and Twitter and blogs have certainly helped enormously. The internet and Al Jazeera are creating a worldwide Glasnost. Lying dinosaurs beware!
Perhaps the single most hopeful statement to come out of the whole 18-day drama was this: “Despite the $1.5 or more billion in military aid Washington has provided Egypt every year since 1979, Mubarak’s government has been unable to use the military against the popular revolt.” Because the military refused to fire on their own people.
It’s funny how quickly billions of dollars worth of military hardware become absolutely worthless once your army refuses to use them.
So Mubarak tried something else. After his secret police were overwhelmed and driven off the streets, hundreds of armed thugs mysteriously appeared to beat and pummel and whip and shoot non-violent protesters and try to intimidate them into giving up and going home. Mubarak tried to act like the protesters were causing the violence, and told the country he was the only one who could bring stability back. But no one was fooled, including Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times:
“Today President Mubarak seems to have decided to crack down on the democracy movement, using not police or army troops but rather mobs of hoodlums and thugs… it is absurd to think of this as simply ‘clashes’ between two rival groups. The pro-democracy protesters are unarmed and have been peaceful at every step. But the pro-Mubarak thugs are arriving in buses and are armed — and they’re using their weapons.”
Of course, this only tripled everyone’s resolve. “I’ll stay here until Mubarak leaves,” one 59-year-old surgeon said. “I’m not afraid. We’ve broken with the fear we’ve lived with for 30 years.”
After fierce clashes, with the protesters armed with nothing but stones and blankets on their heads for helmets, several of the thugs were captured (many with their secret police IDs still on them!) and the rest were driven back. And the protests swelled.
It came, unfortunately, at an enormous loss: over 360 lives at the last count. But the people on the square, Christian and Muslim, religious and secular, young and old, professional and working class, were willing to die for freedom. The words “Give me liberty or give me death” haven’t been so immediately meaningful in a long time.
And it struck a nerve with Western journalists. It couldn’t help but do so. The truth has been hidden from so many for so long that you could literally watch as the scales fell from the eyes of many a mainstream journalist. I don’t know how long it will last, but even one breakthrough can have lifelong consequences. Historic consequences.
Roger Cohen of the New York Times said, “To accept the Mubarak-or-chaos argument is a form of disrespect to the civility and capacity of Tahrir Square [and of Egyptians in general]. It is an expression of Western failure before the exploding Arab thirst for dignity and representative government.”
Naturally the other thug dictators in the region are quaking in their jackboots at this brazen display of people power, and the fact that the King of the Nile for so many decades could be shown so quickly and thoroughly to be a paper tiger. Hilariously, they tried to blame “foreign infiltrators.”
But one inherent weakness of cruel tyrants is that the people know that once they start trying to overthrow him, they damn well better finish. Otherwise, once the protests are over the the press have left, every protester knows he may soon after get a 2am knock on his door from the friendly neighborhood torture squads. It was all or nothing. This was part of what gave it such power.
Another significant event that breathed life into the prolonged protest was the release of Wael Ghonim, a Google executive living in the United Arab Emirates who came home to Egypt to participate in the historic protests. He had earlier built a Facebook page to protest the beating to death of a man named Khalid Said in Egyptian police custody. Wael was quickly arrested by the Egyptian police and held incommunicado for eleven days. The night he was released, on February 7, he appeared on a privately-owned Egyptian television channel and gave a heart-rending interview. When the hostess showed him photographs of some of the young people who had been killed by Mubarak’s thugs, he broke down in tears.
Then he said, “I swear to God, this is not our mistake. It is the mistake of the people who want to hold onto power no matter what.”
Until this point, it can be argued that the protests were starting to sputter out. Millions of Egyptians, who had no access to information other than state-owned news and television, were starting to resent the disruption of their lives and believe the lies that the protesters were foreign agitators with nefarious intentions. But seeing Wael on television, eloquently and emotionally describing what was really happening, and looking like he could be any of their sons or brothers, charged the entire nation with the will to press forward.
Four days later, the mighty had fallen. The people of Egypt rejoiced deliriously.
But it wasn’t just about Egypt. I wrote on February 11, “Here’s what’s truly exciting about this day: The demonstrators didn’t get their way by the force of the gun or the bomb but by the force of their moral stance. This is the lesson that Gandhi and Martin Luther King taught us, and we just saw it in action on our TV screens in what we’d been led to believe was one of the unlikeliest spots on earth!”
As Howard Zinn said, “There is a basic weakness in governments — however massive their armies, however wealthy their treasuries, however they control the information given to the public — because their power depends on the obedience of citizens, of soldiers, of civil servants, of journalists, and writers, and teachers, and artists. When these people suspect they have been deceived, and when they withdraw their support, the government loses its legitimacy, and its power.”
Suddenly these words were no longer theoretical. We all watched it happen. And if it could happen there…
Now for some analysis — the best I’ve read in the past couple of weeks.
“Mubarak Defies a Humiliated America, Emulating Netanyahu” by Juan Cole, Informed Comment
“No, the Egyptian uprising won’t hurt the peace process” by Noam Sheizaf, Mondoweiss
Israel’s answer for everything: “We can’t let anyone or anything pressure Israel in even the slightest, tiniest little way, because it will hurt the peace process!” LOL, what peace process?
“Betting on Egypt democracy is Israel’s only choice” by Carlo Strenger, Haaretz
A nice, brief history lesson about how the US and Israel have been destroying democracy in the Middle East for decades (leading to the creation of, among other things, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Iranian Revolution). All this blowback is entirely predictable, and we’d better change course quick or things will get much worse down the line.
“America is about to begin a love affair with the Arab world” by Phil Weiss, Mondoweiss
I certainly hope so (and was honored to be mentioned in the article)
“US doubling down on Mideast horses” by Fadi Elsalameen, Al Jazeera English
This is an important article. The US can’t just keep backing dictators, ignoring entire civilian populations’ needs and desires, and assuming everything will somehow turn out OK. It’s time we stop building castles on (bloody) sand. We’ll do much better with partners who respect us (because we respect them) than subjects who despise us. 9/11 would never have happened if not for our policies in Egypt and Saudi (and Afghanistan in the eighties).
“The Egyptian Mirror” by Glenn Greenwald, Salon
“Moral proclamations notwithstanding, we’re not doing anything different with Egypt now [this was February 7]. We’re doing what we’ve always done: subjected the people of that region to hard-core oppression in order to advance what we perceive to be our interests (though, as 9/11 proved, that perception about self-interest is dubious in the extreme).”
“Egypt’s lost living treasures during the uprising against Mubarak” at If Americans Knew
Some of the beautiful faces and stories of the people who died for freedom in Egypt. We need more of these stories — bringing it down to the personal had the biggest emotional impact on me so far, and it makes the Obama Administration’s hemming and hawing while these people were killed all the more viscerally odious.
“A Private Estate called Egypt” by Salwa Ismail, The Guardian
Don’t forget the business interests. And check out the comments — some of the outrages outlined here are not so different from what’s happening with our elites in the US and Britain…
“The Palestinian Parallels” by Phil Weiss, Mondoweiss
Brilliant piece about the hypocrisy in the coverage of Egypt vs. the Palestinians. It shall not stand. Illusions are crumbling.
“Arabs seize the ‘permission to narrate’” by Dan Sisken, Mondoweiss
It’s not over by a long shot. True revolutions don’t happen in a day or a week or eighteen days. They take years of imperfect human beings doing their best and sometimes doing not so well. But at least the Egyptian people can finally breathe. A fresh air is blowing through Cairo, and they can take a lungful, look around, and figure out where to go from here. Because at last, it is up to them.
I’ve been reading Laila Haddad’s book Gaza Mom and ghostwriting another book about Israel/Palestine, and it’s left me thinking about two things: Gaza and editing.
In the book I just finished ghostwriting, really interesting things had to be left out because they didn’t drive the narrative forward, or because they relied too much on extraneous sources.
Below is a section from my book (Chapter 12) that had to be left out for both of these reasons. It was a great story in its own right. But it didn’t quite ‘fit’ with the rest of my book, not least because the most interesting parts of the story come from a CNN article and a Guardian article. And because I’d traveled to the Gaza Strip a couple of months earlier to witness the Disengagement, so another Gaza trip right on its heels seemed redundant. And because there’s a deeply inappropriate joke at the end (whose purpose is to convey how frustrating getting into and out of Gaza really is — nothing more).
But I’d hate to delete this story altogether and consign it to a folder in the back of my computer. So here it is. I’ll publish other outtakes as time goes on. There were just too many great stories to fit into one book.
On November 3, 2005, after Ramadan was over, John the half-Palestinian from Kentucky and I headed for the Gaza Strip for the three-day Eid al Fitr feast holiday. One of John’s students at the Friend’s School in Ramallah, Yousef Bashir, had invited him to spend the holiday with his family in Gaza.
Unfortunately, Yousef couldn’t join us because he was afraid that if he did, the Israelis wouldn’t allow him to leave again and return to Ramallah to continue his studies.
I was on tenterhooks about whether I would get in to Gaza. I had no idea when or whether my permit to enter Gaza would expire. But somehow we got through the Erez crossing without a fuss, and Yousef’s father Khalil Bashir was on the other side, waiting for us in his car.
He was a calm man, medium height with light grey hair and tanned olive skin, young-looking for his 54 years, and he was the headmaster of the Rudolf Walther School. When he saw us, he welcomed us with even more outstanding warmth and hospitality than usual for Palestinians — and that’s saying something.
But it was no surprise, given that he had been forbidden from welcoming visitors into his home for the past five years.
Their home was unlucky enough to be located near an Israeli settlement called Kfar Darom, an outpost of religious Israelis, near the town of Deir al Balah in the central Gaza Strip. When the second Intifada started, the Israeli army ordered Mr. Bashir, his wife Suad, and their eight children to leave the house. They said the windows of the top two floors might be used by Palestinian snipers to target the settlement.
Mr. Bashir refused. He said, “This place is the cradle of my childhood. I don’t want to commit the mistake my people made in 1948. I don’t want to be a refugee.”
So Israeli soldiers took over their home and occupied it in a way that paralleled the occupation as a whole. The top two floors were ‘Area C’ — completely off limits. The Bashirs were warned that if they ventured up the stairs, they would be shot. The kitchen and bathroom were ‘Area B,’ meaning Israeli soldiers had priority and the family had to ask permission to use them.
Only the living room on the first floor was ‘Area A,’ meaning they could enter and use it as they saw fit, though they couldn’t invite guests in without permission from the Israeli soldiers.
Mrs. Bashir told The Guardian, “Occupation is getting up in the morning to make tea and finding a soldier in your kitchen making coffee. Occupation is when I wanted to go to the toilet, a soldier had to go with me. I wasn’t allowed in my bedroom. I looked in on my way to the toilet one day and there was a soldier with no clothes on in my bed.”
It also meant that Israeli soldiers bulldozed the Bashirs’ greenhouses and fruit orchards, including 170 date palms, which had provided their relative wealth. It meant Mr. Bashir was regularly forced to strip to his underwear on his own doorstep before entering the house, often in front of his children.
It meant the family had to endure battles between the soldiers and militants trying to infiltrate the nearby settlement. It meant their home being scarred with bullet holes and damaged by missiles. In April of 2001, bullets crashed through a window and threw shrapnel that lodged in Mr. Bashir’s skull.
Despite all this, Mr. Bashir had vowed that no matter what happened, he would not hate.
“I witnessed three wars and two intifadas and now I’m thinking of my children’s future,” he said. “I don’t want them to see war, and the only way to prevent that is to overcome the mountain of suspicion. We are destined to live together with the Israelis. If we let our wounded memory guide our future steps we will have only pain.”
He hoped at first that being confined with soldiers might provide an opportunity for each side to humanize and understand the other. But he found this more difficult than he could have imagined.
“They behaved professionally but they didn’t leave room for human contact. Their orders were not to be friendly with us,” he said.
The misery of this most intimate occupation was taken to a new level when his son Yazen was shot in the leg in 2000 by an Israeli soldier while he was collecting water to put out a fire in the garden that had been set by an Israeli army flare. The injury, luckily, wasn’t life-threatening.
Then in 2004, a UN convoy came to check on the family. There wasn’t much they could do about the horrible situation they witnessed, but it was a sign that at least someone in the world was paying a little bit of attention.
As the UN observers were leaving, Mr. Bashir and his 15-year-old son Yousef walked outside to wave good-bye. While they were waving, a soldier on their roof — an officer, a captain — took aim and shot Yousef in the back.
The UN and Mr. Bashir’s friends at the German Embassy frantically pressured Israel to let Yousef be treated a hospital in Israel due to the severity of the injury. Thankfully they were successful. The bullet lodged near Yousef’s spine and left him unable to walk for a year. He eventually regained the use of his legs, but doctors warned him not to engage in even moderate exercise because the bullet might shift and paralyze him permanently. He can never again play any sports or even swim in the sea.
“This is what occupation has left us: a bullet in my son’s back,” Mrs Bashir said. “If we try to remove it, it could paralyse him. But the doctors say that if they leave it there, in a few years it is going to do more damage. It is like a timebomb from the occupation.”
Astonishingly, Yousef emerged from the ordeal without bitterness toward Israelis. Taking his father’s lessons to heart, he said, “I have to divide the Israelis [into] the soldier and the citizen. The citizens gave me the medical care in Israel. The soldiers just obey the orders. It was just one person who made me suffer but many of the same people, the Israeli people, gave me my life back.”
Yousef soon joined Seeds of Peace, a camp in Maine that brought Israeli and Palestinian youths together to interact and humanize each other. He was a proud and enthusiastic participant and said he wished to become an “ambassador of peace” for the program.
John had asked Yousef one time how he could sit across the table, and sleep, canoe, dialogue — all peacefully — with Israelis, the same people who had turned his life in Gaza into a living misery. And do it cheerfully.
John asked him candidly: “Why? Why do you forgive?”
Yousef’s answer was short and simple: “Because I want to live.”
The recent Disengagement had been a godsend for the family. At last the settlers, along with the soldiers who guarded them, were forced to leave. The family was still living in a prison—the besieged Gaza Strip. But at least their cage was no longer just their living room. At least they could make dinner in their own kitchen in peace.
But there was one final insult waiting for them after the soldiers left. Chris McGreal of the Guardian reported:
“Last month, after the soldiers hauled off the machine guns and finally drove away, Mr. Bashir ventured up the stairs of his home for the first time in five years. What he found was a relatively small thing compared with the shootings of his sons and the destruction of his orchards, but it left him flummoxed for the first time since the soldiers arrived: placed around the walls were the Bashirs’ cooking pots, each with a pile of human excrement in the bottom.”
* * *
We were among the first guests welcomed into their home after those five years of unremitting torment, and they welcomed us as if we were not just family, but royalty — as if all of their hospitality instincts that had been suppressed for the past five years were being released in massive bursts. The warmth of the welcome was absolutely overwhelming.
Yousef’s mother Suad cooked an entire elaborate dinner just for us that evening. They’d bought a huge pile of fresh fish and prepared and cooked it for us in a process of spicing and slicing and stuffing it with coriander, chili, cumin, cilantro, and garlic, and slow-cooking over a fire that took all day.
Gaza was historically famous for its fish dishes, often eaten on the beach where families gathered to smoke nargila, drink tea, and watch children fly kites. Since most of Gaza’s population were refugees, they had brought recipes and traditions from every corner of historic Palestine.
Still, “a specifically Gazan cuisine does persist, distinct from other Palestinian or Levantine cuisines in its generous use of hot peppers, cumin, and dill, and sour fruits like pomegranate, tamarind and plums. It relies heavily on fish and on poor-man’s ingredients like mustard greens and garbanzos. Many of the most classic dishes are stews cooked slowly in clay pots, unique in the region. Because of Gaza’s isolation, many of these recipes are completely unknown outside of the Strip.”
But fish was now a rare treat because it was so expensive due to Israel’s restrictions on Gaza’s fisherman.
After dinner, one of Mr. Bashir’s daughters showed us around the grounds of their home which used to be lush orchards and gardens and was now was a wasteland covered with spent bullet casings. In one room, she had arranged several casings into a message that said, “PEACE.”
The next day, Mr. Bashir took us on a driving tour of the entire Gaza Strip, including the last remaining date groves in Deir al Balah, the defunct Gaza Airport near Rafah, and a friendly church in Gaza City.
For dinner they slaughtered three rabbits and cooked another fancy meal, which made John and me uncomfortable. We wanted to share some of the cost of these elaborate meals, or eat something simpler, or at least help pay for gas for the car Mr. Bashir had used during his entire holiday to show us around the Gaza Strip. But their hospitality was absolute.
At night, we chatted over tea with the friendly family and watched the sun go down in the balmy Gaza sky. Mr. Bashir told us about how he had used the time he was imprisoned in his living room to study for a degree in English literature. In addition to Yousef having the honor of studying in the top-ranked Palestinian high school in Ramallah, three of his children studied in universities Germany, two studying medicine and one engineering. It was an incredible testament to their strength of character and commitment to education to excel in this way despite such overwhelmingly horrific circumstances.
Later, when I was watching Israel bombard the Gaza Strip in January of 2009, I would think back on how achingly fragile this house was, sitting all alone on its desolate lot full of spent bullet casings next to a destroyed settlement. How hard they had worked and how much they had suffered to preserve it. And how quickly and easily one Israeli missile could end it all — the home and the family, too.
The next morning, it was time to head back to Ramallah. John asked to be taken to a fish market to buy some fresh fish to take back as a treat for his aunt in Ramallah. To his horror, Mr. Bashir insisted not only on paying for it, but also on getting far more fish than the small amount John asked for. He was also adamant that he would personally drive us, our luggage, and our bag of fish (which he packed in ice for us) to the Erez crossing.
We were desperate to get to the nightmarish Erez checkpoint, get it over with, and get back to Ramallah for a chance to relax a bit before full-time work started again the next day. Plus the ice around the fish was rapidly melting, and we didn’t know how long the crossing would take. So we gratefully accepted the offer.
After saying fond and grateful good-byes, we were stuck in the Erez terminal for three hours, with its rat-trap electronic metal gates and cages and revolving metal doors controlled by unseen teenagers, with thousands of screaming infants and their post-holiday stressed parents and wheelchair-bound grandparents squashing up against us and Hebrew-accented Arabic screeching at us from mounted loudspeakers turned up so loud they were incoherent, trying to navigate it all while sweating profusely and juggling our luggage and our melting fish.
The calmness of the people around us was at least as infuriating as the situation itself. The look in John’s eye was manic, bleak, dangerous. It mirrored my own.
He said from the farthest reaches of disbelief, “How are these people so calm? How do they keep going through this, day after day?”
I shook my head, then I had a darkly inappropriate thought that twisted the corner of my mouth. “I guess after all the normal people blow themselves up, all that’s left are the Zen masters.”
You can also check out the book’s Table of Contents with links to more excerpts.
I’m following the events in Egypt with breathless excitement. I’ve spent much of the past several days just soaking it in, overwhelmed by impressions, thoughts, images, analyses, possibilities… Things feel like they’re really changing, and Washington was caught absolutely flat-footed. So was Israel, which may soon lose its favorite US puppet dictator.
If there’s real democracy in Egypt — if people’s voices are really allowed to be heard, their views genuinely reflected — it’s the beginning of the end of Israel’s cruel dominion over the Palestinians. Egypt will most likely stick to its 1979 peace treaty with Israel — the protests are overwhelmingly about domestic concerns, not foreign policy — but it will no longer be quite as much of a fawning puppet as Mubarak was, to his people’s rage and shame.
If it spreads even further… it’s the beginning of the end of American control over the Middle East. Some people may find that terrifying, but you know what’s really terrifying? The fact that Egypt tortures and rapes people in prison in our name. Guess how those people feel when they’re set free (if they’re not murdered in prison)?
Bottom line, there likely wouldn’t have been a 9/11 if Egypt hadn’t been ruled by an inconceivably cruel dictator for 30 years propped up by the US.
If we can learn to treat Arabs as adults capable of running their own lives and making their own decisions instead of taking up the ole “White Man’s Burden” and telling them what’s what (nothing to do with our own business interests, surely), we can end up with real allies, real friends, real human beings with whom we can work to make this world a better place, instead of oppressed subjects who despise us.
I, for one, will sleep much better at night in that world than in this one.
More later, I’m still in the absorbing phase right now… So much happens by the minute… So exciting!
And that’s not even to mention the Palestine Papers (i.e., the death knell of bogus ‘peace talks’), the Lebanese elections, Tunisia, Wikileaks… The world is turning upside-down with reality checks, and individual human consciences have more power now than they’ve ever had before. It’s an exciting time to be alive. Thank you, Egypt, for providing this moral leadership.
Here’s the best overall article I’ve found on what the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt mean for US foriegn policy and how it relates to Israel, by Phil Weiss.
Here’s a guide on how not to completely embarass yourself when you talk about Egypt. Apparently, none of our American news pundits have read it.
To those worrying about Egypt turning into a theocracy: “Most Egyptians say they favor nothing more than an advisory role for religious leaders in the crafting of legislation. Egyptians choose democracy informed by sacred values, not theocracy with a democratic veneer.”
And here’s some fairly good analysis from the New York Times. As usual, the reader recommended comments are spot-on (and two of the top three mention the Israel lobby as the reason the US gov’t is hemming and hawing about democracy in Egypt) while the NYT-recommended comments are mostly establishment-style BS. Hooray for the people of Egypt and America. We both deserve better governments (and press).
As for the looters the news keeps talking about, most of them are agents of the Mubarak government and criminals who’ve been deliberately set free to create chaos so that people will believe “only Mubarak can restore order.” It’s a despicable, cynical tactic, and no one is fooled.
Inspiringly, the people of Egypt have come together to create their own neighborhood watches, to guard the Egyptian Museum, and even to sweep the streets since the Egyptian police force disappeared after the demonstrators overwhelmed them.
It’s really touching to see people come together like that and not be fooled by the usual heavy-handed bullshit. I think the era of rule by hard military power may be in its final decades. The writing seems to be on the wall…
Finally, here’s my super-quick Cliff’s Notes version of what’s going on in Egypt, for those who don’t spend entirely too many of their waking hours with their minds halfway around the world.
In very brief: Hosni Mubarak has been ruling Egypt for 30 years with an iron fist, allowing no real democracy, keeping people poor with corrupt economic policies that only enrich his oligarch buddies, and torturing or killing anyone who dares protest (also torturing people the US brings in under extraordinary rendition).
Meanwhile, he’s also been tacitly (and sometimes actively) supporting the oppression of the Palestinian people, which shames and angers his public (and the entire Middle East). Egypt is, after all, the second largest recipient of US foreign aid in the world (Israel is first), so he’s essentially a puppet of the US government, and thus of Israel, and everyone knows it.
This doesn’t begin to describe how brutal and undemocratic and corrupt the Mubarak regime has been, or what horrors have been unleashed on the Palestinians with his help. And now he’s grooming his son to be the next ruler. The Egyptian people are hardworking, educated people who want to live normal lives. Instead they face massive unemployment, lack of healthcare, declining quality of education, a police state with no opportunity for self-expression, constant voter fraud, massive government corruption, and a police force that beats up (or worse) anyone who looks at them funny. You end up with people who have law degrees selling vegetables on the side of the road, and then getting tortured in prison because he wrote a blog post that Mubarak didn’t like. At a certain point, people get fed up.
Implications: Democracy can’t be imposed from the outside. It has to come from the inside or it’s neither legitimate nor sustainable.
Also, Israel is about to lose the ‘shield’ of puppet dictators surrounding it. It’s about to be exposed to the will of the actual people of the Arab world. And they’re not willing to sit around while Israel expands its settlements and engages in frequent casual murders of Palestinian civilians. Israel’s happy shiny world of doing whatever the hell it wants while the US distracts everyone with a bogus “peace” process (see: Palestine Papers) and the Arab dictators surrounding it quash their own public’s dissent is about to come to an end.
I hope. Either way, Mubarak can’t just ignore what’s happening right now. Something’s gotta give, and something’s gonna change. It’s very exciting. I just hope the death counts stay relatively low.
My favorite Facebook status of the past few days:
Israel changes its relationship status with Egypt on FB to “It’s complicated.”