A week from today, the Arab world, and along with it much of the rest of the world, will remember a nasty milestone: The semi-centennial, on June 5, of the Six Day War, whose end result in Palestine was the subjugation of one people by another, a subjugation that came with blood and fire, that is, with guns, walls, curfews, checkpoints, land theft, humiliating searches, arbitrary arrests, house demolitions, the uprooting of well over a million olive trees, and the midnight knock on the door. All practices associated with that repellent ideology called apartheid.
But first, a prologue.
On January 24, 1953, four days after he was inaugurated as president of the United States, I wrote a letter to Dwight Eisenhower. Several months before, I had turned 13. My two-paragraph missive to the newly-elected president was composed in pencil, since at the time owning a ball-point pen, let alone a fountain pen, was an extravagance that no boy from the Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut could afford. And as for my command over English, it was artless though comprehensible.
In my letter, I appealed to the new occupant of the White House to “help us return home to Palestine”, assuring him that though, on the street, all my friends were anti-America, I was not. In fact, I added, I had a “great appetite” to enrol at a college in the US soon after I graduated high school. When my dad — whose view of America as the “Great Satan” preempted Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s by several decades — discovered what I had done, he looked at me like I was a hair in his soup. “These Americans, I tell you, they hate us”, he said dismissively, adding an expletive for emphasis.
Then, lo and behold, I got a response from the White House, a form letter with Eisenhower’s signature rubber-stamped at the bottom, in which the president — or his editor of form letters — vowed that the US would “safeguard the interests of the Arab refugees” in any future settlement.
I neither made it to college in the US nor did the Palestinians make it to Palestine, but I still retained a fondness for a country whose cultural sensibility, in literature as in music and cinematic art, I was beginning to form a probing affinity for. As a teenager from the rough and tumble of the refugee camps, for example, I predictably spurned Holden Caulfield, who came from that rarefied world of Manhattan’s Upper East Side and who railed against “phonies” when he encountered them, but related to Studs Lonigan, from the muscular world of Chicago’s South Side, who made those phonies kiss asphalt when they crossed his path. And, in equal measure, I connected to the bravura of Charlie Parker on sax and the cool of Robert Mitchum on screen.
A lot of troubled water has flown under the bridge, you will agree, since that time.
Truth be told, I don’t blame the US for having failed — some Arabs will feel betrayed — us all these years by refusing to be an even-handed mediator, all the way from the Rogers Peace Plan, initiated by former US secretary of state William Rogers in 1969, to the efforts by his counterpart, John Kerry, to break the dead in Palestinian-Israeli relations 45 years later — along with a lot of other misadventures at conflict-resolution in between. The US, you see, is a big power, and no big power in history has ever conducted its foreign policy with a politico-moral bent. The way big powers see it is this: If being morally duplicitous is the cost that we must pay to safeguard our global interests, then so be it. That’s the name of the game. Nor do I blame even Israel. The Zionist movement transplanted itself to our part of the world from the European continent with the well-defined, not to mention well-declared, intention of grafting a “Jewish state” on Palestine, a colonial project conditioned on the land alienation and finally the expulsion of Palestinian people from their ancestral homeland. So in both cases, we should not, as it were, blame the beast of prey for being a beast of prey.
Instead, I blame us, and us alone, for having failed all these years to meet the challenges of modernity, that is, having failed to recapture the ethos of that ‘assabiyah’, or socio-cultural elan, that defined the classical world of Arabs. In those days, when we had a problem, say with the Crusaders, we went straight to where they were holed up in their kingdom in Jerusalem, as we did in 1188, and beat the bejesus out of them. Forget about appealing to leaders in some foreign capital to mediate in our disputes.
But then came a puncture in the dialectic of our history when, starting with the year 1517 and stretching for exactly 400 years from then on, we went into deep slumber under Ottoman rule. In 1917, behind our backs and against our pleas, Britain issued the notorious Balfour Declaration. In 1947, the United Nations, whose role was to unite nations, carved up Palestine, giving away more than half of it to a settler-colonial movement that went on to build a garrison sate. In 1967, this entity gobbled up what was left of our patrimony. And in 2007, Gaza was blockaded, rendering its 1.8 million inhabitants inmates in the greatest open-air prison on the planet.
Like me, you are no doubt weary of the occult significance of numerology, known in Arabic as ‘abjad’, founded on ‘ilm el-sipher’, or the science of cipher. But I sure would want to look into why numbers ending with 7, continue to doggedly resurface in our history.
Consider this: Exactly five hundred years ago, in 1517, came Ottoman rule, that stultified our culture. One hundred years ago, in 1917, came the Balfour Declaration, that promised our patrimony to another people. Seventy years ago, in 1947, came UN Resolution 181, that rendered us stateless. Fifty years ago, in 1967, came the occupation, that reduced our humanity to a fragment. And ten years ago, in 2007, came the unspeakable suffering caused by the blockade of Gaza.
Is there something there in the teleological spirit of our holy land that lends itself to the alphanumeric art of ‘abjad’, in which the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet are assigned “numerical (i.e. mystical) values? Search me. But there you have it.
Perhaps 2017 will be recalled as the year we began to talk, albeit sotto voce (in a soft voice), about how our strategic interests and those of the Zionist entity in Palestine are aligned. We don’t have to speculate on how this posture will be viewed decades down the road, for it has already garnered, in the street — which is where our inward preoccupations are verbalised — deservedly bad reviews. And I see this year’s semi-centennial as a reminder that we should not, at any time, mistake Israel’s choke-hold for an embrace.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.