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The narrator as a guru

Memory retains identity.

(PS. This article is machine-translated from Norwegian)

"Branding" is the trend of the time. It is about telling stories and thus creating identity. The gurus of our time are the storyteller. A good narrator interprets impressions, events and manages "memory" in a way that gives meaning, direction and a sense of understanding of complex contexts. The cultural and literary critic Edvard Said is one such storyteller. His life's work was to tell the story of the Palestinians. At the same time, he became a bauta for the intellectual's role in the public debate.

The 1967 war between the Arab countries and Israel aroused Said as a political activist. When Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir declared in 1969 that there was no Palestinian people, Said decided to take up the challenge to show that her claim was untrue. Said's abilities in this regard are brilliantly documented through his latest book in Norwegian, Culture and Resistance, a conversation book where Said mercilessly swings the whip.

Memory as weapons

Said's concern throughout his writing was to show the world how important the memory is in Palestinian consciousness. It is not an organized memory, since the Palestinians have no state. But, according to Said, if you're looking for a Palestinian home, until the third generation after 1948, you'll find things like house keys, letters, books, photographs and newspaper clippings preserved to remember a time when their existence was relatively complete. The point is that memory is the most powerful tool for preserving identity. This also experienced the Jews through the centuries in the diaspora. In this way, identity is not only maintained in official narratives, but also in the informal memory. Ergo, memory becomes an important fortress against the annihilation of history, and a means of resistance, as Said puts it.

During the Beirut invasion in 1982, led by then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, the Israeli military was used to destroy offices that housed Palestinian archives. In 2002, again under the leadership of Sharon, a wholehearted effort was made to destroy the little that is of Palestinian identity and official memory. Among other things, the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center was turned upside down. Israel also took action against the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics and destroyed computers and archives. The Israelis wanted to destroy everything reminiscent of an archive, which gives history a material existence. According to Said's reasoning, this does not mean that the Palestinian resistance will be broken. The memory is there. Other authors, with more emphasis on political realism and less on cultural intuition, describe such incidents as "politicide," that is, a deliberate eradication of the Palestinians as a political entity. (Baruch Kimmerling 2003: Politicide; Ariel Sharon's War against the Palestinians). The topic has just been addressed in fiction as well (Elias Khoury, The gate of the sun. Aschehoug 2004)

A key concept that is repeated in any conversation about the Middle East is "suffering." Said is concerned that "suffering" can not be timed. It is written in the experiences of people – the Armenians, the Jews, the Palestinians – and no one has the right to say that "now we have talked enough about their sufferings." Therefore, Said argues, we must distinguish between what happened to the Jews during World War II and in centuries of undisguised and institutionalized anti-Semitism in Europe on the one hand, and the terrible practices of the military occupation of Palestine on the other. Israel is carrying out its actions in the name of the Jewish people, as Said points out. It is therefore a matter of saying that both anti-Semitism and the punishment to which the Palestinian is subjected are unacceptable. In other words, it will be a completely different perspective than that of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who believed that the suffering of Jews meant that no one else could criticize them and that they had the right on their side in relation to the Palestinians.

The narrator of the Enlightenment

It is in such a context that Said's "creed" is interesting. The intellectual should today constitute a counterpoint by telling, by reminding us of the nature of suffering and by reminding us that it is people we are talking about. We are not talking about abstractions. It is a challenge for every politician too. Said therefore sees with almost sorrow that the intellectual class, as he puts it, has departed from the great narrative of enlightenment and liberation.

With such a point of view, it is not unnatural that Said has had to endure a lot of suspicion over the years. He was not only popular with Arafat and his corrupt leadership, not least because of Said's relentless criticism of the Oslo process. One should therefore look long to find his books in an Arab bookstore or in Gaza or the West Bank. It was just as hard to be exposed to a lot of academic harassment in the United States, not least slander from an influential Jewish and Christian fundamentalist milieu.

Said was a credible academic and activist because he was consistent. His criticism of the leadership in Arab countries is well known. But he is most devastating to Arab intellectuals, who shun the West Bank and Gaza, because they do not want any dealings with the Israeli border police. It's getting too humiliating. Said says he understands this, but that it will be too cowardly and that Arabs must get rid of the preoccupation with "humiliation." Otherwise, Arab intellectuals will never be able to understand Palestinians. He accuses Arab intellectuals of laziness; an absence of initiative that is the Arabs' greatest enemy. Said further points out that there is no important Arab university with a department of Israeli studies At the largest Israeli universities, on the other hand, Arab and Arab societies are studied. Israelis go on holiday to neighboring countries. Arabs do not go to Israel. In this way, the Arabs become unfree. The Arab intellectual lacks civic responsibility. The only way they can influence their communities is by reading, shopping, asking questions, confronting and freeing themselves from prison.

Controversial position

A major reason for the controversy surrounding Said is his insistence on a tonal state in Palestine / Israel. He insists that Israeli Jews and Palestinians are demographically intertwined and that the area is so small that one cannot avoid the other side. Separation is therefore not the solution. A few Israelis have flagged the same issue, most famous of these is perhaps Knesset representative Azmi Bishara. A secular opinion in Israel may also be tempted by such thoughts, according to Said, as they view with skepticism the growing power of Orthodox Jews. Said wants a constitution, which the state of Israel currently lacks, which talks about citizenship that defines people not on the basis of ethnic, but national criteria, which means that the Arabs must be included. The demographic realities are clear, by 2010 there will be a demographic balance between Palestinians and Israelis. "Even the South Africans, with their vast land, were unable to maintain apartheid. Full of hope, I have tried to stimulate discussion and reflection on the various methods of forming and maintaining such a state, "said Said.

Said has of course not been alone in such and other dialogue promotions. This part of Said's work still seems utopian. The best one can hope for may be an official Israeli apology for the influx of refugees. Revisionist Israeli historians, such as Benny Morris, have done much to help Israelis gain a new and more realistic view of the history of modern Israel. Or as national hero Moshe Dayan put it in a famous remark in the 1970s: "There is not a single spot we have built in this country that has not had a former Arab population."

A probable Israeli withdrawal from Gaza will result in an escalating battle for land in the West Bank. We need more storytellers like Said to guide us through the difficult period to come.

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