When the story of Palestine’s liberation is written, its people’s sacrifices will be its biggest strength

While the 'world of light' has collectively agreed to forget the oppression it wrought on our lands, our 'world of darkness' has vowed to always remember.
Published March 20, 2024

My mother was recently travelling from Abbottabad to visit me in Lahore. On the bus, she found herself seated next to an overwhelmed mother and her four children. Before she knew it, she was acting loco parentis to two of the children, who were glued to her for the entire ride.

My mother asked one of the daughters which city she preferred, Lahore or Abbottabad. The girl, unable to distinguish between the two, deflected by saying, “aap ko pata hai Pakistan ko Allah miyan ne apne haathon se banaya hai?” (Do you know God has created Pakistan from his own hands?)

Nowadays, it’s considered unfashionable to have such romantically religious notions of how your state came to be, but something about her deflection hit a chord. A nation knows itself and its future through the story its people tell. Whether it’s the story of rising from the ashes of a once dominant empire or that a nation was carved onto the map by the hands of God Himself — each tale carries weight.

Civilised, barbarian, or savage —19th century’s distorted worldview

In much of the dark world, our nations were born with congenital bloodstains on their cheeks.

In the 19th century, nations were either civilised, barbarian, or savages. All white states were naturally civilised unless they seriously transgressed (that is, became communist) at which point they regressed to being barbarians. Barbarians were semi-civilised and could be interacted with the aim that they would at some point be dragged into civilisation kicking and screaming.

Savages were non-white and beyond the pale, they were no more than human, infantilised, and unrepresented in the community of states. These groups were challenged after the First World War when the devastation wrought by European infighting led the rest of the world to question the so-called superiority of the white world. But instead of changing the rules, everyone just wanted in.

Japan tried to join the League of Nations, asserting its distinction from other perceived ‘barbarians’, claiming to be far better than its neighbour, China, at the very least. Its plea was rejected. Arthur Balfour, who represented Britain at the conference, said that “it was true in a certain sense that all men of a particular nation were created equal; but not that a man in Central Africa was created equal to a European.”

The West was given powers of ‘tutelage’ after World War I over territories that were considered to not be ‘able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world’ and so required help from ‘advanced nations who because of their resources, their experience, or their geographical position can best undertake this responsibility’.

How they achieved this advancement and how they acquired these resources and experience was left unsaid but one thing was clear: the architects had decided the world’s blueprints and we were in the outhouse with the promise of being allowed inside if we behaved.

The paradox of independence

Of course, we didn’t behave. From the early 20th century onwards, empires fell like dominos as new states emerged onto the international plane. But none of them were as polarising as the Algerian war against its ‘parent’ state, France.

Similar to the conversations taking place about Palestine and Hamas today, philosophers debated the necessity of armed violence in overthrowing a coloniser using brute force to maintain its hold. While the French state tortured and executed people, rebels planted bombs and killed innocents.

Frantz Fanon argued that the anti-colonial revolution must be violent, not only because it was effective, but also because it helped the colonised “shake off the paralysis of oppression and forge a new shared identity”.

The Algerian novelist and philosopher Albert Camus disagreed. When accepting his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, he emphasised that the struggle for independence is a plea for peace: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”

While Camus was choosing his mother, these new states were figuring out how to be many people but one nation within borders they hadn’t chosen. Our territorial integrity, so hard won, was to be jealously guarded for anyone wanting to break it up. And in many instances, like Bangladesh, we tried to preserve it by recreating the oppression we had just fought.

Meanwhile, the mills of international politics kept churning and the West was working to ensure that it maintained its domination through an economic empire. Our former colonisers became ‘sugar daddies’ getting us hooked on aid, trapping us in debt cycles, and pillorying us with talk of human rights. We were left working to create justice in a sieve.

Commitment to statehood

But at least we were free, politically if not economically, in part if not entirely; we were nations. States are legal fictions, but without them, we are exiled spirits in conquered countries searching for a home. When Israel casts its struggle as that between the ‘children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of a jungle’ it echoes archaic notions of savage, uncivilised nations.

Mahmoud Darwish wrote in one of his poems that Palestinians live in a ‘country of words’, with no state and no army. But the wealth of the nation they create will be based on the limitless deposits of its peoples’ sacrifice; their resilience will be its crude oil, for “few states on earth can claim the degree and intensity of allegiance which the people of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip manifest, day after bloody day, to the State of Palestine”.

Someone once said a nation was a group of people who have agreed to collectively remember and forget the same things. While the ‘world of light’ has collectively agreed to forget the oppression it wrought on our lands, our ‘world of darkness’ has vowed to always remember.

In decolonising our states, and in creating our nations, we remade the entire world. And we called our land our home.

Perhaps the most important story to tell ourselves about our homelands — whether we freed ourselves from violence or not, with the help of God or not — is to never, ever recall the moment we became independent with indifference. And if we do falter at some point, let the children of Palestine serve as a reminder of the cost of freedom today.