Ahdaf Soueif in conversation with Daud Abdullah about Palestinian cultural resistance

Friday, 19 November 2010 15:05
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MEMO’s Director, Daud Abdullah, recently sat down with leading novelist, Ahdaf Soueif, to discuss Palestine. Their conversation covered a number of issues ranging from culture to politics and the current peace process. She described the situation in Palestine as one of the greatest injustices of our time; noting that a just resolution of the conflict would reduce tensions in many other parts of the world.

On the peace process, Soueif said she didn’t believe Israel is seriously pursuing peace with the Palestinians. “It suits Israel and the elites to have this eternal ‘peace process’; this pretence of seeking peace.”

She pointed out, “A huge injustice is taking place as we speak while the world pretends to uphold the principles of human rights, the right to self-determination, democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of movement. All of this is happening at the heart of the world, so it is an intensely human issue rather than a nationalistic one”.

On Gaza, the novelist said, “I think they are possibly the nation that sets the greatest store by culture; in Gaza, just one day after the ceasefire you saw the children going to school in pressed uniforms.”

Ahdaf Soueif is a novelist and political and cultural commentator. Born in Cairo, she was raised and educated in both England and Egypt. She published her first novel, In the Eye of the Sun, in 1993. She is best known for her second novel, The Map of Love, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999. It has since been translated into 27 languages and has sold over a million copies. In 2008 she initiated the first Palestine Festival of Literature – an annual cultural festival that tours around Palestine.

Daud Abdullah: Your country of origin, Egypt, signed a peace treaty with Israel after four major wars – how do ordinary Egyptians view Israel today?

For the full interview:

Ahdaf Soueif: On the whole people still regard Israel as the enemy. Of course, the Palestinian issue is the main reason. But also there’s the sense that the regime ruling Egypt today – much to Egypt’s detriment – would not be able to cling onto power were it not for American support. That support comes at a price, and the price is the deeply unpleasant role that the regime is playing in the Palestine/Israel question. The actions of the Egyptian government with regard to the tunnels into Gaza – and to the issue of Gaza as a whole – are unpopular. Beyond this, there is the sense that Israel is negatively active in Egypt’s internal affairs, specifically with regard to issues of agriculture, water, industry and land.

There is also the issue of sovereignty over Sinai, some Egyptian academics believe that Egypt has not regained full sovereignty over the Sinai.

AS: Well the fact is that the treaty that they signed actually does not allow Egypt to do what it likes within its own borders; hence it cannot deploy sections of the army to the Sinai. The conditions that were set in place have actually ensured that the Sinai cannot be governed effectively by the Egyptian government. But I think the most serious cause of disaffection within Egypt is the issue of agriculture and water because now we have a situation where Egyptian agriculture is being altered to allow for Israeli produce, which naturally is not to the advantage of the Egyptians.

You are well-known for your fictional writing, but you are also a serious commentator on Palestine, why do you feel compelled as a prize-winning author to comment on Palestine?

AS: Being an author and having a name gives you a platform from which you may comment. It opens channels to newspapers, radio programs and so on. Having this platform and this audience makes it a responsibility to say what you believe and to draw people’s attention to the issue.

Which is?

AS: Well, which is what is possibly the greatest injustice happening in our time: Palestine.  This is a flashpoint for a great deal of conflict in the world. In other words, I believe if you were to sort out Palestine–Israel in a just manner, a lot of the other problems in the region and in the world could be addressed more positively.

Do you view it from a purely Arab nationalistic point of view or an international humanitarian….

AS: I view it from a human rights of point of view…this is about human rights…it has nothing to do with being Arab. I hope that if this were happening anywhere in the world I would feel passionately about it, but the fact is that because it is happening somewhere which is central to the whole world it affects the whole world. Also it plays into the old orientalist syndrome. The conflict has given new life to anti-Islamic sentiment, which in the 50s 60s looked like it was disappearing. I think the reason that it has been whipped up again and you have this Islam versus the West confrontation is almost totally to do with Palestine. Everything is connected: Palestine, Israel, oil, colonialism. The nucleus is right there.

I also think in this situation you can see a microcosm of many of the serious conflicts in the world today. You have, for example, technologically advanced consumerist societies opposed to more traditional societies. You have environmental issues, where people are actually polluting rivers and drying them up and pouring raw sewage into villages and uprooting olive trees; you have the whole ecological environmental threat looming there with water and so on. And then you have human rights as well, and the whole issue of representation. Finally there is the matter of the language used to describe this situation and who is it that determines this language and its terms and the role of the media in all this.

So basically this is an area that is central to the world, it is important to the peace of the whole world, it encapsulates many of the conflicts or dichotomies that exists in the world today. A huge injustice is taking place as we speak while the world pretends to uphold the principles of human rights, the right to self-determination, democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of movement. All of this is happening at the heart of the world, so it is an intensely human issue rather than a nationalistic one.
You are deeply involved with the Palestinian Festival of Literature; tell us something about this- what is the rationale for it?


AS: We founded the festival as a UK charity, ‘Engaged Events’, to provide world class cultural events to a population that otherwise would not have access to it. Its first project was the Palestine Festival of Literature and it adopted a phrase from Edward Said as its slogan: ‘the power of culture against the culture of power’. The idea is to bring Western artists and arts administrators (at the moment we are working with literature) to Palestine to conduct workshops and seminars in universities and conduct literary events in the evening and so, therefore, be exposed to Palestinian students, academics and members of the general audience. As a natural consequence we have now embarked on several joint projects.
Have you been encouraged by the type of response…?

Tremendously, tremendously.  I mean when we started three years ago and invited people go to Palestine and travel around for six days doing literary events most people said ‘yes!’ They were intrigued. I think what is happening is that many people have begun to feel uneasy about the situation in Palestine but they have no way of having access and this project gives them access in a very neutral way, you are not coming to be an activist and wave flags you are coming to do what you always do, which is read your work.
Let me ask you about the literature – your general assessment, after the Nakba you had a generation of Palestinian poets and literary artists like Mahmoud Darwish and so on; today can you identify a similar group of writers with equal capabilities and calibre as that first generation?

Yes, I think there are some very good young writers, I mean obviously there are poets of the older generation who are still producing brilliant work like Mourid al-Bargouthi, Samih al-Qasim, Ghassan Zaqtan and others, but I think Tamim Barghouti can hold his own anywhere. He is impressive because or let’s say it is more easy to be impressed by him because he follows in a tradition of… his poetry makes you feel a certain way. Others, like Najwan Darwish for example, take an absurdist or a minimalist stance and so their poetry is more of the mind, shall we say. But there’s a really rich scene happening.
In Latin America, the Brazilian Paulo Friere wrote a pioneering work titled, ‘Cultural Action for Freedom’, how important is culture in the Palestinian struggle?




AS: The thing that struck me very much when I first went to Palestine in 2000 and then again in 2003 – the thing which actually made me think of the Palestine Festival of Literature, was the degree to which people insisted on having culture in their lives. So [for example] you would have an event in Ramallah and you would have people coming to it from Jerusalem, and because of the checkpoints, a journey which should normally take 20 minutes would take three hours and they would make that journey. And this was to say we will not be reduced to creatures who simply eat and sleep; to insist on a further dimension to life. That is such dignified and graceful aspect of Palestinian life.  It’s also an on-going and solid form of resistance: “you control our borders and the details of our lives, but you will not control how we see ourselves …”
[DA: …to be dehumanised]

AS: Yes.  It’s “we will not be dehumanised”. And so in Gaza, one day after the bombardment stopped, you saw the children going to school in pressed uniforms…pressed uniforms! You know, every camp you go to, they have a cultural centre which does dabka, music, embroidery, writing. I think they are the most cultured people in the world, in the sense of the most actively engaged with their culture: representing it, preserving it and developing it. I think this is tremendously important, because without it, when the day of liberation comes, you would have a people without an identity. This engagement with culture is what makes the Palestinians who they are.

Some of your most serious criticism of the Israeli occupation came in the wake of the war on Gaza – that Israel exposed its real face, do you believe Israel is seriously pursuing peace with the Palestinian people?

AS: No I don’t believe Israel is seriously pursuing peace with the Palestinian people – they never have done. What they do is put facts on the ground: they are constantly trying to take more, more land, more water – and more and bluffing the world with talk about peace [sic]. Because on the whole they can’t come out and say what they’re doing. Well, some of them do, the far right does say the Arabs are vermin etc and we want the whole of Palestine and we’re going to get it.

But of course if that was the public discourse of the state, it would be problematic so the public discourse of the state has always been ‘we are civilised we want peace we just can’t find a Palestinian partner for peace’ and meanwhile they take some more land, or they turn the settlers loose to grab more land or they build over the aquifers. It is totally hypocritical, totally two-faced.

And the Western governments that go along with this are two-faced as well, because there is no way that they don’t know what is happening. It seems to suit everybody – and sadly it now seems to suit the Palestinian leadership also – to have a ‘peace process’, an on-going, eternal peace process; if peace actually came so many people would be out of a job and so much money would dry up. And serious things would have to happen, at the simplest level, the Palestinian and Israeli economies would have to be made to really work without aid – so now it suits Israel and the Arab elites to have this pretence of seeking peace.

But I also think that the world is waking up because of the Palestinian resistance. Because the Palestinians are holding on, staying and refusing to be shifted and insisting on their land and their identity, and because they’re learning more and more how to address the world and also creating bonds with internationals and with Israeli dissidents and activists – because of all that, Israel is being forced to commit more flagrant, violent acts like the attack on Gaza [Operation Cast Lead] and like the attack on the Flotilla.  Israel resorts to violence and every time the Israelis commit an atrocity you get a wave of people joining the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, putting money into more boats for Gaza and so on. That’s what we’re seeing now and it’s kind of who’s going to get where first. I think it’s most visible in East Jerusalem now where it’s really a house by house battle.

: The issue of universal jurisdiction which would allow for the prosecution of war suspects, Britain is at the moment contemplating a change of the law. What do you think of this?

AS: Well it’s absolutely shameful. Britain has some excellent traditions which represent a real commitment to justice.  To try and dismantle one of them because of the few who are trying to make nice with the Israelis is completely shameful and is against everything that is good about Britain and I think there will be an outcry. The previous government tried to do this a while back and couldn’t do it. I think, actually, when you look at the number of people, the top legal people in Britain who know what is going on and are now speaking out, not just about this matter specifically but about lots of issues to with the Palestinians, it gives you hope. I am referring to people like Michael Mansfield, Lord Bindman, Daniel Machover, Helena Kennedy and others. I think it will be hard to get this legislation through. They might manage it but it won’t happen easily and it will be widely regarded as a very bad precedent, which certainly runs against British values.

To what extent is the current deadlock in the ‘peace process’ a consequence of Western appeasement and complicity with the Occupying Power? Can the US ever be an honest broker in Palestine-Israel conflict?

As things stand, no it can’t. But there’s no reason why… I mean I don’t know how viable the US is anyway in its current form; you can see that the country is starting to pull apart so who knows what’s going to happen and how the pieces will fall. There is a growing pro-Palestinian sentiment among young Americans, particularly among young East coast and West coast Jewish Americans; and let’s never forget Rachel Corrie and other young Americans who are – or were – committed to the cause of Palestine. The ISM [International Solidarity Movement] movement started with Huwayda Arafat and Adam Shapiro in America. So things are shifting. If that voice became the more prevalent then there is no reason why America couldn’t be an honest broker. Of course it’s hard when you have a President or a House that is in thrall to the Israeli Lobby. In any case  watching what happens within America is important. Before Obama was elected, the progressive Jewish magazine, Tikun, pubished an open letter to him by Rabbi Michael Learner, saying that listening to AIPAC and the Zionist lobby is more or less passé, and that there is a different Jewish voice to be heard today; there always was of course, but it was quieter and it was silenced by World War Two. Now it is reasserting itself.
Like J-Street?


AS: Yes there’s J-Street, and hence the President should start listening to that Jewish voice rather than just the AIPAC voice.

Western commentators often assert that the Palestinian tragedy is largely a consequence of their disunity; is this a fair assessment? To what extent has external meddling contributed to prolonging the dispute between Fatah and Hamas?

AS: It’s true that the leadership of the Palestinians is disunited and that makes things very difficult. Of course the West and Israel have played an enormous role in making them disunited and keeping them disunited and that’s an old colonialist ploy. But then it is your enemy’s job to incapacitate you; your job is to withstand that. The Palestinian leadership has not withstood that.

It is used very often as an excuse for not taking a more positive approach to the conflict they say, ‘well let them get their house in order first and then we’ll solve the problem’. It’s a way of evading responsibility

AS: Of course, yes. Sure it’s a way of evading responsibility.

Ever since the military confrontation between the two factions in 2007 several Arab states have sought to broker an understanding; today Egypt is at the forefront of reconciliation efforts, in fact the two sides are called upon to sign the Egyptian document- have the Egyptians been totally even-handed in their attempt to resolve this dispute?

AS: They are not even-handed; they are afraid of Hamas because of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and so they would really much rather that Hamas vanished in a puff of smoke…so they are not at all even-handed.

How do you view the siege of Gaza now in its fourth year?

AS: It’s a criminal policy. It is beyond my understanding – and most other people’s too – how it can be allowed to continue. But since it is being allowed, and since states and international organistions are not shouldering their responsibility of upholding international law,  this is why we see civil society taking matters into its own hands and people from all over the world volunteering their time, effort and money to break the siege. And now – on the Flotilla – people have given up their lives as well.

Eyal Weizman’s book Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, has a chapter on Gaza, which I think is one of the most frightening things I’ve ever read. Weizman managed to attend military seminars, conferences and briefings with the Israelis and Americans which led him to believe that Gaza is basically an experiment: how to create and administer an occupation which costs nothing. The Occupying Power incarcerates people within a boundary which to the people is solid but to the Power is permeable. Then, from time to time the Power will carry out punishments designed according to the situation and the effect desired. So, the punishments can be at a remove: they fly over the people and bomb the. Or they can be a bit more personalised by putting in ground troops. This arrangement also enables the Power to shield its own population from knowing what’s going on and enables it to control the information that gets into the media. It gives it the facility of regulating the lifelines to the besieged population at will. Israeli spokesman, Dov Weisglass, famously said ‘we don’t want to starve [the Palestinians], we just want to put them on a diet’. Weizman argues that Gaza is an experiment in population control, which can be replicated elsewhere.

If successful this would become one of Israel’s main exports to the world -security systems and methods of population control. Already, they were the advisors to the Americans in Iraq and that’s why we saw the same strategies implemented there; we even saw the same barbed wire that is used in Palestine being used in Iraq. It’s an industry.

I am very interested with this issue of population control. Ideally they would like to expel the Palestinians as they did in 1948, but things have changed…

AS: Yes, so they can’t do it in quite the same way.

Perhaps this is the best solution in the circumstances; create reservations or Bantustans, where you control their lives in the way that you have described.

AS: Absolutely. Yes. Create such intolerable conditions that there is also a self-selection process: the Occupier wears down people’s resistance so finally everyone who can leave leaves and the ones left are the ones who really can’t go anywhere; a population that is by definition less capable and less able to defend itself and maybe can be turned into a kind of captive workforce for the Occupier. So then that can be dressed up nicely as aid and setting up economic schemes in these places. It really is a nightmare!

You spend much of your time here in the UK and Cairo, have you detected any significant change in public opinion towards the conflict?

AS: There’s a definite change here in the UK. Ten years ago you would have to feel your way into talking about Palestine. Now you start talking and you assume the person in front of you is going to be on your wave-length. You see that with the Palestine Festival: now when we invite people we find they mostly want to come. People will say to you ‘I sense that some great injustice is happening’; there is most definitely a change.

Linked to this is the issue of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). Do you think this will bear fruit in the long term?

AS: Yes, I do. Well I have to think so, don’t I? But I really do: I think it is the way for people – ordinary people – to influence things and show how they feel. This is the way that is truly democratic, everybody can have an effect. I think the BDS campaign is gaining currency and will grow exponentially:  you have a few people, then you have more…and then suddenly you have that flood of support.

About a year and a half ago I was talking in a church in New York on BDS and it was packed. I asked the local organisers if it was the same crowd they always got and they said ‘no, we get many more people now every week, basically since the siege of Gaza’ and of course a lot of them were Arab and Muslim, but there were a lot of white Americans amongst the audience and it was clear that the people coming into this were new.

As a regular commentator in the media on Palestine are you satisfied with the quality of coverage the conflict receives in the British press?

AS: There is such a clear division between the regular media and what’s happening on the net. For example, people here are fond of saying ‘where is the Palestinian Ghandi? If only Arabs would eschew violence, and the suicide bombers. Well, you’ve actually got non-violent protests going on in how many villages is it now – six, seven? along the route of the Wall? And you’ve got films made about them. We all know Bil’in, every Friday people have been shot, and people are in comas, and it’s got everything you could want – it’s non- violent, they are inventive in how they protest, you’ve got an element of street theatre, they’re sensitive to gender issues, so the women take the lead, they’ve got internationals, they’ve even got Israelis, they’ve got everybody! But where is the media? The ‘official’ media is heavily complicit. Though it must be said that some bits of it are far better than others. In any case, people don’t rely on it any more, they check out all sorts of alternative outlets.

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Last Updated ( Friday, 19 November 2010 16:42 )  

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1 Comment


  1. avatar John Tourian makes this comment

    Sat 20 Nov 2010 18:42:47 GMT

    Keep on saying the truth! Us still does not know that if one supports evil, one is evil oneself. The conspiracy started with part Jews exhibitionist Churchill and FDR when they trained Zionists in the Jewish British Brigade in 1947. Jew US President, H. Solomon Truman and his Jew cabal then went all out to perpetuate $80 billion/year aid to ‘Chosen’ Israel since 1948. Since then, but for JFK, all US Presidents were ‘Christianist’ converts from Judaism or are part Jew, including Mr Obama who recently gave genocide-committing Israel another $10 billion just to extend the illegakl Jew Israeli settlements on Arab land for 90 days. Arabs, especially Palestinians, are brave to stand up to US which was crippled forever by the enormous cost Jews Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Adelstein &12 tribes inflicted on US ‘gentiles’ fro 2001 thru 08: 35,000 actual dead, 700,00 crippled and PTSD soldiers, $5 trillion actual cost, a wrecked economy and lost faith of the world in US that it will ever be just to Arabs, true Christians, Moslems and Easterners! Arabs have suffered more than enough. Boycott US! Israel is nothing without US!



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