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Sunday, Feb. 28, 2010

Why the oppressed must tell their own story


SEATTLE — When American historian Howard Zinn died recently, he left a legacy that redefined our relationship to history. Professor Zinn dared to challenge the way history was written. He defied the conventional construction of historical discourses by the pen of victors or elites.

This kind of history might be considered accurate insofar as it reflects a self-righteous interpretation of the world by a very small number of people. But it is 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 tend to be selective at times.

For example, some tend to limit their admiration of Martin Luther King's vision to his "I have a dream" speech. The civil rights hero was an ardent antiwar champion as well.

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 so radical that it could not be "sanitized" or reinterpreted.

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 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 branded as a terrorist.

Thus, Zinn's histories of the peoples of the U.S. and the world have represented a milestone in historical narration.

As a Palestinian writer, I too felt the need to provide an alternative reading of history. I envisioned, with much hesitation, a book that would serve as a people's history of Palestine. I felt that I have earned the right to present such a 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 and heroic resistance is constantly misrepresented, distorted and, at times, overlooked. It 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" offers a version of Palestinian history not told by an Israeli narrator — sympathetic or otherwise. Nor is 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 as good vs. bad, heroes vs. villains, moderates vs. extremists. No matter how wicked, bloody or despicable, history tends to follow rational patterns. Perhaps one of the worse aspects of today's alienating media is its production of history — its characterization of the present based on simple terminology. This gives the illusion that we're being informed, but actually contributes very little to our understanding of the world at large.

Such oversimplifications are dangerous because they produce an erroneous understanding of the world, which in turn compels misguided actions.

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 from the viewpoint of the oppressed — the refugees, the fellahin who have been denied the right to tell their own story. This view is far from a sentimental one. An elitist historical narrative may be dominant, but it is not always the elites who influence the course of history. History is also shaped by collective movements, actions and popular struggles.

In the case of Palestinians, they are often mistakenly presented as hapless multitudes, passive victims without a will of their own. 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 has shaped Palestine's history. Touring in South Africa recently was a most intense experience, as it was there that freedom fighters rose to eventually defeat apartheid. My father, the refugee of Gaza, has suddenly been accepted by people 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 others find themselves the sons and daughters of one collective history, one oppressive legacy, as well as part of an active community of freedom fighters who dared to challenge and 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.


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