Blog 12. The luxury of despair

Now that Our Way to Fight is out in the world (or at least the international and Canadian editions are; the US edition comes out in May), I’ve started to give talks and readings.  Responses are positive and encouraging.  However, in discussions at these events, I hear one comment/question so frequently that it deserves to be addressed:

The situation over there seems so hopeless. Isn’t it hopeless? It really is     hopeless, isn’t it?

Behind these words, I hear this plea: It’s so sad, really, but there isn’t anything I can do.

I understand. Media-soaked cultures foster passivity.  We are swamped with a continuous wash of information that flows by too fast for critical thought, so that only sensation is possible – fury, sadness, confusion.  The cumulative effect is to convince us that the only real power we have, the only way we can express ourselves, is to choose between products, candidates, empty slogans – the Audacity of Hope vs whatever the other ad agency hatches.  Hmm.  Okay, I’ll take the cool grey one.  But wait, do you have it in taupe?

Even people who ferret out information from alternative sources can easily feel overwhelmed by the dense weight of it.  The absorption of information is a passive undertaking.  Unless it leads to action, it piles up into corrosive sediment, eating away at any lingering sense of agency we might still have had.

Despite all the wide-eyed techno-babble about Twitter revolutions in the Middle East, the real Tunisian and Egyptian intifadas are being fought on the streets and on the picket line.   The giddy sense of elation that I felt watching Al Jazeera was tempered by the knowledge that I was, after all, only watching.

Now, as the generals and bankers plot behind closed doors to regain their stranglehold, I can only hope that the picket lines won’t crumble, that people will keep returning again and again to Midan Tahrir, Liberation Square.  Easy for me to say, I’m not there with them.  I’m over here, safe and comfy in rural Canada.  As people say, what can I do, really?

Because this question of hope/despair is so familiar, in my travels through Palestine and Israel to gather people’s stories for Our Way to Fight, at some point in our encounters usually I asked:  How do you handle despair?

These are people on the front lines in Palestine-Israel, a bitter liberation struggle now more than half a century long; they have far more reason than I do to despair.  Yet here are some of their responses:

Lamyya Yassin, whose home has been invaded repeatedly, her husband beaten and arrested in the besieged village of Bil’in, occupied West Bank:  “This is a struggle for our land and our lives, so we continue.”

Haggai Matar, Jewish Israeli writer-activist, who has been arrested and beaten by Israeli police at non-violent protests:  “Palestinians don’t have a choice, struggle is forced on them.  So as long as they’re resisting, and despite everything they are still willing to do it with Israelis, we can’t afford to say, ‘Sorry, I’m depressed, I can’t make it today.’  We can just be part of the struggle, tell people about it, and keep going so there will be people on both sides who know and trust each other.  If we can keep these bridges alive, then maybe one day at least we will have something to build on.”

Jafar Farah, director of the Mossawa Advocacy Centre for Arab Citizens in Israel, arrested repeatedly by Israeli police at non-violent protests:  “Of course I experience despair.  Some days I want to forget it, leave this place – there are other things I want to do.  But then you think of your responsibilities to your children, and to Mossawa. You can’t just wake up in the morning and say I’m going to do something else.  In our reality, despair and doing what you want, these are luxuries.”

Ruth Hiller, Israeli Jewish member of New Profile, under continuous attack for its campaign to convert Israel from a military state to a civil society:  “I keep thinking things can’t get worse here, but they do.  Even though I know what to do by now, I still feel helpless.  So I have to gather my energies, and persevere.  When we get overwhelmed, we come together and support one another.  That’s what teamwork does, you are never alone.”

Dr Aed Yaghi, Palestinian Medical Relief Society, director of programs in Gaza — no further comment needed on the challenges he faces:  “I don’t have time for despair, there is too much to be done.  I think the main strength of Palestinians here in Gaza is our belief that to resist Israeli aggression, we must continue to live.  We are living in our land, and we must struggle again and again, and finally we will win.”

Emily Schaeffer, American-Israeli lawyer-activist:  “In this movement it’s very easy to despair.  But the Palestinians can’t afford to lose hope – without hope you don’t have life.  One thing we remind each other is that even when we feel defeated we are still preserving humanity and the connection between the two peoples for the future.  If this is all we accomplish, still it’s something.”

It’s not the cool grey one, not the taupe, but still, it’s something.

About Michael Riordon

Canadian writer and documentary-maker Michael Riordon writes/ directs/produces books and articles, audio, video and film documentaries, plays for radio and stage. A primary goal of his work is to recover voices and stories of people who have been silenced or marginalized, written out of the official version: First Nations (aboriginal) youth, Mozambican farmers, inmates in Canadian prisons, traditional healers in Fiji, queer folk across Canada, Guatemalan labour activists. Michael also leads courses, workshops and seminars for community organizations, trade unions, schools, colleges and universities.
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