How do we see ‘most of the world’ from Sheikh Jarrah?

by | 27 May 2021

Isn’t this simply the matter? Isn’t this what ultimately unites us? These are the questions that wandered through my head as I observed the cartoon illustrated by Doaa el-Adl. Along with the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah, the cartoon shows a woman getting dragged from the waist up by a group of soldiers. Her lower body resembles a tree whose roots have been entrenched in the soil for what appears to be ages. 

Traditionally, there are two narratives through which we know those who remain in place, those who plant their bodies in the land, or hold onto the roots — like Mahammad Abou Suweilam at the ending scene of Al-Ard (the 1969 Egyptian film depicting a struggle of farmers against their removal to clear the way for a development project). In one narrative, they have little to no agency at all. They are either fooled or forced to remain, and they are used by those ‘uncivilized’, ‘savage’ groups. States in some instances refer to them as ‘human shields’ and to those who used them as ‘terrorists’. In another narrative, those people appear as heroes, participating in a heroic act of resistance, that is, remaining in the house despite the military aircraft above, in the square despite the approaching riot police force, or in the land despite the bulldozers that are about to level the area to turn it into a tourist resort — one that we never get a glimpse of except through 3D renderings. 

In those two opposing narratives, notions mainly shaped by colonialism, such as national identity and the us/them dichotomy seem to be at the crux of the matter. It is ‘our enemies’ (the enemies of the nation, for instance) that forced or fooled them into remaining on the one hand, or they are our heroes who put their lives on the line for the sake of the movement, the cause, the nation, etc.

There is no doubt that there is some logic in both these narratives. There exist those who are used by organizations against their will, as human shields for instance. And there exist those who willingly turn their bodies into shields to serve the nation or a certain humanitarian cause (think of the founding story of Greenpeace or how Rachel Corrie was crushed to death). But what about “most of the world?” What about those who are marginalized in every place on earth, those who face the bulldozers of globalization, development, and modernity and whose decision to hold on to their homes and lands (or other things) is in itself an act of resistance? What about remaining, despite the imminent violence, remaining for the sake of remaining, remaining as a way of simply continuing to live, without any claim to heroism or patriotism? Is it a coincidence that al-baqaa in Arabic means ‘to remain’ but also ‘to survive’? Remaining, here, is undoubtedly an act of resistance, not in the sense of a politically romantic imaginarium of heroism, sacrifice, patriotism, or humanitarianism, but rather in the physical sense of a substance or an object obstructing the impact or progression of another substance, object, or stream. 

There is an attempt to formulate a “we” in Adl’s cartoon, one that transcends nationalisms, religions, cultures, the romantics of heroism, and even the us/them dichotomy. We do not necessarily see a woman “resisting.” She is simply remaining, not moving, with her arms spread out likely in acquiescence to the grip of the soldiers, but her roots are entrenched to the soil. We do not see the Palestinian flag nor al-Aqsa mosque and its barred worshippers. We do not see “the cause” in the form of victory signs. We do not even see any explicit or exceptional brutality in how the armed men are treating this woman. 

There doesn’t seem any real concern with the Palestinian national flag. For what value does it have when what unites us is far more genuine, far more expansive, far more profound? It is not simply a matter of meeting four criteria in the obsolete Montevideo Convention on what constitutes a state. It is not about those four colors that were likely arranged in a hurry and without much thought except to differentiate the flag from more than 20 other national flags that have the same colors (all inspired by the flag of the Great Arab Revolt). 

And what is the value of showing the brutality and steering attention to it, when there is something much more worthy of our attention, namely a threat to the right of a people to remain? Say Israel stopped practicing said brutality, stopped preventing worshippers from praying, stopped treating protesters violently, stopped its military operations (from Deir Yassin 1948 to Gaza 2014 and everything in between), and instead started seeking civil court proceedings overseen by “honorable” judges, such as what happened with Sheikh Jarrah, what then? 

“We will not cease to remain because we do not want to change the method of marginalization. We want to change the fact of marginalization itself,” is how I read the cartoon.

The only claim that the woman has to the “Palestinian identity” in this cartoon is the keffiyeh, an artefact of popular culture that organically grew over the years, just like the dehiyeh, the dabke, and the Nablus konafa sandwich. At first sight, this signal to identity might seem to clash with the reading of the transcendental “we” that I advocate. However, and on the contrary, it is as if the cartoon is saying: “Who said that this ‘we’ is one thing? We are many, we evolve, we are no constant, and we exchange roles. But for now we are united by one fate. We found ourselves on a road, confronting a globalization so radical in its advancement and approaching to bulldoze everything that is organic, including the keffiyeh. So we resisted by remaining in our place.” 

The cartoon returns to the root of the matter. It disregards the details that could distract attention. It is as if the woman, whose roots are firmly entrenched in the land, is saying: We are all human and we all want to remain, so support us in the face of a minority that wants to achieve “development” at the expense of our survival — ours, not just in Sheikh Jarrah, but in the entire world. For there is no significant difference between Sheikh Jarrah and those whose houses were demolished in Jaffa/Sheikh Munis for Tel Aviv to develop. And there is no significant difference between those two and the lands and homes that will be leveled to make room for tourist hotels and swimming pools, as part of the Warraq Island Development project in Egypt, the NEOM project set to be built on the lands of the Howeitat tribe in Saudi Arabia, or the Cartagena development plans in Colombia. 

What I share with those is not my humanity or ethnicity or religion, but the experience of marginalization, even though my house and my land are much farther away from the incoming threat of the bulldozers due to many privileges. Even if it is to a much smaller extent, my feeling is that I too am outside this imposed pattern of how life should look like and what individuals should be like in modern society. I too was forced to say what I did not want to say. I too held back my anger. My voice was blocked. I wanted certain organic things to stay in my life, like my language, my music, my food delicacies, my dances. Isn’t the story of the Israeli state fundamentally, or as Theodor Herzl tells us in The Old New Land, a story of creating a “new and developed” social pattern and an attempt to build a civilized city like those in Europe? A new city on an old land with new, civilized peoples. Those at the periphery of this new regime, this new pattern, will be erased, along with their lives, languages, music, food, dances and garments. 

In the cartoon, only “our” marginalization is foregrounded. Other sources of morality that have a claim to bringing us together, such as religion and humanity, are unobserved. In their absence, there is an implicit call to stop doing a few things, such as chanting “Takbeer, Allahu Akbar” in some pro-Palestine protests, and holding up banners of the Dome of the Rock. There is also a call to stop using the language of the law and human rights, uttering phrases like the “right to worship” (for Jerusalemites, for instance) and “the necessity to distinguish between lawful military objectives and civilians” (in attacks against the Gaza Strip). For such discourses just somehow miss the point; as international human rights or humanitarian laws cannot on their own do anything because they are blind to the context — to our marginalization. 

The cartoon calls for letting go of all of that and looking for that which unites us, that which transcends nationalisms, religions; namely, looking for our marginalization — at varying degrees surely — by a radical regime that seeks to censor us, erase us, and bulldoze us (metaphorically and literally). For what is it that unites “those in Colombia, East Jerusalem, and Indigenous communities in Latin America” as Instagram’s administration put it when it had to apologize for censoring and deleting the voices of marginalized people? Is it not their marginalization and the suppression of their voices by that regime? Doesn’t their solidarity against this regime, which they exposed and forced to apologize to them as a whole, speak to their unity? 

Instagram’s published statement apologising for deleting/blocking content on May 11, 2021 under the pretext of a ‘technical glitch’

I heard a voice shouting from Adl’s cartoon, calling for solidarity with Sheikh Jarrah. “Stand up for our right, us, the marginalized, who make up most of the world, to remain, as a passive act, one that does not necessarily involve heroic resistance. Don’t give too much thought into ‘how our right to remain is being robbed’ and such traditional international language questions, because this ‘how’ — as in how does the jet drop bombs (in violation of or in accordance with the law), how does the state treat those it detained, how does the bulldozer move toward us, etc. — is important albeit secondary. Our primary concern is why. Why are our rights being robbed in the first place? Why does the jet drop the bomb? Why is the state detaining us? Why is the bulldozer moving toward us? Why are we always the ones paying the price of this “development?” We, those who are always on the periphery of the development plan, not its center. We, who do not necessarily want the badge of heroism or patriotism, but only want to remain. 

This is what unites us.

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