Saturday, 27 March 2010

'Golden Ramallah' and Palestinian identity

If you ever happen to be in Ramallah i recommend a visit to the La Grotta cafe and bar in the old city. It does a great range of cocktails and arak including the locally made 'Golden Ramallah' (which i enjoyed). Arak, a strong aniseed flavoured alcoholic drink, is produced all over the middle east and La Grotta is well stocked with different versions from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

La Grotta is owned by two Christian Palestinian brothers. They, like most Christian Palestinians, are just as committed to the cause of Palestinian liberation as Muslim Palestinians. The painting at the top of this post is by one of the owners and hangs on a wall in the bar.

The Christian presence is a historic feature of Palestinian identity. The other day i was walking in the nearby town of Aizarieh, when i stumbled upon the most beautiful church, maintained and supervised with pride by local Muslims. Although a small percentage of Palestinians currently in Israel and the occupied territories identify as Christian, when the global Palestinian diaspora is included the figure rises to around 30%.

There are also those in Palestine who could be described as 'secular Muslims', people who value aspects of Islamic culture and practice as part of their identity, but do not make Islam the central focus of their lives. There is also a tradition of atheism which used to be associated with the left, but which seems now to have largely disappeared. The memory of it comes out whenever i confess my own atheism, a common response being, 'ah, so you are a red man.'

I think all this is important because much of the misinformation about the 'Israel-Palestine conflict' is based on varients of the 'clash of civilisations' thesis in which the Palestinians are portrayed as motivated by a fanatical, fundamentalist adherence to Islam. In its most ignorant and racist form this can be seen in the diatribes of commentators like Melanie Philips against 'the Arabs' in Palestine (anyone with decent knowledge of the term would know that being 'Arab' does not preclude being secular, Christian or even Jewish). There is a more liberal version in the arguments of Richard Dawkins, who seems to believe that the cause of the conflict is rooted in theological disagreements. Again this shows ignorance of the multi-faceted nature of Palestinian identity which has been formed by shared territory, culture and experiences of occupation, oppression and resistance.

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