The role of Culture in Areas of Conflict

Linked with our presentation of Izzat GHAZZAWI – Palestinian.

Text by Izzat Ghazzawi for the (See on European Parliament) – This is not a scholarly paper with references and proper documentations. It’s rather an experience from an area of conflicting boundaries and of an extreme negation of the other. All through the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis, the politicians decided and the others followed their decisions. We found ourselves stuck between the claims of the Jewish people to the “promised land” and the Palestinins who held the same claims. Very few people talked about a real compromise built on genuine sharing and original integration. Instead, the values of revenge and victory over the other were cherished. Politicians wanted to win the total submission and defeat of the other. It took us a whole century to reconsider the realities around us.

It seems I will not break away from a story to make my points clear. I still remember that day in March 1992. We have been invited to Jerusalem by the Swedish consulate to meet a group of Israeli writers. As far as I was concerned, until that day I had been incapable of seeing a civil society in Israel, because everyone that I had met until then had been either a soldier, a police officer or a member of the secret service, and our lives had been filled with a sour smell and hate since “67. The daily shows, had been smothered in military uniforms, bullets and news about prisons.

The night before the meeting with the Irsraeli writers, I was very anxious. I asked myself if it wou!d be wise to speak about the relationship between the cultural project and the complex political situation at a time when wounds were still open.

My experience of the nature of Israeli culture was negligible due to the little that I had been able to read and deduce from books translated into the English language. Between February ‘89 and May ‘91, I had spent time in an Israeli prison because I was a political activist, but during the time of my detention I had managed to write a book about my memories, about past experiences and about how I was able to survive the period of my imprisonment.

I imagined that I was able to talk to the writers that I had read and I managed to remember something on their writings that spoke of the struggle for life and courage necessary to be able to surmount obstacles.

One of’ the writers with whom I shared the same ideas was Horvitz Yaeeer who, in his poems, spoke of peace and birds and of the never ending fear of solitude and exile.

I surprised myseIf incredibly when I discovered that I had spoken of him with so much affection and of the f’act that I was able to completely separate him from the situation of bloody conflict in which we were living; that the severity of prison had been pushed aside speaking of a poet with such a great heart.

The anxiety! This word is perhaps not strong enough to describe the sensation that I felt in those few hours before our meeting in the city of Jerusalem, when to enter the city I had to have a permit from the civil authorities.

This alone was reason enough for bitterness, to which were added the difficuIties encountered and long procedures in order to obtain the permit. Deep inside I felt like rejecting this display. My heart would not accept the idea that the city of Jerusalem was open to everyone except the Palestinians. During that period we were very slowly leaving behind the intifada and we were a destroyed people, tired, full of wounds, economically oppressed and not able to decicie which step to take next. It was necessary to try and find a road from which a political culture open to communication with the other would emerge.

And it became logical to recognize that the occupation of a whole population was neither human nor reasonable. Refusing to recognize the existence of other had become useless. I asked myself what the intellectual could do to be certain that his battle for life was a real fight.

All this did not diminish the moments of anxiety that overcame me. I was convinced that I was presenting my ideas in all freedom and sincerity in declaring that the meeting would not be carried out on an equal footing because it would be difficult to detach ourselves from our political past even if we had wanted to. The Palestinian writer would be the one to ask for the end of occupation and the Israeli writer the one in a position to grant it.

Despite the positive attitude towards peace seen in some Israeli Writers, the attitude is not free from the feeling of “superiority” referring to what the Palestinians could gain from the peace process. I felt that the duty of the writer was to point out the road to take without defining it clearly, because to define it clearly would be to give an answer to the question and that is not the writer’s task.

This is the mentality with which the first meeting would have taken place. Along the road to Jerusalem, we stopped at the check point, where a police officer verified the authenticity of the permits and the permits themselves. It had been three years since I had been to Jerusalem, but my feelings towards the city had changed. I saw how the face of a city changes with new buildings surrounding it from all sides. It’s true that it would not be possible to divide it in the same way as before 1967, but it had to be done for peace and cohabitation and not for financial interests. Would it be possible? I realized that this multitude of questions weighted more on the political than on the writer’s part of me and I tried to convince myseif that I have more of a responsibility towards its justice than towards looking into details.

Several Israeli writers were present. Huge smiles were not enough to get through the first few minutes neither were the words of the Swedish general consul who welcomed everyone and thanked them for accepting the invitation . It was clear that the awardness of the first sentence would be enormous, but the question that took precedence in that sitting was: what can we do for peace? Nobody was limited to the literal question, as if the question could have only one humanly acceptable answer and was not open for discussion.

Each one of us had our own reserve, our own bitterness and our own story to tell: the Israelis talked of Nazim and the fear under which they lived that terrible experience and how it influenced their way of living. The Israelis spoke of their uncertainties with regards to the end of the historic hostility, and of their doubts regarding the reality of being accepted as a people in the zone. The Palestinians spoke of their sacrifice, of the obstacles, of collective punishments, the prisons, the seriousness of the economic situation and of the inhumanity of the occupation. Everyone spoke calmly, some without looking each other in the eye. Nothing major came out of that encounter and no-one expected anything extraordinary, but for me it was a way of seeing the other as a partner in the building of a future.

It became clear to me that it was possible to think of handing our anxicties over to another people and not to a military regime, which builds most if its thoughts on the feeling of victimization . So I wanted my manuscripts to acquire a calm tone that would go beyond the wounds of the past and build a culture of peace for the future. But instead, one of the first responses was the killing of my son Ramy, 16 years old, while he was trying to save a wounded person in the school courtyard. His death was the death sentence of everything that grows between a father and his son, and it was a long voyage of sufferance that I do not think is limited to the personal side.

I can say that this tragedy has changed the taste of life and everything. It made me lose my equilibrium between being a father and a writer, but despite that I have decieded to use the pain to cure the sadness rather than to sacrifice it.

We must think of the living, who deserve life, and the fallen should serve as an exemple.

I wrote in the spirit of a better garden for our little ones because I wanted to convey my ideas on the discovery of the meaning of pain for new generations. This land is for all of us and we must try to find equality, and a more significant value in the existence of man.

Indeed, we need to work out a kind of art which breaks down stereotypes that existed amongst us in our region. Stereotypes need real brave genuine people to question them and lay them bare. This does not need a hasty flight into love and marriage because it would not be true. It rather needs an objective and deep insight into the human need to survive in dignity, and that this need touches all. A clear sense of equality should prevail as a persiting tone. The main point in our endeavour should be directed towards a multicultural pluralistic soceity. Culture is the only media which can dig out all the sources for such a society both in the ancient roots and the existing reality. Izzat Ghazzawi.

link: see on Speeches.

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