30. Finding Harvard’s Critical Spaces

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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.

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29. Europe’s Selective Compassion

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Published in The Independent on 31st August 2015 here

A Palestinian-Syrian refugee from Yarmouk has become the latest viral sensation to hit the Internet. Abdul, a single father of two, was photographed with his daughter slung over his shoulder, selling biros in the streets of Beirut. An activist utilized the magic of the Internet to find him and within just three hours thousands of dollars were raised. On the face of it, such outpourings of compassion demonstrate the collective power of the Internet – of humans helping each other out.

But stories like Abdul’s are not uncommon. His plight is echoed in millions of people across the region and across the world. In Lebanon alone, Syrian refugees make up 1.2 million of a roughly 4.5 million population. Indeed Lebanon has more refugees per capita than any other nation in the world (hear that, Europe?). Lebanon has no ‘formal’ refugee camps, and beggars and street children are a common phenomenon. In Jordan, the Zaatari refugee camp houses over 80,000 Syrian refugees with the camp rapidly becoming a permanent settlement. In fact, one in five Syrians are now refugees according to the UN. All these numbers represent individual lives – lives we will never hear of nor see. What about those displaced people who are systematically ignored, marginalized and unheard?

28. When Morality Capsizes

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21st April, 2015

Published in The Independent here 

Last winter my cousin died on a migrant ship in the Mediterranean Sea. Amjad was 26 years old. My family were ethnically cleansed from Palestine in 1948, after which they settled in Damascus. Since 2011 they have been embroiled in a war not of their making. Food, water, heating, security and hope are becoming luxuries, scarcer by the day.

Meanwhile, I can buy mangoes and coconuts in December, I attend a top university, and my idea of a problem is when ‘Orange is the New Black’ won’t load on Netflix. My cousin and I are no different – we have the same genetic make-up, speak the same language and follow the same religion. And yet my maroon British passport gives me both immunity and freedom, whereas he perished fleeing a bloodthirsty civil war. Borders do not and should not mean anything: it is simply by chance that I am here and they are there. Where is the justice in that?

27. Apple’s Emojis and Palestinian Erasure

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Everyone’s raving about these new Apple emojis, they’re more inclusive with five different skin tones (as well as the textbook yellow of course), same sex couples and families… you name it, they’ve got it. Hell they have an emoji for marijuana and a prawn. Apple has finally become more accepting and aware of the plurality of our society (not sure where prawns come into play but I’m open-minded). I’ve seen these new emojis applauded on social media and used – and abused – prolifically by my friends.

Then with a sinking feeling I realised who was missing in this big happy emoji family: the Palestinians. Apple has added 20+ flags and there’s an emoji flag for Israel… but no flag for Palestine. The closest you can get is the United Arab Emirates (and that’s a whole story in itself). They way I see it, this omission perfectly sums up the plight of the Palestinians – they are not recognised and not considered. This represents the subtlest form of epistemic violence.

25. An Open-Letter to the LSE’s ‘Anti-Racism’ Officer about Palestine, Racism and Injustice

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Dear Ms Gross

Let me introduce myself, I am Zena, I was the first speaker at the LSE event on Tuesday night about gender and resistance in Palestine. I have written this blog in response to your article and I have a few questions for you.

First, do you realise that the woman you described as delivering an ‘appalling attempt’ lost her husband and countless other family members in Gaza? Do you realise that the student you accused of ‘condoning the indiscriminate killing of Israelis’ has her entire family in Gaza and is not allowed to go back?

I ask you this because I’m curious as to whether or not you realise that by taking this stance you have explicitly aided the oppressor. The LSE is a University; therefore a plurality of voices should not only be encouraged but actively sought out. Even if the event was all that you said it was (it wasn’t, but let’s pretend), shouldn’t the critique be more holistic in its approach, rather than slanderous and personal?

22. Growing Pains

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I miss home. Perpetually. I scroll through my twitter home page, with journalists and analysts sharing articulate insights into the politics on the ground. The terror and dominance of ISIS, the tensions in Jerusalem, the simmering chaos in Baghdad: I watch the images of war paint my screen daily as winter sets over Britain.

I went to a bonfire last night and lit my first firework, it reminded me of when I was 11 in Baghdad, I was on a Ferris wheel in a theme park and I saw a firework fly into the sky and I remember thinking ‘how great! Even in times of war they still have fireworks’ only this one didn’t go off. It continued to travel through the sky, arching high. Then it fell, there was a moment of calm, everyone held their breath in the stagnant air. Then the ground shook and my ears hurt. People screamed, my uncle drove on the pavement. We got home, ate watermelon and laughed about it.

21. A Glass-Half-Full Eid

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It’s Eid! A very warm Eid Mubarak to all my Muslim and non-Muslim friends on this beautiful day. This is the time of year when millions of Muslims flock to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina and millions more celebrate with their brothers and sisters in Islam all over the world. It is the time of year we’re meant to be even more compassionate and charitable and distribute food and money to the poor and impoverished. We buy new clothes, give presents and pray with the community.

This Eid, I’m sitting looking out at a rainy suburban street, 99.2 miles away from my mum and dad and many thousands more away from my family and my sun scorched land. If you over-think it, it’s a pretty grim state of affairs. These ISIS loonies are reducing my home to a childhood memory, these Zionists are bulldozing and blockading land which is illegal any way you look at it, and these Western governments are aiding and abetting all manner of sins in my name. If I was a glass half empty kind of a girl I wouldn’t want to get out of bed, I’d put on a Hugh Grant movie and eat bread and Za’atar to wash and wish it all away.

20. Visiting Amman

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I’ve often heard it said that Amman is one of the most boring cities in the Arab world. That judgement is not altogether untrue, it somewhat lacks the key ingredient that makes the Middle East the richest place in the world: history. Modern-day Amman has barely been around since the 18th century, practically an embryo when compared to Damascus, which is the oldest inhabited city in the world, not to mention Baghdad, Jerusalem, Cairo et al. They also say Amman seems to lacks culture: the markets aren’t as bustling, the mosques aren’t as beautiful and the food (a big part of Arabic society) isn’t as flavoursome and there are malls, MacDonald’s and brands galore.

Having said that, Amman’s young history is precisely why its people are carving out their own. Jordan – especially Amman – is a nation of refugees. Over 60% of the population are Palestinian refugees, be it from the Nakba (1948), 1967 or any of the other contentious points in the demise of Palestine. Since then there has been an influx of Iraqis post-2003 and (of late) Syrians, not to mention the six million economic migrants from Egypt.

19. A Letter to James Foley’s Family

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First let me start by saying that I am sorry for your loss. Sincerely. The agony of losing a son, let alone losing one so publicly and in such savage circumstances, is the worst thing a parent can ever do and I wish it on no man. I watched the coverage and, like the rest of the world, I was rightly disgusted.

The slaughter of your son was gruesome, but a big part of why the world has seen it is because he is an American and I do not resent that, I’ve long since realised that a man’s passport puts a diplomatic price on his value. When I was 12 in 2005, we were trapped on the border between Iraq and Jordan and bombs, bullets and fear fell like rain on the cars around the crossing. We would have died if the American troops hadn’t saved us. They gave us food, water and medical care in their compound. All because we were British. The circumstances surrounding the death of your son were extraordinary. However, the nauseating reality of his death has, unfortunately, become ordinary. Deaths are not new to the region.

18. The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword

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I have many mottos in life: you reap what you sow, is one. Don’t wear a blue bra and white T-shirt if it looks like it’s going to rain, is another. But the one that defines me most is ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. It’s been a recurring theme that, of late, has consumed me completely. In short, it is the idea that words, though zephyrs of air, are more powerful than spilled blood. It’s the motto that keeps me writing poetry, articles and engaging in (reasoned) debate.

Since Israel started its third incursion into Gaza in 7 years – this one costing more lives, homes and sanity than either of the other two, I have been feeling indignant and powerless in equal measure. What can I do? The more focalised my anger became, the more impassioned I was to do something. When I spoke to my Palestinian father about the slaughter – a man who has endured two ethnic cleansings and a generation’s worth of pain – he just smiled wryly and said it was ‘aadi’ – normal, and that ‘Gaza will be ok’. I didn’t believe him and didn’t want to bargain on that flippant (if resilient) assumption. As an impotent observer, as a girl who neither elected my leaders, nor chose to be born into privileged security, I sought to change opinions with my words. I started reading, writing for Infita7 and recording poems (watch Palestine). I started talking openly to friends and strangers alike. My words were stronger than I gave them credit for and I’m gradually discovering more and more of my friends are seeing other side of the coin. This was my purpose: to use my tongue to articulate my anger, not allow frustration to fester into aggression.