Csíkszereda Musings

My life in and around Csíkszereda, also known as Miercurea Ciuc.

Confronting Racism

Posted by Andy Hockley on 28 February, 2003

The first time I visited sub-saharan Africa – Nairobi in this instance – I realised to my horror that the subliminal message carried by my media and by my culture, had influenced me much more than I thought. Black people were potential criminals, and one needed to be wary around them. Surrounded by Africans, my radar went into overdrive plunging me into uncertainty and nervousness. It took me a day to work out what was going on and to relax and let it teach me an important lesson. Here, for the second time in my life, I have been confronted with an aspect of my previously unconscious racism. Surrounded for the most part by young Arab men, I felt an air of violence. At best these men are presented as people who throw rocks at tanks. At worst terrorists. Of course, when it comes down to reality, the most I have to confront here is an aggressive hospitality. A fervent and fanatical desire to invite me for coffee and olives.

To give just one example, last night we were driving home in the university’s VW van. The route from Jalame (the village closest to the checkpoint) to the University is insanely and unnecessarily long. Everyone must take a long and convoluted route skirting the city of Jenin and the main roads which are now reserved for the illegal Israeli settlers. In some places this route uses potholed but paved minor roads between villages. In others, it leaves the road and crosses fields on farm tracks or drives along rutted and washed out valley floors. It would be comical that the great powers talk of a “roadmap” for this region were it not so tragic. The last week has seen rain storms of a magnitude not seen for many years here, rendering many of these back routes barely passable. As we drove along one of the farm tracks yesterday evening we became marooned in a muddy and deep puddle across the road. The engine went dead and we were at a loss. A car behind us managed to pass us and get through the mini-lake. We got out and they stopped. It was pitch dark, and we were only two in the van. It was impossible for anyone to see inside to confirm this. Momentarily , and understandably, uncertain as to whether we were settlers or not (I certainly don’t pass for Palestinian), once they heard us speak English, the family piled out of the car and in a mixture of hand gestures, basic Arabic vocabulary and a little English, the men got down to the business at hand of rescuing us. Having clarified that the engine was dead, the son waded through the mud, opened up the engine and started playing with the electrical system. Miraculously the car restarted, and I tried to drive it out of the ruts we had dug. No good. Son and father stood on the rear bumper attempting to give the car added weight and traction in the dirt, but still no luck. Eventually, the engine, filling with water, cut out again. The process was repeated, and this time, with me on the bumper, the son with his feet in the water and hands in the engine, and the father driving, we pulled free. We stood around for a moment, admiring their handiwork, smoking their cigarettes, and laughing about “the situation” (everything refers back to “the situation” here – the micro-situation of the car being stuck connecting to the macro situation of the reason we are on this track in the first place). Since the road is so convoluted and involves many unlikely turn-offs, I asked how far they were going and whether we could follow them, to which they readily agreed. Their village was about half way along our route and at the entrance to it they pulled over, and asked if we would like to come to their village for coffee and some food before continuing on. Regretfully we were forced to decline, already late for dinner at another Palestinian house. I’ve only been here for a week, and already that level of help and friendliness doesn’t seem unusual.

The more time I spend here, the more experiences I have, the more I am horrified that I have been fed this diet of racist propaganda towards Arabs and specifically Palestinians. Despite all of the problems, the pain and suffering, and the trying nature of everyday life in Palestine, the people here bear the situation with uncommon good humour, with incredible stoicism, and with an indomitable will to get on with their lives. Deep down, of course, they are suffering, they feel the pain and the damage engendered by the oppression, but despite this, they smile, they offer overwhelming help and hospitality, they make light of the problems they have to deal with on a regular basis. How they do this is beyond me. How they keep their spirits up, is almost unbelievable, and in some ways must be seen to be appreciated. This is not a people who respond to the daily violence (structural, physical, and systematic) with bombs and aggression. This is a people who for the most part respond with unheard of equanimity. In the west we hear one of two stories. At best the Palestinians are a people who respond to their suffering with violence directed at civilians. At worst, they are the ones initiating the violence and the actions of the Israeli government are merely a response conducted in self defence. We are misled. There is a very small minority of people here who commit horrific crimes in the name of the nation of Palestine. There is a huge majority of Palestinians who, abandoned and screwed over by Britain, by Jordan, by the Arab world in general, by the USA and , most pressingly, by Israel, continue to hope for peace, stability, independence, and a normal life. It’s a miracle in my eyes.

But I must also confront my racism towards Israelis. When I spend time in Israel, I am conscious of this antipathy towards the people I encounter. This is not a racism engendered by the media, by western propaganda. It’s from me, it’s from my anger at what the government of that country is doing and is equally wrong. Everyone I met there, from the immigration official who asked if I was likely to be visiting any Arab countries in the future, and would I therefore prefer if she didn’t stamp my passport so that I wouldn’t be denied entry, to the taxi driver who showed us the way back to the checkpoint from Afula, our local Israeli town, was helpful too, and possibly, given the problems faced in Palestine, would have been just as willing to perform impromptu repairs on my car or dig me out of a mud hole. While there are right wingers who believe in “transfer” (the Israeli euphemism for ethnic cleansing), and the continued policy of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, there are also many who are actively working for peace despite being fed daily propaganda painting the Palestinians as violent animals who wish to sweep them into the sea. It’s a prejudice that’s much harder to deal with, when one is confronted daily with the results of the actions of the Israeli government. But I must continually remind myself that these people too are damaged. Damaged by the misinformation of the media praying on their every fear. Damaged by the history of the Jewish people and the diaspora. Damaged by the constant barrage of lies and half truths designed to play on their sense of victimhood. Those that vote for Sharon do so for the most part out of a sense of insecurity and fear,not out of support for his racism and bigotry towards Arabs.

The black-and-white mongers – those who hold that the world is a series of binary questions, those who contend that “you are either with us or against us” – would hold that this feeling is one of anti-semitism. It’s a convenient and obnoxious label to throw at the liberal minded who feels anger towards a nation that practices state terrorism. Quite apart from the semantic question of what exactly constitutes “anti-semitism” (a greater proportion of Palestinians than Israelis are semitic), it’s patently not the case. I have nothing against Jews, per se, but the Israeli government and its army. To resort to cliché, many of my best friends are Jewish. But, while it is not “anti-semitism”, it is a prejudice, and one that I need to work on, however uncomfortable it may make me.

When the clouds lifted today, I walked to a ridge and looked out over the beautiful landscape spread out beneath me. Olive groves, fields, villages, valleys and hills, green and fertile all the way to the border with Israel and beyond. It is sometimes hard to step back and look out at this land, the fighting that goes on over it, and the people that have died here and see not only the big picture but also the trees in the forest, the people that make their homes here, make their lives here, not as warring factions but as individuals. Whole villages in what is now Israel have been lost and abandoned. When I drive through the thriving villages that continue to be inhabited here, I can’t help but think about what “transfer” would mean. Those who stand outside and talk about their “vision” for the Middle East, need to come here, to look at the human side of their vision and then, maybe, think again.

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