Desperate Times, Desperate Journeys | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 29, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:32 AM, May 29, 2021

Desperate Times, Desperate Journeys

During the latest rerun of the biblical David and Goliath narrative in a changed context, the age-old conflict between the Israelites and the Philistines has come alive. The world witnessed the helplessness of millions of Palestinian people as buildings turned into rubbles, hundreds of bodies became maimed, and 200 plus individuals became corpses under the heavy bombardment of the Gaza Strip by the Israeli Air Forces. Conversely, most of the homemade crude missiles hurled by Hamas got intercepted by the Iron Dome that acted very much like a sci-fi giant; some of the rockets dodged the interceptor and damaged property and killed about 10 civilians in Israel. But the damage caused to the Palestinian side was of epic proportion as residential, media and commercial towers crumbled, road and alleged tunnel network caved in. It was a brutal one-sided affair in which the disproportionate use of technology and military might was aided by diplomatic standoff to allow the destruction to go on to diffuse any semblance of Palestinian resistance. 

In the Biblical story, David was a mere shepherd boy who killed the giant of a Philistine Goliath who was armed with a javelin and a shield with a single slingshot. King Saul, who raided the northern Jerusalem around 11th century BCE, was challenged for a single combat by the Champion of the Philistine, Goliath. Once David killed and beheaded Goliath, the Philistines ran away, and the state of Israel begin to flourish under different kings of Israel. Then came the Babylonians who caused the Jewish diaspora in the 8th century BCE, and the Jews got dispersed around the world. After the end of the First World War, the end of the Ottoman rule over the Middle East helped the creation of the State of Israel. The persecution of the Jews during WWII sent the western world on a guilt trip, allowing the dispersed Jewish community to subdue their "enemies" and expand their homeland. But the problem was, their promised home could only be built over somebody else's land who have been living on it for thousands of years. History and pre-history clashed to find the right story for the home of the two people: the Israelites and the Palestinians.

One of the videos that prompted this latest protest, leading to the raid of the Israeli army inside Al-Aqsa mosque in the holiest of the night for the Muslims and the consequent full-scale military engagement, involved a 22-year-old Palestinian woman. In the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in the occupied East Jerusalem, this woman confronted an intruder, saying, "Jacob, you are stealing my house." "If I don't steal your home, someone else will steal it," was the answer given by the Israeli settler to Mona al-Kurd. The house was under court order for eviction to make room for settlers. The arbitrary nature of the ruling shows how one can be dispossessed in a regime that has no empathy for its occupied people.

The whole narrative then is about homeland at a state level, and about home at a personal level. The questions are: who gets to stay, who runs away? Who has the power to stay? Who has the determination to stay back? The recent spate of violence has brought the issue of home and homelessness to the fore. How can you have two states in the land between the Jordan River in the Mediterranean Sea when all the lands are occupied by one group only? Is it possible to have a one state with a cosmopolitan Jerusalem and a pluralistic democracy? As long as the demography is on the side of the Palestinians, Israel would never allow it. They are afraid of the hostile Arab nations. The only way Israel can exist is by flexing its muscles. Meanwhile the Palestinians suffer with occasional doses of world sympathy. They are the strangers in their own land like the Native Americans are in America.

The Jewish believe that the return to their "home" is a fulfilment of the prophesy made by Moses. Moses was the one who saved the Jews from persecution at the hand of the Pharaoh. Moses knew that during the low tide, the seabed of the Red Sea is exposed, when he could take his people away from the wrath of the Pharaoh.

Interestingly, the mythical exodus finds its parallel in a lived experience when migrants from Morocco started crossing the shallow water at Fnideq to enter Ceuta. At the height of the Israel-Palestine conflict, on May 18, at least 6,000 migrants reached Spain's Ceuta enclave. Apparently, Morocco has been angered by the way Spain gave medical support to one of its rebel leader. To retaliate, the Moroccan authority allowed the migrants to pursue their dream of going to Europe. The migrant manpower was unleashed to plague Spain as Ceuta saw a record number of people wading into their territory over a single day. These were desperate people longing for a sea-change in their lives.

They embraced the uncertain reality of a refugee. No one chooses to be a refugee, to leave everything behind for an uncertain future. They do so because there is probably a war or ethnic cleansing raging in their own country. Most of these people are fleeing some violent situations and making such desperate journeys to reach Europe. Their migration can be explained by the push/pull factors: they are pushed to migrate or dislocate due to the repressions at home, and they are simultaneously pulled by the myth of prosperity. Diaspora is guided by the twin-piston of fear and hope.

Every year, many Asians and Africans try to enter Europe through the Mediterranean Sea route. They call it a game. The human traffickers choose Spain, Italy, Cyprus, and Malta to smuggle fortune-seekers from around the world into Europe. They take advantage of the desperation of people looking to flee their homes and hoping to find new ones, and carry them inside the belly of what can only be described as slave ships from the colonial era.

According to UNHCR, the most common nationalities of Mediterranean Sea and land arrivals in the first four months of this year include Tunisia (14,649 people, 18.8 percent), Algeria (9,466, 12.1 percent), Morocco (5,399, 6.9 percent), Bangladesh (5,360, 6.9 percent), Syrian Arab Rep. (5,118, 6.6 percent), Afghanistan (5,061 people, 6.5 percent Côte d'Ivoire (4,554, 5.8 percent Mali (3,525, 4.5 percent), Guinea (3,138, 4.0 percent,) and Others (3,122, 4.0 percent).

Bangladesh ranks joint third on the list. A local newspaper ran a lead story on May 23 to describe how 200 men paid Tk 8-10 lakh each in their efforts to enter Italy from the coast of Libya. 120 were rescued by the Tunisian police, while the rest are feared dead.

I looked at the list. I can understand the desperate measures taken by the people of some of these countries. I read about their tribulations and can discern their troubled travel. But in no way I can understand why our nationals are making such desperate attempts, and what does it tell us about a nation! Why isn't enough done to stop them from falling into the hands of the smugglers? Is this the gift of independence? Or do we think that some of these men would make it to the developed world and start sending revenues for us to bask in the glory of their sweats and blood?

Maybe we need to tell the tales of home and homelands to educate our people. We need to tell them, with reference to the people who are homeless, to remind them home is where your heart is. The dream-sellers will create a lakh-taka fancy of a better home—but the moment you enter the home of a different person, you will be treated as an intruder. As the ongoing drama tells us: nobody likes an intruder, whether powerful or powerless.


Shamsad Mortuza is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), and a professor of English at Dhaka University (on leave).

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