Thrown in prison for drawing cartoons – The Independent

Click here to read my article on The Independent’s website.

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What do razors, edible sugar flowers and kangaroo meat have in common?

What do razors, edible sugar flowers and kangaroo meat have in common? They are all taxed as essential products. Tampons and sanitary pads, on the other hand, are classed as “non-essential, luxury” items.

“Non-essential”. So what would happen if women did without? One of two things: they could stay at home and bleed unobtrusively into their toilet bowls, or continue about their daily lives, staining clothes and carpets and disturbing any olfactory systems in range.

When the tennis player Heather Watson said last month that she lost at the Australian Open partly due to dizziness and nausea from “girl things”, the furore that followed showed that by mentioning her period she was doing something very unusual or even shocking. Yet periods often cause excruciating stomach cramps, aching legs and back, mood swings and headaches; periods can be a major pain.

The topic of tampon tax is beginning to reach national consciousness after Laura Coryton, a 21-year-old student at Goldsmith’s University, started a petition to scrap tampon tax, which has had nearly 140,000 signatures. Cameron was asked last week if he would remove the tax, to which he responded that it was very difficult to change the tax within the framework of European Union laws: “I’ll have to go away and have a look and come back to you.” This doesn’t sound promising.

Designating tampons as luxury taxable products implies an institutionalised misogyny in which women’s needs are routinely dismissed. Tampons form a keystone of female independence: they allow us the freedom to gain an education and earn a living, instead of staying at home – which is what many women did in the past and still do in some cultures.

In India, girls stay at home for an average of 50 days of school a year because of their periods. Some 88 per cent of menstruating women do not use sanitary protection. Many of these women use unsanitary alternatives such as newspapers, ashes and dried leaves, and have a 70% higher incidence of reproductive tract infections. But we are not in India and the vast majority of British girls are not missing school because of about 11p extra in tax per pack.

Campaigners got the tax lowered from 17.5% to 5% in 2000, to align with the EU minimum for non-essential products. It is not that we should be arguing to avoid paying taxes while the government is cutting disability and child benefits. It is the principle that matters. Sanitary products are health care, and should be designated as such.

I had mixed feelings about writing this article, it not being a subject everyone would air in public. To do so risks attracting the attention of marauding misogynists. But to avoid the subject would be to remain complicit in maintaining the taboo.

American feminist Gloria Steinem said in 1986 that if men had periods instead of women, a period would be the “envied beginning of manhood” and that there would be “gifts, religious ceremonies”. But men don’t. They have never been sent out of the kitchen for fear of tainting the cutlery; had to sleep in a separate bed; been spurned from their homes; made others impure by their touch; been banned from the tops of mountains; polluted the sacredness of temples; been hung upside down; lain writhing in pain while sucking a lemon; sat out of swimming lessons; ruined dozens of knickers; leaked through their clothes when there’s nowhere to hide; or spent unexplained hours in someone else’s bathroom secretly washing their underwear. If they had, they would realise that having a convenient sanitary product to keep themselves clean is not a luxury, it’s essential.

Shirin Neshat: Women of Allah – Brooklyn Rail

Shirin Neshat is split within by the barrier without: as an exile from Iran living in the U.S. she is caught between two worlds, simultaneously of both, and also of neither. To be exiled is to be divided not only from a homeland, but also from oneself. Although it is rarely directly addressed in her work, her state of exile unavoidably informs all of it, philosophically and emotionally. Charged with the impossible task of reconciling inviolable differences, one can see her work as a perpetual balancing act between these two worlds. In order to move forward, to exist, she must carve a passage for herself through the realities that invade her identity and that cast Iranian women as political territory.

Shirin Neshat, “Speechless” 1996. RC print and ink, 53 x 39 1/4 x 1 7/8″. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York. Photo by Rachel Styer.
Shirin Neshat, “Speechless” 1996. RC print and ink, 53 x 39 1/4 x 1 7/8″. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York. Photo by Rachel Styer.

Neshat’s Women of Allah (1993 – 97) series embodies these tensions, eliciting visceral responses to explore her identity and the conflicting lyricism and violence of the Muslim world: she arouses intense feelings which rage against each other until we too feel some of the perpetual turbulence of her world. In Speechless (1996), a woman stares out at us, the barrel of a gun peeking through the space between her cheek and her chador, Farsi script is printed so as to cover the skin of her face.

Speechless is an image that is strong, frightening, alienating, but there are also elements that counter this. We simultaneously feel threatened by the gun pointing straight at us, wonder whose unseen hand holds the gun so close to her skin, empathize with her because her eye glistens with sadness, and feel an echo on our own flesh of the calligraphy digitally etched onto hers. In this and other photos from Women of Allah, the script pulses with allusive possibility because of its placing on the body, though we cannot decipher it—on the palms of a woman’s hands (“Guardians of Revolution”), on the soles of a pair of feet (“Allegiance with Wakefulness”), or in the white of an eyeball (“Offered Eyes”).

The calligraphy contains the words of the Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad, famed for her daringly straightforward poetry about her experiences of love, sex, and the struggle for autonomy. The overlaying of this poetry onto skin makes each picture into the story of a woman and a body, which includes vulnerability, strength, pain, pleasure, banality, and spirituality.

“Hijab,” from which the Persian tradition of the chador (full-body cloak) originates, translates variously, including as “screen,” “curtain,” “barrier,” or “partition.” In its original incarnation in the Qur’an, such a partition is mentioned with the intention that it act between men and women (albeit as an instruction to be carried out by men): “when ye ask of them (the wives of the prophet) anything, ask it of them from behind a curtain.”[1]

A partition defines, or even creates, one object or group as separated from any other. The partition between the sexes creates further divisions, not only between people but within individuals, in other words, between public and private selves, homosocial and heterosocial selves, and one’s identity as perceived within Iran and as perceived by the West. This last division is felt acutely, since the hajib can act as a barrier to understanding: the culture of the West tends to understand through visual means, whereas Islam espouses aniconism, which shows itself by a tendency away from figurative representation in Muslim art. The face we are confronted with in Speechless elicits recognition of and empathy for the pictured woman’s inner self. This goes some way to redress the West’s lack of understanding of the Iranian people.

The creation of Women of Allah is in some sense an attempt to regain a closeness to and explore her own relationship with her fellow Iranian women. Paradoxically, this act of creating a body of work did in one sense sever her ties: these stirring images can and have been construed as critical of the Iranian government. It means that she feels she can never go home, and has forever set herself apart in the role of exile.

  1. 33:53, according to translation by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, as quoted on the website of the University of Southern California.

Originally published by Come Together: Surviving Sandy

Carer cuts in Camden

Camden families will be forced to pick up the shortfall after massive cuts by the council to the number of professional carers over the next three years.

The council intends to train friends or volunteers to be unpaid carers for those who do not have “substantial and critical need”.

Michael Berry, 47, an unpaid carer of his mother who has Alzheimer’s, said “It is extremely unclear where the line will go, between those who will still be deemed eligible for council help and those who won’t.

“Being a carer is a great strain on me, which I don’t imagine many others having the strength to cope with.”

This measure will be introduced as part of Camden’s effort to meet a financial deficit of £70 million in cuts from central government by 2017.

The council currently spends £83 million a year on social care for adults.

Patricia Callaghan, Camden Cabinet member for Adult Social Care and Health, said: “We are in an appalling position because of the cuts. We have to work within the parameters set by central government.

“We still have a duty of care for those with substantial or critical need, and will continue to help those people.”

A spokesperson from Camden Carers’ Centre said: “We know of the silent struggle that unpaid carers can go through when looking after someone on their own.

“This is often an extremely taxing job that shouldn’t be forced upon people, but unfortunately all too often it is.”

Fourth Pillar of Human Rights

Countries should be banned from bidding for the World Cup, Olympics and other major sporting events unless they prove they are stamping out human rights abuses, Amnesty International has proposed.

The proposals would require any country’s bid to host the Olympic Games and other sporting events to include a guarantee demonstrating their commitment to upholding human rights. Countries could be stripped of their right to host if they fail to keep to their promise.

Niall Couper, spokesman for Amnesty International UK, said yesterday that a letter was sent two weeks ago to Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympics Committee (IOC) asking implementation of the new charter through the creation of an IOC commission on human rights. He said Amnesty was “hopeful for a response”.

This comes in the light of various human rights breaches in countries holding the Games. In Brazil it is predicted that by the Rio 2016 Olympics about 100,000 residents will have been forcibly evicted from their homes without consultation, almost all without compensation, and moved to cramped flats controlled by gangs.

Mr Couper spoke of the potential to make a positive step for human rights. “It is an opportunity to create a legacy because of sport.” He pointed out an advantageous trend in countries with poor human rights records using high prestige sport events to “whitewash their images”.

He also mentioned that the proposed charter would detail policy on workers’ rights, racism, homophobia, and would make sure that stadiums are built with adequate consultation and compensation for those being evicted from their homes.

Amnesty and other NGOs, including Transparency International and Human Rights Watch, co-operated to write the letter to create pressure to effect the creation of a charter. The groups are also pushing for the EU to endorse the charter by participating in its drafting.

The IOC already calls for all host countries to uphold its three pillars of sports, culture and environment. Previously, in 1995, Greenpeace were successful in lobbying for the IOC to add the environment as a third pillar of Olympism.

Southside Stories

I am gripped by these voices in my ears. Through my earphones I am listening to an audio documentary about the Southside of Williamsburg, narrated by members of certain of the neighborhood’s fast fading communities – Hispanics, Hassids and others. I follow instructions on where to direct my feet and gaze, transposing vibrant scenes and characters, inaudible to others, onto the streets around me.

In the 1980s in Los Sures, as the Southside of Williamsburg is still known to its Hispanic inhabitants, life overflowed onto the streets, which were filled with violence and drugs; survival was top of the agenda. Los Sures was the poorest neighbourhood of New York City, with a population of 20,000 Hispanics, suffering from abandoned real estate, crooked landlords, racial tension and inadequate local resources. The voice of a long-time resident tells me “Violence ruled the street. The movies were right outside… the action was there.”

This is one of Williamsburg’s many realities related to me on the audio documentary. Titled Southside Stories, the walking tour is part of Living Los Sures, a collaborative project made up of many documentaries over the course of the last four years. The project takes as its starting point a 1984 piece of cinéma vérité by Diego Echeverria, which looked at the hostile conditions of the time, but also the strengths of the community: culture, creativity and a hope to lift themselves out of their sordidness. Southside Stories finds voices of remaining members of that splintering community, as well as some new voices. Its stated hope is to ”reunite a neighborhood around a sustainable future.”

Although the speakers are quite alive (they were interviewed in 2013), the imagined world that plays behind my eyes seems like the past – it feels as though I am conjuring ghosts. I stand outside what used to be a crack house, peering up into the windows, while a former drug lord regales me with the play by play of a drug deal – telling me whose job it was to stand at what street corner on the lookout for cops – and about the “line of junkies from the beginning of the hallway all the way down to the second floor, everybody buying drugs.” Nearby, I feel the bustle of La Villita bakery, as I stand in the middle of the sidewalk, imagining a scene that’s now been replaced by a boarded up shop front. An overnight doubling of the rent pushed them out of business – but in any case, the bakery had catered to the workers in the Domino Sugar Factory, whose closure had long since sent them packing.

Some of the stories are set in the present. The Caribbean Club on Grand Street is very much still going, thanks to the endless dedication of its founding owner and touchstone of the community, Maria Antonia Cay, known by regulars as Toñita. The audio documentary calls this “the last remaining Puerto Rican club” – thereby designating it the exception and the sole survivor of its kind. Toñita’s mantra is that the club will stay open until she can’t stand any more. But after that, then what? Toñita’s daughter has chosen to move back to Puerto Rico where life is easier, and as for her friends: who can now afford to pay $2,800 a month for the same one bedroom apartment that went for $250 in 1984?

These few original businesses are perceived as curios, time capsules, relics of days gone by. It feels as though they will soon form part of another stratum in the layers of people who have lived here. Bohemian, young middle class residents move in and new businesses cater to these wealthier clients, transforming the face of the high street and the focus of the neighborhood.

What happens to your sense of self, I wondered, when it is built around a world that no longer exists? Some think of themselves as out of place in their own home, as new residents take root: “Everybody’s going to Florida,” says a voice in the documentary. “We’re the only schmucks that stood here. But you know what, this is our neighbourhood, this is where we grew up. People look at us … and I feel like a foreigner.” As long time residents become sparser, their sense of community and self-recognition weakens. Some long time residents go so far as to  “I loved it here, I love it here now, I love it even more now with all these restaurants. “I just miss my people that are this place.”

This fading out of long time residents is not for lack of tenacity. There are those who make their presence felt by taking the strongest stand available to them against total transformation of the area: they refuse to sell their property. An eighty-six-year-old Puerto Rican woman named Carmen is a caretaker of a disused lot which was owned by a man who in his lifetime refused to sell it to developers. She continues his tradition: she does not sell the priceless land, but instead tends to the plants and a life-size stuffed gorilla toy who stares out at passers by, dressing him in different costumes. He’s been in that spot for years, his mouth agape in amusement at the world changing around him.

In fact, no matter what the action of long time residents, this transformation is inevitable and as old as New York City. Sixty-five years ago, E.B. White put it like this: “New York never quite catches up with itself, is never in equilibrium.” Many different cultures have lived here with fierce affection; nearly 80 years ago, Henry Miller declared himself in his 1936 novel Black Spring as a “patriot of the Fourteenth Ward” (as the South Side was then known), though his Williamsburg was yet another version: “Where others remember of their youth a beautiful garden, a fond mother, a sojourn at the seashore, I remember, with a vividness as if it were etched in acid… the ironworks… the black hands of the iron-molders, the grit that had sunk so deep into the skin that nothing could remove it, not soap, nor elbow grease, nor money, nor love, nor death.”

He too was distressed by Williamsburg’s transformation; after his parents moved to Bushwick, he decided to return to Williamsburg to attend the Eastern District High School on Marcy Avenue, hoping to find the life and warmth he’d known there as a child. Instead, he found his old haunts “like a dirty mouth with all the prominent teeth missing, with ugly charred stumps gaping here and there, the lips rotting, the palate gone.” He was complaining of the changes brought about by the abrupt influx of Italians and Jews spilling over from the Lower East Side after the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge.

There is a common phenomenon in New York, whereby different ethnicities live in what amounts to parallel universes on the same map space, whether it’s Los Sures and the Southside, Loisaida and the Lower East side, or 紐約華埠 and Chinatown. They are kept apart by their different languages and engage with the elements of the area that refer to their own culture. Williamsburg has belonged to many – both then and now – and has always been a neighbourhood of different groups living cheek by jowl. In fact, this moment is one of the least fractious in the area’s history.

The neighborhood is teetering on the brink of transition into a new phase of identity, but this does not mean that its long time residents should feel relegated to the status of outsiders. There are various ways in which a sustainable future can be forged for those that remain. As an outsider, and a Londoner used to easy vitriol directed toward gentrification, I am surprised by the level of acceptance of change. I meet a man who tells me he prefers Los Sures as it is today: “I’ve been living here nineteen years. [Back then] you had to hustle, people were dying – now it’s sweety pie.” He proceeds to try to sell me cocaine “the good stuff from Texas,” before telling me about a place in Williamsburg that he enjoys – the Southside Community Garden, into which I am peering.

In the documentary, Adam, an N.Y.U. graduate and new resident also extols the pleasures of the garden. Previously, the space was a rubbish dump alleged to be two storeys high, but in 1993, members of a Los Sures improvement project turned it into its present incarnation, which is parceled out to locals, for free. This includes Adam, who realised the significance of the garden when he was writing the required application letter explaining why he would value being a part of the garden: “I realised the only time that you effect change is the change that’s the closest to you, that you can make in your community… Williamsburg didn’t really feel like a community ever. The neighborhood’s changing; it’s very transient and it’s always evolving, so it’s really hard to latch onto community here… [This is] the most solid community effort that I’ve seen in this neighbourhood.” His participation forms a connection from the older generation of Williamsburgers to the new, through which accretions of the area’s history can form to remain a part of the landscape.

The documentary is a platform for local voices to sound in the intimacy of your ear, and for these stories to be witnessed as the story of a neighborhood. It bridges the gap between past and present narratives, allowing long time residents to be celebrated and recognised as a part of today’s Southside, by others and by themselves. On the receiving end, stories have an intense power to engage the empathy of the listener, breaking down all manner of barriers.

Southside stories is not just for the stories though. It actively strengthens the community: the listener is encouraged to interact with locals along the way: each participation creates new stories and carves its own imprint. It’s a jumping off point – having participated in the tour, the listener should feel more comfortable interacting with other cultures of the neighborhood. Perhaps in the future you will be enticed into The Caribbean Club, where you have learnt that anyone is welcome and conversation flows freely, or join the Community garden you hadn’t noticed before, or befriend the postman now that he has a name (Irvan). The hope is not only to identify the issues, but to prompt the social connections, awarenesss and understanding that will instigate real life solutions.

Spelling is Americanized for an American publication.

Review: Chimerica

‘Chimerica’: the implication is a monstrous concoction created out of two vastly different, grotesquely mismatched species, inextricably linked by virtue of being the world’s foremost economic powers. Yes, it is around these two polestars – China and America – that the various oppositional ideologies explored in the play are arranged; but no, Lucy Kirkwood cannot be faulted for being overly simplistic, as she never allows us to rest our minds in clear cut distinctions or stereotypes. Though out of the context of the play some of the characters’ perspectives and driving ideologies might seem caricatured, they are always sufficiently subverted by a host of other characters with oppositional opinions so that we, the audience, cover in our own minds all the ground between these extremes. The lofty idealism of the main protagonist, Joe Schofield, is set against a background of brutal humour, which repeatedly uses a banal, physical reality, undercutting notions of the individual’s importance or heroism: on finding out that his colleague has been paralysed from the waist down, Mel quips, “Man, that sucks. I have to find a new racquetball partner.” The script is choc-a-bloc with sound bites, easily digested like consumer culture: “I sleep in a tupperware box and eat nothing but steamed kale.” “This is a country which has gone from famine to slim-fast in one generation.” These ideas are amplified by the revolving set which transforms into various slickly purpose-built pod-like living spaces.

The plot takes its focus from a well-known historic image of one anonymous Chinese man with what we assume to be superhuman bravery, standing in the path of a tank during the Tiananmen Square massacre. The image is shocking. This man is made miniscule in comparison to the ruthless-looking tank which he stares up at, and must know full well that this army has made no bones about killing his fellow countrymen so far that day. We read into his body language, his slightly askew posture: in this overwhelming situation, perhaps he is in a nirvana-like state, kept standing by the overwhelming power of the needs and desires of his people. A hero maybe? Kirkwood reminds us that this is not reality, but rather “a photograph of one country by another country”, specifically by America, for whom the culture of heroes is almost superstitious, entwined with the constitutional notion of individualism – “All men are created equal” and anyone can achieve great things. This image of the tank man, the visual and intellectual heart of the production, is a jumping off point for exploration of Susan Sontag’s On Photography, in which the basic premise is that “photographs furnish evidence” and “appropriate the thing photographed”. Throughout the production this image is misread and used to serve the agendas of different characters, as well as the audience. A schism has occurred: we imagine photographs to be accurate depictions of the real world, but images are unavoidably ambiguous, nuanced with what we wish to see. They are dissociated from reality. Looking at the image, recognising our own visceral reaction, we, the audience, congratulate ourselves on our compassion and understanding, but our response is misdirected and in fact we have excused ourselves from truly engaging with the situation.

Tessa Kendrick, leading female protagonist, points out that the culturally imperialist American ego has projected its own perspective onto China in an unexpected way. Tessa breaks down in her business presentation, because the task she has been set is based on a false premise: that China’s rapid evolution from third-world to first-world country is necessarily tied up with an aspiration to become America. Repeatedly, we see Chinese characters play up to this assumption, wryly donning the role of naïve barbarian. Zhang Lin says to Joe Schofield of their dinner plans that he is taking them ‘Somewhere very special, I’ve been saving up, it’s called Pizza Hut’, before watching Joe’s face for a look that will be both patronising and patronised. We meet a Chinese stripper before she goes onstage for her United Nations gig. She is wearing a sequinned stars-and-stripes bikini. The implicit offstage scene is of a group of zombified delegates, swallowing a strange alternative version of their situation, egos flattered by cocaine and her feigned appreciation of their cocks and their country.

Originally published by The Kaleidoscope Project.

Homeless in the United States of America

On an all-American road trip this summer, I arrived in San Francisco, a city of bright lights, trendy hippies, shopping malls that sell jumbo jets and streets peopled by the homeless. A breed of homeless completely unlike any I had seen before. Walking through the wealthy gay district I received cheeky smiles from tramps with signs saying ‘I’m sexy and I’m homeless’, ‘Kisses for a $’, and my personal favourite,  ‘My wife had a better lawyer’. These people weren’t apologetic for begging, didn’t seem hopeless, nor to have been living this way for long. Many of them were happy, even.

But then I hit downtown. Now the homeless I saw were more decrepit, and there was no sense that their lives might ever change. On closer inspection, I realised I was looking at an entire population of the mentally ill, with illnesses like I had never seen before – people babbling to themselves, crying, obsessively tapping every fourth paving stone, a man in a wheelchair which was older than me with a sticker on the back of it which said ‘Not to be removed from St. Francis Memorial Hospital’. A couple lay down and embraced in the street; one of them had no arms. As I walked down an incredibly long straight street, a man, roughly in his 30s, had been loudly talking to himself beside me in what sounded, with its scatterings of trendy slang, like the voice of someone who used to have a whole bunch of friends. He turned around ahead of me and started screaming right at me. At first I was terrified, but then I realised he didn’t even see me. I stole round a corner and took a breather. Where was I? Apparently in a caricature of a mental asylum. Where had America gone? And how had this happened in the land of the free?

I later discovered that what I had witnessed was in part due to America’s ‘deinstitutionalisation’ – a policy that began in 1955, of closing down long-stay psychiatric hospitals, with the (unfulfilled) intention of treating people in community mental health services. The objective, as defined by President Carter’s Commision on Mental Health, was ‘to maintain the greatest degree of freedom, self-determination, autonomy, dignity, and integrity of body, mind, and spirit for the individual while he or she participates in treatment’. Instead, many severely ill schizophrenics, manic-depressives and others with major, incurable dysfunctions were discharged without ensuring that they had any long-term form of help. As a result, much of the severely mentally ill population has simply been relocated to the streets and jails, where ‘self-determination’ amounts to a choice of soup kitchens, and any so-called ‘dignity’ or ‘integrity of body, mind and spirit’ is long gone.

America seems to be conducting not so much a war on poverty as a war on the poor. New Orleans, for example, is known to do clean-up acts, in which police take all the homeless off the street and dump them in jail – an ill-conceived pretence which merely sweeps the problem under the rug. There seems to be a misguided attitude to these people – as though the country believes it has no responsibilities.

Homelessness is often considered as a problem of the 80s, since the media is now looking elsewhere, but the effects of deinstitutionalisation are still very apparent. Council housing does not exist in the way that we know it in the UK. Instead there are ‘the projects’ in some cities, often referred to as ‘the housing of last resort’ because of endemic problems of ostracisation and violence, and there are also homeless shelters, avoided by many who would rather be out on the streets because of the extreme violence, rape, theft and murder that haunt these places. For the disabled homeless there are highly unlikely ways to claim money, involving lawyers and large amounts of paperwork. Without benefits, mentally ill children are known to have been left out on the streets by parents who cannot care for them. With almost no safety net to catch the fallen, these vulnerable people are in an abyss out of which they can never climb.

I thought about getting on a bus, before somebody noticed me as the odd (sane) one out, and after a brief moment considering whether the people on the street or on the bus looked the least distant from my level of reality, I hopped on. The bus driver, perhaps sensing my wide-eyed shock, began to speak about what I had witnessed, from his perspective: ‘I have seen the worst of what can happen to a man pass in front of my bus. If I had known what I would have seen I never would have taken this job.’ The insane-o next to him nodded knowingly.

Originally published by Epigram.

Thinking through Israel

As a girl from a Jewish family, I had visited Israel often. In recent years, though, I had grown uneasy at how little I knew about the tensions in the region, especially regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict.  My resolution: a trip through Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories in order to gain some insight into the issues for myself.

Before entering Lebanon I had to obtain a new passport, as evidence of my previous visits to Israel would have been enough to send me home before I left the ground. All evidence that we were going onwards to Israel had to be removed, and as a land crossing through Syria was out of the question, we flew via Jordan.

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Arab Israeli children playing football by The Temple on the Mount. Photo by Milla Lupton.

With neighboring Syria on the verge of civil war, the sight of lost limbs and bullet-pocked buildings in Lebanon were a poignant reminder; not only of previous wars with Israel, but also of the 15 year civil war caused in part by hostility towards the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who immigrated there after the creation of Israel. Unable to talk openly to the people we met, I started to become aware of a growing unease at our connection to Israel and of my own Jewish identity. One friend we could speak openly with – a Brit with Lebanese ties – asked, ‘Do you feel bad visiting Israel, considering how Palestinians are forced to live?’ It wouldn’t be until we reached the West Bank that I could find an answer.

In Israel we met an Arab girl named Laila.* She lives in Nazareth and attends the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Still getting to grips with the history of the conflict, Laila clarified for me that ‘Palestinians are from those areas which didn’t agree to be part of Israel in the ‘48 agreement. Arabs who live in Israel are those who did and they are called Israeli Palestinians – it appears on their passports but not on their ID cards. Palestinians cannot enter Israel without special permission, like a medical issue. Whereas Israeli-Palestinians such as myself can move around wherever but we get more questions.’

What were her feelings on the Israel-Palestine situation I wondered? ‘We don’t like to think about it, otherwise we wouldn’t know where we are. My own grandparents lived in Palestine and it was their home. If I was back in ‘48, I would be only for Palestine, but it’s different now. They [the Jews] have been here for 3 generations. This is their home now too.’

On the question of Palestinian animosity and violence, Laila pointed quite simply towards their treatment: ‘We buy what we’re sold. People begin to behave how they’re expected to’, meaning if someone is treated with hostility as a security threat, they will react violently and so continue the cycle.

The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem. Photo by Grace Regan.
The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem. Photo by Grace Regan.

A few days later Laila joined us on an attempted trip to Jericho in the West Bank, during which our car broke down. With no insurance and the borders closing soon for evening, we were forced to take refuge with an impoverished but incredibly generous Palestinian family. One older woman told Laila, who translated, of how she had not been able to visit her daughter for 17 years, though her daughter is free to visit her. I began to realize that fraught links such as these exist all across Israel and the Palestinian territories; countless families divided by the category of their identity cards. In meeting this one Palestinian family I became aware of the inevitable strain on any kind of solidarity between a people divided. Able to live in relative freedom and prosperity, Arab Israelis have imitated to survive in a place with Western ideals, and as such are rejected by many Palestinians.

As I open my eyes for the first time to all the soldiers in Israel’s streets, an image comes to mind – of Israel as an unnatural insertion into a land determined to repel it, its borders held in place only by the security of occupation. And as I thought about the question posed by my Lebanese friend, I really grasped the magnitude of the problem. Neither in Israel nor in the territories are Arabs allowed to live as they should, but Israel is no longer so new that its disappearance would solve the problem. This is a country now home to Jews just as it is Arabs, and it is on such an understanding that progress towards peace must be made.

*Name has been changed to protect identity.