kissing and palestine

It is interesting how various aspects of my work life converge at particular moments. For the past few months I have been thinking a lot about censorship. Initially this was related to a chapter of my book that I recently finished in which I compare the U.S. laws making it illegal for slaves to read to Israeli Military Order 101 from 1967, which forbade the import, printing, distribution, and reading of a number of books. There was a list associated with it (and later films and audio materials were added to it), but the language was vague in order to make it possible for the confiscation of reading materials and arrests in routine raids of Palestinian homes. A predominant theme on this list of thousands was anything considered nationalistic, whether historic, political, or literary, and it included Palestinian writers like Ibrahim Nasrallah, Ghassan Kanafani, Fadwa Touqan, and Mahmoud Darwish. But it also included European writers like George Orwell and William Shakespeare. With the introduction of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 this order largely went away, though censorship still exists for Palestinians both by Israeli Occupation authorities and now by the Palestinian Authority. One way Israeli censorship continues is through its strict regulation over what Palestinian textbooks–particularly history and geography–may contain (in spite of Hillary Clinton’s annual congressional hearings on the matter).

Palestinian censorship is a newer phenomenon. It did not exist prior to European colonialism–like much of the region. In an article by Edward Said, “The Theory and Practice of Banning Books and Ideas,” in The End of the Peace Process, he accounts for this modern idea of censorship in Palestine and in the Arab world more generally. Said explains:

The point I am trying to make is that after 1948 at least two generations of Arabs were gradually inculcated with the idea that part of our struggle as a people required the suppression not only of certain unwelcome and unpleasant actualities by our rulers who disapproved of them but were otherwise powerless to do much about them, but also that we ourselves as a people should accept the principle that our duty as citizens was to acquiesce in the abrogation of our right to freedom of thought and expression. This was a miserable legacy to pass on. (70)

Further, Said illustrates what the effect of this new, twentieth-century censorship is:

I have yet to hear or read a real defense of censorship, even though large numbers of journalists languish in Arab prisons, and an estimable number of artists and intellectuals pay the price through exile, torture, or an imposed silence. No Arab constitution countenances censorship, but the ban on certain statements is still severely enforced. No ruler really ever wants to get into a debate about censorship, because censorship cannot withstand the clear light of reason or the rigors of debate. My books have been banned in Palestine for almost a month, yet no one has taken responsibility for the order to confiscate and remove them from the bookstore. (71)

Said wrote these words in 1996. Obviously, his writings were censored because of their political content. But my thinking about the censorship of political writings here in Palestine–whether by colonizing Zionists or by Palestinians–has collided with my thinking about teaching. When I went to the American Studies Association conference last week I left behind a lesson plan for my classes, each of which included a film. My students were to watch these films and then respond to an assignment about those films. In my drama class they were asked to watch Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit and in my conversation class they were asked to watch Edward James Olmos’ Walkout. It was important for my drama students to watch Zoot Suit, in part because of the expressionist style embodied by the character of El Pachucho. It is difficult for my students–who have never seen a live play–to imagine exactly what experimental styles might look like. And this production is not exactly a film in that there is an audience that you are aware of and it enables you to understand the relationship between the actors, the stage, and the audience. But both of these films were also important for me to share with my students because I wanted them to learn more about Chicano culture–the ways parallels of confiscating and occupying land that we can see in the events of 1848 and 1948, the oppression and imprisonment of Chicanos in the U.S., and the resistance to that oppression. Both of these films represent these themes. But my students did not get to watch these films beyond the first class. Why? Because when there was a kiss onscreen a few students complained to the Vice President of the university and he banned the movies. (For the record, my department chair, who actually watched both movies, saw nothing wrong with the material in either film.)

I first learned about this when some students emailed me to complain about it. They wanted to watch the film and complete their homework. And given some of these emails it is unclear as to whether or not the students actually objected to the kiss or whether they just wanted to get out of doing their assignment. Either way, this episode illustrates, I think, rather clearly why censorship is always deeply troubling. When one encounters something offensive one can always shut the book, turn off the television, walk out of the room. One can make that choice for oneself. But when you censor you are regulating for an entire body–whether a family, a school, a society.

Of course, I knew that such censorship was a recent, European, colonial import to the region. Historically, Abu Nuwas, who wrote erotic poems about men and women alike in 8th century Baghdad, is not banned, for instance. So this made me think about Joseph Massad’s “Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World,” which makes clear that many changes in Arab society in relation to sexuality were rooted in Christian Victorian ideas about sexuality, which were repressive and foreign to the Arab world. Consider how language and practice changed in this passage from Massad’s article:

The advent of colonialism in the Arab and Muslim worlds, its sponsorship of what came to be known as “modernization” projects, as well as the proliferation and hegemony of Western cultural products have indeed had their effects. Basim Musallam has shown how such contact has influenced attitudes toward contraception and abortion: at the beginning of the nineteenth century, most schools of Islamic jurisprudence—previously supportive of women’s rights to birth control and abortion—adopted stances on these issues that were more in line with the Christian Western position (both Catholic and Protestant). Indeed as Western cultural encroachment continued, its hegemonic impact was also felt at the level of language. For example, the Arabic word for sex, jins, appeared sometime in the early twentieth century carrying with it not only its new meanings of biological sex and national origin but also its old meanings of type and kind and ethnolinguistic origin, among others. The word in the sense of type and kind has existed in Arabic since time immemorial and is derived from the Greek genus. As late as 1870, its connotation of sex had not yet come into usage. An unspecific word for sexuality, jinsiyyah—which also means nationality and citizenship—was coined in the 1950s by translators of the works of Freud (such as Mustafa Safwan, a major psychoanalytic scholar based in France, and Jurj Tarabishi, the most prominent Arab literary critic writing in Arabic today). More recently Muta3 al-Safadi, translator of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, has introduced the more specific term, jinsaniyyah. This new term, however, is understood by only a few, even among the literati. Words for homo- or heterosexuality were also invented recently as direct translations of the Latin original: mithliyyah (sameness) in reference to homosexuality, and ghayriyyah (differentness) in reference to heterosexuality. Arab translators of psychology books as well as Arab behavioral psychologists adopted the European expression sexual deviance in the mid-1950s, translating it literally as al-shudhudh al-jinsi, a coinage commonly used in the media and in polite company to refer to the Western concept of homosexuality. (371-372)

Similarly, in “Toward the study of women and politics in the Arab world: The debate and the reality,” As’ad AbuKhalil explains that it Western Christian Victorian attitudes about sexuality that at first chastised Muslims for a more permissive sexuality and then later chastised Muslims for adopting a more Victorian model of sexuality:

The historical Western (primarily Christian) attitude toward Islam has discouraged Muslims and Arabs from engaging in a frank and open discussion about the roles of women and minorities within the Islamic political — and theological — context. The Western, Christian attitude to Islam has lacked consistency; in the past Islam was attacked for what was perceived to be its sexual permissiveness, while Islam is now associated with sexual puritanism and strictness. This inconsistency is due to the political determinants of Western perceptions, and misconceptions, of Islam which explains how Islam was approached from a purely theological Christian point of view in the past, and how Islam is now approached from a secular humanist point of view. Islam, of course, has failed — in Christian, Western eyes — both tests: the Christian and the secular one. (3)

And finally in Anouar Magid’s “The Politics of Feminism in Islam” we see the ways in which Europeans viewed–envied to be more precise–Muslims in relation to sexuality in the eighteenth-century:

Even the premodern veiled women of polygamous harems were both sexually and economically freer than their European contemporaries. When Lady Mary Wortley Montagu traveled to Turkey in the eighteenth century, she wrote that she “never saw a country where women may enjoy so much liberty, and free from all reproach as in Turkey.” Indeed, as late as the nineteenth century, English women continued to report on the superiority of Turkish women in almost every sphere of social life, including hygiene, economics, and legal rights. (335-336)

Magid continues with another relevant historical point:

With the Westernization of social institutions under Mohammed ‘Ali, however, the major trade routes “to and from the Hijaz, Syria and the rest of the Ottoman Empire” were reoriented toward Europe, eroding Muslim women’s access and economic independence. Similarly, while traditional, veiled women told stories with what today might be considered pornographic content and, at the same time, made copious references to Islamic texts to bolster their arguments, this discursive freedom was veiled by modern women who sanitized their descriptions with the help of the exalted language of science and frequent references to European writers and women. (336)

I shared many of these thoughts with my students today. I also asked them how many watched MBC television (a Saudi-run station that plays many Hollywood films, including those with not just kissing, but also sex). Almost all of my students raised their hands, but some said that when kissing comes on the screen they leave the room or turn off the television. While I’m not sure I buy that last bit, the point is that this is what could have been done in the context of the films I wanted to show. But just to connect the dots a bit I also read a poem by the beloved Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, a poem that is explicitly sexual to make a point. Here is his prose poem, “A room in a hotel” which is in the volume Unfortunately, It Was Paradise:

Peace be unto love when it comes, when it dires and changes lovers in hotels. Does it have anything to lose? We’ll drink the evening coffee in the garden. We’ll tell stories of exile in the night. Then we’ll go to a room–two strangers searching for a night of compassion and so on and so forth.

We’ll leave a few words on our two seats. We’ll forget our cigarettes, so others may continue with the evening and the smoking. We’ll forget some of our sleep on our pillows, so others may come and rest in our sleep and so on and so forth. How was it that we put faith in our bodies in those hotels? How could we depend on our secrets in those hotels? In the darkness that has joined our bodies, others may continue our cry and so on and so forth. We are only two of those who sleep in a public bed, a bed that belongs to all. We say only what transient lovers also said a while ago. Goodbye comes soon. Was this hasty encounter only so as to forget those who loved us in other hotels? Have you not said these wanton words to someone else? Have I not said these wanton words to someone else in another hotel, or have I said them in this very bed? We’ll follow the same steps, so that others may come and follow the same steps and so on and so forth. (182)

Yes, Mahmoud Darwish, much to the dismay of some critics, also wrote poems about love, sex, and subjects other than Palestine or the Arab world. But does this mean we should censor him? That we should remove his books from the library shelves? That we shouldn’t teach him in classes? And if we teach him should we only teach one aspect of his oeuvre?

There is one more reason why this whole episode has irked me so much. Actually, it is the one that irks me the most. Last year when I spent time working with both a Palestine solidarity group I started in Boise, Idaho as well as with the Chicano group the Brown Berets I tried to use some of my time in both capacities to build connections among the people and the causes. I talked about the parallels historically between American and Zionist versions of colonialism and Manifest Destiny. I wanted to continue that work with these texts–to teach Palestinian students about this history, about these parallels, about various modes of resistance.

Ironically, my former students and comrades at Boise State University are now experiencing American censorship, though this version doesn’t have anything to do with kissing. It has to do with the fact that they want to reproduce an Israeli checkpoint on campus for the Tunnel of Oppression and Rabbi Dan Fink and one lone Zionist Jewish student on campus don’t want them to. They say it’s Anti-Semitic and as is par for the course in the U.S., this equals censorship. Because one cannot speak about Palestine–let alone enact its brutalities and educate Americans about it–in the U.S. Rabbi Dan Fink, in his efforts to censor this educational event sent a series of emails to university president Bob Kustra. Kustra, used to be a republican legislator in Illinois and in that position took money from the Israeli lobby. While it seems that the students at Boise State are committed to fighting the censorship, it is clear that this is a nationwide struggle in which even those who might normally be allies against Zionist suppression are siding with the oppressor. The Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report calling anti-Israel speakers on college campuses anti-Semitic.

So who knew that kissing and Palestine had this much in common?

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