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Secondly

I read Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah (2003) few years ago. I needed to get a better grip on how Palestinians understood their forced exile and daily tribulations. It was so poignant and painfully beautiful! Since then, world events have returned my memory to one of the most lucid passages in this exquisite poetic text. Barghouti illuminates the strange truth that some peoples can assume that they are the perennial victim without even noticing the suffering of others.

Barghouti tells us that funerals were an integral part of Palestinian life wherever they happened to be, in the homeland or in exile, in days of calm or sad days of storm, in their days when their peace was punctured by massacres.

“So, when Yitzak Rabin spoke so eloquently of the tragedy of Israelis as absolute victims, and the eyes of his listeners in the White House garden and in the whole world grew wet, I knew that I would not forget for a long time his words that day: ‘We are the victims of war and violence. We have not known a year or month when mothers have not mourned their sons.’ I felt that tremor that I know so well and which I feel when I know that I have not done my best, that I have failed: Rabin has taken everything, even the story of our death.”

This leader knew how to demand that the world should respect Israeli blood, the blood of every Israeli individual without exception. He knew how to demand that the world should respect Israeli tears, and he was able to present Israel as the victim of a crime perpetrated by us. He changed facts, he altered the order of things, he presented us as the initiators of violence in the Middle East and said what he said with eloquence, with clarity and conviction. I remember every word Rabin said that day:

‘We, the soldiers coming back from the war, smeared with blood, we saw our brothers and sisters and our friends killed in front of us, we attended their funerals unable to look into the eyes of their mothers. Today we remember each one of them with eternal love.’

“It is easy to blur the truth with a simple linguistic trick: start your story from ‘Secondly.’ Yes, this what Rabin did. He simply neglected to speak of what happened first. Start your story with ‘Secondly,’ and the world will be turned upside-down. Start your story with ‘Secondly,’ and the arrows of the Red Indians are the original criminals and the guns of the white man are entirely the victim. It is enough to start with ‘Secondly,’ for the anger of the black man against the white to be barbarous. Start with ‘Secondly,’ and Gandhi becomes responsible for the tragedies of the British. You only need to start your story with ‘Secondly,’ and the burned Vietnamese will have wounded the humanity of the napalm, and Victor Jara’s songs will be the shameful thing and not Pinochet’s bullets, which killed so many thousands in the Santiago stadium.  It is enough to start the story with ‘Secondly’, for my grandmother, Umm ‘Ata, to become the criminal and Ariel Sharon her victim.

“What can Abu Tawfiq’s jeep [he used to get in a media services truck and drive around shouting ‘O our beautiful martyr’] to do in the middle of all this absurdity? The Israelis occupy our homes as victims and present us to the world as killers. Israel dazzles the world with its generosity toward us. Rabin said: ‘Signing the Declaration of Principles is not easy for me as fighter in the Israeli Army and in its wars. It is not easy for the people of Israel or for the Jews of the Diaspora.’

“The houses built on top of ours gallantly declare their willingness to understand our odd predilections toward living in camps scattered in the Diaspora of gods and flies, as though we had begged them to throw us out of our hoes and to send their bulldozers to destroy them in front of our very eyes. Their generous guns in Deir Yasin forgive us the fact that they piled our bodies high at the sunset hour there one day. Their fighter jets forgive the graves of our martyrs in Beirut. Their soldiers forgive the tendency of our teenagers’ bone to break. Israel the victim polishes its hot, red knife with the sheen of forgiveness.”

“In the global celebration no one—not even we, the people who speak for him—remembered Abu Tawfiq’s beautiful martyr.”

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Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.

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