For Books’ Sake Talks To: Bidisha (Part 2)

12th Jun 2012

For Books' Sake Talks To: Bidisha (Part 2)

Cariad Martin interviews Bidisha about her latest book. For the first part of this interview, head here.

Beyond The Wall, the latest publication from critic and writer, Bidisha, begins to explore, through straight reportage of events and encounters, what it is like to live as a Palestinian under occupation. The violence is shockingly unavoidable, and, in Bidisha’s words, embodied “not only in the presence of armed soldiers but in the countless security cameras, watchtowers, checkpoints, barbed wire [and] refugee camps.”

When asked whether the encompassing violence of the occupation has made citizens desensitised to it, Bidisha argues that her experience showed “quite the opposite”. She describes how the perpetrators “enjoy it”, while the victims and survivors “fear and hate it and in the worst cases internalize and replicate it against themselves, their peers and sometimes – though unarmed and disempowered – their oppressor”.

The book does not shy away from reporting on countless incidents of aggression and persecution, but it is well-balanced with moving stories of protest and creativity. Bidisha stresses the presence of “an extremely active, dynamic cultural scene” in the West Bank, while at the same time acknowledging divisions of class. She was particularly impressed by many of the young Palestinians she met and taught, commending “their hunger, their intelligence, their ambition, their activism, their strength and determination.”

Bidisha expands on the idea that with journalism there are two methods of dealing with the oppressors; “in straight reportage about the bad things, but also in a great and proud reflection of the passion of resistance, the enjoyment and interest of many Palestinian cities themselves”.

Beyond The Wall provides many fascinating insights, particularly with reference to the complex oppression of women. In the book it is noted that while women heavily outnumber men as students, around three-quarters of the faculty are male.

Bidisha highlights a difficulty in getting the young women to speak out, noticing that many were reluctant to speak out in class in case they were wrong. In some cases, it was more than that; “it was as though they were so intent on learning that they didn’t want to muck things up by derailing the lesson, making a mistake or even interrupting what I was teaching them in case they missed something.”

Although the female students were intelligent and able, their under-representation in the faculty of the university is unfortunately mirrored across most of Middle Eastern society.

It is often assumed that the West is ‘better’ on all fronts in its attitude to gender, but Bidisha is quick to point out that this is not necessarily the case. She is known for her views on women in the British art scene being “marginalised, under-represented, under-reviewed [and] passed over on awards shortlists.”

By contrast, in the Middle East she found that female artists, intellectuals, activists and speakers were “prized and respected,” and that events by female speakers and stars were attended by men as well as women, who make up an audience that is usually “respectful, vocal, well-informed and fair-minded.”

However, it is unfortunate that this cultural respect does not translate into “tangible credit or rewards.”  Bidisha observed that the young female students, despite their ambition, intelligence and ability, are unlikely to receive “the jobs, money or position they deserve.”

On top of this, there are also issues of class, access, opportunity and privilege among women. Bidisha summarises the problem as a “patriarchal society… despite women’s solidarity, strength, activism and vocal critiques of the power structure.”

But she is far from pessimistic, emphasising the need for “homegrown revolutions”, which she is confident are happening, and will inspire changes over time.

For Bidisha, the policing of young girls’ behaviour was particularly evident in the refugee camps. There she noted an “oppressive and silencing stereotype that girls should be meek and mild, silent and hard-working, modest and retiring, while the boys can do what they want.”

These mental shackles can be damaging, but these views are not as deep-set in the children and teenagers as they are in the adult community. Bidisha argues that it is possible to challenge their behavior, to joke with and question them, and hopefully change the way they do things. With young people, she reasons,  “behaviours, stereotypes and prejudices are not set in stone.”

But changing attitudes is not an easy task, and the occupation controls more than just borders. In Bidisha’s words, it is “a subtle, clever occupation with psychological as well as geographical, cultural, financial and military dimensions”.

Cariad Martin