Bitter-sweet homecoming

Last month, I went to Jerusalem for Easter.  Although I’m not sure where my faith lies any more, I still find the atmosphere at Easter time quite special.  But it was marred by sadness.  People’s faces looked familiar, but they have grown older and more tired in the two-and-a-half years since I’ve been back there.  But then there was a feeling that things in that ancient city hardly ever changed.

Certainly, the topography of the city is always changing and hardly ever to the advantage of the Palestinian population there.  There was a palpable tension in the air, one that I can’t quite find the words to describe.  It was like being in a house where the parents are divorcing and the children are trying to ignore that their world is changing all around them.  Those hushed tones of listening, but not quite listening, to the battles and fights happening all around them.  Perhaps these constant troubles have been so internalised that they have become part of normal life.  A somewhat dysfunctional state of being, which, as someone who has been away for a while, I found disconcerting.

One of the things that I noticed was the sound of the tram, which never existed when I was growing up.  The ding of the tram train was a completely alien sound and it was hard to ignore, as it stood out sorely every time I heard it.

When I used to listen to Saturday Live on BBC Radio 4, the soundscape segment was my favourite and I often thought in my head what sounds I would choose for Jerusalem.  I would imagine them like this: at dusk, on the rooftop of my aunt’s Old City house, the Dome of the Rock and the Mount of Olives ahead of us (I always imagine it with my cousin Lina standing beside me), and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Redeemer behind us.

To the west, is the Jewish Quarter and to the East, Damascus Gate.  We would be up there, escaping the smoke-filled room after Easter lunch was done.  We’d go up and talk about mundane things, or about the future.  It would usually be sunny, but a bit breezy, so we’d have jackets on.  The sun would be low in the sky, which would nearly always be blue, sometimes with a few clouds.

The minarets would suddenly ring out all over the city, amplified by the echo from the surrounding hills.  Then, the church bells would ring. A young boy with a trolley down below in the Old City streets would shout out a warning to passers-by.  The trolley boys control those streets and you could be run over if you don’t pay attention.  I hear children in courtyards across the rooftops playing and a blaring cassette player with various classics playing out, sometimes Fairuz’s Good Friday repertoire would still be playing even on Easter Sunday (Knowing that Orthodox Passion week is starting the following day, that’s not very surprising.)

Despite the nostalgia I sometimes feel, I am aware that life takes you in different directions and you have to let it.  Nonetheless, everyone holds onto fond memories of childhood, whether it’s sounds, smells, tastes or warmth of being with family and friends.  But nostalgia can be dangerous as we can fall into not only romanticising the past, but failing to move on from it.  So it’s always good to have a reality check.

Mine came in the form of those familiar faces, ones that I grew up with at school or in the neighbourhood church.  Façades I recognised but who seemed to have grown more distant, more alien.  For a community so small, there seemed to be a bit of attitude going on, a sense that everyone was still in competition with everyone else.  Though a seemingly cohesive community, what I saw was a sense of a ghetto mentality that seemed to have been amplified by more and more political and economic uncertainty.

I found it hard to connect with the community more than ever.  The established status quo seemed to have remained in tact.  Normally, that would be reassuring, but having travelled from the UK where people are debating the role of women in church, I found it wholly unacceptable that in Jerusalem it was only men whose feet the priest washed on Holy Thursday.  I found it equally shocking, though not surprising, that they were the same men that are always called forward for the ritual.  To me that was a show of power and status, not one of humility, which the ritual is supposed to signify.  It made me question whether I’d ever left the city as I stood in that spot reminding myself that I’m two-and-a-half years into the present and most certainly not in the past.

Although I like the Easter rituals in Jerusalem, I still find the role of the church and how it co-opts certain members of the community, while side-lining the majority of it’s flock, somewhat reminiscent of a mobster mentality.  I exaggerate, nonetheless, it often felt that the church was run by a few families — with the blessing and encouragement of the church, of course — and you had to subscribe to their way of life to be accepted into the inner circle.  In my early twenties, I tried to be more pious, but invariably, I failed, mainly because I couldn’t fathom that there was one true path to enlightenment. And questioning that and admitting it to the community was a sure reason for banishment.  In a town where your identity is often religious, being less so created a barrier between you and others of the same religious background.  

More and more, the men and women in the community reminded me of Agent Van Alden, of Boardwalk Empire, who is fanatical about religious observance but lacks the human qualities of empathy and forgiveness.  A man who professes a pure way of life, but at his core is hypocritical and cruel.  A man who does not admit that human weakness is what makes us endearing to others and what inevitably forges bonds.  No one likes a bully.

Being back in the community in Jerusalem reminded me what I was not missing.  It reminded me that despite their lauding of the virtues of love, peace and harmony, the community in Jerusalem cares little for one another.  It made it easier for me to remind myself of the reality of life in Palestine and Jerusalem, in particular.  It did not take away from my happy memories, but it did give me one big reality check.  Perhaps I am being hard here, but change is good but it never comes from always kowtowing to the status quo.

But one positive thing I did come away with from my trip, is the overwhelming love and warmth I felt from my immediate and extended family.  Often when you’re living so far away and trying to establish a new life elsewhere, you miss the comfort and reassurance of an established social network around you.  But with easier means of communication these days, there’s no reason why the support of family cannot be extended over telephone lines and a good internet connection.  As a family, we may have had our ups and downs, which is quite normal for any family.  But one thing I know for certain is that I am truly blessed with each and every family member, from my parents, to my siblings, aunts and uncles and cousins.  For me, they are my Jerusalem, and for me, that is one thing I’m happy to never change.  


Grey Vs. Red

I have an affinity with squirrels.  They’re a fond memory from my childhood in the U.S.  They don’t exist in Palestine and every time I travelled back to the U.S. the first thing I looked out for were the squirrels. But ever since I’ve arrived in the UK, I’ve been told that the grey squirrel are the evil invasive species that killed off most of the native Red Squirrel.  
At first, I too, was swept up in my ‘dislike’, despite my early childhood love for them. I don’t know what made me go along with it, but maybe I just wanted to fit in with the general unpopular opinion of them, find a common enemy, so to speak.     
I watch the grey squirrels from my kitchen window in the morning and they’re benign beings that are just looking for food. They co-exist with other species and I’ve never seen them attack the birds happily feeding around them. They quickly descend on the so called ‘squirrel proof’ bird feeder as soon as I fill it up and eat most of the feed.  But because they have to scoop the bird feed out, it allows seeds to drop on the ground, making it easier for the larger birds, the wood pigeons and blackbirds, to eat because the feeder is designed for robins and blue tits.   

And as I watch them, I think, well, these grey squirrels came here by accident, perhaps as stowaways in a ship from North America.  Although they drove the native species almost to the brink of extinction, it isn’t as if they sat huddled in a New York dock one day and sinisterly hatched a plan to invade Britain and replace the entire Red Squirrel population.  Those foreign animals that have upset the equilibrium of the British eco-system.  
I feel like the grey squirrel some days.  I originally came to Britain as a student, but then I met and married my husband.  So now I am one of those detested immigrants and I don’t particularly like the label because it assumes that all people who come here have less than good intentions about being in Britain.  Nothing but a massive wave of grey squirrels flooding out of the bowels of the ship coming to over run the country and destroy its heritage and sense of community.  
But who has labelled me?  I have had nothing but positive experiences and interactions with people I’ve met since I’ve arrived.  I have never been pointed at and called an ‘immigrant’.  And when I’ve used that word to describe my situation, people seem shocked because there I am in person, someone they like, yet who they hear about in the news as someone who is a clear and imminent danger to their way of life.  

What I have really found difficult, however, is government and opposition rhetoric on the subject.   And what I’ve found even more frustrating is government policies and bureaucracy regarding the immigration process.  
I have lain in bed some nights wide awake with anxiety over the fact that I’m still waiting for my visa application to be approved since April.  This has restricted a lot of aspects of my life here and prevented my ability to move forward with my life here, i.e. ‘assimilate’. Then I start to think what if after all this time, my application is refused, and there I am at 4am in the morning trying to be practical about which furniture we’ll ship and which we’ll sell. Then I start worrying about whether my husband will be able to get a visa from Israel and adapt to living in a conflict zone where most people never go for walks just for leisure.
I don’t know where the fear of the ‘other’ really started.  Whether it was genuinely a public concern or whether the seed for demonising immigrants came from politicians. It makes me angry because I’m not sure how Britain defines community and as such don’t think immigrants’ presence has contributed to the disintegration of traditional family values in British society/community, as is being claimed.  I don’t think they can be blamed for people’s disregard for the elderly, mistreatment of the disabled or sexual abuse of children. Yes, immigrants need to adapt to their new country — after all they chose to come here — and accept that certain customs like female genital mutilation and childhood marriage are unacceptable.  But the powers that be need to remember that ‘they’ are not all like that and it would be wrong to assume so.  Unless the government and opposition are singling out a particular ethnic group?   
Although mine will be different from others, I have experienced certain low points, particularly during the past eight months.  And while I’ve tried to make myself useful by volunteering, I feel insecure about my future here, I feel isolated and I certainly don’t feel part of a larger community, despite my best efforts to fit in.  And, oh, I speak English. But I also know that these things take time and the challenges I face today will be long forgotten as years pass.  
As I’m here for the long-haul, I’d like to belong, but in reality I know that I will always be different, but that’s not a bad thing. That is why I don’t like being labelled as anything, because like anyone else in this world, I am the sum of my experiences, of the places I’ve lived, the monuments I’ve climbed, the people I’ve met, the books I’ve read, the work I’ve done, the friends I’ve made.  I’m Palestinian by birth but I’m also a ‘global’ citizen, who now lives in the UK.  One thing doesn’t and shouldn’t detract from the other. And despite what everyone else in Britain thinks, I love grey squirrels and always will. 

On Palestinian representation in the media

There is nothing much I can say about what is happening in Gaza today that others have not tried to say before.   The only thing I can say is that this is a war of perception vs. reality. What people believe to be true rather than what is true.

What really disturbs me about the conflict, is the fact that most people in Britain still believe Israeli politicians and propaganda, despite their increasing mistrust of their own politicians and media at home!  They are unwilling to see beyond the rhetoric and ask questions that would propel the conversation towards something constructive, rather than the destructive, unhelpful, and often, ignorant comments one reads on most newspaper readers’ comment sites.

Yet most of those commentators may have never even set foot in Palestine.  They may have gone to Israel, but the intricate checkpoints, ‘security’ wall and the warnings from Israeli friends may have deterred them from going to find out for themselves what the situation is really like.  So how they can speak of any understanding of what an average Palestinian goes through is beyond me.

The media in the UK, and the perception of its average audiences, accepts Israel’s version of us, I fear.  And so represents Palestinians as different, as not like ‘Us’ in the West: they have long beards, their women are veiled and hardly wear any make-up. Whereas Israelis are clean-shaven, white, blue-eyed, silver foxes or fashionably dressed female spokespersons that people actually find attractive, so people like ‘Us’, despite the fact that Israel is racially diverse, but you wouldn’t know it from their media representatives or political elites.

What drives home Israeli’s perceived ‘sameness’ with British citizens is the fact that they are involved in culture and the arts and have toured Britain, showing the ‘civilised’ face of Israel as so-called ‘cultural ambassadors’. So of course the average British person is going to think positively of Israelis and will not understand why there are calls to boycott Israeli artists when they are invited to dance at world renowned festivals, as they were to the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) this past summer.

One former American colleague said to me once that footage of men chanting at funerals doesn’t help our image.  I agree, but I don’t think people are worried about how they are being perceived, although they should be.  There is no one unified PR machine that cynically advises Palestinians to weep and mourn in certain acceptable ways so that the average British person can empathise with us, but maybe there should be.  Sadly, I don’t control what the Western and UK media choose to film and subsequently broadcast about us.  So our struggle continues, not just for individual and collective rights, for freedom and self-determination, but also for a change in perception about who we are on this absurd world media theatre.

The average UK viewer wouldn’t know it, but there is a rich cultural heritage in Palestine, great painters, musicians and writers.  Most are just normal people, teachers, nurses, university lecturers, driving instructors, medics, philosophers, poets. Women do go out to work in many of these professions and the first female mayor for Bethlehem was recently elected, but there has been little, if any, coverage of her victory in UK papers or broadcast media.

Yet, to acknowledge that Palestinians are a diverse population and anything other than those those strangely clothed people chanting and firing guns in the air does not suit warmongering Israel and would raise too many confusing questions — have the British people been mislead about the Palestinians, too?  

On women in the media

On a recent trip to London, my husband and I happened to walk by the Houses of Parliament.  It was a few minutes before 3pm and we wanted to wait to hear Big Ben chime live over the city.  As we were walking along, among the many camera crews, I noticed this woman with a well worn notebook peeking out of her handbag.  I noticed the inconspicuous headphones she was wearing around her neck and then I saw the microphone.  Radio journalist I thought, but who?

As I passed her and the man she was speaking with, I casually tried to sneak a peek at her badge and it said Carolyn Quinn.  I was excited because I admire women like her, hard-working, diligent, intelligent, dedicated.  I wanted to go back and say a word of support, but then decided against it, as she was working and I didn’t want to interrupt her. 
The great thing about radio is that it if you listen regularly, you do so because you are interested in understanding the issues without the distractions of images and colours, without having to nitpick about someone’s horrendous tie, hair-dye or make-up, age or sex.  I know very little about Carolyn Quinn, but knowing anything about her personal life or fashion sense is irrelevant.  All I care about is that I trust her to do her job and inform me and the many Radio 4 listeners about the political issues of the day.  
It’s not easy being a woman anywhere, let’s face it.  But I am reminded almost daily how badly Middle Eastern men treat their women.  John Humphries questioned whether universities should accept monies from Middle East regimes that treat their women ‘deplorably’ yesterday morning.  But there are many ways that women are treated deplorably in the West, too.  Just the other day, Kate Moss revealed that topless photos were a requirement to move ahead in the modelling industry.  Where is the moral outrage of an under-age teen having to bare her chest for the world to see?  Isn’t that child exploitation?  It seems to me that at the same time people are crying out over Jimmy Savile’s abuses, people give themselves permission to view images of a topless model because it’s out there in the public domain.  To me it’s the same thing, but somehow it’s become more socially and culturally accepted.    
The fact is women’s bodies are the canvas upon which societies are measured.  If you’re covered from head to toe, you’re said to be subjugated by your men-folk. But are you any less subjugated if you pose semi-nude?  Why does the West continue to push that image of homogeneous beauty it wants all women conform to.  If we all looked like Kate Moss or Keira Knightly, then what makes us unique?  What differentiates us from others?  Isn’t that another ‘veil’ of sorts?  Doesn’t that also make us into objects to be admired or sneered at if we are unable to meet the standards that the fashion industry and the media pressure women to achieve?  Our identity as women shouldn’t be written on our bodies, nor should our bodies be used to measure our successes in life.  We should be measured by our contributions to society at large at any age and in whatever form or shape we come in.  It’s harder said than done and sometimes I think we’re our own worst enemies.    
So I try to switch off the TV or only watch things that don’t celebrate greedy consumerism and conformism to certain beauty standards and instead listen to professional journalists like Carolyn Quinn or read intelligent fiction by women (and men!) with something real to say about  life.  But it’s very hard to find those smart women in the British media, because yes, they are outnumbered by men and by young sexually objectified women.  Where can I find all the female professionals in medicine, art, history, academia, science, politics, education, industry and comedy? 
After four years of living in the UK, I’ve come to enjoy British television staples such as Have I Got News For You.  But I get bored when it’s only men on the panel, because the banter is just so laddish (especially when hosted by Jeremy Clarkson).  It seems that even as an audience women are not respected and I’m not surprised that there have been voices calling for more women to be represented on shows like the Today Programme and in the media in general.

There is an inquisitive, intelligent and engaged female audience out there and they want to hear from both genders equally about a diversity of issues, not just women’s, but it seems that the media still think they are only speaking to men — or dollified women.   

To Reviewers

I don’t like films about Palestine. They are usually full of clichés and stereotypes, anticipating Western audiences’ reactions and playing up to their preconceptions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  They often romanticise Palestinians and paint them in the simplistic view of a righteous victim — which is exactly the opposite of how we are represented in the media.  The brave Palestinian protagonist struggles over adversity, yet there is never any resolution that is realistic.  It’s not a fairy-tale and it will not end in the hero or heroine saving the day, liberating Palestine, or whatever’s left of it…

Palestinian films are hardly the material of Hollywood blockbusters, but many have attempted that simplistic formula, that is everything that is wrong with Hollywood, to gain audiences.  Fair enough, but most Palestinian films I’ve seen were forgettable caricatures of people or events I may have come across in real life. And real life was much more vibrant, tragic and comic all rolled into one and much more complex.  My problem with Palestinian films is that they do not really depict everyday life, behind all those tragic scenes people cut their fingers making breakfast for their children, get stuck in traffic as they drive to see friends, brew coffee and spill half of it on the hob because their minds are elsewhere.  Most films I’ve seen never go into those little delicious sensory details that make something believable and makes the audience connect with the person, not because they’re Palestinian, but because they’re a wonderful character that could have been anyone of those people sitting in the cinema had they been born somewhere else.

Reviewers and critics think they are doing Palestinian films a favour by being nice.  But the thing is, when a really good film comes along, the reviewers who called wolf so many times before on other ‘wonderful’ Palestinian films are not believable.  I don’t believe them because what I get from their words is a patronising pat on the head, ‘good girl, even though you’re Palestinian you can still make something of yourself, there’s a civilized person in you yet’.  It reminds me of one of my bullies at school.  Whenever I said something intelligent in class she turned to me with wide yes and said ‘Wow, Margo’ in an incredibly surprised voice incredulous that there was a ticking mind behind my usual timidity.

But aren’t reviews supposed to help the artist hone their skill?  Too much adulation and everyone would be running around like Damien Hirst making more terrible art that no one understands and that no one has the courage to say they don’t understand because that would make them seem to look stupid.  What’s wrong with simply saying I like something or I don’t like something and then go into the details of why it worked and why it didn’t?

Most of the Palestinian films I’ve seen, I went to see out of curiosity, but they left me empty, because they never felt real. But then I remember they were not talking to me, a Palestinian, rather to an already sympathetic audience.  Instead of making something that challenged audiences’ views of Palestine, even those who support the Palestinian cause, films are made so that solidarity groups can huddle around indignantly talking about the evilness of Israel afterwards.  And so many films, instead of being a film about Palestine, quickly turn into films against Israel.  I suppose, I should be a bit more lenient here, as inevitably, the conflict comes trailing in, but my point is that I want a film to stand up to the stereotypes and create a positive impetus to help the situation.  Making it all about Israel all the time, doesn’t help in one bit.

A successful film evokes your senses, makes you laugh and cry and keeps you engaged with the film long after you’ve seen it.  5 Broken Cameras did that for me. I loved the familiarity of the landscape and the blueness of the sky.  I could almost smell the first rain after a long spell of dry weather and the echo of the call to prayer around the hills transported me for a moment into the screen.  What I loved most of all was the honesty of the people, their vulnerability, their courage despite the knowledge that they were almost always in mortal danger, their silliness and optimism, their vanity and dramatics.  But what really got me in the end was the tragedy of seeing the inner child in grown men die and knowing that small children were already too grown up bar some fleeting moments of playfulness.    

At the bus stop outside Edinburgh’s Filmhouse afterwards, I broke down looking for change in my purse.  I held it together as much as I could as I left the cinema, but in the end, the absurdity of a poster giving tourists step-by-step directions about how to use Lothian Buses made me start to laugh hysterically, which inevitably turned into sobs. In the end, films, as any good piece of art, are supposed to affect us deeply, remind us what life is about and the fragility of it all, knock us into remembering not to take things for granted, give us something to think about as we contemplate who we are and what our purpose is in this world and eventually, make us thankful for what’s great in our lives and motivate us to get up and do something constructive, even if it is just hanging up the washing.