Communities and Hope: Language for fahm (understanding) vs. language for wahm (illusion)

After the dismantlement of the Soviet Union and the claim that there is only one Super Power in the world, I wrote an article entitled “The Eternal Super Power”, referring to the peoples of the world. The main “possessions” of this power are communities and hope. The history of the past 500 years (starting with the European invasion of the Americas) has been a systematic brutal attempt to wipe out both communities and hope – not only among the colonized but also among the colonizers. The story of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, which started in 1994 (exactly 500 years after the invasion), is one of the most inspiring movements in the world today: it brings out – more than anything else – the force of life and living as manifested by communities and hope.

The Zapatistas are not the only example where the force of life in communities and the spirit of hope are manifested; they are there in many places and peoples around the world. The story of the Iranian revolution in 1978 (which Foucault referred to as ‘spiritual politics’, a phrase that made most western “experts” attack him viciously) is an example of the force in communities and in hope. Living dynamic cultures form a most important ingredient of such force.

Most of my experience in Palestine has been living with community and hope. They have been the main ‘things’ we have. In this email, I would like to elaborate on this as part of the discussion towards our meeting in Iran; and, in particular, how this relates to the theme of language for fahm (understanding) vs. language for wahm/ vahm (illusion).

Power is not only defined by what it tries to impose but also (and in my opinion, more so) by what it makes invisible or deems valueless, or by robbing words of meanings used by people in the context of living. Hope is an example of words that are made invisible or valueless, while community is an example of words that have been robbed of meanings created in the context of living, and replaced by professional or official meanings.

Ivan Illich wrote in 1971: “The history of modern man… is the history of fading hope and rising expectations.” I read this statement in 2003, and like other insightful statements that moved me, Illich’s statement clarified many dimensions of my experiences and my living; it deepened my fahm. It is especially meaningful in relation to the Palestinian situation. Between 1948 and 1993, hope – as manifested by people and communities – was the main spirit among Palestinians. In 1993, the World Bank, UN agencies, and other big development organizations were allowed – for the first time – to function fully in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (after the Palestinian Authority was formed). Since then, the story of the Palestinians has been a story of ‘fading hope and rising expectations’ – we were transformed slowly from doers to complainers and demanders. It is the same story everywhere, where communities were replaced by nation-states, which robbed people of what they could do without institutions and professionals – in addition to tearing apart the fabric of communities and planting in their stead artificial and monopolizing institutions/ organizations governed by values of control and winning. (This happened even in a place where only the smell of a nation-state was allowed, like in Palestine!) Hope was replaced by expectations, and community by ‘civil society’ (which we were told is made up of NGOs). Calling such organizations ‘non-governmental’, without feeling embarrassed, is part of the wahm: we all know that non-governmental organizations need to get the approval of governments for every little step (in addition, of course, to approval of funding agencies)! The term ‘civil society’ – if I ever have to use it – would refer to being made up of communities and not NGOs.

One point is worth mentioning in relation to the idea of nation-state: it is the main loser in recent events in Palestine! Like in many other instances (such as exposing Western hypocrisy concerning democracy, where not one western country respected the choice of Palestinians), Palestine exposed the real role of nation-states: it is either to rally its citizens to invade and steal other nations or to suppress its own people. In other words, a nation-state is a tool for external occupation or for internal occupation! I don’t know of any instance to the contrary! [It is worth mentioning that people like Gandhi, Tagore, and Iqbal were strongly against the idea. We witness today how it led to the formation of 3 ugly nation-states in the sub-continent, and to 22 ugly nation-states in the Arab region! The main tools of a nation-state include: ‘national’ curriculum (that controls language, meanings, and minds); ‘national’ army (that suppresses people within the ‘nation’); and ‘national’ bank (that transfers the nation’s money to outside banks and corporations)!]

A main challenge we face today (not only in Palestine) is how to nurture hope where it is still flourishing and how to re-cultivate it where it is fading, and how to protect the fabric in communities where it still exists and help stitch it where it is being torn apart.

I am going to choose the decade of the 1970s as an example of a period that embodied hope and community. When the PLO was expelled from Jordan in 1971, the atmosphere in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was one of uncertainty and despair. We didn’t know where things were going, what to expect, and no one had the slightest idea what would happen next. At the same time, however, I don’t remember I met anyone (during that period) who did not have an idea of what to do in one’s immediate place and time. What helped that attitude to flourish was the fact that the reference of every person – in relation to what s/he should do – was himself/ herself. There was no authority to tell people what to do, which provided space and freedom for people to do what they felt they could and should do. We were left alone with no big goals (liberation during that period was more like a spirit that was lived than a goal for the future), no organizations, and no formal structures; we were left only with what we had as persons and as communities: ourselves, each other, and what was there socially, culturally, naturally – and the reality we were living in. It is in this sense that hope is connected to abundance: to what is available, inspiring, and beautiful in people, communities, and culture. The spirit was simply amazing. We were so immersed in life that we were not fully aware of that spirit – which we were creating for ourselves and for each other. No one planned what was happening, no one pre-thought it, and no one preached it; it just happened. People felt energized, alive, attentive to surroundings and ready to do whatever they felt they could do and was good to do. In a very real sense, that was the only way to go: to move in harmony with the force of life. This is what I refer to as hope: being attentive to surroundings and full of aliveness, and just act accordingly. It is very similar to the hope that exists in a poppy seed buried under hard soil, and pushing its way up towards sunlight and fresh air (an image that I chose to reflect the spirit of Tamer Institute which I established in 1989 during the first intifada). Hope, for me, refers to the ‘blind’ faith that exists in all living creatures when they act in harmony with life, and when they are left with nothing but the force of life. That feeling and spirit were widespread and spontaneous during the 1970s: we felt free, hopeful, and self-ruled (in Gandhi’s sense).

A Palestinian folklore story (which probably exists in other societies) embodies the spirit I mentioned above. It is about a fire that started in a jungle. All animals, birds… escaped and sat on the top of a hill watching with sadness and despair the jungle burning – except for one bird. It kept flying to a stream, getting wet, and flying back to sprinkle water over the fire. The animals laughed and asked whether that would extinguish the fire. The bird said that it was doing what it could and was good to do. Hope resides in doing what one can do, rather than in lamenting, complaining, demanding, accusing, and just watching.

If back in the 1970s we tried to analyze what was happening in a rational way, things would have looked very dark and depressing; we would have done nothing – we would have sat down, lamented, complained and waited for relief from outside. This is why I would not describe how we felt as pessimistic or what we did as optimistic. I would rather say that what we felt and did embodied hope. Optimism is related to some positive result in the future (an attribute of the mind), while hope is manifested by doing something in the present (an attribute of the vitality of life). This is what women in Gaza and refugee camps in Lebanon did every time the situation seemed impossible: hope (as manifested in the desire to go on living) has been a main secret of their vitality over the past 60 years.

It is worth mentioning two words in Arabic that are very relevant here: the words for culture and civilization. Thaqafah, which is the word for culture, has a root which means ‘to straighten and to sharpen’, which – in relation to humans – means to work on self and try to sharpen and straighten it constantly. The word for civilization is hadaarah حضارة which stems from the root hadara  حضرand related to haader  الحاضرand hodoor  حضور(from being present, in the present time, in the presence of others). It is bringing the past and the future into the present; one focuses on the present and what one can do at the present time and in the presence of others. The two words are connected to hope and community through working on self and focusing on what one can do at the present time in the presence of others.

In short, hope – during the 1970s – was manifested in thousands of spontaneous autonomous small acts. It was neither connected to a super goal nor to a utopia nor to an optimistic dream nor to a progressive ideology. It didn’t spring out of people figuring out in a rational way what they should do. It didn’t result from a rational decision that we should be optimistic and should not act in a pessimistic way. It was not a conscious act against feelings of despair. It was simply an expression of living in the place each one happened to be in and at the time one happened to be there. A story that I keep telling, which embodies what I said above, is one that happened during the first intifada. It reflects a common scene in the West Bank and Gaza Strip then. A number of soldiers were harshly beating a young man in central Ramallah. Several women rushed toward the scene shouting and trying to pull the soldiers away. Suddenly, a woman carrying a baby ran up and started shouting at the young man, ‘l told you not to leave the house today, that the situation is too dangerous. But you didn’t listen; you never listen to me.” Then she turned to the soldiers and said, “Beat him; he deserves this. He never listens. I am sick of my life with him.” Then back to the man she cried, “I am sick of you and your baby; take him and leave me alone.” She then pushed the baby into his arms and ran away. The soldiers were confused. Finally they left the man and went on. A few minutes later, the woman reappeared, took back her baby, told the young man to go to his home, and wished him safety and a quick recovery. I then realized that they were total strangers to one another.

Her action was a manifestation of hope in human beings: how incredible, how unpredictable, how creative human beings can be. She was simply acting humanly, as a concerned, responsible, and compassionate human being. Her power and her inspiration stemmed from this fact, and from her understanding that her survival, and that of her community, is at stake. She acted spontaneously, creatively, and courageously; feeling a sense of community and solidarity beyond the usual uttering of slogans.

At the same time, her action embodied a risk: her baby could have been hurt. She did what drove her naturally to save the young man from brutal action, without pondering where it would lead. Her action was not a calculated action, and it can’t be labeled pessimistic or optimistic action. In addition, her behavior shows that in order to deal effectively with systems of control, the meaning of words must be produced in the form of action, in the context of action. In her case, this was true of the words: hope, freedom, community, faith, creativity, and courage. Such words nurture fahm (understanding and harmony). In addition, it is clear that meanings of such words cannot be fully comprehended by minds or expressed by words; they can only be ‘digested’ through experiences and contemplations. Put simply, life is much richer than what minds and words can capture.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *