When People Think of Themselves as People and “Others” as Snakes

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Encounters of a personal kind with a Palestinian classmate and an Israeli friend. 

I didn't notice him initially. In the beginning, he was somewhere in the last row of chairs. 

Nidal Al Jamala, the only Palestini in that MA English class in Hyderabad University, did find his way to the first row and make himself visible and heard through unstoppable interventions in his heavily Arabised English. As Indian students of literature, we were clear about the liberal/left/progressive/social justice positions we were supposed to take – we were all feminists, dalitists, African Americanists and gay-lesbian supporters. We, by now, knew which authors to cheer and which to deconstruct. We really were seasoned in the ecosystem of English BAs of India. He wasn't.

Nidal spoke in long paragraphs in totally strange ways. The self-evident aspects of gender and caste were either too alien or too unacceptable to him. His verbal noodles often didn't need to be tasted, forget chewed and digested in that proper Baconian idiom. He should have asked for clarifications, yes in shorter sentences or made the points only a quarter of the times – not that he really had to say much, I used to feel. But he went on and on all the time.

Towards the end of each discussion, his monologue almost signalled the time for switching off brains. Assignment and exam scores reiterated the sense of pointlessness in him. I didn't say it because he was, after all from Palestine, the mother of all conflict zones. He was way elder to all of us, I had gathered. Outside the class room, other than "hullo brutheR, howare you?" and waving out from his curious cycle, there weren't too many interactions. 

It took four semesters for me to be surprised by him. In the Literary Criticism and Theory paper, his seminar topic was "Can the Subaltern Speak" by Spivak – yes, that marvelous essay you pretend to understand as a grad student but will have to keep reading over and again to teach it even after a decade. We were supposed to read the essay and go. In all honesty, I tried but failed terribly. In the class, I was looking at the sealing indifferently when Nidal approached the essay through certain demonstrations.

With a classmate who incessantly tried to create verbal territories of belonging on the one side and a friend who is conquered by the fear of being attacked any time to the point of being driven into violence on the former, I could now feel the vacuum spaces of articulation… and sound does require a medium to travel, my school Physics book taught me.

I can't comment on the exactitude of the exercise due to my personal lack of understanding. But one could sense a certain methodical rigour and nuanced approach in talking about colonialism, imperialism and the subaltern. He was wearing that yellow sweater he wore all of winter, the heavy Arabic pronunciation continued to make it difficult, but there was a new kind of personality dissecting history and historiography. 

That didn't change Nidal for good. He went back to being the incorrigible him as a discussant. One morning, he was particularly outrageous both with positions and his lack of any understanding that was going on. It somehow got into my nerves. I just went ahead and snapped, and snapped badly. I knew I could shut him up because he was bordering on the drivel. He did shut up. I felt the class grew heavy with that closure. But his eyes suggested the troubled search of a locked off cat when I looked at him.

I went back to my room: 510 of D hostel. His eyes started haunting me. I knew I had done something very wrong by the evening. I got out and started walking towards the international hostel beyond the post office. It was not difficult to locate his room. He was lying on a coat without a mattress, aggrieved. I didn't know what to do. I put my hand on his shoulder and said, "Nidal". There was no welcome gesture, no attempt to explain anything, no nothing. I apologised for my behavior – he wasn't particularly noticing. He was not even conversing. From the talk that followed with him and his friend from the Middle East, I could make out that Nidal's close friend and neighbour had died in an Israeli air strike. His family could also be eliminated? I was afraid to even ask. 

 But now I knew one thing: talking, talking incessantly, was his way to come to terms with the nightmare realities he was supposed to figure into his life. I suddenly understood: he was not talking for anybody to hear but was trying to create a cell with his own voice for him to inhabit. Its long-windedness was a response to the barbed wires that history had kept for his like. Kites in the Darwishian last sky with no other option…

While grading papers for Google, I chanced upon this interesting response to the question, "One Law You would Implement if You Could": "Most problems now in the world are due to the foundation of two states by the colonial masters, viz. Israel and Pakistan using religion as its only foundation. I will pass a law to undo these two nations".

Debates on Israel and Palestine standing in for a Jew-Muslim conflict is quite baffling, primarily because Muslim anti-Zionism sometimes finds justificatory logic in either wondering if Hitler wasn't all that wrong in taking the shortest way with Jews or in dismissing the Holocaust as a Jew-conspiracy (America is doing all that it is doing because of the Jew lobby, is part of the common sense fuelled by conspiracy theories!).

About 2000 years of anti-Semitism was an entirely Christian thing. Adolf Hitler was by no stretch of imagination the first anti-Semite – he only reinvented and put to practice what was rampant all across Christendom a couple of centuries ago.

The Christian interest of the project is well established by Daniel Golfdhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners and so on. The pre-Israeli Jew lives in the Middle East has been far more positive than the "evacuation" policies Europe had, some historians have argued. Now the talk is that the fight is between Jews and Muslims and America and Europe are "only mediating". Edward Said said "imperialism alters not only the present or the future but also the past". In that sense Israeli-Palestinian conflict's historical amnesia is fodder to the imperialist folklore. 

I understood Israelis also feel wronged in the whole scheme of things when I happened to work with an Israeli theatre director, a lovely person. As an Israeli for some generations, he was very critical of the fanatic streak in the settler Jews and he called them nothing less than dangerous. But he was also convinced that Israel was a victim of the world politics: "everyone is against us. The whole of the Arab world has ganged up against us. Americans have to toe the line of these Arabs because of oil money. Europe also has business interests in the Middle East. We have to fight everyone for our very existence. Why does everyone do this to us?"

That was new. I had only heard how Jews are terribly manipulative and are the root cause of all issues in international relations. Little did I realize everybody, including the Zionists, are telling themselves stories about themselves in the absence of which you can't claim your deeds.

I was reminded of a story I read somewhere: In sixth century Madina, people got together to kill a dangerous big snake they spotted somewhere in the marketplace. By the time they got equipped with a heavy enough stick the snake had already left. Seeing all this Prophet Muhammed smiled: "Just like you got saved from the attack of the snake, the snake also got saved from your attack". 

People think of themselves as people and "others" as snakes. 

With a classmate who incessantly tried to create verbal territories of belonging on the one side and a friend who is conquered by the fear of being attacked any time to the point of being driven into violence on the former, I could now feel the vacuum spaces of articulation… and sound does require a medium to travel, my school Physics book taught me.



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