My first stop, after living for 22 years in a refugee camp in Gaza, was the city of Seattle, a pleasant, green city, where people drink too much coffee to cope with the long, cold, grey winters. There, for the first time, I stood before an audience outside Palestine, to speak about Palestine.
Here, I learned, too, of the limits imposed on the Palestinian right to speak, of what I could or should not say. Platforms for an impartial Palestinian discourse were extremely narrow to begin with, and when any was available, Palestinians hardly took center stage.
It was touching, nonetheless. Ordinary Americans, mostly from leftist and socialist groups defended Palestinian rights, held vigils following every Israeli massacre and handed out pamphlets to interested or apathetic pedestrians.
However, after spending almost two decades living in the US, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and travelling across the globe to speak about human rights – starting with Palestinian rights, history and struggle – I began to grasp the seriousness of an unmistakable trend: where the Palestinian narrative is marginalized and fundamentally misunderstood.
Back in the day, common justifications included: there were not enough Palestinian intellectuals around to speak for themselves; or that the benevolent leftists who took charge of the Palestinian story spent a week in Ramallah and another in Jerusalem, thus they were capable of enunciating the Palestinian experience; or that the struggle of Palestine is part of a larger battle against imperialism, thus one socialist speaker can mention Palestine, along with Cuba, Angola and Indochina in one, all-encompassing paragraph; or that Jewish speakers were more credible, because they are closer to the consciousness of American and western audiences; and so forth.
So it was not uncommon to see an entire two-day conference on Palestine divided into several sessions and many workshops without a single Palestinian on the podium.
Things began to change in recent years, though, especially following the massive shift that the internet and social media has brought about. However, the frame of mind that neglected or avoided the Palestinian narrative has not been defeated completely.
The problem is not a matter of adding a Mohammed, an Elias or a Fatima on the list of speakers as a token to show that Palestinians are incorporated into a discussion which is essentially about them, their past and future. It is, rather, the failure to appreciate the authenticity of the Palestinian narrative to the central discourse of the ‘Palestine-Israel conflict’ at every available platform, be it political, academic, cultural, artistic or in the media.
Thanks to the efforts of thousands of people around the world, there has been a solid push to bring the Palestinian to the fore; alas, it is not enough, because the challenge is multi-pronged.
There is a generational gap, where men of past generations think that the most clever way of reaching the hearts and minds of their countrymen is by obscuring the real Palestinian, whose language, historical references, priorities and expectations might be too alien to, say, an American audience. It is best, they believe, to have sympathetic voices, ‘from the other side’, to address Palestinian grievances.
An equivalent to this would be having sympathetic British, Afrikaans or Germans address the historical plights of Indians, South Africans or Jews and other victims of Nazi atrocities. Not only is it unacceptable, it is also destined to fail.
Even Palestinian themselves, who came from a generation that never stood, or were given the chance to stand at a podium, remain unable to appreciate the value of a genuine Palestinian story, that reflects the language of the fellahin, the refugees and the resisting women and men throughout Palestine and the region. They seek to tell their stories through apologists, ‘soft-Zionists’ and half-hearted supporters because they are defeated psychologically, having been blinded themselves by elitist propaganda that has been churned out over generations. Ultimately this is dangerous as it dilutes the reality of the Palestinian struggle, and distorts authentic history.
The media discrepancies are far more pronounced. The moral crisis in mainstream western media on the subject of Palestine requires volumes, and much has, indeed, been written about it. Palestinian intellectuals in that field are either of the ‘native informants’ variety, as described by Edward Said, or are also used and abused, such as being attacked personally for holding the views that they do. Either way, mainstream media has utterly failed to bring about any measurable change in its biased attitude towards Palestine and its long-suffering people.
The struggle in Palestine requires – in fact, demands – global solidarity, a critical mass of a support base that is enough to turn the tide against the violent Israeli occupation, incorporating governments and companies that currently support, sustain and bankroll Israel’s daily crimes against Palestinians.
Once and for all, there has to be a decisive recasting of roles regarding what solidarity actually means, and how Palestinians fit in as the protagonists of their own story. The first step is that we must learn not to conflate between solidarity and assuming the role of the Palestinian himself or herself.
Palestinian history, from a Palestinian point of view, remains an enigma in the minds of so many Palestinian supporters. That version of the Palestinian narrative, as told by people who lived, experienced and are capable of accurately and clearly depicting their own reality is overshadowed by alternative depictions of that same reality.
For example, some find the media narrative of the Israeli newspaper, ‘Haaretz’, quite adequate, despite the fact that it is operated by Israeli, Zionist Ashkenazi men who represent a distinctive Israeli idea of the ‘left’ which, of course, has little to do with the left outside Israel. For some readers, then, both sides of the media narratives are actually addressed by two groups of Israelis, the right and the left, who, in actuality are in agreement regarding most of the tragedies that have befallen Palestinians, starting with the Nakba.
Once more, imagine the formerly colonized India, Apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany being the subject of this discussion in order to understand the intellectual failure to appreciate the centrality of the Palestinian to the Palestinian narrative, whether deliberately flouted or otherwise.
As Palestinians are once more rebelling against the Israeli occupation, we ought to also confront past misconceptions and mistakes. We live in an age where a generation of well-educated and articulate Palestinians are extensively present in hundreds of top universities, media companies, including in theater, film and every other educational and cultural facet around the Middle East and the world. Palestine, itself, is rife with numerous journalists and eloquent women and men, who can do the Palestinian account much justice.
It is time to give them the microphone, let them speak, and let us all listen. We have 67 years of catching up to do.