Guest Essay: Olive Branches ~ theatre notes

Monday, January 12, 2009

Guest Essay: Olive Branches

Pondering whether to attend a theatre conference or the weekend protests in London against the violence in Gaza, Chris Goode decides he will probably attend the conference. "I want, I need, and above all I believe in, an artistic practice that does not feel discontinuous with the actions of those who will demonstrate tomorrow," he writes. "And there's ... a kind of sorrow produced by this tension, a realization that, for all my commitment to a theatre that's passionately and intrinsically politically motivated, I fear that the conversation that the relatively little community ... will be having with itself tomorrow may feel trivial and self-indulgent at a time like this.

"But, I guess, that's the point: the current situation in the Middle East is hardly anomalous, for all its grievous pitch in the last few days; it's always a time like this, and the worst thing about contemporary theatre is exactly how insulated and disconnected it feels in relation to these times. I guess it's obvious that the best use of my voice is making that case where it needs to be heard. Even so, it's impossible to be sure that this isn't purest self-delusion. I suppose it all comes back to how I always feel when people deride the idea that theatre can (meaningfully) change the world. Not all the theatre has been made yet, and not all the results are in."

I've written at length in the past about what I think art might be and do in the situation of continual crisis in which we find ourselves, most coherently perhaps in an essay called (portentously, I admit, but it wasn't my title) The Imaginative Life and the Social Responsibility of Writers. For a number of reasons, I usually stay away from direct politics on this blog, although a politics is always at least implicit; but writing about culture is always and inescapably political. Artists are always among the first to be targeted under any repressive regime, not because they necessarily work against the government, but because even the slightest lyric poem can suggest another possible world in the face of what is always presented as an inevitable reality.

Today, however, I'm not pursuing my own reflections. I'm hosting an essay from David Lloyd, Professor of English at the University of Southern California and a member of the US collective Teachers Against Occupation, which is about the olive trees of Palestine and the destruction of culture.

Olive Branches

In the deep horizon of my word, I have a moon, a bird’s sustenance, and an immortal olive tree.

Mahmoud Darwish, “I Belong There”.

The Zionist, it seems, does not much like olive trees.

As the Israeli military thunders into Gaza and as its planes and ships continue their merciless bombardment of an imprisoned population, as the bombing of schools and mosques, refugee camps and universities continues, our grief and anger focus as they should on the hundreds of human deaths and thousands of human wounded. And yet, as this slaughter of the innocents continues, and as the toll of casualties and of material destructions mounts to a point where it can scarcely be absorbed any more, it is hard not to hear behind it all the creaking sound of falling olive trees, the smashing of gnarled, grey branches, the crackling of burning groves.

For in Gaza the casualties of invasion are not only human. They include, as they did in Lebanon in 2006, the groves of olive trees that Palestinian farmers have cultivated for centuries, some of them up to a thousand years old and still bearing fruit. They are a material sign of the longevity and endurance of the Palestinian people in the semi-desert lands of the Eastern Mediterranean, symbols of a culture long adapted to its environment and of the inseparability of a culture from the things it has grown and made. The destruction of a tree is to be grieved over almost as one grieves over a human being.

Like so many other aspects of the present assault on Gaza that will not make the news, tanks and shells uprooting groves of olives are part of a long and continuous pattern of destruction of the Palestinians and their culture. For decades, the Israeli army has been bulldozing olive trees in order to make way for settlements and roads and security fences. For decades, the Israeli army has been cutting down trees on the pretext of clearing away camouflage for Palestinian rocket launchers or stone throwers; the security barrier, stretching miles through Palestinian land, cuts farmers from their groves; the army have been routinely preventing those farmers from harvesting their trees, claiming they cannot protect them from assaults by Zionist settlers. Meanwhile, those settlers, whose homes are built on already uprooted olive groves, regularly set fire to the surviving groves, harass farmers at harvest-time or as they water their crops, or shoot at them as they work.

A strange hatred for the olive tree, among a Biblical people by whom the olive was revered. Its oil anointed kings and priests. Its wood was consecrated in the building of the doors of Solomon’s Temple. In Deuteronomy, the olive is among the prized crops of the Promised Land: “A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive oil, and honey.” What brings about this frenzy of destruction, this new Samson burning the vineyards and olives of the Philistines?

The destruction of the olive trees is a material attack on what remains of the Palestinian economy and of Palestinian culture. Every living olive tree is at once a material and a symbolic value. It is also a standing reproach, and maybe herein lies the rage that always seems to exceed the pragmatic rationale for destruction, to the long-cherished myth that it was Zionist settlement that made a desert bloom. We grew up with that settler colonial fable and with the one about “a land without people for a people without land.” To both, the ancient olive groves of Palestine give the lie. For centuries, Palestinians—Moslems, Christians, Jews and others—have cultivated these lands and tended the olives. The olive tree has been the anchor of a culture adapted to the land and to the climate of the region, cleaving to the terraced hills and conserving its scarce and precious water. Like every colonialism in the world, Zionism has imported its material and ideological culture with scant regard for a culture and a people that have evolved a workable ecology over centuries. Progress and development unroll their concrete over confiscated lands, building Orange County in the Promised Land like strips of astro-turf unrolled beneath a Mediterranean sky. Over-population and over-consumption are exhausting the groundwater, 40% of which comes from the occupied territories, and stimulate the lust to annex more land and the water tables of Palestine and Lebanon, so that Israeli lawns can glow green and Palestinians thirst.

The olive tree speaks of another possible world. Long before the people of Israel existed, their Bible relates, it was the sign the dove bore to Noah in his ark. The olive branch remains the sign of peace. We forget too easily that the same dove was the precursor of a covenant, a covenant in which God forswears another genocide: “neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.” Both literally and figuratively the destruction of the olive trees is a crime against humanity, a form of slow and deliberate ethnocide, as surely as is the strangulation of Gaza by siege or the imprisoning of the Palestinians by security walls and blockades on their roads, seaports and airports. It is a sign of the murderous fiction of a terra nullius that has corrupted whatever utopian possibility lingered in the Zionist dream. The catastrophic sound of falling, ancient trees, the spectral rustle of burning leaves, echoes out to the world. The call is clear: “It is time for this to stop.”

David Lloyd
Los Angeles, 1/11/09

Please note:

The Campaign for Labor Rights is accepting donations to support the PFU's efforts to aid farmers in Gaza. You may follow this link to make a credit card donation. Be sure and check the space marked "Other" and to write "Gaza/PFU" where it says "Enter Name". Contributions are tax deductible.

You can also make out a cheque to the Campaign for Labor Rights, put "Gaza/PFU" in the memo line, and send it to:

Campaign for Labor Rights--Gaza Farmers Fund
1247 E Street SE
Washington, DC
United States of America


Unknown said...

Hi Alison --

thanks for the attention! Can I just correct something though? It wasn't a rehearsal that I was weighing against the demo; it was Devoted & Disgruntled, a sort of theatre conference organized by Improbable and attended by about 200 practitioners -- an important (to me) annual gathering of the clans, where a bunch of interesting and potentially significant conversations take place over two days. If the choice had, instead, been rehearsal vs demo, I'd have cancelled the rehearsal and gone on the march, no question. (The extent to which that undermines the point I was trying to make, I don't know... I guess it doesn't, or needn't.) xx

Alison Croggon said...

Apologies Chris for the mistake, and thanks for the correction. No, of course it doesn't undermine the point... I will make the necessary editorial changes!

Anonymous said...

Come on Croggers, where are ya?

I've resorted to because you're giving me nothing...

Yours sincerely,
(and really hoping you're not dead)

Alison Croggon said...

Hey, I couldn't have trumpeted a badly needed break more loudly, fella. And boy, did I need it. (Or I might have been dead, really). Zooming back to regular broadcasting any minute. And I am sorry about the SMH...