The Palestinian poet who inspired JK Rowling’s stance on Israel ~ Claire Armitstead, THE GUARDIAN, Tuesday 27 October 2015.
The Harry Potter author quoted Mahmoud Darwish as she explained her opposition to a cultural boycott. But does his life and work fit with her message?
JK Rowling has long possessed the mythical philosopher’s knack of turning every stone she touches to gold, so when she cited the work of a Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish as a political inspiration, you know he’s a made man.
Except that, in the Arab world, Darwish, who died at the age of 67 in 2008, needs no magic boost: long regarded as Palestine’s national poet, he has given voice to suffering with poems such as Identity Card (Write down! / I am an Arab / And my identity card number is fifty thousand / I have eight children / And the ninth will come after a summer / Will you be angry?) and Under Seige (Here on the slopes of hills, facing the dusk and the cannon of time / Close to the gardens of broken shadows, / We do what prisoners do, / And what the jobless do: / We cultivate hope).
Rowling named the poet in an extended tweet explaining why, despite being among 150 signatories who called for a dialogue with Israel in an open letter to the Guardian last week, she would not be joining a cultural boycott. “The true human cost of the Palestinian conflict was seared upon my consciousness, as upon many others’, by the heart-splitting poetry of Mahmoud Darwish,” she wrote.
“In its highest incarnation, as exemplified by Darwish, art civilises, challenges and reminds us of our common humanity,” she continued. “At a time when the stigmatisation of religions and ethnicities seems to be on the rise, I believe strongly that cultural dialogue and collaboration is more important than ever before and that cultural boycotts are divisive, discriminatory and counter-productive.”
The problem with this reading of Darwish and his work, however, is that his life was a catalogue of dialogue denied. Burnt out of his home village of Birwa as a small child, he fell in and out of love with the PLO, spent much of his life in exile and ended it in a Texas hospital.
Four years before his death, he was awarded a major prize in Holland, giving a speech that gestured at the “charming illusion” of art: “A person can only be born in one place. However, he may die several times elsewhere: in the exiles and prisons, and in a homeland transformed by the occupation and oppression into a nightmare,” he said. “Poetry is perhaps what teaches us to nurture the charming illusion: how to be reborn out of ourselves over and over again, and use words to construct a better world, a fictitious world that enables us to sign a pact for a permanent and comprehensive peace … with life.”
A Harry Potter fan has called out JK Rowling in the best way possible ~ Sarah-Elizabeth Daly, Herald Scotland, Tuesday 27 October 2015 / Opinion.
The full text of the letter can be read below:
“Dear J. K. Rowling,
I am an avid fan of yours, and have continuously read your Harry Potter books non-stop since the age of 11. My whole house is splattered with memorabilia, and I have just returned from visiting Harry Potter World which was one of the most amazing trips of my life. I’m 100% obsessed with your books, and frequently dream about them – in particular, the Battle of Hogwarts, where my sub-conscious always brings in my own personal battle, but a battle in which I think everyone should be taking part.
I am writing to you in response to your public support for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and opposition to the BDS movement in the Guardian’s “Culture for Coexistence” letter. As a Palestinian, I have to say that I was completely disappointed when I read about this, because your books have been the very source of all the hope I have for peace and justice in my homeland someday. You see, my Battle of Hogwarts dreams have always had the death eaters as Zionists, and Harry and his peers as Palestinians. Knowing that the idea for your epic novels was from World War II and the Nazis, I naturally drew parallels between the books and Zionist Israel and Palestine. I am therefore entirely confused and heart broken at your support for this letter, because to me, as a Palestinian Potterhead, it does not quite make sense.
The letter in question states,
“Cultural boycotts singling out Israel are divisive and discriminatory and will not further peace … Open dialogue and interaction promote greater understanding and mutual acceptance … Cultural engagement builds bridges, nurtures freedom and positive movement for change. We wholly endorse encouraging such a powerful tool for change rather than boycotting its use.”
I feel that this letter has not contextualised the grim reality of Israel/Palestine, and is paradoxical in its nature. In this response to your support of the letter, I will be drawing parallels between the Harry Potter world and the Palestinian world in order to demonstrate my confusion.
Firstly, “boycotts singling out Israel are divisive and discriminatory,” is a ridiculous sentence in itself. I’m not sure whether you know the history of Israel, but it did not exist before 1948. It is a settler-colonial state which operates on the apartheid of an indigenous people and has broken international law and UN resolutions every single day since its existence. The practices Israel enforces in its culture and every day functioning are in themselves divisive and discriminatory. No cultural engagement between Palestinians and Israelis will ever build bridges, because rather than the “two sides are to blame” argument the letter you signed endorses, there are no two sides.
When the death eaters take over the Ministry of Magic and begin to run the magical world, would you have placed them in an equal side to the Potter trio? I definitely would not; the death eaters ran a ministry of oppression – from the “Magic is Might” statue of the naked muggles being used to support the robed wizard, to the brutal treatment of muggle born students at Hogwarts. Additionally, the death eaters had the advantage of fighting together using the Unforgivable Curses, having an army of brutal magical creatures including giants and dementors, having magical spells to track the Potter trio’s movements and having full control of the magical world through their position of power.
In contrast, Harry was working in isolation with the support of his two friends. His “side” were terrorised families who could not step one foot out of line in fear of being tortured and/or killed, or who were in hiding and on the run. It was a completely uneven distribution of power and most definitely not two sides. It was a case of the oppressor and the oppressed.
Now let’s consider this in the Israel/Palestine context. How can we, as Palestinians, sit and conduct peaceful dialogue with Israelis, as equal sides, both to blame for a “conflict”, when there is also an uneven distribution of power?
Israel has the fourth largest army in the world and receives $10.2 million in military aid daily from the U.S.. Palestine has no army and receives no money for military aid. When you look at news articles and pictures of the so-called “conflict”, you can see the Israeli Defence Forces kitted out in uniform, armed with guns and helmets and tanks and illegal chemical weapons and f16s and drones. In contrast, you see Palestinians with rocks and handmade weapons, if they are lucky enough. You can see the damage made with something like drones or white phosphorous in contrast to the damage of “Hamas rockets” (the media’s favourite phrase). This very example shows the uneven distribution of power, and sets the base for why it is argued that Israel and Palestine are not two sides, but the oppressor and the oppressed.
In the magical world, the muggles and muggle borns were completely exploited and ridiculed by the death eaters. Muggle borns were named the derogatory name “Mudblood” and were accused of “stealing magic” if they could not provide proof of magical relatives. Muggle-born students were singled out in Hogwarts when the death eaters started teaching there, and some muggle borns had to go on the run and were often rounded up by Snatchers. The death eaters’ hatred and discriminatory practices against the muggle borns were not a secret; they were plain for everyone to see, much like the treatment of the Palestinians by Israel.
How can we talk about cultural bridges when Israelis live in illegal settlements (under international law) with unlimited supplies of running water and electricity, whilst meters away Palestinian villages have one of the worst droughts in the world? As one of my dear friends so aptly put, will these bridges of peace bridge the Palestinians who are literally fenced into ghetto villages by an 8m concrete wall, checkpoints and watch towers (which eerily look like the watch towers of Nazi concentration camps) to the land they have been cut off from, which Israelis can access at any time? Will our cultural bridge of peace bridge Shuhada street in Hebron, where Palestinians literally have to use a specific walkway separate to Israelis (much like the bus services around the country)? Shall we invite the Israelis, who are off-duty from their military tasks in for a cup of tea before they return to bombing us with one of the world’s most advanced armies? Maybe when they come over they can wear their t-shirts depicting pregnant Palestinian women, saying “1 shot 2 kills” and talk about how distressed they feel as their leaders are celebrating their regime saying “we are the masters”.
Have you ever even looked at the type of Zionist statements made against Palestinians? For example, just two weeks ago 13 year old Ahmad Salih Manasra was shot and a video taken of the scene documented Israeli onlookers shouting, “Die, son of a whore!” and ordering police to “Give him one in the head” whilst he lay bleeding and struggling to breathe on the floor . Perhaps Ahmad would like to have those onlookers as visitors at the hospital he’s now recovering in – they can bring in flowers, see how he’s doing and he can listen to how threatened they felt watching him be attacked.
The suggestion of dialogue is as absurd as an oblivious muggle who has no awareness or willingness to understand of the context between a death eater and muggle born. It’s like Vernon Dursley shaking his head, saying that we’re all being foolish and peace will come if only Dean Thomas, whose father was killed because he refused to serve the death eaters, and Antonin Dolohov sat together and “talked it out”. Of course, that would never happen because Dolohov was outwardly for the expulsion of anyone against Voldemort, and could have been the very person who plotted and killed Dean’s dad. How could Dean ever contemplate sitting with someone who’s colleagues killed his father, who was actively seeking out his peers from school, and who was torturing and maiming people for their identity?
How about, when the death eaters storm and wreck Xenophilius Lovegood’s house looking for Harry in false exchange for Luna, they all pause their “conflict” and talk to each other about how all of this is making them feel. Because, the death eaters’ feelings are just as valid as Xenophilius’. Because there are two sides to every story.
Just like Palestinians when they face daily military incursions, house arrests and house demolitions. I’m sure the families in Sheikh Jarrah (East Jerusalem) would love to talk to the Israelis who made them homeless by illegally kicking them out of their houses so that they can use them as holiday accommodation, and who force them to pay for their water, gas and electricity bills even though they don’t have access to them. Or perhaps my friends in Susiya village, who have had their homes and temporary tent shelters demolished time and time again, would love to invite the illegal Israeli settlers who stole their farm and the Israeli soldiers responsible for their demolitions over for some dinner. Because the illegal holiday making settlers who thieved their homes and farms, and the Israeli soldiers who order house demolitions on tent shelters have feelings just as valid as the families whom they stole their homes from. Two “sides” to every story.
I have a feeling, with all due respect, that you have never spoken to a Palestinian before. Your signature on this letter seems to be made from a judgement purely based on privilege and monetary benefits. I therefore welcome you to come visit me and talk to my family about whether they would like to have some dialogue with Israelis and build a cultural bridge of peace.
Maybe you could ask my father, who lived through three wars before the age of 25; who grew up with drones flying over his head during his early childhood; who lost contact with his parents, siblings and family whilst he was at university because Israel expelled them from their home; and who was banned from returning to his home because he “willingly left” to go study in Egypt and could therefore not return to search for his family. Or you could ask my mother, who has not been allowed to even visit her birth city in over 40 years.
How about talking to all 6 million Palestinian refugees who are dispersed all over the world, waiting with their keys from when they left their homes in 1948 to go back to their still-intact houses; waiting for the promise of their return (granted by the British) to be acted upon at last; waiting for Israel to comply to UN resolution 194 (III) which states “that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible”;
waiting for the international community to stop preaching about “two sides” and “dialogue” and to recognise that the state of Israel has been guilty of consistently breaking international law from its creation.
Sure, they would love to talk to every Zionist out there who is actively contributing to their displacement. I for one just love to read about American Jews who have no genetic ties to Israel but want to move there because they just love it there, meanwhile if I try to visit I am strip searched, interrogated and shot at even though my parents were born there. Yeah, let’s have some dialogue – it’ll solve everything!
The letter you signed is a prime example of the “good, unbiased Westerner approach” which actively ignores international law violations, dehumanises the indigenous Palestinians, and lazily sweeps Western responsibility under the carpet. The elephant in the room that we all need to talk about is: none of this would be happening if it weren’t for Britain who gave the land to Israel in the first place, with no consultation from the indigenous population. No, let’s ignore history and statistics and daily reports of atrocities and say, “you both need to calm down, let’s all sit at a table like we’ve been doing for the past 60 years and talk about your feelings and find some shared experiences from perspectives.” How dare anyone, who has not picked up a book or watched a documentary on the subject, who has never even spoken to a Palestinian about their life tell them what to do when they have no idea how it feels to be oppressed; to be cut off from your homeland whilst international settlers take up camp there; how it feels to see pixelated images of your friends’ dead, mutilated bodies appear on your computer screen through a news report whilst people tell you to “stay calm”; how it feels to stay up all night worrying for 8 months straight whilst the love of your life has been subjected to torture methods in solitary confinement and administrative detention without trial or charge?
Can you imagine someone sitting Hermione and Bellatrix down, after Bellatrix has tortured Hermione, to talk things out? Perhaps Neville could join them, and report back to his deranged parents the success of their dialogue. Intergenerational trauma is one of the most prevalent mental illnesses in the Palestinian community, with PTSD being the most common disorder in Palestinian children. Every family living in Palestine has had at least one member of their family arrested under administrative detention and tortured by soldiers for information. Why should a Palestinian who has been subjected to extreme means of psychological and physical torture sit across from an Israeli to hear their perspective? That’s like a cancer patient listening to someone who is completely healthy complaining about a bruise on their leg.
“Ah,” I can hear you say, “But what about the Israelis suffering?”, and in response to that I would say please study the published statistics on those killed in the “conflict” and recognise that you cannot even begin to compare the number of deaths of Israelis to Palestinians. Millions have been massacred and murdered, thousands incarcerated in jails without trial or charge. For you, you hear the words “Israel” and “Palestine” maybe once or twice a year, but I hear them every day when my friends tell me of the news coming from there. Additionally, Israel does not limit its atrocities to Palestinians; in this month alone there have already been reports of a British man, Rabbi and Israeli being attacked by Israeli soldiers.
Like the propaganda created to argue that muggle borns stole magic, propaganda is dispersed everywhere to paint Palestinians as terrorists, and Israelis as victims. Harry was depicted as dangerous and mad, like a terrorist, to the wizarding community – much like the Palestinians you will see flickering on your tv screen. But, as Hermione might suggest, sources mean everything, and I only hope that you have not taken your information from the Zionists’ version of the Daily Prophet, but rather the Palestinians’ version of Potterwatch. Because just like your novels show, the best way to get information is to go straight to the source instead of a mass media production site. Rita Skeeter herself demonstrated the dangers of reporting and spreading biased and exaggerated news articles, and although I’m extremely certain nobody would trap you in a jar as a beetle, I’m sure that one day you will have to backtrack your arguments.
I honestly think you are one of the most creatively intelligent writers we have, and up until now you have inspired me beyond belief. I would hate to think that you knew all of this previously before signing that letter, because by signing it you have automatically signed up to Netanyahu’s inner circle of supporters – the same man who regularly denied that Palestine ever existed and referred to Palestinians as “Arabs” to strip them of their racial identity who has just said that the genocide of the Jews in World War II wasn’t actually from the Nazis but from the Palestinians themselves (yes, he used the ‘P’ word showing that his consistent denial of Palestine was a political tactic).
To the Palestinians, many of whom rely on Harry Potter as a means of inspiration and escapism, you have outed yourself as a sympathiser of today’s present-day Nazis who are conducting ethnic cleansing as we speak. I only hope that now I’ve highlighted my concerns that you might withdraw your signature and realise that a peaceful, practical approach to fighting apartheid is to endorse BDS until Israel complies with international law. It worked with South African apartheid, which I’m sure you never supported, and it will work with Israeli apartheid too.
So many intellectual academics, scholars, musicians, artists, novelists, scientists and performers have spoken out for their support of BDS. It is the only logical way that this madness will stop. We have spoken until our tongues have dried out – dialogue is a method that has gone stale. We need action and that action is BDS until Israel recognises international law, like every country on this planet should.
The letter you signed uses the word “coexistence” in its title – but “coexistence” will never be reached until the lives of every single person is treated with dignity and respect. Somehow, I don’t think sitting down and talking is going to teach the IDF or Israeli settlers to start respecting Palestinian life, because they are so indoctrinated into a culture of brain washed military life. For example, they have been recorded watching the bombing of Gaza as though it were a movie at the cinema. Coexistence will happen once this culture is torn down, and I am so sure that if Harry could defeat Voldemort, Neville could behead Nagini, and Snape could be good, that Palestine will be free and we will all live as one people on this Earth.
I hope that this letter is shared as widely as possible so that you may see it, and that I can hear your reply.”
Sarah-Elizabeth Daly / Tuesday 27 October 2015 / News
JK Rowling has responded to fans using fictional characters to make points about the Israeli Cultural Boycott.
The response comes a day after The Herald published an open letter to Rowling from Mia Oudeh, calling out JK Rowling and seeking a response.
Titled ‘Why Dumbledore went to the hilltop’, Rowling took to Twitter to post her response.
The full text can be read below:
I’ve received a lot of messages over the past few days that use my fictional characters to make points about the Israeli cultural boycott. This isn’t a complaint: those characters belong to the readers as well as to me, and each has their own life in the heads of those who have read them. Sometimes the inner lives of characters as imagined by readers are not what I imagined for them, but the joy of books is that we all make our own mental cast. I’ve always enjoyed hearing about versions of Potter characters that exist in heads other than mine.
Many of the messages I’ve received in the last few days have included variations on the theme ‘talking wouldn’t stop the Wizarding War’ and as far as that goes, it’s true. Talking alone would not have stopped the Wizarding War and talking alone didn’t. Voldemort believed that non-wizards were subhuman, so it’s valid to draw comparisons between Voldemort and any real human being who regards other races, religions or sexualities as inferior. It would indeed have been a fool’s errand to try and talk Voldemort or Bellatrix Lestrange into laying down their wands for love of their fellow humans. They have no love of humanity and they wanted domination, not peace.
I said above, and I stand by it, that every reader has the right to his or her own version of my characters. However, there is one central point about the Potter stories that is not negotiable: we can’t pretend that it isn’t there, or that it doesn’t matter, when it is the crux of the books and in many ways the key to the story. It is also a point that to my knowledge (I get a lot of messages, so I cannot swear to it) has been lost in the many comparisons of Israel to Death Eaters.
In the final book, Deathly Hallows, when many hidden things come to the surface, there is a scene on a windy hilltop. Dumbledore has been summoned by a Death Eater, Severus Snape. At that point, Snape is a subscriber to the inhuman philosophy of Voldemort. He is probably a killer, certainly a betrayer of two of the people Dumbledore loved most, and the man who had sent Voldemort after an innocent child in the knowledge that Voldemort would kill him.
Again, to my knowledge (my memory isn’t infallible, so forgive me if you did), nobody has ever asked me: why did Dumbledore go when Snape asked him to go, and why didn’t he kill him on sight when he got there?
I think readers assume that Dumbledore is wise enough, knowledgeable enough and compassionate enough to sense that Snape, though he has led a despicable adult life, has something human left inside him, something that can be redeemed. Nevertheless, wise and prescient as Dumbledore is, he is not a Seer. At the moment when he answers Snape’s call, he cannot know that Snape isn’t going to try and kill him. He can’t know that Snape will have the moral or physical courage to change course, let alone help defeat Voldemort. Yet still, Dumbledore goes to the hilltop.
I’m going to digress very slightly here, but there is a related point that bears making. Among the messages drawing parallels between the Potter books and Israel have been quite a few saying that ‘Harry would be disappointed’ or ‘Harry wouldn’t understand’ my position. Those people are right, but only up to a clearly defined point. The Harry of six and a half books might not understand. Harry is reckless and angry for a considerable portion of those six and a half books and he has my whole-hearted sympathy. He has lost his family, he has had burdens put upon him that he never wanted, and he has been stigmatised all through his adolescence for carrying a scar left on him by a killer.
There comes a moment in the final book, though, when Harry, whose natural inclination is to fight, to rush to action, to lead from the front, is forced to stop and consider the cryptic message the dead Dumbledore has left him. Unfortunately, this message runs against counter to everything that Harry believes is necessary to win the war. He wants to race Voldemort to a deadly weapon, but Dumbledore has arranged things so that, while Harry will know that the weapon exists, he will also suspect that taking the weapon is the wrong thing to do. Harry cannot understand why using that weapon would be harmful, yet – grudgingly – he decides to act against his own instinct, and according to what he believes are Dumbledore’s wishes. The decision sits uncomfortably with him. He remains doubtful about it almost up to the point where he comes face-to-face with Voldemort for their final encounter.
Unlike Harry, Dumbledore was not acting against his own nature when he chose to meet Snape on the hilltop. Dumbledore, remember, is not a politician; the Ministry is weak and corrupt, it enabled Voldemort’s rise and is now doing a poor job of fighting him. Dumbledore is an academic and he believes that certain channels of communication should always remain open. It was true in the Potter books and it is true in life that talking will not change wilfully closed minds. However, the course of my fictional war was forever changed when Snape chose to abandon the course on which he was set, and Dumbledore helped him do it. Theirs was a partnership without which Harry’s willingness to fight would have been pointless.
The Palestinian community has suffered untold injustice and brutality. I want to see the Israeli government held to account for that injustice and brutality. Boycotting Israel on every possible front has its allure. It satisfies the human urge to do something, anything, in the face of horrific human suffering.
What sits uncomfortably with me is that severing contact with Israel’s cultural and academic community means refusing to engage with some of the Israelis who are most pro-Palestinian, and most critical of Israel’s government. Those are voices I’d like to hear amplified, not silenced. A cultural boycott places immovable barriers between artists and academics who want to talk to each other, understand each other and work side-by-side for peace. I believe in the power of projects like this http://ow.ly/TSYCp and this http://ow.ly/TSZYx and this http://ow.ly/TSYik. I think it is a tragedy when medical research like this http://ow.ly/TSYoD is prevented.
I genuinely don’t take it in ill part when you send me counterarguments framed in terms of the Potter books. All books dealing with morality can be picked apart for those lines and themes that best suit the arguer’s perspective. I can only say that a full discussion of morality within the series is impossible without examining Dumbledore’s actions, because he is the moral heart of the books. He did not consider all weapons equal and he was prepared, always, to go to the hilltop.