The illusion of narrative

Politics in the Middle East permeates life in a way that forces anyone living here to notice things that are not so obvious in other places I have lived.

First there is the intensity of political feeling and identity. Of course the English identify as Labour or Conservative and the Americans, perhaps more dramatically, as Republican or Democrat, but in Lebanon the depth of adherence to a political grouping is heightened by two things: religion and violence. It is impossible to imagine someone supporting a politician who once ran a militia who was involved in hurling bombs at you or whose soldiers were responsible for killing a family member, irrespective of his current politics. It is equally difficult to imagine supporting a politician who is inciting his followers against you using sectarian language.

It is abundantly clear when two Lebanese discuss politics, that the discussion is really a superficial cover for an argument about identity. And when people insult each others identity, the rifts are deep and often irreparable. This linkage between politics and identity is true everywhere, but the weaving together of them is not quite as complete. In the US, though, it seems the link is stronger than in the UK. Most UK political arguments are about policy, redistribution of wealth and hew closer to the real issues, less to identity. In the US, aside from the fact that the arguments about redistribution of wealth and welfare have a more violent tinge to them, there are also the religious and ethical aspects of political issues such as abortion, drug legalisation and race that are kindred to a persons identity in a way some of the more abstract issues are not.

But even worse for being less evident is the way that counter-posed narratives prevent people from even the most basic agreement on facts and shut the door on dialogue. I have never personally seen a more dramatic example of mutually-exclusive narratives that in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The cleft between the two sides thinking is so complete that listening to even the most moderate versions of the two sides’ story is to listen to two different tales.

Palestinian: when the early zionist settlers arrived from Europe, my grandparents sold one of their houses to a family from Prague. They were good people and well educated. The man had a doctorate in history but he became a small shop keeper. My parents saw the world burn. There were a succession of attacks by zionist groups who would kill whole families and empty villages of their inhabitants. The British were not able to protect us. And then, of course the UN gave our land to the settlers and Israel was born. My parents lost most of what they had, but we were lucky and managed to emigrate to the US. many of my cousins live stateless in Lebanon, the luckier ones in Jordan. One day, inshallah, we will find a way to move back to our home and our lands and defeat the zionist invasion.

Israeli: In 1934, when things were already tense for us Jews in Poland, my father took the decision to move to the settler lands in Palestine. We were the lucky ones. My Uncle and his children, who stayed to run their business, were all murdered by the Nazis. When the catastrophe of World War Two finally ended, we opened our home to a family of survivors, one of the thousands of families who somehow survived the attempt to kill us all off. When the UN voted to give us a state and especially when Harry Truman recognised our new country, we cried tears of relief for ourselves and sadness for those who never saw that day. Of course we knew that some rogue elements of the Haganah were doing things we were not to proud of, but it was a time of transition and, in the end, we established a democracy based on the ideals of the Enlightenment and look how well we have done. I served in the IDF and while I do not support the settlements, the barrier wall or the current government, I would go back and fight to the death for this country, my country, the only place the Jews will ever be safe.

How could these two people ever reach a common understanding of history? How could they find a middle ground from which to build a common project?

We need to be aware that we are all drowning in our own narratives, this seems to be linked to how human beings understand the world (story telling). We need to be aware that our story is definitely partially right and partially wrong. Then we can discuss.

Note that I am not equating the value of each narrative. I am not claiming that all sides have an equal claim to truth. In fact careful analysis of two narratives usually reveals that their are critical facts that are agreed on but explained in different ways. Other facts are overlooked as insignificant in one story but are important in the other. For example to most Palestinians, the UN vote of 1948 was one in a long series of injustices. To an Israeli it is the critical act that supplies legitimacy to the Israeli state. Those two views can not be reconciled.

So why do we speak to those who disagree with us? If the reason is to persuade the other side, it is futile. The power of narratives is too strong, the emotional identification is too binding. But if it is to find a settlement, then we need to be aware of the different parties’ stories. An Israeli will never accept that 1948 was a Nabka (Catastrophe) but he may accept that it was a tragedy for the person opposite him. The Palestinian may never accept the Israeli’s “right” to live in the lands he once occupied, but he may accept the impossibility of reversing history.

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