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.