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Identity Prospecting

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

In the latest step in the on-going conflict over memory-rights and the Holy Land, Benjamin Netanyahu decided today to include two shrines located in the West Bank – among them the Cave of the Patriarchs – in the list of Israeli national heritage sites. For those of you unfamiliar, the Cave of the Patriarchs is considered holy by the whole Abrahamic tradition and is thought to be the resting place of Abraham and a few others of Biblical note.  The stories can be read here, here and here. As is its wont, the New York Times ran a story that you had to know existed to read.

hebron_cave

It is easy to appreciate the significance of this move given the rhetoric and the people cheering for it, namely, that ‘…Our existence depends not only on the IDF or our economic resilience – it is anchored in…the national sentiment that we will bestow upon the coming generations and in our ability to justify our connection to the land,” to take that wholesale from Ha-Aretz. This is not new, but it is reflective of past policies of landscape and memory claiming that have taken place in Israel and the West Bank more specifically.

We know that historical memory is a touchy subject, but it’s especially touchy in this case because it maintains the tradition of mingling national identity with religion. While it is unclear what real effects will be felt now that they are on a register of Israeli historical sites, it is obvious that the Palestinian reaction has not been welcoming, again pointing to discrimination and an effort to wipe them off the historical map. That the government would budget 500,000 shekels for the ‘renovation’ of these sites struck me as particularly ominous.

If we want peace – two-state solution, one-state solution, whatever – it cannot be achieved by claiming sites of historical memory. It just can’t. If there is to be some modicum of peace between Palestinians and Israelis, it has to be on the basis of shared heritage, not cultural domination. Mark Regev commented that ‘the list was not meant to set borders,’ but it has already violated some of the most important borders, all of this even if we discount settlement activity and the fact that Hebron is smack in the middle of the West Bank. Israeli conservatives (and the Israeli government) should consider that strengthening the Israeli national narrative comes, sometimes, at the cost of prospects for peace with those troublesome Palestinians, who have their own legitimate historical connection to the land.

Look, I do not know what will actually come of this aside from the emotional responses (which are powerful enough on their own), but I cannot help but think of how beautiful this sight could be in the future: Muslims, Christians and Jews worshiping their shared forefathers. Instead, it has been a battleground for the soul of the Holy Land, and looks like it will continue to be so, at least in the near future.

Doha To Be Capital of A Dream

This morning I stumbled upon an old edition of The Economist – which I do not typically read – from July, treating on an topic that is occasionally forgotten: Arab nationalism. The article was entitled “The Arab World Wakes,” and went on to treat the Arab world as if it were a functioning whole of sorts, with shared problems, shared achievements, and a shared future.

…whoa.

For those of us who have spent time in the Middle East, are about to, or have some other backhand form of experience with the region, suffice it to say that the idea of Arab unity has been something of a disappointment – look at the history of secular and semi-secular Arab nationalism if you are eager for information. Arabs are the first to admit that there have been complications on the path to decolonization, like Israel, but when measured against the historic dream of a unified political entity embracing all Arabs has proven unrealistic with the departure of the British and the French and the establishment of disparate centers of power.

But is that true? As an Arab-American, I am inclined to be skeptical of the rhetoric of which my father (who is Lebanese) is so very fond, and to focus on what divides the Arab nation today – political boundaries, economic might, patron-states, religious identity – the important stuff. The sad fact that a politically unified Arab state is so unlikely in the offing has made me conflate statehood with collective identity more than is healthy, especially given my academic focus in the discipline of political geography.

After I read that article, I noticed that celebrations had begun in Doha, which has just been crowned Capital of Arab Culture for 2010. For those of you who are not familiar, this is an annual endeavor begun in 1996 with Cairo that sought to give a formal edge to Arab cultural identity and unite the Arab peoples beyond their borders – in addition to non-Westerners – in appreciating the contributions that Arabs have made to world civilization. The opening operetta of the ceremony was entitled “بيت الحكمة” or “The House of Knowledge,” after the legendary library of Baghdad that produced so many vital translations for Arab and, eventually, European scientists of the Middle Ages. A clip (in Arabic, sorry) from Al-Jazeera is available here.

Watching the performers dance about I was moved to appreciate what I should have already known, which is that political power is not the same as collective identity or nationalism; what the Arabs as a people have done in Doha is create a program to remind the world of this. As much as we may believe that Lebanese, Egyptians, Syrians and Emiratis do not get along politically, they are bound by something much more significant than mere politics, which is the belief that their ties are something that matter. That is why Gulf states invest so heavily in Arab business across the region, that is why they have funded the rebuilding of towns across Southern Lebanon, and that is why the people continue to express what my father has told me since childhood – that all Arabs are brothers.

So when you read this article, try not to be too skeptical. Arab nationalism is not dead – it’s simply dormant.