Posts Tagged ‘Edward Said’

Review: Joe Sacco’s ‘Palestine’

May 12, 2018

(London: Jonathan Cape 2001)

This is one of the classics of the graphic novel. Joe Sacco is an American journalist. He spent two months with the Palestinians in late 1991 and early 1992 in Gaza and the West Bank during the time of the first Intifada. He wrote and drew Palestine after his return to the US, basing it on his notes, publishing it as a nine-part comic strip. These were later collected into a single volume to form the graphic novel. The book also has a kind of introduction, ‘Homage to Joe Sacco’, from Edward Said, the author of Orientalism, critic of western imperialism and attitudes to the Arabs, and himself a Palestinian.

This is precisely the type of book the Israel lobby does not want people to read. Not BICOM, not the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, which was set up because Gideon Falter, its founder, was worried about British attitudes becoming more hostile to Israel after the blockade of Gaza, not the Jewish Labour Movement, formerly Paole Zion and the companion party to the Israeli Labor Party, not the various ‘Friends of Israel’ societies in the political parties, Tories and Labour, nor the Jewish Leadership Council and definitely not the Board of Deputies of British Jews. All of them shout ‘anti-Semitism’ at anyone who dares to publish anything critical of Israel, or show the barbarity with which it treats the Palestinians.

The book shows Sacco’s experiences as he goes around Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, talking to both Palestinians and Israelis, meeting them, entering their homes, and listening to their stories. He starts the book in Cairo, the beginning of his journey to Israel, and to which he returns at his departure. During his time there, he visits the Vale of Kidron, the Arab quarter of Old Jerusalem, Hebron, Ramallah, Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza strip, as it then was, Balata, another refugee camp on the West Bank, Nablus, the town of Gaza itself, and finally Tel Aviv.

It’s not an easy read. This is an occupied country during deep unrest, and the threat of violence and arbitrary arrest and detention without trial is every where. There are patrols of soldiers, demonstrations, explosions and stone throwing. And he shows, with quotes, the contemptuous, lofty and hostile attitude the early Zionists and Lord Balfour had for the indigenous population. He quotes Balfour as saying

‘Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desire and prejudices of 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit this ancient land. We do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the inhabitants’.

Ben Gurion thought it would be simple to expel the Palestinians, because he felt they had no real attachment to their homeland. He wrote that the Palestinian ‘is equally at ease whether in Jordan, Lebanon or a variety of other places’. With the approach of war, he made it clear their expulsion was going to be through military force: ‘In each attack a decisive blow should be struck, resulting in the destruction of homes and the expulsion of the population.’ When that was done, ‘Palestinian Arabs have only one role – to flee’. He also quotes Golda Meir, who stated that a Palestinian people, defining itself as a Palestinian people, did not exist, and ‘we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They do not exist’. 400 Palestinian villages were razed in the war marking the birth of Israel. Meir’s lie – that the Palestinians don’t exist as a people – is still repeated by Republican and pro-Israel bloggers. Golda Meir was also concerned about the Palestinian population outstripping that of the Israelis, another issue that is still very alive today.

His hosts are polite, welcoming him into their homes, and plying him with tea. But occasionally there is an outburst from one of them, when he’s asked what the point of him being there, of them talking to him, is. Because other journalists have been there too, and they’ve talked to them, and nothing has happened, nothing has changed. They also talk to him about the other factions, and of the peace process. In a separate text at the beginning of the book, he states that, while the peace process set up the Palestinian authority and gave them a government, it changed nothing for ordinary Palestinians, and the occupation and theft of land by the Israelis still goes on.

He also reveals that the Israelis appropriate 2/3 of the land in the West Bank for their own us, which includes the establishment of Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law. And the governments gives Israelis plenty of incentives to move to them. They’re given a government grant if they do, lower interest rates on loan, the housing itself is cheaper than in Israel, and an income tax rate of 7 per cent. The settlers themselves can be extremely aggressive. Sacco’s hosts tell them about incidents where settlers have come into Palestinian villages, smashing windows and demanding that the owners come out. Of people shot by them, and the trivial sentences given to the settlers guilty of this. They’re given jail sentences of a few months. If they’re convicted in the first place. Palestinians who shoot and kill Israelis are jailed for years. Some lavish homes do exist in Palestine, occupied by Arabs, but most live in very bare houses, often with leaking roofs, which are vulnerable to storms.

His cartoons show what his Palestinian hosts tell him it’s like in prison camps like Ansar III, with crowds of prisoners crammed into small, bare rooms with no heat and poor ventilation. There are also few eating utensils, to the various political factions in the camp – Fateh, Hamas, Popular Front, organise meal times so that everyone gets a turn with the cup and plate to eat and drink. Several of the people he talks to were arrested simply on suspicion. Israeli law allowed them to be held without charge while evidence was compiled, with his captors returning to court over and over again to request a few more days more, until the judge finally listens to their lawyer, has the procedure stopped and the prisoner released. He also shows how the prisoners were tortured through beatings, being forced to stand for hours with bags over their heads, a process permitted under Israel law. A judge ruled that torture could not be used, but what methods were to replace them were kept secret. So many Palestinians have been incarcerated, that a green identity card showing a man has been in jail is a matter of pride. And not to have been to prison correspondingly is a mark of shame.

He talks about how the Israelis have a deliberate policy of not allowing the Palestinians to industrialise, so that they compete with the Israel. The State has also put obstacles in place to prevent Palestinian farmers competing with Israelis. They also deliberately uproot the olive trees many Palestinians grow to support themselves. The Israelis also appropriate most of the water, and dig deeper wells, so that the Palestinians have a much poorer water supply and their own wells are becoming increasingly saline. As a result, unemployment in Gaza was at 40 per cent. And Sacco himself was approached several times by Palestinians, hoping he could do something so that they could leave and go abroad to study or find work.

He describes a school, without electricity, as well as a school for the deaf, which is supported through volunteers and whose staff complain of their lack of training for dealing with people with disabilities. He also hears and illustrates the story of one Palestinian woman, whose son was shot by Israeli soldiers, but was prevented from taking him directly to hospital. Instead she was ordered to go hither and thither, where she was told a helicopter was waiting to take her and the boy. When she gets there, there is no helicopter. She eventually takes him to the hospital herself in a car, by which time it’s too late and the lad dies.

The book also shows the mass of roadblocks and the permit system which Palestinians have to go through to go to Israel. At the same time, Israelis are simply allowed to whiz through in their separate lanes.

Sacco also doesn’t shy away from showing the negative side of Palestine – the anti-Semitism, and particularly infamous murders, like the killing of Klinghoffer aboard the Achille Lauro, and the massacre of the Israeli Olympic team by the terrorist group Black September. This can turn into support for the murder of Israeli civilians. There’s also a chapter on the plight of Palestinian women, This is a society where women are still very much treated as inferiors and subordinates, where honour killings are carried out as the punishment for female adultery. It is also a society where collaborators are murdered, and those, who belong to the wrong faction may also be shot and killed.

The book was written 27 years ago, but nothing really seems to have changed since then. The illegal settlements are still there and expanding. Settlers are still seizing Palestinian homes and property, the apartheid separating Israelis from Palestinians is still in place, unemployment is still high, and Palestinians are still being treated as foreigners, refugees and second-class citizens on their own land.

However, some attitudes are changing. The Israeli liberals Sacco talks to only support the Palestinians up to a point. When pressed, some of them will say that Israel should keep the Occupied Territories, because they seized them in war. Or that they need to keep them for security reasons. But an increasing number of young Jews in America and elsewhere are appalled at the continuing maltreatment of the Palestinians and are becoming increasingly critical and hostile to Israel because of this. And there have also grown up major opposition groups like the human rights organisation B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence in Israel.

The Israeli state and its lobby and supporters in this country and others are increasingly scared. It’s why they’re trying to pass laws to criminalise the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in America, and to outlaw criticism of Israel in this country through tortuous definitions of anti-Semitism that are stretched to include it. It’s why they’re smearing, with the connivance of the right-wing media, the Blairites in the Labour party, and the Conservatives, decent people, who have fought racism and anti-Semitism, as anti-Semites.

Very long, detailed books have been written about Israel’s brutal treatment, dispossession and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. Sacco’s Palestine presenting this as graphic novel, is an example of how comics can also be serious literature, tackling a difficult subject with both narrative and artistic skill and style. I’ve mentioned on this blog before the alternative comics that were also published from the ’60s to the 1980s/1990s on political topics, including the Israeli maltreatment of Palestinians in Pat Mills’ Crisis. Palestine is very much in that tradition, and in 1996 won the American Book Award.

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The Racist Reality behind Frankie Boyle’s Joke about the Ministry of Defence Bombing N***ers

June 3, 2017

More from controversial Scots comedian Frankie Boyle, but this time he makes a serious point about one of his offensive jokes. The clip starts with a discussion about Bono and the tax system. Black American comedian Reginald D. Hunter, replying to Boyle’s comments that Bono has kept some money back from paying tax, states that as many people think the tax system is corrupt and oppressive, why wouldn’t Bono keep the money and use it instead to feed some ‘hungry n***ers’. He then tries to make his use of the word less offensive by saying that he uses it in a non-racial sense for just about anything, including crisps, which he will call ‘crunchy n***ers’.

This prompts Boyle to talk about how he was accused of racism for using the word after he made a joke about how he preferred it when the Ministry of Defence was honest about what it was. This was decades ago, when it was the ‘Ministry of War’. He then pretended to be one of its staff, who answered the phone with ‘Hello, Ministry of Defence, Department of N***er Bombing’.

He explains that his use of this highly offensive term wasn’t gratuitous. It was based on something he’d read about Lloyd George’s own racist response to a question about burgeoning American power. Lloyd George was asked what would happen if and when America took over from Britain as leading global power. Lloyd George replied

‘Then we’ll teach them to bomb n***ers’.

The blurb for this clip also describes how Boyle won damages from the Mirror after it accused him of being racist.

The joke wasn’t racist, but it was about racism – the official, but concealed racism of the British imperial establishment. You can read excellent analyses in a number of places about the racism behind western imperialism, whether British or American. Edward Said’s Orientalism is the classic about western attitudes to the Islamic world. Counterpunch on its website has published very many excellent articles about the basis of imperialism in racism. But this single quote shows the cynical racism behind the façade of imperial benevolence.

A number of comedians came out a few years ago to protest at how they believe the PC speech codes were a threat to democracy and free speech. Much of this to me seemed motivate by New Labour’s proposals to criminalise hate speech against religious groups. This seemed intended to protect Muslims for islamophobic attacks. However, it raised concern, I think, because it also appeared to be a concession to the hard-line Muslim bigots and their demands for the prosecution and execution of people they believed had blasphemed or insulted Islam, like Salman Rushdie.

I think the Labour legislation was well-meant, and after the terror attacks committed by ISIS and al-Qaeda, Muslims are vulnerable to hatred and prejudice for atrocities committed in their name, but which they don’t support.

But this clip shows how such laws also threaten to prevent more forthright exposure and condemnation of racism, by quoting racists’ own words against them.

As for the ‘Department of N***er Bombing’, I don’t think the American political establishment have needed much help from us. American imperialists since the acquisition of the Philippines have shown little qualm in bombing and massacring people of colour throughout the world, from South America to the Middle East, in their campaigns against Communism and to protect American corporate interests.

Many of these invasions have all been conducted under the guise of giving these nations humanitarian aid, such as during the bombing of Libya and the Iraq invasion. It would indeed be more honest if the Neo-Cons and other imperialists behind this global terror had referred to themselves officially in such crude, racist terms, rather than hide behind a façade of morality.

ISIS’ Destruction of the Cultural Treasures of Iraq

March 16, 2015

One of the most shocking events of ISIS’ occupation of parts of Iraq was their destruction of Assyrian antiquities kept in a local museum a fortnight or so ago. This shocking destruction of priceless cultural treasures, which have immensely enriched our understanding of the history of that ancient country, was broadcast around the world. The smashing of the artefacts is not, of course, as great or as serious an atrocity as the Islamist State’s terrorisation of Iraq’s people, the capricious, brutal murder of their captives or the sale of captured women into sex slavery at their markets. It is nevertheless a truly shocking outrage and an assault on history and culture itself.

ISIS claimed to have smashed the ancient statues and works of art because they claimed they were idols. I think I recognised some of the statues from their photographs in books I’ve got here at home. One statue wasn’t a god, but was the image of one of the Assyrian kings or officials. The Victorian archaeologists, who pioneered the excavation of ancient Assyria and Babylon also encountered problems where the local people mistook some of the massive statues they uncovered for the idols of the ancient giants wiped out by Noah’s flood, or else of Nimrod himself, who is also mentioned in the Qu’ran.

Austin Henry Layard mentions the alarm and excitement that greeted the excavation of one of the great Assyrian winged bulls in his 1867 book, Nineveh and its Remains.

On the morning following these discoveries, I had ridden to the encampment of Sheikh Abd-ur rahman, and was returning to the mound, when I saw two Arabs of his tribe coming towards me and urging their mares to the top of their speed. On reaching me they stopped. ‘Hasten, O Bey’, exclaimed one of them – ‘hasten to the diggers, for the have found Nimrod himself. Wallah! it is wonderful but it is true! we have seen him with our eyes. There is no God but God’; and both joining in this pious exclamation, they galloped off, without further words, in the direction of their tents.

… As soon as the two Arabs I had met had reached their tents, and published the wonders they had seen, every one mounted his mare and rode to the mound to satisfy himself of the truth of these inconceivable reports. When they beheld the head they all cried together, ‘There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his Prophet!’ It was some time before the Sheikh could be prevailed upon to descend into the pit, and convince himself that the image he saw was of stone. ‘This is not the work of men’s hands,’ exclaimed he, ‘but of those infidel giants of whom the Prophet, peace be with him! has said, that they were higher than the tallest date tree; this is one of the idols which Noah, peace be with him! cursed before the flood,’ In this opinion, the result of a careful examination, all the bystanders occurred.

The news of the discovery of the massive head in Mosul caused some concern amongst the town’s Muslim leaders, who feared that it was indeed the ancient prophet Nimrod. Layard describes how he had to go to the town to talk to the local governor and persuade him that it was not so, and that the remains would be treated with appropriate respect.

As I had expected, the report of the discovery of the gigantic head, carried by the terrified Arab to Mosul, had thrown the town into commotion. He had scarcely checked his speed before reaching the bridge. Entering breathless into the bazaars, he announced to every one he met that Nimrod had appeared. The news soon got to the ears of the Cadi, who called the Mufti and the Ulema [cadi- Islamic judge, ulema – Muslim clergy] together, to consult upon this unexpected occurrence. Their deliberations, ended in a procession to the Governor, and a formal protest, on the part of the Mussulmans of the town, against proceedings so directly contrary to the laws of the Koran. The Cadi had no distinct idea whether the very bones of the mighty hunter had been uncovered, or only him image; nor did Ismail Pasha very clearly remember whether Nimrod was a true-believing prophet, or an infidel. I consequently received a somewhat unintelligible message from his Excellency, to the effect that the remains should be treated with respect, and be by no means further disturbed; that he wished the excavations to be stopped at once, and desired to confer with me on the subject.

I rode to Mosul at once and called upon him accordingly. I had some difficulty in making him understand the nature of my discovery. At last he was persuaded that I had only discovered part of any ancient figure in stone, and that neither the remains of Nimrod nor of any other personage mentioned in the Koran had been disturbed. However, as he requested me to discontinue my operations until the excitement in the town had somewhat subsided, I returned and dismissed the workmen, retaining only two men to dig leisurely along the walls without giving cause for further interference.

Layard himself remarks on just how awesome the statue was, and does not sneer at the local people for their reaction to it.

I was not surprised that the Arabs had been amazed and terrified at this apparition. It required no stretch of imagination to conjure up the most strange fancies. This gigantic head, blanched with age, thus rising from the bowels of the earth, might well have belonged to one of those fearful beings which are described in the traditions of the country as appearing to mortals, slowly ascending from the regions below.

Indeed, Layard states that he himself used to contemplate the sublime and truly awesome power of these statues.

There are a number of complex issues and problems with archaeology in the developing world, including Islamic countries. Much of it is carried out by Western nations, and at first little or nothing was published about the discoveries in the local languages. You can imagine that this would result in a lack of connection between the local peoples and archaeological projects and their findings, if not disaffection and hostility. Edward Said criticised the Western obsession with ancient Egypt for leading to an attitude of complete disinterest with the modern country and Islamic culture. The veteran British Egyptologist, John Romer, echoed these sentiments in his series Great Excavations. Looking around one an ancient Egyptian site, Romer remarked that there had once been an Islamic town, that had been completely cleared away in order to excavate the ancient remains, and casually picked up a piece of 12th century Islamic pottery lying on the ground.

Since the 19th century, much of the archaeological investigations in these countries have been done by the indigenous peoples themselves. In Egypt this was pioneered by Zakaria Goneim. There is the problem that pre-Islamic history and culture in the Gulf Arab states is regarded as the Juhailiyya – the period of pre-Islamic ignorance or darkness. There is a feeling that investigation of the pre-Islamic past is thus somehow contrary Islam. As a result, archaeologists have had to be very careful in the excavation and display of the remains. One archaeologist working in Saudi Arabia writing in Current Archaeology a few years ago, praised the Saudi king for allowing and patronising such excavations, while also discussing the restrictions placed on exhibition of the artefacts uncovered by the need to avoid religious offence. This was especially acute in cases of religious figures, or the nude human form, particularly female. The latter most definitely could not be placed on display.

Some of the secular leaders in the Middle East have also used archaeology to support and bolster the country’s national identity. As many of these countries, like Iraq, are the creation of the Western powers, it is not hard to see how an archaeology that supports this identity could also be rejected and attacked as part of Western imperialism and dominance in the region. And where the country was ruled by a secular dictator, it also isn’t surprising that religious extremists should see the ideological emphasis placed on ancient remains as an attempt to undermine their nation’s Islamic culture.

Even so, it is depressing and shocking that a century after Layard and the other great archaeologists uncovered these awesome and majestic remains, that archaeology and its priceless historical treasures should still be the target for such rage and destruction.

The Ancestors of Democracy in Ancient Iraq?

March 14, 2015

Ancient Greece is rightly venerated as the place where western democracy began. However, Daniel E. Fleming, in a book published in 2004, suggested that the origins of western democracy may lie even further back and to the east, in ancient Mesopotamia, now modern Iraq. In his book Democracy’s Ancient Ancestors, Fleming examined 3,000 letters from the archives of the ancient city of Mari, finding in them evidence for collective leadership and early democratic ideas and vocabulary in the city’s myths and literary traditions.

I haven’t read the book, but I think I can see where Fleming is coming from. The cities of the Babylonian Empire were ruled by three different layers of government. There was the governor, appointed by the emperor; the city’s local ruler, the mayor; and the karim, or chamber of commerce. This last could be the popular assembly of a limited kind that provided the proto-democratic element in the Babylonian political system.

The Babylonians were also rather like us, in that they also expected their rulers to act in their interests, and had a cynical contempt for them when they didn’t. There’s one Babylonian story about a citizen, who gives the mayor a golden cup, expecting a suitable favour in return. When he doesn’t get it, the citizen arranges a series of four incidents, in which the mayor has the living daylights beaten out of him in consequence. Okay, so it isn’t democracy so much as a bribe, but it does show that there were limits placed on the actions of their rulers, and the citizenry considered it their right to mete out appropriate justice when their rulers didn’t govern on their behalf.

Aside from this, since Edward Said’s Orientalism, there has been a move by some historians to challenge the simplistic notion of a free, democratic West versus a despotic East. Said traced this idea back to Herodotus’ The Histories, and the Father of History’s account of the Persian War as a battle between Greek democracy and Persian absolute monarchy. Sasan Samiei, for example, in his book Ancient Persia in Western History: Hellenism and the Representation of the Achaemenid Empire , wrote a measured attack on this view, in particular examining and contrasting the works of Goethe and Gibbon.

Said’s Orientalism was an attempt to challenge what he viewed as Western imperialist attitudes towards Arabs and their cultures, attitudes, which justified American and European imperialism and domination. The same attitudes have been seen as influencing Frank Miller’s 300, about the Spartan victory over the Persians at Marathon. Clearly histories like Samiei’s are important as they challenge the assumptions about the Near East and the Arab and Iranian worlds, which see them as a terrible ‘Other’ implacably hostile to the West and democracy, and which partly justify Huntingdon’s theory of renewed ‘culture wars’ between the democratic, free West, and a despotic, Muslim East.

And I wondered if Fleming’s book also didn’t provide another key to explaining the destruction of the priceless Assyrian artefacts by Isis a few weeks. They weren’t just trying to destroy the remains of a civilisation they considered to be pre-Islamic and therefore idolatrous. They were trying to destroy the reminders that Iraq had a history and culture going back thousands of years, in which democracy, rather than the rule of force, may have played a part. This last might provide a point a rapprochement between the West and Iraqi Islam. ISIS despise the West, and would like to provoke us into further attacking Iraq and its people further, in order to create more chaos. This would, they hope, further cut the rug from under the moderates and radicalise more of the people against us. Smashing those artefacts was part of that process, in the hope it would incense the West, as well as destroy the ancient, and possibly democratic legacy, of that ancient civilisation.