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186, October 2013 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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The Future Is a Foreign Country Political Ideas as Promises and Lies
By Nadim Khoury
As a professor, I have the pleasure of meeting contemporary Palestine on a regular basis in my classroom. And by contemporary Palestine, I mean the current and younger generation to which my students belong. Our strong sense of nationalism tends to blur the differences between generations, as if we were all the same. Judging from past conversations with my grandparents, however, I know that this is incorrect. When they speak of Palestine, I wonder if they have been senile all along. What is this place they keep blabbering on about? What do you mean that the streets were always clean and the doors were never locked? Go back to these conversations and think about these generational gaps, you might realise that the difference between generations can sometimes be as stark as those separating nations. Leslie Poles Hartley was correct: the past is a foreign country. In this short article, I want to add that the younger and future generation can be just as foreign. Fortunately for us, these countries are still easy to visit. There is no need for a travel document or a visa, but one has to be attentive and receptive. Our minds cannot be like walled cities or else the voyage will be rendered impossible. Given my regular trips to the land of my student’s generation, I have gathered numerous travel tales and observations. Allow me to share one with you, and tell you why it felt so foreign.

It all began in the spring semester of 2012. As the winter was setting in, I decided to heat things up a bit by teaching a course on democracy. A year before, protestors in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria (alas), Morocco, and other Arab countries took to the streets to reclaim their basic rights. Their eruptive energy was spectacular, so much so that political analysts and normal citizens forecasted that the Arab Spring would give way to a hot Arab summer, rather than going straight to fall (pardon the tiresome seasonal metaphor). A particular word that kept their energy burning was an ancient word the Greeks invented three thousands year ago: democracy, the rule “cratos” of the people “demos.” Was there a relationship between the protesters in Tahrir Square and the citizens gathered in the Athenian agora? I was excited to explore the question with my students.

On the first day of class, I entered a room full of enthusiastic faces. I was thrilled. Trust me, professors live from their student’s curiosity - it’s their manna, their morning coffee, and the fuel for their semester. I didn’t expect so many students, since the political studies programme at Al-Quds Bard Honors College is still in its infancy (but I assure you, it is growing). These numbers, I was convinced, spoke to a sense of solidarity amongst young Arab women and men that spread across their respective borders. The voice of their unity was not heard through Sout el’arab, but on social media forums and mobile telephones. Perhaps my students joined this class to make sense of this sudden camaraderie and to finally perceive the mystery behind this ancient Greek word that now adorned posters in the streets of Tunis, Cairo, and Manama. Was this a new rallying cry? Whereas the previous generation rallied around the pillars of “nationalism,” “independence,” and “pan-Arabism,” was this generation suddenly placing “democracy” at the foundation of these pillars. Have we made this word our own? Has democracy finally come to our shores? Was the Middle East the next stop in a long and tiresome voyage that started in Ancient Athens in the fifth century BC and whose last stop was in Eastern Europe at the end of the twentieth? Would the twenty-first century see the rise of an Arab democracy, a democracy that would deliver the promise for social equality, equal political rights, gender equality, and mutual respect amongst religious groups? … My imagination was going wild.

Eager to confirm my impression, I began the class with a general discussion about the rule of the people. To my surprise, the students needed no introduction. Their minds were already set. After a brief moment of silence, Muntaha, spoke on their behalf: “We hate democracy, Professor, and that’s that.” Nour nodded, Ola agreed, and Lana gave me that convincing stare professors fear. Abed and Walid looked puzzled. They had just entered class, however, so I doubt they knew what was happening.

“What?” I asked, slightly puzzled and taken off-guard. It didn’t take long for the students to confirm what I thought was an auditory hallucination. Why did my students shun the word democracy? Was I dealing with young Napoleons, Stalin wannabes, or aspiring Mubaraks? I knew for a fact that these students abhorred autocracy (I double-checked with them, just in case). And this was Palestine after all; the word freedom is on everyone’s mind. So how can a word mean so little to them, when it meant so much for the protestors of Tahrir Square? Did I miss something? Was this future generation so foreign that it devised its own political grammar? Did I need a translator?

One should note that democracy was never a key word for the older generation. However, they never used it as an insult. It was not something they hated. The word had its place in a larger constellation of ideas that held the key to the future: independence, justice, freedom, and democracy. In the foreign country that is the past, democracy was vague, because it did not exist. It was not a technical term that referred to the separation of powers and to an electoral system. Instead it was a promise, a promise of freedom, a promise to rid us from domination, a promise to treat women and men equally, and a promise to emancipate the poor and protect them from the rich. In its conservative form, it was associated with an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. In its more progressive form, others saw it as a key to the one-state solution, a state where Jews and Arabs could live under a just system. In all these cases, however, this democracy was, in the expression of Jacques Derrida, “a democracy to come,” a secular messiah who would be with us in the not-so-distant future.

My students were telling me something else. In their foreign land, separated by time rather than space, the messiah had arrived, but it was a false messiah. For them, democracy meant the world boycott that followed Hamas’ election in 2006. Democracy was the word that justified the murder of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and the military occupation of their country. Democracy was a song they had to sing to American and European donors in order to get funding for their future NGOs. Democracy was no longer a star amidst a larger constellation; it was now an isolated meteor that was separated from national liberation and the right of return. Democracy was a racist word that Israel uses to show how civilised it is and to cover its crimes (demo-washing?). Democracy was an “alien” word that conflicted with Arab culture. Democracy was a system that gave everyone political equality but exacerbated socio-economic inequality. All of this had already saturated the minds and hearts of my students. It didn’t take long for me to realise. The past generation’s promise had now turned into a lie.

What is the moral of the story? What piece of wisdom did I find in this distant land where words mean different things? I am not sure. I have recently returned from this trip and I have to get over the intellectual jet-lag. But this is what I have come up with so far. When the older generation uses words as promises that are experienced by the younger generation as a lie, we have a problem, we are at a loss for words, and communication becomes dire. As a result we should travel more frequently to the land of the future generation, and hope that their history books will not portray us as liars, but as people who can deliver on their promises.

Nadim Khoury is assistant professor and department head of the political studies programme at Al-Quds Bard Honors College in Abu Dis, Palestine. Nadim grew up in Palestine and pursued his higher education in the United States and France. He holds a PhD in government from the University of Virginia (2012), and an MA in philosophy from the University of Lille (2005). His research and teaching interests include the history of political thought, narrative theory, historical injustice, collective memory, nationalism, and international relations theory.

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