Modern orientalism in the Middle East

The racist romance of the Arab village

07/09/2013 22:09
‘This week we went down to Jinba,” wrote pro-Palestinian Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy and Alex Levac on July 5. According to them, the Palestinian community south of Hebron had “the tiniest [school] I’ve ever seen,” which serves 25 students. “Of course they’ve never heard of an air conditioner or a fan.”

Nevertheless, it is a “tiny and beautiful village… it looks like something out of the Bible… cut off from the 21st century.”

There are “ancient stone fences, the donkeys braying… the dark caves where villagers live, and the white tent of the clinic set up about two weeks ago, thanks to contributions from an Italian charity and the Italian foreign ministry.”

This romance of the “primeval” landscape, juxtaposed with Israeli activists and European NGOs who tell their story and save the villagers, is a classic motif.

A June 2008 book review in The Economist contained a similar observation of the West Bank: “a land whose timeless beauty has survived basically unchanged since biblical times is being transformed by a people who base their claim to it on biblical history… Arab villages that once blended organically into the landscape are little more than besieged ghettos.”

Anyone who visits the West Bank on a regular basis knows this is nonsense. There are indeed beautiful rolling hills and stone terraces. But the average Palestinian lives in a large modern home, usually adorned with handsome stone crenellations and other decorative elements, and drives a car. The ancient hearts of the old Palestinian villages can often be seen, nestled and abandoned beneath the burgeoning new construction.

So why do we mainly hear stories about places like Jinba, and why do we not ask relevant questions about it? Do the residents of Jinba really live in caves? The cave-dwelling motif appears often in descriptions of how Palestinians live – a recent report on plans to build a park south of Jerusalem near Walaja claimed that there were families “now living there, in caves.”

There are homeless people in London and unfortunates who live in abandoned subway tunnels in New York and even several folk in Medellin who turned an old sewer into a home, but no one pretends it is a normal lifestyle the way the Palestinian “cave-dwelling” motif does.

The truth leads to more questions. Levy and Levac tell us that actually, “Some residents live in Yatta [a large town] too, during the dry season.”

In fact Jinba is more of a seasonal settlement for people who move there to pasture animals. But if it is a seasonal settlement, why does it need a clinic funded by the Italian foreign ministry, and a school? Do most tiny places with several dozen residents have a medical clinic and school? In the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland the men still take the cattle out to pasture in the summer, and there are even semiabandoned villages and huts in the hills.

But not every hut has a hospital and a school, not even every tiny community has so much.

The notion that Palestinians, when there are only a few dozen of them, always require an army of NGOs and Israeli activists with jeeps and hospitals and schools in order to survive plays on two stereotypes: First, an Orientalist view of Arabs as incapable objects in the landscape of the Bible, and second that only outsiders can save them and speak for them.

Arabs living in Israel also receive this Orientalist treatment. In a June 25 article, author David Grossman wrote about “Beit Safafa, a Palestinian village in Jerusalem.”

He was protesting a highway planned 20 years ago that is to pass between two parts of the village, which has grown greatly in the last years.

He noted that it would divide the “small village… the moment it is completed, the fabric of the village will be torn to pieces. Families will be cut off from each other, and their lives will become a nightmare… the village itself, as a social unit… will dissolve.”

Sounds pretty bad – until one learns a little more.

In 1880 the British Palestine Exploration Fund also referred to Beit Safafa as “a small village in flat open ground, with a well to the north.” Beit Safafa had 1,400 residents in 1945. It has more than 10,000 today and has been part of the Municipality of Jerusalem since the 1950s. This is no “small village.”

A Jewish community with a similar population, for example Yeruham (population 9,500), is called a “town.” And if it were a Jewish neighborhood even further from Jerusalem, such as Pisgat Ze’ev, it would still be a “neighborhood,” not a “village.”

The perpetual myth that Palestinians always live in “villages” – even if there are 10,000 or 100,000 of them – is part of the racist romance that imprisons them in the 19th century.

Grossman writes that the highway will cut families from each other. Yes, in the 19th century, a highway might have made it difficult for people without a car to commute, but in the 21st century families are not “cut off” because of a new road.

When they build a new extension of the highway through the suburbs north of Haifa no one pretends the Jewish residents of Kiryat Motzkin and Kiryat Yam will be “cut off” and that families will no longer be able to visit each other.

IN A recent scandal Israel’s largest newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, published a feature story in its weekend magazine about Fatma Vardi, a Beduin comedian from an unrecognized village in northern Israel who has 17 children and lives with her husband’s three other wives, and who had to get permission from her village mukhtar, or chief, to perform.

Only as it turns out, “Fatma” was really the stage persona of one Gila Zimmerman. The newspaper had been duped.

Oren Meyers of the University of Haifa claimed the scandal highlights bad journalistic practices. However, the reality is that the story of Fatma was bought into by a public that actually thinks most Arabs have 17 children; they bought into a caricature because the media has perpetuated this exotic stereotype.

For example, Neta Ziv, a law professor at Tel Aviv University, wrote of villagers in the south Hebron hills that “they plant and harvest in the area by the sweat of their brow.” Doesn’t that language sound a little too pat to be true, like the story of Fatma? The reason the stories of Arabs can only be told by outsiders is that Arabs are viewed almost as pieces of the landscape, rather than as actual people. Therefore almost every article about the “plight” of Beit Safafa, the villages in the south Hebron hills, Wadi Ara or Beduin villages in the Negev is penned by Israelis or other visitors, who “inform” the public and speak for the Arabs.

Usually this takes the form of activists going on a “tour” of the area and then “reporting” about what they saw. For instance, the last half-dozen op-eds in Haaretz supporting Israel’s Negev Beduin have been written by men and women with names like Yariv, Moriel, Amnon, Israel and Moshe.

The notion is that “we” know the Beduin better than they know themselves.

Is this because by colonizing their narrative and perpetuating these myths, NGOs can raise more money? Levy and Levac claim they went to Jinba with “Ezra Nawi, an activist in Ta’ayush, an Israeli-Palestinian political nonprofit organization. Without him, and without the other devoted activists – along with long-time volunteer attorney Shlomo Lecker, members of the Rabbis for Human Rights and Breaking the Silence organizations who work in the vicinity day and night – the ethnic cleansing would long since have been completed here.”

Outsiders taking credit for “saving” Arabs is simply a modern-day variation on the “white man’s burden”; only intervention by the West can save the East.

In some cases when Arabs don’t fit the narrative, their identities are even changed. A Palestinian woman from Azariya near Jerusalem whose Negev Beduin husband murdered her children was turned into an “abused Beduin mother” from the Negev by one Israeli NGO leader. Her identity was changed from modern urban woman to rural Beduin to fit a narrative.

The twin perception of the Arabs as parts of the landscape, rather than real, contemporary people, and the desire to communicate their views through third parties represent a racist assault on their humanity; a holdover from the 19th century.

Some people think they help Arabs by describing them as a “noble savages” in need of saving, but just as the original “noble savage” was deeply harmed by such notions of what was best for them and by not being viewed and treated as equals, sharing all the virtues and foibles of all people, so Palestinians are being harmed. They don’t need to live in caves and work fictional farmland by the sweat of their brow in order to be victims of state neglect, or of discrimination.

3 responses to “Modern orientalism in the Middle East

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