Tuesday, June 15, 2010

PART IV: THE "SUMUD AND THE WALL" CONFERENCE

Al-Masara Demonstration 4-30-10

Children's Film Projected on Wall

Mazin, Jessie, and "Other Troublemaker"

Wall Art - Bethlehem


Posted by Harriet Malinowitz
June 15, 2010

Many apologies for the long lapse between my last blog posting and this one. Like many others, I was preoccupied with the aftermath of the flotilla massacre. Now it’s well over a month since the Sumud and the Wall conference—the raison d’etre for my trip to Palestine—and I will at last recount some of the salient moments of my time at it, many of which are still quite vivid in my mind.

First of all, some background: the conference, which took place at Bethlehem University (sorry to be superficial, but what lovely architecture and views that university has!), was organized by a consortium of institutions, of which the Arab Educational Institute (AEI-Open Windows—an NGO that operates in Bethlehem—see http://www.aeicenter.org/ -- and also click on their link for the conference) was the local host. Co-sponsors were Oxford Brookes University (UK) and Paris-Est University (France), in cooperation with Al-Quds Open University, Bethlehem University (Department of Humanities) and Utrecht University (Center for Conflict Studies).

My heart was, of course, warmed by the emphasis—both in promotional materials and in the welcoming remarks at the conference itself—on this being an academic conference, aiming “to promote a free and lively flow of ideas across academic disciplines.” It was not, of course, an occasion for detached discussion of abstruse ideas; rather, it was a chance to engage in collective inquiry, prompted by urgency, and to establish new channels of communication and thought across international and interdisciplinary lines. The majority of participants were Palestinian (primarily faculty and students from Bethlehem University and Al-Quds/Jericho), with a smattering of Europeans/UKers, perhaps a few dual-nationals, Jane Toby and myself among just a tiny handful of Americans (without other nationalities attached to them) that I was aware of, and one (as I discovered in a workshop at the end) Japanese. (There may well have been others whose provenance I was unaware of. My apologies for errors.)

Sumud means “steadfastness” or “resilience”; Toine van Teeffelen, one of the chief organizers, explained that it came into popular use in the 1970s. The conference honored the amazing tenacity of that quality among Palestinians who have endured decades of expulsion, brutal repression, and occupation, while also attempting to create a new field of “Wall Studies.” The “Apartheid Wall” was, of course, the central focus and guiding image; presentations focused on its impact on children’s education, the Bethlehem business community, social relations within families, tourism, etc., as well as forms of resistance to its construction, from demonstrations to graffiti to the arts. Yet the discussion also considered other sorts of walls (part of what you might call a “Wall Continuum”): conceptual walls of public opinion, checkpoints and roadblocks, the walls encountered in mass media and communications that interrupt the Palestinian narrative from being more clearly and directly transmitted to the rest of the world, the walls that featured in the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. (Jane, some of you will be interested to know, read aloud MECR’s mission statement.)

One talk that I found really interesting was by historian Adnan Ayash, and traced the history of “wall” language in Zionist discourse, employing quotations from writers and leaders starting with Herzl and continuing, with innumerable examples, from Vladimir Jabotinsky to Abba Eban, Meir Kahane, Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak, and many more. (I thought this was great because the sheer consistency and continuity of “wall” metaphors in Zionist speech—leading inexorably up to the current Wall which is certainly not just a metaphor—had not occurred to me before. I do hope to see this presentation in print some time so as to be able to think it all through and track some of the references more closely.)

The conference ended with a breakdown of participants (there were 150—meaning that most of the time, we could all be in the same lecture hall, engaging in the same conversation) into four workshop groups. The purpose of the workshops was to brainstorm about “follow-up activities in research and advocacy.” Report-backs upon regrouping revealed numerous great ideas, including cultural and media projects, publications, practical initiatives, educational programs, networking with grassroots and other academic groups locally and internationally, addressing legal and governmental issues, etc. (While I haven’t heard from the organizing committee since then, I hope and trust that these ideas, and the international ties forged, will be duly built upon.)

One of the unexpected effects the conference had on me was making me feel much more motivated than I ever have in the past to experiment with technology. At Long Island University in Brooklyn, where I work, we are constantly encouraged to use all sorts of cutting-edge technologies in our teaching—yet I have learned, through long, bitter experience, that the majority of the time, things don’t work. That is, just when I have made the leap of faith and am totally dependent on the technology for instruction, it turns out that the equipment is not functioning, the software is not functioning, the IT “support” people are not functioning, the logic of the whole IT system there is not functioning—and as a result, neither I nor my class is functioning. But at the Sumud and the Wall conference, it was totally different. All the proceedings were simultaneously translated between English and Arabic; everybody had a wireless headset, so if you didn’t understand the language someone was speaking in at the moment (and this could get pretty complicated during Q & As!), a man in a booth in the back spoke comprehensibly into your ears. It worked! One session featured presenters from Gaza, via videoconference. It worked! We saw and heard them, and they saw and heard us! Afterward, I commented to someone overseeing the use of technical equipment there that at my university in Brooklyn, technology frequently seems to go awry, but here in occupied Palestine, technology seemed to work perfectly. “Yes, because we need it to survive,” she said.

This seemed to be a major realization that emerged in the workshops, too—that technology afforded all sorts of hitherto impossible ways of breaking through “walls.” (Since then, a video card smuggled off the Mavi Marmara and viewed all over the world on the internet has further driven home the point.) I know that to many, this would seem obvious; but to those of us who are middle-aged, born of typewriters and pathetically dependent upon the young and the swift to guide us through the labyrinthine paths of postmodern technology, it comes with the force of sudden inspiration. The next intifada will indeed be a very, very electronic one.

A couple of remarks about people: There were some wonderful ones there! A true highlight for me was finally meeting, and getting to spend some time with, Mazin Qumsiyeh, whose work I have so very much admired for years—his terrific book, Sharing the Land of Canaan, as well as his fabulously copious emailed blogs, his voluminous and uber-linked website, his sheer energy and intelligence, his sumud. He is someone who—along with Amy Goodman and Noam Chomsky—always makes the word “indefatigable” spring to my mind. (I must say that though I totally venerate Goodman and Chomsky, Mazin is a lot more fun to hang out with.) In between conference sessions, he runs to demonstrations, prepares molecular biology lectures, writes his blog, and has visitors drop into his little Bethlehem University office.

It has been very frustrating to me that, more than once, I’ve missed him when he’s spoken right here at home in the Hudson Valley—so surmounting that particular wall at last was a great pleasure. He gave a terrific presentation on popular resistance; was an active attendee as well as presenter; and during the lunch break he and his wife, Jessie (who was also great!—I especially loved our conversation about how much we both hate to chant—so renewing for the activist soul!) took me to the weekly Friday demonstration in the nearby village of Al-Masara—where the Wall is, among other things, cutting the people off from their stone quarry and their agricultural lands.

At the demonstration, I saw Mazin not only attempting to engage reasonably with the Israeli soldiers clutching their guns (good luck), but also handing his card out to young people milling about. (When I queried him on this latter activity, he said he was encouraging them to come to the conference. That touched me. By the way, he’s been arrested at non-violent demonstrations more than once since then; his reputation as an anti-Wall activist is growing and this brings increased scrutiny and repression. And while the IDF in Al-Masara stayed calm on that day, Mazin’s blog a few weeks later had this, which I’d encourage all readers of this blog to click on: “The attacks from the Israeli soldiers at the peaceful demonstration in Al-Masara 21 May 2010 (here no Palestinian security are allowed in the area): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJvQM7VRbvk.”)

On the way to Al-Masara and back, Mazin was a great tour guide, though I am quite spatially challenged and kept finding it hard to keep the big picture straight in my head—I mean, literally/geographically, making sense of the relative positioning of Jewish settlements, refugee camps, bypass roads, smaller (slower) roads, abruptly ended (courtesy of the IDF) roads, desecrated olive groves, etc. we drove past and along. It was a lot to process all at once.

One serendipitous thing that happened at the demonstration: there in front of me, yelling at the soldiers in Hebrew, was a young Israeli military refuser, Haggai Matar, who I recognized from the time some years back when I’d heard him speak at a church in Brooklyn. (He’d been 18 at the time—a very impressive, radical, articulate, homeschooled prodigy who went to jail upon his return home.) I tapped him on the shoulder, and said, “I heard you speak in Park Slope in 2002! You were fantastic and I’ve actually quoted you in my writing since then.” He said, “Yes, I was in my prime then. I’ve been in decline ever since.” (It didn’t seem that way to me.) There were a smattering of other young Israelis and internationals there, though I think most of the people at the demo were from the village. (I’m bad at numbers; maybe about 50 in all?)

On Friday evening, after the day’s conference events ended, the organizers took us all on a bus to view various spots along the Wall (lots of amazing artwork as well as a wide spectrum of interesting graffiti; we saw one house that was, astonishingly, engulfed on three sides by the Wall—which turned out to be the house where Jane was living, and where Claire, from whom MECR has purchased some handicrafts, both lives and has her shop on the ground floor). Following that, they had arranged for us to partake of some cultural events at a house near Rachel’s Tomb—including singing by a women’s choir, animated films about children/youth and the Wall (projected against the Wall—made me think there should be a Wall Film Festival, beamed up by satellite to sites around the world), testimonials by local women affected by the Wall, and, of course, food.

At lunch the second day, I talked with a funny guy named Mohammed who had spent several years in an Israeli prison. (His crime was being a member of the Communist Party.) “How was it?” I asked goofily. “Great!” he said. “Swimming every day in the Olympic pool, free internet…..” “Desserts like this?” I asked, pointing to the one perched on his plate. “Oh, much, much bigger!” On a more serious note, he said that being in an Israeli prison isn’t as bad as being in a Palestinian prison, “because at least you’re there because you love your country”—while being imprisoned by the PA is just totally demoralizing.

One last little human interest anecdote: on the first day, a conference attendee from Scotland named Bill plopped down next to me at lunch and began to regale me with some pretty annoying observations—the liberal/”rational” “both sides” and “cycle of violence” sorts of remarks that one generally hears on NPR. He was a grad student in a Peace and Conflict Studies program, and seemed like a sponge for all the worst elements of “academic” thinking—that is, he was full of tenets and mantras about conflict and its resolution, but short on perception of the specific circumstances he was actually in and trying to apply them to at the moment. He sounded a bit like a self-help book for countries: “Here are 200 non-violent methods that work!” When he realized that I was unimpressed with his insights (I’m none too subtle when it comes to these things), he seized on my identity as a post-9/11 New Yorker: “Wasn’t there some human part of you that wanted those people bombed in retribution?” he asked, assuming that the answer would be “Yes” and thus illustrate the essentially “human nature” always at work in conflicts—a starting point for an analogy about Israelis and Palestinians. “No,” I said uncooperatively. It is both shocking and frustrating for people who don’t question their premises when you don’t automatically accept them; he looked at me in amazement, and finally taking a social cue, got up and left. I was glad to reflect that the next day he’d be giving his own presentation, and others would respond as well; I’d feel less alone in my ire.

The next day, he gave his talk on “Effective Non-Violent Action,” full of formulas he’d gleaned in grad school and oblivious of some basic realities of the Wall. (Among other things, he regurgitated some common Israeli propaganda—the sort I’d heard at my cousins’ house in West Jerusalem—such as that the Wall had dramatically reduced suicide bombings, which of course angered those who were better informed and who more logically reasoned that, among other things, a partially completed wall leaves plenty of ways to get through if one wants to.) Just as I’d anticipated, there was a good deal of indignant reaction to his talk; he responded defensively, averring that he “wasn’t biased,” and didn’t seem to take it in. (Mazin, on the same panel, gave up after trying to get through to him, finally resorting to shaking his head helplessly from the dais.)

That night, while I was doing email in my hotel lobby, a couple of other conference attendees came over to chat, and then, suddenly, Bill appeared. “How are you?” we asked him—and not altogether without concern, because there really was something of the nice, if befuddled, guy about him. “Well, it’s been quite a day,” he said. He explained that after his talk, some men in the audience, members of a local resistance organization, had come over and said they wanted to give him his own personal tour of the West Bank. They took him to villages, refugee camps, demolished olive groves, settlements—and in the end, he got “chased by a settler with a gun.” “Did it change your perspective?” we asked him. “Definitely,” he said, and seemed to mean it.

Postscript: the next morning, as a few of us were having breakfast, he again appeared—this time looking wan. He explained that he was sick and patted his stomach: “I guess I ate some bad shrimp last night,” he said, and planned to spend the morning inert in his room. We wished him well, and after he disappeared, one of the conference organizers commented, “Lesson #2 about the Occupation: You may be very near the sea, but seafood sits for hours at checkpoints in the hot sun.”

I do hope to catch some future paper of his.


TO BE CONTINUED………

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