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Jul 28, 2015

Gaza in Context: A Conversation with Nathan Brown and Yousef Munayyer

The Palestine Center began its 2015 Summer Intern Lecture Series last week with a panel entitled “Gaza in Context: Broader Implications in the Palestinian Plight.” Panelists Dr. Nathan Brown, professor of Political Science at George Washington University, and Dr. Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, gave their take on Gaza’s place within the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Our interns sat with the speakers after the lecture to probe further into how Gaza adds to and complicates the conflict.

Below are excerpts from the interview, which have been condensed and edited from the original.
 
Do you think that the character of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has changed with the advent of the last three wars in Gaza?
Munayyer: I would say that the core issues in the Israel-Palestine question remain the same, but I think that the impact these recent wars have had have been significant, but mostly on the international perception of the situation. I would add also to these wars in Gaza the [2006] war in Lebanon as well--where you saw a very powerful state with a very powerful military using its force in significant ways against what are essentially non-state actors or a stateless population that cannot compare. The civilian casualties are always the highest and the damage to civilian infrastructure is always significant.
For a generation of people who are coming to consciousness during this time, the image of Israel that they see is not the image of the generation that came to consciousness in 1967 and in 1973, where their understanding of the situation was formed by the realities of very, very different wars, where Israel was engaged in fighting against multiple state-backed armies, which also had the support of the Soviet Union in some cases. This is not Israel the underdog--this is very much Israel the dominating, oppressive factor. That has a big impact on shaping public perception on where the responsibility should be and where the blame should be and whose policies have to change. I think over time that will have an effect on the way that this issue is resolved.
Brown: I basically agree. If you look at this internationally, an awful lot of the focus was diplomatic--a peace process. Even before the Oslo agreements---the Madrid conference back in 1991 or you go back to UNSC resolution 242, a lot of this was just about some kind of diplomatic process getting started, and if it was a focus on any kind of fighting, it was Israel versus Arab states. What I think the wars have done from a peace process standpoint, is that they were a distraction. But, with no viable peace process, I think they are suddenly much more at the center point. And that’s true not simply on a policy level but rather very much on a popular level. Instead of all the focus being on the next summit conference, the aura surrounding this conflict is one of really ugly violence. I would say for Palestinian society it has made a difference as well. But that you could trace back a little earlier in the seventies, eighties, and nineties.
The strategy of the Palestinian leadership was mostly focusing on diplomacy, and that diplomacy seems to have run its course. Sometimes, depends on what your opinion is as a Palestinian, for some that was what the second Intifada was about, but certainly, with the last round of fighting, the idea that there is some kind of meaningful diplomatic process is one that just doesn’t have any purchase anymore. The extent of the war and the feeling of powerlessness, in the West Bank feeling almost disenfranchised with this, and the extent of the devastation in Gaza, is likely to be very, very large. Last time I was in Gaza in 2012, and even then, people would just--you would be walking on the street and people would point out, “Oh that’s where I was holed up during the last round of fighting,” or “There used to be a building there but it was brought down.” So it impinges on people’s thinking on Gaza tremendously.
How do you think last year’s war and its lasting effects are different from the previous two conflicts in Gaza?
Brown: It was longer and more destructive, I would say that. Both sides in essence went through previous rounds of fighting almost deliberately thinking they had specific goals that they wanted to accomplish and last summer’s fighting just went on in a way that was not only enormously destructive to the people, but was completely divorced from any kind of realistic political agenda. If anything, I think it probably showed the bankruptcy of the Israeli strategy. To some extent, I think it may have done the same to all of the Palestinian leadership; Hamas, for letting itself get dragged into this conflict and the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah for -- in the eyes of some Palestinians--being complicit in it, and at the least being powerless to stop it.
Munayyer: I think militarily speaking there was a big difference in this most recent round than the previous rounds. In 2008-2009 for example, that war lasted a little over 20 days. More than a week into it, the Israelis decided to go in on the ground, and then they were on the ground for about fifteen days. They were very easily able to trisect the Gaza Strip, cut it up into different pieces, use night vision to move around in the evening, and to gain an advantage against the Palestinian militants there, and do so with very few casualties, relatively few casualties. The biggest difference militarily speaking in this conflict was the use of the tunnels and the ability of militants to essentially level the battlefield by being underground and bogging down the Israeli forces and if you look, what those tunnels effectively did was preventing an advance on land beyond three km. The Israelis never entered beyond three km because they were afraid of having militants pop-up behind them at all times and a number of times they did, and inflict much heavier losses than they did when the Israelis were in on the ground before that.
Of course, this war came with huge costs to the Palestinian population as well. But what it underscored is that there is no military solution to the problem in Gaza. And the policy that the Israelis have called “mowing the lawn,” which is essentially a maintenance policy through repetitive bombing every few years, is not going to solve the problem. In fact, what I think the militants were able to prove this time is that, without addressing the foundation of the problem, it’s only going to get worse. And it has. And so I think that immediately after the war, we began to hear some statements from members of the international community saying, “Look, this can’t happen again. There is no military solution to this.”
What concerns me is that since then, no serious steps have been taken to prevent the recurrence of another war. In fact, the conditions that existed before the war continue to exist now, and any minor escalation could lead to a flare-up and then a major operation again. So I think that it’s in between wars that those efforts need to be made, and unfortunately we haven’t seen them.


Does it work in Israel’s interest to treat Gaza and the West Bank separately? What has been done to bridge the divide that Israel is attempting to push?


Brown: What I would say is that this is definitely a project: a deliberate project of the Israeli Right. With the Israeli Left, there’s been different kinds of strategies, including, at times, an idea that what they wanted to do was foster a Palestinian leadership that could essentially negotiate authoritatively, but a feeling that the right leadership had to be fostered. And they were not very effective, I think, in playing the internal game of Palestinian politics. And I think right now, both because of the deliberate effort of the Right and failure of the Left, policies have been successful in the sense that there are not strong Palestinian institutions - the ones that operate for day-to-day administration operate just fine - but there aren’t strong Palestinian national institutions to pursue any kind of national strategy. I’m not even sure if there’s much strategic thinking on the part of Palestinian leaders. There is a very, very deep division.
For those parts of the Israeli political spectrum that were always pessimistic or opposed to the Palestinian national cause - that for them is a good outcome. And that is one that is not unsustainable but one that - to use the phrase that Yousef used earlier for Gaza - a different kind of “mowing the lawn.” Periodically, there will have to be attempts made by Israelis to continue to run place of securing an atomized Palestinian political environment. My own sense is that that serves society very, very poorly in the long-term. And that while it works out very, very well on a day-to-day, week-to-week, and even sometimes year-to-year basis, the fact is that a lot of Israelis sense almost an existential crisis for their society and for Zionism, that it’s creating a society that’s emerging as a pariah internationally and that is strong and secure in the conventional sense, but is not necessarily the kind of society you want to bequeath to your grandchildren. And so I’m not sure that approach is one that serves the members of the society long-term.
Munayyer: I think a lot of that is right. I think that there is definitely a difference between how the Israeli Left and the Israeli Right approaches this. That being said, I think one of the biggest underlying factors behind this division was really a product behind the Israeli Left’s efforts, whether intended or not, and that’s the Oslo process. The Oslo process essentially put the Palestinian leadership - they may not have had too much choice in the matter - in a position where the Israelis in the international community had far greater leverage over shaping their interests and their capacity than they ever did before when they operated in the diaspora.
And what this meant was that the leadership of the Palestinian Authority became increasingly vulnerable and dependent, because at the end of the day, it’s really the Israelis that allow that to happen. The Palestinians are not there by show of their own force. But also because the extent of the dependence the authority has on the international community and primarily the United States and Western European funders.
And so this has put the Palestinian Authority in a place where the independence of its policy-making is severely compromised, even to the extent that it is not capable of strategizing around national interests, because it merely wants to continue making payroll. And when you’re in that kind of situation and they share a lot of responsibility for the situation that they find themselves in, it’s very difficult to talk about long-term interests. I agree that there is obviously a long-term interest for Israelis and Palestinians to get out of this situation. But the level of strategy-making right now, the place where it’s at, is not a place where that is the focus. And I think so much of that is rooted in the Oslo process. And if they are in fact moving away from a U.S.-led process and willing to really take the leap, and not simply use internationalization as a method to boomerang back into a U.S.-led process, then I think they can start thinking about those interests differently.
But while they have talked about internationalization and moving away from a Washington-led process, it’s only been in the context of a longer-term plan of eventually going back, and I really don’t see that as being successful in the long-term.

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Jul 10, 2015

Gaza Students Explore Creative Expression at The Jerusalem Fund

On Friday, 19 June, Executive Director Zeina Azzam and Gallery Al-Quds Curator Dagmar Painter organized a three-hour session with ten high school students from Gaza who had spent the academic year in the United States. They were participating in the State Department-funded Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program, living with host families in different cities throughout the U.S. and studying in local high schools.

gaza students table

Painter gave them a tour of the exhibition “Creative Dissent,” currently on show at the Gallery, and introduced them to the art of graffiti. She said to the group, “You don’t have to be an artist to make graffiti; you just have to have something to say.” Painter encouraged the students to produce some graffiti works to add to the Galley’s exhibition, and several completed pieces that are now hanging in the current exhibition space.

looking at art

As the students toured the Creative Dissent show, they commented on the power of the wall paintings and photographs that young people in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Tunisia created during the first days of the Arab Spring. They were especially interested in the videos of the songs, chants and puppet shows created during that time, and the role that social media can play in disseminating dissent. Painter concluded with a short talk on the history of graffiti on the walls in Gaza, from the calligraphy schools held in the early days of Hamas rule, to the latest Banksy incursions.  They viewed graffiti on the gallery walls created by interns and other young visitors, and thus encouraged, produced some expressive works of their own.

student graffiti 2
student graffiti


Azzam conducted a session on poetry with the group, focusing on American poet Langston Hughes and several Palestinian and other poets. The group also wrote poems based on the session and shared them with each other. One of the exercises was to write a poem with a similar structure as Langston Hughes’s “Harlem” (see http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/175884) –that is, starting and ending with a question, and exploring possible answers within the poems itself. Below are some of the poems they wrote. Note that the students were given about ten minutes to write these poems, so they had no time to revise or work further on them. We are quite impressed with their profound ideas and writing, despite the short time frames.

1
What if there wasn’t hate in this world?
Would it still be so hard to live?
Or would you peacefully go and stand up
for yourself?
Would you be still complaining
about how the world is so unfair,
or would you actually go and make a change?
Maybe it’s so easy not to hate.
But not many people are willing to participate.
Will you be strong enough
to be the change?
--Tala

2
What happens to my patience when I’m forced to wait?
Does it hope death for me
like my body does:
Or does it cry silently
till it gets out of breath?
Does it commit suicide,
or tries to stop me from doing the same?
Maybe it loves me and wishes me the best.
Or it’s not just something to think about
because aren’t we both just one?
--Yahya

3
When do we fade away?
Is it when we give up
                Like a coward in a battlefield?
Or is it when we lose faith
                And act like Judas and his traits?
Is it when we talk
                But act as adolescents?
Maybe we always just fade away,
Even if you are a martyr or a stinking corpse.
Maybe!
--anonymous

4
What happens when a flower dies?
Does it ever hear the music of a singing bird?
Or does it sway in the morning sky?
--anonymous

Many said that they were deeply transformed by their experiences in the United States. To that end, Azzam gave the students another exercise: to write a poem similar to Shel Silverstein’s “What a Day” (see http://www.qu-i-x.com/aday.html), except to title it, “What a Year.” Here is a sampling of the poems they produced:

5
What a year,
Oh what a year!
My heart at first was so afraid.
It wasn’t until now I realized a dream was just made.
And from one splits two the family
Home as well side by side.
Friends, experience with tremendous amount
We used to say: 1, 2, 3, don’t stop the count!
I am 17 years old.
Now I am going home.
Oh what a year!
--Mohammed

6
What a year,
Oh what a year!
Like waking up from a dream.
All the memories just fade away,
and now life is from where it stopped last year.
Oh it is gonna be the same?
Or it’s just the fear of yesterday.
I’m 16 years old
and I’ve felt my heart
for the first time in my life.
I’ve seen it grow!
Oh what a year!
--Marah

7
What a year,
Oh what a year!
My life transformed from sky to another sky.
My heart doesn’t know if it will again fly.
And now my life will not be the same again.
I’m 16 years old
And feeling trapped between my own sky and their sky.
Oh what a year!
--Dalia

8
What a year
Oh what a year!
My ignorance ran away from me.
My new thoughts kicked out the old.
And now my world will not be all black.
I’m 16 years old
and feeling proud.
Oh what a year!
--Tala

9
What a year
Oh what a year!
My small innocent mind ran away.
And now my thoughts will not be the same.
I’m only 17 years old
but it seems like that’s very old.
Oh what a year!
--Reema

10
What a year
Oh what a year!
I got myself out of that dark box.
I knew myself better.
And now my dreams will no longer wait.
I’m 17 years old
and shaping my life just the way I want.
Oh what a year!
--Yahya

11
What a year,
Oh what a year!
My hatred left my heart.
My heart full of light.
And now my mind will not be deceived.
I’m 17 years old
and feeling proud.
Oh what a year!
--Iyad


The group seemed to enjoy these exercises as they spent some time in Washington, DC, before returning to their homes in Gaza. The YES program’s aim was to give them a few days of transition time to reflect on their academic year and prepare them to “re-enter” their country of origin. This session at The Jerusalem Fund allowed these students to bond with each other and to approach their experiences from an expressive and creative angle.
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Jun 19, 2015

Palestinian Steadfastness and the Ramallah Friends School


Sumoud: Voices and Images of the Ramallah Friends School
Gordon Davis, Betsy Brinson, and Joyce Ajlouny discuss the history of the Ramallah Friends School (from left).


On 16 June, the Palestine Center hosted Gordon Davies, Betsy Brinson and Joyce Ajlouny to speak on the history of the Friends School in Ramallah. The school has withstood the test of time, witnessing Ottoman domination, the British Mandate, Jordanian administration, and Israeli occupation. Yet, the school’s commitment to Quaker values of nonviolence, dialogue, and equality has never wavered. Davies and Brinson spoke on the research and experiences that led to their book Sumoud: Voices and Images of the Ramallah Friends School. Ajlouny discussed her role as director of the school and the significance of the Friends School in the Palestinian community. Before the lecture, The Palestine Center’s summer interns sat for an interview with the three speakers to learn more.

Below are excerpts from the interview, which have been condensed and edited from the original.

A description on the website says that the Friends School has become “a symbolic presence of nonviolence, cooperation across cultures and intellectual integrity.” This is a beautiful note on the school. How do you feel you’ve accomplished this and how important is that to your mission?

Ajlouny: I think that it’s extremely important. It’s the real premise of our success and our perseverance throughout 146 years. You would think that after so many wars, occupations and administrations that the school would suffer and no longer exist, but that isn’t so. We are grounded by our Quaker tradition, ethos, and foundation. They are the things that often come back and challenge us when we make decisions. When we are running the Friends School, we think: how do we incorporate nonviolence, equality, and tolerance into our mission? As an administrator, that is something that I talk about a lot in our meetings with the board, the school administration, the teachers, or the students. We are often reminding people of the importance of that. It’s what has kept us afloat.

As Americans, Gordon Davies and Betsy Brinson, what did writing this book mean to you? And how did it shape your perspective of the conflict? 

Davies: During that year we spent at the Friends School, I also taught at Birzeit University. I taught in the English department with a little help from Joyce, who introduced me to the Friends School. Therefore, I saw several perspectives. It was a matter of learning about, and trying to learn about, a different culture, but also learning that we have a huge amount in common. The school’s values were endorsed by young students who said, “The school’s values are that of Judaism, they are that of Islam, and they are that of Christianity. It's not the religions that are the problem, it’s the people. People misuse the religions.” 

Brinson: As a historian, my area of expertise is American social history. This was the hardest history project I’ve ever done. I wasn’t familiar with Palestinian history, so I had to read a lot and ask a lot of questions. It was a tough job. Neither Gordon nor I are from a Palestinian background. We didn’t grow up in it. In contrast, if somebody says the War of 1812 or the Civil War, as an American, I’ll know what they’re talking about.

What is it like to write Palestinian history? Have you ever had difficulty in completing your research or traveling to Ramallah or the Friends School?

Brinson: Our research consisted of using basic primary research documents at various Quaker colleges in the U.S., and that wasn't a problem. But we did our primary research in Ramallah with many oral history interviews that we did with students, alumni, staff, and administrators. Most of them actually came to us at the school to do the interview. There were a few people that I had to go and meet. I don’t know Arabic. A lot of the streets in Ramallah aren’t marked. Trying to talk to cab drivers was difficult. So it was an interesting experience. We did have problems getting through checkpoints. My biggest concern was my tape recorder and whether I was going to get it through Israeli security at the airport. As it turned out, that was less of a problem than I had feared. But to protect the oral history interviews, I sent them back with several different people, so they were in different suitcases. They all made it back safely, so it wasn't as much of a concern as I feared it might be.

What are the Quaker values that make up the school? Why are they so important? What do you tell the students, and what do you write about on a daily basis to portray the Friends School accurately?

Davies: We thought getting a Palestinian perspective on the school was very important. Most of the things that had been written previously were written by mostly Americans and some British volunteers. They did good work, but they brought their own perspectives. One story in the book exemplifies the school’s Quaker values in practice. A teacher named Jean Zaru was teaching fifth graders. When she came into the room, the students were shouting, “PLO, Israel no!” It was illegal to talk about PLO before 1993. So, Zaru wrote “PLO” on the blackboard. Everybody stopped. They were frightened. It was illegal to write that. But she did. And she said, “Do you know what that ‘L’ stands for in ‘PLO’? It stands for liberation. Do you know what liberation is? It is not controlling other people and it is not having your way over them. It is sharing with other people and it is understanding another people’s needs. It is understanding that your needs and their needs have something in common.”

That is basically what she conveyed, and that is what I think that the Quakers try to convey. One of the things that struck us when we were there was a big parade we witnessed during Ramadan. It ran right down the street right outside of the school. All the Arab villages came and participated in the parade. But the Christians joined the parade, too. We thought that was remarkable. Then on Easter, the Christians had a parade, and the Muslims joined them! Again, the problem isn’t the differences between religions, but how people use and manipulate their religions.

Joyce Ajlouny, can you speak to how important education is during times of occupation and war to guide and lead the students at their young age?

Ajlouny: I really believe in the power of a value-led education. Time and time again, I have had parents come to my office asking for more financial aid to keep their kids in the school. They tell me that they have lost so much because of occupation. The only thing that they have is their investment in their children's education. They say, “Don’t take that away from us!” We are in a value-led school, and we are challenged by violence all around us every day. We do have students who come in feeling angry. After the 2014 Gaza war, the lower school principal came and said, “Joyce, we need to hire another counselor.” “But you have one,” I said. “You don’t know what the campus is like,” he explained. Students were more physical. They were running around and it seemed like their behavior was different. It was more violent behavior. They were agitated. We had to hire another counselor to deal with these issues. This is just one example. You can imagine the effect that occupation and war has on these children. 

So what is our role as a school, and what do we do to take away the stress? How do we give them something productive to work on and make them feel good about themselves? We give them a platform to voice their opinion and to debate. We have a lot of debates for normalization, against normalization. There is so much happening on campus that we don’t have a homogenous group of students. So, there is always lively debate. But we also have been very creative in allowing them to address these concerns in a productive, meaningful, creative way. Whether it is through art or performance, they do all sorts of commemoration. Nonviolence is always our message. As a Quaker school, it is our role to guide students to a nonviolent path. The BDS movement is very big on our campus, too. Our students are always challenging us as an administration to see if we are keeping up with BDS. When you see alumni of the school, you see their commitment to their country through service and nonviolence.

There was a student of ours who graduated from Stanford. I thought he’d go on to work at the UN. But he came back and started mobilizing in our community. He set up a tent in town and he was trying to mobilize for unity in the government. So these are the types of students who attend our school. Another one headed the BDS office in Ramallah. This is the difference that the Friends School is making in the context of occupation.

Joyce Ajlouny, do students at the Friends School ever have a chance to interact with Israelis, or has there ever been a program of that sort? How does that mix with the Quaker values?

Ajlouny: As a Quaker, I believe that dialogue is the best way to address issues. Yet, I also see that our community in Ramallah is not ready to normalize relationships with Israelis. But the Friends School is very much part of the community. We cannot come and impose what we think is the way forward. If the community at large is not ready to normalize relationships, then there would be huge resistance to any of our endeavors. Once Israelis and Palestinians are on equal footing, normalization will be acceptable. But we can’t normalize relations with our occupiers and the future soldiers who are going to be surrounding our city and bombarding us. The Friends School has to abide by community expectations. From a Quaker perspective, yes, interaction between Palestinians and Israeli is exactly what needs to take place. Communication is how hearts, minds, and souls changes. But that can’t happen quite yet. 

The term sumoud is the title of the book, which in Arabic means “steadfastness” or “standing one’s ground.” But what does sumoud mean in relation to the history of the Ramallah Friends School? Why did you choose that as the title of the book? 

Davies: The Friends School has witnessed one form of domination after another: first, the Ottoman Empire, then the British Mandate, then Jordanian administration, and finally Israeli occupation. Yet, the school remains and its values persist. We chose sumoud as the title to emphasize the school’s unyielding commitment to dialogue and equal rights. 

Ajlouny: What Gordon said is very true, and I also look at it from a different perspective. The families of students tell me that they would have left had it not been for the Friends School. So, the school keeps families steadfast in Palestine. Families remain because of the opportunities we provide. We are the only International Baccalaureate school in Palestine. Our students end up at top universities. There are always some students that make it into the Ivy Leagues. Many families would rather take advantage of the education we offer rather than emigrate to America or Jordan.
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Jun 10, 2015

Palestinian-American Comedians' Historic Performance at the Kennedy Center

On Friday, 5 June, Amer Zahr, Mike Easmeil, Mona Aburimshan, and Said Durrah made history at the Kennedy Center. Sponsored by The Jerusalem Fund, Zahr and his fellow comedians were the first Palestinian American comedians to perform at the world-renowned performing arts center. Zahr’s routine, entitled “Being Palestinian Makes Me Smile,” quickly sold out and attracted a crowd of Arabs and non-Arabs alike. Using anecdotes from both their childhood and adult lives, Zahr and company turned the pain and struggle of the Palestinian narrative into relatable accounts of hilarity.

“Palestinians don’t have a ‘Plan B,’” Zahr explained to the audience. “There’s no country we can go back to if we mess up. That’s why we need to be the best we can be here. I remember taking a math test home to my Dad and saying, ‘Baba, Baba, I got a 96!’ To which he replied, ‘Where did the other four points go?’”

Zahr’s comedic style was a combination of high energy and clever quips. He engaged with the audience and encouraged everyone to clap as he danced around the stage. The sketch had The Jerusalem Fund’s staff cramping from laughter.

Zahr managed to make even the hardest parts of daily Palestinian life amusing. On the Israeli occupation, he commented: “No wonder the Israelis can find us so easily. What do you expect? All of the WiFi passwords in Ramallah’s coffee shops are ‘1122334455’ or ‘0123456.’ And anytime you ask for directions, people just say dughrii (go straight)!”

Amer Zahr and company pioneered the Kennedy Center stage for Palestinian comedians, and did so in front of a full and welcoming crowd. The unforgettable performance of “Being Palestinian Makes Me Smile” has made a mark in the history of the prestigious venue.



amer 1
Amer Zahr performs at the Kennedy Center ©  Houssam Mchaiemch



amer 4
Amer Zahr performs at the Kennedy Center ©  Houssam Mchaiemch



amer 2
(From left) Palestinian-American comedians Said Durrah, Mona Aburimshan, Amer Zahr, and Mike Easmeil
©
Houssam Mchaiemch



amer 3
A full house at the Kennedy Center ©  Houssam Mchaiemch
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Jun 4, 2015

Comedy and Palestine: An Interview with Amer Zahr

amer zahr 1
Amer Zahr speaks at The Palestine Center on 3 June, 2015.

This Friday, 5 June, Amer Zahr will be the first Palestinian-American comedian to perform at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Zahr stopped by The Palestine Center this past Wednesday and gave a talk entitled “Comedy and Palestine.” He discussed his experiences as a Palestinian American comedian. Although it was not a comedy routine, Zahr’s talk certainly elicited quite a few laughs from the audience. After his talk, the Palestine Center’s summer interns sat down for an interview with the renowned entertainer, asking him about a range of topics.

Below are excerpts from the interview, which have been condensed and edited from the original.


You have an MA in Middle East Studies and a JD in Law, both from the University of Michigan. How would you say your educational background shapes your comedy and activism?

I would say first of all, they all kind of relate to my activism. Since I was a teenager, being Palestinian, I felt that getting a deeper understanding of our part of the world is important. That's why I did the MA, and Law, obviously becoming an effective advocate. That’s a lot of what you learn about in law school--problem solving and putting across a point concisely and effectively. As a comedian, you also have to compact everything. Even in class now as a law professor, I’m performing just like I would on stage. Communicating effectively, it's all the same thing. So I would say they all kind of inform each other and they all relate to each other, and I learn how to take from each and give to the other.


Do you think that your career in comedy has helped you in law and being a professor?

Performing on stage helped me in the classroom. Whether it's just being comfortable in front of a room full of people I’ve never met before: that’s comedy, that's every night. I throw in a little humor in the classroom, too. They all inform each other a little bit, and so I think that I don't view myself as doing something that different than when I’m on stage as when i'm in the classroom. When I’m on stage, my goal is to make people laugh every minute or so. In the classroom, it’s obviously not the same. But I’m still trying to communicate effectively, concisely and confidently and that's kind of what I’m doing in both places.


How do you think comedy and law intersect?

Comedy and law intersect in the sense that as a lawyer you’re advocating, right? Usually for somebody else or for a cause. As a comedian you’re advocating for yourself. You’re advocating for your own point of view--that's what you're really communicating to people: your point of view of the world in the hope that it's kind of funny. And so that sort of advocacy, whether you’re doing it for yourself or somebody else, it's kind of the same. I think that there is a cool intersection there. It’s about performing and narrating. The skills that I think that make a good lawyer are not that different from the skills that make you a good comedian.

How important would you say your identity as a Palestinian-American is to you in your comedy? And do you identify more as a Palestinian, American, or both?

I kind of view it like this: I’m a Palestinian and I’m an American all at once. I’m not half this or half that. They mean different things and they complement each other in different ways, but I view it like this: I’m kind of like green paint. If you have blue paint and that’s being Palestinian, and you have yellow paint and that's being American, when you put them together, it's not half blue paint and half yellow paint. It’s green paint. And once it’s green paint, you can’t separate it again and make it blue paint and yellow paint.
So it’s all together all the time. I’m not sometimes this, sometimes that. Being American and being Palestinian informs everything that I do, all the time. So I’ll view things through that lens. I’m an American. I've lived here my whole life. This is the society that I know. But at times I don't feel very welcome here. I’m a Palestinian. I’ve almost never lived there, but when I’m there, I feel like that’s where I’m supposed to be. So if somebody can explain that psychosis to me, then I’m willing to listen, but that’s just the way that I feel.

Times in the Arab world are tough. How difficult is it to find things to laugh about when times can be so trying?

Well, like I said in the talk, laughter and crying are not that different. They’re very similar. I think where you can find tragedy, you can probably also find humor. That doesn't mean something is funny; it just means that it can create humor, even if it’s out of some sort of therapeutic thing. Do you just want to be sad and depressed all the time or do you want to try and find the humor in the stuff that happens to us? And I think that when you do that, not only can you send a message better, but it’s therapeutic.

If you can make it funny, it makes it seem less crazy. And it kind of makes it not as damaging to your psyche. That doesn't mean you live with it and accept it, but you find ways to compute it that become effective to you. And actually when you can make it funny, that hurts the oppressor, right? I mean, if you’re saying, “Your oppression is just funny to me,” it’s not making me depressed, it's just funny. And it didn't start out like that for me.

When you go to the “VIP room,” the interrogation area when the enter the airport in Tel Aviv, you’re there for eight hours. The first time it happens to you, you're angry. You’re like, “This is a violation of my rights, what are you guys doing, this is terrible, where’s my ambassador,” etc. And then the second time they did it to me, I was just annoyed. I was like, “You’re wasting my time, your time, we all know you’re going to let me in. We all know that, it's just a waste of time, just wasting my time.” So I was annoyed, not angry, annoyed.

The third time I actually brought a book, because I knew it was going to happen, and I just sat there, and I started to feel sorry for them. I started to laugh at them.
This is what you do? This is your profession? This is what you live your life doing every day? This is what you go home and talk to your wife about? How terrible that you’re living your life like this. And it’s not working! Because now I’m here for the third time. If your point was to try to piss me off so I don’t come back, you’re very bad at it.” Now I’m just like, “Okay, I feel sorry for you.” Like, the guy that strip searches Palestinians when they leave Tel Aviv airport… What a terrible job! That’s his job. Think about that for a second. That’s his job. When he looks at his paycheck, he thinks, that’s what he did that week to get that money. That’s what he talks to his wife about. I think it’s about flipping it, and it’s not that hard in our context.


You have traveled to and performed in quite a few countries. Which has been your favorite to perform in, and why?

At the risk of sounding cliche, Palestine, just because that is where everything comes from for me, and I feel the most comfortable when I am performing there. The laughs that I get there, even when I am not talking about Palestine, are much more organic; I feel like people are laughing. Also, Palestine has a long tradition of art which has come from oppression over the last 67 years. So it’s not like other places that I go where comedy and performing live is something completely new, where people laugh at anything and you do not know if they think you are funny or if they are just laughing because you are there. In Palestine you don’t have that luxury. If you are not funny, then they won’t laugh. If you are not good, then they won’t clap. So the fact that they do means something. I feel like in Palestine there is really that appreciation, and of course the connection with it.


What role do you think Arab-Americans and American Muslims play in portraying an accurate view of Middle Eastern culture? How do you accomplish that?

First let me say, I don’t use the term Middle Eastern. That is a white term made up by white people to describe us. We don’t call ourselves Middle Eastern, and especially in our own language, we don’t use that word at all. Middle Eastern: East of what? East of white people?

Sometimes in our community, people expect every Arab or every Muslim to be a spokesperson or stand-up, and I don’t really expect that of everyone. Sometimes it’s just like he’s an engineer and that is what he does, and he just goes to work everyday, and that is cool. Now I will tell those people though, people who look at you, they know that you are an Arab or a Muslim and trust me, they view you that way. So yes, you do have a responsibility, whether you like it or not. If you do not want to go out and be an activist, I totally understand, but you do have some sort of gravity to your existence because of who you are in the world that we live in. So I would just ask every Arab or Muslim to recognize that. At the very least, be a good person because it really matters much more if you are Arab or Muslim. If you are a white guy then it doesn't really matter because people don’t hold it against all white people. But if you are an Arab or a Muslim, people will hold it against the rest of us. That is just the truth.

There are opportunities everyday no matter what job you are in. I bet you that no matter what job that you are in, your coworkers probably have some misconceptions about Arabs or Muslims. I bet for many of them, you are the first one that they have met. They might think that you are Mexican or whatever. So there is some opportunity there to educate somebody.

If you can change one person it can really have an effect. They will go tell people, “Hey I met a Muslim today.” If we go back to Edward Said and orientalism, the essence of it is they don’t see us for who we actually are. They don’t meet us and they do not take the time to talk to us. Instead, they see us for what they imagine us to be through the news, and that happens to everybody. People say it to us all the time: “Oh, you’re Arab? You don’t look Arab.” And it’s a totally messed up thing for people to say, but they say it. And that’s because we are the last group that you’re allowed to say anything against and not get in trouble for it. And they do. It proves that racism is not dead in this country. It proves that people are just aware of who they can and can’t be racist against. Because if they knew they could be racist against black people, they still would, but they aren’t because there’s a price to pay for being that way. But there’s no “price” for being racist against Arabs or Muslims, so they still do it.

Herman Cain, who was running for president a couple of years ago, gets on TV and says, “If I become president, there will be no Muslims in my cabinet.” And the next day, he was still running for president. Nobody told him he had to resign, or anything like that. It was just a little news story. When John McCain was running against Obama in 2008, some lady walks up in a town hall meeting for John McCain and says, “I’m not voting for Barack Obama, because he’s an Arab.” And John McCain grabbed the mic from her and said, “No ma’am, he’s not an Arab. He’s a decent family man.” That’s it. And that was the story on the news that day. MSNBC said, “Look at McCain. He says Obama isn’t an Arab.” And that was the news.

Barack Obama, still to this day, has to actively deny that he is a Muslim. And never after seven years as he said “I’m not a Muslim, but so what if I were?” He still hasn’t said that, and he’s president of the United States. But he knows he can’t say that. It’s out of bounds for him politically. And that would be so humanizing for us, to hear, “I’m not a Muslim, but so what if I were?” And he still hasn’t said that. “Why are you so racist to make that accusation?” It’s not just a simple misidentification. It’s an accusation. This is why we’re upset.


You’ll be performing at the Kennedy Center on Friday. What does it mean for you to be at the Kennedy Center? Your pamphlet says, “First Palestinian American to perform at the Kennedy Center.”

Well, they weren’t sure that we were the first Arabs to perform at the Kennedy Center. But they were sure that we were the first Palestinians to perform. To do something like this at the Kennedy Center puts it on the different level. To be in the most prestigious performing arts center in America, with that sort of gravitas, telling the Palestinian story there? It’s really important for us, and a step forward.

When you’re in the Kennedy Center, nobody can say you’re on the fringes anymore. You’re in the American public. And that’s one of the points of doing the show there. We’re saying, “Hey, we’re just like everybody else.” And we should be able to have access to the same media channels and everybody else. And I hope there are a lot of people in the audience who have never met a Palestinian before or seen Palestinian artists perform before. While I hope a lot of Palestinians and Arabs are there, I want there to be a lot of non-Arabs and non-Muslims there, so we can create that bridge. When you’re laughing as a white guy, and the Palestinian next to you is laughing, you say, “Hey, look at that, we’re both laughing.” For something like that to happen is really important.

The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.
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May 18, 2015

The Nakba - 67 Years On - in Poetry

The Nakba—the Palestinian people’s violent and catastrophic displacement in 1948—is seared in the Palestinian collective memory, and its ramifications have defined all Palestinians’ lives whether in the West Bank, Gaza, inside Israel, or the diaspora. This tragedy has also found expression in all Palestinian arts and cultural endeavors. During the twentieth century, and especially after 1948, Palestinian poets and writers, musicians, visual artists, and others engaged in cultural expression have reflected the sentiments of loss, displacement, and nostalgia as well as of dignity, defiance, and steadfastness in their work.

On this day we commemorate the Nakba and remember all those who have suffered and continue to suffer the injustices perpetrated against the Palestinian people. We salute the many poets whose writings and sensibility communicate the Palestinians’ myriad experiences of loss and steadfastness. Here are a few poems to commemorate the Nakba. Send us your recommendations and we will add them to this list (email: zazzam@thejerusalemfund.org) .

“On This Land” by Mahmoud Darwish (read live, with Trio Joubran in the background)

“On the Trunk of an Olive Tree” by Tawfiq Zayyad

“The Deluge and the Tree” by Fadwa Tuqan
Author bio: (same page)

“Exodus” by Taha Muhammad Ali

“How Palestinians Keep Warm” by Naomi Shihab Nye

“A Picture of the House at Beit Jala” by Ghassan Zaqtan

“Even” by Nathalie Handal

“Nakba Day” by Remi Kanazi

“Mimesis” by Fadi Joudah




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