Fighting to see a black and white world
For a previous article by Susan Abulhawa on Palestinian history, see Taking the words out of our mouths: telling the Palestinian story
The lost defiance of the past and the morass of the dispossessed
For the trajectory of the Palestinian struggle, Abulhawa searches for lessons from the past.
By Susan Abulhawa, Al Jazeera
March 27, 2013
It’s safe to say that a book you can’t put down is a good one. But I’ve come across a novel I can’t recommend enough, even though it took me months to finish. Time of the White Horses, by Ibrahim Nasrallah, was a fabulous read that I had to put down, repeatedly.
I read the first 300 pages of this translated work from the original Arabic in just a few days. Then the world changed and I moved through the next 300 pages slowly, tiptoeing through lives I recognised and characters I came to love. I turned these pages with trepidation for nearly a month, sometimes holding my breath and swallowing hard. I was reading the unfolding of my own life, and the lives of all Palestinians. I knew what was going to happen and in the strange ways of a heart touched by literature, I wanted to warn the characters. I needed them to make different decisions to save us all from our fate; until, I finally came upon the last chapter and stopped. I put the book down and left it there for another 2 weeks. Along with other reading material, I carried this thick hardback with me on a flight to South Africa. The final chapter was only five pages long, but I didn’t read them on the flight. In my hotel room in Johannesburg, I put the book on the table by my bed, looked at its it’s beautiful cover, an image painted by Nasrallah himself, and I read other books instead. I did the same thing a week later when I flew to Durban to take part in Time of the Writer literature festival.
Evenings at the festival started with panel discussions among invited writers. A group of us would then continue on at a local bar or restaurant. These were nights with new friends and meaningful discussions around the Black Consciousness movement, pan-Africanism, labour struggles, personal relationships, and anything in between. After one evening of particularly intense discussions that were born from a single figure at the event – a Black Consciousness thinker named Andile Mngxitama – I decided to take the plunge for those final five pages. I had been awake for 21 hours and exhaustion was conquering me.
Time of the White Horses, Ibrahim Nasrallah
My land, ‘even if I just want to look at it’
Andile’s panel discussion had been an expose of his uncompromising position that has no interest in settlement or pragmatism toward black liberation from white oppression, which clearly remains the social and economic order in a post-Apartheid South Africa. In a statement that some would examine the next day in conversation, he said that his position on land was that it belonged to blacks. Period. It should be reclaimed from white ownership regardless of economic, agricultural, or social repercussions. He said, “..even if I just wake up and look at it [my land]. Because it’s mine!”
Although I was aware of the discomfort of some in the audience around me, Andile grew larger in my eyes. His words touched a rage and an outrage that lives at my core. A wound that does not heal. I thought of that book on my hotel bedside table, 730 pages of Palestinian life spanning the Ottoman Empire’s occupation [by] the British, then Zionists. A story of four generations of one Palestinian village, its leaders and traitors, weddings and traditions, songs and seasons, loves and scandals, and deep kinship with horses and the land – their land, even if they should choose to just wake up and look at it.
Andile Mngxitama [above] spoke his truth without equivocation, without tempering his own outrage in order to be heard by those in the audience who were not already supporters. Indeed, most only heard a lack of pragmatism in his message. And they heard a threatening strength in his resolve, which was later trivialised as irrational and unrealistic. He spoke of armed struggle if necessary and some in the audience heard only violence, misogyny and chauvinism. I heard what his supporters in the audience must have: a liberated black man in full possession of his humanity, unwilling to concede an inch to those who have shackled, oppressed, raped, exploited and committed unspeakable and still untold crimes against one black generation after another.
I admired and loved Andile after that session, but others did not feel the same. Not surprisingly, his message and demeanour provoked visceral reactions from some personalities and a sort of drama ensued in the aftermath that left me torn between new friends for whom I felt sincere affection, and a desire to talk further with Andile. I chose the former, but as it was my last night at the festival, I remained awake long after the others and found myself wandering in my own thoughts. I called my daughter in the US. I missed her and wanted to hear her voice. I spent some time speaking with Aman Sethi, a brilliant and witty reporter and author to whom I had taken an immediate liking and who was feeling the same ambivalence about sleep. Eventually, I had a conversation with Andile, however brief it was, and when I got back to my room, it was nearly 3am.
We died all over again, in the last five pages
Despite the assaults of fatigue, I picked up Time of White Horses and opened it to my bookmark. A few agonising minutes later, I had finished the final chapter. I closed the cover, put the book back on the bedside table, and wept. I had walked around carrying that final chapter for over three weeks, wanting but unable to look at it. I knew what was going to happen. I knew Zionist thieves and thugs were going to take everything and rip all our hearts out one generation after another for the next six decades after the last chapter. I knew my grandmother and thousands of grandmothers were going to rot away as refugees in shacks until they died while European Jews occupied their homes. I knew our lives were going to fall and crumble and we would be blamed for our own miserable fate while a Zionist boot pressed on our necks. But I had hoped, for all those weeks, that the villagers of Hadiya would miraculously turn things around and stay and defeat those Zionist gangs and change the world.
Alas, Palestine was stolen and we all died all over again in the last five pages. I fell asleep with the remains of that long day in Durban, the wreckage of that final chapter, and the lullaby of the Indian Ocean coming through my open waterfront hotel window. A few hours later, my body’s annoying habit of rising with the sun had me dragging my mind to the breakfast room in the lobby at 6am. I walked holding hands with the newly dispossessed villagers of Hadiya in Time of White Horses. The ineffable sorrow and humiliation of being carted away, as if cattle, from everything they knew and everything they were so that new Jewish arrivals could take their place, was part of that morning in a Durban hotel restaurant.
Polite ironic violence
Aman Sethi had been my faithful breakfast companion for most of the week, because I would wake him (another habit that annoys my friends), but I didn’t have the heart to do so that morning. Instead, four cups of coffee later, I was joined by a prominent white South African writer who was held in high esteem by other writers at the festival. He was the only one of the writers at the festival with whom I had not really spoken at any length and I finally had a chance to do so, more or less privately, that morning over breakfast. Reflecting on the previous evening panels was the usual breakfast conversation and this was no exception. I was interested in hearing his thoughts on Andile Mngxitama’s panel. Quite simply, he completely dismissed Andile and Andile’s thesis, smiling as he said “No one here really listens to him. He’s quite a fringe character. If he shows up for a revolution, it would just be him and a handful of followers.”
In that same breakfast discussion, he said I was intellectually lazy to use the label “colonised mentality”. The accusation, of course, was said in a polite way, but he certainly used the word “lazy”. It brought to mind what Andile called “polite white violence” and “ironic white violence”. My comment about a colonised mentality was in the context of the recent Marikana massacre in which 34 striking mine workers were shot dead by post-Apartheid police. My colleague at breakfast remarked that many people in the townships expressed solidarity with the police, invoking colonial stereotypes of primitive blacks who needed to be put in their place. That, to me, is the essence of a colonised mentality – the way oppressed people will often channel their thoughts through the labyrinth of racist structures of their colonial past. My colleague was quick to chastise me for slapping such a label because, he said, it ignores the complexity of human beings. He said it was a lazy way to think because it disregards the nuances of what might be happening in the townships; however, he couldn’t give me an example of such a nuance which would provoke anything but outrage against the wanton murder of striking mine workers, much less satisfaction for it. Instead, he said that by using the term “colonised mentality”, I presumed to be in their heads, as if looking down on black people them from above, labelling and moving on.
Who is “intellectually lazy”?
On the surface (and ignoring his broad brush stroking, non-nuanced wholesale dismissal of Andile Mngxitama) his argument sounds enlightened. After all, as most intellectuals will happily (and quickly) tell you, using labels to explain human complexities with a single term in today’s world is ignorant and unworthy of an intelligent discourse. It is a discourse that does not point fingers or make judgments, but one that looks for clues to discuss and probe endlessly. In this conversation project, people like me who pass judgment on human behaviour are unsophisticated (unless, of course, the judgment is made about individuals, like me, who make such judgments). In this discourse, usually “white” in nature, it is not correct to explain societal (especially black or brown society) behaviour with terms that refer to described phenomena. My colleague told me it was offensive. He didn’t say to whom it is offensive, but I think it at least offends the neo-liberal sensibilities, replete with white guilt and a desire to separate from the epic historic crimes that lie just beneath the skin that burned under Africa’s sun. It is understandable to want to detach from the label mentality that birthed centuries of perpetual misery on entire black and brown societies. But what, then, should one do with the enormous body of evidence, spanning all of recorded human history, that human behaviour is actually quite predictable? What should one do, then, with decades of social science data that demonstrate, both through controlled social experiments and real-world cross sectional studies, that given X, a certain proportion of people will do Y?
It is well-known that very frequently, victims become victimisers, both on individual and societal levels. Who would have thought that Jews, fresh from concentration camps, would come to Palestine and preside over new forced labour camps for Palestinians, just four years after the last forced labour camps closed in Germany? Who would have thought that these Jews who were dispossessed of everything and marched off into camps would turn around and dispossess Palestinians of everything and march them off into camps of a different kind? And who would have thought that Palestinians, who were tortured in Israeli dungeons, would turn around and torture other Palestinians once they got a taste of some power, however illusory, following the ill-fated Oslo Accords? It is a bitter truth that this is what human beings do. While we are capable of self-reflection, change, and evolution, we remain subject to unconscious programmes.
To ignore established patterns of human behaviour (which do have labels and simple descriptors for the sake of cogent discourse), is intellectually dishonest. This is the lazy intellectual put-on that looks down from high above, insisting on nuance in order to avoid indicting victimisers who may have once been victims.
I remember a talk I gave once at Smith College on the role of women in the Palestinian struggle. During the question and answer session, a member of the audience, a professor at the university, remarked that my thesis lacked nuance. She used phrases like “showing the other side”, “Islamic terror”, and descriptors (like the ones politely levelled at me during breakfast) that stopped short of calling me an anti-Semite. She was a brown woman with a classic “colonised mentality”. There you go my white friend at the breakfast table!
There is no nuance, nor am I interested in finding nuance, in the fact that foreigners from Eastern Europe are living in the ancestral homes of Palestinians who languish in refugee camps that aren’t fit for rats! There is no nuance in the daily savage violence that is inflicted by a Zionist regime armed with the most advanced technological death machines against a principally unarmed indigenous civilian population. There is no nuance in five soldiers tying up a 13 year-old girl and posing for pictures with their guns pointed at her, or nuance in the fact that over 500 children fester in Israeli jails without charge or trial, without access to their parents, imprisoned in solitary confinement or with adult criminal populations. And there is no nuance in the indiscriminate shooting of mine workers engaged in a labour struggle. There is only a vulgarity that must be confronted. The project of “finding nuance” in criminal behaviour then becomes a profound endeavour of obfuscation in the place where indictment should be.
He finished his breakfast and left. I stayed, nursing another cup of coffee (I had lost count at this point).
Black Consciousness versus a colonised mind
Other writers came down, looking fresh and energised. I became more aware of my uncombed, un-showered, flip-flop wearing, caffeine junkie self. I wished Aman would come down already. He’d be the only other person in that room who would look like he just rolled out of bed as I had. The conversation now was with two South African writers, one white, one Indian, and two writers from other African nations. Andile’s words were still the topic of discussion. Everyone more or less agreed that they disagreed with Andile and each gave different reasons. The white South African was offended by a perceived reduction of the issues to a black versus white matter. She said whites too had suffered and fought against Apartheid. Others thought Andile was too rigid in his beliefs. The comment about taking back the land even if “just to look at it” was foolish as far as they were concerned and examples were cited of economic collapse in other places where nationalisation or redistribution of natural resources had been implemented. Some were offended by his insistence that armed struggle should not be removed from the equation. These were writers who had witnessed the human cost of armed struggle.
The villagers of Hadiya were still with me. During the British Mandate rule, Jewish immigration was encouraged and the British, seeing Zionists Europeans as more civilised than the indigenous Palestinians, were happy to arm the newcomers. Palestinian farmers in Hadiya were aware of the primitive tools they still used compared with new Jewish arrivals who employed heavy farm machinery on Palestinian land that the British government had designated for them. And I thought of the Jewish settlers now, who live in fortified Jewish-only colonies in the heart of Palestinian towns, with their Israeli-only roads and Uzi-totting arrogance that rampages through our lives, painting racist graffiti on our homes, beating our mothers and sisters, and fathers, and grandfathers. Shitting in our mosques and wiping themselves with pages from the Quran.
I picked up all these things and held them in my grip as I joined the conversation. I thought the claim of white suffering in resistance to Apartheid was absurd and said as much. That alienated me somewhat in the conversation. I said Andile was right to leave no room for pragmatism or concession with racists. There should be only liberation first and foremost. I said I wanted my land back, even if just to look at it. Because it is mine. Because they are thieves and opportunists and racists who have destroyed our society. Because they are terrorists with whom there should be no negotiation and no settlement. Because justice must also be restorative.
“Writing a new world”
Aman finally awoke long after I left breakfast and separately we managed to clean ourselves up before heading off to Andile’s book launch and subsequent panel with Ashwin Desai on a Black Consciousness article that got pulled from the Harvard Review at the first complaint from a prominent white South African. That’s another story and Ashwin Desai is yet another agitating academic personality. But I digress.
The theme of Time of the Writer literature festival was “writing a new world” and it turned out to be fitting that I carried a hardback of the past with me, even with only five pages to go. Time of the White Horses is made of short chapters, each a sort of self-contained story of different characters in the village of Hadiya. The chapters are akin to individual pieces of a larger whole and as the reader moves from one to another, the pieces begin to fit together as if a puzzle, until a beautiful tortured nation emerges from the pages. What emerges, too, are patterns of human behaviour, including the “colonised mentality”. Given X, some people will do Y. Given imperial power, some subjects will collaborate. Given occupation and colonialism, most will resist. Some will want to negotiate and others will insist on a fight. Heroes emerged from the story of Hadiya and the downfall of the village, indeed of the country, could not have been accomplished without the cooperation of collaborators. The appeasers wanted to negotiate with the Ottomans or the British, and now the Zionists.
In hindsight, the ones who clearly had it right were those who stood defiant, in full possession of themselves as an indigenous people, heirs to their own lands and their own heritage. They were the Andile Mngxitamas and Steve Bikos of their time and country. Had we but listened to them and followed their lead! Instead, we trudge in the neo-liberal discourse of “nuance” trying to find our way through a maze of racist negotiations and settlement that are clearly wiping Palestine off the map. If I could write a new world, I would start it with the closing line from that book. It is a quote we all know well, by David Ben-Gurion, who was born a Polish man named David Grunn. He said:
If I were an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country… They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?
Susan Abulhawa is a Palestinian thinker, essayist, and the author of the international bestselling novel, Mornings in Jenin (Bloomsbury 2010). She is also the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, an NGO for children.