By Zeshaun Saleem
Over the recent past, Montreal’s intersection of Avenues Park and Pine has become a source of confliction. Its twenty-one lanes (bus lanes included), accompanied by nine traffic lights, assist everyday commuters. Puzzling as this may seem, its navigation is all relatively straightforward, a matter of basic traffic principles.
What steers me in doubtful directions, nonetheless, lies along the intersections southeast corner. Plainly noticeable, specifically when coming down Park Avenue, alongside varying degrees of brown amongst bricks making up the edifice of a three-story building are loudly painted red, black, green and white colors, denoting the flag of Palestine. Written upon it: ‘Palestine LIBRE.’
My issue isn’t bordered along a specific borders border. Nothing to do with mandates, plans, summits, accords, resolutions; the jargon of men in suits arbitrating the conflict.
Presently, hundreds of territorial disputes persist with fortunately the majority being moderately monotonous.
It’s as if, for nation-states, engaging in a conflict is the trendy, cool thing to do, analogous with a new prison inmate’s need to prove oneself. But in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the most controversial, horrendous atrocities are continuously committed against the Palestinians. Surely, Israel has seen its fair share of nastiness, but unless one’s been living under a rock, they’re well aware that there are no comparisons.
More explicitly, it’s the painted flag that sets me off course. Notions of nationalism, patriotism and with that partisanship, underlining synthetic identities, reek from flags, painted or sewn; none flow well within my neurological motorways.
If flags didn’t exist, would these hundreds of disputes? Better yet, had our world not known such things as identities; would nations, societies, individuals have the need for identifying differences, resulting in hierarchies, inequalities and injustices?
If only we could dismantle these manufactured identities. Snap them in half much like a stalk of sugarcane sticks. Simply apply diverging forces, a downward motion from each of the canes ends against ones frontal thigh and, presto, out emits its sugary sweetness away from the bitterness and toxicity that has inflicted countless Palestinians sugarcane plantations as a result of their forced closures by the state of Israel.
The intersection became nothing short of paradox, a puzzle in need of solving.
“The world is a very puzzling place. If you’re not willing to be puzzled, you just become a replica of someone else’s mind” – Noam Chomsky
Similarly, a piece-by-piece analysis of factual historical understandings could reveal the larger picture of present realities. That in mind, the intersection was revisited, only this time I continued down Park, making a right turn onto Sherbrooke, left at University and continuing the route over the Saint Lawrence River, as if it had turned red and I was on a personal exodus from this moral dilemma. My journey ended up in New York City, the global epicenter for elite merchants.
A piece to the puzzle, I pondered.
The following day, 14th October, and not entirely by coincidence, I found myself between two blurred Fernand Léger paintings comprised of green, white, black, brown and white colors in the UN General Assembly. At 3:15pm, all eyes in the General Assembly turned towards the gentle steps of the renowned philosopher, activist, scientist, Noam Chomsky, as he took to the podium.
Chomsky, classified as the world’s greatest intellectual, speaks in modest trembling tones suggestive of his decades long commitment towards shedding light on detrimental historical patterns through simple facts.
“A ceasefire is reached; Israel disregards it and continues its steady assault on Gaza, including continued siege, intermittent acts of violence, more settlement and development projects, often violence in the West Bank; Hamas observes the ceasefire, as Israel officially recognizes, until some Israeli escalation elicits a Hamas response, which leads to another exercise of “mowing the lawn,” in Israeli parlance, each episode more fierce and destructive than the last,” says Chomsky.
These violations of international law, all withstand, as result of U.S. diplomatic, militaristic, ideological and economic support, reiterates Chomsky, just as he’s done so for over four decades now.
Attempting to incorporate some of Chomsky’s levelheadedness, I self-questioned, whether most representatives sitting comfortably amid their flags and status quos within the assembly, if power-granted, further limit their empathy to the self-interests of those they represent at the expense of others? Essentially is progress simply too farfetched and obscure as is symbolized by Leger’s paintings, overlooking the assembly?
Not for Chomsky. In previous works, he asserts that we’re inherently hard-wired for empathy. Empathy may be viewed as that piece of the puzzle, aptly placed, side-by-side with ones identity. Jeremy Rifkin’s (‘The Empathic Civilization’) points to historical patterns of identity attachments and with that empathy, initially limited to those with blood ties in hunter-gatherer societies. In time, with the rise of a theological consciousness during the hydraulic civilization, the two pieces further extended to those of shared beliefs.
In today’s multifaceted nation-state societies, empathy and identity attachments are miscellaneous with multiple borders. The theologian Reza Aslan has attempted to enlighten parochial views held by mainstream media, explaining, that it ultimately comes down to ones outlook, sense of self, and self-understanding of their place in this world. Though, amongst all our varied identities, a common basis is the self-determining right to have one. Repressing and exploiting it will only create a spherical effect, resulting in its further manifestation.
For a renowned Palestinian Jew (Jesus), a few thousand years back, his activism, outlook, was based on attaining freedoms from the exploitive establishment of the Romans. As we’re well aware, Jesus was crucified for his resistance, which in today’s semantics would be labeled as counter terrorism. Nonetheless, ones view of Jesus as an activist, intellectual, spiritual leader, political revolutionary or soothsayer is all contingent on their own sense of self in this world. The same could be said towards many other notable figures, including that of Noam Chomsky.
But when religion and politics are viewed through the lens of social justice and self-determination struggles, the two notions become all-embracing attached pieces of the puzzle. Karen Armstrong reminds us that traditionally, religion was synonymous with ones “way of life,” and that secular institutions were unheard of until modern times. The same can be said for politics, both, moral life codes rooted in righteousness away from manipulation and mistreatment.
Considering that matter-of-factness, those who identify as apolitical and/or atheists are just as religious and political in their personal pleas for social justice, within their own inevitable identities.
Further connecting pieces of the puzzle alongside life moral codes are compassion and empathy, not only for others, but oneself – self-love. It’s lack thereof, ensues a deprived self-worth and ripples of negativity.
Sadly, this is the sickness behind capitalist neoliberal system and its cohorts. They’ve inflicted a virus catastrophic not only towards our planets ecosystem but its inhabitants, all in the greedy self-interest of having more, related to insecure concerns of how one is perceived by others.
Elites have exploited power, influencing foreign policies and are largely responsible for the sixty-six yearlong oppression, occupation and persecution of Palestinians, resulting in millions of refugees and 2000 Palestinian deaths this year alone. A shrewd propaganda campaign in order to ensure societal ignorance towards their own lacks of democracy and realities of this heinous conflict must also not be overlooked.
It’s in the interest of elites to dumbify us, make us see our puzzling world through oversimplification with rigorous lines drawn around labels, in contrast to the realities of its interconnected attached pieces.
I now look forward to returning to the intersection and viewing the multicolored Palestinian flag, reminding us not only to extend our identities to one with the Palestinians in all our struggles for self-determination, but also, not to paint our world with a single brush.
- Zeshaun Saleem has a MA in ‘Near and Middle Eastern’ Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies- University of London. He is currently pursuing a career as an arts critic and novelist in Montreal. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.