Friday, 26 December 2014

Quebec - Je me souviens

Quebec's motto is Je me souviens or I remember and this has prompted me to do some research into memory and how our memories work, not a topic that's specific to Quebec, of course, but something which is of universal interest to the human experience.

It's not entirely clear how Quebec's motto came about, however, it seems to have been first written in stone in 1883 by the architect, Eugène-Étienne Taché, who designed the provincial parliament building in Quebec city.  It's funny how writing the motto in stone has literally kept it in human memory, so it persists as Quebec's motto until modern times.

Remember what, exactly?

Coat of Arms of Quebec
There are several possibilities for the source of this motto - it could have been adapted from the Latin phrase Ne obliviscaris (Do not forget) which is on the arms of the British Marquess de Lorne (a.k.a. the 9th Duke of Argyll) who was the fourth Governor General of Canada, including the period when the parliament was being built.  Or, as others point out, it could mean I remember the founders of Quebec (Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain etc) who were also honoured with statues on the parliament building.

Whichever way you look at it, Quebec's motto seems to encapsulate an idealogical struggle between the British rulers of Canada and their French subjects in Quebec - whereas the British are saying Don't forget (who is in charge around here), the French-Canadians are responding, I remember (who the founders of Canada actually were).

Personally, I think Taché's motto was a quiet act of rebellion on behalf of French-Canadians, superficially paying respect to the British Governor-General, but with a hidden message that would inspire fellow Canadiens.

What I don't remember

I've always thought of myself as having a bad memory - I think it's because I'm easily distracted and don't fully process things when they're happening, so I have bad 'recall' of events afterwards.  It amazes me when I look over the past blog posts and how many things I've understood and 'known' at one point, but no longer really remember.  Perhaps this blog should be called Learning (and then forgetting) about the World! 

Of course, it's impossible to remember everything and what I'm left with, after all of my learning and research, is a deeper understanding of the place I'm blogging about and a general impression that stays with me, even if I don't remember the detail of everything I've learnt! The joy of the Internet and the digital revolution, in a way, is that we no longer really need to remember things - information is constantly just a few clicks away, but I wonder how this will impact on future generations' ability to remember things?

Why do we need to remember things?

To help with my research, I read Memory: A very short introduction by Jonathan K Foster, part of the Oxford University Press's VSI series.  It's an interesting book which outlines our understanding of memory, how we memorise things, the difference between short- and long-term memory and major developments in human understanding of memory, such as Ebbinghaus' Learning curve, Bartlett's The War of the Ghosts story and Schacter's Seven sins of memory.

I was really impressed by the evidence of how unreliable memory is. A lot of the time, our memories are either completely made up or influenced by how we were feeling when the memory was being created.  Of course, there is a strong connection between memory and learning and, to answer the question above, the reason we need to remember things is because memory is key to our survival.

Without memory, we wouldn't be able to use the tools that have made us so successful as a species - not just physical tools, such as hammers and knives, but also tools like language, the ability to write and to think rationally, learning how to drive or operate machinery or technology - these are all dependent on our ability to consign thoughts and processes to memory.

How reliable are our memories?

What is a little bit worrying, however, is that we trust our memories as much as we do. If you ever talk to your parents, siblings or friends about events that happened a long time ago, you'll often find that you each have your own version of events.  Precisely because we can't remember the detail of things that we experience, our minds tend to summarise and leave us with an impression that becomes our total understanding of the past.

It's quite scary that, given what we know about the unreliability of memories, eyewitness accounts of crimes still play a large part in the evidence given in trials. I'm not sure what the solution is, but I do wonder whether or not eyewitness testimony is really that valid?

Change blindness

Another interesting phenomenon mentioned in the VSI book is the fact that most of us are blind to minor changes taking place in our immediate environment. As we're busy processing the world around us, our brains filter out information that doesn't seem to be that relevant.

As you can see in the video below, there is a well-tested experiment on change blindness that shows how you get Person A to ask Person B for directions on the street, but when you interrupt the conversation and replace the Person A with Person C, Person B will continue giving the directions without noticing that the person they're talking to is someone else.

Really interesting and I'm pretty sure I would fall for this one!

Another perspective on Je me souviens

The Quebecois motto Je me souviens has become a mantra for nationalists in Quebec, however Eric R Scott, a documentary film director based in Montreal has turned the motto on its head, by using it as the title for his documentary on anti-semitism in Quebec in the 1930's.  You can watch the whole documentary on YouTube and it's a topic that has caused a lot of controversy and inspired debate in modern Quebec (but also in Canada and other parts of the world).

I guess Je me souviens could be used as a rallying cry for any minority or subjugated population that has been written out of the history books. It is important to remember the past and learn from the mistakes of previous generations, particularly around issues such as the Holocaust.  I suspect, however, that reaching public consensus on how the past is remembered, is something that will continue to cause controversy and inspire debate for many years to come!

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Quebec - La belle province

I generally decide the places I'm going to blog about months in advance and, with Quebec, I was hoping that it would be the first time I would actually visit the place whilst I was blogging about it.  I visited Quebec in early October this year but, as you can see from today's date, my armchair travelling took a lot longer than my real-life travelling and I was busy reading and blogging about Palestine, when I was physically travelling across Canada!

Nevertheless, it was great to visit Quebec before approaching it as a blogging topic and I did a lot of reading about Quebec and Canada when I was there in October.  I've also come back with lots of photos (like the ones illustrating this post) that I can use for my blog but, more importantly, I have context for Quebec, which is really important to me.  When I see Montreal or Canada on the news or depicted in movies, I now have a sense of what it's like there and that puts everything into context for me.

Montreal skyline
I'd been to North America once before, on a visit to Cuba in 2010, but this was my first time to set foot on the mainland of North America and, in many ways, Quebec was a fantastic starting point, as some of the first European settlements were in New France - Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Quebec. It was also great to start my North American adventures in a French-speaking environment and in a city like Montreal which, to me, just looked like the New York I've seen in the movies.

I was fascinated by the steps leading up to the front doors above street level, the weird hydrant pipes sticking out of buildings and the dull brown brickwork of Montreal - I arrived in the midst of a heavy rain storm and the city looked quite grim in the dark afternoon, with an occasional glint of glass or steel from one of Montreal's many high-rise buildings.  I really loved Montreal though - the city has a certain edgy feel to it and it's incredibly vibrant and pulsating with an artistic energy that appealed to me.

Quebec city rooftops
As I only had a week in Canada, I decided to limit myself to Quebec and visit the two main cities, Montreal and Quebec city, as well as somewhere more off the beaten track.  Quebec city was gorgeous, very touristy, pretty cobblestone streets and the autumnal sun was beating down on me, as I set off on a walk around the city walls.  It's in a fantastic location, overlooking the St Lawrence river and it reminded me of Edinburgh, with its Chateau Frontenac perched on top of a hill in the ville haute.

My 'off the beaten track' experience was a very long bus journey to La Gaspesie - one of Quebec's most interesting sub-regions, a peninsula extending eastwards towards the Atlantic ocean and Europe. I saw some of the places where the explorer Jacques Cartier landed during his first voyage to Canada, which he claimed for the French crown.  La Gaspesie is a wonderful place and a world unto itself in many ways - all three experiences; multicultural Montreal, quintessential Quebec city and faraway Gaspesie, gave me a sense of Quebec's variety, as well as its rich history and fascinating cultures.

La Gaspesie
I'm really looking forward to blogging about Quebec over the coming weeks - I've already started reading, listening to music and watching movies.  I hope you'll join me, so we can learn about Quebec together!

Image credits:

All of the photos used on this blog post where taken by me and you are free to re-use them using the Creative Commons license:

- Attribution (particularly to this blog)
- Share alike
- Non-commercial

I've created a set of photos for Quebec which you can see on my Flickr account.  

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Palestine - The Final Word

It's been more than two months since I started blogging about Palestine and I've been quite busy with 'real life' travel during that period, having visited Canada and Morocco for the first time, so these trips slowed my armchair travelling down a bit!

Blogging about Palestine

It's been interesting telling people 'I'm blogging about Palestine' and how different that feels to when I told people 'I'm blogging about Oaxaca' or 'I'm blogging about Nordrhein-Westfalen'.  The very word Palestine immediately evokes the political situation and, despite trying to see beyond the politics for this blog, it's been impossible to learn about Palestinian culture, without understanding the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the psychological impact of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the increasing sense of imprisonment that people in the Palestinian territories feel.

What have I learned?

I've learned a lot about Palestine during the past few months - of course, about the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the reasons why Palestine looks the way it does in the 21st century. I've learned about orientalism and how it continues to influence European and 'Western' ideas about the rest of the world. I learned how to cook a traditional Palestinian dish, Musakhan. I learned about the Palestinians-in-Israel who make up 20% of Israel's population. I spent countless hours discovering Palestinian music, I watched four Palestinian movies and read six books (and two recipe books) related to Palestine.

The London connection

Tatreez cafe in Stoke Newington
I was also lucky enough to find a real Palestinian restaurant in London, the wonderful Tatreez cafe in Stoke Newington (Hackney).  We enjoyed a delicious home-made feast and the cafe gets a lot of its ingredients from a Palestinian fair-trade food supplier called Zaytoun CIC. Not only did we have a great meal in Tatreez, but we left with a shopping bag full of Palestinian couscous and za'atar.

Things I'd like to learn more about

As usual, I didn't have time to explore every topic that I encountered during my research - I would recommend the following areas, if you want to learn even more about Palestine:

The disappearance of the Dead Sea
The Palestinians of Chile
The Samaritans
The history of suicide bombing
The work of Eretz Acheret and the Israeli Jews who support aspects of the Palestinian cause
The Palestinian tourist industry
The Maccabean Revolt
The Massacre of Hebron's Jewish community in 1929
The glass-blowers of Hebron and their connections with Venice
The olive tree and the olive harvest
The Australian fundamentalist Christian, Denis Michael Rohan, who tried to burn down the Al-Aqsa mosque in 1969
The African-Palestinian population of Jerusalem and their contribution to the Palestinian resistance movement
Sitt Tunshuq, the mysterious female leader of 14th century Palestine
Cities below sea-level
The rock hyrax

The Final word on St George

Byzantine icon of St George
It's all too easy, in the 21st century, to cut Palestine off from the rest of the world - it's an Israeli problem, somewhere far away, with no real connection to the world we live in, a bizarre hangover from 20th century colonialism and wars, so I thought it would be worth highlighting a piece of Palestinian history and culture that will be more familiar to readers of this blog.

Not many people know that St George was born in Palestine (actually in Lydda or modern-day Lod/al-Ludd, currently in Israel). It's estimated that 6% of Palestinians are Christian and I'm sure most Christians are very aware of the fact that Jerusalem/Palestine was the birthplace of Christianity, the world's largest religion.

St George's Cross has become a potent symbol of the spread of Christianity that still resonates around the world today, not least as the flag of England (therefore also on the Union Jack) and in the international name for the country, Sakartvelo a.k.a. Georgia.  St George has been adopted as the patron saint of many places around the world, including Moscow, Malta/Gozo and Catalonia - usually outposts of Christianity.  The George's cross also crops up in places as far apart as Milan, Melbourne and Montreal.

Flag of St George
We've just recently had a scandal in England regarding St George's Cross and a tweet by Labour MP for Islington, Emily Thornberry. The scandal revolved around Thornberry's supposed 'snobbery' in her comments about people in Rochester flying the flag of England outside their homes.  It's interesting to think of this in the context of George of Palestine, whose Greek name means 'worker of the land'.

I can't help thinking there is something very working-class about St George and I want to cast him in the light of a revolutionary (like Jesus Christ?), whose thinking has echoed down the years.  I wonder what St George of Lydda would make of the Palestinian situation today?

Image credits:

The image of Tratreez cafe is linked by URL to their Facebook page.

The Byzantine icon of St George is linked by URL to its page on Wikimedia commons.  The flag of St George is also from Wikimedia commons, but I created my own version, adding a red border.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Palestine - Reading List

I'm not sure where I find the time to do all of this reading, but I've managed to delve into quite a few books in relation to Palestine.  My reading list is usually what slows me down so much, but I can't help it, as there are so many interesting books out there, I just want to read all of them.

I managed to limit myself to just six books (and two recipe books!) about Palestine.  I tried to find a balance between subject areas, reading both fiction and non-fiction, political and personal.  

My Palestinian reading list looks like this:

1. The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Very Short Introduction - Martin Bunton (2013) 

My Palestinian reading list
Regular readers will know how much I love Oxford University Press's A Very Short Introduction (VSI) series.  This book was no exception and I found it incredibly informative, yet concise.  I think full-time academics and students sometimes struggle with the VSI books, but they're perfect for someone like me, who is full-time employment and wants to grasp a subject area, without delving into too much detail.

I based my very first blog post on Palestine on what I learned from reading this book, so you can see my review there.  I would only add to this by saying that by reading the VSI book first, it really help me with the context for the other books I read after that.  Although the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is complex, there are some key facts and dates that you should know about, if you want to understand the context of this conflict and that's what the VSI helped me to do.  

2. Orientalism - Edward Said (1978)

I based my second blog post on Palestine on the thoughts and ideas that I had after reading part of Edward Said's seminal study Orientalism.  It's one of those books that any self-respecting intellectual should claim to have read but, I'll have to be honest and say that, as I already had enough material for a blog post from the first few pages of this book, I didn't read the whole thing.  Whereas the VSI series is concise and easily digestable, Said's book is massively detailed and would require a lot more time and study that I was able to devote to it.  

I enjoyed what I read immensely, but I have a feeling I would still be reading this book today, if I hadn't made a decision to put it down and move on to the next book.  What excited me about Said's book, is that it provoked so many thoughts and ideas in my head and I haven't given up on the book completely, I might just need to digest it a bit at a time!

Something I'd like to explore more as a result of reading (part of) Orientalism is the dichotomy of generalism versus specialism when it comes to education.  Everything has become so specialist, that I find myself not wanting to pursue further studies (in my case, a Master's degree).  My interests are so broad/generalist, that I feel that I learn much more from researching for this blog, that I could in a more formal learning environment, where I would be asked to concentrate on one very minute subject area.  I can't help wondering what happened to the universal of a university education?

3. The Lady from Tel-Aviv - Raba'i Al-Madhoun (2009)

Despite its prominence in the news headlines, I didn't come across a lot of cultural material about Gaza, as I was researching for this blog.  The Lady from Tel-Aviv gave me a chance to see Palestinian life through the lens of people living in this small strip of land on the Mediterranean coast.  

Al-Madhoun's novel was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2010 and translated into English in 2013.  This prize is managed by the people who do the Man Booker prize and has been running since 2008.  It's meant to promote Arabic-language fiction although, perhaps ironically, being shortlisted for the prize means the work has a better chance of being translated into English, making it accessible to a wider audience.

I really enjoyed Al-Madhoun's novel, which is about a Palestinian journalist living in England who returns to Gaza after an exile of 37 years.  To get to Gaza, he has to fly to Ben Gurion International airport and finds himself on a plane full of Israelis, 'the enemy'.  A woman sits down beside him, the lady from Tel-Aviv and they fall into conversation about their lives, initially skirting around issues, as we all do with strangers, eventually hitting some very personal topics, as they both confront the reality of life in modern-day Israel/Palestine.  

The main character in the novel quotes the famous Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish and I found these words very powerful and emotionally compelling:

Get out. Leave our lands. Evacuate our territories and quit our sea. Get out of our wheat, our salt, our wounds. Leave the vocabulary of our memory. Then - and only then - can you take care of your extremists, while we take care of ours. 

4. Palestinian Walks - Raja Shehadeh (2007)

Perhaps the most interesting book I came across during my research into Palestine was Shehadeh's Palestinian Walks.  Spanning a period of around 40 years, lawyer Shehadeh documents the changes made to the landscape of the West Bank during the period of Israeli occupation, with new settlements going up all the time and more roads, walls and concrete, fragmenting Palestinian communities and limiting their access to the countryside and each other.  

As you can see from my other blog, I'm a keen walker, so I could really relate to Shehadeh's book, as I know how important it is to be able to get out of the city and go for a walk.  His passion for his homeland comes through very strongly and I liked the fact that he wasn't that politically aligned and approached the situation in the West Bank without excuses, hyperbole or a party line.  His sorrow is the sorrow of a walker, an urban dweller, but a lover of nature, like myself!

As well as learning a lot about the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, I also learned quite a bit about Ramallah and it's made me really interested in visiting this city.  Once considered to be an outlying suburb of Jerusalem, with a strong Christian tradition, Ramallah has been thrust to the forefront of Palestinian identity and is the de facto capital of the Palestinian authority.  

As Shehadeh himself says, Ramallah was fortunate because it hadn't been mentioned in the Bible. Unlike Jerusalem, Jericho, Bethlehem or other West Bank towns/cities, Ramallah can stand on its own two feet with a modern identity that isn't overshadowed by its past.  It makes me think of Derry, where I lived for a year, and how Derry has made its own mythology in recent years and become a place of resistance and counter-culture.  It's interesting how new cultures evolve in places like Derry and Ramallah.  

5. I Saw Ramallah - Mourid Barghouti (2004)

I found it a little bit harder, if I'm being honest, to get into Barghouti's book I Saw Ramallah. Barghouti is a famous Palestinian poet and, despite reading his work in translation, I can tell that his way with words is beautiful, tender and evocative.  When he describes crossing the bridge from Jordan into the West Bank, after 30 years of living abroad, the level of detail in the description and the way everything is portrayed could only really be done by a poetic mind.

But I'm not convinced that poets are the best writers of novels or other books.  Or perhaps I just didn't have the patience, as this was the last book I read and I could feel the pressures of time pushing me on!

Something I found really interesting about Barghouti's story is that he highlights the difficulties of trying to remain non-politically-aligned as a Palestinian artist.  He also talks about the inability of Palestinians to look at their own society and culture with a critical eye.  I can relate to this, as it was a similar situation in Ireland when I was growing up.  The enemy was so clear and the odds so defined, that any criticism of the resistance/Irish nationalism wasn't palatable.

Barghouti illustrates this by referring to the famous line from William Shakespeare's Hamlet, 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark'. If Barghouti as a poet proclaims that something is rotten in the state of Palestine, then he will be pulled in front of TV cameras and asked to justify his claim.  It seems that, when a culture is fighting for its very survival, there's little room for criticism or dissidence, although I'd imagine the Palestinian authorities have been quietly tolerant of the opinions of Palestine's non-political academics and poets!

6. Palestine: the Bradt Travel Guide - Sarah Irving (2011)

There haven't been many guidebooks on the market that specifically deal with Palestine.  It's quite brave and, perhaps, nobel of Bradt guides to cover Palestine and I found this book to be a very useful resource, both in terms of my research for this blog, but also on a practical level, if I ever get an opportunity to go and visit Palestine myself.  

This was my first time reading a Bradt guide actually and I found it very informative and packed with details and useful information.  Travel to Palestine is complicated in the sense that the main way to get there is through Israel.  There used to be an airport in the West Bank at Qalandia, but this is no longer in use so foreigners, like myself, would most likely be travelling through Ben Gurion International.  

I'd imagine the Israelis aren't that keen on foreigners visiting places like Ramallah and Jenin, however, other parts of the West Bank are quite touristy - of course, Jerusalem, which sounds like a fascinating place, but also ancient cities like Bethlehem and Jericho.  

One place I'd love to visit is the monastery of St George of Koziba and Wadi Qelt.  You can still walk from the monastery to Jericho and Shehadeh described this route in his book Palestinian Walks.

7. The Middle Eastern Kitchen - Ghillie Basan (2001)

I used this recipe book when I was learning how to cook Musakhan.  The book covers a wide range of Middle Eastern dishes, from Turkey to Lebanon to Saudi Arabia and I'm sure I'll be using it frequently in future.  I love recipe books with pictures and fairly simple recipes, which is why this book appealed to me.  

8. Classic Palestinian Cuisine - Christiane Dabdoub Nasser (2001)

For more detailed Palestinian recipes, I'd recommend this book by Christiane Dabdoub Nasser.  I loved the fact that Nasser personalised the recipes by telling stories which bring the recipes to life.  His story about Musakhan is all about how it can induce pregnant women to go into labour.  Not sure if that means it's a good thing or a bad thing to serve your pregnant friends/partner!

The books I didn't read:

As usual I came across references to books that I didn't have time to read or that weren't directly related to Palestine, but I'd like to add them to my reading list, in any case, as they sound interesting:

Gaza: Beneath the Bombs - Sarah Irving (2010)

The Thief and the Dogs - Naguib Mahfouz (1961), although this is Egyptian, not Palestinian

Les Noces barbares - Yann Queffelec (1984) - French novel mentioned by Al-Madhoun

Men in the Sun - Ghassan Kanafani (1962)

Notes on a journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo - W.M. Thackeray (1846)

The Innocents Abroad - Mark Twain (1869)

Selected Poems - Robinson Jeffers (1965), poet from California who wrote about the environment

The Long Revolution - Raymond Williams (1961), a cultural study

Image credits:

The photo of the books I read was taken by me.

Images of the book covers are linked via URL from their product pages on 

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Palestine - On the Silver Screen

Palestinian cinema had a fairly late start in comparison with the cinematic traditions of other Arab nations and the production of movies, understandably, has been interrupted by war, Israeli occupation and the intafadas.

In recent years, there seems to have been a cautious resurgence in Palestinian movie-making, primarily driven by Palestinians born in Israel, like the directors Hany Abu-Assad and Elia Suleiman.

I watched four movies as part of my research on Palestine:

Paradise Now (الجنّة الآن‎), dir. Hany Abu-Assad (2005)

This is a great movie and was the first Palestinian movie to be nominated for an Academy award (Oscar) for Best Foreign Language film.  It deals with the lives of two friends, Said and Khaled, who live in Nablus and are sent on a suicide-bombing mission to Israel.  Things don't go as planned and they end up returning to the West Bank, without detonating their bombs. This gives them a chance to rethink their positions and throws up some surprising and dramatic results.

It's an incredibly sad movie and makes you wonder how desperate a young man or woman would need to be, before they would agree to give their own lives to further a political cause.  The movie also deals with the issue of ameel or collaborators - the choices that Said (played by Kais Nashif) makes are based on the fact that his father was a collaborator and this has left a stain on his family, so Said is seeking some kind of redemption in his modern life.

It's a controversial movie, in the sense that it shows the real lives behind suicide-bombers, which has drawn accusations of glamorising violence (although, I think suicide-bombers surely have real lives?).  For me, this is what made the movie interesting, i.e. trying to understand the psychology of the characters and the choices they were forced to make.

Omar (عمر‎), dir. Hany Abu-Assad (2013)

Abu-Assad's most recent movie, Omar also deals with the theme of collaboration, this time within the context of a love story.  It's an incredibly powerful movie and was also nominated for the Best Foreign Language film Academy award (losing out to The Great Beauty by Italian director, Paolo Sorrentino), Omar won the Jury prize in the category Un Certain Regard at Cannes and it really feels as though Abu-Assad and Palestinian cinema is finally getting the recognition it deserves.

I must admit, I've got a bit of a not-so-secret crush on Adam Bakri, who plays Omar.  As well as being a great actor, he's very easy on the eye!

Divine Intervention ( يد إلهية‎), dir. Elia Suleiman (2002)

Nazareth-born director, Elia Suleiman is one of the greats of Palestinian cinema.  He acts in his own movies, as well as directing and I loved his idiosyncratic approach to film-making, which is very different that your average film director.

Suleiman finds a space in the daily lives of his on-screen characters which reflect the absurdity of life in the West Bank. Nothing much happens in his movies and, at the same time, everything happens - explosions, fight scenes, breaking hearts.  Actions in Suleiman's movie are often repetitive and seemingly meaningless.  He very cleverly depicts the sense of 'waiting' that pervades modern Palestinian culture; waiting for the occupation to end, waiting for the Israelis to leave, waiting for real life to begin.

Suleiman's style might not be everyone's cup of tea, but I would recommend giving his movies a chance, as there is a depth to his narrative which is very rare in 21st century cinematography.  The humour in Divine Intervention is thought-provoking and full of symbolism.  Divine Intervention was nominated for the Palme d'Or in 2002 but, controversially not accepted as a submission from Palestine to the Academy Awards, due to Palestine's status (or lack thereof) as a nation.

The Time that Remains, dir. Elia Suleiman (2009)

I also watched Suleiman's semi-autobiographical movie The Time that Remains.  This movie picks up on similar themes to do with timelessness, the meaning of life and the injustice and absurdity of the Palestinian experience.

With The Time the Remains, I felt that Suleiman had reached a new level of perfection in terms of the stylisation of the content and the beauty of the shots.  There is a real sense of 'the loss of purpose' in this movie and the opening scene shows the Palestinian character, Fuad (based on Suleiman's father) getting into a taxi with an Israeli driver.  They get caught in up a storm and the Israeli taxi driver loses his way.

His exclamations of 'Where am I? Where am I?' are quite poignant and it's an interesting symbol of Palestinians and Israelis lost in the storm, where the Israelis are in the driving seat and the Palestinians are passengers.

Fuad is played by Saleh Bakri, the brother of Adam Bakri (who starred in Omar). The Bakri brothers come from a family tradition of actors and their father, Mohammed Bakri is also a well-known Palestinian actor and director.

I thought it was interesting to read Mohammed's comments, when asked about the state of Palestinian film industry, he said:

Let me tell you about the Palestinian film industry. Very simply, we do not have one. We have some very talented film-makers, but that's about it. We have no film schools and we have no studios. We have no infrastructure because we have no country.

Whilst Palestinian movies have only recently been recognised with international awards and made it to more mainstream audiences, there is, nevertheless, a respectable tradition of Palestinian cinema that is worth delving into to.

I could only get my hands on four Palestinian movies, but I've created an extended 'watchlist' below, which includes other Palestinian movies I think would be worth seeing:

Wedding in Galilee (عرس الجليل), dir. Michel Khleifi (1987)

Chronicle of a disappearance (سجل اختفاء), dir. Elia Suleiman (1996)

The Olive Harvest, dir. Hanna Elias (2003)

Salt of this Sea, dir. Annemarie Jacir (2008)

I'll leave you with the trailer for Salt of this Sea - looks like a really interesting movie and as I've been researching for this blog, I've several times been confronted with the fact that Palestinians in the West Bank no longer have access to the sea. I believe everyone should have access to the sea and it strikes a real chord with me, personally, that this isn't the case for people in places like Nablus and Ramallah.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Palestine - Playlist

Palestinian music is quite varied, from the traditional Dabka folk dancing, to more modern forms of music such as rap, my Palestinian virtual journey has had quite an enjoyable soundtrack, as I've been reading, cooking and watching movies.

Here is my Palestinian playlist:

1. Le Trio Joubran

I'd heard about Le Trio Joubran before I started researching Palestine and I've been a fan of their music for quite a while.  I guess the best way to describe their music is by using the word 'classical' and Le Trio Joubran is made up of three brothers, from Nazareth, who come from a long line of professional oud players.  The oud is an instrument which is popular right across the Middle East and I really love its melancholy sound which evokes images of the wind hurtling across the desert.

I came across this performance of Le Trio Joubran's song Nawwar on YouTube.  The clip comes from the TV channel France 2 and Le Trio Joubran seem to be very popular in France.  There's no way you couldn't enjoy this performance and I love the way the brothers' passion for music is seen on their faces:

2. DAM

I must admit, I've become a big fan of the Palestinian rap group DAM who I'd never heard about before I started researching for this blog.  The group consists of two brothers and their friend, who grew up in Lod/al-Ludd, one of the Palestinian towns that was depopulated after the 1948 Nakba

Although they grew up in Israel, DAM's music deals with the situation in the occupied Palestinian lands, as well as the treatment of Palestinians who live in Israel.  Their lyrics are hard-hitting and the combination of rapped lyrics in Hebrew and Arabic and more traditional song is epic!  I particularly liked Mali Huriye which means 'I don't have freedom' and I wanted to share some of the lyrics and video with you below:

Everywhere I go I see borders, imprisoning humanity
Why can't I be free, like other children in this world?

3. Reem Kelani

Reem Kelani is quite an interesting woman and I enjoyed watching some of her interviews on YouTube.  She's Palestinian but grew up in Manchester and has become a bit of a star on the world music circuit, having done many collaborations with musicians from all kinds of musical traditions.

She released a solo album Sprinting Gazelle: Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora in 2006 and it's a great collection, well worth listening to.  I particularly liked the song Yafa! (Jaffa!) which uses the lyrics of a poem by Mahmoud Salim al-Hout.  It's a mournful song and express the pain of exile and not knowing whether you'll ever see your place of birth again.

I'm pasting in a link to the video on YouTube, so you can have a listen.

Some of the words, translated into English are:

Yafa! My tears have dried up
I weep for you with stricken eyes
Will I ever see you?
Will I live long enough?

4. Amal Murkus

Amal Murkus is a Palestinian who was born in Galilee and grew up in Israel.  She's an Arab-Christian communist and has been a strong voice, politically, both for Palestinians in Israel and women in a male-dominated world.  

I liked the song Ya Ba La La which is a traditional folk song and, as far as I can tell, it's about a young female mask-seller who comes to the city to sell masks and then falls in love.  A song about masks is an interesting statement from a Palestinian who grew up in Israel and I'm sure that living in a state run by your 'enemy' means adopting all kinds of masks, just to get by.

You can hear Ya Ba La La by listening to the YouTube video below:

5. El-Founin

No playlist of Palestine would be complete without reference to Palestine's leading dance troupe El-Founin. Formed in 1979, El-Founin have kept alive a long tradition of Palestinian dance and have performed concerts all around the world. 

Their current projects include one called Dance Freedom. You can find out more about El-Founin on their websiteI found the following video on YouTube which is a good example of the type of music that El-Founin is famous for.

6. Ramzi Aburedwan 

Ramzi Aburedwan was born in Bethlehem in 1979 and grew up in a refugee camp in Ramallah. He studied at the Edward Said conservatory in Ramallah and also studied Chamber music at Angers in France. 

You can find out more about Ramzi on his website.

I discovered Ramzi's music via the new Rough Guide to Palestine which was released in July this year. I couldn't find a YouTube video for the song I liked most Andalus, so I'm posting a link to the song on Spotify instead, for those of you who have Spotify accounts:

7. Ashraf Abu Leil

It's hard to find information in English about Ashraf Abu Leil and I suspect that, out of all of the artists on my playlist, he's the most well-known in Palestine and possibly least well-known internationally. Ashraf is a wedding musician who keeps alive the Dabka musical tradition.  

Dabka is an Arabian folk dance which involves both men and women and is upbeat, repetitive and easy to sway to - all good ingredients for music that is associated with celebration.  

I'm pasting in a video of Ashraf below, playing live at what looks like a wedding.  Enjoy!

 8 . Natacha Atlas: The one that isn't actually Palestinian

When I'm blogging about various places, I usually come across songs that are popular in that place, despite the fact that the music/artist originated somewhere else. 

It's hard to ignore this and it's only naturally that people don't limit themselves to cultural influences from their immediate surroundings, so I want to recognise the one that actually isn't Palestinian, by paying tribute to the Belgian-born singer of Arabian descent, Natacha Atlas. 

I first heard her version of I Put a Spell on You when I was watching Elia Suleiman's movie, Divine Intervention. What a captivating interpretation, I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.  

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Palestine - Better Together?

It was interesting, last Monday evening, to watch the televised backbench debate from the House of Commons, on whether or not the British parliament should recognise a Palestinian state.  It wasn't a surprise to see Labour MPs speaking in favour of the debate but, the idea of a two-state solution for Palestine/Israel has gained such common currency in Britain that even Conservative MPs were speaking in favour of recognition, which surprised me.

International recognition of a Palestinian state

Free Palestine by James_London
The outcome of the vote for symbolic recognition was overwhelmingly in favour (274 ayes and 12 noes) and, although this vote doesn't officially change the British government's approach to Palestine, it's seen as a historic moment, atoning for past mistakes in British policy on Palestine and the first step towards official recognition of the Palestinian state by the UK government, which would then join the 134 other countries who currently recognise Palestine.

Since I started blogging about Palestine just over a month ago, Grenada and Haiti have officially recognised Palestine and the newly-elected Prime Minister of Sweden, Stefan Loftven, has announced that Sweden will recognise Palestine, becoming the first European Union country to make this commitment.

Parallels between Palestine and Scotland?

Pro-Palestinian protest in London by James_London
I can't help but draw parallels between the campaign to gain recognition for the Palestinian state and the recent referendum on the question of Scottish independence.  I don't really believe in nationalism, however, in the case of Scotland, it seems so obvious to me that Scotland is a country, that I unreservedly support the right of the Scottish people to have their own nation.  Having said that, people voted as they did and the majority in favour of remaining in the United Kingdom was clear, so it would seem that independence is not really what Scottish people actually want . . . well, certainly not right now.

The reality is always a lot more complicated and how we understand the nature of a nation very much depends upon the times we live in.  There are pluses and minuses for Scottish people, in terms of independence and, unlike in Palestine, a 'no' vote in Scotland won't necessarily lead to repression of the Scottish people or their being denigrated to second-class citizens (although there has been some anti-Scottish sentiment in the media 'south of the border').

Demonstration at Houses of Parliament by James_London
Of course, the situation in Palestine is very different and whether or not Palestinians have control over their own affairs is crucial to protection of human rights and dignity of the Palestinian people.  Unlike Scotland, Palestine isn't an equal partner in any kind of union with Israel and, in reality, it's difficult to compare the need for independence in these two countries, as their contexts are not the same.

As with Scotland, it's always been obvious to me that Palestine is a country and, logically, should have its rightful place at the table of nations.  Until I started researching for this blog, I never really questioned the two-state solution for Palestine/Israel, however, I'm beginning to see another side to this situation that hadn't really been obvious to me before.

The Palestinian population of Israel and Israeli settlements in the West Bank

One thing I didn't really grasp before I started researching for this blog, is the fact that 20% of Israel's population identifies as Arab/Palestinian.  After the 1948 nakba more than 700,000 Palestinians fled their homes and sought refuge in neighbouring countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, where they remain to this day.  However, many Palestinians didn't flee, but chose to remain, particularly in places like Nazareth, which is still predominantly Arab-Palestinian.

As I've been researching the literature, movies, music of Palestine, time and again I'm coming across Palestinian culture originating from the modern state of Israel, as well as the West Bank and Gaza. Whether it's the music of the Palestinian rappers DAM, who grew up in al-Ludd/Lod, just a stone's throw from Ben Gurion International airport, or the movies of Elia Suleiman, who was born in Nazareth - the culture of Israeli-Palestinians seems incredibly vibrant and sure of itself and gives me some hope for the future.

I'm now wondering what would happen to Israeli-Palestinians in a two-state solution?  Not to mention, the post-1967 Israeli settlements that have been built in the West Bank, which put more than 300,000 Jewish settlers within what is traditionally defined as the West Bank and, under international law, would be part of the new Palestinian state.  By deliberately 'colonising' the West Bank, Israel has, in a way, bound the two states together for the foreseeable future.

Would Palestine and Israel be better together?

Perhaps a single, bi-national state would be better after all although, similar to the situation in post-apartheid South Africa, it would have to be a state where the Arab/Palestinian population plays as great a role as the Israeli/Jewish population.

Israeli flag in Palestinian colours
This isn't a popular idea at the minute - certainly not for right-wing Israelis, who are living according to the principles of a Jewish homeland and I understand how a single state with equal rights for Palestinians wouldn't appeal to them, as that goes against everything they believe in.  Equally for Palestinians, the idea of belonging to a single state where Palestinians might end up becoming second-class citizens isn't really a solution.  The legacy of the 20th century for Palestinians is so full of injustice, that it would be hard for any Palestinian in the West Bank, Gaza or elsewhere to accept anything less than full nationhood.

I find myself in the strange position of supporting recognition of the Palestinian state whilst also acknowledging that this could possibly prolong nationalist agendas on both sides for at least another century. Ultimately, even with a two-state solution, the question of living together peacefully remains.  I also find it hard to stomach the idea of any nation based on a religious or racial identity, so it's hard for me to see how a purely Jewish state of Israel will be sustainable in the 21st century.

Universal human rights

Getting back to Edward Said's ideas on humanism - it would be better to facilitate the basic rights of people and their access to recognised citizenship in Palestine/Israel, rather than think along religious or ethnic lines.  We're all human and the fact this fact alone should entitle us to basic rights regardless of which part of the world we happen to have been born in.

Image credits:

For this blog post, I wanted to highlight the work of Flickr member James_London - James is currently based in Nairobi, Kenya and you can see more of his images on his Flickr photostream.

Thanks James for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons license.  

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Palestine - How I made Musakhan

Although I've cooked Arabian and Yemeni dishes before, like Kabsa and Saltah, this was my first attempt at making proper Middle Eastern food. I was spoilt for choice in terms of Palestinian dishes, but settled for Musakhan in the end, as I needed something easy after my recent experience trying to make a Mexican mole!

I looked at two different sources for inspiration - the first, a very entertaining and enjoyable book called Classic Palestinian Cuisine (2001) by Christiane Dabdoub Nasser.  Nasser tells the stories of the dishes and recounts his personal experiences, which makes this so much more than just a book of recipes!

Ground cardamom, sumac and cinnamon
If I'm being honest though, I was more influenced by the recipe in The Middle Eastern Kitchen (also 2001) by Ghillie Başan, as this recipe was a bit simpler and less labour-intensive.

I really love the format of The Middle Eastern Kitchen as it focuses on the individual ingredients and, perhaps not surprisingly, the recipe for Musakhan comes under the section on the spice called sumac.

My first time using sumac

Apart from sumac, the main flavouring for this dish, I was pretty sure I would find all of the ingredients I needed in my local area.  As it turned out, it was quite easy to find sumac as well and I think it's much more commonly available than I realised - I've just never noticed it before.

Sumac is made from dried berries and quite often sprinkled on salads or cooked meats to give them a kind of citrus flavour.  It's very tasty and I can see myself using this flavour a lot in future, as it adds a satisfying piquancy, if you don't want too much heat in your dish.

The ingredients

For the Musakhan

Musakhan ingredients
Olive oil - زيت زيتون
Butter - زبدة
2 onions - بصل
2 chicken breasts - دجاج
sumac - سماق
cinnamon - قرفة
cardamom (ground is best) - هال
1 lime - ليم
Mint - النعناع
Coriander - الكزبرة (although I decided not to use coriander in the end, as I wanted a more minty flavour)
4 pitta breads - خبز (actually it would be best to use real Palestinian bread, known as tabun which is the name of the oven it's cooked in, but I didn't have access to this, so pitta was a good substitute, especially as it's hollow inside and can be easily filled)

For the salad

2 cucumbers - خِيار
4 tomatoes - طماطم
Red pepper - فلفل حار
Yoghurt - الزبادي
Mint - النعناع
1 lime - ليم

How I made Musakhan

I started by making the salad, so I could chill it in the fridge whilst cooking the main meal.  I must admit that I'm not a massive fan of cucumber which I know sounds ridiculous, as it's probably one of the world's most inoffensive food products - I think I ate too much cucumber when I was living in Uzbekistan and it put me off!

Lovely, refreshing cucumber

Anyway, I first chopped the cucumber into chunks and mixed it with the yoghurt in a big bowl.  I then chopped up the tomatoes, pepper and mint, mixing these ingredients with the cucumber and put this in the fridge to chill.  Before taking it out of the fridge to serve with the main meal, I added lime rind and juice.

Red pepper added to cucumber and yoghurt mix

Cucumber and tomato salad
I added lime rind and juice to my salad, as well as to the main dish

To make the Musakhan I started by frying a lump of butter in some olive oil, then adding the onions and frying these until they turned a soft golden colour.

Fry the onions until they turn golden

I then added the chicken pieces and a couple of spoonfuls of sumac and stirred until the chicken had cooked through.

Add the chicken pieces and the sumac
Then I added the ground cardamon and cinnamon, along with lime rind and juice and chopped mint leaves, leaving the dish to simmer gently, only stirring occasionally,

Add the mint and spices

Let the dish simmer for about 20 minutes
As the main dish was cooking, I halved the pitta breads, opening up their central cavities before putting them in the oven for a few minutes to soften them up.

Halve the pitta bread and open the centre

A stack of pitta bread
Once the pitta breads had heated a bit, I took them out and spooned the Musakhan mixture into each piece of bread, before returning them to the oven to cook for around 8 minutes.  

Fill the pitta bread with the cooked Musakhan mixture

Bake in the oven for around 8 minutes
The end result was very yummy and the cold salad made a nice contrast to the warm bread and musakhan.  This was an easy dish to make and I'd highly recommend it!

Musakhan with salad

My Palestinian dinner
Image credits:

All images were taken by me on my trusty Canon EOS 1100D.  Feel free to re-use these images with the Creative commons license:

- Attribution (especially to this blog post)
- Non-commercial
- Share alike

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Palestine - Accidental Orientalism

Edward Said was one of Palestine's most famous sons.  Born in Jerusalem in 1935, he was brought up in Mandate Palestine and in Egypt and he was educated in the US (Princeton and Harvard).  I'd heard about him before I started researching Palestine, of course, but I'd never read his key text Orientalism (1978), so I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to do so.

Said's theory on orientalism

Moorish bath (1870) by Jean-Leon Gerome
To be honest, I already had enough material to write a blog post by the time I'd finished his Preface to the 2003 edition of Orientalism and I immediately connected to the theme and understood the main arguments behind Said's theory, i.e. that Orientalism is a fake area of cultural study, which says more about the Europeans who invented these ideas about their eastern neighbours, than those who actually live in the Middle East/Far East, outside Europe and 'the West'. 

According to Said, orientalism isn't merely a West/East division, it's an our culture/Other division that has served to justify wars, colonisation and inhumane behaviour.  Interestingly, he puts forward the case that every Empire claims that it is working in the best interests of the people who are being colonised and that each Empire claims that its circumstances are different than the circumstances of previous Empires.  How true that is!

The link with occidentalism and cannibalism

I've blogged about orientalism before, when I was researching Xinjiang/Uyghuristan in 2011 - strictly speaking, that blog post was more about occidentalism (i.e. the Middle Kingdom's view of exotic lands like Turkestan, which lies to the west of China), but the principle behind orientalism and occidentalism is pretty much the same, i.e. projecting your own culture's fears, desires, expectations onto another culture you don't really understand.  I also came across this 'cultural projection' when I was blogging about cannibalism in the South Pacific.  

The West and the non-West

Harem bath by Jean-Leon Gerome
I agree with Said's point of view, as I think our image of the Middle East/Far East/non-Western countries says more about who we are than the people who live in those places.  Our concept of the Middle East probably wouldn't mean much to someone living in Palestine and the problem with generalisations, of course, is that they assume that other people's cultures are monolithic, that everyone there is the same and there is no diversity in terms of how people see the world or interact with it.  This is the basis of prejudice which can quickly become racist and patronising.  

However, as Said argues, our tendency to propagate an East/West dichotomy is so strong that we do it without even thinking.  I've talked about 'the West' many times in previous blog posts which, whilst this recognises diversity in non-European cultures, still imposes a West/non-West understanding on the world.  It's only after reading Said's book that I'm starting to question what 'the West' really means and whether or not it's useful to continue using this kind of false dichotomy?  

A new world of humanism

Said promotes an approach which he calls humanist - which means that when we try to understand people from other parts of the world, we shouldn't immediately fall into the West/non-West distinctions, but look at each culture/situation/tradition with the understanding that we are all human. Israel/Palestine is a good example of how orientalism colours the debate - we think Palestine/East and Israel/West, which usually also means Palestine/Muslim and Israel/Jewish, rather than thinking purely about human beings who lose their homes, their loved ones or their lives.  

In the unravelling of his opening chapter, Said shows that European fear of the East is deep-rooted and steeped in centuries of misinformation and prejudice. He goes right back to the time of Euripedes' Bacchae and Aeschylus' The Persians.  Invasion from the east was a very real fear for most of Europe's history and still manifests itself in modern Europe in the guise of Islamophobia and racism.

Relentless invasion  

It's interesting to note that, even in modern times, we've retained this fear of the East. Whether it's Youtube videos of the (real) North Korean army marching, or a depiction of the (fictional) march of the Unsullied in The Game of Thrones, the armies of the East are seen as relentless, numerous, faceless, voiceless.  

I think the 2007 action film 300 about the Persian invasion of Europe and the Battle of Thermopylae captures the essence of European fears, echoing down the centuries to a modern-age that still struggles to come to terms with cultures that are 'Other'.  You just need to watch the trailer to get a sense of how we perceive the Other to be frightening, freaky and threatening.

Accidental orientalism

The words accidental and occidental are from the same root, meaning 'to fall' - accidental when you fall over and occidental meaning that the sun falls from the sky (in the West).  By contrast, the word oriental comes from the verb 'to rise' - you can also see it in the word aurora which means 'dawn'.  I thought I would play with the words in my title for this blog post, as I feel that I've been an accidental orientalist.  

Thinking in terms of West/non-West is second-nature to many of us and I want to get away from that and understand cultures from their own point of view. Of course, language is a real barrier, as I'm trying to understand most of the world through English, which has already inherited an ingrained cultural orientalism.  

I guess my main experience outside all of this is in relation to Russian culture. I speak Russian and can read source materials without any need for translation.  I've always thought that Russians are misunderstood by most of the world, because the way things sound in Russian and how they translate into English is quite different, but perhaps it's the case that misunderstandings happen between all cultures, as we depend on languages and concepts steeped in centuries of orientalism to make sense of the modern world?

Palestine and Egypt

Reading Said's book has made me more aware of the strong cultural connections between Palestine and Egypt.  I've also got a heightened awareness of orientalism and I've been looking out for it in my everyday life. As I just happen to be listening to Kate Bush's third album Never for Ever (1980) at the moment, I couldn't help but notice the blatant orientalism in her song Egypt (and the accompanying video).  I'm going to leave you with this, as evidence of how orientalism works in our culture, but also because I love Kate Bush!

Image credits:

Both paintings are by the French artist (and orientalist) Jean-Leon Gerome and are in the public domain.  With increased European colonisation in the East and new opportunities to travel, the 19th century saw an explosion of interest in the 'exotic' East and Gerome's paintings made the promises about the sensuality of the East that would attract European men to travel there and administer the colonial governments.

It's interesting that we now criticise the East for being too conservative - whereas, in the 19th century, Eastern women were seen as shamelessly sensual, now they are depicted as religiously repressed.  I think that says a lot about how we project our understanding of the world onto other people.