The Partition Motif in Contemporary Conflicts
Between the burnt-out Law Courts and Police Headquarters,
Past the Cathedral far too damaged to repair,
Around the Grand Hotel patched up to hold reporters
Near huts of some Emergency Committee
The Barbed wire runs through the abolished city
W H Auden
Auden may be talking of war, but barbed wire is as good a symbol as any for partition. Burnt out Law Courts (law is the first casualty), patched up hotels, Emergency Committees, and much worse, follow. Also count in refugee camps - these too would be fenced in at times. And one is left with the detritus of fractured national psyches, anger, regret, nostalgia for pre-partition days, and sometimes never-ending conflict. As far as Israel and India are concerned, both 'partitions' occurred after the shaking off of colonial rule. For Palestine and India, the negative impact of the trauma wiped away the euphoria. We remember our independence as 'Partition' (so does Pakistan) while the Palestinians call it al-Naqba - disaster, death. This book tries to grapple with partition both as reality and metaphor. It touches subjects as far apart as the East and West German divide, a Palestinian village on the Israeli border, Curzon and Bengal and even the Hindu-Muslim divide in Bhopal.
The narratives have to be different. Surely, most Pakistanis would feel that Partition made them escape 'Hindu domination.' They will always put a question mark against our 'secular' credentials. As shown in the comprehensive introduction to the volume by the editors, Smita Tiwari Jassal and Eyal Ben-Ari, the Israel narrative will talk of how a "small besieged brave group of Jews faced and overcame a massive coordinated Arab assault." The Palestinian one will talk of how a well-armed and trained military faced a "disorganized, ideologically disparate, underarmed, and leaderless group of Palestinians". (Not strictly true, for a handful of Arab States too attacked this thin coastal strip known as Israel.)
Zvi Bekerman from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem deals with memory in his paper "Collective Memory and Obstacles to Reconciliation Efforts in Israel." Memory, he says, "is no longer to be found in the narrow coordinates of the psyche but in the broader coordinates of a social world wherein�?� it is distributed, negotiated and contested." He tells us how inter-ethnic reconciliation in Israel is attempted in schools and takes up three festivals, namely Christmas, Eid-ul-Fitr and Hanukkah which commemorates "both the Maccabean revolt against the Selucid Greek conquest and the miracle of the oil, which continued to burn for eight days after the desecration of the Temple." Established orders tend to mobilize and transform memories. This sometimes involves papering over happenings, thus bringing about a sort of partial national amnesia leading racial minorities to view the majority with suspicion and fear. (Hence political observers notice the anxiety of governments to pamper minorities, as seen in New Delhi today).
The reverse is also true, namely, "the centrality of a threatening minority in constituting national identity." (p. 40). The Israelis are building a wall to keep the Arabs off. They even have fears that the Jews would one day be outnumbered by the Arab population. (Pakistanis need harbour no such fears for they have got rid of most of the Hindu population. The same is true of East Pakistan/Bangladesh where the percentage of Hindu population has diminished considerably.)
Efrat Ben-Zeev, who teaches anthropology in the Ruppin Academic Center Israel, has an interesting chapter on "The Cartographic Imagination: British Mandate Palestine," though his thesis becomes a bit opaque. In simple English, what he wants to show is, how the maps drawn by the British during their Mandate (1920-48) played a part in 'consolidating' the 'cartographic icon' that was to become Israel and determine 'which landscape components were implanted in it.' (A bit off-putting the way he has put it.) He tries to show how the 'geographical entity' that is Israel came to be seen by the Jews as "predestined, logical and almost natural." Even during Ottoman rule the British were the main cartographers of the Holy Land. He says that the sizes of the Jewish settlements were exaggerated on maps. There are many words for boundary in English, he says: border, margin, rim, edge, limit, delimit, demarcate, delineate and so on. Herbrew and Arabic are not so rich, in this field. One fails to see the argument. (I am told Arabic has no word for conscience, which does not mean the Arabs have no conscience!) He goes on to talk of British mapping in India. Within a hundred years "the geographic rhetoric of British India was so effective that India had become a real entity for both." That India became a nation and a "real entity" because of a hundred years of British cartography makes me laugh.
Land and belonging are both disputed in Israel and Palestine. Nin Gren, a PhD candidate from Goteborg, Sweden in "Partition in a Palestinian Refugee Camp" talks about her field research in Dheishe, a refugee camp established by the UN in 1952, 12 kilometres south of Jerusalem. She states, "During the latest Palestinian uprising, al aqsa intifada staring in September 2000, the camp residents have been subjected to mass arrests, house demolitions and targeted assassinations by snipers and helicopters." She discusses the wall coming up in Israel, and Israeli settlements in what she terms as "occupied territories." The wall ushers in the fact of "renewed borders." She stresses the fact that Jewish settlements are coming up on the coast, unlike the Biblical Israeli state which was confined to the Judean Hills ('Jerusalem and the hills of Nablus'), "thus reversing the settlement pattern of Biblical times." Academics, even the passionately liberal ones, have to realize that people have to live by present day realities, not by some Biblical hang-ups.
Nina Gren goes on to say that prison has become a metaphor for Palestinians - she has a whole section entitled "the Homeland as Prison: Controlled Life and Movement." She says the Palestinians want one country and not two. The trouble about someone who works in a Refugee Camp for a year is that she will see just one side of the picture (misery of the refugee and state oppression) and there will be no attempt at objectivity. I would not trust Nina Gren with a gun if an Israeli were in sight.
The book contains a fine chapter entitled "Memories of a Lost Home: Partition in the Fiction of the Subcontinent" by Alok Bhalla. Bhalla is an authority on Partition literature, with quite a few books on the subject. He has interviewed writers both in India and Pakistan and deals with the metaphor of 'Home' in fictional texts on the Partition and asserts that 'home' conforms to Gandhi's idea of swaraj. His essay is sprayed with some fine insights and excerpts. In the novel Adha Gaon "when Chikuriya is told by the Pundit in school that his father, had been hanged by the British, in the cause of freedom, Chikuriya objects vehemently: "Don't say all these things, Master Sahib, if the Imam hears there'll be hell to pay." For him, Imam Hussain was the only one who deserved to be called a martyr.
A real encounter between a Jordanian judge and the Palestinian Abu Ali, who would cross into Jordan illegally is given by Honaida Ghanim in the chapter "Living in the Shadow of Emergency." Abu Ali, a widower had married again. His second wife was from the Jordan border and the Israel forces treated her as an illegal person. She bore a son and finally, tired of the tension, went back to her village in Jordan. It was Abu Ali who now had to cross the border and visit his son in Jordan illegally. Eventually Abu Ali got caught and was sentenced to three months imprisonment. He addresses the court:
Abu Ali: "Sir, I have a family that I need to feed-who will take care of them if I am in jail for such a long time?"
Judge: Don't worry God will provide."
Abu Ali: "Sir if I, God and the donkey barely manage to provide, how on earth is God going to manage alone?"
One could have ended on this ironic note, but a word of praise for the editors, Jassal, an anthropologist from Columbia University and Ben-Ari, Professor of anthropology at the Herbrew University of Jerusalem. They have put together a very fine bunch of papers. Lack of space prevents this reviewer from commenting on some other fine papers, such as the one, for example by Michael Nijhawan.