“For generations, her people lived a life of unparalleled freedom on endless lands. But that was all to change. Deprived of their freedom, deprived of their lands, their future now was filled with uncertainty. Such a future demanded prayers. Hung where the winds could blow them at will, her prayer flags became a silent offering to the Great Spirit. The soaring eagle reminded her of the Great Spirit’s continual presence on Earth, and she knew that he would always be there to help them preserve.”
That is the caption to a beautiful painting of a Native American woman-my personal memento from America.
My first encounter with the history of the Native Americans was through a text written by a Scandinavian historian, who later became a “new American man.” In his text, the writer explains that the natives could not speak the language of the civilized man, that they worshipped fire and dirt, and when their villages were entered by the “pilgrims,” they would run away, leaving their children behind while their camps and villages burned so that the pilgrims would not benefit from them. The writer added that “even animals don’t run away and leave their kids behind.” Seven years later when I went to Iowa State University and traversed the nice pathways of its campus, I was amazed at the gorgeous architecture of its buildings and gardens. The thing I loved the most was a fountain in front of the Memorial Union building that was surrounded by several statues of Native American women nursing their babies. These statues raised significant doubts about that writer’s implication that the natives cared even less for their children than animals would.
I never encountered a Native American and I’m not an expert on their history. Except for their famous alcoholic problem, which I read about in my medical books, and their famous casino businesses that are prevalent in American movies, I knew very little about that “semi-eradicated” nation. I was surprised when my friend pointed at a woman entering the spaghetti restaurant we were in and said-because she knew I was interested-“She is a native; she works on campus.” I did not gain much from the experience as I passed by the woman quite quickly, but throughout my stay in America, I was very observant of their artwork, their paintings and statues that maintained their culture and their human face. What I saw of the natives’ artwork struck me as physical evidence of their survival. I perceived it as a silent victory, and it gave me hope.
Dehumanizing one’s enemy is nothing new to our world; it seems to be a universal human fault. It is a self-engineered ploy and an immature defense mechanism that helps people to feel less guilty about the crimes they commit against others. It is also an ominous sign, predictive of one nation’s desire to eradicate another.
For many Palestinians, life is a pendulum, swinging between hope and despair: the hope in God’s justice and human goodness, and the despair of the reality of our terrible moment in history. Our land has been occupied, our lives are within the grasp of Israeli snipers, and our future is constantly being crushed by an iron fist. Our complaints to the world fall on deaf ears, and when we react to our unbearable living circumstances, we’re rejected, condemned and dehumanized as “violent terrorists.”
Why should we expect life to meet our expectations and voluntarily give us what we want? Is there any Palestinian who does not really know that if a wolf kills a bluebird, then that is just life? And whether we like it or not, in our earthy life, might makes right?
In the Palestinian psyche, defeat and loss have left many intractable scars and complexes. In reaction to our history and to our present, some of us have evolved into unbeatable, hardworking people. Others have realized that rights are exacted, not begged for. Few doubt that the bluebird will ever sue the wolf or that life will ever pay the price for its crimes; those think to themselves, “It is better to play the dirty game of the wolf than to be subjected to it.”
It is natural to develop our own defense mechanisms in the face of the risk of any pending loss. My parents have devoted their lives to making sure that all under their care were highly educated, independent and able to stand on their own at anytime. Our neighbours have established a family business to secure the life of their family for the next five generations. These are two average examples of highly achieving Palestinians who have done it not only because of the practical necessity to survive in Occupied Palestine, but also as a psychological demand to constructively liberate all the anger and frustration imprisoned in their souls.
Khader-a discouraged friend-told me, “When I think of all that we’re going through and ponder about all that is yet to come, I wish I was not born Palestinian. I don’t think it is fair to bring children into this miserable reality.” I asked my friend, “If you were an Israeli, would you bring children into this reality?” He declined to answer, but I added, “It is even more difficult for an Israeli. It is cruel to raise your children on lies and ploys in an attempt to justify their unjustified presence on this land and to convince them that all the atrocities against another people are being committed in their names. Being occupied may not guarantee a free, let alone a privileged life for your kids, but it will not prevent you from raising proud generations, brought up with decency and honourable moral values, the things that an occupier will endlessly fail to offer his children without fooling them.”
Maha, another angry colleague from the nursing staff told me about what had happened to her elderly father on his way to the Makkased Hospital in Jerusalem. An Israeli soldier at the Bethlehem checkpoint dragged him out of the shared taxi by his shirt and literally kicked his butt. When the soldier saw his medical reports, the old man was told to “go and die in Bethlehem.” “Neither my father’s age nor the medical reports in his hand made any sense to that black Ethiopian scum”, added my colleague. Her attitude in expressing her anger was not far less racist or cruel than the soldier’s attitude.
While Khader chooses not to fight his battle, Maha has decided to play it with the moral standards that her enemy had set for her. I, on the other hand, am still trying to transform my anger into some constructive energy and my fears into strength and empowerment. I keep identifying my individual “battles”. I fight them, and even while I am winning, I have to wonder how many more I will have to go through before our overwhelming national loss heals in my heart.
We will win the cultural battle only if we don’t fail to see the human in our enemy, and if we preserve the moral aspect of our cause. When we rise above the atrocities we have been exposed to, and never subject others to them, we’ll never get psychologically defeated. Like every community, the Palestinians have their racists, oppressors, minorities, marginalized people and underdogs. If something good has to come out of the dark years of occupation, it should be our great sense of justice, our commitment and affiliation to the nation that has suffered decades of oppression and discrimination. Resistance has multiple faces, and maybe the most attractive of all is working to enhance the Palestinian grass-roots/popular level. By empowering our people and being kind, forgiving and caring about one another, we can undermine the occupation. We are a nation of unarmed civilians and although a nuclear power like Israel can surely win the military battle, and kill most of us, no military power can destroy our love, pride and dignity.
We might lose a hundred battles, but as long as we maintain the morality of our struggle, we are the genuine winners of this war. The Israeli occupiers might assassinate thousands of our people, and imprison the rest of us in the hope that we will give up our “Palestinian-ness”, but their strategies will backfire, and more importantly, they will reinforce our determination to survive and to teach our children not to sell their rights or settle for less.
One possible future for the Palestinians lies in their ability to challenge all the death and destruction around them and to start living, while actively keeping their traditions and their heritage alive in their hearts. The future of Palestine lies in what the Palestinians sustain of their rich culture. Just sustaining our culture is not enough, however. We have to live to give the rest of the world the best of ourselves: our arts, poetry, kindness and loyalty, our Holy Land goodness, our intelligence and ability to regenerate ourselves after each blow, because of the strength that lies in our passion for our homeland. The Palestinians should not live in isolation. We have to communicate with the outside to show the world who we really are. Maybe, we will not manage to bring Palestine back to the world’s atlas in my lifetime, but Palestine will live in our songs, our blue pottery and red embroidery, and that will prove to those who deny us that we truly are a living nation.
(Samah Jabr is a Palestinian physician and a writer living in East Jerusalem. This article was written with the assistance of Elizabeth Mayfield.)