General subject: Environment & Writing
See also # 1 and # 2, and Some Palestinian/Israeli Co-Operative Peace Groups.
This post is the third in a series of three posts about things people said to me when I was in Israel and the West Bank. These people were not some kind of sinister “official” people, delegated to pull the wool over my eyes, keep me from seeing things or saying things, etc. Nor was there an avoidance of the situation: on the contrary, people really wanted to talk about it. These people were from many areas, but self-selected, of course. (That is: There are a lot of people from extremes and semi-extremes who would not have talked to me, and certainly not freely). I didn’t feel anyone was lying about his or her feelings, though there was some initial tentativeness about me—where did I stand, did I have preconceptions? Being neither an Israeli, nor Jewish, nor Muslim, nor Christian, nor American, was probably facilitating. As for the cold hard facts, some of them are cold and hard (no argument, everyone agrees), but some are fuzzier in their presentation– you hear different “factual” versions.
The opinions are those of the speakers.
“People” includes: native-born Israelis; Palestinians living in Israel; West Bank Palestinians; Israelis who originated in other places, such as the U.S.; non-Israeli, non-Jewish, non-Arab people who are in Israel now (e.g. for diplomatic, NGO, or business reasons,); and, via remote means, North Americans not in Israel, Jewish and not, British not in Israel, Jewish and not. To preclude judgment of the comments because of the affiliations of the commentator (“as in, “They always say that, they don’t mean it,”), I’ll wait a week before tagging them by origin. I won’t name individuals, I said I wouldn’t, and it could be dangerous or unpleasant for them. (I.e., they would get attacked, or worse.) Meanwhile, see if you can guess what kind of person said what.
What do environmental workers and writers have in common? Lots. They are often considered odd or threatening both by elements within their own societies and elements outside them, and accused of privileging their own concerns above more “necessary” ones, such as hospitals or poverty. It is frequently assumed that neither “nature” nor “literature” has any “value” in and of itself, since the units within these categories cannot be easily evaluated from an economic viewpoint –what is an endangered species or a poem “worth”? – and thus it is constantly being demanded that they demonstrate some utility to an entity outside themselves: the state, a political party, human health, “society,” religion, or the like. Defending them means defending against attacks on them that come from every conceivable direction.
The communities of interest they belong to – nature, literature – are by definition international: “nature” recognizes no humanly constructed borders, “literature” is a virtual republic inhabited by all writers of all nationalities and languages, dead and alive. Neither community has an army or a set political position, and neither is monolithic or even well organized: many groups and individuals exist within these communities. Globally, both produce people who find themselves on the front lines when it comes to repressive governments and/or huge multinational corporations.
How “necessary” are “nature” and “literature” to human life, anyway? Close up, not very. You can live your life without ever admiring a beetle or reading a book; millions have. In the long view, essential: the human body cannot exist without air, water, and food, and all come from “nature.” As for “literature,” paper and electronic texts are both scores for human voices – at their best, complex and intricate voices. Alone among the media and other art forms, such texts allow us to experience as closely as possible what it is like to be another human being, from the inside. What you think of such a capability in individual instances will of course vary, but if our species as a whole were to lack the ability to empathize with others, we would not be “human beings.”
And both are bridge-builders in conflict areas. Birds travel across borders. So do books.
“Perhaps the paucity of rain is what makes us, the inhabitants of this land, Jews and Arabs, so anxious and temperamental that peace continues to elude us. It was here that prophets thought they heard God imposing punishment by withholding the rain or rewarding His people with fertile fields. Such a small land with an outstanding variety of topographies: one snow-capped mountain, which belongs to Syria, one desert, one fresh-water lake and another very salty one, and ne proper river. One of everything. And so little water that we’ve had to live with our eyes constantly turned up to the heavens.”
Raja Shehada, Palestinian Walks: Notes On A Vanishing Landscape (Profile)
(This book is a fascinating, sad, beautiful ramble through landscape, personal life, politics, and time.)
You might think that subjects such as restoration of damaged lands and water features, or the creation of nature parks, would not be contentious, but that is far from the case.
“The environment? People don’t think about it much. We’ve had other priorities.” “The nature parks are in Area C. Palestinians can’t go there.”“The barriers and settlements have completely ruined the landscape.”
“Water is a big issue. The Israelis control most of it.” “They turn off the water as a punishment.” “The water is polluted.” “The water is scarce because of government mismanagement.” See: http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/features/facts-on-the-groundwater-1.290570
“The beach at Tel Aviv is polluted with both chemical and human waste. Not all the time, they let you know.” “They take off too much for agriculture.” “They’re draining the aquifers.” “The Jordan is just a muddy ditch.”
For an overview from a Christian Arab Liberation Theology magazine: http://www.sabeel.org/pdfs/Corner45final.pdf
On the other hand, there are some impressive restoration projects, including one involving an old Roman water-wheel grinding mill, located between a kibbutz and an Israeli-Arab village. The restoration has benefits for both, including enhanced wildlife habitat, educational possibilities for children, and potential tourist value.
“It’s getting hotter and drier.” For deserted Syrian villages and worsening water conditions in Israel, Palestine, Syria and Jordan, see: http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jXbS8a3ggiMm4ekludBbmWQMb-HQ
For coming worldwide food shortages and an overview, see:
See also Bill McKIbben’s new book, Eaarth.
“Any solution will have to be regional.” (In fact, without a regional solution to water shortages, the whole area has a dusty future, if any future at all. An inclusive water plan is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. The human body can live without many things, but three days without water and you’re dead.)
Some people are thinking about this. Here’s one plan: http://greenerblog.blogspot.com/2009/02/water-project-peace-in-israelpalestine.html
Here’s Friends of the Earth Middle East, an umbrella group that includes Israel, Palestine, and Jordan: www.foeme.org
And who knew about this: Atlantic Centre for the Environment: http://www.qlf.org/internat_program/mideast_program.htm
“There has … never been a time in human history when some have not defied attempts to divide them on the basis of their difference and have not instead united to defend or expand human rights. All too often, those people have been all too few. But that simply makes their achievements all the more impressive. Challenges such as combating climate change – which could literally sink all our constructs and take us with them – make the task of first recognizing our commonalities and then mobilizing them for the common good all the more urgent.”
Gary Younge, Who Are We? And Should It Matter in the 21st Century?
There are a lot of heroic efforts being made in the region, and in the larger “Middle East.” But the birdfolk are the most frequently overlooked.
Consider the dedicated Iraquis who put together an Iraqui bird guide literally under fire, http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=36312
The whole Israel/Palestine/Jordan/Syria/Lebanon region is on a major migration flyway, as it funnels birds back and forth from Europe to Africa during migrations. The birdlife is incredibly rich… As everywhere, bird conservationists are working on preserving habitat, monitoring birds, working with farmers, and educating people, teaching them the benefits of a living biosphere and how people can fit within it in a sustainable way. Here is an inventive project that works with farmers, using barn owls to control rats and mice in Israel and Jordan:
I saw this plan in action – it’s impressive! – and kestrels have now been added – they eat rodents during the day, and the barn owls take over at night.
I knew both the Israeli BirdLife Partner and the Palestinian one though this international organization, and saw them both while in the area—where they kindly met with me and showed me around. Thanks to Yossi Leshem and Imad Atrash, and also to Amnonn Hahn, who manages the Friends of the Swifts programme. Among the bird people, one can look beyond human conflicts.
Here is the Israeli Partner of BirdLife International: http://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/national/israel/index.html
They have another website at: www.birds.org.il.
There are a lot of energetic and inventive projects going on, including a wetland bird observatory right beside the Knesset (frogs included).
The Friends of the Swifts — an international org. devoted to swifts –is also active, and has a nesting-box program in Tel Aviv buildings. I was able to see it in action – and to view the inside of a nest box through webcam – at “HerzLillienblum, The Museum of Banking and Tel Aviv Nostalgia” – dating from @ 1920. Birds and Banking? Are the birds a reminder that money is an entirely man-made construct?
Here is the Palestinian BirdLife Partner: http://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/national/palestinian_authority_territories/index.html
This organization is very active. It did have a wonderful project to restore the polluted Wadi Gaza, the only river that flows through Gaza – they did an excellent guide book about its nature – but it’s hard for the workers to get in there right now. It does much educational outreach work to enhance awareness.
International PEN has Centres in Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Lebanon.
I did meet some writers and publishers, but I don’t have an exhaustive catalogue. There has been a huge amount written about the area – from every possible perspective.
There are many Israeli literary events – the Jerusalem festival, for instance.
In the Wesr Bank, there is the three-year-old PALFEST, which took place without major incident this year, unlike last.
These were recommended to me:
Eilat Negev’s interviews with Israeli writers – Close Encounters With Twenty Israeli Writers – will give you an overview of the wide range of approaches and opinions that sizzle within Israel.
The Tamar Institute in Palestine is devoted to children’s books and reading: http://www.writeaway.org.uk/content/view/712/54/
Adina Hoffman’s biography of Taha Muhammad Ali — “My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness – a Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century” –was recommended by several. (An Israeli writer, a Palestinian subject.)http://www.amazon.com/My-Happiness-Bears-Relation-Palestinian/dp/0300141505#reader_0300141505
I am now reading Meir Shalev – top Israeli writer, and also a “bird person.”
Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks was already mentioned, but I will now read “Strangers in the House.”
And I am about to read the following remarkable book, which seems like a good place to end: on a note of tragedy tempered with hope:
I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey, Dr. Isseldin Abulaish.
By the Gaza doctor whose three daughters and niece were killed in the Gaza invasion, and who remains fervently attached to peace.
Coming shortly: Who did say what, and — in light of that– suggestions for a resolution.