Saturday, March 29, 2014

The whole tragedy in a nutshell

Salman Masalha || 
The whole tragedy in a nutshell

Ever since the two peoples, the Jews and the Palestinians, met in conflict on this small land they have been constantly plagued by the attempt to clarify the meaning of the concept “homeland.”  It seems that this term is one of the most explosive in the discourse of both sides.

However, the root of the problem lies in clashing interpretations of the concept itself. This clash is inevitable and insoluble at this time. It can be summed up by saying that in this homeland there is too much Jewish homeland and nation and too little Palestinian homeland and nation. For the individual, the Jewish perception expands the concept and the homeland, whereas the Arab and Palestinian perception narrows them.

The Jewish individual is less connected to a specific piece of land within the expanse of the homeland. He is connected to what is symbolized by the expanse as a whole. However, the Palestinian individual is excessively connected to the land itself. More precisely, he is connected to a specific piece of land bounded by the borders of the village of his birth, the area where is parents were born and nothing more.

“I learned all the words and I dismantled them, / to build a single word – ‘ homeland,’” wrote the late Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish when he was living in exile in Beirut. However, when in the wake of the Oslo agreements he returned to Palestine with the people of the Palestine Liberation Organization, he discovered that he did not belong to the “Palestine” to which he had returned. It turns out that for him the concept of homeland refers to something entirely different. In interviews he granted after his return here he opened his heart and declared that he felt like a stranger in Gaza.  Moreover, he told a reporter for The New York Times that Ramallah is not his homeland. In other words, the “national” poet’s homeland is a small and confined place that is elsewhere.

This clashing perception of the concept is especially obvious with respect to the mobility of Israeli citizens within the country. It is possible to request from the Central Bureau of Statistics reports on relocation by inhabitants from one place to another within the state of Israel and to compare the data for Jews and for Arabs. The result of the comparison is surprising: A Jew can pick himself up one day and relocate with his family in search of earning a living, bettering his housing, improving his quality of life or for any other reason. He can move from Yeruham to Dimona, from Holon to Ashkelon, from Ra’anana to Hadera or Gedera and so on. There, in the new place, he will find neighbors and make friends and no one will see this as odd.

However, an Arab man will not change his address in the country he calls his “homeland.” A male Arab citizen will not move from Taibeh to Tira, from Kalansu to Um al Fahm, from Arrabeh to Sakhnin, from Nazareth to Tamra or from Tamra to I’blin (though a woman who marries will move to her husband’s birthplace).  This is connected to the way an Arab perceives the connection to a locale, and the way the inhabitants of a locale perceive it. Arab social structure is based on the cohesion of tribe and creed and not on national cohesion. An Arab from Tira will not move to Um al Fahm, an Arab city where all the inhabitants are Muslims just like he is, because the locals will see him as a foreigner who does not belong there. And if this is the attitude of Muslim Arabs among themselves, it is easy to imagine the extent of the alienation when it comes to a Christian from Fassuta and a Druze from Beit Jann, for example.

Here is another instance indicative of the narrow perception of homeland. Writer and journalist Said Kashua has been living in Jerusalem for many years and has established his family there. Nonetheless, he declares outright that his homeland is elsewhere: “Evidently, I had to leave the village in order to really understand what a dire state it’s in … I swear that my birthplace, the home of my family, is most dear to me” (Haaretz , October 2, 2013).

To demonstrate the depth of the difference between the two perceptions, it is possible to cite the words of the poem “Homeland” by Aharon Shabtai: “In every grain of earth, from Dan to Eilat, the homeland stretches/ and I am found nowhere but in the homeland/ … because Aharon, because Aharon, because Aharon is only in the homeland." (From "Artzenu [Our Land] - Poems, 1987-2002.") Herein lies the huge gap between the two perceptions: the Arab perception that narrows and the Jewish perception that expands.

And this is the whole tragedy in a nutshell.

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