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The Support for Palestine from Iran


My friend who had participated in a protest, in front of the UN office at Tehran, Iran on July 28th, in condemnation of Israel’s ongoing invasion of Gaza wrote to me describing it:

We were about 20 people in the demonstration for Palestine in front of the UN office at Tehran. Government forces, in plain clothes surrounding us, made no attempt at concealing their identities and interminably reported the event to their stations via their radios. They dispersed us after 10 minutes or so on the basis that we did not have official permission for our gathering. They had previously granted us permission, but then cancelled it a day prior to the demonstration.

She was outraged that support for Palestine is restricted to the realm of Iran’s government, and a solely official cause out of the reach of citizens. Iran’s government doesn’t acknowledge the right to any independent protest or gathering, yet the repression against the pro-Palestine demonstration is perceived as a peculiar policy, given the eminence of the support for the Palestinian cause in Iran’s ideological basis of the state.

 

The dilemma of state-run and independent demonstrations

My friend, a socialist student activist, once asked a prison official why he had been arrested even though he had organized many anti-war and anti-economic sanctions demonstrations at his university. He responded: “We don’t need you jooje-marxists [Marxist tiny-birdies] to organize against war and sanctions, because we know that you can easily turn it against us, sneaking in slogans critical of the state on the back of your anti-war posters. So we don’t need your help as our state-men and reliable forces can lead the anti-war activities.”

There’s real concern, in other words, that even demonstrations in support of causes that the state endorses have the potential to organize independent social groups and form spaces of objection against the shortcomings inside. As a result, a demonstration in support of the Palestinian cause is perceived as a threat against the state. On Quds Day in 2009, the last Friday of the month of Ramadan, during which Iran’s state has run a rally in support of Palestinian resistance since 1979, Iranian protesters used the opportunity to shout slogans against the domestic political shortcomings, but were arrested and dispersed.

Not being allowed to protest against any domestic corruption and unjustness inside Iran, taking to the streets to support justice for Palestinians can make some of the pro-Palestine protesters feel like hypocrites. As my friend wrote:

After all, maybe some of our critics are right that public support for Palestine is only for Iranians who are outside of Iran. For those of us in Iran, government repression makes organizing independent demonstrations very hard. If you participate in the state-run rallies, you’ll be part of their show; you’re not even allowed to formulate your own slogans in support of Palestine, let alone object to domestic issues. And joining the state protests, without voicing our objections to the state’s domestic policies, makes us feel like hypocrites.

Yet, she quickly agreed with me when I reminded her that Palestine is not only Palestine: participating in collective condemnation of the current conditions of Palestinians includes objections towards other similar (neo-)colonial policies.[1] She responded “we have our moments of understanding Palestinians better, don’t you remember those moments of total despair that protesters, young and old, in Iran held stones against the fully armed forces of the state?” I responded yes, I remember, and it was after those moments that Palestinians were no longer broadcasted holding and throwing stones in Iran.

 

The representation of Palestinians

I once surprised a Palestinian friend of mine when I explained to her that, growing up in Iran, I had never learned much on the Palestinian cultural productions despite the comprehensive coverage that was offered by Iran’s national TV on the Palestinian collective armed and unarmed resistance (mostly portrayed as Islamists and focused on its official figures). It was more than a year after I had left Iran that I learned about Simon Shaheen (Palestinian Oud player and music composer) and Mohammed Bakri (Palestinian movie director) in an event at Boston, MA, even though, like many people in Iran and the rest of the world, I was instinctively a supporter of the Palestinian struggle for justice. The same year, on As`ad Abukhalil’s blog, I came across George Habash whom Abukhalil later on described to be “feared by Arab regimes, and respected and loved in the refugee camps […] their love for him was genuine because they felt that he was genuine.”[2] I googled Habash to learn more on him. On his wikipedia page, Habash’s deep colorful look in his eyes, both peaceful and intense, and his melancholic and passionately vibrant smile were haunting. As I learned more about him I thought to myself that Palestinian resistance movement that includes people like George Habash and as such (many unknown and less known people like him) must be way beyond the representation that Iran’s state media had offered to me and my generation.

As I grew more familiar with Palestinian cinema and music, I began to wonder why the representation of the Palestinian people that was given to us through Iran’s national media was (in certain aspects) so similar to that of the North American and Western European mainstream media – despite the difference in their political stance regarding the Palestinian cause. In both cases, Palestinians are only depicted in “exceptional moments of popular explosion” [3], and the life behind those moments become invisible. Living under the conditions of occupation, dispossession, restricted mobility, checkpoints, spatial fragmentation, and political frustration may result in periodic postponement of ordinary life and a sense of guilt for enjoying everyday pleasures: as if expressing we shall resume enjoying life after the liberation. In this sense, Iran’s official representation of Palestinians may resonate with the historical periods of the collective postponement of ordinary life, and forms of resistance preferred by certain political factions within the Palestinian struggle. But it is worth inquiring into the particularities of such official representations, and their effects on Iranian society’s perception of Palestinian resistance and everyday life.

Rania Elhilou’s daily journal of Israel’s recent invasion of Gaza captures the suspension of everyday life, the impossibility of following celebrations and joyfulness on collective and individual calendars, and the imposition of death. She writes, “It’s Sobhi’s and my seventh wedding anniversary today. Normally this would be an extended weekend of celebration… But there is nothing to celebrate. We are perpetually in mourning… Normally, Eid is a day when people go out and visit relatives for celebrations. Today, people are going to graveyards to visit the dead.”[4]

 

Taking control of life and death

One of the central modes of the Israeli government’s colonial domination of Palestinians is the systematic destruction of the everydayness of life, and the imposition of perpetual mourning, death, and dispossession. The resistance against this colonial desubjectivization often works through the taking control of both life and death [5] by those subjected to colonization. For instance, Jalil Elias, the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music director, explains the relation between music and life conditions for Palestinians: “We teach music to give the children here a new mentality and a new life and we teach them to let them breathe… It’s our philosophy, it’s how we can let the Palestinian people, through music, find peace for themselves.”[6] Elias explains that music can form a space in which Palestinians can experience joy and a sense of having an ordinary life denied under settler-colonial conditions. If the colonial policy is to damage the everydayness of life, sustaining quotidian pleasures in the face of occupation, blockade, and dispossession becomes a form of resistance – or at least a form of emotional survival, the maintenance of hope in the harshest conditions. “Taking a long historical view,” James C. Scott writes, “one sees that the luxury of relatively safe, open political opposition is both rare and recent. The vast majority of people have been and continue to be not citizens, but subjects. So long as we confine our conception of the political to activity that is openly declared we are driven to conclude that subordinate groups essentially lack a political life or that what political life they do have is restricted to those exceptional moments of popular explosion.”[7]

We run the risk of overlooking the day-to-day resistance of Palestinians if we restrict ourselves to “exceptional moments of popular explosion.” Focusing on loud forms of public resistance gives us an incomplete image of the reality of the resistance of Palestinian people. As Scott points out, “each of the forms of disguised resistance, of infrapolitics, is the silent partner of a loud form of public resistance.” This “infrapolitics” may not result in visible sociopolitical changes, but “holding on is a victory in itself” [8] under the conditions of occupation and dispossession. As Laleh Khalili explains: “emblematic of the infrapolitics of the dispossessed and the disempowered, the efficacy of sumud [steadfastness] is not in its ability to beget political cataclysms, but rather in its cumulative force over decades resulting in incremental changes, which may not substantially alter societies, but which provide a breathing space for those who are most often trampled in the stampede of history.”[9]

 

The censorship of Joy and Pleasure

Both Iran’s official media outlets on the one hand, and North American and Western European mainstream media on the other, focus on resistance as a sacrifice of the self (and censor the everyday life behind those moments) – but for different reasons. While the former aims at demonization, the latter portrays Palestinians as puritanical revolutionaries who have deserted joy and pleasure. Everyday practices of taking control over life are censored in both cases. In some of the mainstream Western media, Palestinian death is not mourned (nor depicted as mournable) – Palestinians are merely positioned as the enemies of the ally or the obstacles to the happiness of the civil friend. Iran’s state run media, on the other hand, censors all that it does not evidently recognize as the Palestinian political struggle. This censorship is partly to give a unified Islamized image of Palestinian struggle compatible with the underpinning discourses of Iran’s state; otherwise the discrepancy between state regulated Islamic norms and social values (enforced onto Iran’s society) and Palestinian sociopolitical beliefs and forms of life (Islamic or non-Islamic) undermines their authoritative position and challenges their restrictive domestic policies. Another explanation can be that they assume that Palestinian cinema and musicians represent normalcy or routinized everydayness that, in their perspective, stand against political resistance and the ongoing crises (and abnormalcy) of the occupation. This stance, as it was discussed, neglects that the Israeli colonial policy turns the colonized subjects into ‘living dead’ [10] for whom struggling to have an ordinary life and experiencing joy in various forms can become both acts of resistance and survival.

The fact that the body of knowledge, produced by Iran’s state, on the Palestinians and their resistance is limited to selective representations of the armed and unarmed struggle has resulted in limitations for Iran’s societal support of Palestinians. The state has treated and claimed the support for the Palestinian resistance as an official cause towards which Iran’s society has hardly had the space to form its own independent non-governmental stance. On the other hand, the state instrumentalizes the Palestinian cause to distract attention from Iran’s domestic shortcomings and defends the cause of justice for Palestine, while oppressing any protest against injustices inside. Such state treatment, along with other reasons, have sometimes led to societal reactions such as the slogan “neither Gaza, nor Lebanon, I sacrifice my life for Iran.” In other words, such policies have sometimes led to a society’s call to focus on Iran’s domestic issues and to leave alone the causes over which the state shows support.

However, an independent social voice in support of Palestinian resistance is growing again in Iran of which the recent independent demonstration on July 28th is an example. This voice doesn’t imitate the language of Iran’s state – it resists being a reaction to state discourses, it does not leave the support for the Palestinian cause to Iran’s government, and it speaks out against domestic injustice. There is hope that this independent voice can engage with Palestinians’ various complicated forms of resistance, its forms of affirmation of life, instead of focusing only on the moments of explosion. A true supporter of Palestinian people does not fear Palestinians’ enjoyment of life, does not perceive it as normalization of abnormalcy of occupation. In the omnipresence of colonial policies of death, dispossession, and destruction, persistence in leading a joyful life, holding on, and staying hopeful are symbols of resisting normalization of suspension of ordinary life and perpetual mourning. A true supporter of Palestinian people stands beside them when they strive for the everyday life of which colonial policies have deprived them.

Notes:

[1] Palestine, in the context of Iran, is symbolized in the threats of war during Bush administration that assisted hardliners to weaken the reformist state of Khatami and the fragile miniscule space for sociopolitical activism of those years, and the ongoing economic sanctions that impoverishes the society and damages lives in Iran.

[2] http://electronicintifada.net/content/george-habashs-contribution-palestinian-struggle/7332

[3] Page 199: Scott, James C. 1990. Domination and the arts of resistance hidden transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[4] http://www.anera.org/stories/crisis-in-gaza-2014-a-daily-journal/

[5] Mbembé, J.-A. 2001. On the postcolony. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[6] http://jessicamusic.blogspot.com/2011/01/really-new-beginning.html

[7] page 222: Scott, James C. 1990. Domination and the arts of resistance hidden transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[8]Mahmood Darwish: “I am calling for steadfastness [sumud]. The important thing is to hold on. Holding on is a victory in itself.” This was quoted in the book: Page 99: Khalili, Laleh. 2007. Heroes and martyrs of Palestine: the politics of national commemoration. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[9]Page 225: Khalili, Laleh. 2007. Heroes and martyrs of Palestine: the politics of national commemoration. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[10] Mbembé, J.-A. 2001. On the postcolony. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[11] https://www.facebook.com/dabashi/photos/a.268551769831776.65317.267326509954302/ 792463307440617/?type=1

 

Acknowledgment: I am thankful to my friend, Ahmed Diaa, for his insightful comments.

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