29th Feb 2016, Cambridge, MA
Perhaps my biggest frustration with Harvard is its white-ness. That sounds like a weird, even bigoted thing to say about an institution that boasts such a diverse, international student body and faculty, but I’ve felt its whiteness everywhere. From the fact that I know of only two Iraqi students across the graduate schools to the fact my beloved home department is reticent about using the word ‘Palestine’ on its website when it has no problem using ‘Israel’, thus contributing to the Palestinian erasure taking place across American (and increasingly British) universities.
And with the white-ness I have found a lack of critical or radical thought. At Warwick, my ‘Critical Security Studies’ class taught me how to use post-structuralism and discourse analysis to break down the power dynamics inherent in the micro and macro political spheres. But at Harvard, I felt these tools getting rusty. I have found myself sitting in classes frustrated, unable to articulate why in a coherent or critical way. On my very first day at Harvard, I was told that the Palestine-Israel conflict was not taught in a human rights class at the Kennedy School because it was too ‘explosive’. On Thursday, I was told by a student that the Middle East was ‘tribal’. And despite being called ‘outspoken’ on several occasions, I have found myself asking the hard questions in my head and seldom in reality. I have felt marginalised, even oppressed at times. I have often succumbed to the pressure of being ‘diplomatic’ or ‘politically sensitive’ or whatever bullshit terms we use to disguise what I believe is blatant normalisation of things that are wrong. Even my poetry has felt sanitised and it has taken 10 days for me to decide to publish this. Increasingly, despite smuggling contraband incense into my dorms and having two Palestinian flags in my room, I have felt disconnected from my roots and my people. That upsets me.
The role of women in war is always harrowing: they are simultaneously seen as ‘victims’ as demonstrated in the ‘women and children’ mantra when assessing human costs – a phrase which implicitly robs men of their victimhood by virtue of being men – and women have historically been used in war as weapons, with rape and sexually abuse prevalent. This latest chapter in the Palestine/Israel War is no exception. The month-long Gaza conflict has slaughtered 1400+ human lives, 80% of civilians and when UN buildings were bombed, women and their children were the first victims. In tandem with this, there has been a worrying growth of misogyny coming out of Israel towards both Palestinian women and the ‘slut-shaming’ of Israeli women who speak up. On the other hand there many women involved in the Israeli War effort, either by directly fighting – remember that both men and women have compulsory military service in Israel – or by moral support through stripping, protesting etc.
I don’t even know how to begin this one, it’s been cooking in my mind for a few days now. There are so many things I want to say concerning the sheer hypocrisy of the latest Gaza instalment. The hypocrisy of the West, the Arab ‘leaders’ and the Israeli regime is so potent it really does take a blind person to not see it: Hamas is seen as a terrorist organisation – even by its indoctrinated neighbours (Egypt I’m looking directly at you) – yet the IDF is allowed to bomb, arrest and slaughter civilians en masse, their uniforms giving them immunity, credibility even. That 100,000 protesters marched on London last Saturday but barely made the news, or that my beloved BBC has made the oppressor the oppressed and vice versa (you were right, Malcolm X!) confuses me. The hypocrisy includes the reactions involved: the angry Palestinians are told to learn some Gandhi-like ‘peace’ whilst the Israelis are taught ‘justice’ which condemns the grief of the former and justifies the brutality of the latter. The hypocrisy of Cameron and Hague – my not-so-democratically elected leaders – who are still pro-Israel despite criticism from MPs of all parties. Or perhaps, most shocking of all, that four boys playing footie can get killed on a beach whilst Israel bleats ‘human shield’ (a phrase which sounds so bizarre, not least because Gaza is the most densely populated place on planet earth so, by default, everyone is someone else’s human shield).
I am a Palestinian. I am a Palestinian because my father was born in Palestine in 1947 and I am a Palestinian because all the atrocities going on make me want to tell the oppressed that I am with them with every fibre of my being. Growing up I went to a wonderfully cultured and tolerant school, where we were vegetarian and meditated before the day began. It was a place that did more than just teach me the curriculum, instead it taught me confidence, tolerance and integrity. But there was one area where I felt I was always stifled: Palestine. I was never given the opportunity to debate the events that were the fuel of my identity. I was passionate about Palestine and the Middle East, passionate about politics and the Left and passionate about debate and discussion. I felt those things got somewhat sidelined at points, hell my head of sixth form wrote on my end of term report: ‘less passion more poise.’ It was a difficult restraint to bear during my formative years.
The front page of yesterday’s French paper Le Figaro was emblazed with the words ‘Irak: Les Djihadistes aux Portes de Bagdad’ – the Jihadists are at the doors of Baghdad. I picked it up on the way to work at the Iraqi embassy in Paris. The situation in Iraq is beyond strained: Mosul, Tikrit and Kirkuk have all gone and if Baghdad falls, then Iraq, for all intents and purposes will be a failed state, run by no one in particular save a terrorist organization that is now richer than some counties. As of yesterday morning, ISIS were 60 kilometers away from Baghdad, driving in American Humvees (oh the irony) having already seized a helicopter. There have been clashes 30 miles north of Baghdad between the Iraqi government forces and militants in the city of Baquba but so far the Iraqi military forces are holding off the militants.
In real terms, president Nouri al-Maliki has given no reaction, having failed to achieve a quorum in parliament imposing a state of emergency or to get permission to ask the UN for drone strikes. He has made no statement on the loss of Mosul, Kirkuk or Tikrit.
You might not be aware, but Mousal, Iraq’s second largest city, fell to rebels yesterday. I work at the Iraqi embassy, something felt off, a colleague spent the day glued to the computer and everyone seemed on edge. Even the weather was stormy and tumultuous. It didn’t feature heavily on the news: it was the fourth piece down on the Guardian under the information that Theresa May wasn’t a bloke (shocking) and Le Monde and The Times weren’t featuring it much either, Facebook was quiet, Twitter too – but for me, and those with a finger on the hot-blooded Middle Eastern pulse – this is terrifying news.
The country has been increasingly unstable due to a plethora of reason, not least due to the turmoil in Syria. The Iraqi elections took place at the end of April, a government still hasn’t been announced, but Nouri Al-Maliki, the President who seems to be losing control of the dire situation, has urged the Parliament to declare a state of emergency in the country as 15,000 Mosul residents have fled – mostly further north to Arbil in the autonomous Kurdistan. Violence has spread like wildfire and hundreds of prisoners have been released as prisons were set alight and the army abandoned their posts. Indeed such is the havoc that people are leaving on foot or driving away in abandoned police vans with those who tried to fight lay dead on the streets.
On Friday night I went to a Mashrou’ Leila gig in Paris with some friends from Arabic class. I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t know who they were before the concert, but being the good sheep I am, I went along anyway and it was great. Admittedly not knowing many (rather, all) of the songs could be seen as a disadvantage but my fresh eyes showed me lots of things I probably would have missed, like how diverse the crowd was, filled with old and young, grey hair and pink, Parisians, Europeans, Arabs, (and those inbetween), gay, straight (you get where I’m going with this) all dancing like crazy to the sounds of Mashrou’ Leila.
Mashrou’ Leila are a Lebanese band formed at the American University of Beirut in Feburary 2008. I’m usually skeptical of Arabic popular music, filled as it is with boring gender roles, emotionally tortured love ballads and a disproportionate amount of plastic surgery. But these guys were different, they seemed to understand what originality, youth and music really meant (and good God were they a good-looking bunch). I got the impression that this was a group who loved creating together – exploring new styles, genres and audiences. It was refreshing and exciting.