Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Withering Palestinian Ethos

There has never, to my knowledge, been a national movement more lavishly subsidized, financially, militarily and politically, as that of the Palestinian people. Each year, hundreds of millions of European and American tax euros and dollars, mounting to billions if contributions from Arab states and NGOs are included, are deposited in Ramallah, with no end in sight. Nation after nation joins the chorus, pledging their support in the ongoing quest for Palestinian statehood. Year after year it drags on, this pregnancy that refuses to end in a birth, the unborn child holding the mother, father, hospital and everyone else in five block radius hostage to its irresponsible, petulant demands.

Karma Nabulsi ("from Nablus"), a PLO functionary once and always, is a case in point. In spite of herself, she aptly describes the depths of Palestinian dysfunction in the London Review of Books:
The way Palestinians see things, the fragmentation of the body politic – externally engineered, and increasingly internally driven – has now been achieved. This summer, even the liberal Israeli press began to notice that the key people in Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority’s capital in the West Bank, no longer discuss strategies of liberation but rather the huge business deals that prey on the public imagination. Every institution or overarching structure that once united Palestinians has now crumbled and been swept away. The gulf between Gaza and the West Bank, between Hamas and Fatah, between Palestinians inside Palestine and the millions of refugees outside it, between city and village, town and refugee camp, now seems unbridgeable. The elites are tiny and the numbers of the dispossessed and the disenfranchised increase every day. There is, at this moment, no single body able to claim legitimately to represent all Palestinians; no body able to set out a collective policy or national programme of liberation. There is no plan.
For an outsider, Karma's wistful recollections of and an implicit urging for a return to "revolutionary" ideals are delusional and intellectually embarrassing. The entire piece oozes despair, projecting a resigned fatalism I am more familiar with in its Russian incarnation. Even as she describes the depth of Palestinian political and social stagnation, the corruption of basic public trust, deteriorating relationships not merely between factions, but between cities and villages, as her people and their would be country collapse and burn around her, she refuses to unclasp her fist from the phantasm of heroic struggle, whose goals are left undefined, and I suspect purposefully so. Karma may be a washed up Marxist, a veteran of revolutionary lore long since forgotten, which never truly was except in myth and Soviet-inspired propaganda. Yet, the ailments she describes have merit, to the extent that Palestinians I've known have conveyed them to me in similar exasperated tones.

Beyond the physical foundations, a state needs an intellectual, psychological backbone, a raison d'etre - an ethos. In a backhanded way, since its inception, Israel has provided the Palestinians with a unifying ethos. This may be received as arrogant, patronizing even, but I've never sensed a passion among pro-Palestinian activists for dismantling the refugee camps and building proper cities in their place. True, the occupation is a daily irritant, creating tension and feeding resentment, but surely a people need vision beyond ameliorating their immediate circumstances. Resistance, struggle - these inspire the masses, not civil engineering. At least within the small circle of Palestinians I have access to, the recent, meager infrastructure investments of the PA generate scoffing, cynicism, even hostility. The revulsion is not merely at the self-serving corruption, the kleptocracy and nepotism, but against the betrayal of core principles, against collaboration with the "Zionist entity" in any form, including the most basic, pragmatic resignation at Israel's permanence.

Fifty years before Israel was founded, Zionist thinkers, writers, poets, leaders were articulating and debating the very sinews of the culture and the politics of the state to be. There was a focus, a direction; statehood was seen not an end in itself, but a means to self-empowerment, a Jewish return to history and all the rest that came with it. The Palestinian national experience need not emulate the Jewish one, but I am still left asking, what of the Palestinian ethos?

What Karma suggests is that the present Palestinian socio-political morass began in earnest after Oslo, when the Palestinian leadership recognized Israel, thus ending the prospect of revolutionary change in the basic status quo. She seems to be saying that, post Oslo, the Palestinian people lost focus, the leadership lost direction. With the goal of undoing the Nakhba relegated to rhetoric, implies Karma, the raison d'etre for a unified Palestinian body politic, and the society it held in cohesion fractured. Resistance is the still the prescription, but the cure of redemptive revolution has been abandoned, and with it, the Palestinian national ethos.

I've written of this in the past, and remain convinced, and saddened by it, to this day: resistance to Jewish self-determination is a central, likely inseparable feature of Palestinian national identity, at least for the foreseeable future.

Monday, October 18, 2010

When Ex-Girlfriends Attack... and Become Lesbians

I recently went out for coffee with a friend. We hadn't seen one another for a while and decided to catch up. It's the sort of thing I used to do, before I became busy, old and solemn. So, there we were, grinding through the minutia of our respective lives, when my friend suddenly assumed a very serious expression, whipped his head to the left and right as if to swat away the prying ears, leaned over and whispered something which, by the look on his face, could either have been advance warning of an alien invasion or... no, it could only have been advance warning of an alien invasion (I'm still in withdrawal from recently completing the final season of Battlestar Galactica - was "Starbuck" dead or not?!).

Unfortunately, one of the baristas chose that exact moment to fumble with the coffee bean grinder, and I heard nothing over the mechanized roar. I nodded empathetically to my friend, meanwhile frantically attempting to piece together the substance of what he had meant for me to hear. A few seconds into a prolonged and uncomfortable silence, with him still leaning over the table, trepidation dripping off his raised eyebrows, I gave up.

Me: "Wait, what?"
Him: "I said, my ex-girlfriend is a dyke."

Thirty seconds prior we had been discussing the Daily Rambam, using a recent day's mitzvah to examine the role, value and gradations of intent, kavanah, in spiritual service. Such split-second mental acrobatics, from Rambam to dykes, are a leap too far, even for me.

Me: "What?"
Him: "A dyke. She's a dyke. A lesbian. A carpet muncher."
Me: "Oh. Ohhh..."
Him: "Can you believe it?! We were dating for two years. I just found out."
Me: "Huh. She rebounded fast, eh? It's only been what, two or three months?"

I sipped my mocha. It was getting cold, and there is little pleasure to be had in overpriced cold mocha.

Him: "Did you hear what I just said?! My ex-girlfriend is a lesbian! This is the same girl that six months ago I had to pry her off myself with a crowbar. She was a total firecracker in bed. You should have seen her!" His eyes rolled up and to the side, for an instant. "I thought I might marry this girl and now, now she's out there screwing women. Isn't that insane?!"
Me: "Look," I shrugged, "these things happen."
Him: "These things don't just happen. She loved me. You..." He cut himself off, sat back in his seat, leaned to the left, his shoulder almost perpendicular to me, and twiddled a wooden stirrer in his coffee. "Forget it. You don't know what you're talking about."

It was all coming back to me now: that pompous, impertinent arrogance, that condescending tone. I pressed my itching fingernails into the table before they found their way around his neck. Under the designer clothes and the college degree, this was the same guy I grew up with. The more people change, goes the expression, the more they stay the same. Although, in my experience, people don't change, they just get more complicated.

Look at a baby's tightening forehead as they're filling their diaper; watch them make big, innocent saucer eyes and scan the room to see if anyone saw them shatter a mug on the floor; see the naked terror they project while running in fear from a friendly dog: These are expressions we keep for a lifetime. Spend enough time with a six month old baby, and you'll be able to tell when they're ready for a bathroom break at the age of six, or sixteen, or sixty. When they're 46 and embezzling millions from their employer, they'll still take the same, innocent saucer-eyed look around, to make sure no one caught them shatter that mug. Our expressions of character become more subdued, less explicit, layered in complexity, but they persist. Fifteen years ago, we could have been arguing over Magic playing cards, and I would have been treated to the same obnoxious tone he now reserved for my capacity to understand his anguish.

Me: "Ok, fine. You're right, I don't know what I'm talking about. You are the center of the universe. No one else has had an ex-girlfriend switch teams. It's just you. You're special. I couldn't possibly understand what a pompous ass like you would be feeling. Maybe that's why she left you for a woman. Your enormous pompous ass did her in."
Him: "You're an ass." He turned toward me again. The circle was complete; We were thirteen again, and loving it.
Me: "What do you want me to say? Welcome to the club? Here's your membership card? It's like an epidemic. You remember my last girlfriend?"
Him: "You haven't had one in years, although I hear that's changing, but yeah."
Me: "Rub it in. Anyway, we were together for two years, or was it three years, or four; hard to know when to start and stop counting." When a relationship ends bitterly even time becomes a weapon.
Him: "I remember you were moping around like a bitch for a year after that."
Me: "And you're doing what now, exactly? It was complicated. Four years is a long time to spend with someone. Anyway, she wasn't Jewish, there was never a future."
Him: "Right, so..."
Me: "A few months back, I found out through a mutual acquaintance that she's become a lesbian."
Him: "Really?! And this was right after you or did she screw around with other guys first."
Me: "Is that really necessary for you to know? I should dredge up my pain for your peace of mind?"
Him: "Fine, I thought you were over her, but if you're not..."
Me: "Yes, yes, she ran around a little. I don't know the details. Nothing serious, and that's my point. I'm seeing this more and more. Another friend of mine went through the same thing: He was in a long term relationship which ended, and his ex-girlfriend of many years, out of nowhere, became a lesbian."
Him: "That's fucked up. I look back and try to think. Could I see it coming? Is it my fault? Did I make her into a lesbian?"
Me: "Honestly, that never bothered me. That she was with someone else, that hurt, of course, but whether it was a man or a woman, what difference does it make?"
Him: "It makes all the difference in the world! Dude, I took a perfectly straight woman and turned her into a dyke! What does that say about me?! What does that say about you, as a man?!"
Me: "Why must their choice, to the extent they made a choice to be lesbians, say something about us? Do you think our ex-girlfriends are sitting there, telling everyone they're lesbians because of us? Or does being with women just feels right to them now? Did we play a part, even a small one, in how they feel and who they love today, or tomorrow?

Assuming it has anything to do with me, or with you, I would rather think that it speaks well about us. Look, every woman is different, every relationship is different, the circumstances, the conflicts, the emotions... we can't boil them down to one formula and say, yes, of course, it had to turn out the way it did. In general, I don't think our ex-girlfriends becoming lesbians has very much to do with us at all, except in one simple and direct way - we were once a part of their lives.

Maybe you're right, and we turned them off men completely. Think of what that would mean, of how much pain would be required for such a transformation. Have you ever been attracted to men after a bad breakup with a woman? Was it really that bad? Did we lie and cheat on them? Did we beat them or rape them, G-d forbid? Of course not. We had some great times together, even too good. I felt like an amputee that first year without her, as though a limb was violently severed from my body.

Maybe you're wrong, and after the passion and love, the investment in laughter and heartbreak, the birthdays, the restaurants, the road trips, the emergency rooms and the backseats of cars, they simply can't give themselves to another man right now. There are women like that, too, you know. Perhaps they tried to date again, and it just didn't feel right anymore. Maybe they just need a break - something fresh and new, exotic and taboo, unburdened by the memories and emotions of the past; something that won't swallow them alive, the way we did, but will let them grow in a different way. Perhaps that break will last a month, a year, maybe a lifetime. Maybe we were the break! What does their choice say about us? It's not about us anymore, if it ever was."

On My Bookshelf