home Human Rights, Middle East Lighting a Candle for Peace in the Middle East

Lighting a Candle for Peace in the Middle East

Over the past decade, I have mostly been resorting to the use of social media as my daily source of information, thus picking and plucking to suit my changing interests. In the aftermath of the Arab spring, in a period of hyper-connectivity where a plethora of information circulates in a scroll or a flick, facts can be googled, an array of contradicting testimonies can be privately researched, I remember clearly witnessing something akin to the rise of an Arab consciousness. Suddenly things we had only been discussing privately, sometimes shamefully, with a sense of self-cesure made it to the public arena.

Yet, a couple of days ago, while musing over the mutation of traditional media, I bought a copy of the Middle East and Asia edition of The Times. The September 8th issue. I was shocked to read that seven out of the eleven front page headline stories were on the Arab world and that they contained only doom and gloom spanning from ISIS; the rioting streets of Yemen; Gaza; repression of gay men in Egypt; Imams in Britain incapable of dispelling the temptation of jihad; and Saqqara threatening to collapse because of the incompetence of a team of Egyptian architects. Reading it all condensed in paper format shook me and brought an entire summer of frantic virtual information back home. It felt oppressing, which is why here, I have chosen to avoid embarking upon an odyssey of facts, and deliberately opted against the use of, or analysis of antagonizing terminology.

Today, Gaza has mostly been reduced to smithereens, with plans to forcibly transfer thousands of West Bank Palestinians to a designated township being currently discussed, with children being left without schools, with maimed families.

When I was 14, my best friend was Jewish. Her grandfather had been rabbi of the Luxembourg Synagogue. I was jealous of her because she got away with days off school in observance of special religious holidays. As our friendship strengthened, I ended up spending an increasing number of week-ends at her place, therefore escaping the midnight curfew imposed by my parents. I also started joining her at the synagogue on Saturdays. Getting ready for the Saturday gatherings was heaps of fun. Being teenagers we were intent on wearing very short skirts which was fine there.

After I commented admiringly on it, she gifted me a beautiful gold pendant which bore the hebrew inscription: ‘Jerusalem, if I forget you, may my right hand desiccate’. My mother on the other hand was not impressed when she noticed that it had replaced the Ayat al Kursi engraved on agate which had previously been dangling around my neck. She urged me to remove it alleging that it was not appropriate. Time passed and I lost both. The friendship did also wane. But one anecdote kept nagging at me: on a trip we took to Paris together, I was about to walk into the St Germain des Près church, a place I loved & where I had developed the habit of lighting a candle for those I loved & murmuring a prayer in front of a beautiful statue of Mary & the infant Jesus. My friend stopped at the threshold and refused to enter the church. I was staggered, recalling for a second all those patient seatings at the synagogue by her side. I thought about respect, remembered my mother, walked in and brushed off the unease.

The same year, on November 5th, a cataclysmic event shook us all. Yitshak Rabin was assassinated in Tel Aviv by a madman who claimed his hand had been directed by God. I remember my father pronouncing the death of any prospect of peace for that part of the world, and my Jewish friends sobbing.

Today I hope that the voices which have been heard, of late, that the criticisms of the humanely unacceptable will reach a consensus in order to put an end to the systematic humiliation and destruction of a people by another. That Law and order will be rekindled. That instead of witch-hunting conscientious objectors, the next generations will focus on building men and women of conscience.

An emotional and idealistic speech Queen Rania gave on the 5th of January 2009 re-emerged earlier on this summer as people, numbed by the initial silence of the international community started digging out, and sharing earlier statements on social media. Yet the mention of the International Declaration of Human Rights rang a bell of cynicism in me. It triggered a series of questions revolving around the mechanisms available to us to practically enforce and implement the principles of such a declaration.

Not presuming to hold any solution or rocket proof answer, I kept on listening to, and reading about the relentless attempts made by a growing number of people outraged by the pounding of Gaza.

Over the past three months, many spoke out loud and hard from places of integrity: former soldiers, holocaust survivors, doctors, nurses, NGOS, thinkers, politicians, lawyers, world leaders…And provided flickering flames of hope in a slump of war rhetoric. Bold attempts were made to dispel confusions and shatter the barriers of hate and misunderstanding.

The Hatikvah, Israel’s anthem which translates as ‘our hope’ is present to my mind as I type this. So is Bill Clinton’s moving eulogy when he bid assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin goodbye: ‘Now it falls to all of us who love peace and to all of us who love him to carry on the struggle…Your prime minister was a martyr for peace but a victim of hate, surely we must learn from his martyrdom that if people cannot let go of the hatred of their enemies, they risk sowing the seeds of hatred among themselves…’

Using the Biblical metaphor of Abraham’s faith being tested by god, Genesis 22.5 and 22.8, Clinton’s eloquent speech makes that trial relevant to us: ‘Now god tests our faith even more terribly for he has taken our Yitzhak…But Israel’s covenant with god, for freedom, for tolerance, for security, for peace, that covenant must hold . That covenant was President Rabin’s last work. Now we must make it his lasting legacy. His spirit must live on in us.’ To honor the memory of Rabin, Clinton concluded with the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, whose closing words he movingly read in Hebrew. A sister language of Arabic.

Today that speech seems to belong to another galaxy. Today, Israel & Palestine provide us with a magnifying lens with which to look at the world and its mechanisms of division. That lens is smeared with national, political, ideological, territorial and religious pathologies. It is sickly. Those spreading diseases threaten us all, regardless of nationality, belief or gender. Because we are all people of this earth.

It is perhaps naive and simplistic of me, but it is not geopolitics or my intellect I turn to in an attempt to understand the situation in Gaza and reignite the lost spirit that held promises of peace, but poetry and music. Listening to Bob Dylan’s 1963 classic “Blowing in the Wind” made me smile, again wryly, when it occurred to me that some of its lyrics match in content those of the Hatikvah. The lyrics of that song were initially composed in 1878, in Ukraine. The following lines ‘our hope is not lost, our hope of two thousand years to be a free nation in our land’ reminded me of Dylan’s wandering dove reaching for the shore. The music of the Hatikvah was inspired from an old Romanian melody. It is a beautiful melody that rings of ancestral voices, that sings of a universal hope. A deeply human yearning. A promise once delivered to us by the Society of Nations. A promise blown by the wind.

Yet, as babes, weren’t we all tenderly rocked with the promise to enjoy peace and freedom on this very earth? In that sense, doesn’t that promise live on within each and every single one of us, thereby all making us be Palestinians, symbolically?

This summer, an image of devastation must have struck harder than others. The tears I could not suppress, and a sense of helplessness I know too well brought me back to that church to light candles: one for the children of Israel, another for the children of Palestine. I prayed that they may know peace in this life. I prayed that they may be consoled so that we, in turn, may reclaim our humanity.

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