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Beyond Borders

Is oil a women's issue? And what about war?


TRACK TWO: Gaza runner, 19-year-old Bahaa al-Farra is preparing to race at the London Olympics. He wears trainers donated to the Palestine Olympic Committee. (Below) A French pro-Palestininan protestor in Bethlehem

When her teacher pointed to a country called Israel on the map, the eight-year-old girl at Beirut's American School interjected sharply: "No that's not Israel. That's Palestine. " Pride and awe in her voice, Palestinian author Jean Said Makdisi remembers the incident thus: "My grand-daughter, who is in no real way affected by the Palestine issue, knew enough to be indignant. "

In 1948, Makdisi, sister of the late literary critic and champion of Palestinian rights Edward Said, moved out of Jerusalem, the city in which she was born. Her father left behind his home and business, "unable to see the State's division". Three generations on, one would imagine that the anguish of the loss would have faded.

On the contrary, the quieter non-violent resistance to Israeli occupation seems to be growing, says Makdisi, who was in Delhi for the release of an anthology of Palestinian writing as part of a series on Arab literature by writers in exile published by feminist press Women Unlimited. "This is our fourth generation beginning to think and resist. This is what history was. Memory will not go away. The resistance is not becoming any less, " says the 72-year-old.

Makdisi was playing a map game on her iPad with her grand-daughter when the little girl's interest was aroused. She couldn't spot 'Palestine' anywhere. "She got the history and knew it wasn't just a mistake. It was much more. I used to endlessly discuss it with my children. It wasn't to scare them. But they must know, the reason it happened. Not to make the burden bigger, but to tell them the history. "

For the average world, the Palestinian issue (see box) is a vexed matter marked by a neverending cycle of violence that kills hundreds every year. Newspapers being the main source of information means that we read largely about the devastation, the politics, the sectarian violence and terrorism.

Yet, beyond the violent oppression (by the Israelis) and the violent armed resistance (by Palestinian groups), it's the voice of the 'citizen' Palestinian-Muslim and Christian - such as Makdisi's, that is now spreading globally. Their message is about seeking justice. Not in the form of recapturing the past - the damage is "irreparable" - but in seeking ways of redress.

The focus is Palestine but the resistance is to the broader issues of oppression and injustice. It is a resistance that does not demand, and does not forget. "Do not forget, "says Makdisi. "If you forget the injustice, you're complicit in the endlessly oppressive violence. "

Through translations - and many today write in English - the word is spreading. Lawyer Raja Shehadeh, based in Ramallah in the West Bank, says, "However different we might be, humanity unites. I never cease to be moved by how strongly people far away from Palestine are disturbed by the injustice. Others contribute to the struggle through boycotts and sanctions against perpetrators of the violations. " Shehadeh, who has edited and written for the new anthology, says he's waiting for the day when the Arab region will not be "fragmented" any more as it has been since the First World War. "On my last visit to India someone said it (Arab region) is similar to how British colonisers succeeded in dividing India into hundreds of states. But India has been fortunate to have had strong leaders, not so Palestine. "

Not only Palestine, many in exile from their home countries: Iraq to Lebanon to Iran, even faraway Cuba, are using not only blogs and online journals but translations and literary events to tell their stories. Away from intense political writings in the public domain, they show us societies and cultures up, close and personal. The exchange is at an individual level.

Lebanon's Hoda Barakat has lived in Paris since 1989 in self-imposed exile after her country's civil war. She chose to write in Arabic, her characters always based in Lebanon during the war. "Nobody stole our land, but we destroy it ourselves, " says Barakat. She left because after the war, it didn't feel like 'home' any more. She lives away because "I feel more critical, free to create my vision to see what happened in that place".

But surely staying away for such long years makes memory fade? After all, as Barakat says, "If you stay attached only to the memory, you can't raise your children. You have to think for them, their future. " Makdisi gave all her grand-children Arabic/Palestinian names to keep them in touch with their history.

What keeps them going is a mix of a quest for justice, memories, the idea of home, continuing oppressions and the poverty of their people. "Only those who can afford it turn their back on the past, " says Makdisi. "I need not be there to see Lebanon, " says a passionate Barakat, who writes only fiction. "Beautiful stories are made from painful memories, " she says, her exile dedicated to keeping the memory of Lebanon alive.

It took Haifa Zangana 25 years to be able to write her memoir. Her unwavering focus on Iraq, where she was jailed by Saddam Hussein in 1970 for being a 'revolutionary activist' as communists were called, keeps her going. Brutally tortured and abused, one of the conditions for Zangana's release was that she would never return to Iraq.

The now 62-year-old has lived in England ever since. Her stark and dignified memoir is a rare text, possibly the first book written by an Iraqi woman jailed in Abu Ghraib by the dictator. Translated into English some years ago, Zangana writes in Dreaming of Baghdad, "As we resist the occupation now, our message is clear: we did not struggle for decades to replace one torturer with another. "

The activist works with a group called Iraq Women Solidarity and has a new set of questions for Iraq. Is oil a women's issue? Is the Islamic consent of up-to-four wives polygamy or an acceptable solution to the one million widows supporting five million orphans? How do you distinguish resistance from other acts of violence?

Living away is one thing and living in exile in your own land another. Architect Suad Amiry based in Ramallah uses humour to pinpoint the futility of divisions and violence and, at times, the seemingly hopeless "obsession" with Palestine. Her travel document says "The Palestinian Authority, Passport, Travel Document". Amiry writes: "It must have taken the Palestinians and the Israelis days on end to agree on the size of the three fonts. " Spit and bite in every sentence, Amery brilliantly holds a mirror to the world, recording nuggets like people's response when they learn she is Palestinian. It is usually followed, she says, by either "a flood of sympathy or even worse, you find yourself in a seminar on the conflict".

As writers bring their stories to the world that seems to be coming closer and growing apart maddeningly simultaneously, the resistance to division, oppression and the seeking of justice can only get louder. Starting, not least, with independent-minded eight-year-olds.

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