Art and Resistance in the Palestinian diaspora
“You can’t tell us how to dance” — a conversation about culture, art and activism
“The account came to life after the Palestinian protest happened in May , and we were… surprised it happened and none of us Palestinians were there. So we had a Zoom call, and [were] like, ‘what the hell?’ … I was pretty frustrated when it happened. I would have loved to go. “
“I mean the idea was good…“
“The intention was there, but…“
“There was a Palestinian protest going on with no Palestinian voices.”
Meet Maya, 18, and Rawan, 23. They live in Turku, Finland. They identify, among other things, as being part of the millions strong Palestinian diaspora through their roots in Palestine, as well as Syria (Rawan) and Jordan (Maya).
Together with three other women in their city and the capital city of Helsinki, they recently created the social media account and movement Palestinian Voices in Finland or PaliVoices. Its purpose is to educate and inform people in Finland, and beyond, about Palestine. “Culture, art and activism — within the Palestinian culture & identity” is how the movement describes itself.
In our conversation –excluding the times the name of the movement was brought up –the word voice was mentioned 23 times.
“Why are you telling people how to resist?” (Rawan)
Pinkwashing often refers to the commercialization of LGBTQ-rights and is used as a marketing strategy. In the Palestine and Israel context, it is also actively used as part of the occupation.
The term pinkwashing has been adopted by Palestinian activists to describe how the Israeli state uses talk of LGBTQ-rights to “direct international attention away from the oppression of Palestinians”. And in doing so, as Maya puts it, “certain aspects of the Palestinian struggle get brushed under the carpet.”
To be sure, queer people face discrimination in Palestine as much as anywhere else. Rawan explains: “The thing with queer Palestinians, they get discriminated by their own people, and by the occupation.” In that sense Palestine is no different than any other place.
But through pinkwashing a narrative has been created and sold to the world: A tolerant and compassionate Israel that welcomes queer Palestinians and gives them protection on the one side (the “pink door” in the wall dividing the occupied territories from Israel). And in contrast, an intolerant and regressive Palestine where queer people -or more generally, women -are never free.
This is a story easy enough to swallow for Western democracies, human rights defenders and queer feminists alike, backed by orientalist and islamophobic ideas. It is modern (Western) values versus backward (Arabic) ones.
The effects are somewhat serious. For one, it hides the reality of violent military oppression, as mentioned above. It also splits the Palestinian community internally, disempowering the resistance. And finally, it works to cut international support, which further helps isolating Palestinians from the world.
“That’s one of the reasons why we need feminists, young voices,” Rawan continues, then adding: “And me as a non-queer woman, I should give the platform to more oppressed Palestinians, and let them talk about the occupation.”
I say: How is this my concern? I’m a spectator
He says: No spectators at chasm’s door … and no
one is neutral here. And you must choose
your part in the end
(Extract from I Have a Seat in the Abandoned Theater by Mahmoud Darwish, transl. Fady Joudah)
The international media community helps along the overall exclusion, or active silencing, of Palestinian voices.
Newspapers like The New York Times, The Guardian and Foreign Policy frequently use neutral language in their reporting about Palestine. However where evidence of violence is certain, neutrality can become partiality.
Since January 2009, more than 3 800 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces, according to data collected by Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem. In total it is almost 4 000 Palestinians when including killings by Israeli civilians and unknown parties. In the same period, just over 200 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians, of which half belonged to the security forces and half were civilians.
Yet journalists continue to insist on using language that imply a match between two equals.
Words like clashes, evictions and conflict are used in place of attacks, forced dispossessions and apartheid, as exemplified in an open letter from journalists to journalists in the US. The letter, signed by 514 members of the press, strongly condemns the “decades-long journalistic malpractice” in reference to the media coverage of Palestine. The writers also state that, “the evidence of Israel’s systematic oppression of Palestinians is overwhelming and must no longer be sanitized.”
Firing concussion grenades and rubber bullets inside a crowded mosque more closely resembles an assault than a “clash”; so does the targeted bombing of hospitals, media headquarters and residential homes. By now both Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem have recognized the Israeli occupation as a form of apartheid. And for years, the illegality of the Israeli settlements has been recognized by the United Nations Security Council, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the International Committee of the Red Cross and many more. This summer, a UN special rapporteur called it a war crime –a long shot from being threatened with “eviction” by a nasty landlord.
Objectivity can be misleading also when reporting on numbers. During eight days of violence in May 2021 more than 200 people died, of which the vast majority were Palestinians killed in Gaza by Israeli airstrikes, as many as 65 were children. Yet the dozen Israeli people that died by Hamas’ rocket fires often received as much or more media attention.
A case study of The New York Times from 2010 found that the paper had covered “431% of Israeli deaths and only 17% of Palestinian deaths, a ratio of 25:1.” This was despite the fact that Palestinians died at a rate 106 times higher than Israelis.
I broke the law? No, the law broke me (Born Here by DAM)
Self-defense has been used by powerful actors to justify aggressions and even warfare in the past. Perhaps most notorious, the US invasion of Iraq was partly masked as an act of “self-defense” against Iraq’s active weapons of mass destruction program, which did not exist.
Twice before, Israel has interpreted the right of self-defense in the UN Charter as the right to anticipatory self-defense, to justify military action: in the lead up to the Six Day War in 1967, and in its attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.
In the latter case, the UN Security Council strongly condemned Israel’s attack. The former case is still debated. Though in his books, Palestine and Israel: A Challenge for Justice and The Six Day War and Israeli Self-Defense, John Quigley argues how, from a legal standpoint, Israel’s action could not be justified as self-defense.
As late as May 2021, Israel once again invoked its “fundamental right to self-defense” against rocket fires from Gaza.
In a recent CNN interview the reporter, when speaking to a spokesperson of the Israel Defense Forces, says: “No serious or credible person would argue that Israel does not have the right to self-defense”, before turning to the (dis)proportionality of losses in Gaza.
This kind of reporting not only makes the violence seem like a fair fight. Potentially more damaging is the fact that, as the letter points out, it ignores the asymmetrical power relation between a heavily militarized Israeli state –supported by an international community lead by the United States –and the occupied Palestinian territories, where people live in conditions that have been described as the world’s largest open-air prison.
My sister, our land has a throbbing heart,
it doesn’t cease to beat, and it endures
the unendurable. It keeps the secrets
of hills and wombs.
(Extract from Hamza by Fadwa Tuqan (1917–2003), transl. unknown)
When media fails them, other channels of communication have risen for Palestinians. And one increasingly important way to speak is through social media. “It’s another way to raise awareness,” according to Rawan. She follows social media accounts of many Palestinians in Palestine who are resisting the occupation. “They put themselves in danger for us people outside of Palestine to learn, and to know.”
During the recent violence in May, social media gained more importance than perhaps ever before, for Palestinians as well as their supporters, in Palestine and around the world.
“When some people started donations and stuff, the Palestinians themselves were saying, ‘we don’t need donations … All we need is for you to use your platform, whether you have fifty followers, a hundred, whether you have a thousand, use that platform to speak,’” Maya told me when we met a few months later.
Some were sceptical though, saying social media is not going to help, or make a difference. Also Rawan felt a certain scepticism. “We were protesting against house demolitions here. Right now they are demolishing houses in Palestine.”
But Maya still sees the potential of social media. “It’s our only voice because [other] media doesn’t give us the platform we need. [Normally] I would also say social media is not the way to show your ally-ship, it could be performative activism. But in the case of Palestine, that’s all we have.”
Before the spring of 2021, Maya and Rawan had never seen so many people show up for a protest for Palestine, or taking an interest. At least for a while, Maya says, it is what kept the momentum going.
Who’s the terrorist? / I’m the terrorist?! / How am I the terrorist when you’ve taken my land? (Who’s The Terrorist by DAM)
But before social media, alternative platforms have been around for as long as voices have been silenced. Specifically, art in various forms remains a strong driver and voice for social change and revolution everywhere.
That was also the original idea of PaliVoices, Maya explains; to educate and speak through art. “Actually, at first, before all that happened in May , we wanted to create [the account] just to show Palestinian beauty, music, traditions, food, all that type of stuff.”
From folksongs of protest and traditional dances, to satire, street art and calligraphy, creativity, art and culture has played a central role in different resistance movements throughout history. In Palestine this is no less true.
“It’s important to know about the Palestinian resistance, that since the occupation has tried to silence them in many ways, they have learned many ways to resist, like dancing, singing, making art… It’s a way to express ourselves,” Rawan says. Maya agrees: “Yeah, art is engraved in us, we don’t have to go to art school, or music school, you know, practice it, but it is within us … It’s sad to say, but art thrives on misery.”
Perhaps the most famous example of this is embodied in the modern day Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941–2008). He is considered by many to be the voice of the Palestinian people, and the national poet of Palestine. His poetry has been said to be part of Palestinians’ “journey for liberation”, and his poems “symbols for resistance”.
Darwish is also Rawan’s favorite poet. “He discussed the diaspora, he discussed the suffering [of the people] … He has this poem that says, ‘if we had the chance to live, we would love life’. And it’s about Palestine, it’s my favorite poem by him.”
Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry has been widely translated into English, despite the difficulty of translating from formal Arabic, as Maya suggests: “Poetry translated is not the same. Arabic is such a poetic language, it’s a romantic language, so beautiful. And like, one word has ten meanings in English. So I feel like it can’t be properly translated“.
Yet some have tried, among them Palestinian-American poet, translator and physician Fady Joudah. His own poetry as well as translations of other’s have won prizes, such as his translation of If I Were Another by Mahmoud Darwish:
If I were another on the road, I would have
hidden my emotions in the suitcase, so my poem
would be of water, diaphanous, white,
abstract, and lightweight … stronger than memory,
and weaker than dewdrops, and I would have said:
My identity is this expanse!
Darwish lived many years in exile, and his poetry often relates a longing for home. When Maya reads his poetry, she feels a special kind of nostalgia. “I’ve never been to Palestine, but [I still feel] homesick.”
We did not cross the border / The border crossed us (Border by 47SOUL)
A close relative to poetry, and another significant art form in the Palestinian cultural resistance, is rap music. Rawan has found comfort and strength in both. “A way of coping with all of what is going on in my countries, I do listen to a lot of Palestinian voices, to hip hop or rap music, poetry.”
Two groups she mentions are 47SOUL and DAM. The word dam means eternity in Arabic, and in Hebrew it means blood. “So it’s eternal blood, like we will stay here forever,” one of the members of the group has explained in an interview. The members of DAM are from one of the “mixed” cities in Israel, where Palestinians live side by side with Israelis, separated into ghettoized Palestinian neighbourhoods and prosperous Israeli ones. They have Israeli passports, but as Arabs within Israel, face the same kinds of discrimination that Palestinians in the occupied territories do.
“Art is another way to, connect with people, and to talk to people,” Rawan says. “Even me, I sometimes don’t understand everything in Arabic when they sing. But I still feel the pain in their voices, if it’s about Palestine.”
Had the Tree really fallen?
Never! Not with our red streams flowing forever
(Extract from The Deluge and The Tree by Fadwa Tuqan (1917–2003), transl. unknown)
Rawan: “Many people ask, but what about Hamas? So, they literally connect Hamas with the whole Palestine, which is also a big issue. And what about Hamas, it’s… people that are resisting. I mean once again we come to the point where, why are you telling people how to resist? I don’t know, if I was living in Palestine my whole life, born and raised [there], I don’t know what I [would] become. With all the trauma that I [would] have lived through in this land since I was a kid… The kids are living, and going through trauma. I mean … of course they’re gonna grow up into something not so stable.”
Maya: “When I see my people, my land being burned, being killed, being bombed… How can I, especially if I have friends and family there, and even if I don’t… It could have been me.”
Rawan: “I think, Palestinians are angry, Palestinians are being oppressed, so… You don’t get to fix our language. When we express ourselves it comes from anger. So, same way we shouldn’t tell [any oppressed people] how to protest, we also don’t… Yeah, it just annoys me when Finnish people come to me and say, ‘why are you so angry, why are you-“
Maya: “-so violent…“
Rawan: “When we were protesting [in May 2021], we did the [traditional folk dance] dabke. So we were dancing there, and then we got negative feedback.”
Maya: “‘Why are they dancing, there’s people dying?’ But in Palestine, people dance to- not celebrate the dead, but to resist, to show that no matter what you do, you’re not gonna bring us down. And I feel like that is something we try to do. That’s showing our resistance, that we’re strong, we’re unbreakable. They try to break our spirit, so that we don’t dance … [But] you can’t tell oppressed people how to resist. You can’t tell us how to dance.”