The beloved sun did not rise when they threw up the wall. How long eyes have searched for it and are still waiting! Can the eyes themselves be lost? Could the wall have gouged them out?
— Mahmood Darwish
THE six-metre high metal border wall erected by the Israeli government around Rafah in 2004 stands like a sentinel in the desert between Sinai and the Gaza Strip, ruptured and rusted, a festering wound in the body of a nation disenfranchised and violated for 60 years.
Subjected to the violence of colonisation and then the brutality of dehumanisation, the people of Rafah live divided lives, like many Palestinians who have left homes built by ancestors in the ancient land of biblical Judea and Samaria.
The history of Gaza is the history of the people of Ashkelon and Ashdod, and Gaza is the city which saw the birth of Goliath, defeated by David in a battle signifying the victory of the powerless against the powerful.Today, the people of Rafah fight another war, against a state which has literally imprisoned them within the confines of the coastal strip which saw massive relocations of Israeli settlers in 2006, a move made to ‘appease’ the peace process. And what of the peace process today? Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip was designed to cripple a population which is seen to be complicit in attacks on Israeli territory and citizens.
On Jan 22, the Security Council met in an emergency session to consider a call for ending the Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip. The open meeting was requested by Arab and Islamic states amid an international outcry at what the European Union termed the “collective punishment of 1.5 million residents”. Cutting off fuel to the territory’s only power plant plunged Gaza into darkness, forcing doctors to choose between saving the lives of newborns or those undergoing heart surgeries.
Israel also blockaded the provision of food and medicines in a replay of the tragedy of Karbala. Today, it appears that the conflict pitting Imam Hussein against the forces of tyranny is reflected around the Muslim world, gaining more significance in a world echoing with chants of democracy and human rights and heaving with growing inequities of power and wealth. Perhaps the walls that divide us are not just erected to keep some in and others out. Perhaps these walls are meant to divide us permanently into those who wield power and those who are compelled to submit to it.
In his autobiography Out of Place, Edward Said talks about growing up as a Palestinian whose people were battered and then displaced by the British Empire which was in a crisis at the time. He learnt that as an Arab, he was the subject of a long history of imperial stereotyping and misrepresentation.
As a student of literature he learnt of the ineluctable and energising connections between culture and politics, with Gramsci and Foucault taking a central position in his intellectual growth. Both philosophers and theorists of social hierarchies and institutions, these giants inspired Said to write a book exploring the various ways in which knowledge about the ‘Orient’ was produced as a prelude to and a corollary of the conquest of these territories: “My contention is that without examining Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage and produce the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively…”
Said’s seminal work Orientalism needs to be considered seriously today in order to dismantle the walls which have divided the world into conquerors and those who are conquered, the ‘sub-human, barbaric native’ of Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is only by considering the narrative of the ‘other’ as valid and legitimate that we can begin to deconstruct the prejudices and the contempt with which we perceive those who are not from ‘among us’, whether that community happens to be the conquered subject or the warring tribal fiercely protective of territory and historical imperatives which strengthen that claim.
Just over a year ago, on an off-Broadway stage in New York I watched a young woman play out the life of Rachel Corrie, the American activist who died trying to protect the lives and properties of Palestinians in Gaza. Watching this courageous production put together by Alan Rickman, I thought back to the days in London when I would come across Vanessa Redgrave at meetings held in solidarity with the Palestinian people. She had befriended me and would take me home to her flat, cooking for me in a kitchen which held the warmth and love of a woman committed to causes of humanity and peace.
When the London production of this play was cancelled, Vanessa condemned the pressure to suppress the truth. I share her words: “If this cancellation is not transformed we would be complicit, all of us, in a catastrophe that must not be allowed to take place. This play is not about taking sides. It is about protecting human beings, in this case, Palestinian human beings who have no protection, for their families, their homes or their streets. Rachel Corrie gave her life to protect a family. She didn’t have or use a gun or bomb. She had her huge humanity, and she gave that to save lives.”
In Rafah today, men and women swarm across a breach in the wall at the border, “hungry for freedom, for fuel and other things”. In New York, the neo-imperial alliance between Israel and the United States ignores the warnings of the United Nations Relief Works Agency which has run out of plastic bags used to distribute food aid to 860,000 Palestinians living in Gaza. And while bulldozers breach walls in the desert, more walls are erected to ensure that the divide between those who rule and the ruled remains firmly incised into the fabric of our fissured history.