June 24, 2003 — It was more than 30 years ago that I fell in love with Palestine. It was 1971 and I was in Lebanon doing research for my doctoral dissertation. Ghassan Kanafani, the brilliant Palestinian novelist, advised me “to learn about us, you must go to the camps and immerse yourself in the people.”
And so off I went to Ein al Helweh to spend some time with Abed, a new friend, who introduced me to his family and so many other unforgettable refugees. During my time with them, they told me stories about the homes and villages they left in Palestine, about the trauma of the 1948 exodus and about their lives in the camp, their “temporary Palestine”.
They also showed me pictures and other remnants of the life that had been-most especially their treasured keys to the homes they had left and to which they hoped to return.
Far from being a depressing experience, there was beauty in Ein al Helweh. The camp, though desperately poor made a remarkable statement about the power of the human spirit to create and to hope. Internally Ein al Helweh was organized as a recreation of Palestine. Its inhabitants had clustered together in neighborhoods reflecting the towns and villages from which they had been expelled. Each neighborhood bore their Palestinian names. Walking down the streets of Ein al Helweh I passed through Safsaf, Ras Al Ahmar, and Safad.
I left the unpaved and dusty alleys of the camp and entered one of its homes where I found another world. There was a courtyard under a trellised grape vine. The homes were small and somewhat tattered and, on inspection, I noted that the grape vines had been planted in a barrel. But they were homes, a proud recreation of Palestinian village homes. These families, like so many others I would meet, had not surrendered to despair. For them Palestine was not just a memory, but living reality. They carried Palestine with them. They made it come to life in their stories and their new temporary homes. And to it they were determined to return.
What, in the end, captured me was the beauty of those memories, and the power of this hope. The stories these refugees told were so achingly vivid in detail, so raw in the emotion they conveyed, and so right in the simple justice they demanded.
It was this, I came to believe, that had kept Palestine alive. It was this, not highjackings or Kalishnakovs, that won support for a just cause and demanded a response from the world community.
As I was soon to discover, this power of Palestinian hope had become the raw material of Palestinian artists. And so I immersed myself in their works. Poets like Mahmoud Darwish, Sameh Al Qasim and Tawfiq Zayyad and painters like Kamal Boulatta and Ismail Shamout and the novelist Ghassan Kanafani-all gave collective voice to the dreams and stories of their people and their demand for recognition-so that others might come to appreciate what they had lost and respect their right to justice.
What troubles me now is how much of this is lost or ignored. The stories are no longer told, the poetry has not been available for years, nor are the paintings shown. A new generation wishing to learn about Palestine must instead make do with news stories, political rants and the like.
How, one might reasonably ask, can a confused public come to support the rights of refugees when they have become invisible? How can a new generation come to be inspired by and learn to love the Palestinian dream, when it is no longer shared? And how can the Palestinian demand for justice win support when its presentation has been reduced by its advocates to a whine or an angry polemic? It is not that the Palestine case is not advocated, but that it is promoted in the abstract-without a human face, without a human story.
What troubles me, therefore, is that now, with so much world attention being focused on Palestine, their real story is not being told. The Israeli side has, as it has for decades, defined the presentation. And, as a result, the dominant images of Palestine have become bombers or an ineffectual Authority-with the people rendered invisible and their stories not heard.
It was in this context that I listened to the new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas as he spoke in Aqaba. His decrying the “militarization of the Intifada” was a welcome call for Palestinians to refocus their struggle-but on what?
Even now the Palestinian leadership tells no stories, puts no human face on Palestinian suffering and gives no voice to Palestinian hopes and dreams. And this, I believe is a loss.
There can be no doubt that the Palestinian reality today is tragic. The refugees remain in their camps with their keys and hopes having survived more than one-half century of dispossession, disenfranchisement and dislocation. In the West Bank and Gaza, the remaining Palestinians have been brutalized by an increasingly oppressive occupation that continues to defy the projection that “it can’t get any worse”. Economic and social indicators paint a staggering portrait of deprivation. All of which have resulted in anger and despair-a volatile mix. This is reality.
But those who feed this anger, prey off of it, and send young men and women on missions of suicide and death have no vision and cannot bring needed change and hope. Leadership must do more than complain or inflame. It must capture the aspirations of people, inspire hope and win support.
Abu Mazin is right when he calls for an end to the militarization of the Palestinian reality. Revenge is not a vision and death brings no hope.
I remember a night I spent with Tawfiq Zayyad, then Mayor of Nazareth, over two decades ago. I was touring him around the United States to speak at community events. He had been invited to speak at a fundraising function sponsored by a local Palestinian organization. The evening was billed as a “celebration of Palestinian Folklore”. It featured Palestinian Debke and traditional dress and poetry.
At one point in the program a group of child dancers came on stage in khaki military dress carrying wooden guns. Tawfiq became quite distressed. He turned to me and said “This is not our culture or our tradition. This tragically, is what has been forced on us. It is not to be celebrated.”
His words remain true today. When I see thousands of angry young Palestinian men celebrating a bombing, I think of Tawfiq Zayyad’s admonition.
The Palestinian narrative must be recaptured. A new political strategy must be developed. Palestinian stories and actions should reflect the simple beauty and power of the people who remained constant in their hope that their history would not be forgotten and that Palestine would be reborn.
In this context I point to a hopeful sign. A recent article appearing in a Palestinian newspaper envisioned empowering Palestinians to engage in a campaign of massive nationwide resistance. Why not, the author asked, organize a march to the Muqata’a demanding freedom for the President? Why not lead massive resistance at the checkpoints? No stones, no guns, just the superior moral force of justice and the power of the people and their dream to be free.
Road map or no road map, Palestinians need a strategy that rejects death and builds on the strength and creative hope of the people. An informed world is waiting to be inspired by the history and dreams of the Palestinian people. We should give them a vision of Palestine they can embrace.
Dr. James J. Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute in Washington DC. For comments or information, contact the AAI via http://www.aaiusa.org