Dr. Idris Elbakri shared his experience growing up Palestinian at the first Diversitas event of 2018 on Jan. 24. (LAUREN MACGILL, Morden Times)
The latest Diversitas speaker brought his experience growing up Palestinian to the region.
Dr. Idris Elbakri was the first speaker in the Diversitas series when it kicked off in 2015. He came to speak about some myths and misconceptions of the Muslim faith, and though the event was planned months in advance, his talk happened to fall a week after the November 2015 Paris attacks.
On Jan. 24 he returned to Morden, this time to talk about growing up Palestinian.
“We have different narratives when it comes to Palestine,” Elbakri said. “We have the narrative of the people without a land, we have the narrative of the Jewish Goliath thriving against all odds and making the desert bloom. We also have the narrative that there was always a people there.”
“We have always been there,” he added. “Our land, our way of life, our traditions were also disrupted by the arrival of European settlers.”
Elbakri said that similar to how 2017 was a big year for Canada as it celebrated its 150th birthday, 2017 was a landmark year for Palestinians as they marked the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, which was a public declaration from Britain outlining their support for the aim to establish a Jewish state in Palestine.
One of the misconceptions Elbakri hoped to dispel was the idea that the conflict in Palestine has been raging for centuries. “This is a modern conflict that has its roots in European colonialism and the rise of nationalism in Europe and the Middle East,” he said.
Elbakri was born and raised in Jerusalem, and he said some of his earliest memories are of traveling to visit family and crossing the border from the West Bank into Jordan.
“[On] the Israeli side of the border we would be strip-searched down to our underwear,” he said. “Our luggage would be dumped into bins and then sifted through piece by piece by typically young Israeli security officers. I remember long lines, extreme heat and the rude demeanor of the soldiers.”
Elbakri said that though the strip searches have ended, the process is still repeated every time he travels from Canada back to the West Bank. “It’s done in the name of security but its objective is to maintain control, to ensure supremacy and it truly does dehumanize the Palestinians who must be perceived by those who are practicing these security matters as subhuman.”
Elbakri said the process also keeps Palestinians out of sight from Israeli society. “To be Palestinian today living under the Israeli occupation is to live life in which circumstances are ever eroding one’s humanity,” he said. “I cannot underemphasize this. You just feel your humanity being taken away from you.”
Elbakri said the system of control reminds you that on that land, there is a master and it isn’t Palestinians. “It’s to live life as a target,” he said. “When you cross a checkpoint or go to school or work, you are a target. It is truly to have lived life staring at the barrel of a gun that is carried by an 18-year-old soldier who looks down on you with a mixture of fear, arrogance and ignorance.”
“It is to live with the knowledge that our lives do not matter,” he added. “You can go to the market, to school, you can be at home and at any moment something can happen that will deprive you or someone you love of their lives.”
Another of Elbakri’s memories was of going to school and reading history books in which every mention of Palestine had been erased by hand.
Even today, Elbakri said the Israeli government is responsible for education in Jerusalem and the Israeli curriculum does not talk about Palestine.
“The attempt to erase our memories has been a constant theme,” Elbakri said. “Not just to us but even to address the world and say, ‘These people aren’t really who they claim to be.’”
“Golda Meir, for example, who became prime minister of Israel in the 1970s was quoted to have said that ‘There were no such things as Palestinians,’” he added. “She goes on to say they did not exist.”
Elbakri said recently Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives described Palestinians as ‘an invented people.’ This perception is simply false, Elbakri said. “In reality we have lived there for generations,” he said. “We have burial grounds that attest to the fact that we’ve always been there. Our language, culture, traditions and religions are the cumulative product of the history of Palestine.”
In 2001 Elbakri met his wife Bayan and the two were married that fall. Since Elbakri was from Jerusalem and she was from Hebron (about 30 km south) it posed unique problems. Their courtship began when Israel was creating a separation of the West Bank and the rest of the country, and when Elbakri wanted to visit Bayan he would have to go through six security checkpoints in that 30 km of distance.
Bayan almost didn’t make it to their wedding, as the two were turned back at one of the security checkpoints. They had to skirt around the checkpoint, but now Elbakri said it’s not possible. Even now when they visit their families, they always have to be separate meetings.
Elbakri mentioned that often people try to stay neutral when discussing the conflict because they worry about being seen as intolerant or anti-Semitic. “We have to be able to call out injustice and not hesitate from expressing that when it’s called for,” he said.
Rounding out the event were Mennonite Central Committee executive director Darryl Loewen and representative for Palestine/Israel Joanna Hiebert Bergen.
Organizer Peter Cantelon started Diversitas with the hope of bringing opinions and experiences to the area that perhaps people wouldn’t have the chance to encounter otherwise.
“This is one of the few [events] that we’ve had multiple speakers at,” he said. “It’s really important to have these kinds of opportunities to hear from someone who has been experiencing it, who continues to experience it. It’s overwhelming.”
The next Diversitas event will be in March about anti-Semitism.