Abu Dis, New York and the Civilized World

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A week ago today, I was in the process-albeit the slow process-of writing what I hoped would be an informative expose on the history of the village of Abu Dis, the little town catapulted into the global limelight as the designated capital of the Palestinian state-to-be. Lately, Abu Dis had just suffered the humiliation of being re-occupied by Israeli forces. The Palestinian state-to-be seemed to be getting further away and not closer but I hoped nonetheless to be able to rally some sort of sentiment within the Palestinian community by explaining the immense and overlooked importance of the village’s location, history and architecture. (Its Minaret built without the use of mortar or cement being a true engineering marvel.) Given last week’s Hollywood-like eschatological events in New York, writing about Abu Dis-my own “hometown” in Americanese-seems impossible.

Of course, one would love to say that this should not really be so; that the lives of the people alive today in Abu Dis and the rest of the West Bank are as important to understand as the people who are now dead in Manhattan and Washington, DC. Without denying the absolute, eternal and universal equivalence of human life, it is important to take a more realpolitik point of view: The increasingly obvious reality now is that the deaths in Manhattan and the District of Columbia are the first casualties of a war which is set to kill many, many more people. Being as they were in the very heart of the world’s power structure, their loss will certainly interfere with the everyday workings of the world. That is why they must now receive more attention than Arab hamlets under Israeli military siege. Earlier this morning-or perhaps it was overnight, I might have been asleep-the Taliban regime decided to declare war on the United States. The television broadcasts used that word I hate so much whenever they use it, “jihad” very liberally this time. Who was I to complain now that the Afghanis themselves were using it? Why, or how, would the US not follow up the Taliban’s threats with their own actions? Were the Taliban, this band of religious zealots who have made their own country unlivable for anybody besides devoutly religious and unlibidinous Sunni males, really going to take on what their old foes the Soviet Union could not?

Take the Sikhs attacked in the US as an example. It was not enough for the Sikh community to sprout in the shadow of Mughal (some would say “Muslim”) repression and complete bestiality against the Hindus in the north of India, now they must pay the price for acts which some of us ostensibly committed. Sikhs wear turbans because wearing a turban was once the mark of a king (“Sardar”) reserved for Muslims by the then-rulers of India; the Sikhs wanted to stand up and be counted. Oh, the irony of it all. (Unlike anything as complicated as the Middle East of today, I think it is fair to say that we owe the Sikhs an apology, just as much as the West owes West Africa for slavery.) Those attacks, in the long run, will probably measure as nothing compared to what self-declared “Muslim” and “Arab” institutions are about to face. An email I received from a friend mentioned the attempt to burn an Arab-owned petrol station in the Cambridge, Massachusetts area. Another friend in the US described how he was asked by friends to shave off his goatee beard because otherwise he would “look Arab” and hence “like a terrorist”. As the same friend had asked earlier, “what does a terrorist look like?” Like an Arab? An Arab American, as Ray Hannania explains in his book? Maybe this is proof, if proof be needed, that in fact the US does have limits to its racial tolerance; maybe the kaleidoscope of ethnic groups just does not fit the shade of “Arab” (including, perhaps, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Lebanese and red-haired Circassians living in Jordan). Eisenhower found it possible to lead American and Allied forces (some of them “brown”, Hindu and Muslim) against Germany without worry of German-Americans being attacked back home, but I do not expect to see a General Ali leading the US troops against the Taliban. Besides, the Germans were a different kind of enemy. How did MacArthur put it? That the Allies should have concentrated on the Japanese because irrespective of the outcome the Germans were, what, “civilized”?

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