Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
From the Middle East to Lausanne:
Thoughts Amidst the Alps
By Ramzy Baroud
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, December 23, 2013
Here in Switzerland, the train chugs along nicely between
Geneva and Lausanne. The Alpine mountain range desperately fights to make
its presence known despite the irritating persistence of low- hanging
clouds. A friend had just introduced me to the music of J.J. Cale, but my
thoughts were moving faster than the speed of the train. Time is too short
to sleep, but never long enough to think.
It has been nearly a
week since I embarked on a speaking tour in French-speaking countries of
Europe. The trip was more difficult than I thought it would be, but also
successful. I am here to talk about Gaza, to explain Arab revolutions and
to remind many of their moral responsibility towards Palestine and Arab
nations. For six months prior to that date, I lived and worked in the
Middle East. Soon after I had arrived, Egypt entered into a most
disheartening new phase of violence and chaos. Despite the suffering and
bloodletting, the fresh turmoil seemed to correspond more accurately to
the greatness of the fight at hand. The Jan 25 revolution was declared
victorious too soon.
For me, the turmoil in Egypt was more
than a political topic to be analyzed or a human rights issue to be
considered. It was very personal. Now, my access to Gaza is no longer
guaranteed. Gaza, despite its impossible reality and overwhelming
hardship, was the last space in Palestine in which I was allowed to visit
after 18 years of being denied such access. It was the closest place to
what I would call home.
My travel companion informs me that we
have ten minutes to Lausanne. I wish it was much longer. There is so much
to consider. My sorrow for Gaza and its suffocating siege, for Palestine
and its denied freedom is now part of a much larger blend of heartbreaks
over Arab peoples as they struggle for self-definition, equality, rights
and freedom. No, hope will never be lost, for the battle for freedom is
eternal. But the images in my head of the numerous victims in this war –
especially children who barely knew what war is even about in the first
place – are haunting.
I went back in the Middle East hoping to
achieve some clarity. But at numerous occasions I felt more confused. I
don’t know why I get bewildered feelings every time I am back in the
Middle East. I only refer to the Middle East when I write in English. In
Arabic, it is ‘al-watan al-Arabi’, the Arab homeland. We were taught this
as children, and knew of no other reference but that. Among Arab friends,
I sound juvenile when I say the ‘Arab homeland’. No one there makes that
My generation was taught by a generation that
experienced the rise of Arab nationalism. They were exposed to a unique
discourse of terminology that was meant as an Arab retort to imperialism.
Some of my Gaza neighbors fought alongside the Egyptian army. My father
fell wounded alongside his Egyptian comrades. In 1967, he crossed Sinai,
defeated, in the back of a haggard army truck carrying dead and wounded
Egyptians and Palestinians. Back then there was little distinction between
them and there was no need to emphasize that they were brothers in arms,
or anything of that sort. They were Arabs, who fought Zionism and
imperialism until the last breath.
But then things changed.
I always dreaded crossing through the Egyptian border when I was young,
but I had no other option. Gaza was entrapped, as it is today, and Egypt
has historically been a lifeline that was often severed for one reason or
another. My last visit following the Egyptian revolution was meant to be
different. I thought the revolution would correct the aberration that has
afflicted inner Arab relations. I thought that it would once again remold
a distraught Arab discourse, and that it would bring Egypt back to the
Arabs after decades of political loss and cultural dissolution. Nearly
three years have passed since the revolutions started, and the discourse
is as fragmented as ever, if not even more muddled.
The Alps grow
giant as we almost enter Lausanne, but they are still not fully visible.
In my travels in Europe, I am treated with respect at every border
crossing. At times there have been a couple of inquiring questions; at
others, none. But Arab border police are hardly obliging. Those of us
‘lucky’ enough to have western passports can tell many stories of how
respect in Arab countries, in our own homelands, often hinges on the color
of that small document.
My ‘Arab homeland’ unfortunately seemed
to have sunk even deeper into political despair, unprecedented disunity,
and an unmatched sense of cultural loss after a few years of revolutions
and civil wars. What worries me about Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and all
the rest, is that their revolutionaries don’t seem to be at odds with the
very entities that have contributed to Arab defeat. They appeal to the
very America that destroyed Iraq, and seek French guidance and British
handouts, although neither of these parties has shown any signs of
departure from their old colonial legacies. The cultural invasion that I
witnessed there is all but complete. Western globalization is wreaking
havoc on fragile cultures that are not putting up much of a fight.
Is there a rationale that could explain what happened in the last few
decades? How did we go from relative clarity by having a defined,
collective sense of purpose, identity, and common aspirations – despite
the many failures and defeats – to this overwhelming sense of loss?
‘Where are you from?” asked an Egyptian taxi driver on my recent visit to
Saudi Arabia. “I am a Palestinian.” “But your accent?” he inquired. “I
live in Washington. “Do you have an American passport?” he asked. “Yes.” “Alhamdulilah“(Thank
God), he commented with a sense of relief and a smile. He genuinely felt
happy for me.
But I keep going back. Many of us do. It is an
unresolvable conflict, the same identity schizophrenia that many Arabs
have. My father, who died under siege in Gaza in 2008, tried to figure
things out despite his cynicism. He explained the world to me in lucid and
plain terms. He read Iraqi poetry, listened to Egyptian music and related
to the many aspects of Arab life. He ‘hated’ the Arabs, yet prided himself
on being one. I inherited his skepticism and confusion. This is why I keep
We arrive in Lausanne. Most of the clouds have
vanished. The fog has dispersed. The Alps appear again, commanding and
eternal. J.J. Cale’s melodies are ahead of their time. They are meant for
the future, not the past. I insist on staying hopeful.
Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant and
the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is “My Father Was a
Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story” (Pluto Press, London).