narrate: Edward Said,Palestine,
and the Internet
By Nigel Parry
26 September 2003
I think of Palestinian American academic and writer Edward Said, one
phrase he penned comes to the fore. It was the title of a piece he wrote
for The London Review of Books in February 1984, "Permission to
These three words
described what Said felt was most denied to the Palestinians by the
international media, the power to communicate their own history to a
world hypnotised by a mythological Zionist narrative of an empty Palestine
that would serve as a convenient homeland for Jews around the world
who had endured centuries of racism, miraculously transformed by their
labour from desert to a bountiful Eden.
In the course of
articulating the Palestinian narrative in a series of classic books,
Said wrote in his 1999 autobiography, Out of Place: A Memoir, that:
"I soon discovered that I would have to be on my guard against
authority and that I needed to develop some mechanism or drive not to
be discouraged by what I took to be efforts to silence or deflect me
from being who I was, rather than becoming who they wanted me to be.
In the process, I began a lifelong struggle and attempt to demystify
the capriciousness and hypocrisy of a power whose authority depended
absolutely on its ideological self-image as a moral agent, acting in
good faith and with unimpeachable intentions."
and bitter personal attacks -- attempts to disingenuously portray him
as a political radical opposed to peace with Israel -- Said's vision
of the future of Israel/Palestine remained firmly and unshakably based
on a belief that Palestinians and Israelis could live together in a
democratic state that protected the rights of all of its inhabitants,
both Jews and Arabs.
When I began work
on Birzeit University's original website in 1995, it was with Said's
phrase very clearly in mind that Birzeit's web team set about creating
our own realisation of the "permission to narrate", creating
a website with a diverse variety of news that communicated the universal
values, strong commitment to academic freedom, and thriving culture
on the university's campus and in the surrounding Palestinian community.
On 25 September
1996, exactly seven years ago from Said's passing away this morning
after a long battle with cancer, Birzeit students set out to Jerusalem
-- frustrated with Israel's unilateral control of the borders of the
Palestinian capital and angry with then Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's
authorisation of the opening of a tunnel along the base of Al-Haram
Al-Shareef, site of the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
It was a symbolic
journey, as various Israeli positions -- military bases and checkpoints
-- lay between the nearby town of Ramallah and along the 20 minute drive
to Jerusalem. At the edge of Ramallah, students got out of their buses
and set ablaze discarded car tires -- Palestine's youth's ubiquitous
invitation to the Israeli occupation army to come stand before them.
With the main Oslo
redeployments from Palestinian population areas having taken place 9
months previously and, despite severe periods of Israeli closure and
continued land confiscation and the suicide bombs of Palestinian militant
groups, Israeli troops and Palestinian police maintained a civil working
relationship and many people on both sides still hoped that Oslo would
limp its way to some kind of resolution to the century-old conflict
On this day, however,
Israeli troops responded to the standard out-of-range stone throwing
and the occasional, similarly ineffectual Molotov cocktail with unusual
ferocity, shocking even the hardened Palestinian veterans of the clashes
of the first Intifada, who were present at the scene. Using a simultaneous
combination of live ammunition and rubber-coated metal bullets, the
Israeli troops that arrived to investigate the pyre wasted no time in
loosing lethal munitions at the students and accompanying Ramallah residents
who had joined their march along the way. In the words of several friends
who independently witnessed the initial violence, the soldiers were
cheering and giving each other high-fives when they shot someone. With
the accuracy of their rifles, one friend described the scene as "one
bullet, one person dead".
Many of the Palestinian
police present, hailing either from abroad or from less populated areas
of the country, had never seen this level of violence directed at their
own people. It took a while, during which several demonstrators were
needlessly shot dead and ultimately only after Israeli troops invaded
the autonomous area of Ramallah and shot a bystanding member of the
Palestinian forces -- before the Palestinian police retaliated. The
murderous arrogance of the Israeli troops present had blinded them from
considering that among the facts on the ground that changed with Oslo,
was that -- for once -- they were committing these unnecessary crimes
against humanity in front of trained Palestinians with guns.
died in the subsequent battle, which saw Israeli Cobra attack helicopters
and heavy machine guns strafing the surrounding residential areas, and
the later deployment of Israeli battle tanks on the hills. It was only
after the key determining events of the first two hours that the international
media arrived on the scene. Later, they predictably reported a reality
utterly divergent from that witnessed by the 2,000 or so Palestinians
and handful of internationals present.
were killed and 263 were injured in just a few hours on that day in
Ramallah. I walked through Ramallah Hospital that night, looking at
the grief-stricken faces of the sister and mother of Birzeit student
Yasser Abdul Ghani, the first person to be killed that day. The hospital
walls were smeared with blood that the medical staff were too busy to
clean up, trying desperately as they were to stem the flow from the
living. In the ICU, I gazed at Yasser, breathing only on life support.
He and all others in the ICU were shot in the head or chest.
As media reports
filled our televisions that night and newspapers hit the streets the
next day quoting Israeli spokesman Dore Gold self-righteously whining
that "the Palestinians were shooting at us with guns we gave them",
many of us who had witnessed the day's events were boiling inside at
the injustice, feeling powerless and vulnerable in light of our visceral
lesson in the unaccountability of the Israeli army.
Marwan Tarazi, head
of Birzeit's Computer Center, burst through the door of my office. "We
have to do something. What are you waiting for?" It finally dawned
on me. Permission to narrate our side of the story lay at a nearby web
For the next four
days, during this explosion which ultimately claimed 88 Palestinian
and 16 Israeli lives, and resulted in several thousand injured Palestinians,
a group of us worked day and night on the site. Like the Chinese pro-democracy
students at Tiananmen, who used e-mail to alert the world to their government's
repression, local residents of a warzone used the web for the first
time in history to tell their story. Our equipment was nominal, there
were huge obstacles such as a commercial strike which closed all the
photo developing studios in besieged Ramallah, preventing us for days
from getting our film of the events processed, but we were committed,
which turned out to be more than enough.
On the ground in
Ramallah: Reports from a town become battlefield, became a seminal moment
in the lives of those who took part in this early alternative media
experiment. While primitive compared to today's sites, visitors flocked
to the constantly-updated resource to hear our, unapproved version of
the truth. For the first time, I deeply experienced the potential of
the Internet to empower those without a voice. In the words of the late,
veteran journalist Abbott Joseph Liebling, "Freedom of the Press
is guaranteed only to those who own one."
gave birth to a variety of projects. It consolidated my determination
to continue A Personal Diary of the Israeli Palestinian Conflict, a
4-year-long photostory of the Oslo years that I began after the December
1995 Israeli redeployment out of Ramallah. The diary has now been read
online by well over one million people. Our first anniversary follow-up
to the September 1996 clashes, the September 1996 Memorial, attempted
to collect the personal stories of some of the 88 Palestinians that
When the Second Intifada broke out in September 2000, many of the same
people who worked on the two Birzeit projects regrouped to compile Addameer's
September 2000 Clashes Information Center website. Since then, The Electronic
Intifada, and sister site Electronic Iraq have represented subsequent
and more sustained and professional realisations of Said's "permission
to narrate". The Internet is an affordable and extremely effective
medium for those otherwise denied the freedom to tell their stories.
Said was not respected
by many in the Palestinian leadership. When I lived in Palestine, the
corrupt and repressive Arafat banned the Arabic editions of two of Said's
books that were extremely critical of the Oslo process and the Palestinian
leadership's failures during the negotiations and implementation, sending
security forces into Ramallah bookshops to physically confiscate copies.
During a BBC World Service report, following an angry interview with
Said, then Palestinian Authority Higher Education Minister Hanan Ashrawi
came on to poo-poo the reports, her message and tone suggesting that
Said was being a little excitable, that he was blowing the matter out
of proportion. Later, a Palestinian ambassador to one of the European
countries attempted to raise the matter directly with Arafat during
a visit, while sitting with the leader in his car, noting that banning
the book of the most prominent Palestinian academic in America might
communicate a counter-productive message to the citizens of a country
founded on the right to freedom of speech. "Fuck Edward Said!"
shrieked Arafat in response, "Don't talk to me about him again."
In February 1997,
Edward Said came to speak at Bethlehem University. I couldn't attend
the event but later a co-worker reported the content of his speech.
During his talk, he mentioned a Palestinian activist in Chicago. "Each
time I check my e-mail," Said said to the packed-out crowd, "I
find copies of e-mail sent by a young Palestinian to radio stations,
TV reporters, and newspaper editors, commenting on their coverage of
the Palestinian issue. In his effective, electronic way, this man, Ali
Abunimah, is writing his own history every day."
I wrote to Ali the
following day, asking to be added to his e-mail list, which delivered
as advertised and represented an incredible archive of criticism of
the US media from a Palestinian perspective. Although we corresponded
for two years after this, was not until February 1999 that I finally
met Ali, while speaking at a conference at the University of Chicago,
"The Uncertain State of Palestine: Futures of Research Conference".
At the same conference, I met Edward Said for the first time. Once he
recognised my name, he had only kind words for the work we did at Birzeit
but admitted that his knowledge of the web was minimal, preferring e-mail
as an information tool.
"Did you know
that a key component of the vision we had for the website and e-mail
lists we create was your statement about giving Palestinians 'permission
to narrate'?" I asked.
Said looked genuinely
surprised. He thought for a moment, smiled quietly to himself, and thanked
me for telling him, inviting me to visit the next time I was in New
York. Sadly, his illness, already advanced at the time, precluded this
Edward Said passed
away this morning. He left behind a body of work and a lexicon which
has empowered a generation of people concerned for the future of the
Palestinians. He inspired projects such as The Electronic Intifada and
many others, and inspired individuals like myself, the other founders
of EI, and tens of thousands of people committed to reconciliation and
justice around the world.
He will be greatly
missed, often spoken of, and we will always be grateful for his time
Nigel Parry is one of the co-founders of The Electronic Intifada.