Obliterating Palestinians’ culture

Destroy the culture and you obliterate those people more definitively than you could by force of arms

Fawaz Turki
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Lost in the shuffle recently, as the horrors in Aleppo unfolded, are the horrors – different in kind but the same in degree – in Palestine.

Look at it this way: If you’re a Palestinian well into middle age, who has grown up in the West Bank, that tiny remnant of land that Palestinians still cling on to, albeit precariously, after the dismemberment of their ancestral patrimony in 1948, then you are someone who has known nothing throughout your life but the rule of the gun by a foreign occupier, an occupier determined to control your everyday existence and your political destiny. But what has passed largely unnoticed is the ongoing assault on the building blocks underpinning the Palestinian people’s culture.

Culture, of course, is the very foundation of a people’s sense of self, that amalgam of social norms and religious beliefs that express the continuities of meaning in a life held in common by a people, a life whose ensemble of symbolic codes is accumulated as if moment by moment, touch by touch, encounter by encounter over generations. No people that calls itself a people is without a culture. Thus assault – and finally destroy – that culture and you obliterate those people more definitively than you could by force of arms.

And that has been Israel’s plan, sinister in the extreme, since the get-go, the latest manifestation of which became gist for correspondents based in Palestine last week. According to a news report filed by William Booth and Ruth Eglash on December 12, on the front page of the Washington Post, lawmakers in Israel’s parliament are now pushing legislation – hold on to your hat – to ban mosques in Palestine, including occupied Jerusalem, from using loudspeakers to issue the daily izzan, or call to prayer.

The ‘Muazzen Law’

The adhaan is a sound that has been a part not only of every Palestinian’s, but every Muslim’s, essential repertoire of consciousness ever since the melodious voice of the first Muazzen, the African-Arab Bilal, uttered it 1,400 years ago, a sound that has resounded around every corner of our being everyday of our lives. Israelis, we are told, are bothered by “the noise.” The bill, known as the “Muazzen Law,” is now being debated, and its sponsors hope to pass it in the coming weeks.

There is some something more sinister afoot – an attempt to assault yet another rampart in Palestine’s culture that enables Palestinians to continue to hold on to their identity. Without culture, I say, a people lose their sense of place, and become a nameless, faceless community. Consider, as a case in point, what the Israelis did to the Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut during their invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and why they did it.

An enduring Palestinian heritage represents to Israel a threat deadlier than any stone-throwing, gun-toting or knife-wielding intifada

Fawaz Turki

Of course, Israeli forces focused there on defeating the PLO, but they focused even more on what the Palestinians had been able to preserve of their heritage at the Institute for Palestine Studies, which held the world’s largest collection of archives on Palestine’s cultural, social and political history.

In September that year, after finishing what they had gone to finish at Sabra and Shatila, Israeli soldiers stormed the premises, and carted away, in waiting trucks, the entire library of the institute’s 25,000 volumes (in Arabic, English and Hebrew), microfilms, ancient manuscripts, precious collectors’ maps, and whatever else they could lay their hands on. Dr. Sabri Jiryis, then director of the institute at the time, told reporters: “The papers we have lost are invaluable and possibly irreplaceable.”

Vindictive display of rage

Before they left, these soldiers, in a vindictive display of rage at the idea that Palestinians had a culture to preserve and a national identity to protect, smashed filing cabinets, desks, furniture, heating equipment and the rest of it, leaving the place a husk, littered with debris and twisted metal shelves.

They also, moments before they took off with their loot, according to a New York Times news report at the time, they “removed the word ‘Palestine’ from the sign identifying the building as the Institute for Palestine Studies.”

Now, that is telling. Very telling. Clearly, these soldiers, along with the political leaders who had sent them to invade Lebanon, were more threatened by the endurance of the word ‘Palestine’ than by the guns of PLO fighters. And well they might have been, for so long as there is a Palestine, Israel’s identity, indeed legitimacy, remains in question. It is not unreasonable then to believe that Israel’s aim is to eradicate all memory of that ancient Arab land – a difficult endeavor, if there ever was one.

You cannot eradicate a people’s historical memory very simply because that memory is the foundation of that people’s archetype. They grow up with it like they grow with their skin. And in Palestinian culture, as in the religious faith which gave that culture birth, memory of the past beats inside us all like a second heart. It is imprinted, almost in the manner of genetic information, on our contemporary sensibility. That is why an enduring Palestinian heritage represents to Israel a threat deadlier than any stone-throwing, gun-toting or knife-wielding intifada.

What Israel is thus attempting to do – has been attempting to do ever since Zionism set foot in Palest – is no less than cultural cleansing, which, like ethnic cleansing, is an adjunct of genocide. Their strategy is to destroy Palestinian society from the inside out – bit by bit, one colony at a time, one check-point at a time, one curfew at a time, one land grab at a time – much in the manner that a worm slowly devours an apple.

Yet, though Israel is on the right side of military prowess, the Palestinians are on the right of history. So have your pick as to who will end up the victor.

Fawaz Turki is a Palestinian-American journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington, DC.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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