Thursday, January 15, 2009

How Cold Is It?

I'm wincing thinking about posting this to a blog, where I could be subjected to hateful commentary. But sometimes I'm too soft, too worried about rejection. During our first year of blogging, someone in the ether commented on a benign entry in which I had described the landscape, saying that if I didn't like Egypt, why didn't I just leave and that people like me made her want to puke. I felt shamed.

It's a measure of the hypnotic power of the internet that such a comment (made anonymously and therefore offering strength to the person who made it) would affect me so personally. I deleted the comment but thought long and hard about what I could have said to offend someone. I had been careful about my entries; I had been careful to describe and to give the new people and place a chance, to try not to judge them or to sound as if I hadn't thought enough about the situations I wrote about. I still try to be, even though I am surprised when anyone but my parents appears to be reading this blog.

Although I focused on nonfiction writing in graduate school, nonfiction scares me - you can't take back what you write once you let it go. You throw it out there and don't know what you could get in return. You have to come to terms with the idea that your perspective will evolve and that something you wrote about a few months ago might not be valid for you now. It's not a safe genre if you're honest about what you write. It's not safe if you acknowledge the complexity of life.

So. All of a sudden people are asking me if I am worried about Palestine and Israel in terms of personal endangerment. I'm not, but this wouldn't be a surprise to anyone in Egypt. It's geographically close to Egypt, so it seems dangerous to someone who doesn't live in the Middle East. But living closer to the conflict certainly makes it more prominent in my mind. So I try to explain Egypt's role as begrudging peacemaker. It's harder to explain that I don't wholeheartedly believe in either side's fight. Bringing this up in Egypt is about as effective as hitting yourself in the face with a cast-iron skillet.

The conflict is more complicated than any of us with mere opinions can say. Israel just happened to reshape its borders, for instance, so that it encompasses the main water supply. So it's pretty easy to withhold that resource from the Palestinians. Many of the olive tree fields that belonged to Arabs in Israel, as part of their livelihood, were razed, and the evergreen tree, that ubiquitous sign and a plant that produces nothing to eat, took the place of the olive trees. It's hard to understand why this had to be done and why Arabs were then forced into ghettos. On the other hand, Israelis are under the constant threat of being atomized should anyone get a hold of the proper weaponry, which would make anyone a little twitchy. And I have heard some of the most ludicrous things about Israel while in Egypt. When people tell you they think the Israelis were responsible for JFK's assassination, it's time to leave the room.

Lately, I have had requests for my electronic support. Groups on facebook dedicated to anti-semitism in the guise of an X over an Israeli flag. Emails in which I am supposed to "vote" for either Israel or Palestine. Too many of these groups feel like just another way to spread hatred. It seems to me that when you are joining a group called "I Hate Israel" (one of the least offensively-named ones) or when you are part of a group that believes Israel is unfairly treated by the media, you might be lacking some perspective. Semester after semester, I am charged with teaching perspective. Too often I have noticed that there are few examples for my students to follow, particularly in the sphere of the internet. No wonder my students don't believe me.

Real people exist in this conflict; human beings exist who are actually enduring this conflict. They exist on both sides and in between. We are all victims of greed and the idiocy that ensues when people feel they alone have some special right, especially when "god-given," concerning land. We are all in some way the conquered and the conquerors. Muslims, Christians, Jews: they have complicated histories and are part of the same family of religion. Each has killed the other. Each has pillaged the other. Each has extorted from the other. Maybe we are too afraid to admit that everybody might be mistaken, that crazies exist in all walks of life, and that it's up to the rest of us not to align ourselves as devotees with notions we haven't investigated with an open eye to all existing sides. 

For instance, there are many people on both sides who are trying to organize for peace. Where are those people? Could we please hear about them? Could we please show them some respectful acknowledgment and question them about how they've arrived at their views? Musing over Joe the Plumber and laughing guiltily at Ahmed the Terrorist is easier. It's too easy, too, to make the claim that you don't have the right to talk about something because you're not experiencing it. But I think most of us can say that we have experienced the lash of simple hate, that we have been guilty of simplifying a situation because it's much easier than confronting the notion that we might have done something wrong, too (or that our ancestors might have done something wrong, or that we have actually forgotten who cast the first stone), and that most people aren't evil, that most people want peace. It's hard to let one's sense of personal peace and comfort and solid opinions go when feeling this peace becomes a way of not seeing complexity. I think we all know this well enough.


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