My first experience of the Palestinian occupation was in the fifth or sixth grade. I grew up in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, where politics wasn’t such a huge part of everyday life. My parents, though incredibly active politically in their youth, did everything possible to shield me and my brother from politics as children. I would always want to watch the news with them but they wouldn’t let me. This is, I think, typical of post-revolution Iranian families living in the middle east, who want no part in politics after what they’ve been through. So, back in sixth grade, I did an art project wherein I drew and colored in a series of flags from around the world. I included Brazil, Argentina, Canada, the UAE, USA, Israel… When my best friend, who was reviewing my work, caught sight of the flag he ran around class telling everyone the sacrilege I had commited. I drew neither Iran’s flag, nor Palestine’s, and here was Israel’s, in all its blueness. He even told the teacher (who didn’t, to the best of my recollection, say anything). My classmates were up in arms. I, for the life of me, just couldn’t understand what was going on. But I did understand that whatever the case may be, my peers were demonstrating a certain vulgarity and racism that I was accustomed to experiencing from “Arabs” (nationalism in a diaspora is often expressed with racism). I was even referred to Wael, one of at least a handful of Palestinians in our class, who gave me a resentful glance. Later that same day I saw Wael drawing a picture of some sort of battlefield, with two sides, one of them raising their arms victoriously, the other consisting of bloodied corpses. “This is Palestine. And we are killing the Israelis.”
Everytime I think of that experience I am overcome by complete frustration. Not because I don’t sympathize with Palestinians; indeed, anyone would slap a pro-palestine label on me within a moment’s glance at my views of the conflict. But mostly because it really set the tone for a vast majority of my discussions with others on the topic. There’s even a manner by which I am dismissed of my views depending on whom I’m talking to: the Palestinian camp will react with hostility, annoyance, sometimes yelling, while the Israeli camp will smile condescendingly like I’m some stupid idealist who’s not worth being serious with anyway (this, by the way, i find far less tolerable than the aforementioned yelling). I have friends who come from Jewish families who, despite being opposed to the Israeli occupation, can’t help but view any of my stances against the occupation as being at least a teeny tiny bit anti-semitic. It seems to me that either side you are perceived to be on comes with all this baggage of racism and total hostility. I just want to be able to talk about a real issue that affects people on both sides of the territories. I want to be able to talk about the issues unfettered by these preconceived notions. I sympathize tremendously with both sides on a human level. I want to be able to talk about religious extremism as a driving force that perpetuates violence from both sides. I want to talk about the distorted manner in which the conflict is depicted in the media. And I want to talk about how many on both sides, having already harbored heavily racist attitudes against the other even before the conflict, have been choosing turning a blind eye to, nay: celebrating the other’s suffering. And this has afflicted me profoundly: today, when I see people wearing skullcaps or headscarves, I feel a slight but very real aversion. This simply wasn’t the case when I was a teenager, even after gaining familiarity with the conflict. I’ve lately been catching myself wondering, gosh, will I ever be able to casually approach such people as I once have before? It’s totally fucked for me to have to ask myself this.