Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
Why the Oppressed Must Tell Their Own Story
By Ramzy Baroud
Al-Jazeerah & ccun.org, March 1, 2010
When American historian Howard Zinn passed away recently, he
left behind a legacy that redefined our relationship to history altogether.
Professor Zinn dared to challenge the way history was told and
written. In fact he went as far as to defy the conventional construction of
historical discourses through the pen of victor or of elites who earned the
right of narration though their might, power and affluence.
kind of history might be considered accurate insofar as it reflects a
self-seeking and self-righteous interpretation of the world by a very small
number of people. But it is also highly inaccurate when taking into account
the vast majority of peoples everywhere.
The oppressor is the one
who often articulates his relationship to the oppressed, the colonialist to
the colonized, and the slave-master to the slave. The readings of such
relationships are fairly predictable.
Even valiant histories that
most of us embrace and welcome, such as those celebrating the legacy
of human rights, equality and freedom left behind by Martin Luther King,
Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela still tend to be selective at times. Martin
Luther King’s vision might have prevailed, but some tend to limit their
admiration to his ‘I have a dream’ speech. The civil rights hero was an
ardent anti-war champion as well, but that is often relegated as
non-essential history. Malcolm X is often dismissed altogether, despite the
fact that his self-assertive words have reached the hearts and minds of
millions of black people throughout the United States, and many more
millions around the world. His speech was in fact so radical that it could
not be ‘sanitized’ or reinterpreted in any controllable way. Mandela, the
freedom fighter, is celebrated with endless accolades by the very foes that
branded him a terrorist. Of course, his insistence on his people’s rights to
armed struggle is not to be discussed. It is too flammable a subject to even
mention at a time when anyone who dares wield a gun against the
self-designated champions of ‘democracy’ gets automatically classified a
Therefore, Zinn’s peoples’ histories of the United
States and of the world have represented a milestone in historical
As a Palestinian writer who is fond with such luminaries,
I too felt the need to provide an alternative reading of history, in this
case, Palestinian history. I envisioned, with much hesitation, a book that
serves as a people’s history of Palestine. I felt that I have earned the
right to present such a possible version of history, being the son of
Palestinian refugees, who lost everything and were exiled to live dismal
lives in a Gaza refugee camp. I am the descendant of ‘peasants’ – Fellahin –
whose odyssey of pain, struggle, but also heroic resistance is constantly
misrepresented, distorted, and at times overlooked altogether.
was the death of my father (while under siege in Gaza) that finally
compelled me to translate my yearning into a book. My Father was a Freedom
Fighter, Gaza’s Untold Story offered a version of Palestinian history was
not told by an Israeli narrator – sympathetic or otherwise – and neither was
it an elitist account, as often presented by Palestinian writers. The idea
was to give a human face to all the statistics, maps and figures.
History cannot be classified by good vs. bad, heroes vs. villains, moderates
vs. extremists. No matter how wicked, bloody or despicable, history also
tends to follow rational patterns, predictable courses. By understanding the
rationale behind historical dialectics, one can achieve more than a simple
understanding of what took place in the past; it also becomes possible to
chart fairly reasonable understanding of what lies ahead.
one of the worse aspects of today’s detached and alienating media is its
production of history - and thus characterization of the present - as based
on simple terminology. This gives the illusion of being informative, but
actually manages to contribute very little to our understanding of the world
Such oversimplifications are dangerous because they
produce an erroneous understanding of the world, which in turn compels
For these reasons, it is incumbent upon us to
try to discover alternative meanings and readings of history. To start, we
could try offering historical perspectives which try to see the world from
the viewpoint of the oppressed – the refugees, the fellahin who have been
denied, amongst many rights, the right to tell their own story.
This view is not a sentimental one. Far from it. An elitist historical
narrative is maybe the dominant one, but it is not always the elites who
influence the course of history. History is also shaped by collective
movements, actions and popular struggles. By denying this fact, one denies
the ability of the collective to affect change. In the case of Palestinians,
they are often presented as hapless multitudes, passive victims without a
will of their own. This is of course a mistaken perception; the
Palestinians’ conflict with Israel has lasted this long only because of
their unwillingness to accept injustice, and their refusal to submit to
oppression. Israel’s lethal weapons might have changed the landscape of Gaza
and Palestine, but the will of Gazans and Palestinians are what have shaped
the landscape of Palestine’s history.
Touring with My Father was a
Freedom Fighter in South Africa, in a recent visit, was a most intense
experience. It was in this country that freedom fighters once rose to fight
oppression, challenging and eventually defeating Apartheid. My father, the
refugee of Gaza has suddenly been accepted unconditionally by a people of a
land thousands of miles away. The notion of ‘people’s history’ can be
powerful because it extends beyond boundaries, and expands beyond ideologies
and prejudices. In that narrative, Palestinians, South Africans, Native
Americans and many others find themselves the sons and daughters of one
collective history, one oppressive legacy, but also part of an active
community of numerous freedom fighters, who dared to challenge and sometimes
even change the face of history.
South Africa has; Palestine will.
- Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net)
is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of
PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is "My Father Was a Freedom Fighter:
Gaza's Untold Story" (Pluto Press, London), now available on Amazon.com.