TWIP: The Last Word – Cultural Theft June 2013 May 30, 2013

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Cultural appropriation is described as the adoption of certain elements of one culture by a different cultural group. Once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, these elements can generally take on meanings that are significantly different from those they originally held. Other than the taking of physical objects, such as artefacts, appropriation practice includes the appropriation of ideas, symbols, images, sounds, music, dance, etc., from other cultures; in fact, the list is endless. Examples of cultural appropriation are ample; an innocent example would be a sports team using Native American tribal names. A more ominous example of appropriation, however, is the claim of some Ottoman and Egyptian scholars that their architectural traditions have been falsely attributed to Persian, Arab, and Greco-Roman innovations, respectively.

I was browsing the Internet the other day and ran across a website called Palestinian Media Watch; obviously a right-wing Israeli site. Among other things, I read: “Rewriting the history of the Land of Israel in order to deny Israel’s right to exist is central to Palestinian Authority (PA) policy.” Reasons for “rewriting history,” the site goes on to say, is to “erase the Jewish nation’s 3,000-year history in the Land of Israel” and “invent ancient Palestinian, Muslim, and Arab histories in the land.” I’m not sure how many Jewish archaeological sites were found in the past 46 years, but what’s interesting is this site’s claim that it is we Palestinians who are the ones rewriting history! Although not true, this is, in fact, a deliberate and futile attempt to switch roles, and I would like to take this as a compliment. The fact that we are able to rewrite history is actually quite invigorating and empowering; we really should consider it!

In early 2012, Ali Abunimah wrote an article on Electronic Intifada entitled “Hummus and falafel are already Israeli and now they’re coming for Palestine’s olive oil too.” To illustrate this, Abunimah posted an example of a professionally made propaganda video that aims to convince Israelis that Jewish settlers (squatters), not Palestinians, are the true caretakers of the region’s olive trees and the historic heirs of its olive culture. Truth is, I found the video alarming. What’s even more alarming is that not only are our hummus, falafel, and maftoul under attack, but pretty much our whole cultural heritage as well. It’s as if we just parachuted in out of thin air. No wonder Newt Gingrich says that we’re an “invented people!”

Fortunately though, Palestinians today are more conscious than ever about the importance of their cultural heritage, and they are well aware of all attempts to steal it from them. On May 15 – Al-Nakba Day – a colleague came up to me and showed me the front page of Al-Quds newspaper twenty years ago. Al-Quds displays this image of its first front page every day. Interestingly enough, there was not a single news article on Al-Nakba in Al-Quds on May 15, 1993! This year, however, it seemed that the whole of Palestine was commemorating Al-Nakba through marches, sit-ins, cultural festivals, radio and TV programmes, you name it. Allow me one last remark on the magnitude of local and international awareness of our cultural theft. As I was writing this column, I decided to Google “Stealing Palestinian Culture.” I got a mere 7,720,000 results!

Appropriating the name of a Native American tribe on a sports-team T-shirt is fine, but when an Ashkenazi stakes a claim to my hummus, falafel, maftoul, olive oil, and embroidery, it’s outright theft of a part of my culture.

Sani P. Meo

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