Concerning Identity

Series 3 No.9 - Palestine

The experience of being forced to leave one’s homeland, of being pursued, uprooted and exiled, fractures one’s existential sense of continuity. And this is why the problematic of identity for the uprooted (the forcibly uprooted) is often linked to the dream and promise of a return.

For thirty years every Palestinian living on Palestinian territory has been obliged by the Israeli authorities, who illegally occupy those territories, to carry, at all times, an ID card. Either an orange one or a green one: orange for those who resided in the towns under surveillance, and green for those who lived in the always encircled countryside. Each colour had its own special restrictions and prohibitions concerning roads, checkpoints, exits and entrances.

All the information on these Identity Cards was printed in Hebrew, and only the owner’s name was written (by hand) in Arabic. Name. Photo. Birth date. Birth Place. Residence.

Every card has a number and today when an Israeli soldier taps in this number on his army mobile telephone, he is informed of the person’s past record. There is scarcely a family in Palestine who does not have at least one member who has been or is in an Israeli prison.

Yet despite the stored and coded information, to which these identity cards are the key, they have nothing to do with identity. They are simply an inventory of stolen facts.

True identity can be neither delivered on demand nor stored as mere information. To believe that it can be, is the weakness of all so-called security records kept by oppressors.  True identity is something known in one heart and recognised within another. It always contains a secret that no interrogation can reveal. Its secret is its human-beingness.

And it involves both the personal and the collective. It offers a sense of belonging and a sense of distinction. (The distinction being what distinguishes each one of us.) A true identity implies continuity; it evokes ancestors and heirs, the dead and the as yet unborn. And, at the same time, it frames a here and now which is a ME at every transient moment.

The experience of being forced to leave one’s homeland, of  being pursued, uprooted and exiled, fractures one’s existential sense of continuity. And this is why the problematic of identity for the uprooted (the forcibly uprooted) is often linked to the dream and promise of a return. (The Israelis of all people should know this but, maintaining that they are the Chosen People, they have forgotten it.)  The four million Palestinians who live in refugee camps within Palestine and outside, can still know who they are, and where they belong in history and geography, because of this promise.

The million Palestinians who reside within the borders of the state of Israel are officially known as Israeli Arabs. Until recently the adjective Palestinian was forbidden, and the use of it, under certain circumstances, was a criminal offence. Today for most Israeli Jews the very notion of a Palestinian homeland has been obliterated.

Across the world those who have sophisticated military superiority, usually have considerable, if not total, control of the media. And with the help of the media they impose denigrating stereotypes on those they are oppressing: the Taliban are primitive fanatics; the Iraqis are uncontrollable killers. Palestinians are Terrorists (they were Terrorists even before Al Quaeda). In addition they are Small-minded, Indolent, Backward, Obsolete. For the Palestinians themselves such insults are nothing compared with the real injuries they suffer. But the idea that the rest of the world may judge Palestinians according to these monstrous stereotypes, makes their struggle to assert their true identity harder. And the fact that the outside world fails, time and again, to check Israel's actions – such as the building of the Wall on the West Bank even when those actions have been repeatedly condemned by international law – makes that struggle at times desperate.

Here it’s worth reflecting on what recognition – or, let us say, a desirable recognition – of identity involves. It implies accepting the balance between the uniquely personal and the anonymous. Those whom we call the anonymous are not the forgotten, rather they are the nameless who are remembered. Re-membering literally means bringing members together again.

For a people whose identity and land has been annexed and denied for at least three generations, the struggle to preserve and celebrate their identity, takes many forms. There is the intransigence of physical resistance: intransigence in face of the gaping asymmetry of weapons and military means. There are irrepressible popular heroes who, regardless of their political errors, totally embody the denied identity – Arafat is the supreme example. There is poetry which precisely re-members.

My friends,
Those left alive among you
Will let me live another year,
A year to walk together,
To fling a river on our backs
Like gypsies,
To break the remnants of the structure down
To bring our tired soul away from its long exile....
(Mahmoud Darwish, ‘Another Year Only’)

John Berger

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