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Missing home

The Palestinian people’s right of return is at the heart of their struggle.

Syria's official spokesperson recently went on television to blame the Palestinian refugees resident in her country as the "foreign elements" directly responsible for the current protests for freedom and the rule of law. These pronouncements have encouraged Arab regimes' secret police, the mukhabarat, to crack down on Palestinian rights activists everywhere, heightening the atmosphere of violent intimidation and fear within refugee communities. Of the millions of Palestinian refugees residing in countries such as Jordan and Syria, the majority are young people born in refugee camps, since Palestinians still wait, after 62 years, for the United Nations to compel Israel to adopt that key UN resolution (whose implementation was a condition of Israel's acceptance into the UN as a member state) which would allow them and their families to return to their farms, villages and cities.

This constant harassment of Palestinian refu­gees occurs from the Gulf to North Africa. For those idly wondering why Palestinians have so much difficulty unifying in their struggle for justice, the type of existence lived by most Palestinians outside historic Palestine comes as something of an unpleasant shock. People's attention is usually directed (if they look at all) at the sickening siege still enforced in Gaza (another international convoy of humanitarian ships will be on its way next month); the daily expulsions of old Jerusalemite families from their homes; the increasingly racist laws discriminating against Palestinians inside Israel. For example, the Knesset recently passed new legislation that has the effect of banning any state support to those seeking to commemorate the dispossession of Palestinians from their homes in 1948

Some argue that anything detracting from this focus on the occupied West Bank, Arab East Jerusalem and Gaza is counterproductive to "the peace process" and that the refugees' predicament and their rights should not even be raised. This is the argument Israelis use and it is one that European and American diplomats and their friends loyally repeat. No one, it seems, dare pause for a moment to worry about those millions of distracting Palestinian refugees and exactly what their uncomfortable presence means: it is too dangerous for peace. One example among thousands: at this very moment, innumerable Palestinian refugees sit in Egypt's prisons for the simple crime of not possessing the correct identity papers or, worse, for not having any papers at all.

Where precisely are they meant to obtain these identity documents from, in any case? Not from the British, presumably, under whose colonial mandate Palestine was destroyed. Not the Palestinian Authority, whose full civil authority does not extend beyond so-called Area A, comprised of some West Bank towns and cities, and which has absolutely no control over its water, land, borders, domestic or foreign relations, or any sovereign capacity to protect either Palestinians under military occupation or those refugees in host countries.

Not so long ago, Muhammad Abu Sakr, a young Palestinian refugee born in Cairo, entered into temporary safe haven in Sweden, after living for over a year in the transit hall of Russia's Sheremetyevo Airport. Prevented from either returning to Egypt or entering Russia for just over 14 months, he lived in the transit corridor. Nor was his extended predicament an isolated example for Palestinians, but rather one of a connected series of implausible experiences shared daily by an entire people. Most Palestinians today are without passports, or have duff travel papers or the wrong refugee papers: families are split up at borders and airports.

In the beginning

It is essential to know when this story began, as we Palestinians need to know exactly when this story will end. Throughout 1948, Jewish military forces expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their villages, towns and cities; hundreds of thousands of others fled in fear. They were driven and fled down into Gaza (and to understand Gaza one must appreciate that most live in refugee camps); across into the (now militarily occupied) West Bank; north from Galilee into Lebanon and Syria; east into Jordan; further north-east into Iraq; south into Egypt.

The purpose of this expulsion was to create a purely Jewish state, ethnically cleansed of the original inhabitants. This horrific event - the mass forced expulsion of a people; the more than 50 massacres carried out over the summer of 1948 by various armed Jewish forces to induce both fear and flight; the demolition of over 500 precious, well-loved and well-remembered villages in subsequent years to ensure the refugees could not return home - this is the Palestinian Naqba, the "catastrophe".

The absolute nature of that dispossession means that a refugee's right of return to their home, enshrined in international law, is the heart of Palestinians' identity and struggle for justice. Yet this universal right is the very one we are being pressured to surrender: right now, the US administration is seeking European support to advance just such a position at the next meeting of the Quartet (comprised of the US, the UN, the EU and Russia). Instead of demanding Palestinians abandon their rights for a fictitious peace not even on offer, this is the precise moment Europeans - if they hope to have any role in the region - must place the dignity and protection of Palestinian refugees, the victims of the conflict, at the centre of their policy towards the Arab world and the Palestinian people.

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain